I never actually looked for a writing mentor (who wants to stay anonymous, because, as he explained to me, he doesn't like to be bothered by people and prefers to live a quiet life—so I shall call him Basil Bee, or Vasya Pchelkin in Russian). We somehow found each other (on Twitter, of all places) and over time fell into the roles of a student (me) and a teacher (Pchelkin), and then it kind of went developing from there (we meet once a month or so, occasionally text and exchange emails).
I think when you're ready for a mentor, you'll find one.
I definitely wasn't ready to be mentored when we met. I was too stubborn and too attached to my ego, and too scared. All this combined made me not exactly pliant material. For years we kept in touch, and slowly I learned that everything Pchelkin predicted would happen, happened. "It's because I've been in this business for over 50 years," he told me later. He did tell me this at the very beginning, mind you, I just didn't hear him. I didn't have enough experience to appreciate his advice and to recognize it as truth. I had to break my own forehead on the hardships of writing without direction, you see? Only when I got to the bottom of feeling miserable and wanting to quit writing altogether—only then did I understand that he was right. That was the moment I was ready to become a student.
How do we work? There is no magic. Nothing special. He gives me assignments, and I write them.
For example, for The Dacha Murders he asked me to write a plot summary. I wrote it, then I sent it to him, waited for him to read it (he's busy with his own books, so it takes time) while working on something else. Then he got back to me. Then we met over coffee and discussed what I did right and what I did wrong. Then I got new homework ("Rewrite it so it's readable!") and went back to my cave to do it. And that's pretty much it. Every time it's the same process. Assignment—meeting to critique—new assignment.
This is how the Vox article was born. It was Pchelkin who told me to gather information for it while in Russia and to write it. And it was Pchelkin who read the first draft of it and told me it was good, and then told me to submit it everywhere. If not for him, I would've chickened out.
Some of you asked if there is any money involved, meaning: do I pay for mentoring? Yes, I pay millions of dollars that I print in my little money-printing shop on the moon. No. I'm pulling your leg. There is no money involved (but we do eat lunches together, and after getting paid for my Vox article I was able to pay for lunch!), rather, it's a kind of a mutual benefit relationship where Pchelkin gets a kick out of teaching me what he knows and watching me grow (I hope so), and I get a kick out of learning from him and providing him with new ideas that we both have fun discussing, and in that way we both learn something new every time we rethink some things and see them in a new light.
Why did I get a writing mentor?
I have tried many things in the past—writing groups and meetups and online prompts to write together with other writers—and none of them worked for me. Perhaps because I'm a loner, even among writers. I feel most comfortable in silence, alone, thinking. So meeting someone one-on-one only occasionally and spending a couple concentrated hours on critiquing the manuscript to death gives me enough work for a month or two. Then I repeat the whole process all over again.
I realize it's not for everyone, but one other big reason this works so well for me is this: it's like a father-daughter relationship that I've never had, that I've been craving all my life. My father is a writer, but he never spoke to me about writing craft, never showed any interest in my writing or poetry. The one thing he did do was read aloud poems to me and my sister. Those were precious times. He was very good, a very good actor. That's all I glimpsed from the world of writing. Occasionally I'd see him typing away on his computer (and according to my mother, I used to try and bang on the keys of his typewriter when I just learned to talk, and he slapped my hand to discipline me). Also occasionally I'd hear from my step-mom that he had read a bit of his manuscript to her again, and that they had a fight because she critiqued it, and he didn't like her critique.
Pchelkin is more than just a writing mentor. He's as a father figure to whom I bring not only my writerly problems, but also bits and pierces of my life. We talk about them, and he gives me assurance—the kind I never got from my father. Slowly, I'm starting to believe that I can write.
"You're a born journalist," Pchelkin told me recently. This was very funny to hear, because my father studied journalism in Moscow State University (that's how he started his writing career), yet when at 16 I told him I wanted to become a translator and a diplomat (languages were always easy for me), he told me I'm no good and there was no point in even trying. And I never did. I never went to take the entrance exams into Moscow's reputable Maurice Thorez Moscow State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages. Instead, I tried my hand at cutting hair, worked at a salon, got tired of it, then went to one of the new paid universities in Moscow (back then all state universities were free, and paid ones were considered bad) who accepted anyone who could pay, dropped out after six months, got pregnant, gave birth to my daughter Anya—basically, shoved my dream in the back of my mind and got busy with life.
Life, however, brought me back to my calling. A bit late, but I'm there. I'm writing in English, not my first language. And look, without studying journalism I sold my first article from the first try. So this is why I'm so attached to Pchelkin. I'm hungry for his words. They give me what I haven't gotten when I needed it. But it's never too late, right?
And that is all. I told Pchelkin, "Don't you die on me before you give me all your knowledge! You hear? Don't you die until I get on the New York Times Best Sellers list." He laughed. He is my father's age. So this is our agreement. I give him my energy, and he gives me his knowledge. Onward.