Monday, July 25, 2011

NEVADA NUGGETS OF GOLD From the Mentee/Mentor Mines (and Minds)

The mentors and mentees of the Nevada SCBWI 2010-2011 Mentor Program

Do you know about Nevada SCBWI’s amazing Mentor Program? Created by Ellen Hopkins (current RA - Nevada and SCBWI Board Member) and Suzy Williams (RA Emeritus - Nevada), the idea is to match on-the-cusp-of-being-published writers and illustrators with at-the-top-of-their-game authors, illustrators and freelance editors for a six month mentorship.

Six months of revising, polishing and getting your work up to that next level to help you break in, break through, and break out (and acne reference aside, it’s not only for YA writers, but for writers of all genres and children’s literature age categories – and illustrators as well!)

The 2010-2011 Mentor Program had eight mentors and twenty-four mentees from all over the country (and in the past they’ve had international members participate, too.) Applicants selected their top two choices for mentors, and the mentors chose who they would select in a blind process based on the work alone – which made everyone participating feel hand-picked based on the strength of our writing and/or illustrating rather than the popularity or lack of our blogs and the popularity or lack of our, err... charm. (No worries - we were all charming, even during karaoke!)

Personally, I was fortunate to be matched with mentor Emma Dryden (drydenbks founder and SCBWI Board member.) Emma treated my Middle Grade novel, OVER GOD, as if it was a book she had acquired back when she was a publisher and editor at Simon & Schuster. From her editorial letter to her line edits, revising my novel under her guidance was a craft and career changer.

Bracketed by an opening weekend that corresponded with SCBWI Nevada’s Conference on the Comstock and gave us the opportunity to meet and learn from all the mentors plus visiting luminaries including Cheryl Klein and Tracey Adams, and a finale weekend where we shared our polished work with guest editor Alvina Ling, it was six months that yielded so many wonderful take-aways for me, so many nuggets of gold.

On a macro level, I learned that persistence pays off. At the start of 2010 I was determined that I was going to apply for every program and grant that I thought might help me move my writing career in children’s literature forward. I only got one yes – and that was for the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program! The “no”s were disappointing, but the YES turns out to have changed everything.

On a micro level, I learned great things about my own craft. I need to be careful how many times I use the word “smile.” (Turns out 84 times in 200 pages is too much!) I need to trust my readers and not feel like I have to explain things (200 pages went down to 177.) And I need to make sure that the middle of the story not just moves the characters along plot-wise, bridging the beginning and the end, but that the moments of the middle are essential to the main character’s internal arc. (That lesson made my story so much better!)

Overall, my experience being mentored was incredible, and I completed the program with a stronger-than-ever manuscript ready to submit to agents. And I’ll tell you, the confidence I now have about my writing is true gold! But don’t just take my word for it – I asked my fellow mentees from the class of 2010-2011 to share their nuggets of gold:

Amy Allgeyer Cook, Writer
Idaho, USA
Mentee of Susan Hart Lindquist

Not to sound all Oprah, but I had a true ‘ah-ha’ moment during my first meeting with Susan when she asked what my central dramatic question was. The CDQ is the question readers will ask themselves throughout the book. It’s what keeps them reading. And it was pretty telling that I had no idea what mine was. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the CDQ is “Will Harry find the chamber before someone gets killed?” Defining my central dramatic question allowed me to see which plot line should come to the forefront. It kept me focused and kept my book from rambling off on a minor thread. It also helped me answer that other ticklish question people like to ask: So…what’s your book about?

Debbie Larson, Writer
Mentee of Terri Farley

My nugget of gold:
Things happen for people who set goals. I realized the importance of goal setting in my writing career as I sat among the fine writers and illustrators at the Virginia City Mentor Program conference. Setting goals and slowly but methodically chipping away at them had left me with a strong manuscript and waiting opportunities. Moving on, goals continue to be part of my process as I explore possibilities and further hone my craft.

Hazel Mitchell, Writer and Illustrator
Maine, USA via Yorkshire, England. and
Mentee of Priscilla Burris

My nugget of gold:
This program has been a reminder to me of how important a network of like minded people are. In a business where for the most part an individual works in isolation having friends and colleagues to reach out to might be just be the most important resource available. For advice, for sharing successes, for commiserating, for sounding off. Just knowing you are part of a 'tribe' can make the difference on the journey. And it is a journey - getting published is just the start and then the really hard work begins. Therefore I will treasure the friends and associates I am making along the way. Being part of this SCBWI program brought me in contact with people I will always remember and I know they are now part of my tribe.

Heather Ross, Writer
Mentee of Harold Underdown

My nugget of gold:
With many sticks (and a few carrots) my mentor prodded me to realize I am not a one trick pony.
I CAN revise an entire manuscript top to bottom.
Go ahead, kill your darlings. More live in your head.
Write plots in a straight line.
Write well-rounded, fully-drawn characters then move them about like players on a chess board.
If your story has no humor, why bother?

Heidi Woodward Sheffield, Writer and Illustrator
Mentee of Teri Sloat

My nugget of gold:
To free up the writer within, sometimes you have to draw a picture, first. I was stumped with my first attempts at writing this picture book manuscript. As an artist, sometimes it's easier to "see" something in my head before I "hear" it. My mentor suggested using the storyboard to create the story visually, which helped me as I wrote various versions of the manuscript. I thought that was putting the cart before the horse, but I put faith in Teri's suggestion and was astounded how well this method worked. My agent Rubin Pfeffer of East West Literary is now submitting the polished manuscript to publishers, which is truly exciting.

