Interview: Ren Hutchings on Writing Mentorship

I’m about to start a new chapter in my writing journey: becoming a mentor! The application period for Rogue Mentor begins in less than a week on Friday, April 22 —and I’m nervous (and excited) about it. As a first-time mentor, I turned to my Pitch Wars mentor Ren Hutchings to ask “HOW THO?”

Now, I have a special treat to share—this blog’s inaugural interview! Ren graciously answered my burning questions about mentee selection, staying true to the mentee’s vision, and the hardest part of all: letting go. We both got a little emotional over this passing of the torch as I declared her a “grandmentor.”

Ren was a skilled, compassionate, and dedicated mentor for me and my heart book, and is now a dear forever friend. But she is also a professional editor and an amazing writer in her own right. Ren’s debut science fiction novel, Under Fortunate Stars, comes out May 10. This time bending far-future space opera asks “what if we really could meet our folk heroes?” and answers with hope, heart, and humor reminiscent of the best of Star Trek.

Photo of Ren Hutchings, an enby author with pink hair, glasses, and a slight smile
Author, editor, and mentor Ren Hutchings

Erin Fulmer: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy pre-debut schedule to talk mentorship with me, Ren! My Pitch Wars 2020 mentee experience with you is a big part of why I decided I wanted to mentor and pay that experience forward. I’m honored to have you on the blog!

I have a ton of questions, so let’s dig right in. I’ll be selecting my first mentee in just over a month. When filtering prospective mentee submissions, what’s your process for selecting your shortlist? Do you have specific things you look for?

Ren Hutchings: I read my submissions in a random order, and I keep track of which ones I’ve looked at by using a spreadsheet. As I open each sub, I read the query first to get a quick sense of the genre and context, and then I move on to the opening pages.

On my spreadsheet, I highlight the ones that I want to come back to again for a closer look – which is usually quite a lot of them! Writers are pretty good about checking the mentor wishlists for compatibility with their manuscript, so I get a lot of compelling stories in the genres that I’m looking for, and a wide selection of premises and character dynamics that are right up my street!

In this first pass, I’m looking for a strong premise and intriguing characters, solid writing, and a good hook that makes me want to read more. Submissions that are potential requests go into my ‘maybe’ list for a second look, while a few that feel extremely promising will go straight to my ‘full request’ list. Mentorship programs tend to have a fairly short time frame for making a mentee selection, so I have to be conscious of how many fulls I can reasonably request – but I still inevitably request more manuscripts than I planned to, because there are so many good ones!

EF: Once you have your shortlist, HOW THE HECK DO YOU CHOOSE? Or is it more a feeling that “This is the one”?

RH: If a submission has made it to my shortlist and I’ve requested a full, then the pitch and the opening definitely have a lot of those positive qualities I mentioned above. But once I’m at the stage where I’m reading the full manuscripts, other factors will come into play – like whether I have a clear editorial vision for the story, and whether the potential mentee needs guidance in the areas where my strengths are as a mentor. I ask myself how much I feel they could benefit from my mentorship specifically, and from participation in the program as a whole.

Most mentorship programs have a questionnaire for prospective mentees about their writing and publishing goals and what they’re looking to get out of the experience, and there’s often an opportunity for mentors to ask follow-up questions before making a selection. All that additional information can help inform the decision, but locking in a final choice and picking just one mentee is still such an agonizing moment! I always wish I could choose more of them.

EF: Do you have specific qualities you look for in a mentee, beyond the manuscript? For instance, do you factor in how much experience the mentee has with receiving feedback from betas or critique partners?

RH: I think compatibility with the potential mentee’s creative process and their way of working is an important factor that sometimes gets overlooked. I aim to be adaptable in my style and I’ll switch up some elements of my mentoring approach to better suit each mentee, but at the same time, I recognize that I may not be able to give advice that clicks as well for writers with a dramatically different approach to writing than mine.

If they talk about their writing process in the application, I read that closely to gauge how well I might support that process. I also check the application to see what potential mentees have said about the feedback style that works best for them, to make sure I can offer them what they need.

I firmly believe that the goal is never to try to change how someone’s mind works or to fundamentally alter how they approach storytelling, but instead to find methods of working that suit their natural process and make it less stressful.

