[NOTE: This is going to be a Ren Hutchings Appreciation Post. You've been warned...]
In October 2021, I joined Writing Twitter with the goal of establishing community and learning more about publishing my first book, a sci-fi thriller called CHILDREN OF HESPERIDES. More about the necessity of community in another post.
I soon learned there were upcoming applications for a program called Author Mentor Match. According to its now-defunct website (AMM vanished mysteriously in 2022, so as of this writing, it appears my cohort was the last): “Author Mentor Match (AMM) pairs aspiring writers with completed manuscripts with experienced authors for mentorship.”
Since the whole point of dealing with Twitter shenanigans was to get to know other writers and get up to speed on what it takes to get published, AMM seemed like a no-brainer. I visited the 'Meet the Mentors' page and spent literal hours reading and obsessing over mentor descriptions before I narrowed my choices down to four who seemed like the best fit genre-wise and from what I could gauge of their personalities based on their Twitter feeds. I submitted my pages and query letter and tried to forget about it (ha!), positive I wouldn't be chosen out of the hundreds entering.
Weeks after submission, I received an email from AMM requesting I upload my full manuscript. Unbelievable. But I still didn't think I'd get in, even after I got a follow-up email with questions about the kind of mentorship style I was looking for and the changes I'd be willing to make on my manuscript.
Obviously (given the title of this blog post), I ended up getting selected. By the amazing Ren Hutchings, SFF author of Under Fortunate Stars (which I will never stop shouting about! even if you're not a sci-fi fan, you'll love this puzzle box of a book about accidental time-travel and characters you'll cry over).
When Ren chose me, it was the first time I'd ever been singled out for my fiction writing. As authors, most of us fall down the imposter syndrome well at some point, and it was incredibly validating to have an author like Ren pull me out of those self-critical depths. Also? Ren made this fantastic moodboard for my book—fanart! For my book!
Ren had a detailed edit letter ready to go with so many fantastic ideas to strengthen my book's plot and character arcs. After a Zoom chat, I knew I'd been matched with someone who would be a true champion of not only my writing, but me as a person throughout this unhinged rollercoaster ride known as publishing.
Which proved especially true when, not long after I started working with Ren, I had a change of heart about the proposed revisions. It's hard to explain; I simultaneously agreed that everything Ren was suggesting would make for a stronger book and yet I was stumbling over one big edit in particular: losing multiple POVs, including one main character I'd grown particularly attached to because I'd done that thing you're not supposed to do as a debut author: gone ahead and written a trilogy before you've sold Book #1.
When you spend three years writing three books, losing even one character feels like a death in the family.
Confession: I juggle nine POVs in this book—in my defense, I grew up reading a lot of Dean Koontz, and Stephen King's The Stand is one of my all-time favorites, so I was convinced I could handle a zillion POVs, too.
Logically, I accepted that a multi-multi POV book is a really tough sell for a debut author.
Emotionally, though? I wasn't quite ready to attend the funeral of some of my favorite characters, villains included. And I was miserable about admitting this because at the time I'd answered those AMM follow-up questions (from Ren, I now knew), I sincerely meant every word about being willing to adjust characters' ages and making changes to the number of POVs.
I'm confident I could take on everything in that edit letter today, a year later. But back then? I needed to take a beat. To mourn a little.
Except. When you have stories ideas quantum leaping in your brain like excited electrons orbiting a nucleus, there's no such thing as hitting pause on your writing, at least not for long. A nebulous idea began to coalesce into something more solidly story-ish as I gave my sci-fi a rest. A story unlike anything I'd written before, but one closer to my heart than I could have ever predicted: an extra geeky, supernerdy sci-fi adjacent sapphic YA rom-com.
I'll talk more about the origin story of MIRA & JAYA BOLDLY GO in later posts, but it had a lot to do with fortunate timing: my friend Belinda was co-founding RomComMarch on Twitter (an event geared at writing a rom-com in March). As I was temporarily shelving my AMM book, Ren kindly told me to not to worry about it for the moment and to write anything at all that brought me joy (spoiler alert: that joy project ended up helping me sign with an agent!).
