June 22 – 28: “Finding a mentor, what should you look for in one?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Behind every great writer is a great mentor. This week ITW Members Kate White, Alex Dolan, Lisa Von Biela, J. T. Ellison and Jean Heller discuss finding a mentor and answer the question: “What should you look for in one?”


WHAT LIES BEHIND cover (1)J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling author of thirteen critically acclaimed novels, including WHAT LIES BEHIND, WHEN SHADOWS FALL and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLSand is the co-author of the A Brit in the FBI series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Her work has been published in more than twenty countries. Her novel THE COLD ROOM won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original and WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE was a RITA® Nominee for Best Romantic Suspense. She lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens, where she enjoys fine wine and good notebooks. Visit JTEllison.com for more insight into her wicked imagination, or follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick or Facebook.com/JTEllison14.


skinshiftLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels THE GENESIS CODE, THE JANUS LEGACY, and BLOCKBUSTER, as well as the novella ASH AND BONE.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


The Euthanist cover_smallAlex Dolan is a writer and musician based in California. His first book, The Euthanist, is published through Diversion Books and represented by the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. He has recorded four albums: Americana, Move, Owe Me One Cannoli, and Cherub Conga Line (with Crash 22). In addition, he specializes in pro-social communications, using marketing techniques to drive progress on social issues and with mission-driven organizations. He has a master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia University.


WrongMan coverKate White, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, is the New York Times bestselling author of six Bailey Weggins mysteries and four stand-alone suspense novels, including Eyes on You, and the upcoming The Wrong Man (June 16). She is also the editor of The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook.




  1. A mentor can be all things: someone who helps in story building, character development, critiquing, and/or editing, not to mention cheerleading. I suppose the perfect mentor can do it all. I had it done for me, and for nearly 15 years I ran a successful business doing it for other would-be novelists.

    One of my clients couldn’t get an agent interested after dozens of tries and dozens of rejections. As soon as I read his manuscript, I knew why. It was a good story with fine characters in an exotic setting. His problem was the first chapter. It made the book appear to be about something it wasn’t, and that something would not have interested very many book buyers. Hence, it didn’t interest agents.

    When I finished working with him, and he finished the revisions, the first agent he queried snapped him up and got him a three-book deal with a major house. Of course not all stories ended that well, but most of my clients did snag agents and sales.

    My own first mentor took me to lunch and listened to my idea. When I finished, he said, “If you don’t write that book, I will.” So I did. The key was his enthusiasm. It motivated me since he was a successful published author himself. He was always ready to answer questions, offer suggestions when asked, and even got the manuscript an audience with his own agent. She didn’t rep it, but she gave me some great advice. I made revisions based on that advice, and the second agent I tried picked it up and sold it.

    More recently, the same man read my latest book, THE SOMEDAY FILE. I knew there was something about it that wasn’t right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. He nailed it, along with a few other, more minor, failings.

    The key to finding a good mentor is definitely NOT asking your next-door neighbor’s cousin to read the work. You need to find someone who knows you, knows writing, knows publishing, is enthusiastic about what you’re doing, and can be there for you when you need advice. Most likely, you will have to pay for the service. If you can afford it – and if you know someone who fits the description above – it might be worth expanding your budget temporarily.

    And if you don’t know the mentor, and the mentor doesn’t know you, don’t spend a penny unless you get a slew of positive referrals. Don’t be afraid to ask the individual for his client list. If he or she is honest and capable, the request will honored. A pig in a poke is never a good investment.

  2. If we’re talking about a writing mentor, someone who is going to critique your work, I think it’s really tough to find someone who 1) knows what they’re talking about and 2) will invest that kind of time for nothing. As Jean says, you can’t ask your next door neighbor and count on a decent response. I feel strongly that if you want good guidance, you have to pay for it. Either by taking a writing course or hiring a freelance editor to evaluate your manuscript. You’re just asking too much of someone otherwise and this is the way to get a non-amateur opinion.
    Writers need another kind of mentor. Someone to bring them into the fold. Be generous yourself and people will want to help you out and introduce you to people who can make a difference. And say thank you! Even send a gift. I’m serious!!!

  3. Some quick thoughts.

    First off, find the people you respect, who you want to emulate. I spent my debut year asking myself — WWLD — What would Lee Do? (as in, Lee Child) Whenever I was approached about an event, encouraged to do things out of my comfort zone, found myself in trouble, or having a spot of success, etc., I looked at the situation or issue and asked myself – WWLD. It kept me from making bad decisions. It kept me from doing stupid things. (Hey, everyone does dumb things when they’re starting out. It’s part of the gig.) Thinking about how my mentor was acting, presenting himself, treating other people really gave me the tools to move into my career with joy and happiness.

