A Helping Hand – Working With a Writing Mentor

tall writerWorking with a mentor – someone with the benefit of much more & different experience from me, who is willing to invest time and energy in me – is something I’ve benefited from enormously in a number of areas of my life, whether it be a school teacher that’s taken a special interest, a sympathetic university tutor, or a line manager that has gone out of their way to steer me in the right direction in my former career in finance. So now that I’m taking my writing much more seriously, it made sense to search out a similar relationship to guide my next steps. A writing mentor, or coach, can offer guidance, a fresh pair of eyes, an experienced view of the market, and could be just what your writing needs to take it to the next level – here’s experienced writing coach and author Beth Miller talking about what she tries to bring to the role.

clioYou may be aware of Clio Gray, perhaps from her most recent publication The Anatomist’s Dream, out now and nominated for the Booker 2015 (READ IT, it’s amazing!), or one of her earlier historical/crime novels. Clio is also the founder of the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and is the lead judge of that organisation’s annual short story competition. I entered HISSAC’s competition a couple of years ago and was lucky enough to be longlisted, a first glimmer of progress for me at the time, and therefore a great boost. Clio was very kind about my story and, when I saw that HISSAC had a mentoring programme, it was a natural port of call for me.

To apply for HISSAC’s mentoring programme, you submit up to 10,000 words of your writing (4 shortish stories, in my case) and, if accepted, your mentor will provide an ‘objective and critical view’ of the work, along with general advice. This offer of an ‘objective and critical view’ was important to me, because although I belong to a writing group and am therefore accustomed to receiving feedback, my particular group seem to shy away from anything other than positive commentary on each other’s pieces. Inevitably, friends and family also tend to focus on the parts they liked, and really struggle to provide objective critique. Brutal as it may be, I am much more interested in direct, fiercely honest feedback, identifying weaknesses as much, if not more, than strengths in my work.hissac_logo

I was lucky enough to end up with Clio as my mentor, and her insightful (definitely direct!) comments improved those four stories dramatically. In a couple of cases she suggested wholescale edits (something that makes your stomach sink if you have a bare few hours of writing time a week anyway, and you thought you’d moved on to the next project), in one case half a story was slashed (gutting), and in others it was just a case of offering a few tweaks here and there. I always bit the bullet and followed Clio’s suggestions, even if I felt resistant (due to lethargy/pride?). I’m sure it is no coincidence though that of those four stories, two have gone on to be published (The Wetshod Child in Kindred 10, and Long-Gone Mary upcoming with InShort Stories), and the other two may yet find a home. I also hope that what I’ve learnt from Clio will inform my writing from now on.

HISSAC isn’t the only organisation to provide mentoring, of course, but it is very high quality mentoring at a price that is not too off-putting for the trainee writer (around £70 when I did it, you would need to confirm the current cost with HISSAC). I did a quick scan of Google, and the Directory pages of Mslexia magazine, to see what other options are out there – this confirmed that there is a vast range, both in price and in what is being offered. For comparison, I’ve summarised a few here – I’m not endorsing these organisations, just listing them by way of example.

  • The Literary Consultancy – the Chapter & Verse programme is an online programme (although you have the opportunity to attend an ‘industry day’ in London as part of the package), and is up the top end of the market at £1,950+VAT for the review of 60,000 of prose over 6 sessions, plus email correspondence with your mentor. You are paying in part for TLC’s strong links with literary agents and publishers.
  • Strathclyde University’s mentoring programme looks interesting, with its potential for small one off reviews as well as something more enduring. An initial 3k review costs £60, and there is a range of packages beyond that, from £200 to £675 for a full 80,000 word review with set-up phone call and written feedback.
  • Gold Dust – another outfit at the premium end of the mentoring market, with a massive £3,000 fee for which you get 8 hours of face to face meetings and 8 further hours of reading. It’s a huge amount of money, but they have some impressive success stories and some very famous faces on their list of mentors. At this price though, I might rather spend the extra and benefit from the knowledge and guidance of a broader range of experts on an MA programme.
  • Writers Workshop – very well known providers of creative writing courses, events and editorial services, their review service is primarily written, but there is scope to discuss feedback directly with an editor, and they promise to throw in some advice eg re agents and the market, for free. An Opening Chunk or Agent Submission Pack review costs £145, and beyond that bespoke quotes can be provided.

So depending what you need and what’s in your pocket, there is something for everyone. If you are looking for a mentor and want a good place to start, I came across an extensive list here on the National Association of Writers in Education’s site. As to how to chose, I expect the advice is as for consulting any expert: work out what you’re willing to spend, find out exactly what you can expect for your dosh and what exactly it is you want (face to face meetings vs email/phone/skype, detailed editorial commentary vs general advice, one-off advice vs enduring relationship, links with famous writers, publishing agents, etc), do your research, both on the organisation and the mentors on offer, read testimonials & success stories, ask around. Ideally, it seems likely a good mentor would operate in the same or similar genre to you, and be someone whom you admire and/or whose career you would like to emulate.

Not every writing-in-training can afford any of these options of course, and that doesn’t mean the mentoring door is closed. If you are female, check out the amazing Womentoring Project, which links successful female writers/women in the book business with talented up and coming women writers who would otherwise struggle to access such opportunities. There are some enormously successful authors, agents and publishers on there, all ready to give the benefit of their experience to a mentee.

The US organisation Writer In The Margins offers something similar for emerging writers from both sexes who identify themselves as being from a marginalised social group. Get a move on if you want to apply though – applications close on Nov 30th 2015.

Failing that, if low cost/free critique is what you’re after, there are plenty of other options: even though it hasn’t quite worked in my case (although I may try another one), a writing group may be a good place to find a critique buddy, or simply to learn from more experienced writers – ask in your local library if you can’t identify a local group online; send off your work to magazines (especially smaller publications, which sometimes go out of their way to offer feedback even on rejected submissions), enter competitions where a critique is part of the entry fee, for example at Writers’ Village, or even consider uploading samples of your work onto a platform like Wattpad for others to read and critique for free (being aware that this is likely to count as having ‘published’ that piece of work, should you want to use it for other purposes later).

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your writing mentoring experiences, paid or otherwise. How did you go about finding a mentor, how did it work, and did it pay off for you?

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