As college tuition, including MFA programs, skyrockets and author income remains low enough that it rarely allows an author to leave their day job, more and more writers are looking for low-cost and no-cost ways to learn about the publishing industry and the craft of writing. Mentorship programs have become a popular way to gain knowledge and exposure, but as their popularity has risen, the competition has gotten tougher as well.
I’ve been a Pitch Wars mentor since 2017 and was a mentee myself in 2015. I also helped found my local Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) chapter’s mentorship program. So I’m both a big fan of mentorship and an experienced mentor. And although there’s no silver bullet that will guarantee your spot in a mentorship program, there are lots of things you can do to improve your chances.
Why writers benefit from mentorship
When talking with my coaching and editing clients, I often describe the writing journey as a multi-level pyramid. If you’re just getting started, you’re focused on the foundations of the craft. What is a scene? How do I structure my story? How do I build characters that come alive on the page? That’s the base of the pyramid.
Once you’ve mastered that, the next layer of the pyramid dives into the finer points of point of view, conveying emotion, and writing snappy dialogue that builds character. Only by the third layer of this pyramid do you get into using figurative language to convey theme, using rhythm to create both musicality and tension, and keeping pacing tight.
It’s likely to take more than one manuscript (or at least more than one revision pass) to move from the base level of the pyramid to its peak. And you’ve got to get to the peak before you’re ready to consider querying agents or submitting to publishers.
But a mentor can help you make the climb more quickly and efficiently by homing in on your specific needs and taking the time to understand the heart of your story.
Even once you’re ready to query, publishing can be a lonely and rejection-filled process. But having an experienced writer to guide you can reduce stress and help you navigate tricky situations with more knowledge and confidence. While professional writing organizations, writing conferences, and online webinars or courses can be a great way to gather information, one-on-one feedback will take that foundational knowledge and build upon it to take you to the next level in your writing journey. And the community that is built around these programs is worth more than any Agent Showcase could ever be.
Choose your mentor program wisely
Choosing the program that’s right for you and your work is vital to success. Not only does the program need to accept the genre, age category, and form you write, but it also needs to take place at a time of year when you have time to devote to revision.
Here is an alphabetical list of popular mentorship programs for writers and when their applications typically open:
- Author Mentor Match – AMM provides mentorship for middle grade, young adult, and select adult projects and typically opens to submissions in January each year.
- Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) – AWP’s Writer to Writer mentorship program is a members-only mentorship program. Applications are typically due by January each year.
- Latinx In Publishing – Applications for this mentorship program open in the fall and pair an unpublished/unagented Latinx writer with a published mentor.
- Pitch Wars – Pitch Wars provides a limited-time (usually 2-3 month) mentorship period for adult, young adult, and middle grade authors with applications typically opening in late summer/early fall. CrimeReads recently published a Pitch Wars roundtable with more information here.
- The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – Many SCBWI chapters offer mentorship programs for fiction and nonfiction children’s books. There is typically a fee for the mentorship, though prices vary by program.
- We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) – WNDB’s mentorship program selects mentees from traditionally underrepresented communities. Applications will open in fall of 2021 for the 2022 program.
- Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) – WFWA’s twice annual mentorship program opens in the fall for those writing women’s fiction.
- WriteMentor – WriteMentor provides a monthly paid mentorship service, but also provides a free summer program that opens to applicants April 15-16, 2021.
I’m sure there are other great national mentorship programs I’ve missed (let us know in the comments!), and there are many local options as well, so check in with the writing organizations and libraries in your area.
Have realistic expectations of mentorship programs
Mentorship programs have recently led to several glamorous success stories, but the best way to find success in a mentorship program is to enter with realistic expectations. Many of the writers who are selected have been writing for years, are not submitting a first draft, and would have gone on to find publishing success even if they hadn’t participated in a mentorship program. If you’re working on your first novel, don’t expect a fast train to the New York Times Best Sellers list. Remember that writing pyramid? You can’t race straight to the top without mastering each step along the way.
That doesn’t mean there’s no point in applying if you’re a beginner. On the contrary, having a professional on your team going over your manuscript and providing an edit letter similar to what an eventual agent or editor will provide gives you invaluable experience. But it’s not going to turn your rough draft into a bestseller in one round of edits. What it will do is teach you skills you can apply to additional rounds of revision and future manuscripts. And if the mentorship program has any sort of agent showcase, it can get your work in front of industry professionals. If you are selected, focus on learning everything you can from the experience.