    Approach with respect. Time is at a premium for all authors, so if you hit up your author with requests that are going to take a ton of time up front, you’re more likely to get a no. Start small. Make friends. Read them, be familiar with their style, their work habits. If someone cold calls me with a request to read their manuscript, the answer will always be no. Someone who enters the relationship gently, with respect, is much more likely to get my attention.

    Be realistic. Mentoring is not a quick trip to the New York Times list. You’re going to get a lot more from the relationship if you are trying to learn the ropes instead of looking for a leg up.

    Be fun. Be funny. Be genuine. I can tell rather easily of someone is using me, or really wants to work with me because they think I can enhance their work. It’s not hard to spot the professionals in the mix, I can almost always tell within a few minutes if the person approaching me is worth their salt. To that end, do your research. Know the industry. No one has it all figured out, but you ca’t expect your mentor to educate you about everything.

    If you’re told no, don’t pursue it. Don’t pout, don’t threaten, don’t badmouth. You can always circle back, buy the author a drink at a future conference, but no means no, and you make yourself look bad if you act poorly about it. No one likes to be told no, but sometimes, there’s just no way an author can take on another writer to help.

    ​I’ll be back on later today! Feel free to ask me anything.

  4. Mentors can come in many forms (and budgets). They can be a friend, teacher, or editor.

    Think about how much you might be willing to invest in someone who can help you become a better writer. I’ve had the best luck working one-on-one with an editor on a specific manuscript, but if you’re not working on a specific project, or don’t want to invest that kind of money, you might try taking a class or even scouring your list of friends to see who might be willing to work with you. The beauty of hiring an editor is that, if you hire the right one, you’ll have their devoted attention to you and your work, and won’t think they’re doing you a favor by spending time with you. Plus, at the end of it you’ll have a manuscript that is closer to finding its readership.

    I second JT’s comments (above) about finding people you respect and want to emulate. Some might find it crass to try and come up with a list of comps, but it’s become a requisite for the industry, and I think it’s a helpful tool. I recommend making a list of writers you admire (especially writers who are currently publishing). That list will be helpful in finding a mentor who understands what you’re trying to accomplish.

    In my case, I interviewed a number of editors by phone until I found someone who tended to like the sort of fiction I liked. She read many of the same authors that I did, so we knew we at least had that in common. We worked on a 10-page sample together so I could understand her process, and I felt a certain level of enthusiasm from her about the project. She had a good sense of what I was trying to get across in my writing, and helped me learn more about the craft and improve the book without ever pushing her own vision or preferences on me. This last part was important to me. I’d recommend making sure that your mentor/editor/teacher will help you improve your writing skills without molding you into a style that isn’t your own.

    Finding the right mentor is like dating. You might not have chemistry with everyone you meet. They might not be passionate about the project, and they might not like the kinds of writers you like. If you like Lee Child and they love Jane Austen (of course, it’s very possible to like both), you might not be great collaborators. Before you commit to working with a mentor, try them out on a short story, or a sample of your book. You should know at that point whether it’s worth the time and money to work with them on a larger project.

    Lastly, give yourself time to find the right mentor. Know that it can take a while. If you don’t know where to begin, you might try searching through friends, or through organizations that specialize in your kind of writing (e.g., ITW). Talk to people. You’ll learn more about them over the phone than through email. And when you feel like it’s the right fit, take the plunge.

  5. I’m fascinated that there’s an understanding that mentoring equals reading and editing a manuscript. I see a mentor in a totally different light — someone who can help guide and give advice to a new writer (or a new friend, for that matter). I’d never consider paying for it — in my mind, editors are for editing, agents are for agenting, mentors are for filling in the cracks. Am I wrong?

    1. Hi JT,

      This is a fair point. What role do you see a mentor playing, and how would you see them helping someone?

      I tend to side with Lisa’s comment below, where I think it would help to have someone available for more than just casual advice or encouragement, but I’m curious to see how you think about this role.

  6. JT, I was thinking the same way until I read these other postings. For whatever reason, I was thinking of mentor in an unpaid, “someone who provides some form of guidance and support” sort of way.

    Even so, one comment I wanted to make was you wouldn’t want the blind leading the blind in a mentor. A cheerleader who knows nothing of the business or of the writing process is…a friend. A mentor should be further along than you, so he/she has some wisdom/experience to impart. That said, a person like that could be hard to find, could be very nice but simply not have time to give your manuscript a major edit. Maybe in some cases/situations, that comes in the form of a paid editor, or an agent.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      This is what I was thinking too.

      I think it’s easy to get casual advice, but I consider a mentor as someone who could help develop someone’s writing craft. In my experience, the right person is hard to find. Finding someone like that for free with the time to devote to helping you might be even more challenging.

