Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Writer's Wednesday - Mentoring New Writers

This Wednesday, our columnist Kate Walker talks about how and why she works with new writers and enjoys helping them along their journey to publication.

Once upon a time, and not very long ago at that, I was at a writers’ party. Everyone there was a published author or an editor, or management from Mills & Boon – or the husband of someone who was. Every one of the authors was successful, growing their careers. Some were even at the top of the current tree. Everyone had been through the first nervous steps towards publication and many had taken that journey again and again and again.

Two authors in particular stood out for me on that occasion – well, one author and one Author’s Husband (AH). One of the more elderly, long-established authors on being introduced to my husband (the Babe Magnet) looked him up and down and said ‘I don’t approve of you. Just as I don‘t approve of this girl here.’ (Yes she was elderly enough to think of me as a girl!) You’re the ones who teach wannabes that it’s easy to get published.’

The second incident was when AH took me aside and asked me, in all seriousness, just what I thought I was doing in ‘training up the opposition’. He had seen a copy of my then brand-new 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance and really thought that I was creating a danger to established authors – including his wife – by offering this advice to writers who wanted to be published.

I’ll admit that the attitudes of both these people stunned me. Writing romance is a popular form of fiction. To survive and to keep developing it needs to have new life blood and that means new authors. The radio programme last week (Guilty Pleasures. BBC Radio 4) was un uneven and imperfect event but one thing it did get across is that the reason Mills & Boon have survived to celebrate their 100th anniversary is because they have changed and adapted to meet the different demands of the readers of each decade in that century. And the people who have helped it to do that are the authors – old and new. New authors are going to keep aiming for publication all the time.

Two important things:
1. I don’t actually mentor – I have no time to do that.

Mentoring is working one on one with an aspiring author, reading their work (and only their work) and editing it, advising, then reading the revised attempt – etc etc until it’s time to submit and, hopefully, gain acceptance. I don’t do that. I teach at workshops (the weekend/3 days ones are the best where we can have time and concentration to really go into things in detail, I critique through the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme, I do Q&As on web sites like eHarlequin or the PHS and I write ‘how to’ books. Two to date – A Straightforward Guide to Writing Romantic Fiction which is in its third edition. And Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance which received the CataRomance Reviewers Choice Award Best Book for Writers 2004 and has just about sold out. (Though I do hope to have some exciting news about that book coming in the New Year – watch this space!)

2. All the mentoring in the world cannot turn you into the next Penny Jordan or even the next Kate Walker if you don’t have talent.

To succeed you need to have an ability to write – that may seem obvious but some people just don’t get that. They think that you go on a course or read a How To book, and that will be it. As a reader for the NWS, I often get writers who declare ‘I’ve read Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide' and then I cringe inside at what I read. They might have readmy book but they haven’t absorbed it – or they, sadly, may just not have any talent.

And this is the toughest part of working with new writers. I always say to anyone who comes to a class of mine, submits for an NWS critique, asks my opinions – don’t ask unless you want the honest truth. I can see no point at all in commenting on a piece of writing if I can’t say what I really feel. How can you learn if I don’t say what’s wrong with it?

The best critiques – like the ‘best’ rejections (and I used the word ‘best’ there advisedly) are the ones that say ‘this doesn’t work ' – and then illustrate exactly WHY it doesn’t work. You then have something to learn from, an approach to help you improve your writing – because that was the whole point of submitting, wasn’t it? Whenever I run a course I try to spend some time ‘one to one’ with each student or a critique, discussing their work. In an open critique session, often the other students gain as much from discussing someone else’s work as their own.

What do I get out of it? Well, cynical Author and Author’s Husband would say that I get people to buy my 12 Point Guide, and I get paid for the Workshops. Being honest, the royalties from the 12 Point Guide are a spit in the ocean compared to spending that amount of time on a novel and the sales that would result. And with courses/workshops etc, by the time I’ve planned, prepared, printed handouts, travelled to the venue, done the course, travelled home, recovered, unpacked . . . the amount of time spent on it has my editor tearing her hair and the financial recompense just doesn’t cover that.

But the personal input does. That’s one of the reasons why I do it. I meet some wonderful people on these courses – or on the Write Stuff part of eHarlequin. It’s where I met Ms Pink Heart herself, Trish Wylie, before I met her in person. People who have become important personal friends, vital parts of my life.

The other thing I get from teaching is a renewed interest in my own writing, an enthusiasm picked up from people who are new to this and so keen to learn. When I’m preparing classes or when they ask questions, I’m made to look at just how I do something instead of just going ahead and doing it by instinct and the practice of long experience. And I believe we can never stop learning, I often see a new way of looking at something, or writing something as a result of a class I'm teaching and during the weekend ones, my personal notebook is filled with scribbled notes for my own next project.

As a result of mentoring/teaching/coaching I’m thrilled and delighted to be able to say that I have had a small hand in bring at least seven authors to publication. I pride myself on the fact that I can spot talent! PHS’s talented Natasha Oakley is someone I worked with on the NWS – and there are possibly more out there that I don’t know about. New Presents signing India Grey credits the 12 Point Guide with helping her to publication. Many of these newly published authors – and others still on their road to publication are also friends. And I look forward to seeing those numbers growing.

