Thursday, August 07, 2014


James O. Born

Everyone can benefit from a mentor. It doesn't matter what profession you are in or how old you are, having someone who will take the time to explain what happened to them in the same situation and guide you in an effort to avoid the same mistakes is invaluable. How do you find this person? Luck has a great deal to do with it.

In police work, I have had several mentors during different phases of my career. All of them have helped me in different ways. Probably the most valuable instruction I ever got was how to talk my way out of trouble. If more people try to talk out issues and explain things, rather than jumping to the next level of aggression, no matter what you do in life, the world would be a better place. Sometimes it takes getting punched in the face to understand this fact. If you’re smart, you listen to people who help you avoid getting punched in the face.

My first real mentors in the field of writing were legendary novelist Elmore Leonard and his research assistant/longtime friend, Gregg Sutter. They chopped apart my early novels and literally taught me how to create suspense, interesting characters and captivating dialogue. In other words, these two men taught me how to write a novel. That is not an overstatement and in no way bullshit. I did not know the first thing about writing a novel until I met Elmore Leonard and Gregg Sutter. They stuck with me through many years of rejection and celebrated with me when I got my first book contract. Dutch Leonard's death last summer still leaves an empty space in my heart as well as in my writing. Luckily, I still have Sutter to yell at me when needed.

Despite our constant barbs traded back and forth across the blog and other public means, Paul Levine has been another mentor for me in the world of publishing. Though he would downplay any efforts he's made to help me, his advice is indispensable and he is one of the few people who never tried to sugarcoat their past experiences. I can still remember the first time I met Paul which was, wholly by coincidence and full of irony considering this blog, at a panel where he, Edna Buchanan and Elmore Leonard were speaking at the now dormant Delray Beach Book Festival. I had already read To Speak For The Dead and was impressed by Paul's wit, even in the face of being paired with two of crime fictions biggest writers at the time. More than a decade later, I ran into Paul during one of the symposiums connected to the Edgar awards. Although he claimed to remember me, I'm sure it's just part of his natural charm. Regardless, we bumped into each other on a regular basis after that and now he is one of the people I count on to give me solid advice whether I want to hear it or not. I literally run my book deals past him even though I have an agent and an attorney, because I really want to hear his input.

I am attempting, in my own way, to mentor a couple of young writers, however I feel inadequate in the face of the superior advice I have gotten since before I was published. I do my best, but especially when people ask me to read manuscripts and my schedule is so tight as it is, I appreciate the effort of a guy like Elmore Leonard and a busy man like Paul Levine put forth on my behalf.

So as you are grasping all the elements of writing a novel we have discussed for the past six months (yes it has been about six months since I started writing these columns), think about who you respect and who seems willing to help when you have questions. In general, writers are a very generous bunch and will help you any way they can. Look at guys like Barry Eisler who devote whole sections of their website to things that could help other writers.

Soon enough we will get back on track about the elements needed to actually write a novel, but there are so many other things involved in the world of publishing that I want to bring them out at different intervals.

Today's quotes are:

“No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.”
Peter F. Drucker

“Remember that mentor leadership is all about serving. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).”
Tony Dungy, The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams That Win Consistently


  1. I was fortunate to have a writing mentor, my first ever. It was helpful to ask for advice, not only about writing, but also about the writer's life.

    1. Agreed that it's helpful to have a mentor.


  2. James O. Born8/07/2014 12:07 PM

    We all need them and it's tough when you want to help someone but you can for whatever reason.

  3. James,

    Another wonderful insightful post as usual! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.


  4. from Jacqueline: Thank you for this, Jim. When are you going to publish your writing series in book form - I think it's the logical next step. And thank you for this post. I have had two writing mentors, though not in fiction - though they both urged me to try fiction, which wasn't bad advice, all things considered!!

  5. I certainly appreciate any writer and especially a best selling author, who will give writing advice and tips. I've learned quite a bit just by being in touch with some authors on facebook. I will admit, I would love to know what is considered proper etiquette as far as who you can ask questions to. I'm always so afraid of offending someone. Not too long ago, I swallowed my pride and messaged an author who had given much advice on writing. I sent him an example of a little short story thriller I was working on...I just wanted to know if it even raised his eyebrows a little. His reply was that he could not comment because he did not know what my plans were for the story. Uh, sorry dude, you damn well know if the story was half way decent or not, don't patronize me, just say, "You are not in my league and I don't want to help you," I haven't asked since. I admire all of you, more than I can say, but I keep hearing it's okay to reach out and it doesn't always seem that way.


  6. James O. Born8/10/2014 1:41 PM

    I understand your point. It is difficult to approach the subject tactfully. At the very least I think you need to have met the author in person and have some interaction.
    There are also legal issues about accepting unpublished manuscripts. A personal introduction by a friend or colleague can help.

    I wish I had a better answer.