Tribute to a Mentor

by Debbie Burke


In the early 1990s, a successful screenwriter, producer, and military consultant named Dennis Foley left Hollywood to move to the small ski village of Whitefish, Montana. He’d been a popular writing instructor at UCLA and was now on the forefront of a brand new wave in education: online classes. He could live wherever he wanted, while students sent him assignments and manuscripts via email.

At the time, our local group, Authors of the Flathead, was a small rag-tag gang of hobby writers who fiddled around with words and supported one another in our fledgling attempts at publication. I’d sold my first story to a literary magazine that paid me a $5 check that bounced. A couple of other members wrote unpaid columns for weekly newspapers. Definitely not the big leagues.

We were the ignorant leading the inexperienced.

In a small town, it didn’t take long for word to get around about the new guy from Hollywood who had worked on hit TV shows like MacGyver, Cagney and Lacey, China Beach as well as motion pictures. The club president and I summoned our courage to invite this Hollywood big shot to speak at a meeting.

Dennis graciously said yes and he turned out to be anything but a Hollywood big shot. He not only spoke at that meeting, he came to the next, and the next. Pretty soon, he adopted Authors of the Flathead and was teaching our rag-tag gang the same material he was teaching at UCLA.

For free.


He showed us how to become professionals. We learned plotting and organization. He taught us John Gardner’s terms like profluence, the sense of a story always moving forward; and fictive dream, the near-trance state when writers delve deeply into imagination to create a fictional world more vivid than reality. He urged us to take the reader into that world and gave us tips how to preserve the trance.

He explained schadenfreude (delight in the misery of others) and urged us to chase our characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. Conflict was the key to riveting fiction. If life went well for the character, it was bad for the reader; if life went badly for a character, it was good for the reader.

He recommended scenes in novels needed to accomplish four tasks:

  1. Reveal character;
  2. Increase conflict and tension; 
  3. Move the story forward;
  4. Foreshadow.

A really effective scene accomplishes all four tasks but at minimum a scene should include two or three.

He taught us that consistent daily production would carry us farther than occasional brilliant flashes of talent. He counseled us to lower our writing goals to a level we could meet, even if it meant only writing a paragraph or page a day. At a page a day, he often reminded us, in a year, you have a book-length manuscript.

Consistently meeting smaller goals was a better habit to develop than setting goals too high and becoming frustrated when you fail.  

For show and tell, he would bring us Oscar-nominated scripts to study, like Earl Wallace’s Witness.

Dennis had also published four military novels about Vietnam and a memoir about long range patrols. But he rarely talked about his own work; instead he concentrated on our work and how to improve it.

In addition to teaching, Dennis continued to polish his own craft, earning an MFA from Vermont College. He brought back fresh techniques and shared them with us.

Dennis’s one inviolable rule: Don’t bore the reader.

When we needed speakers for our group’s annual conference, he contacted Hollywood colleagues as presenters, contributing to its well-respected reputation. When the pros from New York and Hollywood attended, they invariably commented about how rare it was to find such camaraderie and helpfulness in a writing community. Dennis had set that tone and example that has remained our trademark.

After weekly meetings, we often adjourned to a restaurant for coffee and camaraderie. At one of those early gatherings, we asked Dennis why he shared his knowledge and experience so generously with us.

For the first time, I heard what became my favorite Dennis story.

Before his retirement as an Army officer, Dennis worked in Hollywood as a military adviser for films and television. Once, when a writer didn’t meet his deadline, Dennis was tasked to rustle up an emergency script overnight. He delivered and more assignments followed, even though he had no formal training as a writer. In fact, he’d nearly flunked English in high school. He freely admits he didn’t have any idea what he was doing.

Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of In the Heat of the Night, took then-newbie Dennis under his wing and coached him. When Dennis wrote himself into a corner, he would call Stirling, who always guided him to a solution.

One day, Dennis said to Stirling, “You have helped me so much, how can I ever repay you?”

To which Stirling replied, “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an asshole.”

Dennis took that admonishment to heart.

For nearly three decades, the Authors of the Flathead have been the fortunate recipients of his generosity and knowledge.

He taught us week after week, year after year, never accepting anything in return.

After our last meeting, Dennis and I were talking in the parking lot. His special forces years in Vietnam have taken their toll and long-term effects of Agent Orange are worsening. He expressed concern he soon may not be able to carry on the teaching he loves.

With tears welling, I hugged him and said, “We’ve had a good run.”

“A helluva good run,” he replied.


Even though this post will embarrass the hell out of him, I had to write it because Dennis has shied away from recognition these many years.

The sum total is his mentoring has improved the writing of thousands of students and launched many of us to publication success.

But the most important contribution Dennis has given us is his generous spirit of sharing knowledge. He followed Stirling Silliphant’s admonishment to pass it on and far exceeded it.




TKZers: Have you had a mentor who changed your life? What did s/he do to help you? 

Your homework assignment is to track down that special mentor (if they’re still alive) and tell them thank you. 

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About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers.

21 thoughts on “Tribute to a Mentor

  1. Almost exactly five years ago, I took Dean Wesley Smith’s advice to heart to set a daily word-count goal. He also suggested I TRY “writing into the dark” (no outline, allowing my subconscious, creative mind to write the stories), and adhering to Heinlein’s Rules.