So if you live in the UK and you’re interested in any of my courses, keep an eye on the Events page of my web site. The next one I have coming up is a weekend course - the Novel Writing Weekend in Fishguard, Wales in November. You can find the details and sign up here. After that I’m afraid I won’t be doing very much for a while (at least my editor hopes not.) I’m booked for Caerleon Writers' Holiday for 2009. And if anyone has a writing group that wants to club together - or a writing festival they’re involved in, I’ll consider any requests. And I'll bring along Hugh-in-a-towel. But if anything comes up that Events page or my blog is where you’ll find out about it.

And if you can’t get to a course or have a one to one with a published author don’t despair. – Here are some ways can you try to mentor yourself?

Read, read, read – first and foremost – read the current output of the line you’re aiming for – not what they published last year or five years ago – what they are publishing NOW

Analyse – don’t just read the story –see how the effects are built up, how the characters are brought to life

Ask questions Join in Q&As – don’t just lurk – find out what YOU need to know

Fishguard Hotel Pembrokeshire, Wales

where I'm teaching next November

Submit to the NWS – but remember there are only 250 places on this so you need to join the RNA and book your place on January 1st or 2nd 2008 to be in the next one.

Attend conferences

Talk to other authors

Teaching a class with Modern Heat author Julie Cohen

Go on courses if there are any – but check out the credentials of just who is giving the workshop. One of the least well informed critics of romances and romance writing on the BBC radio programme has a book out on writing a bestseller. Her opinion on your romance would not be very helpful

Consider some agencies - Hilary Johnson, Cornerstones, StorytrackS are UK examples.

Try some How To Books – again, some are better than others. Look for a book that is written by someone who is published in the genre you’re aiming for at the current time. There are books that are written by well-published authors of 5, 10 or more years ago – you need to ask yourself if their advice is still up to date and why they are no longer being published.

Above all else be prepared to listen – and to take criticism. You’re going to have to be edited in the future if you do get published so learn how to handle that now. People who can take criticism, who can listen, absorb and learn will get the most out of anything. People who just think ‘what does she know – I’m brilliant!’ will not benefit from the experience. I do know of one person who submitted a script that I critiqued. When she received my report she complained that I had savaged her manuscript. Pure jealousy, she decided - or spite. Until she submitted it to an editor and got back the same criticisms exactly.

Similarly, people who either just burst into tears or despair if they get a knock back are less likely to succeed than those who pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again. Just ask any published author – we’ve all been there at some time. And that’s another reason why I love working with new writers – I remember. I remember how hard it felt to be a struggling writer, not knowing exactly what I was doing, at a time when there were very few books out on romance, fewer courses, no eHarlequin, no PHS! It took me years before I found the writers’ organisations – the RNA the RWA. I felt isolated and lost – and if I can ease that for today’s new authors then that’s fine by me.

So to answer cynical Author and Author’s Husband – why do I work with new authors? (They can call it training up the opposition if they like – I don’t see it that way) Well, this business has been good to me, I’ve earned my living – a good living at it for 20 years now. I’ve been given encouragement and support by other authors and I’d like to put something back. I enjoy teaching and I find it rejuvenates my own enthusiasm and helps me look at what I do in new - sometimes inspiring -lights. I have met and made some wonderful, special friends from all over the world and all ages and stages of their writing careers. I have the extra thrill of seeing a new author’s book in the shops and know that I helped put it there.

And every author I’ve helped to publication sends me a signed copy of their brand-new book and very often the one after that and the one after that . . . I have a TBR pile the size of Mount Everest – all written by very special friends – what’s not to like?

IMPORTANT NOTE - and this is going in pink so that you'll notice it!

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month - a month that as women should be very very important to us and not just because their colour is pink. I have friends and family who had been touched by this disease and so I know the shock and devastation it can cause - So please - this mean YOU -

1. Remember to check yourself every month and if you have any worries, get to a doctor.

2. If you're offered a mammogram - go for it - I know it is neither the most comfortable or least embarrassing thing you'll ever do but it could save your life.

3. Please help the PHS help other women who need mamograms and can't afford them by clicking on the Breast Cancer Site(see the logo in the sidebar) This won't cost you a penny - just the time spent to click once so please do it daily throughout the month. You could help save someone else's life.

Thank you.

Kate Walker’s next book The Greek Tycoon’s Unwilling Wife is published in both Presents and M&B Modern in November.


  1. First of all, Kate, I disagree with the Elderly Author. Nowhere do you teach that it is EASY to get publish. Quite the contrary.
    Your books and lectures stress how much hard work and effort individual writers need to make and the various things a writer should be looking when crafting stories.
    Second, your books are not about training the opposition or competitiors, but are ultimately about CREATING the best possible stories. Talent without training is like jet fuel burning without an engine. The honing of talent allows the artist to take wing and to create more vivid and imaginative stories. As Tywla Tharp points out -- the true masters of any creative endeavour spend a lot of time polishing the basics.
    Finally your books and teaching follow in a long and illustrious line of teachers. I think even Circero turned his hand to the question. Certainly Edgar Allan Poe did. The craft of story telling can and must be taught so that stories can reach their full potential.
    And as the BBC Radio 4 programme made quite clear, how to books aimed at HM&B writers existed i nthe early 1960s.
    I for one think it is wonderful that you have shared your vision on how writing craft pertains to the romance genre in general and to catagory romance specifically.

