What’s a writing mentor & why would you need one?

 

When I began writing my debut, The Sister, I was lucky enough to secure a place on the fabulous WoMentoring scheme which pairs fledgling female writers with experienced mentors. My experience working through my first few chapters with the super kind, and endlessly patient Louise Walters was hugely beneficial and I blogged about that here and here. Now, with four novels under my belt I’m paying it forward by mentoring through the scheme. Although I’ve been drawing on my own experience as a mentee I wanted to make sure I was offering my mentees the right help and support, and so I signed up for a ‘Learn to Mentor’ course with Cathy Grindrod via the amazing Writing East Midlands. I got a huge amount out of the course, both personally and professionally, and am delighted Cathy is joining me today for a chat about mentoring.

Cathy, when I first applied for a mentor via The WoMentoring Project, I wasn’t really sure what one was or what to expect. How would you explain it?

A Mentor is someone who is skilled in and has good experience of whatever area the mentee needs help with. There are a few definitions, but in essence, it’s guiding someone to achieve their own goals and to overcome whatever obstacles they feel are in their way.

And everyone must have different obstacles?

Exactly. It’s a different process for each mentee, because each person has unique needs and ways of working. Mentoring usually has a specific focus – in my case, writer progress, but progress in the context of the writer’s wider life balance, rather than centred just on the work on the page.

My initial hope was that Louise Walters would help me write my book! That said she was very hands on with editing. I learned a lot from her feedback.  Do you feel editing is part of mentoring?

To my mind, editing suggests that the relationship is about the mentor helping the writer to restructure a piece of work and focuses on the words on the page. Mentoring can include an element of helping a writer to shape work and discussing their concerns. It can also include feedback on specific pieces of work if required, but is only a part of the process, if involved at all. If a writer wants my opinion on a piece of work, we discuss more about what is actually needed from me and my goal is to move the writer towards having confidence in their OWN editing process, so that they can become a better writer and editor of their own work.

And that makes a better writer?

Exactly. A mentee learns far more about writing in this way, than someone imposing a structure on their work without looking at what the writer is really seeking from the process.

Do people also get confused between mentoring and manuscript assessments?

They can but at the start of their sessions we set up a joint contract so we’re both clear about what they expect from the process. This can include looking at work if the writer wants it, but this will become a much wider discussion than a simple assessment (as I would give in a writer surgery, for example) and will be short pieces of work  I read in between sessions, rather than, for example, a whole manuscript assessment, which for me, is a different process from mentoring.

My heart sunk during the course when you said those dreaded two words – ‘role play’ but being the mentee and talking through my frustrations with writing led me to completely overhaul the way I work. I’m more focused and productive and am much better at time management than I was. Before this, I’d have thought mentoring was better suited to new writers but this isn’t the case, is it?

 No. It’s common to be approached by people who have been writing for some time, often attending writing groups and workshops/courses, before they seek mentoring. This means they know the territory, something of how the writing world works, and are at a point where they want to progress further but don’t know how or don’t feel they are able to without help. This isn’t always the case, though.

Do you think mentoring works better when the mentee has some experience?

I think it works best when a writer has a good grasp of the basics of writing technique and understands that writing is a continuing apprenticeship and has a realistic view of where they might pitch themselves and what success constitutes for them (success as a writer is a different concept for every writer, and does not always involve wanting publication. However, I have recently mentored people who are much more at the beginning of their journey, in one case simply wanting to find a way to edit work better and to enjoy editing rather than always dreading it. I have also mentored people who are writing in isolation, where signposting and supporting as they join others to write and gain feedback becomes a large part of the mentoring process. Often mentoring works best when people reach a point of change or ‘stuckness’ and want to move forward but need guidance to do so. I think rather than being at a ‘stage of your writing life’ when you can most benefit from mentoring you need to be at a ‘stage in your thinking’ where you have formed a good idea of what you want to achieve as a writer and what your goals might be before you start the mentoring relationship.

 That’s great. So if someone has decided to look for a monitor, what questions should they ask?

