DEMYSTIFYING THE MAGIC OF MENTORSHIP
By Lee Murray
Award-winning author-editor, three-time Bram Stoker Award® nominee and the international Horror Writers Association (HWA) Mentor of the Year Award winner for 2019, Lee Murray gives us some insight into the mentorship relationship and offers Kendall Reviews a sneak peak at a new wave of horror writers emerging from this cycle’s intake.
Search on the term mentorship and we’re inundated with a slew of feel-good memes, often from household names. “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself,” says TV personality and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey, while director Steven Spielberg states, “The delicate art of being a mentor is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” And these same inspirational sentiments tend to circulate when we talk about writing mentorships. In fact, it is universally acknowledged that a writer seeking to progress their work must be in want of a writing mentor. But what happens behind the scenes of a horror writing mentorship? What exactly do mentors do? And what do mentees need to know when entering a mentor-mentee partnership?
At the end of last year, I was offered three incredible mentees through the HWA’s mentorship scheme. Having convened various mentorship programmes (NZSA, AWHA, SpecFicNZ), I’m aware matching mentors and mentees is not a simple matter. A convenor can’t just pull the names out of a hat, pairing fifty newbies with fifty more experienced writers. Firstly, there are always more people looking for help than there are mentors to go around. It’s understandable: writing is a precarious profession, with most of us forced to take on other work to support our eating habit. When our own writing is snatched in the precious hours—and sometimes minutes—between personal and work commitments, taking on a mentor role creates further demands on that time. So finding willing mentors can be challenging. Secondly, the mentor needs to have some experience in the areas in which mentees are seeking help. With the HWA scheme, writers on both sides have an interest in horror and dark fiction, so there is automatically some common ground, but not everyone is a short story specialist, or a screenwriter, for example. A mentor doesn’t need to be the best writer of a particular format, but if they’re going to be able to help a mentee, they should have a reasonable knowledge and experience. The convenor will examine the list of available mentors, weighing their skills and experience and matching those to the mentees and their projects. And as I said, there are always fewer mentors than mentees, so it becomes one of those tricky travelling salesman math equations, determining how to fulfill everyone’s needs with limited resources. HWA mentorship committee chair, Brian Hatcher does a truly fantastic job of this, and I was lucky enough to be paired with Ian Bain, Greg Beckham, and Daron Kappauff.
The writers presented compelling projects. Canadian Ian Bain had been working on a 23,000-word novella titled, Rewind-Reanimate, comprising bloodthirsty scarecrows, reanimated corpses, and a deranged father on a killing spree—just a typical boyhood in a small rural town. What’s not to like? A keen reader of fast-paced bizarro horror, I couldn’t wait to read it. Greg Beckham was also working on a novella of around 13,000 words which he’d set in the lonely mountain regions of northern California. In Beckham’s slow-burn suspense tale, Creeps, an unexpected late-night meeting in a roadside diner between a traumatised man and newly jilted woman leads to a gruesome discovery. Another great concept. Meanwhile, Daron Kappauff was writing Children of the Dreamer, a supernatural crime-noir novel operating on dual timelines and featuring a gritty real-world investigator. When Brian Hatcher asked if I’d be interested in working with Kappauff, I’d only just completed Blood of the Sun, the last instalment in my own Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series (co-authored with my Kiwi colleague Dan Rabarts), and since it’s a growing subgenre, I was keen to read Kappauff’s interpretation.
After exchanging some introductory emails, we got started, each of the mentees sending me a chunk of work: the full novella manuscripts for Bain and Beckham, and the first five chapters for Kappauff. Over the next week, I read the excerpts, marked up the manuscripts, and wrote a general report for each mentee of issues which we might work on over the course of our partnerships. That done, we set up some skype meetings to get acquainted and to discuss our goals for the coming months.
When you live in the southern hemisphere and your mentees are based in North America, just finding an appropriate time to meet online can be complicated. All my mentees were prepared to give up their Friday evening to chat with me. It was a good sign, suggesting they were committed to getting the most out of their mentorship. As it turns out, this was an understatement. These three are the poster children for mentorship. In just four short months, I estimate that Bain, Beckham, and Kappauff each invested more than a hundred hours in revising their work, analysing like-texts by other horror writers, reading craft articles, and writing new work. Impressive, since they’re all juggling jobs and businesses, community work, and family commitments. As a mentor, it’s hard not to be inspired by that kind of work ethic.
