Saturday, February 27, 2021

Remembering a Mentor

I was talking with my sons about the value of mentors in your professional development. I mentioned that it was something that I hadn't done and regretted it. Then I remembered that wasn't quite true. I did have a mentor as a writer and he had been a significant influence in giving me the skills and knowledge that helped me eventually get published.

Around 1987, I got serious about writing a novel. I quickly discovered that I didn't know what I was doing and sought to educate myself. By then I had moved to Fresno, California, and signed up for an adult education class on writing. It was taught by a woman who was a copy editor with the local newspaper. While she knew the technical ins-and-outs about writing, she established herself as a gate-keeper and claimed that if we didn't do things her way, that she'd make sure none of us would ever get published. The best thing I can say about the experience is that I now know what a terrible critique group is like. 

Then when I moved to Colorado, I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and discovered what it was like to be among for-real published authors eager to share their wisdom and help the rest of us along. My first RMFW critique group was comprised of wannabes and in spite of our enthusiasm, it was the blind leading the blind. After receiving a rejection letter in which the agent recommended that I work on my synopsis, I signed up for an RMFW workshop on writing a synopsis. During the class, this man sitting behind me asked about my work-in-progress. He then invited me to join his newly formed critique group. That man was Jameson Cole.

Turns out that he had just won the Colorado Book Award for his novel, A Killing in Quail County. The fact that he had been published by St. Martin's Press and won an award gave him serious street cred. I was one of six-to-seven writers who met in his home just outside Morrison. We soon learned that this was no coffee klatch. Jim was strict with his rules about critiquing. For homework, he assigned two books that he'd quote from like Scripture, Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, and Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure. The critiques were heavy on mechanics and craft for commercial fiction, and we didn't indulge in lofty literary prose. The sessions were bouts of writing boot camp, but unlike my experience in California, the critiques were educational and directive. 

However, not all was well. Convinced that he possessed the keys to the publishing world, Jim labored on a second book that went nowhere. He started on a third and those efforts sputtered. The group fell into a funk as none of us, despite our vastly improved works, seemed to be doing little more than collecting rejection letters. Jim accepted a work promotion and moved away. With that, our forlorn band of scribes scattered into the wilderness.

After a long lonely year of not writing, we renewed contact and decided to restart the critique group, minus Jim. It was odd meeting at first, and we felt his stern hand on our shoulders. Then within six months, three of us got publishing offers, which eventually became contracts with Dutton for Jeff Shelby, Ace for Jeanne Stein, and HarperCollins for me. The group has since evolved and moves about Denver like a writing phantom. Its latest incarnation is as a tiki drinking club. Those of us still in the group are first-rate writers, though getting published remains as daunting and uncertain as ever.

Which brings me back to Jim as my mentor. Soon after that conversation with my sons, I received word that Jim had passed away earlier this month. So yes indeed, I did have a mentor, and one to whom I will be forever indebted to. Thank you, Jameson Cole.

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