Writing Mentor

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Note: Rachelle Gardner was called out of the office unexpectedly today and was unable to offer us her regular Wednesday wisdom. Michelle will pinch hit for her next week, and then Rachelle will be back. In the meantime, we can continue to chew on the idea of mentors for a second day. 🙂

A member of our blog community recently took a trip to Europe and was able to attend a writing event at the same time. Here’s what she wrote:

“One class was with a well-known writer who has written over 30 books along with screenplays and has filmed numerous documentaries and was nominated for an Academy Award.  I didn’t know that this would be a writing seminar.  I thought it would be a creativity seminar.  Long story short, this author loved my writings that I was doing in class plus my background and told me that he/she would like to extend an offer to mentor me.  This author’s rate is very reasonable to say the least.  People we both have in common wanted this author to meet and talk wth me so this is a legitimate offer.  I was shocked and amazed to say the least.  I don’t know where this author will have the time but I still have doubts.  I am not sure what questions I should be asking.”

dreamstime_xs_44366084What an interesting opportunity. Often when we hear about someone charging for mentoring warning bells go off. We usually think of the writing mentor relationship as one in which money does not change hands, but let’s look at this more closely. (I’ve chosen to use the masculine pronoun for the mentor even though the writer did not specify gender.)

This author has the experience and critical chops to claim writing mentor status. He is well-known and well-respected. Too often the type of author offering mentoring or coaching is the one who may have only a couple published books under his or her belt and needs to find a way to monetize a fledgling career. You need a writing mentor who has the kind of career of which you dream.

The mentor identified one writer in his class whose writing intrigued him and privately approached her. He did not offer a “mentoring package” to everyone in the class. You don’t want to pay for some kind of mentor-mill.

The author’s rates are reasonable. Is there anything wrong with putting a monetary value on one’s time? It certainly weeds out the freeloaders. I’ve always suggested a quid pro quo for those seeking a writing mentor. If a young writer wanted to approach an experienced well-known writer, I’ve often advised that they think of a way to make it a win-win situation, say, helping the author with marketing efforts (like stuffing envelopes for a mailing campaign) or even helping maintain the author database in exchange for the guidance and wisdom of a writing mentor relationship. So why not just money? It’s probably not a traditional mentor relationship– which usually does not involve money. It’s more like a coaching relationship but that’s just semantics, right?

It works as long as the expectations are discussed and agreed upon in advance. Here are some of the questions I’d ask:

  • What would this look like?
  • How often would we meet? (Or talk on the phone?)
  • Would I work with you, directly, and not with a colleague?
  • What would the meetings cover?
  • Would there be certain work milestones I must complete? (Homework)
  • How long might the relationship continue?
  • Does the arrangement include manuscript analysis? Manuscript publishing placement help?
  • Would the mentor make introductions to appropriate networks or industry experts?
  • Would the mentor lend his name to the project for possible endorsement when and if he thinks it is ready?
  • How many other writers does he mentor? Would he be willing to let me talk to one or two?

Without knowing more I’d recommend proceeding cautiously and making sure that everything is understood in advance. The trick is to get expectations spelled out without insulting the mentor’s offer or looking like you are too high maintenance.  But, if nothing else, what a wonderful compliment.

So what kind of questions would you ask if this opportunity were offered to you? Is it wrong to charge for what has always been considered a gift? Do you have mentor? What does that relationship look like?

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  1. The first thought that comes to mind is…yuck. I’ve done mentoring in both engineering and welding, and the thought of asking for money up front just flat makes my skin crawl. And expecting or accepting a quid pro quo is tacky.

    * You don’t DO that. Everyone who’s achieved success in any career has had a lot of helping hands, and mentoring is the best way to pay it forward. Mentoring is what we owe. Mentoring is grace, freely given as grace is channeled through us.

    * Maybe that’s something I missed, though. Maybe I need to go back and read the Gospels again, and find out what kind of stipend Jesus asked of the Apostles’ families. Did Peter’s family fork over the biggest, so he was first among equals?

