Monday, May 23, 2016

Coach Not

Over the course of my career I've been asked by a bunch of people to be a mentor to a struggling writer they know. 75% of the time this is their son or daughter, so it's a touchy situation. It's generally because the parent wants a writer in the family (why? search me), or the kid wrote a poem, a short story, or something that won a contest. The other reason is the parent is an expert at getting their kid coaching from a pro, the way a kid who plays baseball is sent to an exclusive summer camp or training school run by some former major league player. Either way I get a phone call or an e-mail or a message via a mutual friend asking for help. There was a very inventive lady who even tried to use my kid to get to me for her kid.

I like kids, and consulting with an experienced professional writer in person in this area means contacting me or a guy who writes travel books, who I imagine gets all the nonfiction-related requests. It's not amazing how often they manage to hunt me down, as I'm fairly well-known to teachers, librarians and indie bookstore owners around here. Here's a typical encounter:

1. The parent initiates contact by telling me how lovely it is to meet me. Even thought they've never actually read any of my books, I'm assured that I come highly recommended as a really decent writer. I am polite.

2. The parent then admits they would rather be talking to Stephen King, as he's much more successful, but he never replies to their calls/e-mails/mutual friend messages. Then, very casually, the parent asks if I know Steve. They phrase it like that, too: "Do you know Steve?" like they already do and we might have him as a mutual acquaintance, but what they really hope is that I do because I'd represent one more shot at getting to him. I say no, sorry. I'm not sorry, but again, it's polite.

3. The parent launches into a roughly 85 page single-spaced synopsis of how they discovered Junior was meant to be a writer, how well Junior writes, what makes Junior different from and superior to every other kid in the world who writes, the last thing Junior wrote, etc. I listen to this and some wildly unrealistic expectations on all the great lit Junior is going to produce, if only someone in the biz would share their insight/wisdom/fairy dust and somehow magically compel the kid to write. Let me translate this for you: that would be me. Tragically, I fail to take the hint.

4. At this point I almost always receive a copy of Junior's poem, short story or contest win, which the parent asks me to honestly critique. What they really want is to hear how brilliant it is, so I always refuse. Very politely, too. This is their child's creative work. The Hope Diamond is not as valuable to them.

5. The now frustrated-but-hiding-it parent tries to set up a play date for me and the kid so we can meet and talk about Junior's future in the Publishing industry, or they ask me to contact the kid via phone or e-mail with some encouraging thoughts, which I must again very politely refuse. I am not much of a play dater. I used to do the contact thing, but after an editor's kid tried to sell my encouraging words on eBay I admit, I got a little jaded.

While all this is going on, I'm always thinking the same thing: Thank you, Mom, for never doing this to me. I don't say that, though. This is what I say:

1. I think it's wonderful that Junior is so talented. (Always praise the kid first. It's a nice thing to do.)

2. I don't mentor other writers because I barely have enough time to do my own work and take care of my home and family. (Always true, never believed. Like when I tell non-writers that I don't make millions off my books.)

3. I recommend things like online resources and free writing classes, NaNoWriMo, and the few books on writing that I think are worth the cover price. Oddly I never recommend Stephen King's, which I think like most of his stuff is really more of a memoir put through a wood chipper on acid. I usually mention James Scott Bell and Sage Cohen.

The end result: 99.9% of the time, the parent thanks me in the same tone I use to tell telemarketers to stop calling my house. I then never hear from them again. I'm guessing it's because I should have flung myself at this marvelous chance to browbeat their budding writer into the next Stephen King.

Seriously, I do understand how parents can get their hopes up, but I really don't know how mentorship can turn anyone into a writer. Then again, I'm self-taught in nearly everything I do outside of cooking and cleaning. Since turning pro I've picked up a lot from some older/wiser authors who chose to share their experience, opinions and advice with me. I've gotten some great stuff from new and inexperienced writers as well. I listen, but mainly I rely on myself, self-study, trial and error, and a lot of practice. I share what I know about writing here, but it's mostly me talking shop because I love to talk shop. Also, I'm not holding a gun to your head to make you read it. If you stop in and like it, great. If you don't, you won't come back to read more, great.

If you have a child or a family member who loves to write, there is a lot you can do to help them. First, don't look for ways to push them -- be supportive instead. You can provide them with the tools they need by taking a more practical approach. If they need writing supplies, buy them. If they need time to write, or a dedicated space to write in, arrange it for them. Take them to the book store and buy them a new journal or how-to writing book. Get them a library card. Let them have your old laptop. The key is to provide them with what they really need to write: writing stuff.

No one in my family really believed I would end up being a professional writer. Back then it simply wasn't something girls did. Do you want to know what I consider the greatest thing my mother ever did for me as a writer? She got me a secondhand Royal Academy manual typewriter, on which I wrote my first novel. Until she did I wrote everything in longhand. I think having a typewriter that could keep up with my thoughts is what really got me hooked on writing. So there you go.


  1. My first thought was 'Oh no, they didn't', but of course they did, and they do. I wouldn't even conceive of such a thing. Blows my mind. Right now, no one knows me well enough to attempt to ask me for help. I did have an adult ask me if I could write the story idea he had for him. "Sorry, no, I don't write that way." Then if I could help him write it. "Again, not my thing." Or give him tips on how to write it. Now, that, I could do. But I don't think he liked my answer of 'Sit down and write it. Every day. Until it's done.' ;o)

  2. Parents can be pretty pushy. I hope you never had a bad scene with one afterward. I tried to mentor a child once in keeping chickens, but like a lot of kids he soon lost interest.

    Other adults are the ones that usually get pushy for advice and mentorship. I don't mind helping but it's usually a one-sided relationship. They only show up when they need something. You're not a relationship to them but a bank. It makes me feel used and put out.

    But I've had good experiences too, both as a mentor and a mentee. The good ones remain friends long after the mentorship is over.

  3. This is similar to people who don't understand how much it actually costs to create something, like a piece of needlework or a quilt. Anything over 1.99 is just outrageous and you should be willing to do it for nothing for them.

  4. Everyone wants something from you when you are in a creative field. I've had such requests, and I am not well-known by any means. And as for typewriters.... my parents got me my first Monkey Wards yellow typewriter when I was in grade school. I remember that Christmas well-- I was typing with one index finger for hours and eventually made it bleed. To this day I don't even dial a phone with that finger :)

  5. I remember posting my first (gawdawfulholycrap) chapter of a story on a fan fiction site and was pummeled by requests such as; I have this idea in my head and this is how it goes (insert 500 words on the convoluted idea) but I need someone to write it and I've picked you! I never responded. I was learning, I wasn't good (I'm still learning and not necessarily 'good' but it comes with time and practice - go figure) and saw the requests for what they were. I don't blame you for not wanting to mentor someone. It's a time consuming, thankless job in most cases demanded by people looking for someone else to do all the work while they take all the credit. For free.

    No thanks!


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