What I Learned From my Mentor

February 16, 2015 | By | 21 Replies More

photo.jpgI’d been lost in the wilderness of writing for decades. Scraps of writing on torn-off bits of paper were clogging up drawers. Thousands more bits and pieces sat, ignored, on my computer, some of which dated back to 2002. Assignments from a home-study writing course were never completed and barely started ‘how to’ books littered the bookcase. I kept losing heart, putting my writing to one side, and then trying again because the story absolutely needed to be written.

Inevitably, I went into my novel arse roads round. There was no plan, a vague plot, character lists and numbered scenes were absent and ‘flow’ meant nothing to me. There were lots of restarts, false starts and ‘falling aparts’. I could see my story in there, but structurally, it was a bit of a mess. This is where my mentor came in.

  • She taught me to keep going, even if I hit problems. Regular mentorship sessions provided regular support for questions and advice which kept me positive.
  • She went through my novel with a fine tooth comb, pointing out gaps, confusions or overkill. This taught me how to take constructive criticism and how to become less possessive over my work. I had to take things I didn’t want to hear on board and at times made a decision to go with her experience even when I had qualms. As her advice turned into a much improved piece of work, I became more able to let go of my writing.
  • She showed me how to step back from the book and see the first time reader’s perspective. She highlighted my tunnel vision, something many of us ‘newbie’ writers suffer from. Where I thought I was ‘showing, not telling’ she explained that I sometimes assumed too much prior knowledge because I knew my story and characters so well
  • She taught me structuring skills. I began to see for myself where the flow stopped, or faltered, began to recognise weird jumps in time. As I rewrote things that ‘almost but didn’t quite work’ I was learning to edit, how to develop events and convey purpose more effectively. I became confident in making changes to better develop events or convey purpose both in response to her advice and later, off my own back.
  • She taught me patience. I learned (reluctantly at first) that a novel wasn’t suddenly going to be finished in a day or a week or even a month. I mentally prepared myself for the long haul and I accepted when the writing was slow or my brain needed time off. I was no longer afraid that I’d fall into the old habit of not returning to it and was able to put it aside as needed.
  • I learned how to work to deadlines. Once I’d told her that I was sending the next part, I wanted to stick to that commitment, also eager to get my work back and edit it. It was also sent unless there was a legitimate reason. I became far more self-disciplined.
  • I learned that a lot of the above problems stemmed from my not planning enough initially. As a result my novel ended up a bit like a jigsaw, having to take out all the pieces that didn’t fit and find where they did belong. Thought I think the jigsaw method will always be part of what I do (I secretly enjoyed it, felt like I’d set and solved my own puzzle), I’ve already made solid, detailed, plans for my next novel and several short stories.
  • I learned that the theory of writing only truly reveals itself in application, that is, that you really do learn by doing. My mentor assured me that all the starting and stopping I’d done before was natural, that I was learning what worked and what didn’t. As I worked away on my novel, I finally believed this. I could see all the separate variables of writing coming together holistically to create the story.

Make sure you find the right mentor. My first mentor was good but she didn’t like my genre. My second mentor, Clio Gray, from HISSAC, was a published, award winning, author and I read some of her work before I decided to go with her (it’s fantastic). She was able to look at my work both as a reader and a writer which is why I learned so much from her.

I don’t mean to make it sound as if this was an easy process. I had to work harder than I’ve ever worked before, and overcome reluctance to ‘mess with my baby’. It was worth it; my novel is finished, edited and proof read and I’m now approaching agents.

I am sure my next novel will be much easier because of mentorship but I don’t think it will be a walk in the park. I certainly expect to be swearing at the computer just as much. It’s just that I will be starting from half way up the writing hill this time, instead of knee deep in the moat at the bottom.

Lyn G Farrell is currently querying agents and publishers with her first novel ‘The Wacky Man’. She has been highly commended by Writer’s Forum for her short story ‘Absence’ and her flash fiction story ‘Journey’s was published online by Every Writer magazine. She has written and presented academic research on ‘The myth of the digital native’ and ‘Social media and online identity’

Follow Lynn on twitter @FarrellWrites

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Category: On Writing, Women Writers

Comments (21)

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  1. Thanks for sharing your learning curve with us. I had a similar mentor and she taught me much about streamlining my writing. I’m so grateful. We actually bartered, and I cooked dinner and baked desserts for her in exchange for her time. Something to consider if you can’t afford the services of a copyeditor, proofer, or graphic artist. People are surprisingly open to it.

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      That’s a great idea. There is a similar project, I believe, where women mentor other women for free. I think the link is below in the comments or on the Women Writers Women’s Books website.

  2. Thanks for a very interesting article, Lyn. I haven’t had a mentor but I did find a small, selective creativ writing course focused on the novel very useful indeed. This was the University of East Anglia/Guardian Certificate Course based in London. But even the best of courses don’t provide an expert reading of your whole book. When a straight-talking friend read mine she said ‘nice writing but this isn’t a novel and never will be.’ Keen to prove her wrong I rejigged and added and subtracted until it definitely was a novel! It is is being published later this year. I am very grateful to my friend for that hard-to-take assessment. She would make a good mentor.