Beyond the obvious – charges, length of sessions, process etc – you will need to know something about the mentor in terms of their writing, their experience and their approach. You should check that their idea of ‘mentoring’ is the kind of mentoring you want – particularly that it is goal oriented and not completely focused on your work on the page. Finding the right mentor is crucial to your development – do meet first. Often mentors are able to offer a ‘getting to know you’ free initial meeting. Your instincts often tell you what is right for you. I would always be happy to be asked by a potential mentee ‘tell me about what you do and about your writing’.

 Once you’ve found the right mentor, how is it structured?

I can’t speak for everyone but mentoring normally takes place over a period of months, typically a six session package over 6-12 months with a free initial chat about what is required, to gain background and an idea of how you might work together. I largely prefer to offer one to one sessions in person of up to 2 ½ hours each time, but other mentors also work by skype and telephone.

I mentor because I’ve been a mentee and it changed my life, giving me the tools and confidence to write a publishable book . Why do you mentor and have you ever been a mentee? 

I was offered a series of sessions with a mentor as part of my early career as a Literature Development Officer. I was also a writer. It was about life balance and achieving my own goals as well as helping others and how to approach this. It was the single most useful intervention I have ever received – specific to me, delivered by a person who knew the territory well, and made me focus on myself and my own needs, sometimes challenging me to look further, and causing me to change the way I thought about myself and my writing. When Mentor Training was offered by National Association of Writers in Education, I jumped at the chance to learn more about mentoring others, as I believed in it so totally as a process.

I can tell by the way you taught our course so passionately, how much you enjoy it.

I do! Mentoring work suits me because I have always enjoyed meeting and working with different people and working alongside a mentee for a sustained period of time is always a privilege. The worlds of writing and emotional health are the worlds I am most interested in, and although I am in the guiding role as a mentor, I also learn a lot from the people I am mentoring, and this feeds back into developing my process.

Lastly, Cathy. What’s the most common obstacle you see writers face?

It’s keeping faith in their writing and themselves and because I know this territory well in my own practice, I can use my own experience to inform the conversation.

Haha – me too! Thanks so much for your time.

Find out more about Cathy, or contact her via her website.

Cathy Grindrod is an experienced Creative Writing facilitator, mentor and life coach. She is a former University of Nottingham Creative Writing Lecturer and was awarded an Honorary MLitt by Derby University in 2014 for her work to promote wellbeing  through writing across Derbyshire communities. She runs The Writer Highway™ –a programme of writer support for people who love creative writing, wish to progress and want to give themselves and their writing more time and space. After 25 years as a successfully published and broadcast writer of poetry, plays and memoir, including a term as Derbyshire’s Poet Laureate, she has experienced all the joys and pitfalls of the writing life, and now enjoys sharing all she has discovered about writing and wellbeing with other writers.

 

 

 

Novel Writing – The Mentor and the Mentee

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In May 2015 I was lucky enough to be offered a place on The WoMentoring Project and receive a few weeks of mentoring from the lovely Louise Walters, author of the fabulous Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, and the forthcoming ‘A Life Between Us.’ (Due to be published February 2017). The support I received was invaluable and really helped shape me as a writer.

It was thrilling to recently get together with Louise to celebrate my book deal, and amongst the coffee, cake and talk about books, it was great to compare our experience of the project.

 

LJ: How did you hear about the WoMentoring project?  

LW: Twitter! I hear most of my bookish news through Twitter.

LJ: Me too – I’m using it more and more. Why did you want to be a mentor?

LW: I wanted to help other women to write. As soon as I heard about the project I knew I wanted to be involved. I know how hard it can be to find the time to write, to find the money for a critique, and perhaps most importantly, to find the self-belief. I also thought it would be beneficial to my own writing, and it has been. When I spot something that isn’t working, I often react with “OMG, I do that!” So critiquing others’ work is I hope mutually beneficial.  Why did you apply to the Womentoring project?