And if you’re not? There are lots of opportunities for finding critique partners and new writing friends during the Twitter chats and forums some of these mentorship programs provide. So even if you aren’t chosen, you might find a new critique partner. And that’s huge, especially during a pandemic when in-person writing events are few and far between.
Revise before you apply to a mentor program
Although learning how to revise deeply is one of the great benefits of participating in a mentorship program, do as much as you possibly can before you submit your manuscript for consideration. That means looking at plot, character arcs, tension, and pacing. If you have finished a complete draft but have a list of things you know need to be fixed, fix them before you submit if you possibly can. That will clear the low-hanging fruit and let your eventual mentor focus on the deeper issues.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in my submission inbox, especially in the speculative genres, is information dump. I don’t need to know every last detail of your mythical world to select you as my mentee, but I do need to get to know your main character enough to follow them through the whole story (and the inevitable two to three read-throughs I’ll complete during Pitch Wars). If you’re not sure how to approach this issue in your writing, Susan DeFreitas’s Backstory and Exposition: 4 Key Tactics on this blog will help.
Find a beta reader to help
Sure, a mentor can provide that first set of eyes, but if you’ve already had readers, you’ll be able to get even more out of the mentorship experience. And if you already know the competition for mentors is stiff, why not put your best work forward? Beta readers or critique partners can catch plot holes, naming inconsistencies, revision artifacts, and other confusing places that your eyes might miss since you’ve read the manuscript so many times.
Do that final buff and polish
Once you have that crucial beta feedback, take another pass through the manuscript. Fix as much as you can. Sandra Wendel’s guest post on The Difference Between Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading is a great checklist. Yes, you ought to do at least a line edit before you submit. That’s not to say your manuscript will be rejected if there’s a typo, but anything you can do to make it easier to read will make it more appealing to mentors going through their slush pile.
Bonus points if you take the time to read your manuscript aloud. This is one of the best secret weapons for weeding out awkward or wordy phrases, repeated words, and unnatural sounding dialogue.
Maintain a professional presence on social media
I am not going to tell you that you have to have 10,000 followers on Twitter to get a mentor or that you can’t make a fart joke for fear of not getting selected. But I will say that I always check a prospective mentee’s profile to make sure that they aren’t being harmful or abusive online. It’s also a great way to gauge whether we’ll be a good personality fit, which is a crucial part of a successful mentor-mentee relationship. I mentor middle grade, so the well-timed fart joke is totally on-brand for me. But other mentors may feel differently.
Do your homework on mentors
While we’re talking about social media, do your research on the mentors you’re applying to work with. Do they like speculative fiction or do they only want contemporary? Do they have particular content they prefer not to mentor? Are they strong in areas where you particularly need help?
In addition to researching potential mentors, learning to read submission guidelines is a great skill to cultivate. Over fifteen percent of the writers who submitted to #TeamUnicornMojo (myself and my super-star co-mentor Jessica Vitalis) in Pitch Wars 2020 were writing in genres clearly outside our wish list. For example, we love historical fiction, but if there’s no magic, we’re not going to pick you no matter how beautiful the manuscript is. Because we write and mentor fantasy. Historical fantasy? Bring it! Straight historical? There are other mentors who are a much better fit. Mentors provide their wish list not only to convey preferences but to let writers know the genres they’re best equipped to mentor. Sneaking a portal fantasy into a mentor’s inbox by calling it “fantasy adventure” will not help your cause.
And make sure your manuscript is in standard manuscript format (unless the mentorship’s submission guidelines specify otherwise). Standard manuscript format is:
- 12-point serif font (Times New Roman or similar)
- double spaced
- first line indent
- 1” page margins
- page break after each chapter
- space down 2-3 lines before each chapter title
- no first line indent on first line of new chapter or scene (this can be confusing, so grab a book and look at the first line of the chapter to see what I mean!)
- page number, manuscript title, and your name in the header or footer of each page
Finally, ensure your word count falls in the publishing industry’s general guidelines. Agent Jennifer Laughran wrote the definitive post at Wordcount Dracula. If you’re 1,000 words over or under, don’t sweat it. If you’ve got a 200,000-word middle grade, consider a deep edit before you submit.
In truth, these recommendations hold true whether you’re applying for an MFA program, hoping to secure a writing-related grant, or applying for a mentorship program. These good habits will serve you well no matter where you are in your writing journey. But if you’re really hoping to find a mentor in 2021, best get revising now so you’re ready when the submission windows open. Best of luck finding a mentor—they really can change your writing life.
Did I leave your favorite mentorship program off my list? Let us know in the comments.