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Mentoring for Writers: the Authors for Grenfell post

At the Authors for Grenfell auction, I offered to write a bespoke blog post for the bidder of the largest amount. The auction has closed now, having raised over £180,000, but the Red Cross's London Fire Appeal is very much open, and the needs of the victims don't vanish as the headlines do, so do please click through to donate. And for a lovely story of the power of social media in these things, click here. My idea, in offering the blog post, was that the bidder would get from some personalised advice. But the winning bidder turned out to be Glenn, whom I've been mentoring for some time, and who therefore has the benefit (at least, I hope that's how he sees it) of my advice anyway. So Glenn suggested that I should blog about something which would appeal to Itch readers in general. 

I've blogged about whether creative writing can be taught at all, and about writing courses in general, and MAs and Creative Writing PhDs in particular, but never about mentoring, so here goes.

What is mentoring? The general idea is a one-to-one, ongoing, relationship with an experienced writer or mentor, which supports you and helps you to develop your writing. If that sounds a bit vague, that's because only the one-to-one bit is certain: everything else will vary according to the needs of the writer, and how the mentor works.

Many mentors would base each session on a chunk of writing, probably read ahead of time. This is partly about feedback on the chunk: what's working, what isn't, and how to make it better. But where mentoring is different from tutoring is that the writing is also as a jumping-off-point for thinking about what's happening in the writer's writing life: How is the project going? What's getting stuck? Is your process the right one? Is this a moment to plan more, or to let go and fly blind? Have things changed? Are you having a wobble? Why? What's next?

Some mentors work to a clear "once a month" or "every six weeks" programme; others are happy to wait for the writer to ask for a new meeting: some pairs will mix-and-match those approaches. Also, some mentors work to a set number of meetings, at least initially, while others just see how it goes. 

Some mentors are writing coaches. That's not about discussing tactics for winning the writing race - though writing more quickly might come into it - but "writing coach" as in "life coach". This kind of mentor may not read text at all, but be solely working with the writer on motivation, process, productivity, confidence, blocks, even promotion and professional marketing. A writing coach might not even be a creative writer at all: good life coaches work with people in all sorts of professions, as their skill is in asking the right questions and setting conversations in motion which mean the writer finds their own answers. This website, which is a long-established service, explains the possibilities well.

Some mentors are quite light-touch. Some writers who don't really want detailed, teacher-like help with their writing, nor a full-dress coaching structure, but the equal and reciprocal relationship with writing buddy isn't quite right either. I know someonewho refers to their "writing aunt", which nails it nicely, at least for those who have good-quality real aunts: a sounding-board, a perceptive and trusted reader, a supportive but much more experienced and senior friend. As ever, the key is to make sure that both sides understand what to expect.

Why might I want a mentor, not a course, or feedback on a whole novel? Courses, classes and how-to books abound for beginners and less experienced writers, because most of them tend to make the same mistakes, and need the same kind of advice. But the more experienced and/or talented you are, the more the basic skills are all in place, and your ambitions for your writing will be very specific, and individual to you. What you need is individually-tuned feedback which can understand exactly what you aspire to write, and work with what you can already do, to go further. Another reason for a mentor is simply that you can't commit to the regularity of a course or writers' circle meetings. A mentor might agree to read a whole novel at some stage - perhaps at the beginning, perhaps as a last stage - for that overview of how it's working. But that's not integral to the relationship. Mind you, a good course with a good tutor may well be able to offer you a good deal of that individual understanding and working, and the power of a good workshop group isn't something that a mentor can altogether replace. 

Does the writer pay the mentor? Yes, if you want a professional. That said, I have heard some wonderful stories of mentors who are willing to help in a light-touch way, for no more than a gift or a donation to charity: some feel that they had help on the way up, and want to pass it on. I know of one or two whose only request was that the writer "pay it forward", by helping someone else in their turn. But do bear in mind that, for the sake of your writing, even gift horses need their mouths looked into. Free mentoring isn't free if it costs you time without improving your writing and your confidence. 

