How to find a writing mentor, what a writing mentor does, and alternatives to consider if a writing mentorship isn't right for you
Full disclosure: I am a writing mentor, and I love what I do.
With that said, I’m a terrible businesswoman because I typically spend the initial 15-minute discovery call with potential clients trying to determine if there’s an alternative (cheaper) option to working with me that would still give them the help that they’re looking for. There very often is, and unless you’re supported by some kind of grant or bursary, working with a mentor can get expensive.
There are also a whole host of advantages to writing mentorships, of course, not least being that you’ll have an experienced writer in your corner who’s almost certainly fought every one of your writing battles themselves, and who will passionately cheerlead your work like you can’t even imagine, because we get super invested in our clients’ success.
In this post, I’m going to suggest some questions to ask yourself before you start looking for a mentor, some places to find and connect with us, and some free or low-cost alternatives to embarking on a mentorship.
Give your writing its best chance of success in competitions
My short story publishing career kicked off with a competition win. So did my novel publishing career. If you’re a subscriber to my newsletter, you’ll already know that I put great store in writing competitions as a springboard for emerging writers* – I publish a monthly run-down of the best competitions I can find – and if you’ve ever been in one of my classes, I’ve probably tried to persuade you to enter the Bridport, the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, or the Mairtín Crawford Award, and possibly all three. And more besides. The thing is, writing competitions are much more of a level playing field than subbing to magazines. For one thing, your publication history has zero influence on where you place in a competition, and most are read blind. For another, an overwhelmed editing desk might very well decide that they’ve got enough strong stories in one reading period to carry them over a weaker round of submissions a month later and accept none of the fiction sent to them in July. A competition, on the other hand, will always have a winner, and probably a couple of runners up too. It’s the only submission venue where you can guarantee that someone will be successful in any given round.
How to create characters your readers can't resist
I’ve been teaching creative writing for quite a few years now, and there are three questions that come up most often when I’m talking to a new class. They are, in no particular order of precedence, how to write convincing dialogue, how to know what point of view you should write in, and how to make sure your characters are well-rounded, recognisable, and relatable. They’re all good questions, and each of these elements are important considerations, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that there’s nothing more important than character when it comes to making your writing the best it can be. I’m fond of telling my students that good characters can often paper over cracks in your plot, but a great plot can’t hide half-baked characterisation. Your characters are the access point through which your reader will enter the world that you’re creating. It’s essential that they find that access point compelling, or else you’ve lost them.
But creating compelling characters does not need to be difficult. Different writers will have different processes, and, as ever, it’s important to find the approach that works for you. But the core idea is the same, no matter how you spin it out, and applying the following ideas in some form or another to your writing will help you grow your characters from a half-formed thought into someone whose story your reader has to discover.
Okay, let’s just dive in. I’m assuming you’re here because you are (a) a parent and (b) trying hard to carve out space for writing in your life. Maybe you have other caring commitments too. You may very well have a job that eats up more than its fair share of your week, and you might have a spouse who expects to at least see your face from time to time. Plus, you need to eat and sleep (although that last one, if your kids are like mine… maybe not so much).
It can feel overwhelming. It is overwhelming. I know it is: I’m living it with you. But if you’re here, I’m guessing it’s because without having space to write, even just a little, your life feels… flat. Not empty — of course — but missing something. Like there’s a spark that you just can’t seem to light. And yet, with eight million conflicting demands and only twenty-four hours in each day, how do you justify prioritising something as de-prioritisable as making fiction?
An occasional series looking at the genesis of a story, from the initial spark of inspiration, through conceptual development, the writing process, and what happens next, with tips based on what I’ve learned along the way. In this blog, I’ll be looking at On the Brink, the sequel to my Arthur C Clarke Award-shortlisted debut novel Edge of Heaven.
In spring 2003, I was at something of a crossroads in my life. Circumstances had conspired to make it necessary to leave a job that I adored, and I’d been doing temporary admin work to pay the bills. I’d decided to go back to college in the autumn to study for a qualification in journalism, because I was still trying to find a way to write for a living and I’d had the grand total of one short story published in the entire history of ever, so fiction didn't seem like a viable career option just yet. But September was months away, and I had a whole summer to fill before that. And then I found an advert for temporary factory workers in the Netherlands, and I knew immediately that this was what I'd been looking for.
Dialogue. It’s an amazing tool for a writer, and often underappreciated. It’s also one of the most pressing concerns that students raise in my writing classes: how to use it, how to get it right, how to make it sound “natural.”
And it’s probably the most frequent formatting error I see as an editor.
For something that most of us do every day without thinking about it, we sure do seem to panic about the spoken word when it comes time to put it on a page. But, honestly, writing dialogue doesn’t need to be scary. Read on for five tips and tricks that will help you get it working for you and not against you, and then go ahead and make dialogue your best writing friend, as it rightfully ought to be.
An occasional series looking at the genesis of a story, from the initial spark of inspiration, through conceptual development, the writing process, and what happens next. You'll find related writing tips at the end. In this blog, I’ll be looking at Blumelena, my Bridport Prize-shortlisted short story.
One of the questions you never quite manage to answer to anyone’s satisfaction, in my experience, is the question of where the ideas come from. Generally speaking, mine just turn up when they turn up, generally prompted by nothing at all, and the onus is on me to find something to scribble on before they disappear . Blumelena was no different.
In my free ebook short story collection, To The End of the World and Back, I talk about how the concept announced itself, more or less fully-formed, as I was walking to work one morning. It was a decent stretch - around half an hour from home - and there’s definitely something about walking, for me, that connects with the creative part of my brain. If I’m stuck with a piece of writing, I will tend to go for a walk and let the rhythm of my feet work out the narrative knots as I go. In this case, though, I wasn’t looking for inspiration, but inspiration found me just the same.
So, the 2020s have been… less than optimal so far, really. (As a dystopian sci-fi author who released a pandemic novel in April 2020, it’s been quite the ride.) I’m going to start with my usual injunction to please be kind to yourself, first and foremost, in 2022, as I hope you’ve been kind to yourself throughout the past number of years, whether or not you’ve emerged from lockdown having completed all those writing projects you’ve been planning. Remember that the world is suffering a collective trauma right now, which doesn’t play well with creativity. So whether you’ve a brace of novels under your belt or you’ve been stuck on page 2 for the past eighteen months, please remember to celebrate any and all writing that you’ve achieved — because look at the circumstances under which that writing has been done.
With that said, if you’re looking for ways to encourage your word count to soar this year, here are a few things you could try.
There is nothing more intimidating to the creative process than a blank page. But, luckily, there are more than a few ways to un-blank it before it derails your writing time, and I'm going to share a few of them below.
First off, I want to push back against the idea that a writer, to be successful, needs substantial amounts of unbroken writing time. That’s just not the case. There’s also no truth to the oft-repeated injunction that you must write every single day. (I’m dubious of any writing advice that starts with “you must,” to be honest.) There are days when it is genuinely impossible to get any writing done, and that’s not because of self-doubt or deprioritising writing from your life as an act of you-can’t-fail-if-you-don’t-try: it’s because there are days when it is genuinely impossible to get any writing done.
Solidarity, word-count chasers: November is YOUR month. If you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month this year, I wish you the very best of luck. I know writers whose novels have happened as a direct result of the accountability NaNoWriMo affords. (I also know writers for whom the format has the opposite effect, by the way, so, as ever with writing processes, there are no absolutes. If you’re not taking part, or if NaNo hasn’t worked for you in the past, please know that it’s not my thing either and keep looking for the process that suits your creative flow.)
Blog updates on the first of every month.