    * In the end, mentoring is all about love. Mentoring for money is something akin to prostitution.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I hear you, Andrew. That was my first impression but in a tough market people have to pay the bills. As I ruminated, I decided if the guy has the chops it could be a valuable coaching investment.

      For instance, I paid a business coach to go over all my systems and grill me on my practices. It was money well spent.

      And you disliked the idea of quid pro quo. I disagree. So many of my very successful friends have people approach them weekly seeking a mentor. I think that mentor-seek out of the blue may be gutsy but it is too easy. I think the person seeking a mentor must become “grasshopper” first.

      • I have no problem with coaching or teaching for a fee to pay the bills; that’s a valuable service to offer. What I inferred from the situation you described was that this was a successful, established author with a steady revenue stream from his books. Charging a fee, even a modest one for mentoring seemed to me to be venal, something like J. Paul Getty’s famous pay phone that his guests would be compelled to use. When every professional action is weighed as to its potential for producing income, something is lost, both in the character of the individual and in society as a whole. We NEED a certain amount of pro bono work, and its benefits accrue perhaps more to the donor than to the recipient. As regards a quid pro quo, the best one under most circumstances is to pay it forward, and to take the example of generosity as a touchstone for one’s own life.
        (There are some places where specific qpq’s are appropriate…I’m one, actually! if someone would come up to the house to talk to me about writing and get my counsel, I’d gladly give it, but with fading strength, it would take a lot out of me. If that individual offered to help with the dogs, I’d sure be grateful, and I wouldn’t turn him or her down.)

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        The one thing you cannot take for granted any longer, Andrew, is that a successful author (even with 30 books under his belt) is making enough to live on. this market has been gruesome lately and authors are taking the brunt of it. Several authors are having to supplement their income or take a “day job.”
        But I do like what you are saying. There is something honorable about what you called mentoring grace.

  2. I have a mentor–in the encourager sense, not the edit-my-work sense. The exchange of money would invalidate the encouragement. Money can buy false praise.
    For the mentoring you describe, Wendy, I have just one question to add: Lord God, did you bring this person into my life to develop and discipline my writing ministry?

  3. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Or the makings of a perfect romance novel. 🙂 I don’t know. Right or wrong? Is mentoring the same as teaching? I think if one is charging for services rendered, the term coaching or teaching would better apply. But people pay for classes all the time. And time is valuable. Is it a way of making a living? At the ACFW Conference, we have the chance to pay for someone to evaluate our MS … and give us advise. We are paying for a service, mentoring, opinion, coaching. Because I don’t have a direct mentor or coach, I took that option … it’s worth it to me. Is that different? Goodness … I just don’t know. I’d almost say the answer is in the hands of the one who either chooses to pay or refuses. If they pay, they are quite possibly making a statement that the training is worth every dime. I’ll enjoy learning from the input today.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Perhaps this is the issue: “the answer is in the hands of the one who either chooses to pay or refuses.”

      Wise.

  4. What an interesting situation. I’ve never thought of mentoring as something to be paid for. In all my experiences it’s offered, or requested, and ideally entered into with prayer. I loved your idea of the menthe offering to help a mentor in some way. That’s also a learning experience.

    It seems to me this author was offering to coach the writer. You often hear about life coaches, who charge a given amount to help people with their lives. That, I could see paying for.

    The flip side is, this writer has the opportunity to learn from a well-respected author. I’d love to hear how this story turns out. 🙂

  5. Well, that has never happened to me. I did pay Sally Stuart to do a manuscript evaluation once, but that feels different. I would say, ask all the questions that Wendy suggested and pray long and hard about this. Is this something that you have wanted and seen a need for or just an idea that this author put into your head? Hard to say, I’m not sure what I’d do.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Yes. Pray long and hard. The fact that this writer hesitated and wanted to seek our wisdom might be a sign this is not cut and dried.

  6. I guess one of the things that really bothers me in this concept of paid mentoring is the implicit acceptance of the attitude that one only values that for which one pays. It completely removes grace from the equation, and flies in the face of the greatest ‘mentoring’ there is…our salvation, for which we can never pay.