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’ve just been accepted onto the UEA Intermediate Fiction Writing course and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m still very much learning the craft and every course I take, I learn more and another ‘penny drops’ as it were.
      There was a whole Facebook thread on the advantages and disadvantages of using friends and family as BETA readers. I found that, in the main, I needed to go outside of these for honest book reviews, but as you also say, two friends have been really fantastic readers and given very honest feedback. I’m waiting to hear from a publisher who asked to see the whole MS after the initial submission. However, the friend who read it last (and is an English professor) has mentioned some things that I now need to think over and address. It’s always worth the editing and rewriting – if you want it to be the best it can.

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      And good luck for the publishing too. Fantastic!

  3. I rode along side you in my own journey. I, too floundered, had false starts, endless rewrites, until my mentor took those bits and pieces and suggested a common thread that brought together the scattered stories of my life. I, too, am shopping agents, but happy with a complete manuscript and a sense of accomplishment that I would not have without the help of my mentor.

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      Thanks for sharing that Kathleen. I think many new writers find it easy to lose confidence and get ‘lost’. Mentorship is one of the best supports around for writers at all levels.

  4. “When” not “If” Lyn! Sharing your story and also the information on the mentoring program is very encouraging. We’re all in the same boat when we’re starting out – I also had luck with helpful emails back and forth with HISSAC. Along the same lines, coaching can provide support and feedback that is lacking from a fledgling writer’s friends and family. Best of luck when your book comes out!

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      Thanks Suzanne – I will say ‘when, when, when’ – my new mantra! Glad you found HISSAC useful too. It’s open to membership for all and runs short story competitions too, so hopefully more writers will find them as useful as I did.

  5. Kate Walter says:

    I could not have written my memoir without the support and guidance of my mentor and her weekly writing workshop. I also hired a book doctor to
    read the entire manuscript and then I rewrote and workshopped it again.
    The entire process took years. I sold my memoir without an agent to Heliotrope Books and I’m very happy with my publisher.

    Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak
    & Healing comes out this June.very exciting.

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      Congratulations on your publishing success. Mentors are wonderful and I just wonder how many people they’ve taken from ‘terrified newbie’ to ‘confident writer’.
      I should perhaps have stated in my article what I meant by ‘long haul’. As you say, it took me years to write. It wasn’t a quick thing but it was a quality thing. And I think the more you see the gleam of the polished story shining out, the less you want to rush it.

  6. Thank you for the resource and information. It is much appreciated.

  7. Lyn Farrell says:

    This website was posted on the Facebook page under my post regarding this blog. I thought it would be useful to many women who can’t, at this stage, afford paid mentorship. It sounds like an excellent project run by professional literary women. I would use it myself had I not found a mentor that I’ve worked so well with and what to continue to work with.


  8. Sharon says:

    Thank you for your blog. I too have felt the same way while working on my memoir. We all have to learn how to write and the process for putting together a book even when it is about us is never as intuitive as we expect it to be. Writing a book may become faster as we write more books, but that is as you say because with each new attempt we have tackled more and more of the problems and have more resources whether a mentor or our own experience. Good luck finding an agent I hope it doesn’t take you to long, but that too is a new process to learn.

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      Sharon, you are so right about the agent process – I’ve never even though about it before. I found the writing ‘cv’ fun to do, the cover letter took a long time but I sourced free examples on the internet (lots of good ones there) and adapted mine from some of the ones I liked best. All good stuff. The synopsis however, gave me such tremendous difficulty – what to leave in?, what to omit? I had many attempts and then asked my mentor for help. As I hopes, the first two were fine (cover letter needed minor improvements). The synopsis she saw needed lots of help and showed me how to work it better. Seeing a ‘before’ and ‘after’ really helped and I’ve kept in for when I write my next novel.

  9. Lauren says:

    Thanks for sharing your tips–I’ve learned a few of these myself with my latest revision–especially the jigsaw bit! Congrats and good luck, and I too look forward to seeing your novel in print!

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      Thanks very much Lauren. When I first started the ‘jigsaw’ part of the revisions, I found it frustrating. But then I began to feel like a sleuth, rummaging through my notes thinking ‘I remember something I wrote where she said to him…..’ It was great to find the piece I needed and ‘marry’ it to the perfect chapter. The discovery of unexpectedly enjoyable tasks was another thing I learned!

  10. Thanks Lyn, this is very encouraging. Recognised myself in the first paragraph which means that none of us are alone in our struggles. The very best of luck to you as you move forwards and congratulations on completing your first novel.

    • Lyn Farrell says:

      Thanks Tracey

      I’m glad it’s encouraging as that is exactly what I hoped for – it’s very much a ‘never give up’ message. I look at writing like learning guitar (or instrument). At first you find a few notes, then a few chords, rhythms etc, then – a long time later – you find that you can put them together in new ways that really give you a sense of excitement! I’m there, some of the time, with my writing but still at the chord stage with guitar!

  11. Carol Brearley says:

    interesting article. Good luck with finding an agent & I look forward to seeing your novel in print.

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