Friday, May 15, 2009

Navigate the Path to Better Authors

Mentor - somebody, usually older and more experienced, who advises and guides a younger, less experienced person (Encarta Dictionary).

Recently, I’ve been noticing an increase in what I would call a misuse of the work mentor. I first noticed this when I our church was going into John C. Maxwell’s Injoy program (which I now consider to be a huge waste of money). I think he may have backed away from this wording some now, but I saw wording that stated that John C. Maxwell had mentored thousands or millions or whatever it was. My first thought was, Wow! How does he have time? and then came to realize that they were talking about how many people had bought his tapes. In my book, that isn’t mentoring at all.

More recently, I’ve noticed people in the publishing industry using the verb mentor as a pseudonym for edit. I was on Rachelle Gardner’s website the other day and saw a list of freelance editors. I was curious to see what they were charging for editing a manuscript. I clicked on one and I didn’t see the word editing anywhere. I saw several mentoring packages, but I wasn’t looking for a mentoring relationship, all I wanted to know was what it would cost for me to send a copy of my manuscript and to get an opinion. After clicking on one of the mentoring packages, I discovered that it was nothing more than editing and not mentoring at all. Sadly, I visited the site of another freelance editor and I wound the same situation. I made me wonder, Why would I pay someone $2,500 to edit a manuscript when she doesn’t even know how to use the word mentor properly?

By now, you may think I’m off my rocker and that this is nothing more than a rant about something that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. If that’s the case, then I suggest we look at what a true mentoring relationship really is.

What is a Mentor?

The definition above gives us some idea of what a mentor is. Most of us have had informal mentoring relationships at one time or another. What mother hasn’t looked to other women for advice in how to care for her children? What person has started a new job and didn’t look to someone to help them learn the ropes? Those are mentors, but I want to focus on the formal mentoring relationship, since that is where the term is so blatantly misused.

Many large companies and some small companies have formal mentoring programs. I have experience this first hand. Companies find these programs particularly beneficial now because they have thousands of people on the verge of retirement and all of that experience will be lost, if it isn’t passed on to younger workers. These programs work by first using some process to match older experienced workers with younger less experienced protégés or mentees (whichever term you prefer). These two individuals get together on a regular basis (once a month or more often if needed) and talk about various things, with the intent that the mentee will benefit from the mentor having already traveled the path he is on. Ideally, we would see a situation in which a new employee is mentored by someone who has been with the company a couple of years, who is mentored by someone who has been with the company ten years, who is mentored by someone who has been with the company twenty years, etc. Even upper level management will sometimes have a mentor.

Companies try to keep the mentee/mentor relationship out of the chain of command. There are a couple reasons for this. One, it might give the appearance of impropriety if a mentee receives a promotion from his mentor. Co-workers who have not had the opportunity to be mentored by the boss might feel this person is promoted unfairly, even if it was only because he had more opportunity to find out what is happening in the department. The other reason is that the people involved need to be free to talk about people and their actions without fear of reprisal or that it will influence evaluations of the people discussed.

Benefits of the Mentoring Relationship

Rather than looking at this in broad terms, let’s look at it from the perspective of authors in the publishing industry. Both the mentee and the mentor benefit from the relationship. Let’s first look at how the less experienced author benefits from formal mentoring.

Benefits to the Mentee

First, she gains awareness of the publishing industry. To most new authors, the publishing industry looks something like a big black box. They know that manuscripts go in and books come out, but they know little of the inner workings of this machine. Authors who are even a little farther along the path can provide insight into this machine and help the new author navigate some of the complexities. Or perhaps the mentee is already a published author, but is a lesser know author. Having a better known author as a mentor might help her understand what she is facing as she moves forward in her career.

A mentor may be able to help a mentee with speaking skills. Suppose an author is out promoting a book and has to speak to a small group. The mentor shows up and observes. Sometime late, they the mentor and mentee get together and they talk about some of the things that the mentee needs to improve. Maybe he doesn’t engage the audience enough. Maybe he has a distracting habit of some kind. Whatever it might be, the mentor can identify these things so that the mentee can improve.

A mentee can improve her work skills. Since the mentor has more experience writing, the mentor may be able to offer some suggestions on how the mentee can improve how she approaches her writing effort.

The mentor can be an impartial sounding board. Don’t like something your agent is doing? Discuss it with your mentor. Have a new idea for a novel? Discuss it with you mentor. He might even be able to help you flesh it out a little better. Can’t figure out how to get a character out of a predicament? Talk to your mentor.

