ShortbreadStories: The Blog

Read. Discuss. Blog.

Who Needs A Mentor?

/by Ginny Swart/

Help! I thought I had a plot but it’s just fizzled out somehow…

Help! I’ve finished my story but I’m just not happy with it.

Help! My characters have taken over and this story isn’t the one I thought I was going to write!

Sound familiar?

If you belong to a writing group, chances are you’ll tell your friends your problem and maybe you’ll receive a whole lot of well- meaning suggestions or comments as they pass your story around. But these can end up being pretty confusing and if you try to take them all on board, you’ll find committee decisions are notoriously bad.

A writing mentor could be just what you need.

A lot of first time novelists find a mentor to help them through the rough patches- and with 80,000-100,000 words – there are a lot of those.

There are plenty of writing mentors out there who are willing to use their writing expertise and experience to guide you.

What can you expect from a mentor?

It depends what you want from them. A good mentor can help you with every aspect of your writing.

If you have already written something but need help with it, he’ll pin point where you’ve gone off-track and make suggestions. He can spot the weaknesses in your plot, tell you what is not working and why it’s not. He can take a long look at your characters and tell you if they come across as you thought they did. He can also identify your writing strengths and show you how to build on those. Above all, a good mentor is encouraging and never negative.

A good mentor will leave the decisions to you. He will NOT take over your writing, change everything you’ve written and try to alter your style. He’ll stand back and not dominate your writing, but he will stay on the sidelines and make suggestions.

Having a mentor is a great motivator.  Discussing your work certainly concentrates the mind, and you’ll find you won’t want to put off finishing that tricky bit you were stuck on, if he is expecting  to see what you have done with it by the next week!

Some mentors will also help you find a suitable market for your story, although this is not generally part of their remit. But they can make suggestions, and often have a useful little black book full of names and addresses of editors and agents, something which would otherwise take you a long time to compile.

How do you decide on the right mentor for you?

Most people have a mentor who lives miles away, sometimes in another country. Hooray for the Internet, an essential tool for finding a mentor.

But it’s important to work with someone with whom you can form a good on-line relationship, so don’t go with the first name you find.

Check out their background, see what they’ve published and if you like what you read.

 If you don’t like their work, you probably won’t like what they tell you either, although they can probably still give you good technical advice. 

Ask them questions – they’ll expect you to. How many other writers they have mentored?  And what success did these writers go on to have? You don’t want to be their guinea pig. If they have glowing reports from other writers- contact them to make sure. (Not a nice thing to have to mention, but there are a lot of phony recommendations out there!)

Will he mentor you for a set period and how much contact will you have while he is doing that? Weekly? Whenever you contact him?

On the other hand you might prefer a mentor who you can meet and talk to face to face. Ask around at other writing groups, or phone people who organise writing conferences in your area. You could be lucky enough to find one who lives near you.

Before you make any decisions, make sure you know what you want from a mentor.

Do you write short stories? Would you like to discuss your basic outline with your mentor before you begin to write or do you want a professional eye cast over your work as you go along? Would you prefer to write the whole thing and then have his comments and critique?

If you’re writing a novel, what genre are you writing, and what sort of help will you need?

If you’re writing sci –fi, find someone who knows the genre and can appreciate what you’re aiming for. The same goes for fantasy or mystical writing of any sort, your mentor needs to be on the same wave-length as you are.

Romance? You mentor needs to understand this genre too, and not secretly have a mental sneer at stories with happy endings because you won’t be happy with his comments and he’ll hate reading your work!

And if you’re writing non-fiction, find a mentor who has experience in writing non-fiction. It doesn’t have to be in the same subject as your own.

A good idea is to send a potential mentor a short piece of your writing and ask him to give you feedback on it. You might have to pay for this, but if you don’t think he’s given you anything useful or insightful, then he’s not for you in the long run and you’ll have saved yourself a lot of money.

How much can you expect to pay a mentor? 

How long is that piece of string? Mentors are usually professional writers or  publishers, and don’t come cheap. Why should they? They’re sharing their years of experience of the writing business  with you, knowledge that it took them a long time to acquire.

There are many different arrangements you can make.  Negotiate!  If you’re writing a book, perhaps you can organise a pay-per-chapter relationship, or sign on just for one month. When you see you are getting good advice and good value for your money, sign on for longer.

How soon should you find a mentor?

It’s not a good idea to decide to hire someone after you’ve written 50,000 words and discovered you’re not happy with them..

Find one early on and he can steer you past a lot of pitfalls that might come your way if you are on your own.

One mentor I know was given a completed novel to look at. This baby had been two years in gestation and the writer loved every word of it. But she’d had four rejections and was losing faith in her own work,  so at a publisher’s suggestion, she hired a mentor. She read it through and said it had a good plot but needed major surgery – was the writer willing to do something drastic?

She suggested a radical change: turn the single female POV into the voices of the three main protagonists, one of them a man. This took a lot of work, almost of a complete re-write in fact. But the writer was delighted with the end result – she had  totally changed the feel  of her book. She’s sent it out to do the rounds of the agents with a much more positive outlook, and now knows that it’s just a matter of time. (Essential requirements for any writer: a keyboard and a lot of optimism)

Another book she mentored was a dark historic novel set in medieval times. The writer had done a lot of excellent research but it floundered in many places. BUT the sex scenes were stunning!

Her mentor pointed out that these were her strengths and encouraged her to go for an erotic novel and consider this first one  a practice run. One year later  and she’s  just signed a contract for three books with an erotic imprint in the UK – the girl was a natural writer of erotica and didn’t  realize it. 

If you are a mentor or have experience being a mentoree and would like to share your experiences with our Shortbreaders email


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