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What Kind of Mentor Do You Need?

Everyone gets inspired by different things. Everyone writes in unique ways. But if you're reading this blog, you probably already know the one thing that most every writer really needs to keep going and make it through the bumpy path to publication---people to inspire, encourage, and teach. Mentors.

But not all mentors communicate in the same way. Different strokes and all that. Here's a list of the four main types of mentors---which one is right for you?

The Positive Feedback Coach

My Example: Mr. Rogers of Mister Roger's Neighborhood

Good for: Soothing and focused on a 'glass half full' feedback message, this Coach is great for writers that have a hard time taking ruthless critique, or who beat themselves up enough as it is.

Benefits: Positive reinforcement is one of the more effective tools for inspiring improved behaviors, and the "positive feedback" coach is (as you might have guessed) all over that. Their belief is that by knowing what you do well, you'll be encouraged to continue working and improving.

Cons: Critique that's entirely positive isn't ... well, it isn't really critique. Be careful. Make sure that you're still working with someone that pushes you to be better, rather than someone who will just scratch your back instead of admitting that something isn't working.

The Gentle Honesty Coach
My Example: Tim Gunn of Project Runway

Great for: Measured and unbiased, the Gentle Honesty mentor works for writers who appreciate other perspectives, but want to maintain complete creative control.

Benefits: The Gentle Honesty coach shares a lot of qualities with the Positive Feedback coach (overall, a positive reinforcement approach), but they won't hesitate to share their hesitations. When they do, it will generally be in thoughtful, open-ended questions ("Do you really believe this character would react this way?") that encourage the writer to explore their story more thoroughly.

Cons: This mentor will get you thinking, but may not be the best one to turn to when you want a straight-up, yes-or-no answer. It can sometimes be time-consuming to wheedle a solid opinion out of them when you want it.

The Brutal Honesty Coach
My example: Jillian Michaels, trainer on The Biggest Loser.

Good for: Relentlessly driven, this coach won't hesitate to push someone past their comfort zone with a mix of brutal critique and emotional honesty.

Benefits: Though this type of mentor can be intense, they come from a wholly positive place of believing in you, 100 percent. They critique, question, prod, and sometimes withhold chocolate, because they care. They also know when a problem is deeper than what's on the page, and won't hesitate to hash out behind-the-scenes problems that keep your writing from being all it can be.

Cons: For writers that take a more holistic approach, this mentor might be too intense and too dedicated to structure. And for writers that already motivate themselves mentally, this type of mentor might be too much of a good thing.

The Tear-You-Down-to-Build-You-Up Coach

My Example: The Tiger Mom, Amy Chua

Good For: Writers who might have a hard time motivating themselves, or who enjoy punishment, will sign up for this no-holds-barred Boot Camp mentor.

Benefits: If full-stop honesty is your thing, you've found your match. This mentor has absolute faith that you can achieve the highest level of success. That kind of belief can be a powerful thing, even if this coach's totally relentless (and often negatively reinforced) motivational tactics aren't exactly warm-n-fuzzy.

Cons: You won't like this mentor. They doesn't want to be liked, they want to be obeyed. However, when your relationship with this person is optional (as opposed to being their blood relative, or their employee, or enrolled in their boot camp) it can be hard to resist the temptation to shut them out and relapse into an even less productive mode than you had before.

It's important to understand how you motivate yourself, and then seek out a mentor that will complement you appropriately. Don't be afraid to find a new critique partner or beta reader if the ones you have right now just aren't pushing you and your writing as much as you want, or in the right direction. Ultimately you are responsible for the product you send out to agents or editors or the general public, but the people you have in your corner can make all the difference in getting you there.

Do you have a mentor? What style works best for you? Is there another style that we left out?
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  1. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'd like me some Jillian Michaels. I need someone to push me as further than I'd go voluntarily! :)

  2. I probably lean toward liking the Jillian mentor the most, but I think everyone needs a Mr. Rogers in their life. We all have those days where we feel like everything we write sucks and it's a nice boost when someone says, "No, you don't. I like you (and your writing) just the way you are."

  3. I have a huge girl crush on Jillian. And I've tried her DVDs--if only I could translate that type of motivational butt-kicking into my writing!

  4. Interesting entry! :)

    I don't have a mentor, but I guess I'd lean towards the Gentle Honesty coach. "Maintain complete creative control"... Yeah, that's me. I always know everything better than anybody else, so while I totally need and listen to other people's opinions and perspectives (and usually let them influence me), I need to find a solution that's entirely my own.

    I'm too argumentative to be left with someone who'd leave me room to talk back. And, paradoxical though it may sound, the more definite and specific criticism is, the more room there is to begin arguing about it. Whereas you can't argue with questions, right?

  5. Sometimes I need a little Jullian Michaels, though I do like Mister Rodger's sometimes for that positive mentor outlook. And he does have the world of make-believe. I could always use more time for imagination. :)

  6. I just finished my MFA thesis novel, and I had a perfect blend for my mentors. One gave me positive feedback, but also gave me line-by-line advice on places I could spruce up and/or cut. The second looked at the big picture and asked the big questions I didn't want to hear. No real suggestions on what to change, just nagging questions that kept me up at night. And the results were unquestionable. I think you need a little of everything somehow. But a non-stop cheerleader is really no help. And a total douche that hates everything just leads to crying and quitting. Everything in moderation.

  7. great post! i think we need ALL of these mentors at different stages of the writing process.
    thanks for a fun read. :)

  8. I'm almost in William Friskey's boat (dude, I envy you; still working on my MFA novel). I've had the brutally honest mentors and the gentle, but honest mentors. With either kind of mentor, I still needed to swallow some pride and follow the advice given. The result is a manuscript I love.

  9. I think I need Billy Blanks as my mentor. I would like to Tae Bo chop my current MS. I would not want Den.ise Aus.tin, who drives me InSaNe. Super perky to the max. She would be like the spastic version of Mr. Rogers, I think. The one who pushes you to sadistic lengths with a smile. Like an evil Richard Simmons.

  10. OMG Kate, why did I not think of Richard Simmons as an example?? Or what about the "STOP THE MADNESS" woman??

    I agree with all the commenters pointing out the fact that, at different stages writers need different mentors. That's definitely why I keep a variety of wonderful betas on hand.

  11. BRILLIANT post, Sarah. ;D

    I think I'll go for Tim Gunn (gentle honesty). Don't BS me, but don't omit the problems, either! Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit more Jillian Michaels in my on critiquing . . . touch love, and all.

  12. Gentle Honesty coach! I am pretty good about prodding myself and love others inputs but I usually already have an idea of the direction I want to go in with my story line. :)

    This is a good post. Good idea.

  13. I think I'm somewhere in the gentle/brutal honesty area, and as far as mentoring people that is also where I generally fall. I also have a Mr. Rogers type too, so I don't feel like the whole thing is pointless (because, let's face it, there are definitely days where that is needed).

  14. Ooh, interesting! I don't have a mentor but I do kind of wonder what kind of feedback I'd like to get. I think I'd need a cheerleader for when I first finish something, but once I've had time to get some perspective and want to revise, I think I'd want more honesty and straight-forward critiques.

  15. Tim Gunn. Not a mentor like Tim Gunn. Tim Gunn specifically.

    This is a great post, Sarah!


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