Sometimes it’s just dumb luck. You stumble into an obscure writing class and the instructor shows you God. You meet an author who for some inexplicable reason gives you his time and attention. You stumble out of a fiction seminar half-blinded by sudden understanding. Your third, tenth, eighteenth try at finding an agent yields a friend for life.
You have just found a mentor.
Where the Good Teachers Are
When I look back at the people who’ve had a huge positive influence on me, I realize that finding them was in large part dumb luck. Of course, as I explained in my post What You Need to Succeed, you have to put yourself in a position to be lucky, and I was pretty good at that. I went to conventions, took classes, and–as an introvert–forced myself to be charming to strangers.
The thing is? Your mentors won’t, and can’t be, the same as mine. I guess that’s obvious. But what I mean to say is that sometimes there’s a spark between people, and sometimes not so much. Sometimes there is one piece that you really need to learn, that you are ready to learn, and when that particular teacher at that particular moment says it, you feel as though you’ve been living in a stuffy room, and suddenly the windows are thrown open.
Where are they, then? Conferences, back yard parties, writing seminars, keynote speeches, readings, panels and chance encounters at Starbucks. Be open to teachers. They are not always standing next to a power point presentation. Sometimes they are scarfing ribs next to you in a friend’s back yard.
I don’t think I have ever, in one place, listed and said thank you to people without whom I would be less of a writer. Without whom I might not be a writer at all. People who helped me when I had no publishable material, who especially loved the first publishable piece I did write, people who helped me scrape my chin off the cement when I crashed. My undying thanks to:
Robert J. Ray. From whom I learned to write fast and hot, and from a front-loaded subconscious place. (Author of The Weekend Novelist and the Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.) I met Bob at the very start of my writing career at Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, and long story short, I think he saved my ass.
Donald Maass. My agent. We once did a panel called “Can This Marriage be Saved?” spoofing the agent/writer relationship. I bitched about him, he railed against me… it was really fun. And it was all true. Don has helped me find my writer strengths, writer weaknesses, and has been steady, demanding, and brilliant at the times when I needed each thing.
Don McQuinn. Who taught me the warrior qualities of courage (never let ’em see you sweat) loyalty (you take the king’s money, you do the king’s work) and generosity and grace–which is Don McQuinn in a snapshot. (Learn from Don at Wired Writers.)
Mike Resnick. I met him at a back yard BBQ. He had just blurbed my first book and claimed he’d “read every other page.” I was so crushed, I thought I might die right there. That was my first lesson in keeping a sense of humor. Mike has also saved my ass, taught me what makes a good short story, and believed in me when I certainly didn’t.
Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Well, I guess an organization can’t be a mentor. Yet here is where I met most of the people who turned my life around. If I had gone to the PNWA conference earlier in my efforts to get published, I would have 20 novels by now, not 10. It’s because of my experience with PNWA that I started a conference in Eastern Washington. It takes a hell of a lot of time, but you pay it forward.
At Write on the River, I have the seen the look on people’s faces as they come out of classes from the likes of Brian McDonald, Larry Brooks and Elizabeth Lyon. I think I know what they’re feeling: I think I can do this. I finally get it. I can hardly wait to try.
Been there, met them. Thank God.
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