  7. I think by its very nature and definition a mentor is someone in your chosen arena who is more experienced, more successful, more everything. Right? They should absolutely be a cheerleader, but you need to approach people who are where you want to be in your career. Paying someone to mentor you isn’t … Well, that’s a life coach, not a mentor. Friends along the road are just that, compatriots.

    Examples of what my mentors have done for me:
    *Brought me into a critique group
    *Advised me on career decisions
    *Showed me mercy when I blew an elevator pitch, and encouraged me to polish and hone it
    *shared fun insider secrets about bookscan
    *helped me make a major life decision when I needed to stop blogging full time
    *encouraged me to trust my instincts on my book

    None of these things were paid for. They were the result of the kindness of people higher up the ladder who were willing to share their time and expertise with me. It wasn’t about “will you read my manuscript”, it was “can you advise me on this area of my writing life?”

    Anyone can get an editor. A mentor is something deeper, in my opinion.

    ITW used to have a mentor program – is it still ongoing? Because that was hugely invaluable to a lot of us.

  8. Although I don’t think she’d see it that way, I consider Karen Dionne has been acting as my mentor.

    Reading J.T.’s list, I could check all of the items:
    She’s been my go-to person when in doubt. She’s offered invaluable advice and has brought me into a couple of critique groups.
    I haven’t pay her a dime. Well, I’d pay her the occasional compliment but that’s just the gentleman I was brought up to be. She also introduced me to a couple of authors whom I now call friends.
    In fact, signing up as an editor for The Big Thrill when Karen was running it started a series of fortunate events that led to the opportunity to run the Roundtables, which is a wonderful gig.

    I also agree that for a mentor to really work as one, they have to be in a different place career-wise.

    However they also must have the giving or caring type of personality, otherwise you’re asking a rock for water (meaning you’re going to need Moses to make it work).

    And after I offered my one cent we’re back to the original programming…

  9. My mentor has been Greg F. Gifune. Back when I first started writing short stories and trying to market them (2001-ish), I stumbled across his web site/magazines (horror/scifi genre). I submitted (all this by snail mail then) and he rejected–and he took the time and care to say why and how I could improve. After several rounds of submit/reject/rewrite, he published my first short story.

    I couldn’t believe he’d take the time to give me feedback like that. We’ve kept in touch over the years and he’s always believed in my work and encouraged me to keep going, and eventually he became Senior Editor at DarkFuse. Long story short, I submitted my first novel there, he edited it, they accepted it, and now they’ve published 5 of my books–#6 on the way, and 2 more under contract. I’ll always be grateful to him for his advice and encouragement!

  10. J.H. – What an incredibly nice thing to say! I really admire your professionalism, and your approach not only to bettering your craft, but to becoming a giving, productive part of the writing community. It’s my great pleasure to know I’ve been a part of your journey and helped along the way. You made my day!

    I completely agree with J.T. To me, a mentor is someone who offers big-picture guidance about the industry and the writing life based on their knowledge and personal experience, and they do this at no cost — usually because they remember what it was like for themselves at the beginning, and want to pay it forward. This kind of mentorship is a more nebulous relationship than hiring an editor or a life coach, and it usually develops organically.

    My mentor was Carolyn Hougan, who wrote as “John Case” with her husband, Jim. We became acquainted when I interviewed them at Bouchercon in 2005 (you can read the interview on their website). Later we crossed paths at Bouchercon in Chicago, and later at the first ThrillerFest in Phoenix, where Carolyn and I ended up having breakfast together several mornings when we discovered we were both early risers on EST.

    The mentoring grew organically out of that connection/friendship. Carolyn was a great encouragement and help in more ways that I can spell out here. Sadly, she passed away from cancer shortly after my first novel sold, but her husband Jim told me he gave her the news while she lay in her hospital bed. After she passed away, I found out that several other authors considered her their mentor, which speaks volumes to the kind of person she was.

    So my advice to those looking for a mentor would be to get involved in the writing community. Go to conferences. Volunteer. (There’s a sign-up form right on this website!) If you become known as a giver and not a taker, people will WANT to reach out and help you.

    I started volunteering for ITW’s Debut Author program in 2008 (yes, JT – the program based on your Killer Year group is still going strong, and yes, each year, one of the big names in our industry sponsors the group and acts as a mentor.), then moved to managing editor of The Big Thrill, website chair, and finally served on ITW’s board of directors as vice president, technology.

    Along the way, I conceived and implemented these Roundtable discussions, and I’m so pleased to see they’re still going strong! Hooray for our hardwoking volunteer J.H.! This feature couldn’t be in better hands.

    Even more amazing than serving on the board with authors I greatly admire, like Lee Child, Doug Preston, Steve Berry, R.L. Stine (which admittedly is pretty stupendous) is finding out that somewhere along the line, I’ve grown from mentee to mentor!

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!