Mentors

by Toni McGee Causey

It’s funny, but I would have thought the man didn’t even know my name. I had known him for some time as the teacher who was the writer-in-residence at LSU. David Madden, nominated for a Pulitzer in 1979 for The Suicide’s Wife. (He would go on to be nominated for another Pulitzer in 1996 for The Sharpshooter.) He intimidated the hell out of me.

(An aside: David intimidated the hell out of most people. He enjoyed that, he said a couple of days ago. He liked to start with a bad impression and then improve from there.)

I was in Allen Hall, second floor, walking past his office one day—just an ordinary day. I had no idea my life was about to radically change. Fifteen years ago, and I can still tell you the color shirt he had on (light green). Gold rimmed glasses. Khaki pants. And I can tell you that, because the moment struck me like lightning: David stopped me in the hall and asked, “Why haven’t you applied to the MFA program?”

I looked around to see who on earth he was talking to, and realized he was talking to me. “Uh, I have.”

Now, LSU had a very firm policy of absolutely not taking their own undergraduates into the grad program. I knew this, and applied anyway. (What was the worst they could do? Say no?) I did not hold out a lot of hope for an exception. However, as a young mom of two, and a partner in a construction company, I couldn’t exactly parade across the country to attend any other program, so I figured I might as well apply to LSU. And I knew David was the head of the program; David had created the MFA program at LSU.

“I haven’t heard back from them,” I continued. I probably looked calm and cool on the outside. On the inside, I was thinking, holy shit, he knows my name! And then wait… is that a good thing or a bad thing?

“I hear your stuff is good,” he said, more to himself I think, than me. “You’re published, right?”

“Just non-fiction.” I had been selling freelance articles for about ten years at that point—I had, in fact, interrupted that career to return to school because I wanted to go back to my first love, fiction, and I needed some structure to do so. I also wanted to finish the degree (which was referred to for so long as “that damned degree” that we started calling it TDD for short.)

“Bring me some samples and let me see.”

And then he was off, heading to class to scare the bejesus out of a few dozen other students.

The next day, I dropped off samples of my writing and a couple of days later, David stopped me in the hall and asked me again how the application was going.

“Well, I think there’s some concern because I’m an undergrad here,” I said, and he frowned at me from behind those glasses as if I’d just said, “I think there’s some concern that I have green ears and three noses.” I had no idea if “you’re an undergrad here” was the euphemism for “we think you suck and we’re not admitting you,” but I suspected it was.

“I read your stuff,” he said, as gruff as blunt force trauma. “You’re in.”

And the next thing I knew, I got an acceptance letter.

We talked about this a couple of days ago—David just retired, and a few of us met him for lunch. I wanted him to know how he changed my life. I’m not entirely sure I would have had the courage to keep writing fiction in the face of rejection if he hadn’t stepped in and intervened.

(A note about MFA programs… you learn when you enter that you don’t really know enough to claim to know anything at all. When you leave, if you’re lucky and you’ve had good teachers, you realize you’ll never know enough to claim you know much at all, but that that’s okay. The point of writing is the discovery and any kind of school is just part of the journey.)

One of the finest things about writers is that, on the whole, we’re supportive of each other. Sure, we’d like some of the good stuff to happen to us, but as Victoria Alexander said at the PASIC conference, “It’s not that we want it to happen to us instead of our friends. Just in addition to.” Writers have an inclusive sort of competition—let’s push each other to be better, let’s cheer each other on when we accomplish that goal, and let’s encourage each other when it’s going rough because one day, we will need that same encouragement.

I have been exceptionally lucky in mentors. Chocolate covered lucky.  Max Adams (who happens to be stunningly talented) ran an amazing online workshop that I credit with being one of the very best educational experiences of my life. Sharp, funny, brilliant writer Rosemary Edghill took the time to mentor me through the initial phase of my writing Bobbie Faye as a book (switching over from it as a script, as it was originally written) and then introducing me to my editor. Harley Jane Kozak stepped up and said, “Sure!” when ITW asked her to mentor this crazy new writer and has been an absolute joy. There is just no one funnier than Harley and I love her work; last year at RT, Harley had me in tears at lunch, she was so funny.