Ren Hutchings

Personally, I’m a strong mentor for writers who tend toward the discovery writing or “pantsing” end of the process scale, because I’m a discovery writer myself, and so the tools I have in my revision toolbox are more likely to be helpful for them. I firmly believe that the goal is never to try to change how someone’s mind works or to fundamentally alter how they approach storytelling, but instead to find methods of working that suit their natural process and make it less stressful. Especially if you’re a first-time mentor, you will be better equipped to do that for a writer whose creative process shares at least some aspects of your own.

As for the second part of this question, if a writer has never had feedback on their writing from a critique partner or beta reader before, I feel they should probably experience that before they consider entering into a mentorship – simply because receiving, absorbing and integrating feedback is such an important skill, and it’s really helpful to have some of this initial experience with peers. Particularly if they’re entering a higher-pressure mentorship program that has firm revision deadlines and timelines, I would worry about the stress level for the mentee if they were receiving external feedback on their writing for the very first time under those circumstances.

I recommend that writers try to find at least one critique partner and have some practice in this area before applying for a mentorship program. There are a lot of great avenues to connect with CPs online. (I met two of my critique partners a few years ago through #CPMatch, a Twitter event that connects writers in similar genres who want to swap pages!)

However, it’s worth noting that preparing to apply for a mentorship program can also create opportunities to meet CPs. A lot of writers who plan to apply to a program will swap pages/queries in the run-up to applications, and there are communities that spring up for prospective mentees to connect with each other. Whether or not they end up getting chosen for a mentorship, writers still come out of the application experience with a stronger network and more support!

EF: I remember my edit letter was quite lengthy, and a lot of it was what you loved about the story, which was such a gift in itself. But you also included a lot of great thoughts on how to elevate it. Do you have a process for working through your first pass and drafting your edit letter, and how do you strike a good balance between critique and praise?

RH: If I’ve chosen someone as a mentee, I’m definitely going to be effusive in my praise, because I love their manuscript and their writing. Including praise isn’t ever something I have to consciously try to do, because there is definitely a long, long list of reasons why I loved reading the book – it’s not like I have to work hard to come up with things I like about it! Every suggestion I make comes from a starting point of admiration and excitement for the manuscript and the story, and I want to help make it the best it can be.

Whenever I suggest changes, I try to come back to the “why” of each change in a positive way, making sure I’m highlighting the manuscript’s strengths at the same time.

Ren Hutchings

The way we go about refining revision ideas and putting together the edit letter will probably look different for every mentor, but my personal method goes like this: while I’m reading through the manuscript, I write down all my notes, comments and questions as they come to me (big or small), completely unfiltered and in a way that makes sense to me. This initial document won’t be shared with anyone else, it’s just for me to work through my thoughts. When I finish reading, I transfer all of those notes into a list of bullet points. Then, I start to rearrange and group the bullet points to fall under broader category headings that describe each revision area. I transcribe each of those sections into coherent prose, and I keep adding to it and rearranging it until it becomes my edit letter!

I format most of my edit letters the same way: I open with an introduction, where I talk about what I loved and what drew me into the story, especially the elements that I think we can amplify in revisions. Then I move on to the main ways we can bring it to the next level together (this is usually a short summary of 3-4 key revision areas, introducing the overarching things I’d like us to focus on). And then I break that down further into smaller, more directly actionable points in the bulk of the edit letter.

Whenever I suggest changes, I try to come back to the “why” of each change in a positive way, making sure I’m highlighting the manuscript’s strengths at the same time. (eg: “You’re already doing a great job of setting up the mystery by doing A, and I think we could increase that tension and intrigue even more if you add B.”) I explain what the goal is with each change, which also leaves space for the mentee to come up with more/different ways to address the same points.

EF: Do you have any tips or tricks for spotting issues with a manuscript and figuring out what edits or fixes to suggest?

RH: The most important tip I have is to ask yourself whether the big ideas you have for editing a book are making it objectively stronger, or just making it more for you. If I get to the end of a manuscript and most of my editorial thoughts are just things that would make me like the story more as a reader, then I’m definitely not the right mentor for it.

When we encounter storytelling in any medium, of course we often think about things we would have done differently or where we would have taken a different direction than the writer – whether that’s reading books or watching movies or TV series. But editing someone else’s work isn’t about how you would have written it, it’s about amplifying the vision that the writer has for it, and giving edits that align with that. The best edits are the ones that make the book more itself, where you zoom in on the seed of something that’s already in the manuscript and you help nurture it into full bloom.