Lisa Trimble Actor, Writer
Mentee of Ellen Hopkins.

My nugget of gold:
No matter how clever, gripping or totally engrossing the plot, a good story ultimately depends on fully formed characters to bring it alive. Readers have to care about your characters and understand their motivations and relationships or your plot will feel hollow and contrived.

Lisa Hallett, Writer
Boulder City, NV
Mentor: Suzanne Morgan Williams

My nugget of gold:
The entire program is amazing; everything from the learning experience to the dedication the mentors have to their mentees, and to the wonderful group of supportive authors/illustrators that are in the program. Working with professionals who care about you, and encourage your success by sharing their knowledge is invaluable. After working with Suzy, I realized that there is so much more to writing than simply sitting down and typing away at the keyboard. It’s about working very hard and sharing in a story – a world of words created from where you are, where you’ve been, and the people in your life along the way; make every word matter. At least I think that’s what the many red pen marks and recommended re-writes that decorated my manuscripts after every time Suzy read them meant : )

Phyllis Mignard, Writer and Illustrator
Mentee of Priscilla Burris

My nugget of gold:
Working with my mentor helped me find my creative mojo by discovering and working on the traits and habits that had kept me in a creative limbo. Not only did I hone my skills but the illustration challenges helped me to trust and follow my intuition. Now, when comparing my work to others' (something I think most of us do) I recognize my strengths and am more focused on my goals.

And mentoring, it turns out, is a two-way street. Uh, a two-way mine. Clunky metaphors aside, heck, they got gold, too:

Priscilla Burris, Author/Illustrator, Illustrator Coordinator and Board Member of SCBWI
California, USA
My website:

Gold Nugget:
From Emma and Harold’s Social Media & Marketing talk, I share this ~
On developing and growing your online presence and connections, it’s wise to ‘generate audience’ by sharing and networking, such as commenting on other’s blogs and being a guest blogger, rather than to shout, pitch, and always make your tweets/comments/posts only and always just about you. Also, your website is your professional, majorly important ‘go-to’ place!

Emma D Dryden, Founder & Principal, drydenbks llc, a children’s book editorial consulting firm
New York, USA

Gold Nugget:
In mentoring three first-time novelists, I worked on three vastly different middle grade novels. Over the course of the program, I identified an exciting connection among the three books that reminded me of the very important role literature can play in the life and identity of young readers. Whether humorous fantasy, contemporary boy story, or mystical girl story, all three stories were about one thing: Home. Each of the protagonists in these three stories is on a journey to find themselves and to figure out where they fit in the world, within whatever definition they have of “home.” Middle graders are experiencing their first taste of independence and autonomy, stretching their wings to explore just how far they might one day be able to fly, while also trying to keep the promise of the safety of home in their sights. So, too, are the protagonists in these three novels, but traveling on such remarkably different roads to reach their goals. What I was reminded of over the course of this program was the significance of the journey on which we all embark when we’re middle graders—and the significance of the stories we can give to young people through the books we write, to offer them support, to help them feel less alone, and to encourage them to reach farther and higher than they ever thought possible—all for the sake of finding their place in the world.

The universal sense of “Oh my gosh, I’ve learned so much from this mentorship” was so strong that when it came time for we mentees to plan a thank you gift for our mentors, all twenty-four of us decided to do something to show how much we appreciated the impact of this program on our craft and our careers. We each donated $36.-, and together created a scholarship for someone else to win – for free tuition to be a mentee in the 2012 Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program.

We’re excited to spread the word about this most amazing regional program, and hope you, too, will participate, find gold, and be able to say, “Do you know about Nevada SCBWI’s amazing Mentor Program?”

You can find out more info on the Nevada Mentor Program at


Ellen Hopkins said...

Thanks so much for this, Lee. 2010-11 was a great program, and Nevada SCBWI is grateful for the Pay-It-Forward Grant made possible by you and your fellow mentees. There are exciting additions to the 2012 program. Info will be up on our website in a day or two. Just waiting on faculty bios.

Suzanne Morgan Williams said...

Lee - adding my thanks for the great blog post. The payback for mentors is seeing their "mentees" soar and you guys are on your way. Bon voyage et bonne chance!

Corey Schwartz said...

Wow, sounds like an awesome program! Wish we had it in NJ!

Joanna said...

Lee, I have seen snippets about this Mentor program, so thanks for filling me in with all these inspiring details. I don't know if I could swing it from Europe, but man I sure would love too.

KC Held said...

I feel so fortunate to have been part of this amazing program and can't recommend it highly enough.
Thank you again for dreaming up the Pay-It-Forward Grant and making it happen, Lee. I'm so proud to have been a member of Team Emma with you!

Joanna said...

Forgot to add, Lee, that I just love the the way you all chose to thank your mentors by creating a scholarship, that says so much about the value of the program AND the people!

Unknown said...

WOW! Such an awesome post. I can only hope to be a part of it one day. I've read several really inspiring accounts and heard many more splendid stories. This post sums it all up in a way that attaches to the reader mentally and emotionally.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I know Amy loved her time with the Mentee program. I had no idea it was open to people in other states.