Mentoring For Writers

“Good ole Fred,” I say.

“Who?” you ask.

“Fred. Fred Mahle. My mentor.”

“Okay,” you go.

“Fred was my police mentor. He was a Detective Sergeant on the homicide squad who must have seen something in me as a rookie and thought I was worthwhile mentoring. Because of Fred, I learned the criminal investigation ropes and managed to make a somewhat successful career out of being a murder cop.”

“Nice,” you say.

“Sadly, Fred’s long gone now. But what he taught me stuck. Fred fed me wisps of wisdom like, ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason’ and ‘You get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.’ Fred was a Columbo character with a Da Vinci brain. He was the one who caught child serial killer Clifford Olson and struck the deal to pay Olson ten grand a piece to turn over the bodies. In the end, Olson got a hundred thousand and a life sentence. Ten families got closure.”

Impressive. “What brought this on for a Kill Zone post?”

“I’m doing a bit of mentoring now myself. Not as a detective, but as a writer. I’m a writer who’s mentoring a detective.”

(Laughs) “Say what?”

“Yeah. It’s come full circle. When I retired from being Doctor Death in the police and coroner business, I reinvented myself as a crime writer. Not necessarily a good crime writer, but I’ve learned a few tricks, and I’m in the position to share them with a real detective who’s just retired and wants to take up this crazy wordsmithing game. Get this. She’s silly enough to turn to me for advice, so now I’m mentoring her.”

“Go figger.”

——

I think all of us have been mentored to some degree throughout our lives—careers if you like. And I’d like to think that as we get older and more experienced in our lines, we mentor others. That may be a formal mentorship as in an apprenticing role or an informal one like touring the new hire around the book factory floor.

And I think you learn a lot on both ends—mentor and mentoree (master/protégé). I’ve been commercially writing for a while now and when I put together a “mentorship” program for the poor sucker nice lady I’m helping out, I was surprised to find just how much I’ve learned about the writing craft and biz. I look forward to this journey with her.

Ever wonder where the word “mentor” came from? No, neither did I until I sat down to rabbit-hole a bit of research for this piece. Here’s the scoop.

Homer, the Greek writer, had a character called Ulysses in his epic work The Odyssey. Ulysses was prepping for the Trojan war and knew he’d be away for a while. (Turned out it was ten years.) So Ulysses entrusted his only son and heir, Telemachus, with being scholared by his wise and learned friend, Mentor. There, you’re welcome.

History shows that people like us—like young trees in an old forest—thrive best when we grow in the presence of those who’ve gone before us. This isn’t new ground. Even the greats like Plato and Aristotle were mentored. Same with Michelangelo and Van Gogh. I’m sure great writers like Hemmingway had some sort of mentor other than a whiskey flask.

I Googled around for mentoring’s best definition and to find some sort of accepted format for a mentorship program. Wikipedia (a mentor of sorts) says: Mentorship is the influence, guidance, or direction given by a mentor to a mentee. A mentor influences the personal and professional growth of a mentee and offers psychological support, career guidance, and role modeling. Mentoring is a process that always involves cross-communication. It’s relationship-based, but its precise definition is elusive.

I found an interesting paper by a mentoring guru. It’s called Skills For Successful Mentoring: Competencies of Outstanding Mentors and Mentorees, and it’s written by Linda Phillips-Jones, Ph.D. She also wrote the book The New Mentors and Protégés.

Dr. Phillips-Jones says that effective mentoring requires more than common sense. Her research indicates that mentors and mentorees who develop and manage successful mentoring partnerships demonstrate specific and identifiable skills that enable learning and positive change to take place. She notes that unless a fairly structured process and specific skills are applied, mediocre relationships occur.

The paper offers a mentoring skills model that’s widely used in many businesses, large and small. It’s as close to a mentorship blueprint that’s out there. Here are the four primary or core mentor skills:

Listening Actively — A mentor must know their protégé’s interests and needs. Active listening is the most basic mentoring skill. When an understudy feels they are being heard and understood, they develop trust and this allows the relationship to grow.

