As many of you know, I’m deeply interested in the writing of Jill Dawson, and so when I discovered she was part of a new mentoring scheme called Gold Dust, I asked her if she’d delve into it a little for me.

In the period between sending my questions to Jill and getting the answers back, I read a post by Agent Kristin that cast an interesting sidelight on some of the issues in the wider publishing world.

There are a variety of reasons that Gold Dust seems worthwhile to me: it would work well for the kind of writer who doesn’t enjoy big groups and doesn’t seek a hectic social life to go along with their creative development; it’s the kind of scheme that widens the net to include writers who have other reasons for not being able to take a creative writing degree; and (touching on Kristin’s post) it allows for diversity. Not every writer finds out they want to write in their teens, not every writer can find the time for even part-time study, some writers have cultural, personal or other reasons for wishing to focus intensively on their work without exposing it to even a supportive group.

Kristin’s post made me think – she suggests editors tend to be young and female, for economic reasons as much as anything else and that agents are somewhat more diverse. I wonder how much longer even that will be true? There are great writing degrees out there, and very mundane ones. As we end up with more and more people qualified in ‘creative writing’ entering the job market, they are very likely to become editors, and agents. W hile they will probably be great enthusiasts for literature, their talent-spotting and nurturing skills won’t be highly developed because they are so young, and because they will have been intensively exposed to the writing of other creative writing students, they are likely to respond to that style of writing, over other forms, at least early in their careers. So a writer who doesn’t or won’t or can’t fit what Zadie Smith called the ‘cookie cutter MFA’ might be wise to look outside that process to get the kind of support that would help them achieve publication. And that’s where schemes like Gold Dust might prove invaluable because they can provide intensive support and critique, a strong relationship with an established writer, and access to that writer’s network if they produce work that their mentor deems worthwhile.

So I asked Jill some questions about how Gold Dust works and what it aims to do.

What, in your view, is the key value of mentoring – is it the way that a mentor can help technically, with structu re and content of material, or the way they can help professionally, with an understanding of what it takes to get published, or the way they can help personally, by encouraging the development of the individual’s talent?

All of the above, and more. Read my article for Mslexia for how much I longed for a mentor when I was starting out. Living in a council flat in Hackney, a single parent, the first girl in my family ever to go to University – it wasn’t exactly Martin Amis’s life! I wasn’t likely to bump into many experienced established award-winning writers to chat about publication, writer’s block, or how to structure the next scene – how could I get access to such a person? In the end I think I found several, through doing an MA – Jane Rogers, the tutor, and Kathryn Heyman, now a close friend. Many of those applying to Gold Dust already have an MA and are now looking for more individual, sustained input over the period it takes to write a novel. Oh and by the way, Kathryn and Jane now both mentor for Gold Dust these days.

One of the elements of a creative writing degree that people seem to value is the sense of having a ‘peer group’ of fellow writers – what can mentoring offer to match that sense of joining a group of writers with whom you work and socialise?

Yes, of course – but this need is well provided for. There are hundreds of courses and wriitng groups out there as well as online communities. We provide something that didn’t exist – one to one input from an acclaimed author. The Gold Dust mentors include three who were Booker shortlisted, two professors on MAs in Writing, two writers nominated for the Orange Prize, one Reader in Digital Writing, etc. They really know what it’s like to embark on writing a novel or memoir and are willing to go on the journey with you, offering whatever input you think you need.

On the other hand, many people are not naturally gregarious and find it difficult to balance the need for a safe space in which to crea te with the demands of producing work to a schedule. I can see that mentoring would be better for them (and as I’m one of them myself, I am always pleased to hear of opportunities that work for the introvert!) but there must still be some kind of deadline process I assume? How do mentor and mentee work out what can be achieved in their year together?

If you are accepted, you are sent a contract. In that first meeting we suggest you sit down and thrash out with the mentor what you need/hope for. The mentor will then see if that’s realistic in the time you have available. Our mentors are flexible but they are also wise. Often what you need is a tough deadline. It’s different every time. If you read the ‘testimonials’ on the Gold Dust website you will see what others have said. (We don’t edit these.)

What is the process of deciding which mentor works with a mentee? I know there’s a judging process but what does it contain – is it simply a question of literary merit or is likely compatibility taken into account?

A little of both. It’s nice to work with a mentor who has chosen you and loves your work. But also logistics matter – such as where the mentor lives and whether they are currently free. Remember you have to cover your own travel costs. We ask you when you apply to name the mentor and do our best to match you with who you have chosen.

I know you’ve just had a writer from the scheme go to novel publication, and obviously you can’t give any specifics, but what, in general, allowed him or her to manage this fast track in an astonishing eighteen months from the start of the programme?

I used to teach at UEA and I’d say there on a course of 40 students, each year maybe one or two would publish. Gold Dust is very young (18 months as you say). We’ve had 46 pairs so far. Many are not yet finished – about 30 are on-going. So our success rate, compared with the best established MA in the country is quite high. The model of mentoring is well established. As I wrote in the Mslexia piece, the first year that the MA at UEA ran there was only one student in a tutorial room with Malcolm Bradbury. And that was Ian McKewan …

pure gold courtesy of kevin dooley at Flickr


  1. Emerging Writer
    28th March 2009

    I worry about this kind of thing. It costs £2,000. That’s more than £100 an hour. What kind of writers will this type of money attract and which kind would never be able to justify the expense. The same goes for MA/MFA programs too.

  2. Kay Sexton
    31st March 2009

    Well, I think that’s largely Jill’s point – that although it’s expensive, compared to an MA/MFA it’s a cost-effective investment in a serious writing career.

  3. jem
    3rd April 2009

    Very interesting post. I’d heard a bit about Gold Dust but great to read more especially from Jill Dawson (I go a little bit shivery (in a good way) thinking about her novels!). I guess the key is finding the right support for personal need. Good to know there is variety developing. I think there is something very natural about the idea of mentoring, the more experienced writer guider the less, it’s nuturing and encouraging and somehow less mass produced than the MAs can sound.


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