Do you have to be writing a novel? No, though obviously the long-haul of a novel is a prime candidate for mentoring help. Anyone writing a memoir or other creative non-fiction, might find mentoring helpful, whether the challenge is the emotional investment and risk, or simply the research and writing. Short fictioneers and poets can also benefit from the overview and longer perspective a mentor can offer, as they try to develop their voice throughout a coherent body of work. A mentor can also help with the confidence to send work out, or perform it, and establish a plan for developing a presence on the scene.

What you work on together can change. Glenn first came to me with a novel he had written a substantial amount of, but we have since shifted onto a new project which I've helped with from early on in its life. And there's nothing to say that you couldn't start with some short fiction, and then get help to start a novel - or vice versa. You might even agree that it's time take a break from a long project which has got stuck, and write some short things for a while to rediscover the fun of it all.

How do you find a good mentor? If you're interested in the end of mentoring which is like writing-tutoring, it's much like finding someone for that work. Ask for individual recommendations on writers' circles and forums; notice if anyone teaching courses locally looks promising; there is Gold Dust which is pitched as an alternative to an MA, so it's expensive and quite structured, but has some truly brilliant writer-mentors on the books; editorial agencies such as Writers' WorkshopThe Literary Consultancy and the website Reedsy all have writer-editors who may willing to work this way.

I would myself be a little cautious of using a non-writing editor (or agent, if they're willing) for mentoring, as their feedback on the writing as it stands - what it lacks - may not take your process and writerly self into account as much a mentor should. As my post The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia suggests, it's one thing to experience a not-working bit of writing, but quite another to work out why it isn't working, and what you might do about it. On the other hand an editor of that sort might be just the job to get your nearly-there manuscript shoved over the last hurdle into publishability.

At the more process- and coaching-oriented end of the spectrum, any of the above suggestions might produce someone suitable. The Writing Coach has been offering this kind of work for many years, and magazines such as Mslexia and Writing may well carry advertisements for others who work similarly. Then there's always the option of thinking of writers you admire or know from a workshop or event, and digging on their websites to see if they offer this kind of help. You could even email someone on spec, if you're feeling really brave. Make it clear that you are expecting to pay - you'd be amazed how much help some get asked to give for free - and ask if it's something they would consider. They can only say No. If they don't do a lot of this kind of work, you may need to be particularly clear about what you are looking for, so that you don't both end up in guilty or resentful muddle.

How do you arrange things? There are so many different inflections to the overall idea of mentoring that things can very easily go wrong because expectations aren't clear. The author Sara Maitland is a hugely experienced mentor, and her book The Write Guide: Mentoring, discusses the relationship from both sides; she also has draft agreements to help both sides feel sure of what each is expecting. Maitland has quite a structured approach, but it's a good starting place for deciding and agreeing what you need, and you can always adapt things. The mentor will almost certainly have experience and usual ways of working, but the most successful relationships are those where you are both happy with the approach that you jointly adopt.

Many mentors will ask to see the work first, and will decide if they feel they can help you; some will also suggest a phone chat or an initial meeting, to find out if you get on and the collaboration will work. Others will simply suggest having a first session, and seeing how that goes before you commit to each other for the longer term.

How do you meet? The assumption is that the meeting is face-to-face in a café or at someone's house, or on Skype or Facetime. The phone can also work fine, although it does seem to work better if the first meeting was visual as well: it's just easier to feel that you know each other that way, and particularly for the longer-term, more holistic aspects of mentoring that can make a big difference. Some mentors work only by email, and that might be fine if what you want is more at the tutoring-editing end of things. But good mentoring is very collaborative: it's not just about you receiving the mentor's wisdom, but about an ongoing, evolving conversation, and that's not so easy in an asynchronous form such as email.

A meeting is probably an hour or ninety minutes, and an experienced mentor should know how to make sure everything's covered, and you go away with a plan of what to do next. Of course things might run on a little on occasions - and I've sometimes had sessions where we agreed a bit early that we'd covered everything necessary - but ideally the mentor will wind things up reliably and fairly on time. You would usually finish the session by arranging the next meeting, and agreeing how long before that the mentor needs to receive any work.

Mentoring can feel like friendship, but it isn't - even if you are friends in other areas of your lives, or really like each other at the ordinary human level. If you do agree a mentoring relationship with an existing friend or acquaintance, it's even more important to be clear about what the mentoring will consist of. If some kind of romantic spark started between you, then I feel very strongly that the mentor, as the one in the position of seniority and power in the relationship, should take a leaf out of the book of their psychotherapeutic and educational cousins, and refuse, point-blank, to have both a mentoring and a romantic relationship at the same time.