LJ:  I’d gone to a local writing group with the view to writing a non-fiction book. At the beginning of the meeting we were given a couple of words and ten minutes to write something. The bare bones of what is now Chapter One of The Sister was born. I spent the next few days thinking about Grace, my main character, and when someone from the group sent me a link to The WoMentoring Project and suggested I should apply and develop my writing I checked it out, and then discounted it straight away. I thought it was aimed at ‘proper’ writers. Not someone with no experience or qualifications, who had only scribbled down a few lines on a torn out sheet of a notebook. I bookmarked the page though. I’d noticed you on the list of mentors and having just finished, and fallen in love with Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, I felt really drawn to apply. It took days and days and a few glasses of wine before I felt brave enough to email, and I never dreamed I’d be accepted. Why did you pick me as your mentee? 

LW: I liked your writing and it was easy to spot your talent. I also spotted areas for improvement and I thought we might be a good match. The fact you live not a million miles from me helped too, as I thought it would be lovely to meet up. Also in your application you stuck to the word limits and applied as per the Womentoring Project instructions. I turned down other applicants because they didn’t do this.  How did the mentoring help?

LJ: Firstly, it gave me the confidence to try. When we first talked and I said I wanted to write a short story you asked ‘why not write a novel?’ as if I could, and I felt a real spark of ‘could I?’ That spark grew and grew until I scrubbed out the title of my story and wrote ‘Chapter One’ instead. Your offer to critique my first 10,000 words drove me forwards but I never quite believed I could write so much – having never written more than 200 words before, but I wrote and wrote until I had the first few chapters. I was euphoric! I sent them over to you half-expecting you to call and tell me they were so brilliant you’d sent them to your publisher! Of course, they weren’t good, as first drafts often aren’t.  You told me, so kindly, they’d be great as individual short stories but they didn’t flow like a novel should and I didn’t hesitate in deleting them.

LW: I had no idea you’d deleted all those words! I hope I wasn’t too blunt… it’s so important for writers who want to publish their work to grasp that a novel is more than a series of events… it’s the tale you weave around those events that makes a story, and makes a novel.

LJ: I went back to basics. I’ve always been an avid reader but I started to read like a writer instead, noticing the flow, the sub-plot, those subtle undercurrents and then I tried again, frantically trying to write another 10,000 before our mentoring period ended. The relief when you liked my second attempt was immense and I think that’s where mentoring was so beneficial. Getting that flow, that balance, is so critical. I feel so lucky I got the advice I did, 10,000 words in and didn’t spend the next 18 months writing a book that no-one would want to read. Did it take long to read and critique my work? 

LW: Longer than I thought it would, to be honest! I had to concentrate really hard!

LJ: You were very thorough. Were you comfortable with criticising?

LW: Yes, I think so. I know only too well how painful it can be to receive criticism, so I tried to remain constructive and positive, while at the same time be honest enough to be of decent help. I didn’t want to demoralise you. I was relieved to find that you were sure enough in your own aims and abilities to not necessarily agree with everything I suggested… Mittens, anyone??!!

LJ: Yes! You really didn’t like the cat in Chapter One and although I took most of your advice on board, the cat you didn’t like, stayed. I think building enough confidence to develop my own voice, trust my own instincts and not take things that aren’t working personally, has stood me in good stead to cope well with the inevitable rejections, and now the publisher’s edits. Writing in present tense is something I wouldn’t have dared try at the beginning as so many people don’t like it but by the time I’d finished the first draft in past tense, I knew I hadn’t written a book I’d love to read. That meant going back to the beginning and changing the tense, and then losing the last 40,000 words completely to change the genre. I feel like I’ve written more than one book during this process but I’ve honestly loved every second of it.

LW: Would you recommend the WoMentoring Project to other writing women?

LJ: Absolutely. It’s hard to believe that 18 months ago I’d never written any fiction except a couple of 100 word stories and now I’ve signed a three-book deal with Bookouture. My first novel, The Sister, will be out in July 2016 and I feel so grateful to Kerry Hudson for founding the WoMentoring Project and all the women who volunteer their time to help fledging writers find their voice.  I’m indebted to you for helping make my dream come true and I’m fully intent on paying it forward.

 

You can read my previous posts tracking my experience of the project here,  here and here.

 

The WoMentoring Project is still open for applications and offers free mentoring by professional literary women to talented up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.

Their mission is simple: to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support.

The hope is that new, talented and diverse female voices emerge as a result of time and guidance received from our mentors.

