IMPORTANCE OF HAVING A MENTOR
I explained how Miriam had fallen in love with an Afghan student in Scotland and followed him to Afghanistan, where they worked together on health and education projects. After her husband’s death she stayed on because she wanted their son to grow up in his own culture.
“Yes, I get the falling in love,” she said, “but Miriam seems not to miss her old life – that’s not usual.”
It made me think long and hard. I knew the answer to Jane’s question. Miriam always felt a bit of a misfit in her own culture. She was searching for something to make her feel her life was worthwhile. Then it dawned on me: I knew Miriam inside out but I hadn’t shared that knowledge about her back story with readers who would, like my mentor, probably be puzzled.
I went off to re-work that first chunk of manuscript. At our next meeting, Jane was pleased with the changes and I felt I was at last on the right lines.
I had been awarded a place on a mentoring scheme run by the Scottish Book Trust. Writers must live and work in Scotland but I am sure similar schemes are run in other countries. The scheme is open to writers who have had work commercially published and who are working on something in a different genre. For example a published children’s author might want to develop a poetry collection or a playwright who has had work professionally performed may want to write short stories. In my case, I had a narrative non-fiction book under my belt and wanted to work on a novel.
One of the reasons I was drawn to apply was the fact they said they would match the successful applicants with another writer or industry professional with appropriate experience. I did not want another writer as mentor and said I’d like an editor or a publisher. In fact, my mentor was neither of those but she had worked for many years in the book industry in sales and marketing and knew what kind of books sold.
At its best, mentoring creates an intimate, sharing environment, which allows the writer’s confidence to increase and unlocks their potential. Having a mentor look at my work and take time to discuss it with me was a tremendous help. What was really great was that she didn’t tell me something wasn’t working, nor did she ever suggest ways to fix a problem. Instead she asked questions, often pretty tough searching questions which led to my understanding there was some work to be done! I remember her once asking what my character Iqbal looked like – and I realised I hadn’t described him anywhere.
It was a real privilege to have someone so totally engaged with my work, to spend time reading drafts, to talk through my ideas for further development. Having a mentor is a totally different experience from having writer friends read your manuscript, or sending it to a critique agency or to beta readers. The relationship, and a high level of trust, develops over time – we had almost a year in which to work together. We had email exchanges every couple of weeks and half a dozen meetings. These were scheduled to last two hours but were always much longer.
In a mentor/mentee relationship ground rules must be set out from the beginning. One very important thing to remember is that mentor and mentee are NOT friends. It is a professional working relationship and must remain so. The other potentially sticky area is that of ownership of the work. I have heard of someone who felt her mentor thought it was her novel they were working on and wouldn’t let the author allow her central character to fall in love with her hero because the mentor wanted someone else!
I would certainly recommend having a mentor. I think for a new writer or an established writer wanting to develop work in other ways a mentor can be hugely beneficial – having someone completely absorbed in your work, being constructively critical and letting confidence develop.
Mary Smith was born on the island of Islay, Scotland and grew up in Dumfries & Galloway in south west Scotland. She worked for Oxfam in Lancashire for ten years. She later spent ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan, firstly for the Pakistan Leprosy Control Programme based in Karachi followed by establishing a mother and child health care project in the Hazara Jat region of Afghanistan and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
After returning to Scotland she worked as a freelance journalist while writing her first book, Before The Taliban: Living with War, Hoping for Peace. This narrative non-fiction account of her time in Afghnaistan lets the reader meet some of the ordinary Afghan women and their families with whom Mary worked.
Her second book, No More Mulberries, also set in Afghanistan is her first novel.
Mary's years in Afghanistan - often working in remote rural areas - allows her to bring a high degree of authenticity to her work.
Mary Smith is now a freelance journalist while working on her second novel and first poetry collection.
For more information on Mary's journalism, poetry and other projects visit her website at www.marysmith.co.uk