I’m not sure it’s necessary to have an official month since most adults already mentor someone – parents to children, teachers to students, managers to staff – but this January that news meant something to me. I had just become a mentor to a newbie author.
This wasn’t my first time. Thirty years ago I mentored a woman who had a wonderful story to tell. For three months I labored over her work giving it as much (if not more) attention as my own. One day she informed me that writing was too much work. I was bewildered. Of course writing is a lot of work.Thirty years ago, want-to-be writers pretty much stumbled through the process by themselves. Seasoned authors were reluctant to share information, there was no Internet, and when it came to craft it was the blind-leading-the-blind. When my first book was published, the editors in New York became my mentors and they were tough. They didn’t worry about my feelings; they wanted to show me how to write a saleable book. Those objective lessons helped me during my 25 years writing for traditional publishers. With the digital revolution, I became an indie author. I work fulltime with Jenny Jensen*, a freelance editor whose professionalism, dry sense of humor, and cut-to-the-chase advice fits my style perfectly. After publishing over 30 books writing can be an emotional experience for me, but editing is all about business.
Fast-forward and it is January 2016. I have once again become a mentor. Meriam Wilhelm, an award winning teacher and principal, is a nonfiction author of small books that solve big problems for parents of grammar school age children (The Bully Maze is one of my favorites. I wish she had written it when my children were small). Recently, though, Meriam sent me two chapters of a Romantic Comedy (sub-genre: witches) to review.
If this were any other author I would have politely declined to read the chapters. Witches weren’t my genre, I was working on a new book, and I remembered the ‘too much work’ lady all too well. But Meriam had a little leverage. Meriam is my sister-in-law. That complicated an already complicated relationship of a creative mentor and newbie protégé. The good news is that we both were aware of the pitfalls, the divide in our experience, and the fact that she is writing a genre that is light years away from mine. We are also aware of the fact that none of this will mean a darn thing if feelings get in the way. The question is, can we navigate the personal and professional waters, create a great book that is more hers than mine, and still be friends at the end?
For the next four weeks we’ll weigh in on the good, the bad and (hopefully not) the ugly of our new relationship as mentor and protégé. This week it is my turn to share and, true to my comfort zone, I will share my analysis of her work.
The good news is that Meriam knows what she wants to accomplish, is an avid reader of her genre, and understands digital publishing. The other side of the coin isn’t as shiny. She is starting from square one with little understanding of story and plot structure, pacing, characterization and basic formatting. This means the project will be labor intensive and there is no assurance that she will be able to transition from nonfiction to fiction no matter how hard we work.
As for me, I bring a lot of experience to the table. I’ve been an instructor at UCLA’s Writers Program, writing conferences and a volunteer in middle school classrooms. I understand both traditional and digital marketing. On the flip side, I can be impatient. I tear apart my own work mercilessly (as does Jenny), and will probably do the same to Meriam’s. For me, that kind of creative brutality is just good business but for Meriam it might be a little too much. I worry about doing more harm than good by imposing my voice on her work and my expectations on her work ethic.
Luckily, we respect one another’s talents and value our friendship. Hopefully, the result of this experience will be magical and The Witches of New Moon Bay will be a book we can both be proud of. Check in next week and see how it’s going.
Next week Meriam writes about: The Long and Scary Road