    Paid coaching or editing services are fine, offered on a come-one, come all basis…but if someone offered me something ‘exclusive’ like what you’ve described, I’d walk away, because in the end writing’s about values…and I would not want these values in any way imprinted on my soul.

  7. Sheila King says:

    Along with the other red flags, it seems the distance would be an issue. Unless you travel to Europe frequently it seems you would never again cross paths in person with the mentor.

    It is such a compliment to be noticed and offered mentorship, however, so a big congratulations to our fellow writer. That should be a boost that keeps you going for a looooong time! Hope to read your work in print very soon!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      We don’t know where the mentor lives. Many American writers travel to exotic writers conferences. I’ve long thought about the famous Maui conference. 🙂

  8. Is it wrong to charge for what has always been considered a gift?
    Nope.
    If the mentor offered free services, I’d wonder what the catch was, especially as a female, if the mentor was male.
    When I was on my trip through the Med on a wee boat with my mom, there was nightly entertainment. Mom and I are not the types to go clubbing. That came as a shock, didn’t it? Anyway, one of the concerts offered was by an opera singer, and where we live, that comes a few times a year, if that.
    I sat in the front row, and cried.
    She was AMAZING!
    *
    I remember going to a vocal workshop and watching the leaders work with the singers. One thing that someone said stuck out in my mind, “you’re not here to learn how to sing, you all know how to do that. You’re here to learn how to do it better”.
    If an opera singer offered to mentor me, and did not mention payment, I would still expect to discuss payment.
    But, if they offered to mentor me for free, in a master class, in a studio, I would take it. After a long discussion regarding expectations, etc.
    There’s always that one student or colleague for whom the mentoring is a gift in and of itself, for both.
    I’ve had writing mentors over the years, and have learned a lot from each of them. Since they gave freely of their time and wisdom, when the time comes, I will do that also.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I love this– “I’ve had writing mentors over the years, and have learned a lot from each of them. Since they gave freely of their time and wisdom, when the time comes, I will do that also.”

    • I’m with you, Jennifer, in the giving to others what’s been given to me in terms of writing.

  9. Mentor vs. coach…that’s just semantics. Yes, but semantics matter. We writers in particular understand and embrace and champion that. When we say coach, I think of Holley Gerth and her life coaching. It’s akin to counseling, and that I would pay for. But mentor seems to imply a friendship, a mother-daughter or father-son style of relationship. If I have to pay for a frienship, then how is it really friendship?

    You list some excellent questions, Wendy, but the idea of a possible endorsement brings me back to the question of paying for the relationship. If the writer pays the mentor for services rendered including an endorsement, how valid is that endorsement? (Perhaps that happens now and I’m simply unaware.) I don’t have a mentor and would happily embrace one (a female 🙂 ), but payment? Awkward.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      No. You are right about the endorsement. (That’s why this community is so important– the wisdom of many.)

      Good thoughts.

  10. Lori says:

    Interesting post and comments. I agree that this potential author was given a wonderful compliment by both the author and “the people we both have in common” that she mentioned in her quote to you.

    And I agree with Jennifer’s comments.

    Based on my prior non-writing experience, I think this potential author would want to make sure that none of her work would be plagarized and end up in a book that this author/mentor is working on.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I don’t think any author needs to worry about having his work taken. Creativity is not transferrable. Even if someone took an idea they would never write it like the original author would write it.

      Yes?

      • Lori says:

        I see your point about creativity not being transferrable and that the original author would write it differently.

  11. I actually do have two mentors (both established authors, one in fiction, one in non-fiction), and the only ‘payment’ they ask is this – don’t quit!

  12. Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Wendy. Your questions about expectations is excellent.

    I think that paying the author for his / her time, expertise, and experience is not at all unreasonable, although I would have a negative gut reaction to an author who appeared to be hawking his wares (such as offering a mentor package to his students as an add-on, as you said in your example).