In my experience, if a manuscript is going to click for you as a mentor, you will probably know what it needs pretty clearly after your initial read. Having a strong idea of how to help the manuscript is always a key factor in my mentee selection. If I can see that a story needs some work but I’m struggling to figure out what exactly to do with it, or if I can’t articulate my editorial ideas in a clear, actionable way, then that manuscript is probably not a good fit for me. (Sometimes a manuscript that feels that way to me will click for a different mentor and get selected by someone else!)

EF: Do you have a priority for which issues to address first? If a manuscript needs work on a certain aspect, like character development, plot issues, etc., do you focus on that and save other aspects for later, or do you lay out everything on the first pass?

RH: I lay everything out on the first pass, but I don’t focus on scene-level or line-level details in the early stages. I usually don’t give in-line comments on the manuscript itself until our second pass, when the biggest revisions have already been implemented, because so much can change in the meantime. The first round is just about big-picture changes, and we’ll get more granular later on.

I occasionally mention smaller details in my initial pass if they’re things that are super easy to find and tweak (eg: “The name of the company where the MC works changes halfway through the book”), but the mentee will often smooth out such minor inconsistencies on their own as they revise. I do look out for continuity from the start, and I will sometimes flag areas where I’d like them to double check how much time has passed or how many weeks/years elapsed between events, etc.

If you’re visualizing the different issues you’re tackling in a revision, I’d say it looks less like a numbered list of priorities and more like a Venn diagram, because every aspect of a story’s makeup touches other parts of it. Tightening up plot issues in a particular section might also uncover a new opportunity to expand a character arc, and so on. As you transform one area of a manuscript, other elements will also be affected. So I really try to look at everything as an organic, interconnected whole.

EF: It’s one thing for a writer to edit their own work, when one already knows their own vision from the inside out. But when doing a developmental edit on another writer’s manuscript, are there additional considerations or steps that you take? What’s different about shepherding edits for someone else as opposed to editing your own work? Or is it mostly the same?

RH: This might seem obvious, but I think the key difference is just keeping in mind that it’s not your book. When you edit your own writing, you are the person with the deepest understanding of the characters, the story’s trajectory, the feelings you’re trying to evoke and the world where it takes place. If one day you wake up and feel like changing something, you can just hop into the manuscript and do that.

But when you’re editing someone else’s work, you need to come into that process first and foremost with respect for the mentee’s agency over the story, even if they don’t always agree with your ideas. The word ‘shepherding’ is interesting here, because shepherding is a gentle process – it’s not giving hard directives, but encouraging someone along a path.

I make one thing very clear to mentees from the start: this story is yours, and if something I suggested doesn’t resonate with you, please do not feel like you have to do it. As a mentor, it’s important to keep an open mind, and understand that your mentee may not want to implement every edit you suggest. Sometimes, an idea that you think is “fixing” something might be removing an element that’s intrinsic to the story they want to tell. While you may have more experience than your mentee in a general sense, they will always be the one with the deepest understanding of their own story, and you have to honor that.

EF: During Pitch Wars, you helped me feel like I had complete freedom to take or leave suggestions you made. I aspire to provide that same level of ease and safety in the edit process to my mentees. How do you ensure that you’re nurturing your mentee’s vision for the book rather than imposing your own, both in your edits themselves and how you communicate them?

RH: A lot of my revision suggestions tend toward amplification of the manuscript’s strengths – I think of it as “levelling up” the story rather than “changing it into a different one.” Even through heavy developmental edits, major pruning or a ground-up rewrite, the book should still become more itself in the process, as we uncover the heart and soul of it and work on bringing those elements more clearly to the page.

As we dive into edits together, I remind my mentee that we can change direction if they don’t feel like it’s working. We can always regroup and come up with a new plan together. My role as a mentor is not to tell the mentee exactly how to do things, but to lay out possibilities and constructive critique for them in a way that allows them to express the full potential of their own work.

I think that for a writer, gaining the confidence to speak up and suggest alternatives when an editorial note doesn’t vibe with them is really important.

Ren Hutchings

This comes back to my earlier point about always framing suggested changes with a “why” – What problem or weakness are we trying to address with this change? What is this change for? – so that the mentee has an opportunity to come up with alternate ways to address the issue. I think that for a writer, gaining the confidence to speak up and suggest alternatives when an editorial note doesn’t vibe with them is really important.

Writers will need to do this when working with an agent or an editor, too. I would like mentees to go into the next steps of their journey empowered with this knowledge, and to view the editorial process as a collaboration, not as combat.

