WRITING FEATURE Working with a mentor

Rachel Burge describes how a mentor helped her on the road to the publication of her first book The Twisted Tree.

Knowing my book will be in shops next year is a dream come true. Getting to this point has taken much hard work (and a fair few tears), but I’ve also had a lot of help along the way. There’s one thing that really helped fast-track my writing career – and that’s having a mentor. I started working with Lee Weatherly (via the Womentoring Project) at the end of 2015. Lee is the author of more than 50 books for children and young adults, including Angel and the Broken Sky trilogy. She also wrote How to Write a Blockbuster with Helen Corner of Cornerstones. If you’re thinking about working with a mentor, here’s a bit about why I found the experience so helpful...

A critical look at the whole of your novel 

While it’s great to receive feedback on an extract of your work via one-to-ones, there’s nothing like having a professional cast a critical eye over your entire novel. That way they can see what you’re aiming to achieve and identify which aspects aren’t working. There’s no point having a polished opening chapter if the plot or story idea isn’t strong enough. I’d spent a year writing my first book, Blackbird in the Storm. The story is about a girl who’s washed up on a strange island where women spirit-journey with animals after the ship she’s on sinks in a storm. Lee said lots of nice things about my writing, but had some big reservations about the story. You can see some of her feedback at the bottom of this article. Basically, my main character didn’t have a strong enough personality and goal, the world was too generic, the story not high concept enough and some of my ideas were a touch too derivative.


At this point, I admit a few tears were shed...

While I was fully prepared to make changes, I wasn’t expecting to have to start from scratch. I chatted to Lee on the phone, and she asked me about the kind of stories I love to read, the themes and ideas that excite me and what kind of book I wanted to write. This part of the process was hugely important (and not something you usually get with a one-off critique) as it helped clarify where my interest and passion lie. I found it hard to abandon my first book, simply because I’d invested so much time on it. What helped me to decide was going to the 2015 SCBWI conference. A talk by agents opened my eyes to the benefits of having a high-concept story. An editor needs to pitch your book to the sales and marketing team so that everyone instantly ‘gets it’. A book with a strong hook, a big idea or a unique setting is easier for people to buy into. The agent also advised writers to be specific – if you’re going to set it in a city somewhere up north, tell us it’s in Manchester. Being specific helps draw the reader into the story. Candy Gourlay’s workshop on plotting also made me realise that my first story wasn’t strong enough. Candy illustrated the session with slides and quotes from Lee’s How to Write a Blockbuster – which seemed like a sign to take the hint!

Finding the big idea

Looking back on some of my previous story attempts, I came across an idea I’d had a few years ago – about a girl who could tell things about people by touching their clothes. Lee loved the short pitch I sent her, and felt it was high concept enough to work. While my first book was loosely inspired by Norse mythology, I took Lee’s advice to be specific and decided to base it on a single myth. Instead of being set in a generic fantasy island, I would set it in the real world in Norway. And instead of a shy main character who reacted to others around her, she would have a burning desire from page one.

Feedback on outlines and drafts

I sent an outline to Lee and she pointed out where the plot was too rushed, or too complex. When I had the reasonable shape of a story, I started to write. Lee read my first draft (and second and third), marking up the manuscript each time. She pointed out where switching the order of events would increase tension and where I could give depth to characters. Without Lee’s help, I’ve no doubt I would have written several more books without getting to the stage I am now. For me, being guided through the whole process has been invaluable. If you’re thinking of working with a mentor, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Snippets of Lee’s feedback

“While you've created wonderfully strong, memorable characters in both Petra and the Weaver Woman, I think that at the moment both of these characters are overshadowing Martha. I had a much clearer idea of them - their wants, their driving forces - than I did of her.

“When you're writing, it's good to ask yourself whose story this is - who has the most to win or lose? Though Martha ostensibly had a role as 'the chosen one', The Island's concerns weren't really hers (and therefore I didn't feel quite as crucially engaged in them as I'd like, either), and this didn't play out until quite late in the day.

“Keep in mind that it needs to be the main character's wants and concerns that are driving a story's events forward. And, particularly in YA fiction, you don't want the adults to take over. So I feel the focus needs to be much more strongly on Martha throughout, as a driving force who's making things happen. I didn't feel as if I knew Martha very well, and I wanted to. Aside from wanting to go home and return to the status quo, what does she want? What are her hopes and dreams, her interests? It's good to have a strong goal for your main character in place right from the start.

“Once we’ve created a strong personality for Martha, we'll tackle story structure, and make sure that your storyline feels as strong and direct as your writing. This may or may not mean keeping your current plot - I'd urge you not to be too attached to it, and to allow your exploration of Martha to possibly lead to new story avenues, if these occur to you.

“The second main point I'd like to make at this stage is your world itself. While you're great at describing small details - what a room looks like, for instance - the world of The Island itself didn't always feel coherent to me. I struggled with it as a real place.

“I also worry that it's not high-concept enough from a publication sense, as overall it seemed, for want of a better word, somewhat generic: an isolated world with little technology, kind of medieval in feel. This is something I think agents and publishers have seen many times before, and personally I'd be looking for something much fresher and stranger (go for the wonderfully weird!) to heighten your chances.

“Another issue is that I think the world might feel a touch too derivative of Philip Pullman's work, with the spirit animals and the idea of a knife that can cut the 'cord' between human and animal - I'd probably rethink this, and look at ways of making sure that your world is as fresh as possible.”

Rachel Burge’s debut YA novel – The Twisted Tree – will be published by Hot Key Books (in e-book for Halloween this year and mass-market paperback in January 2019).


  1. Great article! Thank you for your words and daring to share your critical feedback. More like this please, W&P!

    1. Words & Pictures20 March 2018 at 09:42

      We're always open to proposals from people with fascinating publication stories!

  2. Thank you for sharing a part of your journey towards publication, and congratulations!

  3. Thank you Corine!


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