Although I live hundreds of miles from Laura Purdie Salas and Lisa Bullard, we've connected through the topic of mentorship. Co-owners of Mentors4Rent, a mentorship service with some interesting tech twists, Lisa and Laura understand the importance of coaching. They get that writers at every level of prowess benefit from feedback and have developed some creative approaches to propelling writers forward. Please visit their website (http://www.MentorsForRent.com) to learn more about how they work with writers. If you Like their Mentors for Rent Facebook page, you’ll see regular tips on writing and publishing for children and young adults. And...they've offered an easy-peasy contest in which the winner receives a free 45 minute session. Details follow at the end of the interview. Now let's get to it!
Please provide a brief description of your backgrounds.
Laura: I was a Creative Writing major in college and have worked as an editor, copyeditor, teacher, and freelance writer over the years. In the 1990s, I began writing for kids, and that’s been my main focus ever since. I’ve written tons of nonfiction books, which I love, though my very favorite form is poetry. My newest books are A Leaf Can Be… (Millbrook, 2012), which I can’t believe just appeared on NYTimes.com, and BookSpeak! Poems About Books (Clarion, 2011), an NCTE Notable Book and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist. Over the years, I’ve worked with children’s/YA writers through workshops, conferences, online classes, and the Institute of Children’s Literature. It’s a really satisfying part of my writing career.
Lisa: I attended the Denver Publishing Institute and then worked as a book publishing professional for sixteen years. But as I was working on other writers’ books—and learning a lot from them—I was also writing my own books on the side. My first picture book, Not Enough Beds!, was accepted by an editor and came out in 1999, and I had the thrill of engaging with the publishing process as a writer. A couple years and another picture book later, I decided to try to make a go as a freelance writer. Thanks to everything I learned about books and publishing during the early part of my career, since then I’ve been able to sustain myself as a writer (one who also does a whole lot of other things—such as Mentors for Rent—to help pay the bills).
Please describe the genesis of Mentors for Rent. What gap in the market did you hope to fill?
We’re fortunate to live in the Twin Cities, where the active book community provides lots of opportunities to network with other writers. Each of us had been teaching children’s/YA book writing and offering individual critiques for many years, and we both especially enjoyed working with new writers. Then the two of us started meeting for brainstorming/marketing lunches, and we decided to collaborate on a class. Our strengths (and weaknesses) really complement each other. We knew from online friends that many writers don’t have strong local writing communities. So we decided to offer our class online. We co-taught several successful rounds of online classes, but many students craved even more personalized feedback (on manuscripts, cover letters, submission strategies, and career planning). We especially liked the idea of being able to meet with writers via Skype, re-creating the friendly face-to-face conversations we’ve had so many times in Twin Cities coffee shops with local writers. Mentors for Rent is our “virtual coffee shop” answer to affordable, supportive, and individualized help for writers who want to reach the next stage of their writing life.
What is the profile of your typical client? (level of experience, genre, etc.)
It’s turned out that there isn’t a typical client, other than the fact that they’re all enthusiastic about writing for children or young adults. We had our first international client this month—an Indian woman who lives in Singapore (figuring out the timing for that Skype session was complicated!). We recently worked with a writer on her very first piece of children’s writing, and we worked with Becky Levine, a writer already published with Writer’s Digest Books who also wanted to (and subsequently did!) break in to the nonfiction educational market. We worked with a client on a cute rhyming picture book about a mouse and we worked with Anne Schwab, a graduate of Hamline’s Writing for Children MFA program, on a final edit and creating submission materials for her young adult novel in verse. Other clients want to ask questions about interpreting emails their editors have sent them or questions about marketing their work or basic questions that they feel funny asking at writing conferences. And we’re proud that many of our clients enjoy the experience so much that they come back for follow-up sessions.
A lot of mentoring in the writing world happens on a volunteer basis through critique groups. What are the differences and/or benefits of for-hire mentoring? Aside from the obvious cost, are there any detriments?