Ren also said something I'll never forget: this industry is HARD, so writing has to be the reward.
Looking back, I can't overstate how crucial it was for Ren to give me much-needed brainspace to fill in with anything I wanted, as long as it made me feel excited about writing. What I've learned by working with Ren is that mentorship isn't always hands-on; it's also knowing when to step back a bit and let your mentee take the lead on what's next.
At first, I was a little nervous to admit I'd detoured from writing sci-fi (Ren's specialty) to writing about the people who love sci-fi: fans. People like me, who devoured Octavia Butler and Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells (and so many more!) in elementary school, who built model starships in high school, who obsessed over the Terminator films and books.
You know, the geeks. The nerds. The people who get that rush of belonging at cons. My people.
[On a crowded con floor, cosplayers Briana Decoster and Alicia Marie as Spider-Man and Spider Girl May Parker do the Floss.]
But Ren asked to see what I was writing, and after previewing a few chapters, encouraged me to keep going. I wasn't sure if anything would come of it—would a book like this ever make it into the query trenches, let alone out of them? Despite that uncertainty, I kept writing and got feedback from Ren chapter by chapter.
Working with a mentor at the drafting stage is like having the best critique partner you could ever hope for. Because Ren had recently gone through the start-to-finish process of writing and traditionally publishing a book, I benefited tremendously from those hard-earned insights, which strengthened my book from the outset. Four months after I started drafting, I was ready for my first beta readers.
Buoyed by positive feedback and a round of revisions, I now faced the dreaded query letter and even more dreaded synopsis (shudder) if I wanted to share my manuscript with agents.
Once again, having a mentor to lean on was so instrumental in being able to send out a query package that wasn't totally embarrassing (my writing community—including my wonderful AMM fam—was also a huge help here, as I discuss in another post). When I reached the I'd Rather Not Query My Book If It Means I Have To Write This Damn Synopsis stage, Ren offered to help me cut words, and I gratefully accepted.
There are honestly too many to list, but here are just some of the many other ways Ren helped me through the querying process:
Previewed my pitches before PitBLK, a pitch event geared toward Black creators, where several editors expressed interest in my book's premise
Made a color-freaking-coded spreadsheet of agents to query based on best MSWL fit
Provided questions to ask agents on The Call (when an agent offers representation)
Patiently talked me through the decision process when I was overwhelmed by choosing between two awesome agents
As I forewarned, this has become a Ren Appreciation Post, and with good reason! Ren was so instrumental in my querying success.
More than that, Ren's not abandoning me now that I'm agented; I know I'll still be able to reach out with mentoring questions as I reach new author milestones. And even better than that? I'm proud to count Ren as a close friend (and a fellow Trekkie!).
Friends mean a lot in this industry, and every single one is a treasure. Through AMM, I received the guidance that helped me sign with an agent, but getting to know Ren has been the best part of this mentoring experience. It always sounds so cheesy to say something like that ('twas the friends we met along the way, sigh), but it happens to be true.
[Spock from Star Trek: The Animated Series says, "It's good to have a friend like you."]
A closing note about mentorships in general: each one is different, and there are significant variations in mentee experiences even within the same program. In my AMM Round 9 cohort, some mentor-mentee relationships were terminated prematurely, at least one person was ghosted by their mentor, and others had a hard time connecting with their mentor on a personal level.
I was extraordinarily lucky.
And I'm very sensitive to the fact that luck is going to be a consistent theme in my author life. You can work as hard as possible for as long as possible, you can be an immensely talented writer, and luck is still going to play a nontrivial role in your success because publishing isn't a meritocracy.
So it makes sense to increase your opportunities for good luck as often as you can. Apply to mentorship programs, forge real connections with fellow writers, query strategically but widely when you're ready.
And keep Ren's advice in mind when you're feeling miserable in whatever stage of writing you find yourself in, especially if external validation is currently lacking: let writing be the real reward. Let it bring you joy.
Isn't that why we all set words to the page in the first place?