Bain comments: “Generally, I can set aside 4-6 hours per week to write. Working as a high school teacher, this time gets very tough to find the closer we are to finals. It’s not like your mentor is going to disown you if you don’t produce, but if I’d said, ‘Screw it, I don’t have time to write,’ I really would’ve been wasting a fantastic opportunity.”
Kappauff agrees, saying having a mentor transformed his work ethic: “Before the program, I was only writing one day a week. But working with Lee energized me and motivated me to start writing every day––which I’ve been doing religiously for the last three months.”
“She played the role of Taskmaster when I was feeling less ‘inspired’ to write,” Bain adds.
There was no need for me to crack the whip. Oprah had the right of it when she said mentors allow you to see the hope in yourself; just having someone acknowledge the merit in your work, someone invested in your success—someone who isn’t your mother—can be motivation enough. Every writer has their own process and pace, and their goals differ according to where they are in their writing journey, so I like to allow my mentees to dictate how the partnership proceeds. I believe this helps them to maximise their experience. If they send me work to assess or drop me a line with a question, I do my best to respond with early and specific feedback. When you’re grappling with a plot hole, or struggling to comprehend a writing device, a rapid response to questions can keep your thought processes simmering and your project on track.
The initial discussions completed, and lines of communication established, we got stuck into the work. What’s interesting is that emerging writers generally have an inkling about areas of weakness, but they’re unable to pinpoint specific techniques they might use to fix those issues. I suspect it’s because, when it comes to our own work, we’re too close to the characters, too focussed on getting the story elements right. A case of not seeing the wood for the trees. For example, when Kappauff entered the mentorship, he was confident his story arc held up but was concerned about the readability of his novel. We agreed to attack the work chapter by chapter, focussing closely on the text.
I quickly discovered that Kappauff had written his novel from an omniscient viewpoint, and while there is nothing wrong with this perspective, it meant there was a lot of exposition in the narrative, as well as some of the dreaded head-hopping that readers and publishers loathe. By changing his narrative to third person limited, Kappauff has allowed his readers to experience the story from the point of view of his protagonist, the unshakeable detective Davidson, making Children of the Dreamers more immediate and engaging. Another issue was Kappauff’s use of highly detailed and accurate descriptions, a skill which is vital in his profession as a technical writer but tends to clutter his fiction. All it required was for Kappauff to harness that accuracy, while eliminating any excess detail, in order to create gritty, punchy, prose.
He writes: “I’d been working on my current project for a while––two full drafts worth––and kept thinking something was off with the prose, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. This is what drove me to join the program. After looking at just one chapter, Lee found the issue––something a handful of beta readers hadn’t even noticed––and we set off on a revision that transformed my writing, as well as the story, for the better.”
Ian Bain’s high-action pulp thriller features young teen protagonist, Shaun, an awkward boy with few friends, who is being raised by his single dad. Bain had chosen to tell his story from adult-Shaun’s point of view with the boyhood backstory told in flashbacks. The problem was, the backstory, while essential to the story, tended to slow the action. What’s more, use of an adult protagonist suggested that teen-Shaun had survived the adventure—a spoiler. It also meant a missed opportunity for school-teacher Bain to take advantage of his knowledge of teenage voices to lend authenticity to his protagonist. I only had to plant these ideas, and Bain was off, running rampage through the manuscript and cleaving more than half the wordcount yet losing none of the narrative’s bizarro flavour. A brave act, and the story is much stronger for his courage.
Sometimes, mentoring is simply a matter of pointing out small weaknesses that can make a piece of writing sag—overuse of certain words and phrases, repetitive ideas, and shifts in point-of-view—and helping the writer find ways to fix them. This requires mentees to approach their mentorship with an open mind, a certain maturity, and more than a little trust, since it can be heartily demoralising to open a document which is covered in deletions and comments. Greg Beckham cheerfully let me run rough shot over his manuscript.
“My goal was to bring my writing to the level of commercially publishable for mainstream enjoyment (or revulsion-as it were),” Beckham writes. “I was amazed at how good I was at over-writing. Repeating. And distancing. Wow! What I enjoy most about the mentor-mentee relationship is the honesty. My HWA mentor wielded a sharp blade, helping me to mercilessly hack and slash the ‘muckety-muck’ in my writing that bogged down the story. Along the way, I killed many prose darlings—but after all, it is horror! And I couldn’t be more grateful!”
