Maggie Blackbird

Romancing Canada's Indigenous People


Learning is Good

Today, Romance She Wrote has author, writing instructor, and mentor Kat Duncan in the interview chair.  Before we get started, I’m proud to say Kat is my mentor.  I took a series of workshops she taught a year or two back.  When I encountered difficulties, I emailed Kat about a question.  After we hashed out my problem, she told me to keep emailing her.  Boy, she didn’t know what she’d started.  Like it or not, she’s been stuck with me.

Since Kat offers three month mentorships through Savvy Authors, I asked her to speak about mentorships.  If you are considering a mentor, Kat is on hand to answer any questions you may have.

1.  Let’s start with an easy question.  Why did you decide to become a mentor?

I guess you might say that mentoring is part of my calling in life. I’ve been a teacher of sorts since I was very young. I used to come home from kindergarten and re-teach my daily lessons to my willing younger sister. Teaching, coaching, and mentoring are all one to me and I have done it in many areas of my life from jobs to volunteering to raising my children. I have a great curiosity about people and the world and everything in it. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others and helping their enlightenment happen the way it continues to do for me.

2.  What appeals to you most about being a mentor?

I enjoy getting to know a mentee’s outlook on life and helping them bring that out in their writing. A writer’s individual views on human nature are one of the unique and creative things each author has to offer readers. Many ideas about mercy and justice, love and hate, culture and society that cannot easily be shared directly among people, groups or nations can be addressed in fiction. Bringing those ideas to light is a creative human gift that I enjoy being a part of.

3.  What do you least like about being a mentor?

Nothing. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. In for a penny, in for a pound, that’s me. I take the good with the bad. As I used to say in answer to my children’s complaints, “Not liking it is part of the experience.” I don’t think I would want to change anything about mentoring to make it better. What it is with all its messiness and mystery, neatness and routine is precisely what I like.

4.  What do you base your decision on when choosing a mentee?

Ideally, a mentee is ready to work and grow as a writer. I’m not by nature a nagging sort of person, so I can’t provide that kind of support to a mentee. If a mentee needs someone to ride their back, pushing them to do what they need to do, pressuring them to produce word count or stick to a schedule, then chances are our mentor/mentee relationship isn’t going to work very well.

I can and do send out reminders and check in with mentees I haven’t heard from recently. Sometimes a mentee likes the idea of mentoring, but they are not ready for the reality of it, or for the work that goes into it. That’s fine. I do not think less of such a mentee. Ambition is good and we all at times bite off more than we can chew. If this happens a mentee should pull back, regroup and try again at a later time. A mentee who is serious about their work and ready to put in some good effort will show that through persistent communication and obvious knowledge-seeking that is specific and targeted to an immediate goal.

5.  First, can you tell if you and a mentee aren’t “clicking?”  Second, how do you know and how do you rectify the matter?

It’s rare for me not to click with a mentee because it’s my job to click. If we aren’t clicking, it’s probably because I do not understand what the mentee is trying to accomplish. Sometimes mentees have a well-reasoned, firm outlook that is quite narrow-minded. As I provide advice and direction, they may resist by arguing and defending the choices they’ve already made. There is not much I can do to assist such a mentee. After I have provided my best advice, usually in the form of comments or questions that lead a mentee to re-examine their work and think on it more deeply, the next step is up to the mentee. In such cases I will usually point out the potential pitfalls of such thinking, but encourage the mentee to go for it. After all, my job is not to tell a mentee what to do; it is simply to engage the mentee in deeper thinking about the craft and the creativity of their work. There is no right or wrong in creativity, there is only innovation and individual expression.

6.  What methods do you use to mentor someone?

I read complete manuscripts, drafts, previous books, notes, outlines, character sketches, etc. And then I spend some time by email, phone or Skype getting to know my mentee and his/her goals. All of this goes into developing a plan for bringing the mentee the next step of the way along their personal road to success. The basic approach I use is Socratic questioning, which is a classical teaching technique designed to engage the mentee in thinking more deeply. The answers to my questions are not yes-no, right-wrong, instead they open up avenues of thinking and hidden approaches to enhancing the mentee’s craft. My questions may lead a mentee to thinking about their story in a new way, a way which is inevitably their own and not mine. This is ideal, because the work is theirs. It is not my place to tell a mentee how to write. My place is to encourage the mentee’s thinking and effort to lead them further in a good direction for their work. And the definition of “good” is up to the mentee.

7.  What do you think a mentee should bring to the mentorship?

A mentee should bring persistence and open-mindedness to the mentorship along with a healthy dose of patience with themselves. Many mentees have been through tough times with former critique partners or groups. They may have developed a negative attitude about their work, their ability to write or to be creative. These emotions and past experiences cannot be put aside. They must be worked through and confronted. This is not easy, so mentees must be patient with themselves.