Our own Allison Brennan probably had no idea what she was getting into when we first met online. (I am like Kudzu. I am everywhere and hard to kill.) Allison’s super talented (and doesn’t seem to realize it); she’s smarter than any five people put together (no, seriously, there were tests). Mostly, I’ve never met anyone nicer. She’s mentored me through all sorts of business questions. I understand (well, as much as I think they can be understood) royalty statements because of Allison. (25 years doing accounting for our construction company didn’t hurt, but seriously? I am pretty sure the first royalty statements were created by the people who thought they would utilize string theory or alternate-universe-math.) I have a firm enough grasp on returns to be sufficiently depressed and best of all, I respect the hell out of her. [I know that when I pick up her books, I’m in for a great read. It doesn’t get much better than that, folks. Her newest book, FATAL SECRETS, is damned good, and is going to be out on Tuesday. Here’s a description:

Fiery ICE Agent teams with cool-headed FBI Assistant Director to stop a deadly human trafficking conspiracy in northern California.  

And because I think this is an awesome review:

RT Book Reviews gave it a Top Pick and said: Bestseller Brennan’s new heroine is the epitome of a survivor. In this chilling thriller, Brennan explores the consequences of sliding from fierce commitment into obsession. The sociopathic villain at the center of this tale is truly revolting. A master of suspense, Brennan does another outstanding job uniting horrifying action, procedural drama and the birth of a romance — a prime example of why she’s tops in the genre.

She’s taught me more about publishing than anyone else… which made me curious… who were her mentors? I asked and here’s what she said:

Mr. Kubiak. My sophomore English teacher who was both kind and belligerent, tough and supportive. He’s the teacher who most inspired me to read classic American literature. (My junior year was English Literature–I didn’t like that a fraction as much, partly because of the teacher I had. Except for reading Hamlet, which is probably my favorite Shakespeare play.) Mr. Kubiak set the bar for teachers, and while I’ve had some really good and some really bad teachers, Mr. Kubiak taught me the most that I actually apply in my writing. I still have the Prentice-Hall HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS that I used in his class. He also challenged and pushed me harder than most. I tended to be a student who naturally did well, so I slacked off most of the time because I knew when the final came around I’d ace it. Mr. Kubiak didn’t let me slack off.

Patti Berg. When I first joined Romance Writers of America (specifically the Sacramento chapter) as an unpublished writer, Patti Berg was one of the published authors who immediately introduced herself and made me feel welcome. When I sold, she was one of the first to congratulate me. When I hit the USA Today list my debut week, she’s the one who called to tell me. (I had no idea the list was online the Wednesday before!) When I nervously asked her to do a workshop with me at my first RWA conference in 2005 (after I sold but before my book came out), she happily agreed. She has been hugely supportive of me and my career and is one of the most genuine people I know. 

Mariah Stewart. When I first sold to Ballantine, I thought I knew nearly everything there was to know about publishing. After all, I’d gotten an agent the old-fashion way (blind query) and we’d sold pretty quick. But after asking my agent hundreds of really, really stupid questions, I realized I knew next to nothing about the business. Mariah Stewart emailed me out of the blue and introduced herself, leaving an open door for any questions I might have. I was nervous because she was a major author and I was nobody, but I started asking questions and she gave me honest answers. If it wasn’t for Marti, I would have made far more missteps than I have. Now, I can talk to her about anything–professional jealousy, our publisher, agents in general, covers, whatever–and we have a terrific friendship. She’s the big sister I never had, and I’d throw myself in front of a bus for her. (Though I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that!)

[I met Mariah Stewart at PASIC and Marti and I joked that I was her “grand-mentee.” She is as amazing as Allison says.]

As writers, we’re really in this together. Readers out there are generally not going to just read one book a year. They are, we hope and pray, going to read more than one, and I want the other books they pick up to be really great, because I want them to love that hobby, to love taking the time out of their hectic schedule to give some time to an author, and we need a lot of good books for that to happen. I know I haven’t felt like I’d learned enough about the business until maybe this year to feel like I could genuinely answer questions on the business, but I hope to be able to pass along some of what I’ve learned and make someone else’s path a little easier. We are a tradition. A tribe. A Club. A culture. A belief system. 