We’re both members of critique groups ourselves, and we often encourage the writers we work with to find critique groups. They serve such an important function by offering support, regular feedback, community, and sometimes just a reason to get to work (so that you don’t disappoint the group by showing up empty-handed)! But writing groups are often made up of writers who are at approximately the same stage of the writing journey. We know from firsthand experience with our own manuscripts-in-progress that sometimes it’s valuable to get feedback from a writer who is further up the “writing food chain.” A more experienced writer tends to notice different things than your own critique group—or perhaps they notice the same things, but as writers, we hear those things differently from somebody who is an objective outsider and not our critique group buddy. It’s also easier for an objective outsider to tell a writer some of those hard truths that a critique group might not be willing to. And of course, we offer a lot more than critiques—many of the clients we work with want help with the marketing and business questions that come up for writers.
The only detriment we can think of is that sometimes technology is a fickle creature: we’ve had to learn to be flexible when Skype isn’t working, or somebody’s computer crashes unexpectedly.
What has surprised you about being a mentor since you started Mentors for Rent? What have you learned about the process?
Before we started Mentors for Rent, we had each individually mentored many other writers on both a formal (structured and paid) basis and on an informal basis. So the thing that has been the biggest surprise is how much more our clients get out of the process of working with a mentoring team. When people choose advance critique time (one of our popular options), we critique separately, without consulting each other, because we want our clients to hear two individual responses to their work. Then when we talk with the client, we discuss where our feedback is in agreement (which is actually most of the time) and where our opinions differ. Going into this venture, we thought it might be hard for writers to hear that there isn’t always one right answer. But the reverse has proved true: rather than finding our occasional creative dissent problematical, writers have told us it’s hugely valuable to hear two different professional perspectives. And it’s great for us, of course, because we’re always learning from each other, too!
What we’ve learned about the process is that it’s really important to know what our clients hope to accomplish. We think that’s true for critique groups as well: the more specific you are about what you need from your critique group, the more useful the feedback you’ll likely receive. For instance, a recent client simply wanted to create the best picture book manuscript she could, so we gave her feedback on word choice, story structure, and pacing. Another client, Linda Booth Sweeney, wanted both feedback and submissions advice. So we made revision suggestions and pointed her toward some niche publishers for her regionally-based picture book biography—and she found a publisher (Bunker Hill Publishing)!
We’ve put a lot of time into developing intake materials that allow clients to define exactly what they most hope to achieve from our relationship. In fact, we use something called our “Feedback Fitness #” survey that might be useful for critique groups. If anybody out there is interested, email us at MentorsForRent@hotmail.com and we’ll send you a copy. The survey is our humorous way of asking writers to identify what kind of feedback they most need to hear at this point of the manuscript’s life cycle (we use exercise terminology, so the options range from “right now I need cheerleaders” to “I really do want you to tell me if these jeans make me look fat.”)
Have you learned anything about your own writing by working as a mentor?
Oh my gosh, we learn SO much from mentoring—both from our clients and from each other! Laura, for example, has learned a lot about endings that both resolve the conflict AND continue the thread the beginning of the book started. Lisa feels like her sense of “writer’s voice” is constantly evolving, both through working with an amazing poet like Laura, and through hearing so many different clients’ writing voices. We’re constantly challenged to think even more creatively about our craft, and we learn from both what works and doesn’t work in our clients’ manuscripts—and from the advice we each give them.
We feel a strong obligation to keep up with developments in the children’s book business so we can give our clients the most current information. And frankly, as hard as the writing life can be some days, we’re in the lucky position of being reminded time and again by our clients that we have jobs that other people covet!
If you could be mentored by anyone throughout time, who would it be and why?
