Me as a Mentor

Well, the time is drawing near: Pitch Wars mentors are finalizing their picks, and entrants are biting their nails (or, er, anxiously awaiting the announcement, as the case may be). Backstage, we’re discussing our intentions–are we going to offer edit letters for those whose work we sampled beyond the initial chapter? Are we going to send feedback? Are we going to tell our backup picks how close they were and offer to help them later? Are we going to put our mentees through hell?

That last is the intention of quite a few mentors, by the way. If by “hell” I mean Really Big Revisions over the course of two months. I think the ability to issue requests for huge developmental editing changes is really amazing, because I don’t think I’ve ever done it. I’ve never read someone’s work and said “cut this perspective” or “switch to third person” or “add a character who does X” or “make it end like this.” And I’ve known authors whose mentors or critique partners have said things like that and made their books way better, and they’re grateful for it, and they successfully get signed or sold under that advice.

But I’ve never been comfortable doing stuff like that. If I find a book that doesn’t work for me, I usually don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what it “needs” most of the time, though I might be able to identify what I don’t like about it, where it falls apart for me, what isn’t satisfying, or what aspect causes disconnect on my end. I’m better with little changes (especially grammar and sentence structure), and I can be pretty excellent with helping develop characters. But I worry that injecting specific direction on a really big scale might, in my case, interrupt the author’s ability to develop the story or the authenticity of their storytelling voice, so I find myself unable to “finish their sentences” for them, so to speak. The most I can do is point out if their sentence isn’t finished or contradicts itself somehow. Then I leave them to figure out how to fix it.

So what can my mentee expect from me when the choices are announced?

  • I’ll be offering a ton of line editing. Grammar, punctuation, the works.
  • I’ll give honest opinions about what I think is working well and what I think is lacking.
  • I will probably yell at the characters in the margins, make ridiculous jokes, talk back to people, type sarcastic comments, and give a play-by-play of what I’m thinking as I read.
  • I will definitely provide guidance on the query, top to bottom; I think I’m pretty good with queries, and letters that come through me generally do result in requests.
  • I will give honest, though not necessarily nice, realistic thoughts on my mentee’s chances of getting published.
  • I will be there to bounce ideas off of, to come to with questions about querying or specific agents or basic writing insecurities.
  • I will be more than willing to listen to both doom-and-gloom raving and over-the-top squeeing as we ride the publishing train together.
  • I will be a friend if my mentee wants one.

I don’t want to be the hard-ass who insists you take my advice or fail, and I don’t want to create a situation where you feel intimidated and pressured to do what I want. I’m okay with a little “please help, Obi-Wan!” because I understand we in Pitch Wars Land have cultivated this understanding that mentors theoretically know what they’re talking about, and if you look up to me that’s fine and dandy–I guess you’re supposed to. But I want you to understand I don’t intend to put myself on a pedestal or Tough Love your manuscript to the point that you don’t recognize it. I will indeed murder unnecessary commas and squawk indignantly at every misused homophone, but I do not want to compromise the soul of your book, and I want us to have the kind of relationship where you’ll tell me if you think I’m wrong about something.

That said, I do of course want respect for my time and realistic expectations of my literary magic. I do take some responsibility for how well we do in this contest together, but I cannot guarantee that an agent will nibble on you or sign you, and I don’t want to get singularly blamed or crap-talked if the stars don’t align for glorious victory. You’ll have my support and my advice and hours and hours of my time, and I like to think most people who submitted to me would be happy with the level of attention I will devote to polishing their work and getting it ready for the world.

In Pitch Wars 2013, I chose Whitney Fletcher as my mentee. I had an issue with one of his early scenes feeling too crowded with character cameos, and when I gave him direction he came up with a solution far more elegant than anything I could have suggested. He took direction awesomely throughout. He got an offer of representation two days after the contest closed and is currently represented by Lana Popovic. We are still in touch regularly, chatting by phone, Skype, and Twitter DMs.

My alternate team for Pitch Wars 2013 consisted of Ryan Glover and Jessica Gunn. We don’t have alternates this year, but it was pretty cool to have them in previous years. Jessica ended up selling her book without an agent to Curiosity Quills. Ryan completed edits with me and continued seeking representation, and he got to listen to me praise his work in person when he took me out for sandwiches when I was in his neighborhood lecturing at Princeton.

Last year I picked Megan Paasch and Natalka Burian as my mentee team, with Megan as my mentee and Natalka as my alternate. Megan did a bang-up job polishing the heck out of her book and tweaking her query, leading to multiple requests during the agent round. I haven’t managed to play witness to her happy pairing with an agent yet, but we’ll see! And Natalka, the author of the weirdest book I read in 2014, mostly just got line editing from me until I told her what I didn’t like about the ending, and she rewrote it in a phenomenal way that wham-bammed me. When I was in New York for the Lambda Awards Natalka bought me a nice Italian lunch.

So it’s pretty much a rule now that if I come to your city you have to buy me food if I mentored you.

Thanks, future mentee, you’re too kind!

I look forward to working with you, whoever you are, as I pretend not to know who I’m picking. Can’t wait to spill the beans and find out what I can do for you–what your book needs, what your publishing journey will hold, and what we can be to each other as writers and crit partners. (This is your warning that I have been known to hit up past mentees for beta reading.)

::quietly slips onto the Pitch Wars train and rides away::

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