The Importance of Finding a Mentor

Two decades ago, years before my first novel was published, I discovered the man who would change my writing life. I’d been thrashing around with a few novel submissions, limited short story success, and a pile of neatly printed form rejections from Manhattan. I was in the pool with a million wannabe writers, who talked the talk and walked the walk but got virtually nowhere.

Then I made a fateful decision. With my latest rejection, I had received a handwritten note of encouragement from a New York editor. He didn’t want my bad novel, but everything I’d been told in writing groups, conferences, and the endless volumes of guidebooks was that a personal note was unusual. I shot back a letter of thanks for the feedback and asked one simple question: Any suggestions?

Weeks later, that editor wrote that there was an author/friend in Delaware who occasionally took on emerging writers. He was moderately expensive, and I had to audition first. No promises were made, but I was excited. I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. The author took me on and eventually dropped the per page charge. He became the most influential person in my life—the writing mentor who coached me to publishing my first novel and guided my career for decades.

My mentor began by showing me what I did well and how to feature it within my writing. That understanding still effects my work today. He also pointed out my deficiencies and showed me ways to strengthen them. As a sounding board, he shaped every one of my novel concepts. I’m not sure I even understood what a novel was before I met him. I was too much raw talent, rolling around aimlessly through words. With my mentor, I discovered both the joy and responsibility of writing a novel. He taught me how to focus and raise my profile as a writer.

At some point in your career, you’ll seek a mentor to get you to the next level. A mentor is someone who has gone ahead of you on the journey, knows the pitfalls, and can provide timely advice. You have to find a mentor. He won’t find you. In my case, I’d experimented with writing teachers and groups, hoping to make a helpful connection. For the most part, it was a waste of time when I should have been reading or writing, but I was putting myself out there and asked questions. Eventually the right mentor crossed my path—a bestselling author at the end of his career who wrote the kind of books I’d like write and had accumulated priceless wisdom.

Today the world is bigger than hit or miss hometown connections and the cruel realities of pub row in Manhattan. There are industry-specific mentor groups, which are accessible on-line through a variety of social media platforms. In the writing world, don’t be a pest. Don’t send unsolicited manuscripts to authors. Don’t corner them at conferences. Connect with them on-line. Ask a question. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee. The majority of the time, you will be ignored. Everyone is busy. But eventually you will connect with the right person who will help you in unimaginable ways.

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