    I didn’t think writing into the dark (no outline, etc.) would work. For him with all of his experience, sure, but not for me. It went against everything I’d learned in school and everything I’d learned from various writers and writers’ groups over the years. But what did I have to lose?

    So I tried it, only prove to myself whether it worked, and I was skeptical going in. But Wow, did it ever work.

    Today, over 50 major fiction publications (novels, novellas) and almost 200 short stories later I haven’t looked back.

    (Dean has written well over 200 novels and probably a thousand or more short stories. He’s a USA Today and NYT bestseller. His website is

  2. I don’t have a mentor per se but owe debts to many writer-friends who were kind to me when I was just starting out. Elaine Viets and the late Barbara Parker welcomed me into MWA Florida chapter when I was too shy to speak to anyone. And Jerry Healy…ah, I will never forget our first meeting. My sister and I had worked up the courage and cash to go to our first Bouchercon. We didn’t know a soul and were sitting in the bar alone waiting for everyone to show up. We were about to take it personally when Jerry poked his head in and said, “What the hell are you doing here alone? You’re in the wrong bar. Follow me.”

    And we did. He gave us our first blurb and remained a great friend until he died.

    My biggest debt is owed to my eighth grade teacher Miss Gentry. She gave me an A on my short story and said, “You’re a very good writer.” So it began…

    Like you friend, a great teacher can change lives.

    • So true about teachers, Kris.

      Miss Parker, my third grade teacher, was the first one to encourage me. After my novel was published in 2017, I tracked her down and we chatted by phone. She was 89, retired after 50+ years, plus she’d worked in the juvenile system with kids she called her “jailbirds.” I’ll bet she turned quite a few of those lives around.

  3. What a gift Dennis has been to all writers in NW Montana! I often remember the story he tells about waking up one morning and realizing he had no work. By the end of the day, he had 5 projects. “Get the irons in the fire,” he’d say; send out your proposals and pitches, and they will come back to you. And I take great comfort in his reminder that rejections mean you’re in the game — you’re doing the work and putting it out there, and if you keep doing, those rejections will turn to acceptances.

    Thanks for this, Deb.

  4. A wonderful tribute to an amazing mentor. You’ve been very fortunate.

    The two writing groups I belong to are an ever-flowing source of inspiration and mentors. Even small things like someone saying “I love what you’re doing; keep it up”, and “even if you’re new, you still have a story to tell and wisdom to share”, and the offer to read a few chapters and make a comment– they all make me want to be a better writer (and a better person).

    I’ve already promised myself to pay all this forward. All I need to do now is to say thank you to them.

    Oh, and thank you to all the contributors to the TKZ blog. Even though I don’t write thrillers or suspense, the sheer amount of information I get from this blog helps me and my writing journey.

    • Thanks, Mollie!

      How great that your groups welcome new writers, who are often timid. An encouraging word at the right moment makes all the difference.

  5. I know Dennis as a best friend. He is exactly as above written by Debbie Burke. Without him as a friend my life would be very different. I love this guy

  6. This is an impressive tribute and one well deserved. Thank you for sharing with us. It is not only an inspiring story, it also inspires we newer writers to keep at it.

    • Cecelia, your comment reminded me of two more “Dennis sayings.”

      1. “If Dennis can do it, anyone can do it.”

      I’ll change that to say, “Anyone with Dennis’s persistence can do it.”

      2. “You can’t fail at writing, you can only quit.” No argument here!

  7. Genius and generosity,the best possible combination!Thank you SO much for sharing Dennis and his perfectly simple (simply perfect) advice.I’m saving it!

  8. I graduated college with a double major – biology and English (not a typical combination). But I loved science and I loved literature. After 20+ years in the scientific field, we moved to Montana in the early 1990’s and I got a hankering to put the ole English degree to work. My head was filled with “stories,” but I found the blank page intimidating. Then, I saw an ad for writing classes at FVCC, our local community college.

    I signed up for a class on writing your first novel, taught by a man named Dennis Foley. By the time the class was over, I’d learned enough from Dennis to start down the road of becoming a published author. First, there were articles and short stories for magazines. I was elated when I got that first check for $10.00. Thanks to Dennis’ encouragement, I felt I’d earned the title of “writer.” Then a novel percolated in my mind.

    Dennis had urged us all to join the local writers’ group, The Authors of the Flathead. So, I did. Each month, Dennis taught us more about writing, asking us, “What topic did we need help with?” I met writers of all genres and was amazed at the way everyone helped and celebrated each others’ success.

    My first novel was a bigger success than I could ever imagine, and it was due to the lessons I learned from Dennis and the support of the wonderful Authors of the Flathead members. Without our critique groups with you, Deb, and Betty, Leslie, Sami, and so many others, that book would still be in my mind and not in the hands of over 250,000 readers. My second novel involved scenes about the Vietnam War, and Dennis graciously helped me and corrected me when I wrote things like using the wrong type of helicopter to remove the wounded from the battlefields. His expertise and his willingness to share was invaluable and much appreciated.

    Without Dennis lighting the way, and my fellow writers from the Authors of the Flathead, I would not have been able to face that blank page and get those dang stories from mind to paper. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart, and agree that the biggest tribute to your mentor is to pay it forward. Thanks Dennis and thank you, Deb, for this post, for being my friend for 20+ years, and being the best writer and editor I know.

    • Thanks, Deb, for chiming in as one of our group’s greatest success stories. Dennis lit the way for both of us and many more writers. And thanks for your sweet words!

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