Authors – Looking for a Mentor? Here’s How to Find One by Karen Dionne

Early in my writing career, there were two people who I consider mentors. Both were New York Times bestselling authors. One worked with me for over a year, the other, only once. Both were instrumental in helping me take my writing from promising to publishable.

I met Gayle Lynds in 2005 at a mystery writers conference in Chicago. Later, after she kindly agreed to read the first 50 pages of my agented-but-not-yet-published novel, to my surprise, she called me on the phone to discuss. We talked about villains and endings and I learned more in those few minutes of discussion specific to my story than I had from years of reading how-to-write books. The conversation inspired me to write a second, stronger ending to my novel without which I don’t believe the book would have sold.

I met Carolyn Hougan at a mystery writers conference in Toronto a year earlier when I interviewed her and her husband, Jim, who together wrote thrillers under the pseudonym “John Case.” We crossed paths twice more at conferences, and eventually struck up a writing friendship over early morning coffee at the first ThrillerFest convention in Phoenix, Arizona. For the next year until her death after a short, private battle with cancer, Carolyn helped me advance my writing in more ways than I can count.

The commonality in both instances is obvious: I met the authors who later became my writing mentors in person. I believe this is key to finding a mentor. Mentors offer assistance not only because they want to give back to aspiring writers in principle, but also because they want to help a specific person; someone they met, shared a drink with, became friends with.

Creating opportunities for writers to connect with other writers is one of the reasons I organized the Backspace Writers Conferences in New York City for nine years, and more recently, the Salt Cay Writers Retreat on a private island in the Bahamas. I asked Salt Cay students if the face-to-face interaction they experienced during the retreat resulted in mentorship opportunities.

“The time spent with Amy Einhorn (Publisher and Vice President of Amy Einhorn Books) shines in my mind as an amazingly rare opportunity,” one student wrote. “Her insights and guidance were invaluable to me in shaping my work. I still read my notes from that session to see if I’m staying true to the ideas we shared then.”

“Robert Goolrick (author of the critically acclaimed memoir THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, in addition to the #1 New York Times bestselling novel A RELIABLE WIFE) took the mentorship role well beyond the days at the Retreat,” wrote another. “Weeks after the retreat was over, he read my revisions, offering more input, support, guidance, and suggestions. If it weren’t for Robert’s mentoring, my book would be gathering cyber-dust on my hard-drive. Instead, it’s under consideration with an editor at a respected publisher.”

Said a third: “I enjoyed the counsel and compliments of the editor of multiple New York Times bestsellers, as well as a bestselling author who’s one of my inspirations around a picnic table on the beach, or over rum runners in the bar. Together these experiences did exactly what good mentorship should, giving me the clear-eyed confidence to move forward.”

“I’m in the final stages of completing a thriller manuscript,” wrote another. “Particularly helpful was the guidance from Jeff Kleinman, of Folio Literary Management, both in the workshops and in our one-on-one session. The guidance involved critiques of specific issues in the writing reviewed and general principles that I could apply throughout my manuscript.”

No matter their talent, an aspiring author still has much to learn. Offering help to a less experienced author is a way for more experienced authors to pay it forward. But the relationship isn’t one-sided. Mentors benefit as well.

Writes Kleinman, “During the Salt Cay Writers Retreat, I felt that we were interacting, all of us learning: creating a dialogue about writing and what it means to be a writer. After the retreat, I became the Facebook friend of most of the attendees, and I’ve continued to follow them. I’ve never, ever had this happen in any conference or retreat I’ve attended – a week on a Bahamian island really creates a very special atmosphere!”

It’s important to remember that like other relationships, a student-mentor relationship tends to come about organically. It might take time and more than one event before you find someone with whom you connect, and that’s okay – there are a lot of reasons to get out from behind your computer and mingle with other writers aside from finding a mentor. But attending conferences and retreats goes a long way toward finding those special authors and publishing professionals who are eager to help you reach your publishing goals.

When Carolyn Hougan passed away, I learned from comments posted to social network sites and bulletin boards that I wasn’t the only aspiring author she was mentoring. I should have known.


Karen-green shirt-b&wKaren Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. A second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming published from Berkley in January 2011.

Karen is cofounder of the online writers community Backspace, and organizes the Salt Cay Writers Retreat held every year on a private island in the Bahamas. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the International Thriller Writers, where she served on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.

Karen has been honored by the Michigan Humanities Council as a Humanities Scholar for her body of work as an author, writer, and as co-founder of Backspace.

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