Strap in for the ride. This is going to be a bit longer than I usually share with you. Reason being, I sourced the net for a list of attributes for a treatise on Mentoring. I want to address the process from both sides, first, providing insights into the etiquette of being mentored and, second, taking the responsibility of being a good mentor.
The current terminology seems to be Mentors and Mentees. (Sounds like candy that will clear your sinuses!) Since that comes out a bit weird, I wanted an alternative designation, at least for the person being mentored. I don’t want to say Prodigy, because it connotes the person is already far advanced from the Mentor. Acolyte / Proselyte sounds a bit religious. Trainee could suffice, but it sounds limpid in comparison. Oh, wait! How about Protégé? “One who is protected or trained or whose career is furthered by a person of experience, prominence, or influence.” ( — courtesy of Merriam-Webster ) So let’s roll with a Mentor (who’s gained some experience) and a Protégé (who could stand to gain from the other’s experience). And (s)he doesn’t even have to be French.
Why am I addressing this topic? Think about it. Every aspiring Writer could benefit from the insights and cautions an established Author has to offer. Imagine if you could spend a fortnight with Tom Clancy and glean from him the methodology he used to construct his blockbuster novels about Jack Ryan. If you had weekends on a regular basis to sit and talk with Anne McCaffrey, wouldn’t you delve into what inspired her to fashion the world of Pern and its dragons? I think one creepy evening draining the brain of Stephen King would last you for a lifetime of inspiration to write your own chillers.
And when YOU have polished your craft to be that good, when you’ve had your run with fame and fortune, when you’ve made your mark on the Writing World, wouldn’t it be nice to pass along that wealth of understanding to someone you’d like to see succeed?
Why wait? You could be doing that now.
There’s someone you know who also writes, and you could partner together to improve each other’s writing, voice, style, technique, and broaden the range of your vision. At your local school, there’s doubtless someone who’d appreciate a tutor to help learn to frame their thoughts better, to express themselves more fully in a medium that can reach farther than their circle of friends. National Novel Writing Month is always looking for volunteers to act as Municipal Liaisons on the local level, in your town, so the folks taking the challenge have someone to keep them motivated. Ask your Library if there are programs in place to help members of your community learn writing techniques; if not, then offer to create one. Get off your ‘but‘ and get involved!
Okay, that was the cheerleader pitch. Now let’s take a look at the nuts-and-bolts process. Remember, I told you we’d look at it from both sides, Protégé and Mentor.
As a Protégé:
- Know what you want – Before you ever ask someone to be your Mentor, you should have some idea of what you want to accomplish, and why. Be certain of your motivation, so you have an anchor point for your determination and diligent effort. When you make your goals specific, the Mentor is better able to address them, and you can stay focused on staying the course to reach them.
- Find the right person – This may be the hardest step, since it requires a bit of research. You don’t want to grasp at straws; you should seek out someone you’d like to emulate. The Mentor you choose should publicly display knowledge, experience, strength, and skills you’d like to cultivate in your own life. Dream big, to ensure your sights are on more than what you currently have available, but set your expectations realistically. If someone ‘close to home’ can help you grow beyond your current state, you don’t need a celebrity to do it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask – You’ll never know, if you don’t ask. If you can do so in person, keep the initial request short, letting the prospective Mentor digest your proposal. Face-to-face can be more casual; via other media (phone / email / letter / etc.), you should be a bit more formal. Structure your inquiry with just enough information to prompt the person to pick up and continue a dialog with you; do not include every minute detail you’ve imagined in your head. Those are things to work out as a follow-up to a solid commitment.
- Don’t overstay your welcome – Set a time-frame within which to work together. Set defined goals and work toward them. When you’ve accomplished them, or your time expires, determine if it’s time to end or renegotiate.
- Manage your schedule – Be the one who stays on top of the commitment. Work with your Mentor to meet and learn during times that are amenable for both of you. Suggest, but don’t nag. Be prompt and prepared—every time. Have an agenda and do your best to hold to it.
- This is an interpersonal relationship – Treat each other with respect. Listen and discuss; debate without fighting. Let the relationship develop organically, don’t force it. In all likelihood, if you’ve chosen wisely and minded your manners throughout the project, you will have built a life-long friendship.
- Take stock of the results – Follow up on a regular basis. Solicit feedback, even if it seems challenging, so you can grow. Be honest with yourself and your Mentor about things that are working and things that aren’t. Evaluate and readjust where necessary. If that means ending the relationship, do so amicably and with dignity. Each of you can move on with your lives with no recriminations.
- Be thankful – Your Mentor takes of his time to impart advice, probably gleaned at some personal cost. Don’t squander that. Show your gratitude in appropriate ways; with your words, with a phone call, with a personal heartfelt note.
As a Mentor:
- Develop the relationship – Whether you’ve been asked to be a Mentor, or if you’ve sought a Protégé, you have a responsibility to manage the quality of the tutelage. Assess your readiness, set goals, cultivate interest, build trust, and keep the process on track.
- Be an advocate – Pave the way for your Protégé to develop new skills and gain good recognition. Introduce them to your already established network.
- Plan for tomorrow – Keep an eye on the future of the craft you’re teaching, for challenges and for opportunities. Prepare your Protégé as much as practical for the changes.
- Guide and counsel – Be an adviser, a confidant, a sounding-board. Help your Protégé understand both the good and the bad aspects of your craft. Explain the most effective methods to navigate the processes that bring success.
- Be apt to teach – This is the most personal part of Mentoring, imparting your knowledge and personal experiences. After all, relationships aren’t book-work, but sharing the events that shape lives. As a Mentor, that’s what you’re doing; shaping the future successful life of your Protégé.
- Be the best example – So much of what we communicate is non-verbal. So too, you speak volumes to your Protégé simply by the way you conduct yourself: not only your style, methods, and procedures; but also your standards, values, and attitudes. When a Protégé holds your opinions in high regard, he’s likely to follow your lead, so be conscientious of your behavior.
- Be a cheerleader – One of your key roles is to motivate and inspire your Protégé. When you help them to grow and succeed, show them how to be responsible for their own work and contributions, they develop a sense of self-worth. That’s part of what makes the whole process fun. Don’t skimp on it. Your Protégé will thank you for the effort when they realize how much you invested in the success.
Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that none of us would have gotten to this advanced stage of civilization if it weren’t for those who blazed the trail before us and shared the secrets of how they accomplished it. Even if you have the most grandiose ideas of how to change the face of the writing world, it still behooves you to learn from the styles used in the past. As a reference, as an anchor point, as a contrast. Doesn’t matter what you call it or for what purpose you hold onto the knowledge, any tiny bit of it might wind up being a template for some current project.
If you find yourself floundering for info, going round in circles over how to express a concept, or you just need help organizing your haphazard ideas into a usable method, consider partnering with another Writer. If you’re equally matched in skills, you can be sounding-boards for one another, but don’t expect to grow and change very much. When you dive into a Mentor / Protégé relationship, though, expect to jump light-years ahead in the planning, implementation, and production of your stories. You will only get exponentially better when you’re working with someone who helps to challenge your own perceived limits and can guide you across that threshold.
Are you a Protégé? Find a good Mentor who brings out the best in you.
Are you a Mentor? Encourage a fledgling Protégé to step forward and become great.