Lisa: I am such a writing nerd! I’m sitting here imagining what it might be like to ask Shakespeare for help on turning my upcoming novel into a screenplay. Or to work with an editor like Maxwell Perkins, who had such a knack for developing great writing talents. But I’m an equal opportunity dreamer—there are so many living and breathing writers who I’d follow around like a fangirl if I wasn’t afraid of being arrested as a stalker! For example, I just saw a photo of two of my YA writing heroes, Melina Marchetta and Kristin Cashore, hanging out together in Italy, and the fantasy of being there with them, talking about writing while eating pasta, almost gave me palpitations!
Laura: Boy, ask a tough question, why don’t you? OK, I’m limiting myself to dead writers, because there are too many people I could name who are writing now. And I know some of them personally and it would be awkward if they knew I was pining away for them to take me under their wings and guide me through this challenging career. So…I’m going to have to say Madeleine L’Engle. Or maybe Edgar Allan Poe. Or wait--Barbara Juster Esbensen, whose speech at a children’s writing conference first led me to think about writing poetry for kids. Or—or—OK, I’m stopping here.
If you could mentor anyone, who would it be and why?
Laura: Hmm, I would feel kind of arrogant naming a particular person I want to mentor, as if I’m saying they NEED a mentor! But I would love to mentor someone who feels as overwhelmed as I used to about a career writing for kids, but who feels the same kind of passion for it and determination to make it happen. It would be amazing to be there at the start and really watch someone’s career blossom. We’ve already had two or three clients sell manuscripts based on our consultations with them. That kind of good news—it’s just amazing.
Lisa: I’m hopeful that I’m already mentoring that person. I work with three sixth-grade girls as a writing teacher—it’s kind of like group piano lessons, except we write instead—we’ve been working together for three years now. These kids are so great; we have our sessions on Friday after school gets out, and despite the fact that they’ve been sitting in school desks all week long, they are still enthusiastic about our time together! It would be a huge thrill for me as their mentor if they decide to make writing a permanent part of their lives as adults.
What’s next for you both, individually and with Mentors for Rent?
Lisa: It’s been hard to shut me up lately, because I just found out that my first novel—a middle grade mystery—is going to be published by Harcourt in 2013! For Mentors for Rent, one of my big areas of focus has been pinpointing the most effective ways for writers to use social media as a promotional tool for their books. It’s a key part of marketing these days, and we want to give the clients who come to us for marketing advice the best possible advice.
Laura: Individually, I have some math concept monster books under deadline right now, and I’m excited about the companion book to A Leaf Can Be…, which will be Water Can Be… (Millbrook Press, 2014).
And Mentors for Rent will be publishing a guide to query and cover letters soon, both in pdf and ebook format. We’re also putting together a consulting package for writers interested in self-publishing digital books (I swear, we never thought we’d hear ourselves say that, but it’s a changing publishing world, that’s for sure!). We’ll also be hosting the Redbery Writers’ Intensive, a writing intensive/retreat this October in Wisconsin, where it will be great to do some in-person mentoring!
If you’ve read all the way to the end, here’s a special offer for you: One week after this interview first runs, Mentors for Rent will select one lucky winner for a free 45-minute Mentors for Rent session. All you have to do to qualify is leave feedback or simply the word “enter” as a comment below this post here on Carrie’s page, and then go over to Facebook and Like our Mentors for Rent page (before the week is over). We’ll randomly draw one winner and send you a message via Facebook. We can meet (via Skype or conference call) with individuals, writing partners, or entire critique groups (but groups/partners need to share one computer for the session).
Mindy Hardwick connected with me through my website where she found the Mentor Monday series. She told me about her experience as a mentor and I knew right away I wanted to share it with you. Her work is a perfect example of how the idea of mentorship can be expanded -- with very positive results. In addition to mentoring children at a juvenile detention facility in real life, her first novel, Stained Glass Summer, highlights mentorship as a theme. Our interview follows.
Readers can connect with Mindy on her website: www.mindyhardwick.com
Please share a brief bio of you and your work.