  2. For me the Twelve Point Guide was like having you holding my hand through every painful paragraph and long, arduous chapter. It reassured me about the bits of my writing I liked, and redirected me when I knew that I'd taken a wrong turning somewhere. It made the whole process of actually finishing a book so much easier, and while I like to think that I would have got to publication in the end, it could have taken a lot longer without that book, and-- quite importantly-- been a lot more annoying for the editors when faced with another manuscript littered with all the common pitfalls!

    Another thing I learned from the 12 Point Guide was that writing, and getting published, isn't magic. It's difficult, yes, and involves a lot of hard work and patience... but no pixie dust or nose-twitching or astrological pre-destination. I think that gave me the encouragement to try, and keep going.

    Anyway, my own advice to aspiring writers (the opposition? I don't think so! The people who are going to help our genre to keep on growing!) is buy the 12 Point Guide!

  3. I'm not sure you even realize how much you've mentored me, Kate.

    I too am a disciple of the 12 point guide...and recommend it whenever I can. I still use your character sheets with every single book.

    But more than that, more than the nuts and bolts of the thing, it's your attitude that has been most inspiring to me. I LOVE how encouraging you are to new writers. How you think injecting new blood is not only good but necessary. How you make us all feel welcomed. And how you're a truly lovely person - confirmed when we met at AMBA, by the way.

    You are a shining example of how the STORY and how the genre is of more importance than politics.

    Thank you, Queen Kate!

    Smooches xx

  4. Michelle - I kew you'd agree with me and not the Elderly Author ;-) Thank you for your comments - they're exactly what I hope I get across. And it's a honour to think that I follow in the line of the great teahcers you mention.

    India - if I'd known you better before you were published, I'd have loved to hold your hand while you aimed for publication - and I'm thrilled that the 12 Point Guide did the job for me. Your comment about the editors and common pitfalls is really what I wrote that book for - so that people with talent could polish a manuscript one stage more before submitting. Those common pitfalls crop up again and again and I hope that the Guide can do something to erase them from new writers' work

    And Donna - I loved meeting you at AMBA. You - all three of you - are shining examples of the joys I get from mentoring new authors. You all prove in spades that it takes talent and hard work to get there and if my imput helped make the journey a little shorter it's because you all were ready to learn.

    And as I said, your friendships are an extra bonus to the teaching that I never looked for when I started but I value so much now

    Smooches right back


  5. Opposition? Ouch. What a sad reflection on life these people must have.

    In all walks of life there are people with abundance mentality and then there are 'the others'. Funnily enough, in my experience, those with an abundance mentality generally seem to be a great deal happier, and more successful, than those without it.

    It's easy to be closed and insular, to set yourself above everyone else and to bask in adulation, but seriously, how long is that adulation going to last? Lives change, markets change, and, Kate, you hit the nail on the head when you said the reason M&B have survived so long in the publishing industry is because they're constantly evolving and changing to meet the market.

    I have to admit that pre-pubbed I always feared that with each new author bought there would be one less space for me to potentially fill, but something I heard Stephanie Laurens say at an RWNZ conference one year really stuck in my mind "a rising tide floats all ships" and it really makes good sense.

    You can't put a lid on something like the romance novel market and hope to keep it constrained to being the domain of just a few authors. That, in itself, would be a major disservice to the plethora of readers out there.

    I'm all for the abundance mind set. It works. And what you sow, you reap, which is why you have so very many friends, Kate, and why we're glad to count you among our own.

  6. (((Kate))) what can I say, except thank you again. I'm still amazed at how your (and Julie's) weekend workshop has already changed my life (and Gray's).

    We are both writing every day. I'm studying the craft harder than ever, and I LOVED the harsh bits of the critique I received from the NWS.

    My only worry is whether I'll manage to be accepted next year because thanks to the motivation and inspiration Gray and I received from you and Julie, I'll be ready to send my next manuscript in January - and this time it will be a full!

    For anybody who's never experienced a writer's workshop, I only have one question - what are you waiting for? ;-)

  7. Hi Kate

    I'm coming a bit late to this thread, but just wanted to say after meeting you at this year's RNA Awards lunch that I rushed out and bought the 12 Point Guide.

    What a breath of fresh air. Clear, concise and sensible advice. Much like the critique I recieved for my first ms through the NWS - which was invaluable and was the biggest single factor in getting me published with M&B Modern Heat. I'm still learning and, I hope, evolving and I'll be dipping into the 12 Point Guide for years to come, I suspect, so thanks for that.

    And as for that elderly author. All I can say is, shame on her. One of the greatest things about the romance genre is how supportive and giving I've found its published authors - why would anyone not want to continue that tradition!