    Currently, I do not have a mentor per se, but I am in the middle of an MFA in Creative Writing program and so one could say that my professors mentored me. They do so in varying degrees. From that experience, I would add that the writer needs to have a trial period with the mentor to see how they fit together. This past semester, I had two professors who were wonderful in their generosity and in their openness to my style of writing, even though it was not the same as theirs. One, in particular, would read my work then a) tell me what he felt really worked in the piece, b) tell me what was confusing or seemed unnecessary, c) challenge me about why I was doing something (e.g. “Why do you want this character to be a Luddite?How does that contribute to the plot or to his character?”). Most importantly, I feel, was that he would discuss the characters, the plot, and the overall writing, make some suggestions, then say, “But I don’t want this to be my writing. See where your imagination takes you.” He was kind but tough, and he always made me rethink (not always change the writing, but at least know why I DID need that character to be a Luddite). He knew how to write and he knew how to teach. I didn’t have conferences with the other professor, but her feedback in seminars and on papers was quite helpful and enlightening. In addition, this summer she has sent me emails about literary writing contests, some info on publications seeking submissions, and internship opportunities and has given me her personal email address so I can stay in touch with her for feedback, guidance, and / or recommendations (academic).

    On the other hand, I had a fiction professor the semester before who was an award-winning author. At least one of her novels had been on the NY Times Bestsellers list. Also, she was a kind person who was generous with her time. She had an open-door policy and encouraged her students to come talk with her about their writing. While I appreciated all of that,she and I had great difficulty communicating. I took her feedback seriously but often felt I was stumbling in the dark trying to understand what she meant or wanted. Her comments were vague and when I asked for clarification, generally, she couldn’t seem to be any more specific. We both tried and tried, becoming increasingly frustrated. Part of the problem was that my novel is a fantasy and the professor has never read fantasy and dismissed the genre with the statement, “It’s just all dragons and faeries and things.”

    While it is unlikely that an author would offer to mentor a writer who wrote in a genre that the author did not relate to, even if the author writes in the same genre as the writer, the mentor’s ability to teach and a good rapport between the author and the writer are crucial to the relationship. That’s why I recommend a trial period in order to see if the mentor and writer are suited for each other.

    Blessings!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Such valuable insight, Christine. And yes, about the communication. I have witnessed that dynamic many times– missing the connection.

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Thank you, Wendy.

        Thanks and many blessings to you for all the ways you mentor me through this blog.

  13. I would think payment for services rendered (coaching, counseling, mentoring, advising) would be the norm, and those of you who have “free” mentoring are the exceptions. Of course, nothing is truly free in life. Perhaps no money changes hands, but there will always be a cost paid. Perhaps the cost will be in how the mentored person’s creativity is channeled, more into the manner of the mentor than it might have otherwise been.

    A free mentor? I’d jump at the chance if offered, even knowing I’d pay somehow. But I guess I’ve never been in the right place at the write time to receive such an offer.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Maybe you need to identify someone you’d love to have as a mentor and approach that person. It’s scary but what’s the worst that can happen?

  14. Wendy, The mentor offering services to the mentee does seem a little “off.” Wouldn’t it be a more likely scenario that the mentee would ask the instructor whether he/she offers mentoring services and the mentor would reply, “Why, yes. I do mentor select writers who show a lot of promise. And my fees are…”

    I’d love to hear from some professional mentors/writing coaches on this. I know several of them (A and B-list authors who struggle to make a living, even though they write books full-time). They’ve told me that they get so tired of people saying, “I’ll take you out for a cup of coffee and you can tell me everything there is to know about writing and publishing a book.” As a way to save their own sanity and to nicely let aspiring authors know that there’s so much more to writing than can be conveyed over a cup of coffee, these authors have begun charging for their mentoring services. Like you said, Wendy, it weeds out the non-serious writers and both parties feel they’re getting compensated fairly.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      There is much to be said for the wisdom of “A worker is worthy of his hire.”
      Maybe the key, as I’ve learned from our comments here is that if money changes hands it’s coaching. Mentoring is a gift.