Mindy Hardwick is a published children's writer whose books include STAINED GLASS SUMMER and WEAVING MAGIC (Forthcoming April 2012). STAINED GLASS SUMMER is a story about artistic mentorship in glass art. In the story, twelve-year-old Jasmine adores her photographer Father and wants to be an artist just like him. But when Dad abandons the family, Jasmine is sent to spend the summer with her Uncle on a Pacific Northwest Island. Soon, Jasmine is learning stained glass from island glass artist, Opal, and thinking she might just be developing a crush on Island boy, Cole. But, it’s not until Jasmine finds herself mentoring another young artist that she can truly let go of her Father and call herself an artist by her own terms.
Mindy facilitates a poetry workshop with teens at Denney Youth Juvenile Justice Center. She is the co-editor of four anthologies, written by the youth at Denney, and the editor of their blog at www.denneypoetry.com Mindy is included on the Washington State Arts Commission Teaching Artist Roster. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and is a member of SCBWI. When Mindy is not writing, she is a mentor to a young lady through the Volunteers of America Children of Promise Program.
Why did you decide to become a mentor?
When I began facilitating the juvenile detention poetry workshop, I’d just left teaching. I wanted a way to stay connected to kids, while at the same time, share writing with them. A good friend of mine was running a poetry workshop with Richard Gold’s Pongo Publishing program. She encouraged me to seek out the juvenile detention center closest to me and ask if they would like to have a poetry workshop.
After I’d been running the poetry workshop for a year, I began to work on a young adult novel (WEAVING MAGIC, Forthcoming April 2012) in which my main character’s parent was in prison. During my research, I found the Western Washington’s Volunteers of America Children of Promise Program in which mentors are matched with young people who have a parent incarcerated. This mentoring sounded like something I would like to do, but I didn’t know if I could make the two year commitment. I printed the application and set it on my desk. It sat there for a very long time! Finally, the time felt right and I applied. A year ago, I was matched with a young lady who was eleven. We have a great time together and I’m so glad I am a mentor!
How many writers have you officially mentored?
Lots! I’ve been running the juvenile detention poetry workshop for over five-years. Each week, I meet with two groups of kids. There are about eight to ten kids in a workshop. Some of the teens repeat back through the detention center many times. Others are only at the detention center once. You can read some of the kid’s poems and find out about the poetry workshop at www.denneypoetry.com.
What strengths do you bring as a mentor?
I am a good listener, and fun! I also set good boundaries which is important when working with kids-at risk.
Have you been a mentee? If so, what from that experience helps you be the best mentor you can be?
I have been a mentee! When I left teaching, I met a woman at an American Association for University Women meeting. She and I connected, and she became my mentor. She taught and encouraged me how to run a successful business. Laura has also been a Big Sister in the Big Sister/Big Brother Program, and she encouraged me to become a mentor myself. I often go to Laura when I need a sounding board for my relationship with my mentee.
If you could mentor any writer throughout time, who would it be and why?
Any teen. I love working with teens. Their voices are so fresh, and they are so honest in their writing.
If you could be mentored by any writer throughout time, who would it be and why?
Cynthia Voigt! I loved her stories as a teen. I loved the courage and heart-felt honestly which resonated in her characters. I read and reread Dicey’s Song and Homecoming, and I think a lot of Dicey’s character is in my STAINED GLASS SUMMER character, Jasmine.
Thank you, Mindy!
I crossed my fingers when I asked Lisa if she would consider being interviewed for this blog series. I know she's talented, wise, and proficient - that's obvious from her body of work in the children's book industry -- but I didn't know where she stood on mentoring. Lisa has professionally critiqued three of my picture book manuscripts (one sold so far!) and I viewed her critiques as more insightful and valuable than expected. In addition to receiving a critique on a particular manuscript, I felt I had been mentored. This lead me to ask Lisa for her thoughts on the subject. You may be surprised by who she would choose as a mentor...
Visit Lisa's website at www.lisawheelerbooks.com.