EF: I seem to recall a certain mentee who decided mid-Pitch Wars to completely rewrite her whole Act 2, and your iconic response of “Godspeed!” 😆😍 What do you find the most challenging about mentoring, and how do you handle those challenges?

RH: Deciding when to give stronger advice and when to step back can definitely be tricky. Maybe your mentee will decide to query an agent you really don’t recommend, or they’ll want to make changes to their manuscript in response to feedback they got elsewhere and that you don’t agree with.

If the two of you have a good relationship, your mentee will probably seek advice from you on all of these things, but at some point they might go against your advice and make a choice that you wouldn’t make – and you have to let that go. Speak your mind, but then step back and trust that your mentee is making choices they’re comfortable with. Once you’ve given all the advice you can, the best thing you can do is offer support.

Another sometimes-challenging aspect of mentoring is the emotional investment you’ll make in it. After working together for months on a project, you will likely be very deeply invested in the manuscript and in your mentee’s happiness and success. Even if things go well for your mentee, the process of querying, receiving rejections and waiting for results can take a steep toll on their confidence, and that can be hard to navigate.

The publishing path that’s ahead might be rough for your mentee – especially if some of their peers from the same mentoring program find success more quickly than they do. And as their mentor, it can be really damn difficult to understand why everyone doesn’t immediately see the brilliance of this manuscript that has your entire heart. Be prepared to support your mentee through this as best you can, and also to have a lot of big feelings about it yourself.

EF: I can definitely see that. I think mentorship is a relationship first and that investment comes naturally. The lows and highs are two sides of the same coin—what about mentorship do you find most rewarding ?

For me, the most rewarding thing about mentoring is sharing this amazing creative journey with my mentees, getting to work with incredible writers and stories, and watching them transform before my eyes. I love seeing the magic happen as they unlock new ideas and see new potential in their story and their craft. I love reading through a freshly revised manuscript and noticing the ways that my advice and editorial notes influenced that metamorphosis. And I love seeing writers gain so much more belief in themselves and their writing abilities.

Mentoring has truly been the light of my life, especially during these trying times we’ve all been through over the past couple of years. My mentees are some of my favorite writers and I got to read their work before most of the world – that’s pretty awesome! I regularly keep in touch with all of my former mentees, and I remain awed and inspired by their talent and creativity. I’m so fortunate to now call them friends.

Watching former mentees grow into new mentors themselves is something I was not prepared to get this sappy about (yes, I cried!) – but I’m just so proud to see this happen! I hope that some of what I’ve shared about my mentoring journey will help new mentors approach the experience with joy and confidence.

EF: [also sappy] It absolutely will! What other advice would you give a first-time mentor like myself?

RH: Above all, try to honor your mentee’s vision for their own story. Give advice, but allow your mentee the space to find their own way as you revise. Collaborate, don’t dictate. And don’t stress about writing a “perfect” edit letter – there is no such thing!

Overall, I think the most important thing is to communicate, clearly and often. Commit to maintaining trust, openness and honesty between you.

Ren Hutchings

Obviously, you want to do the best job you possibly can on the editorial side of things, but remember that all of this is still a work in progress, and the edits you end up making together will often evolve beyond your initial revision ideas. As you and your mentee start to work together, the edit letter is just a starting point.

I promise that your mentee is not going to remember that one awkward note you wrote that didn’t quite make sense, or a small mistake you made in their document, as much as they’ll remember how working with you made them feel. They will remember how you empowered them to believe in their writing, and the way you encouraged them to think differently about their craft and to value their process.

Overall, I think the most important thing is to communicate, clearly and often. Commit to maintaining trust, openness and honesty between you. Be their biggest cheerleader, a shoulder to cry on and a strong, supportive voice at their side, and you will do a fantastic job.

EF: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Ren! Your insight, kindness, and positivity is such an inspiration to me, especially as I take on this new role. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I pepper you with questions about mentorship (and writing, of course)!

Everyone, go buy Ren’s book—I know I sound biased but I promise you, it is seriously so good. Preorder here and/or add it on Goodreads. For more from Ren check out Ren’s website and blog, sign up for Postcards From the Void, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Cover of Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings, showing colorful space clouds with two ships approaching each other
I will never get over this cover! So pretty!

If you are interested in seeking mentorship with me through Rogue Mentor (and potentially becoming Ren’s grandmentee!) you can read my manuscript wish list here or here. And be sure to check out the other fantastic mentors this session. There is also an at-a-glance MSWL list here. Applications for the first session open Friday, April 22!

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