 

 

The naive novelist?

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I have always had an obsession with books, but aside from a couple of flash fiction pieces I wrote several years ago, I had never tried to write. I guess I never believed that I could. Last April I wanted to try, I set up this blog and here I am.

Throughout the last few weeks I have regularly been posting short stories and have completely fallen in love with the writing process, to be able to immerse myself in characters and plots of my own making has been a total joy.

With encouragement from the lovely Louise Walters, author of the fabulous Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, I decided to try to write a novel.

When I began, back in May, I found it unimaginable that I may be able to write 1000 words, ten times more than my longest story, and yet, several weeks on, I have broken the 40,000 barrier.

Eager to learn the craft, I have been reading many blogs and articles on novel writing. I have read page after page telling me that first novels are always terrible, that I need to write three books before I have one that’s readable, that I will most probably give up before I reach the end, that I…… no, actually that’s when I stopped reading.

I don’t want to dampen my enthusiasm so I choose to believe that maybe, just maybe, with handwork and passion I can write something that I can be proud of, and if I can’t, then I will have had a blast trying.

Fabricating Fiction or The Naive Novelist? Time will tell.

My experience as a mentee (aka Louise Walters killed my cat).

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When Louise met Louise

 

The email to say I had been successful in my application to the WoMentoring Project triggered an impromtu happy dance around the lounge.

‘I have a mentor!’ I joyfully told my son who was huddled on the edge of the sofa, mentally calculating his escape route.

‘What does a mentor do?’ he asked.

I stopped dancing. ‘Umm, I’m not sure, but I think it involves a sprinkling of fairy dust and then I will have written a book.’

‘Yeah. Good luck with that, Mum.’ He bolted for the door.

Euphoria was replaced by hot panic. What had I done? I had only decided to write fiction 2 weeks before. I had no education, no experience, and couldn’t distinguish a noun from an adjective.

I met my mentor, Louise Walters, clutching my ideas and passion tightly, half expecting her to point a finger and say ‘how dare you try and impersonate a writer?’ I was slightly disappointed she was neither wearing a pink sparkly dress nor brandishing a magic wand, but her oodles of knowledge, enthusiasm and desire to help more than made up for that. We had much in common and spent the day talking, sometimes even about writing.

Her first critique of my opening few chapters was sensitively honest. Well written but disjointed and not flowing together, and why had I written so much about a cat? I had a lot to learn.

I had been thrilled to have written 10,000 words, the most I had ever attempted before was a 200 word flash fiction piece, but eager to gain as much as I could from my experience I deleted most of my first draft, and I didn’t cry that much.

I sent my second draft off with a dollop of self doubt. I wanted Louise to like it but, more importantly, to see that I had taken on board everything she had said. I am so grateful she has selflessly given her time to this project I wanted her to see how seriously I had taken it.  I had made all the changes she suggested. Well almost all.  The cat still lingered.

Louise’s feedback was really positive, apart from the cat.

I have now come to the end of my three months mentoring and miraculously have written 20,000 words (none of which now contain a cat).

So what does a mentor do?

Mine gave me confidence which I had never had much of before and made me believe that maybe, just maybe I can write a book, (perhaps she did have a wand hidden away after all). For that I will be eternally grateful.

Soooo, writing a novel?

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I have only been writing a few weeks, and flash fiction at that, but after gaining a place on the WoMentoring Project I thought why not throw myself in at the deep end and really challenge myself.

So, I want to write a novel. (It’s only been the last few days I can say that out loud without either a) laughing somewhat hysterically, b) breaking into a sweat or, c) pouring a large glass of wine. Often all three).

I am completely ignoring all the negative chatter in my head telling me I can’t because, I haven’t done any writing courses; My technical knowledge is zilch (I have had to google what exposition, protagonist and adverbs mean after receiving feedback); I am unclear on grammar (I am inserting semicolons with my fingers crossed) and I have never written anything more than 200 words before.

But (yes you probably shouldn’t start a sentence with that either), I have an idea, passion and after tentatively starting, fully intend on giving it my best shot.

So wish me luck, offer advice if you can and accompany me on my journey, I will appreciate the support.