Open-mindedness is important because mentees often respond to my questions with reactions such as “I never thought of it that way” or “that’s not what I imagined people would think”. So, some re-thinking may be necessary as the mentee gains confidence and a more thorough understanding of their own work. Persistence is another essential quality. If you are ready for a menteeship then you must be ready to put effort into your work on a regular basis. Most of my paid mentorships have limited time frames to assist mentees with focusing for that period of time. Knowing that the mentorship will end helps mentees to push themselves for the duration of their menteeship.

8.  What are two successful ways you’ve helped a mentee?

One way I helped a mentee recently was to recognize that her ideas had great value. Her debut book was about to be published and she had ideas related to the first book as well as another, more unusual, idea unrelated to the first book. A publisher she wanted to work with shot down her unique idea, saying that it not only didn’t fit their line, but they couldn’t see how the idea would appeal to readers at all. After reading her synopsis of the unusual idea, and reading her debut book to get a sense of her writing, I encouraged her to pursue both ideas with agents and editors. I predicted that her unusual idea would have definite appeal for a savvy editor or agent looking for the next big trend. My feedback gave her the courage to email an agent she’d been interested in. After receiving her email, the agent called her and offered a contract to represent a series for the first idea, the author was further encouraged to mention the second, more unusual, idea and the agent was thrilled. This agent saw huge potential for the second idea with big six publishers. Success!

Another, more technical way I have helped a mentee recently was with revisions. This mentee already had agents and editors interested in her work, but she was in the process of revising. The manuscript had some story logic flaws. You know, those kinds of plot events that the author needs to happen, but are either not very plausible or pretty unlikely for the characters. After a couple of weeks of back-and-forth discussions via Socratic questioning the author was able to see a clean, clear path of story logic that not only made sense, but pumped up the stakes for the characters and resonated more strongly with her theme. About the same time she won first place in a contest with her original manuscript. She’s now working her revision ideas into her final contest entry that will go directly to two editors at two different big publishers. Talk about opportunity knocking at just the right time!

9.  How do you know when you’ve been a successful mentor?

Along the way I watch for evidence of progress, enlightenment, and perhaps a turning point where the mentee will be able to take off on their own. By the end of the menteeship I analyze that progress and can usually see the accomplishment in terms of where the mentee was when they started compared with how far they have come. We are all always learning and growing with our creativity and our writing and that growth should never stop. Other markers of success are the tremendously positive feedback I get from mentees. They are often amazed at their own progress and blossoming insights, never imagining that a mentorship could open up such wide avenues of enlightenment about their craft, their creativity and themselves.

10.  What would you tell someone to look for in a mentor if the person asked you for advice?

I’d advise them to look for someone who has some experience teaching, whether online classes, sports coaching or any type of traditional teaching. People with teaching experiences already understand the necessary interactions and pragmatics for establishing a rapport with a mentee. Next, I’d look for someone whose writing experience matches what the mentee is looking for. Choosing a mentor who writes exclusively action adventure and science fiction may not be a good match for an author who’s writing inspirational romances. Other qualities to look for are responsiveness (how often is the mentor willing to communicate and how), manner of interaction (feedback targeted to your style and goals, not theirs) and scope (will they look at all your work or just part of it, are they willing to re-read multiple revisions).

11.  For those who are considering mentoring, how will they know when they are ready?

You will know you are ready for mentoring if you’re serious about pursuing your writing goals. Think of mentoring the same way you’d think of signing up for a challenging college course in writing. You’ve got to be ready, willing and able to put in effort to reach the goals you’ve set for yourself. If you’re unsure of what you want to do with your writing, or are expecting a mentor to provide you with a goal and a schedule, you will probably be better off taking an online writing class to help you with these issues before you try to tackle a menteeship.

12.  Is mentoring a time-consuming process?

The mentoring itself is not time-consuming. Most interactions are by email except for perhaps an initial online chat, phone chat or Skype. But there is work to be done, make no mistake about it. You should plan to set aside blocks of time each week to draft, or revise and to prepare specific questions for your mentor about your work and to respond to questions and suggestions from your mentor.

13.  What rewards do you reap when mentoring another writer?

Mentors get a chance to see a variety of writing styles and levels often across multiple genres. One benefit of this is that it can teach more about the fundamentals of what works and doesn’t work in fiction writing. Just as reading the work of published authors helps authors learn and hone their craft, reading the works-in-progress of unpublished authors helps mentors figure out and put into words what would work best in diverse fictional situations. Of course, the biggest reward reaped from mentoring is the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction a mentor gets from seeing a mentee succeed with writing and publication goals!

To learn more about Kat, visit her web site.

2 thoughts on “Interview with a mentor

  1. Kat Duncan says:

    Hi Maggie, thanks for inviting me for an interview. I’ve enjoyed mentoring you and hope to continue for many long years! 🙂


    1. It was fun coming up with the interview questions. Thanks for participating!


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