Thursday, September 14, 2006


Without quite knowing how, I've recently taken on the task of mentoring a young writer; a young woman in her late teens, not a relative, who wants to make writing her career. It's a little strange and I'm not sure if I'm doing it right.

I've mentored family before. When my sister's youngest was in grade school I helped him with his writing via email. We had lessons on the importance of using action verbs, how to use similies and metaphors, how to use opinion words vs. fact words, using smell and taste words to make his writing more descriptive. I gave him writing assignments like, "Write a story from the viewpoint of your gym sock" which resulted in a delightful story about being whirled around and around until he got so dizzy he got lost. I never actually critiqued him. My role as his mentor wasn't to make him a "better" writer, it was to show him the joy of expressing himself on paper and nuturing his budding creativity.

With this young woman, it's different. Yes, she wants me to point out where she needs to do more showing and less telling. Or where she might want to rethink her word choice. Or where she needs to strengthen a character's movtivation. But that's just technical stuff. That's the easy part. The second part of what she's looking for is not so easy. At least, not for me. Because what she really wants from me is my opinion on the saleability of her writing. Is it ready to be sent to an editor? Would an editor buy it? Would a reader?

I am reluctant to give my opinion on that because, well... my opinion is only my opinion. I 've read manuscripts I thought were wonderful that have collected nothing but rejections and, conversely, read published works that made me wonder what the editor was smoking.

So, any of you out there who mentor young writers... How do you handle the question of how saleable a manuscript is or how good the writer is?


Helen Brenna said...

Candace, I'm not mentoring anyone, but I am in a critique group. I would tell her exactly what you wrote in your blog. That you don't know what makes something saleable.

What about suggesting she enter some contests? That'll give her an objective (supposedly) indication of where her writing is in relation to everything else out there.

Debra Dixon said...

Candace-- I do currently have someone I'm mentoring. She's my age and quite savvy but just didn't have someone in her life kicking her butt and cheerleading while simultaneously offering the constructive and intensive writing review that a mentor will give.

After working together for a while I did finally say to her that I wasn't certain I was helping. I wasn't making her work more publishable. Then I suggested she was writing in the wrong genre because I could clearly "hear" a different voice trying to come through. Amazingly, she actually did read a lot in the subgenre I was "hearing" but hadn't thought of writing that. She's switched genres and has now gotten great feedback from an editor and a couple of contests.

I can see the difference in her work as she's found her true voice and her story medium. Maybe I should have said something soon because we worked together for about a year before I could bring myself to broach the "publishability" issue. Who was I to make such pronouncement?

I certainly prefaced my comments with all the standard disclaimers because we know how this business works. A book will be rejected 17 times and then bought in a lovely deal because the book hit the right editor's desk at the right time.

Maybe you can take the approach that while you can't tell her what is publishable, you can distinguish good solid polished work from work that isn't ready for an editor's desk ??

Good on you for mentoring a young new writer!

Betina Krahn said...

Great idea, Helen. Contests that give feedback can be very helpful.

Candace, I, too, am squeamish about offering judgments on manuscripts, at least of the will/won't sell variety. But I do think it's fair of you to judge the ms against your own considerable knowledge of the craft and the genres. AND whether or not it holds together as a story or holds your interest.

It might help to stress that there is no book, published or not, that can't be improved. She ought to continue to work on her craft (we all do and we've been published for years!) even as she shops the book around. You can probably help her find ways to improve it, even if you think it's really good to begin with.

Lucky girl. She's in good hands!


anne frasier said...

i also thought helen's idea was a good one.

i enjoy helping struggling writers because it makes me feel i have some purpose beyond my own little world, but it can be tough when the writer obviously has a long, long, LONG way to go -- and i doubt she will ever achieve her goal. that's a very sad situation. i would never reveal my true feelings, because the result could be horrible. and you never know when something might suddenly click for someone. but there have been some i knew would never sell -- and i just nod and smile and feel horrible about it all the way around. but often it seems that those people really aren't focused on selling. it's more that they just want to socialize and participate in something, and they usually move on to something else after a while.

Melissa said...

Contests are always a good thing. And sometimes those charity auctions give you an opportunity to get your stuff in front of an editor, agent or best selling author so you can see whether you're on track or not, too.

Melissa n said...

As a former high school teacher, I agree with being honest--just don't be brutal. Encourage contests, otehr writing groups and practice, practice, practice.

One thing I would also encourage is to get her into investigating the business side of writing. Have her research what publications might suitable for her writing as well as how an author has to self-promote. Encourage her to go to a conference or a workshop if appropriate.