I asked my mentees what advice they would give to aspiring writers considering a mentorship. Ian Bain replied, “My writing (I think, anyways) has improved leaps and bounds—my mentor would definitely scold me for the cliché—since starting the program. To have an experienced set of eyes on your work brings out so many aspects of your writing that you never really thought about before. And it isn’t just the nitty-gritty bits of craft that a mentor can help you with; my mentor’s given me loads of practical networking advice.”
Bain also offers a couple of tips for getting the best out of the opportunity. “Ask questions,” he says. “Your mentor didn’t take you on because they hate talking about writing. Get a thick skin; your mentor, hopefully, will point out the issues with your writing, and that’s a good thing! That’s exactly what we want our mentors to do. It might sting a bit at first, but this is how we get better.”
Beckham agrees: “For me, the HWA Mentorship program is a fantastic experience. Having an accomplished professional writer as a mentor is invaluable. Since there are no scholastic/training programs for this sort of thing (horror fiction), why not get an edge? A mentor is that edge. The skills, tips, and techniques I’ve learned in the few months I’ve been in the program have proven incredibly helpful. If I were advising someone about mentorship, I’d say this: DO IT. DO IT NOW!” He goes on to joke, “Though, I guess I could always get a degree from Miskatonic U—Anyone know where to apply?”
Kappauff says, “Taking part in the HWA’s mentorship program was the best decision I’ve made regarding my writing career. It’s been more valuable even than my MFA degree. If I were to give someone entering a mentorship program any advice, it would be to keep an open mind and check your ego at the door. Critiques aren’t personal; they’re necessary for learning and improving. If you aren’t open to change, aren’t willing to overhaul huge swaths of your writing in service of the story, then you won’t likely get much out of a mentorship.”
The thing is, it isn’t only the mentee who benefits from a mentorship. I’ve never managed to escape one without learning some new gem about writing and writers. And that’s without the sneaky preview at the deliciously dark work being penned by horror’s up and coming creatives. And making a bunch of talented new friends. The fellowship that can arise from mentorship is astounding. Winston Churchill wasn’t wrong when he said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we live.”
A month or so into the programme, Bain, Kappauff, and Beckham came together to form a beta group to brainstorm ideas and critique each other’s work going forward. All three are embarking on exciting new projects.
“With my mentor’s help, I was able to produce three short fiction pieces, far and away my best work to date, and now I have the confidence to go tackle a larger project—a YA bizarro-horror novel,” writes Bain.
“I’m already implementing what I’ve learned in a new collaborative project with another author,” Kappauff says.
“Now that my story, Creeps, is completed,” says Beckham, “I will be submitting it for publication everywhere I can. My next several stories will get the same treatment, too.”
And as their mentor, I’ll be around to help them, although already they have the talent and the tools they need for success. I can’t wait see what they’ll do next.
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows) and a three-time Bram Stoker Award® nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thrillers, and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra, co-written with Dan Rabarts, as well as several books for children. She is proud to have edited thirteen speculative works, including award-winning titles Baby Teeth: Bite Sized Tales of Terror and At the Edge (with Dan Rabarts), Te Kōrero Ahi Kā (with Grace Bridges and Aaron Compton) and Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror. She is the co-founder of Young New Zealand Writers, an organisation providing development and publishing opportunities for New Zealand school students, and co-founder of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers. In February 2020, Lee was made an Honorary Literary Fellow in the New Zealand Society of Authors Waitangi Day Honours. Lee lives over the hill from Hobbiton in New Zealand’s sunny Bay of Plenty where she dreams up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Read more at www.leemurray.info. She tweets @leemurraywriter
Into The Ashes
No longer content to rumble in anger, the great mountain warriors of New Zealand’s central plateau, the Kāhui Tupua, are preparing again for battle. At least, that’s how the Māori elders tell it. The nation’s leaders scoff at the danger. That is; until the ground opens and all hell breaks loose. The armed forces are hastily deployed; NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna and his section tasked with evacuating civilians and tourists from Tongariro National Park. It is too little, too late. With earthquakes coming thick and fast and the mountains spewing rock and ash, McKenna and his men are cut off. Their only hope of rescuing the stranded civilians is to find another route out, but a busload of prison evacuees has other ideas. And, deep beneath the earth’s crust, other forces are stirring.