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Working with a mentor

L-A-Weatherly2Knowing my book will be in shops next year is a dream come true. Getting to this point has taken much hard work (and a fair few tears), but I’ve also had a lot of help along the way. There’s one thing that really helped fast-track my writing career – and that’s having a mentor.

I started working with Lee Weatherly (shown left) at the end of 2015. Lee is the author of more than 50 books for children and young adults, including Angel and the Broken Sky trilogy. She also co-wrote How to Write a Blockbuster. If you’re thinking about working with a mentor, here’s a bit about why I found the experience so helpful…

A critical look at the whole of your novel 

While it’s great to receive feedback on an extract of your work via one-to-ones, there’s nothing like having a professional cast a critical eye over your entire novel. That way they can see what you’re aiming to achieve and identify which aspects aren’t working. There’s no point having a polished opening chapter if the plot or story idea isn’t strong enough.

I’d spent a year writing my first book, Blackbird in the Storm. The story is about a girl who’s washed up on a strange island where women spirit-journey with animals after the ship she’s on sinks in a storm.

Lee said lots of nice things about my writing, but had some big reservations about the story. You can see some of her feedback at the bottom of this article. Basically, my main character didn’t have a strong enough personality and goal, the world was too generic, the story not high concept enough and some of my ideas were a touch too derivative.

Ouch. At this point, I admit a few tears were shed..

While I was fully prepared to make changes, I wasn’t expecting to have to start from scratch. I chatted to Lee on the phone, and she asked me about the kind of stories I love to read, the themes and ideas that excite me and what kind of book I wanted to write. This part of the process was hugely important (and not something you usually get with a one-off critique) as it helped clarify where my interest and passion lie.

I found it hard to abandon my first book, simply because I’d invested so much time on it. What helped me to decide was going to the 2015 SCBWI conference. A talk by agents opened my eyes to the benefits of having a high-concept story. An editor needs to pitch your book to the sales and marketing team so that everyone instantly ‘gets it’. A book with a strong hook, a big idea or a unique setting is easier for people to buy into.

The agent also advised writers to be specific – if you’re going to set it in a city somewhere up north, tell us it’s in Manchester. Being specific helps draw the reader into the story. Candy Gourlay’s workshop on plotting also made me realise that my first story wasn’t strong enough. Candy illustrated the session with slides and quotes from Lee’s How to Write a Blockbuster – which seemed like a sign to take the hint!

Finding the big idea

Looking back on some of my previous story attempts, I came across an idea I’d had a few years ago – about a girl who could tell things about people by touching their clothes. Lee loved the short pitch I sent her, and felt it was high concept enough to work.

While my first book was loosely inspired by Norse mythology, I took Lee’s advice to be specific and decided to base it on a single myth. Instead of being set in a generic fantasy island, I would set it in the real world in Norway. And instead of a shy main character who reacted to others around her, she would have a burning desire from page one.

Feedback on outlines and drafts

I sent an outline to Lee and she pointed out where the plot was too rushed, or too complex. When I had the reasonable shape of a story, I started to write. Lee read my first draft (and second and third), marking up the manuscript each time. She pointed out where switching the order of events would increase tension and where I could give depth to characters.

Without Lee’s help, I’ve no doubt I would have written several more books without getting to the stage I am now. For me, being guided through the whole process has been invaluable. If you’re thinking of working with a mentor, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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