Writing Mentors

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

So who amongst us wouldn’t want to have a writing mentor – someone to both inspire and encourage us and someone we could turn to when we wanted that oft-needed pearl of wisdom and advice? Although I have encountered many supportive authors and received some terrific advice, thus far I have not encountered anyone who I could remotely classify as a mentor…and I kind of regret that. I almost wonder if the concept of a mentor is a relic of a golden era now long since past…so I started to do a little research…


There have of course been some famous literary mentorships, including:

  • Isaac Asimov to Gene Roddenberry
  • Anton Chekhov to Raymond Carver
  • Paul Bowles to William Burroughs
  • Graham Greene to Muriel Spark
  • Saul Bellow to Martin Amis
  • Henry James to Edith Wharton

And I see that many recent writers credit their success on having attended a class or conference run by a famous and supportive writer (Patricia Smiley and Elizabeth George for example). After undertaking this initial research (all ten minutes of it!) I have to confess to feeling a little bit wistful – though great mentor relationships can be a double edged sword (just look at the famous falling out between VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux!). So I have some questions for you today 1) have you been blessed with having (or being) a writing mentor? 2) If you have, what tangible benefits did you feel resulted and 3) If could name your ideal writing mentor (living or dead), who would it be?

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17 thoughts on “Writing Mentors

  1. How do you define a mentor? Do most people think of the mentor as a multi-published author who gives advice on the career journey–something that is not really a reciprocal arrangement?

    Or do you view it somewhat less formally as two writers in the same genre, one with more publishing experience, but both helping each other with improving their writing?

  2. I was thinking more the former, rather than two writers just helping each other out. My vision of a mentor is of someone with vastly more experience helping nurture a younger writer both in terms of his/her craft as well as his/her career.

  3. Clare, the Florida chapter of MWA stated a mentoring program a few years ago and assigned published authors with those still trying to get their first contract. The requirement was that the new author have completed at least one manuscript. And in general, the writer and mentor wrote in the same genre. I volunteered and have been working with a new writer for some time now, reviewing and critiquing sample chapters, tweaking query letters, and helping to clean up and focus on his story synopsis. So far it’s been fun and I’ve gotten to know the writer. He’s starting to get requests for samples and partials, and we hope this will be the year he gets that first contract.

    I wish there had been a similar program in place when I first started writing. And if there was, my ideal mentor would have been Clive Cussler.

  4. Wow Joe, that’s a neat program and even neater because you participate in it. No, no one-on-one mentors. I’ve had a few classes by published, NYT best selling authors who have been very hands on and helpful. Then there are you guys & gals here at the kill zone, I consider what you do mentoring for me. There are several authors who have blogs that talk about how they write and give some hints and clues that are very helpful. But a one-one-one mentor, that would be awesome! Wow, to choose one, that would be really hard: Clive Cussler would be nice, he’s really found ways to grow, expand and do well over the years, James Patterson, amazing and they claim the top selling, best paid, and most prolific author, he puts out multiple books a year, a writing machine who doesn’t seem to dull; Stephen King… now he’s not one of my favorite authors to read, I don’t really like the horror stuff, but he is one of the best authors I’ve ever read and his non-horror stuff- I love; Jim Butcher- each book is better than the last, he is growing and getting better, each book is his best, I’ve love to be able to have that said of me some day; Arthur C Clarke- classic & visionary, total awesomeness.
    Honestly, I’ve read stuff by each of you Kill Zone authors now, not just the blogs, you would all be excellent mentors also. And in the end, a mentor doesn’t have to be the #1 top anything in the world; just someone who’s a little more experienced and willing to share in the adventure and help you find the right way, that’s what makes a mentor great.

  5. I belong to an on-line writing community that includes writers at all levels. One of those I’d consider a mentor is agented, not yet published and we’ve become friends enough that I’ve stayed with her family and she’s stayed with me for conferences.

    I think that my ideal mentor-mentee relationship has some give and take. For instance, I read manuscripts as a reader in exchange for the chance to glimpse the author’s writing process. I’m reading for a published author-friend whose process seems close to mine and I’m learning so very much. I feel honored and I am loving it.

  6. Although he hasn’t critiqued and edited my work, TKZ’s James Scott Bell gets the credit (or the blame) for getting me interested in writing fiction. Moreover, I’ve benefitted immeasurably from his classes, his books on writing, and his friendship. I think that qualifies him as a mentor.

