Sunday, 6 June 2010

To mentor or not?

In a previous comment thread, I was asked about my thoughts on whether mentoring or if in fact having a mentor to help with your writing is a good thing, and I can only answer thruthfully: I don't know.

I wrote in a bit of a vacuum, in fact most of even my closest friends and colleagues didn't know that I aspired to be an author. Where I grew up people just didn't do such things. It wouldn't have been seen as being a manly thing to do in some eyes, or just a pipedream in others.

For that purpose my only mentors were the books I read, the movies I watched and the things I experienced. My first attempts at writing were in trying to emulate my literary heroes, first Willard Price, then Robert E. Howard and later writers like Don Pendleton and George G Gilman, before I found a style of my own and began working on it. Later on I began reading the current crop of writers but I'd past the emulation stage by then and was trying to find my own voice. No one can teach you that, I guess, and it's very personal to you as a writer.

Nevertheless I'm not suggesting that having a mentor is a bad thing. How could it be? As long as said mentor knows what they're talking about. Nowadays I'm blessed to have a knwoledgeable agent and some superb editors who all have an input in my writing and have tought me a lot. Plus, I have made some great friends through the writing game, and have learned an awful lot from them, being mega sellers or aspiring authors. One thing that has helped me tremendously is in the conversations I've had with aspiring authors who ask such probing questions it has forced me to think about my answers and thus I've learned and absorbed much from my answers.

I'm the first person to admit that I'm not highly educated - I'm not saying I'm thick, I just didn't get the opportunities - but I do think I'm intelligent enough. I couldn't speak knowledgeably on the construction of a book or on the make up of a perfect sentence, but I've a natural ability to string words together in a coherent and hopefully engaging manner and know how to put them down into a book. I've also the will and determination and stamina to sit at the computer and do the work. So if people seek my opinion about writing then I'll happily give it (within reason). But does that make me a mentor? I don't know. I'd rather I was just seen as a sounding board. My opinion is my own and not necessarily right. I am very nervous when writers ask me for advice on the professional aspects of their writing (that is, anything to do with how they should deal with their agent or publisher) because if I say the wrong thing and it backfires then I guess I know where the blame will be levelled. Hint: please don't ask me these kind of questions.

I think having a group of like-minded peers is a fabulous asset. Having trusted friends who will support, but also be truthful if your writing is cack, has to be a great thing. I started my other blog, Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers, in an attempt at giving something back to all the aspiring authors out there trying to build their own platforms. I didn't have such tools at my disposal before I was published - being a Luddite I only went on the internet so I could get an email address so I could communicate with agents easier and didn't know what a blog was up until then. So in effect, though I'm just posting people's stories and offering support to them, I suppose that makes a mentor of me in some abstract respect. Or maybe not. I guess a mentor is someone who guides and teaches, and that's probably more like what I set out to do here at this blog. Not that I'm trying to teach anyone anything, just relating my highs and lows along the way, and hopefully giving an idea of what it's like to be published. I've learned a lot, and maybe some of my little nuggets have rubbed off (as cautionary tales?) and will help someone deal with similar travails as they arise. But, I'll say again, I dunno, I'm just speculating.

I've been asked about writing courses and writing groups and the like and if they're a good thing. Again, I'll admit that I don't know. I've never had a lesson and never been to a writing group. can it be a bad thing? It has to be good. If it helps your technical ability, makes you feel like you've gained something useful or have forged friendships with likeminnded individuals then it has to be worthy.

Off topic slightly, I'll tell you where I was a mentor. For the best part of twenty years I coached dozens if not hundreds of people in martial arts and took some of them all the way up to black belt and beyond. During that time I wasn't just trying to impart how to defend yourself but also how to conduct yourself with respect and humility and I seemed to have done so admirably. Some of my students are lifelong friends and I've watched them grow and flower into decent and dignified people. Maybe by offering the little nuggets of hope here I'll do the same for some aspiring authors, and help them achieve their own writing aspirations - not that you're not dignified and decent all ready ;-)

In re-reading that previous paragraph it sounds a little pompous, I didn't mean it to, but have left it in place as I trust in my own sentiment.

Also, if I am allowed to backtrack slightly, I'd like to redress a comment I made earlier (it's late at night, and I'm just writing stream of consciousness thoughts and stuff is still coming to me). I said I went without benefit of mentors. I think that statement was ill-informed on my part. There have been a few people who showed me kindness along the way or did impart some sage advice, and since I became a published author, some have continued to do so, so I guess that I did have mentors, albeit the type who just stepped in and out of my life at different times; but their words of advice were taken on board and have helped me get where I am today. Not all of them were writers, but their lessons have rung true.

So...mentors. Good or bad?

Good, definitely.

Just make sure you get the right ones! 'Mentors' who you have to pay extortionate amounts of money to, or you have to swear undying loyalty to, or to whom you have to give a litre of your lifeblood or first born child to, these I'd steer clear of.


Sue H said...

Matt - interesting reading, for this 'Glasshoppa' (yeah, I recognise that piccie) esp. in the wee, small hours when I've given up trying to get back to sleep ;-p

I think mentoring, or encouraging/passing on skills and advice to those who seek to hone their own personal skills is an honourable and worthy thing to do.

Please take it as a compliment that you are sought out and asked to advise and comment on the work and progress of those as yet un-published writers, myself included.

I think you have answered your own question, by your comments about setting up TK&C - it's a way of 'giving back' to the writing community.

