Spark mentoring Q&A: Steven and Melissa

WriteMentor chats with author Melissa Welliver and her Spark mentee Steven Blackman

“Mentoring has changed the way I write, and the way I think about writing; it’s set me on the path from being a writer to being an author”

Mentee Steven Blackman and his mentor Melissa Welliver chat about their experience of WriteMentor’s Spark programme

Melissa, what made you decide to become a mentor?

I first volunteered for the Summer Programme for TOTALLY SELFISH REASONS – I wanted a writing buddy that I could learn from as much as (hopefully) they could learn from me. It really was a trade off of sharing what I knew, and in return learning a lot about other writers’ processes and how their stories work. I love it, I’m always fascinated by how other people craft a story – and I love being allowed a glimpse from the ground up. It’s a privilege!

Steve, what made you decide to sign up to the Spark programme as a mentee?

Steve: Having been my own editor, critic and cheerleader during many years of writing for work, I’d developed patterns, techniques and strategies for delivering what clients wanted. Sure, I had a style, but I’d been a reader for long enough to know my style was not immediately transferable to fiction. Especially not YA. 

Upon setting out to change that, I discovered an incredible writing group. We came together two years ago in the heat and confusion of the first lockdown (the tropes of dystopia were not lost on any of us). Our meeting place was the Curtis Brown Creative YA and Children’s Fiction course – under the tutelage of the wonderful Catherine Johnson – and we’ve remained in close contact since. There’s an active Slack channel (the Dead Pets Society), we’ve had a couple of lunches, book club chats (with some excellent guest authors) and we still have weekly critiques.

The DPS has been a huge support and motivator, and has helped me develop as a writer in so many ways. My first MS received some positive feedback from agents, but never quite enough traction. I’ve also made a couple of competition shortlists and longlists, for which I was a little gobsmacked and a lot grateful. But it was clear I needed some help elevating my writing to a different level. 

I’d become aware of WriteMentor through friends and Twitter, but I felt like an observer, like I didn’t have permission to engage. (Spoiler alert: I was totally wrong.) I dipped my toe into the WriteMentor Hub and WOWCON, and was blown away by the community, inclusivity and support, plus the sheer prodigiousness of output and – more importantly – outcomes. When I did my research on the WriteMentor team, I saw The Undying Tower had been released. (Take a second to buy it from your local indy bookstore, I’ll wait.) It’s a great story: with voice, worldbuilding and characters combining to propel an exciting and immersive plot. It achieved all the things I hope for in my manuscript. I knew that Melissa – who had written The Undying Tower – was involved in Spark mentoring. So it was obvious; she was who I needed to supercharge my writing. 

What have you both learned through mentoring?

Melissa: I’ve learned so much! Certainly to be more kind to both others and myself – lots of mentees are nervous, especially for that crucial first round or month of feedback, and at times a little pep-talk is needed – just like I get from my agent or editor at times! And it’s so lovely to encourage someone to push their writing and watch it improve and really sing. I’ve also learned so much about the importance of voice – the author’s voice, the character’s voice, and how they both merge to create something so unique and bookish and real. I love that!

Steve: You know that magical moment just before a film starts, and the cinema curtains slide to the side to make the screen even wider? Mentoring’s a bit like that. It offers a wider perspective of the entirety of one’s MS, seeing how storylines build and resolve throughout, while at the same time revealing individual frames in 16K resolution: showing how every single word and sentence performs its role. Next on the list, clearly, is my terrible and prolific use of metaphor. 

Melissa has a laser focus when it comes to comments, but what has been even more useful are the conversations we have around those points. That interaction has given me the tools and the confidence to know when to double down on something in order to make my vision clear, when to stick with my gut, and when to accept that something just isn’t going to work.

Outside of line edits, Melissa has been generous in sharing her experience of the publishing world, offering examples of what might be questioned by an editor and what is relevant now in the world of YA. We all know that agent responses and competitions and every single critique are subjective, and that finding a path through them can be onerous. Having a mentor to shine a light into some of those dark corners makes the shadows less scary and the pits less deep.

Why should people consider mentoring as a way to develop their writing?

