To Mentor or Not to Mentor?

"The window must always be left open for them, always, always," Mrs Darling in Peter Pan


In this blog post I will talk a little bit about mentoring and writing being a journey. 


For the past two weeks I have been editing two books I’ve been working on – both had deadlines. I am happy to say that both were sent to be reviewed on time. Deadlines get the cortisol rising – Will I do the work on time? Will it be good enough? Have I put all of my effort into it? Could I have done better? Will there be another chance to correct and change things? But they can also be your friends. I write out my deadlines and Blutak them to the cupboard door in front of me so I can see them. It’s accountability and something to aim towards. Then when the work is sent there is a wonderful feeling of relief and accomplishment. 


Writing and publishing a book is a collective effort. It’s a cumulation of the past YOU, all of the things you have written, have half written and thought about but never written. It’s the mentors, the odd person here and there offering you tips and advice from their experience, it’s the courses and workshops you have been on, it’s the books you have read. It's your agent, your editor, your beta readers. It’s an accumulation of the ‘failures’ and ‘successes’ that you have imagined yourself to have. A book doesn’t JUST happen. There is a long process even if the writing part is speedy, the whirling of consciousness and connection that has to take place can be years in the making. It's the time sat on your behind typing, deleting, adding, deleting, adding some more. 


I’m writing about this after seeing a couple of tweets this week. One was by a professional writer who felt she had failed. The other by an aspiring writer who felt she had failed. The feeling was basically the same despite one having some ‘success’ and one yet to have reached any (in her eyes). I wrote to both of them and told them they were doing great and that it's a journey.


Why is it good to have a mentor and to be mentored? 


I was a mentee on the Megaphone project set up by children's author Leila Rasheed and funding by the Arts Council and the Publishers Association as well as in-kind support from Writing West Midlands and others. I was mentored for one whole year and attended masterclasses with published and experienced authors such as Catherine Johnson (pictured). I know the value of being a mentee and what it meant for my work. I had never written a novel before and being mentored for a year definitely helped me get to the end of the first draft. Not long after, I was signed with my agent Alice Sutherland-Hawes.


This week my mentee Lui Sit sent me her finished first draft of her novel. It’s a massive achievement. A success in its own right. But it’s not the end of the process. However, there should be celebration when finishing a novel – it’s a big feat. Not everyone can do it. The basic thing at the beginning was finding out the story Lui wanted to tell. She had one character but multiple possibilities and directions. I simply offered some suggestions for Lui to find the story she wanted to write. And on top of that, I ask my mentee -  what free time do you have? What family or work commitments do you have and when and where can you plan your writing time around those things? I set deadlines, read anything sent to me and I offer encouragement.


I’ve been a mentor for over two years now with my first mentee being Eliza Chan, a fantasy writer from Scotland. I really enjoy mentoring and when I first chose to do it back in January 2018 it was because I was annoyed. I was annoyed that I was the only British Chinese writer I knew. I was also annoyed that there were hardly books that reflected me or people who looked like me in the UK bookstores. And finally, I was annoyed by a scheme that said it was to help and promote British Chinese stories, but I felt had come about because some people were better at filling in funding applications than others. So, I thought, what can I do for free, that would just take up a few hours? Become a mentor. And I also set up Bubble Tea Writers, which is a facebook group for writers of East Asian and Southeast Asian heritage in the UK. Now I am less annoyed! I have learnt so much from both of my mentees – it is a two-way process. I have two new friends. And it’s a joy to see their stories grow and develop over a year. I've seen two first drafts birthed from my mentees and it's exciting. 



Why did I think I would make a good mentor?


I was an emerging author who had written her first novel and gotten an agent fairly soon after. I had been writing on and off since 2006 and had some experience of the writing industry with some small publications. And I had been mentored myself multiple times and I knew what kind of mentoring I had been given and the kind of mentor I wanted to be.  I come from a holistic background and know it's not only about the writing. It's about other things too. How writing fits into a lifestyle, what messages the writer is telling themselves, it's about supporting a whole person who doesn't live in a vacuum. 


What is next for me? 


My children have been off school for the summer holidays since the 24th June. This has meant less pressure to teach them things, to set up the home school by 9am and even though we weren’t doing a lot of ‘schooling’ it felt like I had to at least try to have them learn something. That has gone now. I have a little more time to think about new projects. I will be writing some monologues about Bertrada – possibly the original Mother Goose for Moat Brae who will be part of The Wild Goose Festival in October.


And somewhat related to that I will be preparing a workshop for #WriteMentor’s WOWCON in September about retelling fairy tales, myths and legends.



Next week I begin a CITY LIT online course with Andrew Weale on how to write picture books! As part of my placement as the Dr Gavin Wallace fellowship, one of the things I really wanted to do this year was to learn how to write picture books. I’ve already done two short workshops, and now I will spend a few weeks looking intensely about how to begin and hopefully meet some new people too. I don’t know if I will have some picture books to show by the end of the course, but I enjoy the process of learning new things. I find, if one kind of writing feels stagnant, it’s always good to learn a different form. 


My head feels much lighter and I hope in the next two weeks I can play with words and have fun now the pressure of deadlines has paused for a while. 


(Photo taken by Leila Rasheed)