We are family.

I know I could spend several more hours listing people who’ve been mentors for me—who’ve either influenced my writing or answered questions. But for now, I want to hear about someone who has mentored YOU – whether it’s in writing or ANY other field. Give a shout-out to someone who encouraged YOU. AND TO CELEBRATE MENTORS, I’m going to give away FIVE COPIES of Allison’s previous book, SUDDEN DEATH, to five people who comment. I’m going to be doing other mentor-and-friend giveaways for the next couple of weeks, so come back to win.

26 thoughts on “Mentors

  1. Allison Brennan

    Hi Toni, you’re pretty dang incredible yourself. I’ve learned so much from you in the time we’ve known each other! I remember getting an email from you about a week before the first Thrillerfest in Arizona. You said that you were nervous and didn’t know what you’d gotten yourself into but would I mind it if you hung out with me a bit that first day? We ended up spending the long weekend together, and it was a blast. I got to get to know Rob and Brett and many more, and was as grateful for a friendly face as you were!

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  2. Eika

    Ms. Coskren. Best teacher I ever had.

    Ms. Not Miss, as she was married, and certainly never Mrs., as she kept her OWN last name, thank you very much, and she knew telemarketers immediately by who they asked for. Ms. Here’s-my-phone-number-now-use-it Coskren. Third graders were never treated so grown-up.

    She spent a week out of the year testing the class on hundreds of words- eight pages, front and back, lined in three columns- graded them individually, and personalized each person’s spelling test. Monday group knew the most words starting off, Friday knew the least, and I moved from Wednesday to Tuesday when I learned faster, studied harder, than someone else. You didn’t start learning division until you’d gotten 100% on the 60-second 30-question multiplication test (the mad minute) three times in a row. If you had free time, you did worksheets on science experiments, using rulers and markers and textbooks individually as you got to it; later, we were expected to make time for three daily worksheets so we could color in and identify every state’s shape, state bird, state flower, and know the nickname and capital.

    The next time anyone expected so much out of me, I was in AP classes in high school.

    If there’s a work ethic I know, it started there. If there’s a philosophy I believe, it started there; what other elementary school teacher encourages debate? And she got me writing. Those daily paragraphs I hated, that turned into half pages, that turned into full pages, that turned into ‘you have 45 minutes. Go’… and I hated every minute of it. Now I write all the time. It’s her fault.

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  3. Julie

    I’m lucky enough to belong to a very prolific RWA chapter (Greater Seattle). As a result, I was also lucky enough to meet Susan Mallery. Susan is a great mentor. Besides being brutally honest, at the beginning of Susan’s career, she amassed fifty rejections in eighteen months. In other words, she persisted till she got what she wanted. I listen to everything she says. I take notes. After all, I’ve learned a lot from her about writing, and about life.

    Cherry Adair is the fairy godmother of the Greater Seattle chapter. She wants you to succeed more than you do. She encourages, she cheerleads, and she will kick you in the butt when you need it. I have never met anyone in my life that is more generous with both her time and her money.

    I also have to say something about Allison Brennan. I met Allison at Greater Seattle’s conference this past October. We’re both pantsers. She encouraged me to own my process instead of fighting it, and I really appreciated it. (Plus, then I could go back and tell my plotter-to-the-tenth-power buddy to back off. LOL!)

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  4. William Simon

    I was also fortunate enough to fall under the good graces of Rosemary Edghill, leading to my first sale in almost 20 years. Some of our conversations were "intense", to say the least, but she was and continues to be a source of information, inspiration, and a good friend.

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  5. JT Ellison

    Too many mentors to count – that’s the beauty of our incredible writing community. I meet new writers I admire at every event, and each of them has given me something, whether they know it or not.

