Pillar #2 – The Need for a Constant Mentoring Presence

December 12, 2017

By Art Holcomb

For a while now, I’ve been talking about the six pillars of education needed by all writers to succeed.

Pillar #1 was all about the need for high-quality craft educational information.

But the next pillar is something that most writers know in their hearts they need but never believe that will ever have a chance to get – a constant mentoring presence in their lives.

Now I can talk about all the things a mentor can offer: directions, support, and honest critique. But all those things become meaningless unless you can get the one thing that we all absolutely must have sometimes . . .

Answers to our questions – when we need them.

Let’s break that down . . .

ANSWERS:   Your job is to CREATE.  Let that concept settle in for a minute.

Writing is all about you taking your native talents and using them to make connections that are unique to you – and then presenting them to the world.

Your writing is unlike anything anyone else is doing.

Because of that, your journey as a writer is unique.

And there will be plenty of times when you hit a road block or become lost. It is at those moments when answers are the most important thing in the world to you.

Here are some of the questions I face regularly – even after forty years of writing:

  • Why isn’t this working?
  • How can I say this better?
  • Am I reaching the reader?
  • What am I really trying to say?
  • What is the truth I’m seeking?
  • What does my work say about human nature?
  • What the Hell am I doing here?

And here’s where a good mentor can help you.  They will know which questions to answer and which one to let you seek out for yourself.

. . . TO YOUR QUESTIONS:  Now, in almost every case, your questions will not be my questions.  Certainly in the beginning, we seek similar information; if this wasn’t true, there would be no reason for books, seminars, classes and even StoryFix to exist. But your journey is unique and therefore your questions will be unique.  And perhaps, most importantly, it is vital that you really understand – truly understand – the answers you get.  That is when a personal mentor is valuable – they can make sure you really get it before you move on.

. . . WHEN YOU NEED THEM:  The right answer is no good to you if it comes too late. We all know that feeling when we are stalled and have no idea what comes next.  A simple word, a brief explanation, the right direction at a critical moment, is all we need sometimes to get us on our way.  The ability to ask that question and get the right answer when you need it can make all the difference in the world.

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

In my writing life, I have had many writing mentors:

  • My sixth grade teacher, Pat Hanzad, who first recognized my abilities and encouraged me to express myself on paper.
  • Sal Orlando, my high school English teacher, who absolutely hated everything I wrote for him.
  • David Gerrold (of Star Trek Tribble fame), my first real writing teacher, who first showed me what I could really accomplish.
  • STAR TREK Showrunners Brannon Braga, Rene Echevarria and others at Paramount Pictures who trained me over the sixteen years I worked with them.
  • And people like comic book legends Len Wein and Jim Shooter, and my great friend – the science fiction novelist Howard V. Hendrix – who were always there with guidance and support.

In each case, I had a personal relationship with the people who helped guide my career.

And that made all the difference.

Books and seminars can really help.  Classes and conferences can be inspirations.  But a personal relationship with a mentor means that you are never on this journey alone.

Through this relationship, you see that writing really is an apprenticeship rather than a long, lonely trek through a vast and endless desert.

HOW TO FIND A MENTOR

It may seem daunting, but mentors are out there waiting for you…

Use what you already have:  Do you already know a writer who has had the kind of success you’d like to have?  Is there someone in your circle who has the knowledge you seek? Take them out for coffee and ask whether you can pick their brain.  Be respectful at all times, but the best writers know that we didn’t get here on our own – others helped us along the way.

We can never repay them for that kindness, but they might be more than happy to help you as a way of paying those people back.

Join a community: The more you mix with successful writers, the more opportunities you will find. Online Facebook groups can be a great way to meet other writers. Local critique groups, classes, conferences and other educational opportunities can give you a way to making personal connections and find great mentoring relationships.

The key thing is to always:

  • Seek out writers who are more successful than you,
  • Be respectful and professional when you approach them and
  • Be honest and genuine.

Take a DIRECTED class or webinar: If you have a need to work on your dialogue skills, for example, find a class that focuses on that single issue and you will see your crafts skills multiply.  But always be sure that you are concentrating on specific and targeted skills sets.  A general class may be interesting, but one that is designed to meet a specific need will be much more helpful.  Places like The Writer’s Store and others available online can get you started.

Hire a consulting mentor:  There are hundreds of writing teachers like myself and Larry who work with developing writers to help move them to the next level of their careers.  Sometimes all you need is a quick conversation for some much needed assistance or direction, or some concentrated time spent working on specific issues like dialogue, plot, emotional impact or career guidance. However your needs manifest themselves, there are people out there to help you.  Larry’s information and services is listed on the site, and you can always reach me at aholcomb07@gmail.com for more information about my seminar and consulting services.

And finally, drop us a comment here:  Larry and I are always looking for ways to serve you better.  If there is a topic that you’re interested in, or a question that we might answer, it could be of interest to other writers and could make for a good post on StoryFix. Feel free to send me an email with your idea and we can see what we can do!