Please share a brief bio of you and your work.
Lisa Wheeler is passionate about children’s books. “I love everything about them, including the smell.” To date, Lisa has thirty titles on library shelves, with more to follow over the next few years. She’s written picture books in prose and rhyme, an easy reader series, three books of poems, and creative nonfiction for the very young.
Awards include the 2004 Mitten Award for Old Cricket, given by the Michigan Library Association, the 2005/06 Great Lakes, Great Books Award and 2005 Missouri Building Blocks Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum, the 2006 Bluebonnet Award for Seadogs , the 2006/07 South Carolina Picture Book Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum and most recently, the 2008 The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for Jazz Baby given by the American Library Association.
Her newest titles include Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Simon & Schuster)and Dino-Basketball, illustrated by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda),
Lisa shares her Michigan home with one husband, one dog, and an assortment of anthropomorphic characters.
What value do you feel mentoring brings to a writer and the writing community?
First off, I think of mentorship as being three different levels.
Level 1: Books. An author writes a fabulous book and when you read it, you are inspired to write one. Or the book is so well written, you want to emulate the author. Is this true mentorship? I don’t know. But there is a whole host of writers that I have learned from just by reading their excellent works.
Level 2: Critiques. You may have a critique partner or group that has opened your eyes to not only the wrong things in your manuscript, but also the good stuff. Your critique partner has helped you become a better writer and you know that their help has been invaluable.
Level 3: Mentorship. This is a true one-on-one relationship with an accomplished writer. This person has helped you shape your writing and has also helped you maneuver through this crazy business.
I think that all three levels are important. It is unrealistic to think that every new writer can be mentored by an accomplished author, so I encourage everyone to try for Level 1 and 2. I have learned so much from critique groups and published works. I think they are the backbone of our industry and fill in very nicely when one doesn’t have the luxury of a one-on-one mentorship.
Have you ever been officially mentored (through an SCBWI, educational, or community-based program)? If so, please describe the situation and outcome.
No, I have never been officially mentored. But back when I was starting out, I was fortunate enough to find an awesome online critique group. Author Verla Kay was in charge of all us newbies and in time, nearly every member became published. In this group I met the very talented Linda Smith (Mrs. Biddlebox, The Inside Tree, Mrs. Crump’s Cat) and she and I became not only one-on-one critique partners, but also formed a lovely friendship. Her skills were beyond mine and she encouraged me to try bigger, better things. I do think of her as a mentor.
Have you ever officially mentored a writer? (through an SCBWI, university, or community program) If so, please describe the situation and outcome.
No. I have never officially mentored anyone. But I am happy to say that I have done hundreds of critiques over the years and have been fortunate enough to see some of those manuscripts go on to publication. I have taught workshops (Picture Book Boot Camp) and am thrilled whenever I get an email from students who say they “get it” now. I have developed friendships with many of the writers I have critiqued or taught and feel an overwhelming sense of pride in their accomplishments.
What strengths would you/do you bring as a mentor?
I know picture books. I can tell when they are and aren’t working. It is much easier for me to see what is not working in someone else’s manuscripts than in my own. I try to teach writers when I critique their manuscripts so that when they revise—or write a new picture book—they will not repeat errors. My strength lies in my ability to convey How To advice concerning picture book writing in a simple, concise and clear way. I love teaching what I’ve learned along the way.
If you could mentor any writer throughout time, who would it be and why?
This one really stumps me. I can’t think of anyone. But if I did have to mentor someone throughout time, I suppose it would be some very wordy novelist because it would be fun to teach them to write tight.
If you could be mentored by any writer throughout time, who would it be and why?
After some thought, I decided it would be Jim Henson. I think he was truly a genius and brought puppets to life in a wonderful way. I would’ve loved to have learned from this master of his craft.
Thank you, Lisa!
This blog shares insights on the craft of writing children's books and the publishing industry, and supports creators and educators on their journeys.