Building Trust — The more the student and teacher trust each other, the more committed they’ll be to building their relationship and mutually benefiting from it. Trust develops over time if partners respect confidentiality, spend time together, cooperate constructively, and the mentor offers encouragement.

Determining Goals and Building Capacity — The mentor acts as a role model. They already have the experience required to lead which is done by setting goals and building competencies. Mentors act as resources or find them for their charge, impart knowledge, help with broader perspectives, and inspire the mentoree.

Encouragement — Dr. Phillips-Jones says giving encouragement is the mentoring skill most valued by protégés. She gives encouraging examples like favorably commenting on a mentoree’s accomplishments, communicating belief in the protégé’s growth capacity, and positively responding to inevitable frustrations.

The paper goes on to give practical advice on building a mentorship program. It states like most relationships, mentoring progresses in stages with each stage forming an inherent part of the next. Here are the four stages that frame a modern mentorship program:

Stage I — Building the Relationship
Stage II — Exchanging Information and Setting Goals
Stage III — Working Toward Goals / Deepening the Engagement
Stage IV — Ending the Formal Mentoring Relationship and Planning the Future

Dr. Phillip-Jones’s paper drills deep into developing each stage. It’s far more than a blog post can handle. If you’re interested, the Center for Health and Leadership has another paper titled Mentoring Guide — A Guide for Mentors which you can download for bedtime reading.

My Google trip took me to a place called Masterclass. You might have heard of it. I found a short but sweet post called How to Find and Choose a Writing Mentor. It opens with a cool definition: A writing mentor is an experienced writer who shares their wisdom with a new writer as they begin their career. The mentor provides support through regular meetings, either in person, on the phone, or online. A mentor will help a new author develop their voice and improve their writing skills by reviewing and critiquing their work. The mentor acts as a resource for ongoing support and creative growth.

How to Find and Choose a Writing Mentor itemizes six benefits of having a writing mentor. They are:

A mentor holds you accountable.
A mentor inspires you.
A mentor improves your writing skills.
A mentor supports your career path.
A mentor helps develop your voice.
A mentor helps you make decisions about publishing.

Besides the benefits, the post lists four things to look for in a writing mentor. These are:

Experience
Commonality
Accomplishments
Availability

And the article ends with four tips for finding a writing mentor. Here you go:

Find a writing community.
Become a member of a writing organization.
Take classes in person
Find a mentor online.

Do, or did I, have a writing mentor? Of course, I have. My number one inspiration has, is, and always will be Napoleon Hill’s classic works Think and Grow Rich. Some say Napoleon Hill was one big con-job, but say what you like—Think and Grow Rich is magic mentorship at its finest. There’s stuff in there that’ll change your life. Believe me, I know.

Stephen King is also my mentor. Now, I don’t pretend to know Stephen King personally, just as I never knew Napoleon Hill. What I’ve got from Stephen King’s works and his classic On Writing is a lifelong course in the craft. Here’s a post I recently wrote on my personal blog at DyingWords.net which is titled Stephen King’s Surprisingly Simple Secret to Success.

The Kill Zone is a mentorship in progress. I think that’s the ultimate goal of the Kill Zone — writers sharing their skillsets with other writers. That’s what I try to do around this place. I find it rewarding to help other writers help themselves, and I’m sure most writers feel the same thing. Especially Kill Zone writers.

I want to call out two Kill Zone contributors who act as mentors. One is James Scott Bell, or JSB, who has a lifetime with his butt in the chair and his fingers on the keys. Jim has a wealth of knowledge in his craft books, and his posts always lift me up. That’s mentorship.

The other is Sue Coletta. This totally unselfish gem is somewhat at the same writing career stage as me, and we act as peer mentors. My wife, Rita, calls Sue my “other wife”.

What about you Kill Zoners? Do you have mentors? Have you worked with mentors? Are you now mentoring someone else? And would you mentor someone if given the opportunity? Don’t be shy with your comments!

