I was at a reading by Bonnie Jo Campbell and a group of us writers were talking about poetry versus short stories versus novels and writers asking each other to provide feedback on their work. Campbell said that from her understanding, fiction writers cannot have mentors. Her logic is that there are only so many times you can ask someone to read a draft of a twenty page story, let alone at 500 page novel manuscript.
This I understand. But I disagree that fiction writers cannot have mentors. For me, there are two types of mentors: the type you study under physically and who provide you with feedback, and the type you choose for yourself by reading and studying their work on your own. In this way, mentors do not need to read (or critique) your work for you to learn from them.
Sarah Monette (aka Katherine Addison) is my favorite author and she is my mentor. Whenever I reread her Doctrine of Labyrinths series, I study her mastery of first person narration. I study her subversions of fantasy tropes, her ability to keep even the most beaten down characters active and pulling themselves from victimhood.
When reading Monette’s collection of fantasy short stories Somewhere Beneath Those Waves, I am again her mentee. From her short fiction I study her flash pieces to tell a tight and developed story. I study her balance of plot and character to keep a narrative moving. I study and take notes on her craft of suspense, her characterizing details. I study under her and she is my mentor, though we have yet to meet.
I understand that being self-taught from your own reading list does not equate to in person interactions and receiving feedback on your work from writers you trust. Their feedback and time is invaluable. But for those of us currently without those resources, I find that all writers can be each others mentors. We can all learn from each other, no matter whether the work we’re reading has won a Nebula or is an author’s debut publication. We can all be each others mentors.
Take a look at your reading list. Whose writing can you learn from today?