Please provide a brief description of your backgrounds.
Laura: I was a Creative Writing major in college and have worked as an editor, copyeditor, teacher, and freelance writer over the years. In the 1990s, I began writing for kids, and that’s been my main focus ever since. I’ve written tons of nonfiction books, which I love, though my very favorite form is poetry. My newest books are A Leaf Can Be… (Millbrook, 2012), which I can’t believe just appeared on NYTimes.com, and BookSpeak! Poems About Books (Clarion, 2011), an NCTE Notable Book and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist. Over the years, I’ve worked with children’s/YA writers through workshops, conferences, online classes, and the Institute of Children’s Literature. It’s a really satisfying part of my writing career.
Lisa: I attended the Denver Publishing Institute and then worked as a book publishing professional for sixteen years. But as I was working on other writers’ books—and learning a lot from them—I was also writing my own books on the side. My first picture book, Not Enough Beds!, was accepted by an editor and came out in 1999, and I had the thrill of engaging with the publishing process as a writer. A couple years and another picture book later, I decided to try to make a go as a freelance writer. Thanks to everything I learned about books and publishing during the early part of my career, since then I’ve been able to sustain myself as a writer (one who also does a whole lot of other things—such as Mentors for Rent—to help pay the bills).
Please describe the genesis of Mentors for Rent. What gap in the market did you hope to fill?
We’re fortunate to live in the Twin Cities, where the active book community provides lots of opportunities to network with other writers. Each of us had been teaching children’s/YA book writing and offering individual critiques for many years, and we both especially enjoyed working with new writers. Then the two of us started meeting for brainstorming/marketing lunches, and we decided to collaborate on a class. Our strengths (and weaknesses) really complement each other. We knew from online friends that many writers don’t have strong local writing communities. So we decided to offer our class online. We co-taught several successful rounds of online classes, but many students craved even more personalized feedback (on manuscripts, cover letters, submission strategies, and career planning). We especially liked the idea of being able to meet with writers via Skype, re-creating the friendly face-to-face conversations we’ve had so many times in Twin Cities coffee shops with local writers. Mentors for Rent is our “virtual coffee shop” answer to affordable, supportive, and individualized help for writers who want to reach the next stage of their writing life.
What is the profile of your typical client? (level of experience, genre, etc.)
It’s turned out that there isn’t a typical client, other than the fact that they’re all enthusiastic about writing for children or young adults. We had our first international client this month—an Indian woman who lives in Singapore (figuring out the timing for that Skype session was complicated!). We recently worked with a writer on her very first piece of children’s writing, and we worked with Becky Levine, a writer already published with Writer’s Digest Books who also wanted to (and subsequently did!) break in to the nonfiction educational market. We worked with a client on a cute rhyming picture book about a mouse and we worked with Anne Schwab, a graduate of Hamline’s Writing for Children MFA program, on a final edit and creating submission materials for her young adult novel in verse. Other clients want to ask questions about interpreting emails their editors have sent them or questions about marketing their work or basic questions that they feel funny asking at writing conferences. And we’re proud that many of our clients enjoy the experience so much that they come back for follow-up sessions.
A lot of mentoring in the writing world happens on a volunteer basis through critique groups. What are the differences and/or benefits of for-hire mentoring? Aside from the obvious cost, are there any detriments?
We’re both members of critique groups ourselves, and we often encourage the writers we work with to find critique groups. They serve such an important function by offering support, regular feedback, community, and sometimes just a reason to get to work (so that you don’t disappoint the group by showing up empty-handed)! But writing groups are often made up of writers who are at approximately the same stage of the writing journey. We know from firsthand experience with our own manuscripts-in-progress that sometimes it’s valuable to get feedback from a writer who is further up the “writing food chain.” A more experienced writer tends to notice different things than your own critique group—or perhaps they notice the same things, but as writers, we hear those things differently from somebody who is an objective outsider and not our critique group buddy. It’s also easier for an objective outsider to tell a writer some of those hard truths that a critique group might not be willing to. And of course, we offer a lot more than critiques—many of the clients we work with want help with the marketing and business questions that come up for writers.
The only detriment we can think of is that sometimes technology is a fickle creature: we’ve had to learn to be flexible when Skype isn’t working, or somebody’s computer crashes unexpectedly.
What has surprised you about being a mentor since you started Mentors for Rent? What have you learned about the process?
Before we started Mentors for Rent, we had each individually mentored many other writers on both a formal (structured and paid) basis and on an informal basis. So the thing that has been the biggest surprise is how much more our clients get out of the process of working with a mentoring team. When people choose advance critique time (one of our popular options), we critique separately, without consulting each other, because we want our clients to hear two individual responses to their work. Then when we talk with the client, we discuss where our feedback is in agreement (which is actually most of the time) and where our opinions differ. Going into this venture, we thought it might be hard for writers to hear that there isn’t always one right answer. But the reverse has proved true: rather than finding our occasional creative dissent problematical, writers have told us it’s hugely valuable to hear two different professional perspectives. And it’s great for us, of course, because we’re always learning from each other, too!