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner. Now, Garry’s a crime writer and indie publisher of sixteen books including an international bestselling based-on-true-crime series.

Outside of writing, Garry Rodgers is a certified marine captain and enjoys time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. Follow Garry on Twitter and check out his popular blog at www.DyingWords.net. BTW, In The Attic is FREE on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.

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49 thoughts on “Mentoring For Writers

  1. Thanks for asking, Garry. Dean Wesley Smith turned my life around. From him I found Heinlein’s Rules and a technique called writing into the dark. And most importantly, from him I learned to trust my creative voice and my characters. That was in early 2014.

    Since then I’ve written and published over 200 short stories, 8 novellas and 59 novels. All because I learned to believe in myself and my work. I pay it forward almost every day in my Journal at https://hestanbrough.com. Which usually includes an “Of Interest” section wherein I list links to articles from DyingWords.net, Kill Zone, Murder Blog (Sue Coletta) among others. In fact, Sue is the person who pointed me DyingWords.net and “introduced” us in the first place.

    • G’morning, Harvey. Thanks for your support, as always. I just wrote a fairly lengthy reply but the WordPress Wizard turfed it. So here goes again with a **name drop** – my great writing friend, Rachel Amphlett is good buddies with DWS and his other, Kris Rusch. Rachel sent me their way a few years ago, and their influence in indie writing/publishing was game changing.

      “Writing Into The Dark” is news to me, so I Googled it. I’m going to spend more time on this later today, but I did find a gem from a comment DWS put on a post. I’ve C&P it here for the Kill Zone gang:

      “In writing, the critical voice always makes the wrong decision. Readers don’t read safe, easy, dull books. Just like no one watches the perfectly behaved child walking beside their parent and doing nothing. Nope, people watch with laughter or shock or stunned amazement or horror the out-of-control funny child. Your book needs to be that child, not the dull, quite one. Critical voice is always wrong in creative things.”

      • That’s absolutely it. I talk about my experience with WITD over on my blog too. There’s even a search box in the sidebar to make it easy to find posts. Also a tag cloud in the footer. WITD is the last item.

        The job of theconscious critical mind is to protect us. That’s why it tries so hard to shut down our writing. If we don’t write and finish, we can’t submit or publish and be rejected.

        • I downloaded “Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline” last night, thanks to your info. The first bit hooked me and told me something I’ve believed for a long time but couldn’t quite articulate it. Thanks again for the steer, Harvey!

  2. I ‘met’ someone through a fan fiction site I was enjoying. I liked her stories. Then, she posted something on a forerunner to blogging as we know it now, about the Farmer’s Market in LA, where I grew up. I wrote back, and we had some nice conversations. I ended up beta reading for her, strictly as a reader as I hadn’t even thought about writing. But when I did try my own story, she became my mentor, and we still keep in touch. I owe so much to her.

  3. Another great post, Garry, thanks! I’ve been looking for a mentor for a while now, so I’ll be re-reading it as soon as I can convince the cat that my laptop is not a runway.
    You’d be surprised how difficult it is to find an accountability partner, too.

    • And thank you for thanking me, Carolyn. I think the difficulty in finding helpful critique/accountability partners is that most people are strapped for time. I used to send my stuff out for beta reading but I stopped. Maybe 1 in 4 got back to me and the feedback wasn’t helpful. But when you do get someone that’s good – treasure them!

  4. I went through the mentorship program at the Horror Writers Association. My mentor worked with me for four months, and I learned SO much (haha, mostly I learned that I didn’t even know enough to know that I didn’t know much!). If I ever publish a novel that sells decently, I’ll definitely become a mentor in order to give back.

    • Priscilla, your comment makes me think of some brilliant scriptwriting in the Friends series. It was either Phoebe or Monica who said, “But they don’t know we know they know we know we know.” Man, if I could only write like that 🙂

  5. Great post, Garry! You are so right that TKZ is a form of mentorship. The wise gang here, including several emeritus (Jordan Dane, Jodie Renner, Joe Moore) mentored me every morning for years before I was lucky enough to be asked to join.