Clear expectations and boundaries are crucial, as they are with mentoring's psychotherapeutic cousins. With anything as vulnerable as the writer's creative self, and their hopes for it, the space that you create between you must feel safe: reliable, confidential and respectful. Only then can the writer be open and honest enough for real progress to be made. And, just as the writer needs to experience the mentor as safe, the mentor needs to have their boundaries of time and commitment respected. Don't assume, just because this is an individual, one-to-one arrangement, that the mentor will be on call to you whenever you like; what you agreed should always be the benchmark of what's reasonable. But, equally, if what you agreed clearly between you (you did, didn't you?) doesn't seem to be happening, you need to initiate a conversation about that. It's easy for things to drift without anyone quite noticing for a while - and then they do. The relationship will go wrong if each side is assuming something about the other side's actions and expectations, but no one is actually saying so, just stewing resentfully or feeling indignant and short-changed.

No mentor will be right for everyone. The best mentor for you may not write your kind of thing, and many of the skills of mentoring are unrelated to genre or style or literary level. But don't be afraid to call it a day after that initial chat, or after the first paid-for session, or even later, if you consistently feel that it's not working. Big writing names and near-invisible ones may be equally miraculous mentors: writing is all about getting into other people's heads, after all. But either kind may not have the right repertoire of processes and ideas for you - or may only have ways that serve their own purposes, and little idea of alternatives. Plus, things change, in you and your writing, and in what you need and what the mentor can provide. Having said that:

Be prepared to find it difficult sometimes. If a mentor never suggests something that surprises you and nudges you out of your comfort zone, then you probably didn't need them. It would be very normal, at times, to find what you are tackling uncomfortable or difficult, and that in itself is not a reason to end the relationship. But if a mentor, month after month, is subtracting from not adding to your confidence that you may be having an ugly duckling phase but the far side of it you can see a sparkle of swan-hood, then it's time to move on. It's time to move on, too, if you feel that your writing is being steadily pushed - or lured - away from something that feels solid and authentic to you, towards something that, however potentially lucrative, has no taproot into your writerly self.

Be prepared not to be given what you thought you wanted. Early writers may be used to feedback on prose, but be dismayed when a mentor suggests that it's the macro stuff of structure and story that needs work, and there's no point in talking about prose till that's fixed. You may think that you're writing literary fiction only to be told that it's a mainstream women's fiction, or your mentor may suggest that you step sideways and work on things, as a way of developing your writing, which are not the project you brought to the relationship. Of course, it's your right to disagree - but you have chosen this mentor, so at least consider hard the possibility that they're right, and ask them to clarify their reasons for what they're suggesting, before you give up on them.

Be prepared to work hard. It's not unknown for a writer to ask for mentoring with the expressed hope of improving their work and achieving their goals, but at some, probably unconscious, level, to consistently do things which make change very unlikely: not tackling the suggested work with an open mind; consistently "not having time" to do the work; constantly reverting to processes which they've ostensibly agreed don't serve them well. That kind of self-undermining or self-sabotaging may be a sign that this isn't the right mentor for you. In my experience it's usually a sign that your relationship with your writing is not, at the moment, likely to benefit from having a mentor: but why not have that conversation with them, before you thrown in the towel?

Don't expect your mentor to be a magician, nor yet a publisher or prize-judge-awarder. Mentors may be facilitators, guides, aunts and bloody good writers themselves, but they cannot write your work for you. You have to do that, and how it comes out will always be more about you than about them. And that's a good thing. The last thing a good mentor wants is for you to end up writing like us: what makes us happy is to help you find a much more vivid, exciting and authentic version of your writing.

And finally, Glenn was generous enough not only to bid in the Authors for Grenfell auction, but to suggest that whatever I wrote for him should be useful to all the readers of the Itch, not just him. So, if you've found this post useful, I am shamelessly suggesting, again, that you should consider dropping a pound or two towards the Red Cross's London Fire Appeal. The need for help for the victims is not going to end any time soon.