    But a few of note: Del Tinsley, part of my Sisters in Crime chapter in Nashville, who is more than just a mentor.; Tasha Alexander, who steered me away from some truly egregious mistakes; Lee Child, who openly mentored me and gave me the best advice I’ve ever received; John Connolly, a truly kind man who encouraged me from the start. Without John, I may not have made it, and that’s the truth. Allison Brennan, who is amazingly honest, which is refreshing. Alex Kava and Erica Spindler, who are writers to emulate. Jeff Abbott, a smart, saavy writer who gives great advice. All the Killer Year folks, who taught me patience, and everyone at Murderati – who teach me the right way to do just about everything. Talk about being blessed – we have the greatest tribe in the land : )

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  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    Well, Toni, you have once again stolen my blog topic. We must be in sync. Well, not exactly stolen it. I was going to talk more about how supportive the writing community is — not mentors specifically — but close enough, right?

    Anyway, I’ve always been a kind of private guy and showed my work to very few people. So, in a way, I guess I mentored myself. Two of those few, however, were a wonderful writer named Jan Lorimer, who convinced me I had what it takes to succeed in this world, and Kathy Mackel, who talked me into writing my first novel rather than turn it into a screenplay, then continued to cheerlead even when I dragged my feet on the thing.

    Since then, I’ve run across a number of writers who have helped me out, including Allison — as you said, her knowledge of this business has been a lifesaver. Gayle Lynds, who stepped up during the Killer Year phase and counseled me about the biz as well.

    And then there’s my old animation writing partner, Larry Brody, who was kind enough to take me under his wing way back when and help me understand economy in writing. He’s still going strong over at tvwriter.com.

    That’s the beauty of this profession. There’s always someone out there willing to lend a helping hand.

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  7. toni mcgee causey

    Rob, I’m so glad you mentioned Kathy and I cannot believe I forgot to list her. (Kathy gave me the best, clearest advice on how to go back to prose from screenwriting, and Bobbie Faye wouldn’t exist in book form had it not been for her keen eye and advice at a pivotal moment.)

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  8. billie

    Authors and teachers Lee Smith, Laurel Goldman, and Peggy Payne; and my first agent, Tracy Brown, who treated me AND my novel like we were the most fabulous things in the publishing world and who spoiled me rotten with his attention and regular contact.

    Ellen Gilchrist and Paul Bowles corresponded with me during some difficult times and made me feel like I was NOT crazy and I WAS a writer.

    Dear friend and author Raul Correa spent so much time on the telephone listening to me whine about agent stuff in the beginning he deserves sainthood. There was some drama on my end and he always commiserated and told stories that made me laugh.

    And after all this, that novel is in a box on my bookshelf upstairs. ONE DAY, though, I’ll get to thank all of them on an acknowledgements page. 🙂

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  9. Louise Ure

    Jude Greber/Gillian Roberts, hands down. Not only was she my first writing teacher (at a local bookstore, with an evening class called "Eight Weeks to Stronger Fiction") but she then led a writers group at her house for the next year which was the only reason I started writing Forcing Amaryllis at all. Today she’s not only my mentor but my friend. I cherish that.

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  10. TerriMolina

    I had to really think about this because, like Rob, I didn’t really show my work to anyone until after I joined RWA and the Northwest Houston chapter, which is where I met Christy Craig and PJ Mellor. Both invited me (ME) to critique with them and both were very open and honest with their opinions about what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right. And, at the time neither of us were published (although they both are now…oddball out, thats me. ;-P)
    In the past five years though I’ve met some very wonderful people including you, Toni and Allison and Rob who’ve been even more encouraging and thoughtful and very, very giving of your (their) time. You all keep me believing I can do this even when it seems the fates are against me. There are so many more to thank, but I won’t hog the blog, I’ll just say, Thank You.

    Great post Toni!

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  11. Sally Hanan

    My first encouragement came from a teacher in 10th grade. She liked my writing, and that gave me the confidence to think that I could perhaps give readers some enjoyment out of what I wrote. My second mentor was actually a group–I joined Faithwriters in 2005 and have been blessed beyond measure by their praise, encouragment and critique.

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  12. Sarah Snell-Pym

    Miss Savage,

    Of all the teachers you listened to what I wanted to be and encouraged me to draw the stories I could not write. At 10 yrs of age you saw a potential in me and told me I could be a writer even if I could not yet read or write.

    Instilling me with the self confidence I needed, you showed me that for every problem there was a solution just around the corner. Allowing me to tell you my stories, whilst you wrote them down, giving me active rolls in the creative process of creating the school play – from scratch – including the dialogue and the scenery. Then to the most important lesson, helping me handle the concept of rejection – even if it was just the school choir.