    Dennis Foley has mentored hundreds of writers (including me) through our group Authors of the Flathead. He tells this wonderful story about HIS mentor, Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) who helped Dennis as a young screenwriter. Dennis asked, “Stirling, how can I ever repay you for everything you’ve done for me?”

    Stirling’s answer: “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”

    • Thanks for the mention, Debbie. It’s so satisfying to know that my writing advice (along with that of the masters like James Scott Bell) helps aspiring (and even published) authors learn effective fiction-writing techniques, hone their craft, and produce stories that captivate and satisfy readers! We all win!

    • Thank you, Debbie. Pay it forward but be careful what you wish for. My new “student” emailed me at one o’clock this morning apologizing for missing an email earlier in the day. I have an email tone alert on my cell which bleeped and woke me up.

  6. Great post, Garry. Thanks for the links and sharing your research.

    For me, all the TKZ regulars, especially JSB, have been mentors. Since I retired from my day joy at the beginning of this year, I now have time to start my day with a trip to TKZ. Many of you have taught me so much, I want to say “Thank You.” Sue has gone above and beyond to help me with graphics. Debbie has answered many questions. And Joe is a personal friend, having offered help on writing, computers, and even legal questions.

    Before I found TKZ, I had two mentors with the Long Ridge Writers Group (now the Institute for Writers) mentoring program. The second, Carole Bellacera, worked with me as a new writer, and was very encouraging. We still communicate occasionally. I worked with Jodie Renner to write three stories for her anthology, “Childhood Regained.” She taught me much about editing.

    As I close my medical practice and finally find time to live again, I have a goal of starting a mentoring program to encourage young people to record the history and memoirs of their ancestors – Heritage to Legacy.

    Thanks for a very informative, in-depth post, Garry.

    • Steve, editing your three compelling stories for the anthology CHILDHOOD REGAINED was pure pleasure! You have so much creativity, talent, and skill as a writer that I’m sure you’re going to be a successful novelist, now that you’re no longer working as a physician. Good luck in this next chapter of your life! 🙂

    • Hi Steve! I find I’m busier in my retirement than during the day jobs. Heritage to Legacy sounds like a noble cause. Nice to hear you got some good from this post. I wrote it more for myself than anyone.

  7. Thanks for those kind words, Garry. The reason I started teaching was that I had been mentored in the craft through books and WD…in those early years, it was mainly Lawrence Block’s column in WD that really spoke to me about how a writer thinks, produces, survives. When I got published, I was blessed with a couple of great editors who helped me up my game.

    Eventually I wanted to do the same thing for other writers.

    Thanks again, Garry, for the thoughtful post.

    • You have earned every bit of praise, Jim. I so admire the career you have and the gracious help you give to others. The thanks are to you from me and the folks reading this piece.

  8. I love this post, Garry!

    I believe gratitude is a bedrock attribute which should propel me to the keyboard every day. I’ve learned so much from everyone on the TKZ team, it’s hard to come up with a list. Even though I’m not a crime or thriller writer, I deeply appreciate the craft knowledge I soak up each morning; and I get big a kick out of the humor.

    Other than the geniuses here, I have an awesome editor, Dori Harrell, who not only edits for me, she has been a mentor and encourager since 2015, guiding me through self-pubbing 3 books, and now helping me query two projects.

    In point of fact, I had a virtual agent appointment on 3/12. The result was, after she read the first 3 chapters I sent her, she wants to see the entire MS. And she said the most incredible thing: “Your MS is the only one I accepted from this conference.” I hyperventilated and almost fell off my chair.

    I credit all y’all and the lovely Dori for getting me this far. 🙂

    At this point, I’m mentoring a ten-year-old granddaughter and having a ball with it. There’s nothing like the soaring imagination of a child, unfettered by the real world, to stoke the fires of my own.

