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When Mentoring Goes Wrong

By Ramona Richards

You know, you do need mentors, but in the end,
you really just need to believe in yourself.

–Diana Ross

Who knew such a simple piece of advice could make someone burst into tears. All I said was, “You might want to consider deleting this prologue.” I then stared as the writer in front of me started to sob.

I waited for her to catch her breath, then took her hands and leaned close. “What’s going on?”

She sniffed. “I didn’t have it in there. I added it because _______ said I needed it.” She named an extremely well known–and experienced–agent and editor.

“Ah.” I understood. I, too, had received conflicting advice on a previous book, some which almost derailed the storyline. “This is why you need to listen to all advice, take notes, ponder and pray, before you make any changes. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of what you’ve done.” We then went on to have a lovely chat about her book.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen tears over editorial advice. Won’t be the last. One writer I know became so discouraged by what her mentor (a best-selling author she was paying for help) advised her that she abandoned writing for many years, and that particular book forever. It remains unfinished, even though it was the “book of her heart.” Another called me, distressed because her mentor had pushed her to alter her heroine until “I don’t even LIKE her anymore. How can I write about her?”

While we love mentoring in this business–and there are many successful and supportive mentors–such a relationship is a personal one. It has to be a match of ambition and personalities, in the same way an agent/author relationship should be. Just because someone is a good mentor doesn’t meant that person is a good mentor for YOU.

If your mentoring sessions are creating more distress and discouragement than hope, consider the following steps:

1) Make two lists. The first will be a list of advice that has caused you distress or has discouraged you from continuing to write. The second list, which is just as important, should list of advice that you have found valuable or encouraging. This can be a short list…or it may make you realize that you’ve been helped more than you thought. Once the lists are complete, set them aside a few days, then review and pray about them. When you’re ready…

2) Have an honest chat. Email your concerns to your mentor and request a chat solely about these things, not about a project. Don’t be intimidated by your mentor’s “status” as a published author or established editor or agent. We all started as novices, and most of us have received bad advice in the past. If your mentor becomes huffy about such a talk, then you need to consider ending the relationship. You DESERVE a mentor who wants you to grow and who listens to your own desires as well as being confident about his or her own advice.

3) Do NOT disparage your mentor’s advice or reputation to others. The two of you may not be a good match, but that doesn’t mean the mentor’s advice is faulty or that the mentor wouldn’t work for another writer. There are only a few “givens” in what makes a great book; thus, editorial advice is seldom universal.

The bottom line is that a mentor should help you GROW as a writer. A mentor should encourage you, push you to improve in your craft, and work with your desires and ambitions. If any of these goals breaks down–on either part–consider changing mentors. Wise mentors will not only understand the need for change, they will support it.

Ramona Richards Nov 2014Ramona Richards is the author of seven novels and three books of devotionals, including My Mother’s Quilts, which released this month. She launched her career in Christian publishing 35 years ago, and has worked with more than a dozen major publishers, most recently as the Senior Acquisitions Editor for Fiction at Abingdon Press. Since December 2015, she’s been freelancing as a writer and editor.

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4 Responses to When Mentoring Goes Wrong

  1. Kathy Cassel says:

    I think #3 is very true. I was working with someone who has helped others but wasn’t a good fit for me. I won’t go into details, but by time we reworked and reworked the main character I didn’t even want to rewrite the book anymore. I abandoned the project.

    I worked with someone new on a YA novel and we clicked. I sent it to Blink and they requested the full manuscript. In the meantime, I’m working with my “fiction coach” on a second idea. We just click.

  2. Ramona, the scenario you describe is one most of us have experienced–either as the writer or the mentor. In writing, as in most other things, one size does not fit all. The biggest mistake I’ve seen made (and, actually, I’ve made it myself, too) is listening to advice from others and blindly following it. The result is a loss of the writer’s “voice” (whatever that is). Your advice is excellent. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Kathy, I’m glad you worked something out. Congrats on getting the request from Blink! Richard, thank you. I think we’ve all fallen into that trap…usually out of our eagerness to learn and improve. Discernment isn’t always easy. Glad it worked out for you. 🙂

  4. Cynthia says:

    Very helpful article, Ramona. Thank you!