NEXT TIME: We’ll talk about the third pillar of writing:  The Short Feedback Loop.

Until then – Keep Writing!

Art

******

In addition to Art’s contact information (above), you can learn more about his courses and consulting/mentoring programs on his website

Also, you may recall Larry has offered an evolving series of affordable story analysis programs, with different focuses, in addition to his video training programs. The latest evolution will be announced next week, when Larry’s next post goes up.

 

 

 

11 Comments

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11 Responses to Pillar #2 – The Need for a Constant Mentoring Presence

  1. Love this!! I especially resonated with the statement, “Your job is to create.” Great stuff.

  2. Fun timing of this post, because I’ve been thinking now is the perfect time to get a writing coach. The challenge I’m finding is twofold: 1) That I’ve studied so much productivity and mindset techniques over the years, so people in my price range can not provide the level of assistance I need, and 2) I haven’t been able to find anyone yet who does both writing and productivity (as in making the smart choice about what to do next). I haven’t given up yet! Still experimenting with processes to reach for the next level.

    That would sure be a dream to have Art be my coach though! 🙂

  3. This is a great post. Thanks for all the truth you shared so clearly. A good mentor is invaluable.

  4. Robert Jones

    Art,

    YES! So many writers miss those points. I was recently having a conversation with my GF on how no one makes it alone. The best writers I’ve known have all stated they seek help and criticism. We are all too close to our own work to see the flaws clearly.

    Secondly, we all look at other creators for inspiration and to see what they are doing that might speak to us, or help step up our game. Then we use that to do our own take, possibly expand on some of it, and help others grow. There’s a saying that we are all one another’s success stories—and this is so true!

    This all comes under the heading of advice we hear so often from writers who tell newbies they have to find their own way, figure out their own process. This advice is often taken as a permission slip to ignore craft. When what it actually means is craft, and the works of other creators who inspire, filtered through the individual, will become their own unique style. For example: Stephen King has an enormous impact on his fans. But no one is actually going to become the next SK without becoming a watered down version. You have to be yourself. And if certain aspects of King become a part of you, great. But you have to be the pilot of your own craft, otherwise you’ll end up feeling inferior and intimidated to the idea of soaring on your own. In other words, second rate to the king you’ve placed on a pedestal. That’s not a slight on King, or any other writer you hold in high esteem, BTW. However, there is a confidence factor involved in stepping across the line into the professional arena. And agents and editors can see quite clearly if you have sprouted your own wings or if you’re still trying to simulate flight in the shadow of another.

    I also think we could have a little more community on SF. We see how engaging it is when Larry has posted story analysis from his clients, how people engage in critiques and ideas. And while I understand people don’t want to publicly expose their ideas, or possibly look foolish, I can pretty much guarantee that any question posed about craft problems, and getting stuck on seemingly simple things, is something we all face—or have faced.

  5. kerry boytzun

    @Robert Jones: I’ve tried to get people to type more words on this blog but “they’re too busy”. I always try to add something useful to the post instead of an atta boy.

    Larry Brooks has been my mentor for years. I went to a writing conference the other month and just being with them was revitalizing.

    Great points Art. For me what would be interesting is how or if, you create stories to make a statement on something you see in life.

    Another topic is the effect of instilling emotion into a scene and the pros and cons of it. For example, there’s a time and place for humor via a wise-cracking character. If the scene is supposed to make one reflect on the seriousness of it, then the wise-cracks will diminish the mood.

    It’s known in psychology that anger ignites action while humor puts the breaks on it. This is why much of hollywood has movies that should incense people to action but are comedies. This isn’t by accident.

    A great topic to write about would be to detail “less is more”. This can be applied to adverbs, adjectives…chase scenes. There are some great editing books out there that cover this in detail too.

    Another topic that is really needed is “contextual realism.” This is advanced but still necessary. It’s observed as moving the plot by having the characters make mistakes. These mistakes have no cause and in real life would make one wonder if they lost their mind. Each character has a level of intelligence that gets them where they are in life. They do not all of the sudden do something in the complete opposite direction because the author said so. However, hollywood (TV series, movies) is very fond of “fooling the viewer” so they incorporate these “surprise moves.” But these moves are unbelievable. Just read imdb.com review of such. Yet they go on. The Help didn’t succumb to this error and thus was awesome.

    Thanks, Kerry

    • Kerry:

      Fantastic! Topics based on your suggestions could include: writing for the message, how to avoid over-plotting, creating better conflicts, writing for emotional impact and understanding scene construction, as well as perfecting your process and making the most out of twists, turns and reveals. An impressive list.

      I’ll take these thoughts to heart and see if we cannot address these topics in some upcoming posts. Thanks, Kerry!

      Anybody else?

