"I don't know where things are broken."
This was what I told a writer friend a little over a year ago, back when I was still querying my YA fantasy. I had been in the query trenches for two years at that point, sent over one hundred queries, and applied to dozens of mentoring opportunities, but somehow, I never got any positive responses. Agents weren't interested in my work. Mentors didn't even request more pages. And all I could think was, where is the disconnect here?
There are so many things that are hard about being a writer, and getting feedback can be one of the toughest – and not just because feedback is sometimes hard to take. I've advocated for the magic of beta readers and critique partners over and over, and I stand by that opinion. But the problem is, there are so many unpublished writers, and so few published ones, that it's really hard to get the information about whatever magic it is that your writing is missing. Most of us just don't know what agents are looking for, because we're not agented ourselves. Before I went through the process of signing with my agent and going through revisions and submission, it was understandably hard for other writers to place their trust in me. What right did I have to tell them that chapter three could use more “oomph”? And for that matter, why should I trust Betty from Oklahoma City that my villain wasn’t villain-y enough?
The role that's meant to bridge that gap is mentors, people who are agented or who have published books before, and who are willing to provide their experience and expertise to us hopefuls. Finding a mentor, though, is incredibly difficult. Hundreds of people apply to be mentored by a single person, hoping for that chance to find out what’s broken in their process of revisions and querying. But if you’re not picked, you get nothing – you learn nothing about your writing, nothing about your query letter, nothing to make you a better writer. You come out of the experience with no more information than when you went into it.
This is the thing I find objectionable about mentoring opportunities. More often than not, it seems as if the mentors pick the most interesting story, the one that seems most likely to succeed - and, as a result, the one that actually needs the least help. The people who truly need assistance, the writers are really struggling, seem to fall by the wayside every time. I remember literally crying on the floor in the closet in our tiny basement apartment because I’d been rejected from yet another mentoring program, and I received no feedback from the mentor once again. I didn’t know what was wrong with my manuscript. I didn’t know what needed to be fixed. I needed help with my writing so badly, and yet it seemed to always be out of my reach.
Gatekeeping in writing is HUGE, and sometimes understandably so - publishers have to make money, after all. But the process is often so obtuse, so opaque, that it’s impossible to even see the path to the other side. That’s where I take issue with mentoring. I understand that mentors’ time is valuable, that they can’t exactly pen a handwritten note to every entrant. It would take days, if not weeks, to reply to everyone with some sort of feedback. But at the same time, back when I was querying, all I wanted was a single sentence, and many times I didn’t even get that. So I urge you, if any of you out there are mentors, or want to be, or have been, please remember what it’s like to be querying. Remember how lost you felt, how little support there was for you on your journey. Give your applicants every opportunity that you can, and remember that they’re just as important as your mentee. They may never get the support that only you can give. Just give them a minute of your time. That may be all they need to succeed.