I have a soft spot in my heart (some would say in my head, as well) for new writers. Anyone who wants to chart a path in a career that by definition includes more rejection than acceptance deserves both my sympathy and my support.
[Publishing industry joke:
Q: How does a book get into print?
A: Someone forgets to say "no."]
Though I hardly think I've "made it" -- primarily because my mantel is entirely devoid of a single Oscar statuette and the Pulitzer people never call -- I'm happy to be of assistance to those who want my humble help.
I believe it is important for writers to find their place in a community of like-minded people. Ideally, members of that community should be at varying levels of career accomplishment.
• Some should be your peers – people with whom you share a common bond of reaching for a common goal.
• Some should be promising writers whom you can assist with advice and encouragement. We teach what we need to learn and I subscribe to the belief that we should help others avoid making our mistakes.
• And some should be patrons who are in a position to help and encourage you. This not only ensures the ongoing realization that one person will never know it all, but it also paves the path we take with pearls of gratitude and makes us more willing to mentor others when the opportunity arises.
When I conduct writing workshops, I am often surprised at the number of people who either a.) mob me and expect me to be their single shining source to All Things Published or b.) are terrified to voice a single question.
People in the “a” camp are delusional. I’m not an agent or publisher. I’m not going to take their manuscript, edit it on the spot, sell their magnum opus, or publish their book. And though I make a special effort to be approachable and available, I really don’t appreciate it when the “a people” follow me to the bathroom… Boundaries, people. Boundaries.
People in the “b” camp, however, do themselves and their writing a disservice. I realize that talking to people you don’t know can be scary, but putting yourself out there is part and parcel of the writer’s world. You might as well start by asking your question and getting an answer.
If you find a mentor – someone who is willing to offer advice and suggest ways to improve your craft, there are some do’s and don’t’s of making the most of their goodwill.
To illustrate the “DO’s,” I present an exhibit from this morning’s in-box (an update from a writer I've been offering advice to for the past several months):
"I love following your Facebook fanpage. You always have the most informative links. Thanks.
Color me pleasantly pleased right off the bat. There’s no need to grovel or shovel heaps of unnecessary accolades, but a few words that lets your mentor know you are invested in what he or she is doing makes that person willing to spend a few more moments to listen to what you have to say.
It’s OK to Brag a Bit
Today I had my first "assignment" from the [local paper] printed. I did the local story on wedding receptions for the bridal pull-out. It was a big comprehensive project, and I loved the challenge. I have been steadily writing, mostly for [redacted]. What is nice is that I write one article and sell it to other markets which increases my pay. I have completed the rough draft of my YA novel and am in the editing stages.
Bragging is especially relevant if your mentor has helped you break into a market or has given you specific advice that has furthered your writing career.
Make Them Feel Useful
I am excited to attend my first SCBWI conference in Lansing in May. I hope to … find out as much as I can about the [agents and editors that will be there] first, as you suggested. Anyway, just giving an update. Maybe you're tired of them, but I really do count you as a huge influence on this new venture in my life. Thanks again.
Tell your mentors that you’re listening to what they advised and explain how it’s working out for you. Don’t go overboard, but we all appreciate validation.
Keep it Short
Whether you drop a line of appreciation or a request for information, brevity is always appreciated. This particular writer e-mails me only on occasion. Sometimes she has a word of thanks for something I suggested that panned out. Sometimes she asks a question about the industry. She never wears out her welcome, however, and her messages are always brief -- so I always enjoy hearing from her.
When you find a mentor who is willing to work with you (or who is at least willing to open your e-mails or take your phone calls), be sure to avoid these “DON’T’s”:
• Don’t Get Greedy. Don’t expect the person giving you advice to personally recommend you to her agent, to set you up with his manager, to read, comment on, and edit your manuscript, to write back immediately, or to invite you over for a pajama party.
• Don’t Pimp Your Mentor. Guard your mentor’s contact information as if your life depended upon it. Always ask permission before passing it on to other people.
• Don’t Send Spam. Inundating someone’s in-box with what can only politely be termed “crap” is a sure way to lose any goodwill you may have gained in your initial contact.
• Don’t Whine. Working in any creative field is difficult. I guarantee that for every bad experience you have, your mentor has at least 10 that can top it. Whine to your cat, your dog, your spouse, or your Imaginary Friend. But when it comes to your mentor: don’t.
• Oh yeah – one more thing: Don’t Follow Her to the Bathroom. Really. Let her pee in peace. I’m not kidding.
Do you have any mentors who have helped you in your writing endeavors? Comment below and publicly thank them. What is the best thing that someone ever did that made a difference in your dreams? I'd love to hear about it.