Mentoring for Novelists – from the inside
I’m delighted to welcome Laura Wilkinson to my blog. She is many things, including a succesful novelist and busy mother. She is also a professional writing mentor. On May 1st I published a post from another Laura – Laura Sleep – who wrote about her experience receiving mentoring. You can read it again HERE. Now we have the chance to see what it is like from the other side of the couch/computer screen.
The Mentor’s Tale
I’ve worked as an editor and mentor to aspiring writers for four years but I have never written on the subject. I’m not sure why. So when Bridget asked if I’d like to pen a piece for her blog about my role, explaining that she was hosting an author who had been through a programme talking about her experience and that a view from the other side might be interesting, I leapt at the chance.
Read Laura Sleep’s excellent article and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what a mentor does, but I thought it would be useful if I did a summary.
Different writers require different levels of support, so there are myriad arrangements. Some want a mentor to see them through the first draft over a twelve month period, others require only 15 hours, with a focus on how to get started, how to plot, how to approach the editing process once a first draft is down. Others mostly want someone to be answerable to, someone who sets deadlines, encourages and bolsters morale when the going gets tough. Commonly, this occurs regardless.
So the first thing we do is meet – or if this isn’t possible (currently, I’m mentoring a writer from Australia) we have a Skype conversation. Here, we get to know each other a little, identify the precise need, and see if the fit is right. Afterwards, the writer will send me a sample of their work with an outline of what they would like to gain from the process. Then, based on what I read, I produce a rough schedule, with a note about the areas I think would be useful to work on in detail. Once this is agreed, the writer will go away and work on the first item from the schedule.
We talk or email whenever the writer feels the need wherever possible. I try to make myself as available as I can – within reason – because I know how it is when you’re thrashing away at a scene, or plot thread, and feel like it’s going nowhere, or are unsure if what you’re doing is complete and utter bilge.
I am a practitioner as well as a mentor so I can hand on heart say I know how it feels, and what it takes, to write 90-odd thousand words, and the pain and pleasure that we experience along the way.
At regular intervals we review the process to ensure that we’re on track and that the writer is getting what they need from the process. We might look at aspects of theme, voice, character – how to develop the protagonist or antagonist – look at ways of avoiding plot dead-ends or holes, keeping a rein on narrative focus, or old favourites like when to show and when to tell. I read and re-read work that is sent through and comment.
What do I gain from the process – aside from the fee which boosts the earnings I make from my own writing?
The short answer is: a lot. More than you’d think, perhaps. Speaking generally, I like creative people, and I like people who want to challenge themselves, to develop, and there is genuine pleasure in developing a relationship and feeling that I have, in some small way, been able to support an individual on a creative journey – a journey to fulfil dreams and ambitions. Like many writers, I enjoy exploring the various aspects of craft and mentoring others means that I am more analytical about my own work – at least once the first draft is down.
I enjoy solving puzzles and often this is a component of the process. A writer might need to untangle a plot problem, or work out ways of fleshing out a character. And creativity sparks creativity, so that helping others solve problems in their fiction can result in the unlocking of doors in my own work. Mentoring can be a two-way street.
Mentoring differs from teaching in that the role is more one of enabler, rather than explainer or shower, and whilst there are elements of teaching, it’s a more equal relationship somehow: two authors, the more experienced sharing knowledge and tips gained from such experience. And to see an individual develop and grow is a truly wonderful thing, not to mention the joy of seeing others’ reach the common end goal of publication.
And if I’m honest – and I hope this doesn’t make me sound saintly because I’m really not – the best thing about mentoring is the friendship and the warm, squidgy feeling one gets from knowing that you’ve helped another writer.
Laura has published short stories in magazines, digital media and anthologies, and two novels, with another two scheduled for publication in 2016 and 2017. Her most recent novel is Public Battles, Private Wars, (Accent Press, March 2014). It’s the story of a young miner’s wife in 1984; of complex friendships, love and betrayal, and finding the best of yourself in terrible conditions. It was the National Museum of Wales book of the month in June 2014.
As well as writing, she works as an editor and mentor for The Writing Coach and literary consultancy, Cornerstones, and runs workshops on the art of fiction. She’s spoken at festivals and events nationwide, including London Metropolitan University, GladLit, University of Kingston, The Feminist Library and the Museum in Docklands.
Thanks Laura for this fascinating insight into the way a mentor works with writers. I understand what you mean when you say mentoring can be a two way street. I never leave a creative writing classroom without learning something (I hope my students can say the same…)
photo credit 1: Love Letters via photopin (license)
photo credit 2: Old School Books via photopin (license)