  9. Excellent post, Garry, with lots of concrete, very useable advice, as always. I’ve mentored hundreds of writers as an editor, and it is so satisfying to help someone dive deeper into their story, flesh out their characters, develop a more authentic voice, take their writing skills up several levels, and polish their story to a shine. And it’s an interactive process — I have also learned so much from every talented author I’ve worked with and have developed some lifelong friendships in the process. Ideally, a mentoring process is satisfying and enriching for both parties.

    • Thank you, Jodie! You’re so right about the self reward in helping others and learning from the process. I put together a little list of talking points for my new mentoree for a Zoom call. I thought I’d share it with folks on TKZ so they have some idea of what’s on my mind:

      Writing Stuff

      Entertainment Business – Fiction
      Education Business – Non-Fiction
      Mindset

      Narrative / Exposition

      Engage / Evoke Emotions
      Ideal Reader
      Passive vs Active — Adjectives & Adverbs
      Show vs Tell
      Write What You Know / Know What You Write
      Trust Your Reader
      Resist Urge to Explain (RUE)
      Don’t Come Lightly to the Page
      Bird by Bird
      Checkov’s Gun
      Kill Your Darlings
      SSSTF –Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Feel
      Plotter vs Pantster
      Know Rules –Break Intentionally
      Coathooks / Cliffhangers

      Dialogue

      Tags / Speech Attributions
      Beats
      Subtext
      White Space
      On The Nose
      Wiretaps / Transcripts
      “As You Now, Bob”
      Backstory / Info Dumps
      Elmore Leonard

      Craft

      Inspiration /Creativity / The Muse
      Rewriting is Writing – Iceberg 10/90
      Read a Lot / Write a Lot “Write More Books” “Publish Wide”
      Ass in Chair / Fingers on Keys / 80/20 Rule
      Self Editing / Proofreading
      Networking / Connections

      Voice

      Confidence / Doubt / Fear / Writers Block / Procrastination
      Passion – No tears in writer / No tears in reader
      Letter to Ideal Reader / Just Tell the Goddamn Story — Stephen King

  10. Great post, Garry. I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors in my fiction writing. When I began walking “the path of fiction writing craft” back in late 2008, after years of failing and flailing in my unpublished stories and novels, I signed up to take an intensive one-on-one writing course through the Long Ridge Writer online school, the same one that Steve mentioned above. I’d already known my teacher, sci-fi and mystery author Mary Rosenblum, through science fiction conventions and because she was a good friend of a writing friend of mine. Mary taught me the ins and outs of POV, voice, showing and not telling, etc, going well beyond the limits of the course.

    When I graduated two years later, Mary continued as my mentor, never losing faith in me. I dabbled in self-pub in 2012, but ended up pulling back for a few years, writing a lot more, and then returning in late 2015. I hired Mary to be my developmental editor, and I ran the outlines for my first three Empowered novels past her, as well as having her dev edit the first two. It made a huge difference. Mary had me do a thorough “voice edit” of Empowered: Agent, which really improved the book and helped me improve my ability to render character voice. She passed away two years ago, but is still with me in spirit.

    I consider JSB another mentor through his books and his contributions here. Now that I’ve turned to writing mystery, I also consider the other contributions here, including you, as mentors in writing.

    I’ve tried to pay it forward, speaking with aspiring writers about their publishing plans, writing issues, and occasionally, beta reading for them. I ran the writer’s workshop at my local science fiction convention for a few years.

    We’re all this writing endeavor together. Thanks for all the insights, experience and engaging posts you’ve shared here!

    • “Still with you in spirit.” What a nice line, Dale. It’s amazing how someone from the past and someone you’ve never met can mentor you. My high school English teacher had a huge influence on me turning into a commercial writer as I enter my senior years. Her advice on writing was to first get something down on the page and worry about cleaning it up later. That was back in the days of mechanical typewriters, carbon paper, and whiteout. Thank the Good Lord for laptops, MS Word, Spellcheck, Grammarly (but not Autocorrect) – does anyone know how to kill that thing on my text app?

  11. Great post. Garry. When I realized I wanted to write, I had no idea where to start. So, I read the appropriately named WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES by Randy Ingermanson.