The mentee can also gain confidence and motivation. It’s one thing to have your mother tell you you’re great, but its another to have a more experience author help you improve. The mentee will also gain contacts that the mentor has within the industry.

Benefits to the Mentor

Mentors often find that they benefit as much or more than the persons they are mentoring. Some of these benefits include: Satisfaction in helping another author develop. Improved awareness of his own writing and skills. Improved communication skills. Increased awareness of different points of view. Increased exposure, when the mentee tells others what she has learned from her mentor. A reminder of the joy of writing. And there are certainly many others.

How Mentoring Should Work

Mentee Led

While both people involved benefit from the mentoring relationship, it is very important to remember that the mentee is responsible for managing the partnership. Let me say that again. It is the mentee’s responsibility to manage the partnership. The relationship is to be build in such a way that it fits the needs and goals of the mentee. The mentee benefits when she takes ownership of the relationship.

If I came to you and said, “You need to remember the number 314,” you might remember it, you might not. But if you came to me and asked, “What’s the area code of St. Louis?” and I said, “314,” you would remember. That is the concept behind how the mentee/mentor relationship works. The mentee is asking for information the mentor has. The mentee learns because the mentor is providing information the mentee thinks he needs, at the rate the mentee wants it.

Mentee Initiated

The mentee asks the someone to be his mentor, not the other way around. The potential mentor can always refuse, but it is the mentee’s responsibility to ask, rather than the mentor’s responsibility to offer. This is important. The mentee must have a level of respect for the mentor and a willingness to learn from the mentor. If the mentor initiates the relationship then the mentee may have a tendency to listen without really hearing what the mentor has to say. It is like the difference between receiving an e-mail or searching for information with a search engine. We many delete an e-mail without reading it, but if we find what we’re looking for in a search engine, we got to the website and read the information.

The Mentor Doesn’t Charge

Even in many company sponsored formal mentoring programs, the mentor doesn’t receive financial compensation for the time he invests in his efforts and yet many mentors still take on multiple mentees (probably shouldn’t be more than two or three). Why? Remember what I said before. The mentor receives benefits that are equal to or even exceed those of the mentee.

I believe that it is unethical for a mentor to charge the mentee. Even if you they go have lunch together, it isn’t the mentee’s responsibility to pay for the mentor’s lunch. Split the check or trade of paying the bill from month to month. First, the mentor should not charge because he is benefiting as much from the relationship as the mentee. Second, mentoring is a way to pay forward the help that others have done for him in the past. Third, the mentee may be mentoring others in the future or may be currently mentoring others. Fourth, a fee based system creates a situation in which the “mentor” is helpful only up to the level of which the client has paid.

The Ideal Mentor Isn’t Always a Bestselling Author

There is a tendency for aspiring authors to look to bestselling authors for advice on how to get there. While there are certainly things we can learn from them, they seldom make good mentors. The problem isn’t the knowledge they have, but their availability to invest their time in others. While a bestselling author of ten books may find it beneficial to be the mentor of an author who has just signed a million dollar book deal, she doesn’t have time to mentor the thousands of wannabes out there and is unlikely to find it beneficial to mentor even one such author. Then there is the problem that she may have forgotten much of what it was like to be that aspiring author with no hope for publication. The author who has just gotten a small publishing deal may be better suited as a mentor to authors who are looking for that first deal.

The Mentee Should Look for More Than Publication

We have tunnel vision. We set our eyes on publication and forget that there is so much more. Yes, some mentors can offer advise on getting in print, but the mentee should consider that her goal in the relationship might ought to be something else. As I mentioned before, it could be better speaking, or something else and the selection of a mentor should be based on that goal.

Finding a Mentor

The process of finding a mentor is not unlike the process of finding a literary agent. You find someone you think might be able to help you with what you need, you contact this person to identify your desire and you see if you can work out something that is beneficial to both parties. You may not find someone who is willing to invest their time in mentoring you. Even if it’s only an our a month, it isn’t always easy to fit another person into ones priorities. On the other hand, you might send an e-mail to an author and get the response, “I’m so glad you asked!”


Mentoring and editing are not the same thing. Mentoring is an investment of one person in another that is beneficial to both people. Mentoring is a way to pace experience from one person to another. Mentoring is initiated and led by mentee. The mentor is a person who is a little farther down the path than the mentee and offers guidance to the mentee on how to get from where he is to where the mentor is.