What we’ve learned about the process is that it’s really important to know what our clients hope to accomplish. We think that’s true for critique groups as well: the more specific you are about what you need from your critique group, the more useful the feedback you’ll likely receive. For instance, a recent client simply wanted to create the best picture book manuscript she could, so we gave her feedback on word choice, story structure, and pacing. Another client, Linda Booth Sweeney, wanted both feedback and submissions advice. So we made revision suggestions and pointed her toward some niche publishers for her regionally-based picture book biography—and she found a publisher (Bunker Hill Publishing)!
We’ve put a lot of time into developing intake materials that allow clients to define exactly what they most hope to achieve from our relationship. In fact, we use something called our “Feedback Fitness #” survey that might be useful for critique groups. If anybody out there is interested, email us at [email protected] and we’ll send you a copy. The survey is our humorous way of asking writers to identify what kind of feedback they most need to hear at this point of the manuscript’s life cycle (we use exercise terminology, so the options range from “right now I need cheerleaders” to “I really do want you to tell me if these jeans make me look fat.”)
Have you learned anything about your own writing by working as a mentor?
Oh my gosh, we learn SO much from mentoring—both from our clients and from each other! Laura, for example, has learned a lot about endings that both resolve the conflict AND continue the thread the beginning of the book started. Lisa feels like her sense of “writer’s voice” is constantly evolving, both through working with an amazing poet like Laura, and through hearing so many different clients’ writing voices. We’re constantly challenged to think even more creatively about our craft, and we learn from both what works and doesn’t work in our clients’ manuscripts—and from the advice we each give them.
We feel a strong obligation to keep up with developments in the children’s book business so we can give our clients the most current information. And frankly, as hard as the writing life can be some days, we’re in the lucky position of being reminded time and again by our clients that we have jobs that other people covet!
If you could be mentored by anyone throughout time, who would it be and why?
Lisa: I am such a writing nerd! I’m sitting here imagining what it might be like to ask Shakespeare for help on turning my upcoming novel into a screenplay. Or to work with an editor like Maxwell Perkins, who had such a knack for developing great writing talents. But I’m an equal opportunity dreamer—there are so many living and breathing writers who I’d follow around like a fangirl if I wasn’t afraid of being arrested as a stalker! For example, I just saw a photo of two of my YA writing heroes, Melina Marchetta and Kristin Cashore, hanging out together in Italy, and the fantasy of being there with them, talking about writing while eating pasta, almost gave me palpitations!
Laura: Boy, ask a tough question, why don’t you? OK, I’m limiting myself to dead writers, because there are too many people I could name who are writing now. And I know some of them personally and it would be awkward if they knew I was pining away for them to take me under their wings and guide me through this challenging career. So…I’m going to have to say Madeleine L’Engle. Or maybe Edgar Allan Poe. Or wait–Barbara Juster Esbensen, whose speech at a children’s writing conference first led me to think about writing poetry for kids. Or—or—OK, I’m stopping here.
If you could mentor anyone, who would it be and why?
Laura: Hmm, I would feel kind of arrogant naming a particular person I want to mentor, as if I’m saying they NEED a mentor! But I would love to mentor someone who feels as overwhelmed as I used to about a career writing for kids, but who feels the same kind of passion for it and determination to make it happen. It would be amazing to be there at the start and really watch someone’s career blossom. We’ve already had two or three clients sell manuscripts based on our consultations with them. That kind of good news—it’s just amazing.
Lisa: I’m hopeful that I’m already mentoring that person. I work with three sixth-grade girls as a writing teacher—it’s kind of like group piano lessons, except we write instead—we’ve been working together for three years now. These kids are so great; we have our sessions on Friday after school gets out, and despite the fact that they’ve been sitting in school desks all week long, they are still enthusiastic about our time together! It would be a huge thrill for me as their mentor if they decide to make writing a permanent part of their lives as adults.
What’s next for you both, individually and with Mentors for Rent?
Lisa: It’s been hard to shut me up lately, because I just found out that my first novel—a middle grade mystery—is going to be published by Harcourt in 2013! For Mentors for Rent, one of my big areas of focus has been pinpointing the most effective ways for writers to use social media as a promotional tool for their books. It’s a key part of marketing these days, and we want to give the clients who come to us for marketing advice the best possible advice.
Laura: Individually, I have some math concept monster books under deadline right now, and I’m excited about the companion book to A Leaf Can Be…, which will be Water Can Be… (Millbrook Press, 2014).
And Mentors for Rent will be publishing a guide to query and cover letters soon, both in pdf and ebook format. We’re also putting together a consulting package for writers interested in self-publishing digital books (I swear, we never thought we’d hear ourselves say that, but it’s a changing publishing world, that’s for sure!). We’ll also be hosting the Redbery Writers’ Intensive, a writing intensive/retreat this October in Wisconsin, where it will be great to do some in-person mentoring!
If you’ve read all the way to the end, here’s a special offer for you: One week after this interview first runs, Mentors for Rent will select one lucky winner for a free 45-minute Mentors for Rent session. All you have to do to qualify is leave feedback or simply the word “enter” as a comment below this post here on Carrie’s page, and then go over to Facebook and Like our Mentors for Rent page (before the week is over). We’ll randomly draw one winner and send you a message via Facebook. We can meet (via Skype or conference call) with individuals, writing partners, or entire critique groups (but groups/partners need to share one computer for the session).