I have a confession to make: I have never actively sought out a writing mentor. So what – I’m sure you’re thinking – am I doing writing a post advising others on writing mentors?
Well somehow, I have been blessed enough to have some great people in my life who, once I reflect upon it, are not only friends & inspirations but are actively my mentors. We’ve never sat down and had The Mentor-Mentee conversation. I’ve never specifically asked them to be my mentors, which seems counter intuitive to all the advice out there. I remember reading an article when I was younger which encouraged you to ring up an author you admired and straight out ask them. My fourteen year old self had dreams of an hour long conflab with Anthony Horowitz on the phone (landline of course – back in the day mobile data was EX-PEN-SIVE).
But honestly, I never asked anybody to be my mentor. I didn’t intend for it to happen but I’m glad it has. And anyway, this isn’t a post on how to FIND a writing mentor (although if you’re interested, I could do a post on that); but rather a post on the key qualities you should look for in one.
First of all, let’s start with a definition of the word “mentor” shall we? This will help us to decide upon the qualities one should have.
“A wise or trusted adviser or guide” who…“gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time.” (Source: A mash-up between dictionary.com & Cambridge dictionary)
When we put it like that, the definition of mentor in itself is not too complicated. I always thought it was. “Mentor” was this weighted word which conjured up images of Yoda or Master from Kung Fu Panda. How was I ever going to find that type of relationship? But when I looked at what a mentor truly is, it became easy to understand that I already had these figures in my life.
But whilst the definition of “mentor” is seemingly straightforward, the role itself is not. Here are some things to look out for…
- YOU ADMIRE THEM
Yep. The first step is on YOU. Sorry buddy. I know this seems obvious but it’s not. Why? Because as a young writer (or even an experienced writer seeking advice in a particular area/looking to venture into something new) it can be tempting to want advice from someone super famous just for the sake of it. But I don’t think this is a great idea. Refer to the above definition. A mentor is your guide. This means, for good or bad, you will inevitably follow in their footsteps – at least a little bit. So if they are not somebody you look up to, somebody whose work you respect and admire, then this is going to be an issue down the line. I’m not saying you have to work in the exact same genres or move in identical circles however, you should be able to genuinely enjoy their work, respect their advice and respect them as a person…otherwise what can you truly learn from them? And why put yourself in their hands if you don’t trust them and their work anyway?
- THEY “GET” YOUR WORK
Even though you may not work in the exact same circles as your mentor, you’ve got to make sure that they “get” your work. By this I mean your mentor should understand what you are doing (or trying to do) regardless of their own personal preferences. If you write horror fiction and your mentor never reads horror, can’t understand your intentions and constantly advises you to write something ‘more light-hearted’ then evidently she/he is not the mentor for you. However, if you write horror and your mentor’s favourite genre is romance, yet they can still articulate what exactly is working in your writing and why, then I personally see no reason why this can’t be a set up for a successful mentor-mentee relationship.
A good mentor shouldn’t enforce their preference – rather they should respect your goals and help you work towards them. Your work should be the starting point for their criticism. Look out for people who “get” it.
I once wrote the opening to a crime novel. Being heavily inspired by Karin Slaughter, I knew I wanted my book to have a really entertaining plotline but also very in-depth character development and truthful relationships. I sat down and thought, ‘Okay girl, your goal is to somehow show all the relationships between these characters within the first two chapters WITHOUT negatively impacting the pacing. Somehow the gruesome murders need to happen alongside stunning character development. Even if no one picks up on that, that’s YOUR personal goal.’
So that’s what I worked towards. And when I received my feedback and mark for the story, my tutor at the time had written something along the lines of:
“You’ve done a great job of maintaining the needed pace of a crime novel whilst developing all the characters and letting us understand their relationships.”
I remember being quite shocked – at no point did I think that was something anybody would notice; it was simply a personal goal. But it felt really nice that someone had noticed.
I remember sitting and thinking, “Okay so…he gets it.”
