Mandy wrote to me and noted, “Recently you encouraged all serious writers to find a writing mentor. How does one do this? I’ve been to several writing conferences and am acquainted with some well-known authors, but I’m not sure I’d ever be bold enough to ask one of them.”
Well, my first thought is that you keep in mind what a mentor is: Not someone perfect. Not someone on the top of the bestseller lists. Not someone who is necessarily your best friend in the business. A mentor is someone who is a bit further down the path from yourself — a writer with a bit more experience in the field, who can offer you some wise advice and direction, especially when you are trying to grow or you are faced with a major decision. Would you benefit from having that sort of relationship with another writer?
If so, I’d suggest that it’s tough to walk up to someone you don’t know well and ask, “Will you commit to being my friend?” Most of us would probably find that a bit odd. So focus on one of those experienced authors you already know, perhaps someone you’ve met and enjoyed at a conference, and think about what you’ll say to him or her.
By using the framework of “talking to a friend,” consider going to that experienced author you’re friendly with and talking with him or her about mentoring. What are their thoughts? Who mentored them? Take the time to write down what you’d like to receive from a mentor (a chance to talk things over? career guidance? some wisdom when faced with big questions? suggestions for writing exercises?), so that it’s clear in your own mind what your expectations are. If you don’t know what you want, it’s tough to explain it to someone else.
Approach the person in a one-on-one setting sometime and simply say, “I have a favor to ask you. You don’t have to say ‘yes’ right away, but I’d like you to consider my request. I need to be able to occasionally talk to someone with more experience than myself — someone who has some wisdom, and who is a little farther down the path from me. I’d like to ask if I could approach you via phone or email briefly, about once a month, just to glean some of your knowledge. I like and respect you, and I believe I could learn a lot from you. Would you consider some sort of relationship like that?”
Okay, that might not be the perfect script, but something low-key like that is a good place to start. You’d probably agree with me that most of us are busy and don’t need another complex relationship — but at the same time, most experienced people are interested in helping foster the next generation of writers. So approaching someone who already knows you and with whom you feel comfortable, and asking for a bit of their time, but placing firm limits as to how much time and what will be covered — that’s a way to get the mentor/protege relationship started.
Is that helpful? What other tips do you have for approaching a prospective mentor?