    I discovered TKZ in 2013, and you have been my second cup of coffee, slash mentor, ever since. From Nancy Cohen to Joe Moore, from Jordan Dane to PJ Parrish, from Mark Alpert to Joe Hartlaub, from John Gilstrap to Larry Brooks, from Terry, Debbie, Clare, Elaine, Steve, Garry, JSB, and Sue – I’ve learned about POV, openings, dialogue, writing tight, pacing, mood, and shattering moments.

    But the most important lesson of all is that compelling writing can be learned.

    On Monday I was awarded the 2021 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. It’s the annual short story contest sponsored by the North Carolina Writer’s Network. It’s a huge honor and rite of passage for me. But it’s your honor, too, because it’s built upon your experience, accessibility, and generosity.

  12. Thanks for the beautiful post, Gary.

    While maybe not classic mentoring, I enjoy offering design/marketing/publishing advice to other Indies who reach out to me and through my Book Cover Reviews group on Goodreads.

    • I’m happy to hear you liked it, Harald. I never know how a post is going to go over – I write like I talk and sometimes I talk too much. And I write these with the hope that the information is helpful in some way. Thanks for commenting and helping others in this… what’s the word… challenging field 🙂

  13. Amen and Amen to your post! I call mentoring ‘paying it forward’ and try to do that with other less experienced writers. JSB reminded me about Lawrence Block and how I devoured not only his posts on WD but his books. So, I guess he was my first mentor. Then along came Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck who took me under their wings–I learned so much from them.

    And that brings me to the present time where TKZ is my mentor. 🙂 You guys are great to give of your time and expertise on this blog. I know with deadlines it ain’t easy! But thank you.

    • I don’t know who came up with the term “Paying It Forward”, Patricia, but I think it’s one of those sayings that cannot be explained except by what it says. Getting “Amens” like yours is proof in itself that this post had some payment in it.

  14. Great post, Garry, and a wonderful reminder about how many mentors we owe our thanks to. I have a long list!

    As with so many others, I am *hugely* grateful to have found TKZ, my daily mentoring clinic. Led by JSB, all of the contributors and commenters have poured into my writing life. In addition to JSB, I am especially indebted to Debbie Burke for her endorsement of my last novel and her continuing support and encouragement.

    Kathy Ide served as my first editor and mentor. I still turn to Kathy when I have a question or concern about the way forward. My current developmental editor, Mel Hughes, has challenged me through the last couple of years to turn out better prose, and Barbara Curtis has provided additional leadership. Rachel Hills has served to review my work and always makes it better.

    And I have a couple of shelves of books by other mentors who help me with my writing every day.

    • Thank you, Kay! And thanks for listing those who’ve helped you in your journey, including Jim and Debbie from our mentor club. This really is a welcoming site and I feel truly honored to be invited as a contributor.

  15. Aww, Garry. Thank you for the kind words. The post turned out great.

    As for mentors, I need to give a special shout-out to Larry Brooks. He went above and beyond for me—still does—and I’ll always be grateful. If it weren’t for him, it would’ve taken me years longer to get published. Jordan Dane is another mentor and close friend, who goes the extra mile whenever I need advice. I’ve also learned a lot from you, my sweet online hubster, and all the generous writers on this blog, the team members as well as the commenters. The writing community in general never fails to amaze and inspire me.

    • You know, Sue, if you and I weren’t happily married to wonderful spouses who know exactly what’s going on in our online relationship, I’d have made a proposal to you long ago. A decent one, not like the thing I’m about to email you 🙂

  16. Thank you Sue, and to Louis, for the mention here. Always a privilege when a writer you’ve worked with – this includes Debbie Burke, as well – goes on to pay it forward, and it’s great to witness your emerging success!

    • Larry – you’ll be interested to know that my mentoree is devouring your Story Engineering works – thanks to Sue’s recommendation to her.

    • Larry, many Montana writers (including me!) appreciate the comprehensive knowledge you shared at past conferences and eagerly anticipate your return in October.

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