  15. Wanda Rosseland says:

    Wow! Just last week I learned a very important aspect of publishing from reading a writer’s blog. After chastising myself for not knowing it, I immediately thought, “i need a mentor.” And here you are talking about it, Wendy.
    The first thing I wondered about this situation, was if the writer/mentor is European. If so, do they do things differently than here in America. If not, I personally do not see anything wrong in asking for a reasonable payment. Yes, I am totally aware of the whole mentor idea of helping/teaching someone without pay, but there is also a lot of truth in people not respecting what they can get for free.
    Some years ago, for two years, I taught a teenager how to sew, well and with wool, so she could enter the wool contest. She won both years and I never even received a thank you from her family. Of course I did it without pay, would not have taken any if offered, because they were good friends and I wanted to help the girl, but it took a lot of time, effort and setting aside of my own work, to do it..

    Mentor is one of those what I call “modern words.” We used to learn how to cook from grandma, carpenter from an uncle, fix an engine from dad….etc. Since those relationships seldom exist in our world, people have to find other ways of being taught–often from strangers, but who have the knowledge we need to improve and prosper at what we want to do.

    Your questions are excellent, Wendy. If the writer felt satisfied with the answers, I’d say for her to pay the price and full steam ahead. A question I would ask is, what reward does the mentor want for his generosity and hard work, (because someone in helping this way deserves to feel good about it).

    I do not have a mentor, never have had one. I think it would be a blessing to have one but I don’t even know who to ask.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Absolutely, Wanda. There is a rich history of mentoring– even the guilds of the middle ages or in modern times, interns.

      Your story of the girl you taught to sew makes me cringe. Does she not realize what a gift you gave her?

  16. Linda Jewell says:

    My mentor has worked for publishers and now works as a free-lance editor and ghost writer. On Mondays I send her an e-mail with a list of my writing goals for that coming week plus what I actually accomplished of my previous week’s goals. From time to time I’ve asked and she’s given me reality checks about publishers and projects. We usually connect by e-mail, occasionally by phone, and infrequently in person. She’s very busy so I never want to impose on her time or her good nature. Her husband, also an editor, provided me with an introduction to a well-respected agent (and we both learned he is no longer taking new clients). I appreciate my mentor and her husband and all their encouragement and feedback.

    My mentor has the experience, training, and brain of an editor so I recommend her to writers who need their projects reviewed by an expert. I recommended my mentor and her husband as speakers for my local writers group. I also encourage her in her editing and writing projects. My husband and I invited my mentor and her husband to dinner at our home when they were traveling through. We enjoyed an evening of laughter and converstation.

    We were acquaintences before she became my mentor, but I can say that we are now friends. We pray for one another and encourage each each other when life happens and writing plans go awry.

  17. Wendy, I don’t suppose you’d afford me the mentor’s name, would you? He/she sounds like the one I’d like to work with on my six novel.

  18. Leon Oziel says:

    This is a great post Wendy. I’ve read the questions you’ve listed, and I think it would be easy enough for anyone to say yes to all or most of those things, because we live in a ‘yes’ society. You entice them, sell them on it, get the money, then figure out how to deliver the product.

    If I were the mentor, I’d find this list of questions high maintenance, requiring too much time to satisfy, if I’m also writing novels, touring, lecturing, mentoring others, etc.

    Approaching her privately and offering his paid services seems to me like she’s been targetted. She is smitten with his work, perhaps even with him, he pours on the compliments, takes her aside privately, offers her the world, then mentions the money. It sounds like the makings for a good novel actually, he plaguerizes her work, he rises to stardom, while she starves, and in desperation and rage, she turns to murder.

    I hate to be skeptical, and would love nothing more than to believe she’ll get what her mind is imagining, but my analytical and practical mind is telling me otherwise.

    As you have mentioned, authors need to find ways of making money, and it’s so common nowadays, in any business, to charge for things that were once considered goodwill. The trend is to charge a monthly rate, and if you get enough people on board, you can make a tidy monthly income, to alleviate those untidy monthly bills, allowing you to work freely without going into panic mode on the 21st of each month.

    I’d be much more comfortable asking a mentor, ‘how much are you charging, and what do I get for it?’ and listen intently, without alerting them to my expectations. If it’s a business transaction, and you are paying for a service, it should be tendered as one, and the services being offered need to be written out in full detail. When I pay for something, I want to know exactaly what it is that I’m getting, because if I don’t, that relationship will sour at an accelerated rate.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I do love the plot for the novel. 🙂

      And yes, it is complex, isn’t it. I like your suggestion that if it is a business arrangement it be clear at the beginning.