      • Robert Jones

        Kerry’s list just about sums it up for me as well. I would love to hear your take, and Larry’s on all of those subjects.

  6. Robert Jones

    @Kerry,

    I always read your posts with interest. Even your rants prove points that I wish the general audience would see, or understand better.

    For example: Humor undercutting so many serious scenes. Few writers can actually get away with this in my opinion. Or at least do it well enough to come across as believable. It would seems that Hollywood doesn’t want their audience to leave feeling too depressed, or think about serious issues. Such things are not considered to be successful as opposed to the “roller coaster ride of fun” they seem to advocate. Or as bankable.

    I’m sure there are statistics or test audiences to back these things up. However, perpetuating these things seems to have conditioned a large part of the populace to laugh in the face of danger, or not take it very seriously. Part of the desensitizing process? I fear for the future of story tellers if we are faced with this type of decreed dumbing down.

    Essentially it’s a corporate decree that undermines craft. The unpopular version of most bad writing we see out there is due to their bottom line coming first. If it isn’t making the money they expect, or sales dip, they’ll clean house to the point where not only the baby gets thrown out with the bath water, but the bassinet too. Then they’ll hire inexperienced kids and pay them less wile looking for the next cash cow.

    This is pretty much what happened to the comic book industy. And why most of their revenue now comes from movies. I recently talked to a friend, a writer who was once editor and chief of one of the big comic companies. He said mentioning story structure to the new editors gets defiant looks and comments like, “No one is doing that these days.”

    WHAT!?! Yes. A good sized chunk of the entertainment industry has been gutted of craft sense by the current powers that be. Not to say it won’t come back around at some point. Everything comes full circle sooner or later. But it is more important than ever for up and coming writers to educate themselves. Because giving into fads and current (popular?) thinking will only result in being tossed away once things change up again. Unless you’re smart and adaptable!

  7. MikeR

    @Robert:

    There was one movie, so far, that I actually WALKED OUT on: “Terms of Endearment.”

    Nevermind that Jack Nicholson is an amazing actor and that both he and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for their efforts: *I* walked out. (And snuck-in to the movie next door to finish my popcorn.)

    Why did I do it? Because the =screenplay= had failed me. I could no longer suspend my disbelief. Suddenly, it was “an actor, speaking his lines.” Not a believable fictional character, speaking. I could not seriously believe that this washed-up character was an astronaut, or anything else. I could not believe(!) the situation that he had been placed into … by the off-stage screenwriter that I could suddenly very-plainly SEE.

    I had a similarly negative experience with the Anne Rice “Vampire” novels, and please let’s not even talk about the teenage-travesties that have happened since then! I =love= a good vampire-story, but I haven’t seen a single good one since “Dracula.” (And, OMG, if you’ve heard about it but never actually =read= it. But, I digress.) I suddenly could not continue to accept that Anne’s protagonist, Lestat, consciously would put himself into the situations that she described. Suddenly, he was “a puppet on a string,” and I could plainly see Anne pulling those strings. I returned(!) her second novel to the bookstore and have ignored her ever since.

  8. Robert Jones

    @MikeR

    I’ve been there myself. Many times, in fact. Some of those times were during very acclaimed movies and novels. Sometimes it’s from purely bad writing, directing, acting—good publicity can make the average person accept a lot. Other times it can be something as simple as a writer blatantly ignoring craft, inserting cliches that were outdated since the 1940s, or any number of things that as a creator, I know the writer should be aware of. Often his editors should’ve been aware of.

    The more you know, the harder it becomes to accept things that top tier money makers in the industry portray. Maybe they’re laughing in the face of the status quo who invented all the “Can’t Dos.” I get that. However, more often than not, it’s those unbelievable things as you described that fly in the face of credibility. It pulls you out of the experience of the story. And unless the story really has enough going for it on other levels to pull you back in, you’re interest is lost. And it’s very hard to become reinvested again.

    What makes it worse is when those same creators talk about how much they care about their craft, the subject matter, their characters, the terrific job the actors did. And I think about those little slips that should’ve been an easy fix. Or how they risked losing their audience by laughing in the face of the status quo over something very inconsequential—just because they can because of their reputation.

    No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. What I can’t appreciate about such things is when it becomes lazy writing, or because they think no one will notice because the average audience member has the mentality of a twelve year old. I take that to mean their inner child still wants to have fun, not because they’re stupid. And if they are stupid, do you really want to short change your work to suit idiots? Because then I will begin to take it as the writer is simply doing a job and not having as much fun creatively.

    Sometimes it’s a personal integrity issue. But I suppose that’s subjective from creator to creator. And in cases of movies, too many hands decreeing things that compromise the creator initiative integrity. I’ve been a part of stories done by committee. The final product often doesn’t resemble the initial idea the creators were excited about—at all! In which case, you console yourself that you at least got to eat and pay your bills.

  9. Great post, my first time here and been reading 3 great posts so far, loving it!!

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