    Your lessons where more valuable than what you *had* to teach and gave me the drive to survive secondary school and make it to one of the best Science and Technology colleges in the world not to mention being a published poet before the age of 18.

    For this I can not thankyou enough.

    All the best

    Sarah

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  13. Tom

    Another of SoCal/LA’s treasured mentors – Sheila Finch, formerly of El Camino Community College. I’d always been a pretty fluent user of English, but without Sheila I’d still be clueless about why my work goes adrift.

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  14. Pari

    Oh, Toni,
    There are so many. The folks here at Murderati; Sara Ann freed whom I’ve mentioned in this context many times before; all the people who attend First Friday meetings in Albuquerque; my critique group — all published writers; my children and husband.

    Today I’m thinking about a lady named Beth Kolad who was my supervisor during my internship at the International Institute of Detroit. She and Tom Croxton–an influential professor who took a special interest in my education in grad school–taught me how to go inside and listen honestly to myself. They also taught me how to truly listen to others.

    What a gift.
    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to remember them so fondly today.

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  15. Pammy D

    Well Toni – you would be my mentor for this crazy novel I’m writing. Thank you! And Mr. Schillinger my 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teacher. Our writing assignment was to do a book report. Another teacher said I must have copied mine from the book jacket. I didn’t. I won a dollar for that book report, and a whole lot of encouragement.

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  16. Kristen Howe

    What got me into reading was my high school English teacher, Mrs. Persh. God Bless her. She got me hooked into reading more than ever than I usually do. It began with Mary Higgins Clark’s classic mysteries and escalated into cozies and thrillers from there. My reading shelf is huge. She almost made me want to become a writer (in which I hope to be published sometime soon) to carve my niche into that field (eco-thrillers and thrillers). I also would say that Iris Johansen and Erica Spindler are my thriller mentors. Erica is also my Shelfari friend and fellow Twitter. I go to her for editing/writing advice. I use their novels for examples. Thanks for the great blog Toni and thanks Erica.

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  17. Brandi

    My roommate. She’s an amazing writer, and is always encouraging me. She seems to know exactly what to say about whatever problem I’m having, though I might not realize it at the time. Like last night when I couldn’t figure out the motivation for a certain character.

    She told me to think about what has to happen in the scene, which I thought was crazy advice, since I already knew what happens. Ten minutes later, I had a lightbulb moment. I had to go back and mumble something about her being right and say thank you.

    She keeps my inner editor in check too–my biggest problem while writing draft. If not for her, I’d probably still be writing false starts and never finishing. Every person should be so lucky as to have someone like her in their life.

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  18. Karen in Ohio

    Toni, I linked this from your Facebook page. Great topic!

    Also, too many mentors to count, but the ones who were pivotal are the man who mentored me into my own business, 30 years ago, and then introduced me to my husband of 27 years. And the women, bless their hearts, who insisted that I continue writing a newsletter that led to writing four books, teaching nationally, and finding my true bliss.

    One issue I had with my business mentor was that he wanted to continue being my mentor, even when I had very clearly outgrown his level of support. That was very difficult, to divorce myself from the business we shared so I could grow more, and in a different direction. We are friends again now, but it took awhile to achieve that friendship. I think part of the problem stemmed from the male-female relationship. But it was good for both of us, in the end, and he later acknowledged that he had been trying to mold me where he wanted me to go.

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  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Um… give me a moment to get over the idea of being "openly mentored" by Lee Child and/or Larry Brody.,,,

    Okay…

    You know, honestly, I much prefer the word "teacher". So – best teachers?

    Ms. Ward, English Lit in high school, who was Berkeley to the core and taught English literature as revolution and as tyranny,simultaneously. My god, what an inspiration! She never called me anything but SOKOLOFF!!!! at the top of her lungs, and she made it clear without ever playing favorites that she thought I was the pick of the litter in tenth grade and I killed myself to be worthy of it and learned more about writing that year than I have ever, anywhere, since.