      And if it is a traditional mentor relationship, deep gratitude and making your mentor proud is the route to take.

  19. Nick says:

    I am not sure how I feel about paid mentoring. I mean, a critique here and there, but the woman who offered to help me – to mentor me at last year’s ACFW didn’t set it up as a business proposal but rather an offer to help… maybe I’m her charity… another reason to be grateful. I’m interested in this conceptually though and enjoyed the various comments as well.

  20. Hello everyone!

    Many of you know me–I’ve been a part of the writing and publishing community for nearly 20 years, both as a best-selling, award-winning author and as a mentor. As a founding member of Word Weavers International (www.Word-Weavers.com), I’ve been either in leadership or served as the president since its inception in 1997. I’m the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference (www.FloridaCWC.net), the president of Pen In Hand Inc. (www.EvaMarieEverson Author.com) and I’ve taught at a vast number of writers conferences and in schools and colleges. And, within the past six months, I became the vice president of writer enrichment at BelieversTrust (www.BelieversTrust.org).

    I’m saying all this not to put a feather in my cap but to lay the groundwork that I know what I’m talking about.

    There is much to say about this blog post. Wendy is exactly right when she says that an experienced author’s time is worth something, especially after they reach that certain pinnacle. However, I do not agree that new writers (especially) must see red flags at the “mentor-mill.”

    For example, I have offered mentoring for years at Pen In Hand. Why? Because the vast number of writers approaching me outweighed my ability to “look at this and just tell me what you think.” What the writer needed more than my swift overview was someone to come alongside and “mentor” through the process.

    When BelieversTrust formed and asked me to join the team as VP of Writer Enrichment, one of the first things we tackled was the opportunity to serve writers through mentorship. I’m not sure if that makes us a mentor-mill or not, but I can tell you that we take our guiding role seriously. We also only use carefully-chosen professionals, which sets us apart from the “mills.”

    I also agree with Wendy that (especially) new writers must be careful when choosing a mentor (whether an individual or a “mill”). Check the credentials of the mentors who offer to serve you in exchange for money. They should be able to back up their claims and services rendered. Make certain (as we do at BelieversTrust) that all the stipulations are laid out. “You will provide this” and “we will provide that.” Also timelines should be understood (for example: “within one week or “within the first three months.”)

    I have yet to work with a “mentee” (whether within Pen In Hand or BelieversTrust) who did not walk away a better writer and one with a clearer understanding of what they needed to do to continue to grow. (Again, I’m not attempting to brag … this is just my little Walter Brennan/Will Sonnet moment.) 🙂 And, in all honestly, there are times when I’ve needed some mentoring myself. We all do, if we are honest about it.

    Thank you, Wendy, for the opportunity to discuss this important element of our industry.

    • Wanda Rosseland says:

      Thank you for this information and explanation, Eva Marie. It definitely shows your generosity and desire to encourage writers.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Great addition our discussion, Eva Marie. I certainly would never consider yours a “mentor mill.” 🙂

      In fact there are a number of mentor/ coaching-type organizations that are superb. I’ve seen the writers that have come through My Book Therapy and I’m impressed. They’ve created a community. Jerry Jenkins (Left Behind) is a true servant and a brilliant writer with a heart for writers. He bought Writer’s Guild and poured resources into it to train writers. With its closure, I understand Jerry is doing mentoring one on one. He would be some mentor, wouldn’t he? None of those I’d consider “mentor mills” to use the term I coined.

      • Eva Marie Everson says:

        Thank you, Wendy! Yes, as I wrote my comment, I thought of Susan and Jerry … what is AMAZING to me about our industry is this: we are (so many of us) willing to TRAIN our competition … and with hearts FULL of desire that the trainee glean success in the process.

        It’s one of the many things I love about being in our industry.

        Hope to see you soon!

        E

    • Thank you for your insight, Ms. Eva Marie.