Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Melody Carlson is an award-winning, best-selling author of nearly two hundred books for teens, children, and adults, including the Diary of a Teenage Girl series, the Secret Life of Samantha McGregor series, the True Color Series, and Notes from a Spinning Planet series. Melody has two grown sons and lives in central Oregon with her husband, where they enjoy skiing, hiking, gardening, camping, and biking.

What’s a Mentor to Do?

I spent several hours editing an unpublished writer’s work today. Not for money, and not because I didn’t have anything else to do (because I do) and not because she’s a friend (although she is) but simply because I believe in her as a writer and a person and because I wanted to help.

As a somewhat seasoned author, I totally understand the need for mentoring other less experienced writers. I remember how it felt trying to break into what felt like the locked-up and even hostile world of publishing. I remember the frustration—back then I collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper my bathroom. And I vividly recall the confusion—what did publishers really want anyway? I also remember the pull-your-hair-out aggravation—why does an editor say he really likes it and then rejects it? Anyone who has attempted to write and publish knows exactly what I’m talking about. You need very thick skin and some understanding and helpful friends. Thankfully I had both.

And so I try to be open to opportunities to reach out to other struggling writers, but at the same time, I realize that helping new writers can be a risky business. In fact, my husband usually gives me a pretty stiff reminder whenever I mention that I’m about to help someone. It’s not that he’s selfish—he’s actually the kind of guy who will give you the boots off his feet, he’s literally done that before. But he’s also protective of me and he knows how helping other writers can backfire. It can be like picking your way through a minefield in a blindfold. For instance, you can take time from your packed schedule and spend an afternoon doing what you feel is a thoughtful critique and the next thing you know you’re getting your head blasted off. Admittedly, I’m a little cautious.

So what’s a mentor to do? You can’t just give up. There are a lot of good writers out there who need some encouragement. So how do you go about it? For starters I’ve learned to practice some discernment. The first thing I try to determine is whether a writer is more interested in writing or in getting published. And if it’s the latter, I politely decline to get involved. Instead I try to refer them to what I think might be helpful resources like writer’s market guides, writers’ conferences, critique groups, writing books, etc.. Because if I don’t sense an honest love of writing, an appreciation of story, an understanding of characters…there’s not much I can do to help them anyway. It’s either there or it’s not.

And what I’ve learned is that if a writer is only interested in publishing, getting his or her name in print, a shiny new book in the local bookstore…he or she can quickly turn against you. When someone cares more about being an “author” than writing, you can be in for some unpleasant surprises. For instance, you might think you’re giving some good editorial direction but it’s perceived as a “personal attack.” Or a suggestion for a rewrite is misunderstood as your attempt to put up a stumbling block. Before long, hurt feelings and misconceptions can lead to ruined friendships and a whole lot of grief. It’s just not worth it.

When I determine that a writer is working hard and seriously wants to improve her craft and 1) is not trying to get me to refer her to my agent, 2) not trying to get an endorsement from me, and 3) not expecting that networking will get her published, I try to assess whether or not I can be of any help. First of all I have to decide if I realistically have the time. Next I determine whether or not I have the right kind of expertise to be of real help. For instance, if someone writes fantasy, I wouldn’t know where to start, but maybe I know someone who does. Then I try to discern if there’s a deeper connection than just writing going on—it might be spiritual or related to something I care about or a friendship that really matters. And finally, I pray that God will direct me. And a green light usually comes with a tangible sense of peace.

And that’s when mentoring is really fun and rewarding. Oh, sure it might involve a little more work than expected, but when it’s right and when you see someone else succeeding at something you love, it’s so worth it. I plan to continue mentoring as long as I can. And I encourage anyone else—no matter what level you’re at—to do the same.

What Matters Most
Sixteen-year-old Maya Stark has a lot to sort through. She could graduate from high school early if she wants to. She’s considering it, especially when popular cheerleader Vanessa Hartman decides to make her life miserable–and Maya’s ex-boyfriend Dominic gets the wrong idea about everything.

To complicate matters even more, Maya’s mother will be released from prison soon, and she’ll want Maya to live with her again. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. And when Maya plays her dad’s old acoustic guitar in front of an audience, she discovers talents and opportunities she never expected. Faced with new options, Maya must choose between a “normal” life and a glamorous one. Ultimately, she has to figure out what matters most.


lynnrush said...

Thanks for this post. Very helfpul.

Diary of a Teenage Gril sounds really good. I just added it to my "to be read" list.

Have a great day.