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Mentoring Young Writers Back
By Julie Kaewert
Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference, April 2007
If you’re a writer, and you’re here, you’ve probably had a mentor. I know that without at least three, I would never have made my first attempt in sixth grade, let alone choose a writing career. In general, writers don’t succeed without a little help from friends - whether success is just continuing to write for pleasure, getting published, or honing skills. And as I read Jodi Picoult’s amazing novels, and realize that she started young and actually got her college degree in creative writing, I am more than a little envious, and want to encourage young friends to mine to take advantage of an early start. Encouragement, support and a little guidance is what I think mentoring is all about.

What I’d like to do with this time is share my mentoring experience with you, talk about different kinds of mentoring relationships, what they consist of, and then to hear about yours.

Different kinds of mentor relationships
Career day - one day experience. Least satisfying for everyone, but better than nothing.

  • Hard for a writer, because it’s boring to sit and watch someone type
  • Showed her my reference materials, synopsis, outline, how I organize novels on the computer
  • Took her to meet the local mystery bookstore people in Boulder, talked about how it works with sales and tours and marketing
  • Tried to establish research assistant relationship for pay, but she did not seem interested
  • But that was it.
School program - three of these. Really helps to have a school assignment; then they have that first writing project under their belt and know they can do it again at any time - even when they’re 50. This was my own personal experience: I wrote a tiny little “novel” of 35 pages in the sixth grade, and was hooked.

  • Capstone, culminating end-of-year project for eighth grade IB students
  • Two novels; one poetry book
  • These students have chosen to do a novel, so they’re motivated and have some talent.
Casual friends and neighbors - two of these.

  • One girl who wrote constantly, had about eight books done by the age of 15, but not to a high standard. I talked her and her mother into entering one of her books in the PPWC contest and meeting with an agent last year. They were inspired by the conference and knew what to do if she wanted to carry it further in adulthood.
  • Another girl who was to come to this conference, 13, who also entered her novel (she has since written a sequel) in the contest this year. She is being home-schooled, she and my daughter are best friends, and she lives almost next door. I nearly fell over when one day last summer she brought over a finished novel - she had a very natural voice and was prolific.
What did I do for them? Styles of mentoring.
Student A - year-long school project
Needed lots of encouragement, easily discouraged, determined to complete project but not excited about it (though she really enjoyed it when she got going), not skilled at taking criticism. When she wrote her novel, she needed me to help

  1. establish intermediate deadlines (chapter 5 by October, Chapter 10 by Christmas…)
  2. brainstorm plot ideas
  3. do a final edit
Did not need:
  1. writing help - grammar, voice, dialogue…
Student B - year-long school project and some follow-on
Needed no encouragement, highly motivated, natural writer, enjoyed writing as recreation.

Very talented, subtle, writes way about age level. She needed me to help with:
  • mild edits every time we met, two weeks…that’s all!
  • After school project, we agreed to get together during the summer before high school to submit to publishers, etc. but vacations and camp came along, and life in general, and it didn’t happen.
  • Recommended conference
She is at the conference this year, and submitted to the contest. She is a sophomore in high school.

Student C - year-long school project to produce a poetry book. She had accumulated hundreds of poems written throughout her childhood; now in eighth grade. This was my most challenging mentee so far, because the goals of her project were not entirely clear to me. It started out just being a book of existing poems, but I could not in all good conscience let her complete a year of Capstone on poetry without some education in poetry. Recruited Karen Lin; Lizzy learned about poetry. She produced a beautiful book with only some old poems, and she really rose to the challenge poetry presents. She got it.

Student D - neighbor, friend of my daughter’s This girl came over one day at the end of summer and showed me her novel, and said she was writing a sequel. It was very natural, readable prose, and would need work on plot and pacing and dialogue, but she obviously had talent. I immediately encouraged her to come with us to the conference this year, enter the contest, and keep writing. I have also encouraged her to pursue writing skills in high school and college - like Jodi Picoult.

Recommended procedures/advice.
  • Ask up-front what sort of help they want from you.
  • Establish next meeting and plan for meeting each time.
  • If part of a school program, type up quick notes after each meeting for supervising teacher (and for yourself).
  • Suggest the next step.
  • Bring in expertise where needed (poetry).
  • Provide reference book gifts or loans:
    Writing Down the Bones
    Bird By Bird
    Stephen King On Writing
    Elizabeth George: Write Away
  • Recommend formal education - PPWC, Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Public Library Programs, college programs.
  • Insight: Gen Y article