Critique partners and groups can be a great encouragement to your writing but by and large, the members share a similar level of knowledge and skill. Where do you look for help at a more professional level?
The answer is mentoring. At their best, a mentor will be your guide through the minefield of completing your first or subsequent books, provide answers to your questions, help you through the “stuck” periods when the screen stays stubbornly blank, and be there for you through the ups and downs of professional life. At worst, a mentor could try to shape your writing so it sounds more like theirs, or create a dependency that does neither of you any long term good.
When Romance Writers of Australia took over the Valerie Parv Award http://www.romanceaustralia.com/vpa.html from the Australian chapter of Romance Writers of America ten years ago, I was pleased to continue as final judge and mentor the winner for the year they hold the award. This involves a learning curve for both of us, as each winner has different needs and expectations from the process. Some want to work on their winning manuscript, others to explore issues such as working with agents and dealing with contracts, usually it’s a mix of the two.
One of the greatest compliments I received came from Kelly Hunter http://www.kellyhunter.net/About%20Kelly.html , a rising star among Harlequin authors, who said in the time we’d worked together, she appreciated that I’d never tried to change her voice. Given that her voice is unique and special, that would be a crime anyway. But it’s key that your mentor doesn’t expect you to write as they would. H.G.Wells notoriously observed that the greatest drive in all the world isn’t love or sex, but the desire to change someone else’s copy. It takes a strong person to recognise when changes would make your work different, not necessarily better.
Nor do you want a mentor who nitpicks. Spelling or grammar can all be fixed later. The main focus should be on the writing. What story are you telling? Is it coming across as you intend? Are the characters consistent and likable? Do we share their emotional journeys? How can you fix these elements if they’ve gone off track? I encourage my mentees to specify the areas they want to work on. Being a mentor is about giving a service. My satisfaction comes from seeing them blossom and grow, and sharing their joy when they finally get “the call” from an editor offering a publishing contract.
Apart from winning the VPA, how can you find the mentor for you? I work with a very few promising writers through my MentorXpress program via my website http://www.valerieparv.com You can check with your state writing centre, as many offer mentoring programs. Then there’s Writing Australia, a new umbrella organisation of writing centres. Their recently announced Unpublished Manuscript Award offers a $10,000 first prize and $2,000 toward a mentor of your choice. Together with distinguished literary figures, Mark Macleod and Peter Bishop, I’ll be judging this award which closes on October 13, 2011. Enter at the Writing Australia website http://writingaustralia.org.au/events/event/unpublished-manuscript-award/
Who was or is your greatest writing influence? What tips on this do you have for other writers?
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