Mentorship magic - AHWA mentorship with J. Ashley-Smith in 2022
With the Australasian Horror Writers Association (AHWA) mentorship program deadline coming up, I thought I’d write a blog post (!) about my experiences last year and encourage writers to apply.
Mentorship application details here:
There’s another amazing cohort of mentors this year. I had a fantastic experience in 2022 and had the opportunity to be mentored by one of my favourite horror authors, Ditmar and Shirley Jackson award-winning J. Ashley-Smith, whose new short story collection THE MEASURE OF SORROW is coming out soon, to revise my weird sci-fi/horror novel.
If you’re an Australasian writer with a horror or dark fiction project you’d like to work with a mentor on, I encourage you to apply ASAP. I originally wrote up these notes for a panel titled Mentorship Magic at Conflux speculative fiction convention in 2022 with Kathryn Hore, J. Ashley-Smith, and Kaaron Warren, and this finally prompted me to put them online.
YMMV - this is my experience with a specific project and a specific mentor, so there are variables which may make your experience of the same program different.
…like I almost did. I had heard of the AHWA mentorship program in previous years but I always discounted myself from applying. My project is weird sci-fi/horror (sporror, for the fungi fans). I wasn’t sure it was horror "enough" for the Australasian Horror Writers Association. Don’t let this stop you from applying to opportunities generally. If it turns out your project isn't a fit, they can just reject you, and nothing is lost.
The project I had
I loved aspects but was second-guessing myself the moment I began querying
The project I got
close third person single POV
clear character arc + theme
plot threads followed to their logical (worst) conclusions
core story hasn't changed, nor have the inspirations/comps, including THE LUMINOUS DEAD by Caitlin Starling and THE ALL-CONSUMING WORLD by Cassandra Khaw
I love it! I'm more certain in what I want to write—weird near-future sci-fi/horror with antiheroines and creepy-crawlies—and couldn't stop if I tried
Nuts and bolts - the mentorship experience
In February 2022 I started querying an 110k sci-fi/horror, having rewritten it from the group up during revisions with a wonderful beta readers I met through National Novel Writing month.
If you’ve queried or submitted short stories and gotten a lot of form rejections, as well as personalised rejections with much-appreciated but conflicting feedback, and some requests, you’ll know the state of mind I was in—I didn’t know whether it was a numbers game and I just needed to keep submitting, or whether there was something wrong with the manuscript.
The timing was perfect. In May 2022 I saw an opportunity to apply for a mentorship with AHWA, and that J. Ashley-Smith was a mentor, because he posted on social media noting he’d had a great experience being mentored by the indefatigable Kaaron Warren (another of my favourite authors—I'm obsessed with the "unlikeable heroine" and dark humour of SLIGHTS). I’m a big fan of J.'s horror novella ARIADNE, I LOVE YOU—it’s beautifully grounded in descriptions of real-world place, with the addition of an element of the uncanny, and it’s a masterclass in writing an unreliable, unlikeable narrator who thinks he is telling one story, while the reader gets to see a different story emerge. If you get the opportunity to get advice from someone whose work you admire, go for it.
In terms of how the mentorship works, when you go to the AHWA website and fill out your application form—you'll have to join AHWA at this stage, if you aren't already a member—you write about the project you’re working on and what you’re hoping to get out of a mentorship. You also note your mentor preferences—read through their profiles and see who would be a good match, their profiles will say whether they’re particularly keen to work with people on their scripts, short stories, novellas—and communication preferences. I picked meeting in person and email as my preferred modes of communication. If successful, the convenor informs you, you pay the $175.00 application fee, and the convenor introduces you and your mentor via email.
After that, you and the mentor take it from there, with one check in at the six week mark to make sure you both have no concerns. It was well organised and it all worked smoothly.
First J. corresponded via email and I sent through my materials—query letter, synopsis, and full manuscript. We met up in person in July to discuss expectations, including timeframes, how often to meet up, and what I hope to get out of the mentorship, which was querying advice, help with my query package, and general advice. J. very kindly went above and beyond, and offered to read my full manuscript in order to better comment on the query letter and synopsis.
J. finished the manuscript and we met up in August to discuss, so it took J. only 3 weeks to read an 110k draft, even though we had initially discussed extending the 3 month mentorship to 6 months because it was probably going to take longer.
We also discussed career questions like seeking an agent versus pursuing publication with small press directly, which is another option I’m keen on trying next. We agreed to meet up again once J. had read the manuscript to discuss.
Write a first draft just for you. Revise with an ideal reader, singular, in mind.
Get clear on the following key questions at revision stage—especially if you’re like me, and you have a tendency to take on too much conflicting feedback, or you write to please everyone, risking creating a Frankenstein’s manuscript.
What is the point of this story? What is the effect you want it to have on the reader (imagine your ideal reader, singular, if you find yourself swayed by trying to please everyone)?
What is the main character’s emotional arc?
Then cut away what doesn’t serve that.
My other favourite piece of advice from the mentorship program I call “worst possible results”—in this plot thread, or in this scene, what is the worst possible outcome for all the characters? Make that happen. I’ve found this effective because it helps me finish what I’ve started, as it leads to tying up threads by following each point raised to its logical (worst) conclusion.
An excellent craft book rec is Screenwriting 101 by Prof. Angus Fletcher on Audible (if you don't have Audible, you can listen on a free trial, make the purchase, then unsubscribe).
I ended up cutting the manuscript to 82k words, strengthening the main character’s emotional arc, getting clear on the theme, and dialling up some plot points to go worse for the characters. I altered the query letter and the synopsis to reflect that. Then I sent out a batch of new queries late last year. I've had more full requests since revising.
I'm currently querying/pitching this novel, and I've drafted a second which I'm revising, a near-future gothic horror set on a cruise ship.
No matter what happens with this novel I know I will have made it the story I want it to be, one that I am happy to put out into the world.
The mentorship helped me at a stage when I was feeling lost deciding between valuable but conflicting advice from different people, to learn to trust that little voice that tells you how to make your work a stronger version of what you want it to be, rather than what you or others think it should be.
I hope you found this useful. Thank you for taking the time to stop by!
Run, don't walk! And don't self-reject!