I certainly appreciate reading what you (and others) have to say about the pleasures and pitfalls of what it takes to not only get published, but also to hone your craft. The problems and failures are every bit as important as the 'highs' and successes - they take away the 'god-like' status some writers have about their work and ground it in reality!

A line from a song I heard a while back - "I'm just one old hungry beggar, showing you where I found food...." - sharing your experiences is the very best you can do, Matt, and you do it so well! Thanks :-)

David Barber said...

Hi Matt,

As Sue said, you've given something back with T,K'n'C, and in some way is like a mentor as you accept the work and put it out there for us to be read by a large audience. You (And Col) gave me my first 'break' by publishing my first venture into the writing game and my confidence has grown from strength to strength. I can't thank you enough for that and look forward to seeing more of my work on you site.

Your last point about a mentor who would expect a fee, I wouldn't give them the time of day. Their 'pricey' advice could still leave you out in the cold. In my game, if I was to mentor someone, I would be paying them for learning my trade.

Great post mate. Regards.

Sue H said...

Sorry, Matt - just looked at this again and thought that title read "ToRmentor,or not?"

(Look, it's Monday morning, what do you expect - wit?) ;-p

Col Bury said...

Interesting post, Matt.
Bottom line is that it's in your nature to help people because you're a decent bloke who genuinely cares. And you're in the perfect position to do so having struggled (mainly alone) to achieve your success.
I look at you firstly as a great friend then also as the perfect 'sounding board' if anything in the publishing world is leaving me scratching my head. Any advice offered by you would certainly not be thrown back in your face if it wasn't sound, as I know your heart's in the right place.
Your guidance and support is second to none, and massively appreciated, mate.

Lee Hughes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Hughes said...

There's a couple of you out there that have helped me more than I'll be thankful of, and you keep doing it, over and over as if it's not a chore. Yourself, Col, and Chris Grant properly took time out to show me how to do speech and the grammar required. In the year I've known you all because of that I've been in several anthologies, one even got me a mention in the Best Horror of the Year book. That's why I love this community we have. We've all built up friendships and we help each other if asked. We all chuck our work around to each other and don't get arsey if we don't hear what we want.

Matt Hilton said...

Hey, all, thanks for the lovely messages, they're very touching and I'm pleased that I've been able to help and inspire you all in your writing ventures.'d you like to join this cult I'm setting up? The Fellowship of the Firey Ring (A result of sitting long hours at the keyboard!!) LOL

Mike Wilkerson said...

I really can't say anything better, than what the others here have already said.

Thanks for the great post!

Matt Hilton said...

Cheers, Mike.

Michael Malone said...

fascinating post, Matt. Isn't it funny how life provides the mentor you want just as you need them - provided you are willing to listen? I've found the Fellowship of the Firey Ring to be generous - so long as you don't abuse it. And I better stop there. This metaphor could get messy.

Matt Hilton said...

Thanks for dropping in Michael. I'm trying to think of something witty to say about the Fellowship of the Firey Ring, but am only conjuring images of too many beers and a super strong curry. Nuff said, me thinks!

Sue H said...

Thanks for that last comment Matt!

I'd just got over thinking about the Fellowship's first mention and I was just having a bite to eat while a did a catch-up online before I set off for work.

Sorta gone off it now....good job it wasn't curry

Matt Hilton said...

Me and my warped sense of humour...

Lily Childs said...

Thank you Matt, for responding to my question. Everything you've said is really valuable.

I agree with the other comments - if it hadn't been for your and Col's support and encouragement through, and outside of TKnC I wouldn't have had the confidence to take those first steps, let alone believe in myself. If that's not mentoring, I don't know what is.

Glaznost said...

I have to say i'm a bit concerned about your little nuggets rubbing off on me, i may live in Brighton but that's just not what two men should do to each other over the net!
(Perfectly acceptable in private though, if that's your thing).

Seriously, i've been lucky enough to have Peter James mentoring me, then i joined our little TKnC community and found a home where i could get genuie, honest feedback and also appreciation for my work in what's been a very difficult time for me with agents and the like.
Without you and the others who have been so supportive, i think i would have stagnated by now, and maybe even given up in a huff.
I've often thought that established authors should give more support to aspiring ones, and it's nice to see that you've already taken that step and do what you can to help us along the way.

I promise that when my books outsell yours, i'll still be as gracious... :P

Matt Hilton said...

Cheers Paul,
and I hope all your aspirations come true (not the rubbing of nuggets obviously!!)

Matt Hilton said...

Hi Lily,
and thank you kindly.

Thanks also for the great subject matter, and I'm really glad that you put the idea in my head to blog about this subject. The more it's been bandied back and forth, the more I get answers to all those 'don't know' admissions I put in the body of the post.
Thanks again (that's three times and that's supposedly the charm.)

Matt Hilton said...

By the way,
The Fellowship of the FIERY Ring. Dran hypos!

uh...I mean darn typos.

Glaznost said...

I know a good cream for that... (The fiery ring, not the typos)

Dean Ford said...

The mentoring of authors like yourself Matt can really make the difference for us aspiring scribes, and in my case really has! There doesn't have to be anything complex about it - just glimpses of inside knowledge from someone who's 'been there', words of encouragement and advice - it all helps. I think that having been published, it's your will to take the time to talk to others still working towards their publishing dreams, without charging anything and just doing it out of decency and enthusiasm, that counts the most.
Keep it up, and should I achieve my own publishing deal I'll strive to do the same :o)