Being A Mentor

by Cat Rambo

I’m doing the SFWA Mentor program for my third round now, and I thought it might be useful to provide an overview of my process.

Before we meet for the first time, I ask my new mentee for the following, depending on their background. This round I have someone who wants to be an editor, rather than a writer, so I tweaked things considerably for them. This is the writer-version that I send.

  1. Think about where you would like to be, writing-wise, in 3-5 years. I’d like this to include where you would like to (realistically) be in terms of income, where you would like to be publishing, and how much and what sort of stuff. Are there any writers who exemplify where you would like to be? Who’s writing in the niche that you would like to occupy with your fiction?
  2. Prep an inventory list that includes: novel projects you have sketched out in your head and want to write at some point, what stories you’re working on and what you have circulating, any nonfiction stuff you’re doing (like reviewing) and be prepared to share it with me.
  3. Send me a 3-5k sample of what you think is representative of your writing at its best. It does not need to be a complete story or chapter but it’s better if it is. A link is sufficient if it’s up online.
  4. List out 1-3 writing weaknesses that you want to be working on.
  5. Think about what your optimal writing process is and come prepared to describe it. Does it involve specific places, times of day, other circumstances?

We meet via video call, and I schedule 30 minutes for such a call, although they’re usually closer to 20-30 minutes. In that first call, we go over the stuff that they’ve sent me ahead of time and we do some goal setting in terms of things that they’ll do before the next time we meet. We may implement e-mail check-ins, which they simply mail me to say they got something done.

My first goal as a mentor is not to talk, but to listen, particularly in that first session. What concerns do they have? What problems are they facing? Are there mismatches between what they’re doing and what they say they want to be doing? Leading questions can be helpful in this – my goal is not so much to tell them things as to gently coax them into realizing it for themselves.

Mileage is going to vary as far as approaches that work. In that first session, ask your mentee what teachers they’ve worked particularly well and what sort of teaching style those people had.

I jot down notes during a talk and just before the next call, I’ll run through them so I remember anything that might come up. I’m lucky that many of my mentees use Discord, so I invite them to the chat server I run and we get a chance to talk there if they have questions.

Some random notes on mentoring:

  • I’ve heard of mentor/mentee relationships turning romantic. I can understand the attraction, but to me, this would be a profound abuse of the relationship. Certainly, though, you become friends, and it’s a relationship that can last decades.
  • You are not your mentee’s therapist. I’ve been known to gently move people along to someone else if I feel this is taking place, because often such therapy involves taking on the other person’s stress, and that’s not healthy.
  • You are not your mentee’s critique partner or beta reader — unless you genuinely want to be.
  • Your mentee is not you. Introduce them at professional gatherings with their credits, not as “my mentee.” Celebrate their successes, but don’t take responsibility for them.

Mentoring is a great way to make connections and to pay things forward. And it can make you feel that you’re genuinely doing something good. Here’s a note I got from my mentee:

“I’m feeling this virtuous cycle going on, which is… really something fantastic. Very happenstance-y stuff — (IDENTIFYING DETAILS SNIPPED)– that were really more luck than anything else, but they’ve given me so much confidence I just didn’t have before. And that makes me feel confident enough to try something new or invest more, and… that takes me even further.

This mentorship is doing that, really really well. It’s pushing me forward and helping me figure out very concrete steps. And I keep thinking, hey, look at that, I didn’t know I could do that.

It’s wonderful; I am genuinely overjoyed; and I can’t tell you how great it feels to have someone say I’ve been a real help to their WIP, or that some advice of mine really clicked with them.”

Helping a mentee figure out steps and giving them the confidence to take them is what it’s all about.


A two-term President of SFWA, Cat Rambo’s most recent novel is Hearts of Tabat from Wordfire Press, while space opera You Sexy Thing appears in January 2021 from Tor Macmillan. Her novelette Carpe Glitter is a 2019 Nebula Award finalist in the Novelette category. Her 200+ publications include stories in Clarkesworld MagazineAsimov’s SF, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Check her website for links to her fiction and info on her online school, the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which features live and online classes from writers such as Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, and Fran Wilde.