The author reflects on the satisfactions accrued from giving back
I find myself doing a fair amount of mentoring for young writers these days. It makes me happy to be able to share my knowledge, experience and an occasional opinion with people who have a keen interest in becoming writers and in some instances editors. I’ve been at this writing/editing work for many years, and most of what we do hasn’t changed much. The technology? For sure. But not the people stuff.
One of my mentees wants to write their first novel (I’m going to opt for “their” as the preferred personal pronoun in order to avoid he or she identifiers). Another is a newspaper journalist interested in conducting a series of interviews on a hot topic, which will be ladled into a nonfiction book. Yet another is a short story writer who really wants to write novels but intends to master the short story form first, hoping it will help develop the skills for the book-length form. A librarian is embarking upon their first novel. One is quite a good editor already who wants to become a screenwriter. And yet another, who admires the work we baristas do at Fictional Café, has designs on becoming a developmental editor.
Collectively this is quite an abundance of rich talent, each of whom appreciates help and advice. Often, my mentoring involves reading their work; less often but also of importance is talking or exchanging thoughts in video, texts or emails. In almost every instance, my counsel is based on my pretty-much lifetime of writing and editing experiences. But I refrain from suggesting how to fix their work. I offer advice only, which the writer or editor can choose to follow or not. As phrased as the finest advice a writer can ever receive, I try to employ “show, don’t tell.” I am not of the Gordon Lish School of Writing Instruction (see Criticism). I follow in the path set upon by Maxwell Perkins (see Career).
I was approached a week or so ago to connect with an individual on LinkedIn who has started a rather innovative business: “Have you ever thought about creating an online course to share that precious knowledge with the world and make some extra cash while doing it?” I have thought about that. There’s a value proposition here, and some say people appreciate getting something more if they have to pay for it. I won’t deny that, but the transaction works in both directions and for me, it’s not about getting money. My compensation is the satisfaction of knowing I’ve helped another writer or editor become better at what they do.
Not counting my own, I’ve probably added editorial value to about 125 books. That’s a lot of work and a lot of satisfaction. Over the course of those experiences I developed something of a methodology for writing both nonfiction and fiction. It works well for both—if the writer is receptive to a structured approach to creative writing. Some people aren’t; perhaps the most notable experience of this I ever had was while teaching my approach in an adult education class. One writer smacked the desk, stood up and said it was a bunch of hooey; their style was to just sit down and start writing and see where it went. Then they got up and stalked out of the class. Nothing wrong with that approach; many writers, including (I understand) Lee Child write this way – no notes, outline, structure, just go for it.
To which I say, yeah, if that’s what works for you, yes, go for it. But those whom I mentor seem to appreciate a more structured creative development process. I think one of the big advantages is it pretty much obviates writer’s block, simply because you know what’s supposed to happen next. It also deflects the urge to jump back a chapter or so to add a sentence or paragraph, which of course is what revision, not the first draft, is intended for. But that’s a subject for another blog post.