Melissa: I think self editing can be so rough – I wouldn’t recommend editing to someone making their way through a first draft, as that’s the fun bit! Have a blast creating those characters and worlds and heart-stopping moments. But once you have the words and read them back, if you’re not quite sure which direction to go – a mentor can help with those developments and decisions. We can (hopefully!) also guide you a little bit towards a more commercial path for your book, and help you to think about where you would like to see this book out in the world – whether that be on a shelf, self-published on Amazon, or any of the other avenues that publication offers.

Steve: Whether we’re plotters or pantsers, we all need to be able to critique our own writing. This is probably the area in which I have most improved through mentoring, and it’s having a profound effect on my work. It’s also a huge boost to know there’s someone in my corner, and someone who can offer practical industry-focused advice.

But there are so many other ways in which mentors are invaluable:

  • They make you accountable, implementing clear deadlines for sharing extracts.
  • They give you confidence to make informed choices about your writing – what works and what doesn’t.
  • They offer real-world experience.
  • They give you the tools to help you polish your work until it shines.
  • They’re a great emotional support, because as the great Jedi says: writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t need to be.

Melissa, where do you see Steve as a writer in 10 years’ time?

This is a GREAT question! I hope to see Steve next to me at a panel at YALC or even a Science-Fiction convention! It would be so cool to be on those panels is a post pandemic world with some writing buddies!

Steve, where do you see yourself as a writer in 10 years’ time?

Over the last two years I’ve learned so much about writing fiction, and I continue to learn every day. When I began, I had what’s called unconscious incompetence, I couldn’t see the mistakes I was making. With hard work and practice and reading (and more reading) I’m now at that liminal space between conscious incompetence and conscious competence. And I fully believe that, between my critique group and the help of a mentor, I’ll achieve unconscious competence. That feels like a pretty good ten year goal.

Of course, I’d also love my stories to be in the hands of readers, and my screenplays in the process of production. But I understand that it’s normal – as a modern writer – to have a diversified income, so I can see myself also writing and editing across channels other than fiction.

However busy I hope to be, I’m committed to paying back some of the generosity from which I’ve benefitted, so I plan on lots of school visits and competition judging. And who knows, when I have enough experience, and feel I can offer real-world support, maybe I too could be an effective mentor.

Finally, sum up your experience of mentoring in one sentence

Melissa: You’re asking a writer for just one sentence? See, I’ve already broken the rules! I think my one sentence is just that I love it. Or maybe Writing Buddies Rule. Pick one of those!

Steve: Mentoring has changed the way I write, and the way I think about writing; it’s set me on the path from being a writer to being an author. 

<strong>Melissa Welliver</strong><br>
Melissa Welliver

Melissa Welliver writes Young Adult Speculative novels. She has a BA Honours degree in English Literature and History from the University of Leeds and an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester University. After graduating from university, Melissa went on to be published in two short story anthologies, one with a forward by Jeanette Winterson. Her debut YA novel, The Undying Tower, was published in 2021. Melissa has completed the acclaimed Curtis Brown Creative Novel Writing Course for children under the tutelage of Catherine Johnson. She has been longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, the #BNAKids award, and Mslexia’s Children’s Novel Prize, and she was shortlisted for both the inaugural Hachette Children’s Novel Award in association with New Writing North, and the Wells Book for Children competition. She lives in the Northwest with her Bassetoodle, Zelda, and is represented by Lucy Irvine of Peters, Fraser & Dunlop

<strong>Steven Blackman</strong>
Steven Blackman

Storytelling has played a huge part in my career, from book chapters, technical papers and web content, to magazine articles and speeches. For just over a year, I was the editor of, and contributor to, lifestyle magazine Live It. I’m a SCBWI member, and in the summer of 2020, I completed the three month Curtis Brown Creative course Writing YA and Children’s Fiction, under the tutelage of Catherine Johnson. My writing has been shortlisted in the WriteMentor short story competition and longlisted in the Searchlight Writing for Children Awards. Home is in South London, which I share with my wife and our two teenage daughters. We spend as much time as we can in my wife’s home country Brazil; there’s more sun and the coffee’s better.

Be mentored by a published author

Working with a children’s author like Melissa, receive ongoing developmental editing, writing advice, publishing insights, and direct feedback on your manuscript to help you elevate your writing craft to the next level.

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