- THEY GENUINELY WANT YOU TO SUCCEED
So the writers who I look up to/have and are helping me out in terms of my writing are people who genuinely and I quote, want me “to succeed.” You don’t need them to verbally express this or get their well wishes in writing; it should be evident in the way they act around you and the sort of things they offer to help you out with.
There’s a little girl who I mentor. She’s amazing and I CANNOT express how much I love that kid and will help her to succeed. I offer to read so much of her work & point her to new authors. I am so happy about all her achievements!
I recently met with this amazing playwright who, without me asking, told me to send her my writing and any applications to competitions I might be considering; in other words, she was invested in my work and wanted to actually help me achieve my goals.
I have another mentor who read about five drafts of my Masters application, helped me out by writing my reference, and even invited me round to her place for a cup of tea and a chat about my future. She also points me to people who can help me out and offers advice and a listening ear. You just don’t do that if you’re not an amazing person who cares about the mentee’s future.
(This goes both ways, I should add. You should be so completely 100% invested in your mentor, which shouldn’t be difficult if you’ve already nailed point number one. I once had a mentor tentatively ask if I would edit his book for him. He was tentative because he knew I was super busy. But OF COURSE I was super happy to do it. It should work both ways when possible!)
- THEY CONSIDER YOU WHEN THEY DON’T HAVE TO
I have a super nice mentor who sends me links to writing competitions which I qualify for. Often times, I didn’t even know that the competition existed. He doesn’t have to do that. Not only is that nice but that’s like…awesome mentor material right there (y)
- THEY CAN ARTICULATE WHAT ISN’T WORKING
Sometimes when I’m writing I can sense something is wrong even if I don’t quite know what it is yet. I once approached my old lecturer with my play and explained to her what it was about. Without even reading it herself, within ten minutes she had NAILED exactly what my issues with it were. (HOW?! I kid you not when I say that all I did was very vaguely explain the plot).
In other words, you’re looking for intelligence, understanding, patience and articulation.
- THEY HAVE EXPERIENCE IN THE DEPARTMENTS YOU DON’T
This step also requires *you* because if, unlike me, you are going out to find a mentor INTENTIONALLY, I reckon this is pretty important: decide what exactly you need from a mentor. Make sense? Do you suck at character description? Well then get somebody who is awesome at character description. Do you suck at marketing? Well find someone who is so good at it their middle name might as well be “Brand.” Is your only goal to be published? Well then, you should probably find somebody who has been through the process of getting published.
People on your level are not mentors – they are buddies. Writing buddies. Which are great. But again, look at the definition of mentor and you will see that “experience” is a necessary part of it. So make sure they have experience in the departments YOU personally want to learn more about.
- THEY KNOW WHEN TO PUSH YOU
So I like to think of myself as a pretty hardworking person but there have been LOADS of times where I have simply slacked off when it comes to writing. I remember once moaning to someone I now consider to be my mentor and excusing my lack of writing by saying, “What I’ve written isn’t good enough to hand in to you yet. It just isn’t.”
I think I was lowkey expecting some sort of sympathy.
I kid you not, this guy just looked at me, all deadpan and went:
“Then make it good.”
It’s a good job he said that too. It was a kind of “tough love” statement that kicked me into the right gear and I finally finished that work I had been procrastinated for weeks in just a couple of days.
- THEY IMPROVE YOU AS A PERSON
I guess they don’t have to do this but if you find someone who improves you PERSONALLY, then that’s awesome. Example?
I once had a teacher tell me I was far too shy about my faith and that I should own it. (I had written a book which was, for all intents and purposes, a Biblical allegory). Not only was it really cool to have somebody who – as far as I was aware – was non-religious, tell me to be proud of my Christianity, but this comment fundamentally changed how I approach my writing and improved my own confidence and artistic practice as a whole. And of course, this wasn’t a comment on style, structure or even the story itself. However I needed to hear that and it ended up being such an integral comment to my practice.
So that’s it. Let me know if you have any questions xx