    Mark Rosenberg, my first TA when I was myself at Berkeley, who when I was a 16 year old freshman returned my first Dramatic Lit paper to me so covered in red ink it looked like Julius Caesar had died on it. He gave me a C when I was used to straight As, which made me almost pass out, but upon further inspection I could see that he’d first given me an A and then markered out that grade and made it a C, and from this I deduced he wanted something from me. I made every change he red inked on that paper and had my second huge epiphany about writing and never made less than an A plus from him after that. Another quantum leap in writing and life….

    Professor Dunbar Ogden, also at Berkeley, who picked my first one act play out of the submissions in his Dramatic Lit class and had a graduate student stage it and after I’d had my first shot of the heroin that is seeing your own characters live on stage said to me simply "Did you feel how that audience reacted? You’re a writer. Write."

    Shireen Strooker, director and actress of the Amsterdam Werkteater, who directed the company class at Berkeley my senior year and in the very first improvisation she gave me, the first day she met me, nailed my greatest fear and shame and made me externalize it on stage for an audience and told me – "Show me the dirt. Dare to be bad," and changed my creative life forever….

    And my mother, who made me write a page every day of my elementary school existence until writing was just something I did along with breathing.

    There have been many, many more since then, hundreds – but those? Made me.

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  20. Allison Brennan

    Hi Julie, I’m so glad you found something I said helpful, because sometimes I worry about myself . . .

    And Rob, JT and Terri . . . I don’t know how helpful I am, but I do love talking with other writers about the business and sharing wisdom 😉

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  21. Jessa Slade

    Like some of the other commenters here, I had a HS English teacher who made the difference for me. I’ll always remember him because he gave me a C. Me, the straight A student. Got a C. Devastating.

    When I asked him about it, he looked me in the eye and said, I know you can do better. Ouch.

    Whenever I get complacent, those words come back to bite me.

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  22. toni mcgee causey

    Wow, gone for a while today and came back to some great stories of mentors and teachers. (Alex and Jessa, I can relate to that C when I was used to getting an A.)

    Excellent shout-outs–thanks, everyone.

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  23. RachaelfromNJ

    The first person that comes to mind is an English teacher that I had. She encouraged me and praised me when I didn’t believe in myself at all. Her eyes lit up every time she would read something I wrote and she gave me so much confidence when it came to writing. She was hard on me sometimes but I’ll never forget this lady.

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  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thank you for that wonderful post, Toni. I always always always wanted to have a mentor. It never happened. I’ve had a few really good teachers, and one that took some time to kick the cliches out of my writing, but no one that ever stuck. I’m still looking.

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  25. Jessica Scott

    As an active duty army officer, I’ve actually had very few mentors. My shoulder to lean on for all officer questions is Major Saint Amant. She’s a fantastic officer who never hesitates to give me tough love when I need it. She’s also been supportive of my desire to write and sell my books and has given me practical advice on balancing Army life with writing life (there are things as an officer, I’m just not supposed to say).
    On the writing front, I could not agree more with Ms. Alexander’s quote about writers being a supportive group. My RWA chapter in Austin is fantastic. We do query critiques, workshops and retreats all designed to support our up and coming authors with our PAN’s knowledge. Julie Kenner took me under her wing earlier this year, despite a hellish deadline schedule, and she never pulled back on her comments to make my writing stronger. That’s the key to a good mentor relationship: you have to say what’s hard to say sometimes. Candace Irvin, on the RomVets loop, pulled me out of oblivion and worked with me through my first book and was my shoulder to cry on through hundreds of rejections before I landed my agent. She’s great for cheering me on and giving me the hard advice that I might not be ready to hear but ultimately, she’s right (she told me over a year ago I probably needed to just start over on my first book. I am doing that now.)
    Ultimately, I look for a mentor to tell it to me straight, not sugar coat it and to tell me when something needs work. Otherwise, how will I improve? I pass the same thing along when I critique or get asked questions. I’m in awe of Allison’s mentorship. She’s fantastic and I’m completely taking a page from her book on how to create an online persona that is professional, courteous and willing to share her knowledge. Her PASIC class last fall was fantastic and so full of good advice, I’m still rereading the notes.

    Jessica Scott

    Reply

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