  7. Given that definition I can see why it is so hard to find a one on one mentor (apart from the way authors mentor widely with their blogs, books etc). It seems I don’t go more than a few weeks before I see an email from a writer stating that they’d asked someone to be their mentor and they politely refused.

    What a considerable time investment that would be. In this hectic publishing world when an author has to be their own publicist and marketer, editor and oh yeah, write the books, it is very generous for them to add mentoring to their list.

    It would take a really solid writers group/association like the one Joe describes to have an effective mentoring program. Kudos to him and to MWA!

  8. My mentor was Lyn Stimer, a novelist and former managing and associate editor at several large publishing houses. As a freelance editor, she guided the work of a number of authors
    whose novels have been published by Big Houses, including mine. I met Lyn when I took her course at UCLA Extension. UCLA has a mention of her influence on me as a mentor on their web site. Lyn acted as my coach and cheerleader. If I hadn’t had her advice, it would have taken me much, much longer to get published. Extension courses and writing organizations such as MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW are wonderful places to find writing mentors, by the way.

  9. I’m gratified for the mentoring I’ve done at conferences. To see folks get to publication (like Richard Mabry–thanks, Doc) who have worked hard and kept at it, that’s a beautiful thing. Some of this mentoring can be passed on through writing books and articles, which is why I write them.

    If I could go back in the past, I would probably have picked John D. MacDonald for a mentor. He elevated everything he wrote with an unobtrusive style, knew story, had a great work ethic.

  10. I was lucky enough to meet Tasha Alexander back before I thought writing as a career was a possibility, and it’s all thanks to her that I’m published today. My first year as an ITW debut author, I was also privileged to have Hank Philippi Ryan assigned as my official mentor, so I lucked out twice. In both aspects it was more industry mentoring than it was writing advice. My dream-mentor, just because I love her books so much, would probably be Barbara Mertz AKA Elizabeth Peters, and there – in spite of her undeniable commercial success – I’d definitely be asking writing questions.

  11. James, I love your choice of John D. MacDonald for all the reasons you stated. If I could pick a dream mentor it would be Dick Francis. He could capture a character in a few vivid words, create many-faceted main characters, and devise intricate and fast-paced plots that kept me up nights reading his books in one big gulp. I would love to give the same gifts to my readers.

  12. Mentoring, except when a formal program as Joe described, flows from relationship. (In Joe’s case, the relationship has followed.)

    This is why it’s important for new writers to connect with the writing community, but you can’t just raise your hand and ask for a mentor, please. No, you have to show yourself to be approachable, personable, coachable, and a person who is willing to give as much as receive.

    Then, one might have different mentors for different things. A writing mentor on craft. Another writer who mentors on promotion/the business of writing. Another yet who mentors on career building. Not everyone has the skill or gift to be an all-around mentor.

    I’d love to be mentored by any of my top-tier, favorite multi-published novelists, especially those who have career wheels consisting of multiple spokes. Right now, I’m receiving mentoring with regard to freelance writing from Angela Booth. It began because I won a contest she sponsored on a blog of hers that I follow.

  13. All great mentor ideas and it looks like some of my fellow bloggers have already risen to the challenge and been great mentors themselves! I think the time commitment is a deterrent to many authors as they have to spend so much of their own time on publicity etc. – not just their own writing. An ideal mentor for me would be someone who was a hard task-master, who challenged me to raise the bar with each book and someone who also belived strongly in my ability – hmmm..haven’t found anyone yet:)

  14. I agree with Richard Mabry. James Scott Bell is the best mentor I’ve ever had. If the time constraints are tough on him you’d never know it.

    Through conferences, and workshops, questions and crisis, (Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope)Jim’s always helped out when I asked him for guidance. And I know there are more of us than just Richard and I.

    Every once in awhile we get to learn from someone who really helps us “get it” in a way that makes sense.

    Thanks Obi-Wan! You’ve been an awesome help.

  15. I need a mentor…or a womantor even…someone to motivate me. My mojo is slojo and slowering.

    The ideal mentor for me would be someone who could honestly critique my work, give me advice to fix what ails it, then kick my gluteus maximus gently but firmly to stay focused.

  16. This blog looks great and I would subscribe to it, but I really don’t want to add another account to my life or use a “news reader.” How about adding an option for simple RSS feed or email delivery or even email notification?

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