Saturday, August 11, 2007

Writing education the cheap way

When I was about twelve I got my parents' permission to apply to a distance writing course. I'm sure they had NO IDEA how much it cost. Lucky for them, I was rejected on the grounds of being under 18. (Are you wondering if those writing courses advertised in the back of magazines ever reject anyone? Now you know.) I thought at the time that I'd wait until I was old enough and try again. So I took a look at the ripe age of 32. I was old enough, but the price was impossible.

I also heard about wonderful multi-day conferences with editors in the field, about expensive critiques with professionals (real ones, not people who just take your $$ and pretend to know what they're doing), and MFA programs. Well, I have an MA already, and it isn't in writing, because I didn't know there was such a thing at the time. And it isn't in anything that pays a lot, either. Considering that most of these things, valuable though they may be, are completely out of my price range could be rather depressing.

Or not.

I'm now convinced that you can get a fantastic writers' education if you're willing to pay in effort and not just in hard, cold cash. If you have access to the internet, you have a library card, and you know how to make friends, you can do this, too.

1. Read. Read the kind of books you want to write. You can't be a writer if you don't like to read. Pay attention to what works in the books. Pay attention to the things that throw you out of the story. Write down a sentence describing each scene of a book that works for you to get a sense of how it's all put together. Look at the words. Look especially at the nouns and verbs. Look at the lack of excessive adverbs in published books. Look at the fact that it's the rhyme as much as the rhythm in a successful rhyming picture book. Look at books published recently. Don't rely on something you read twenty years ago.

2. Read books on writing. More specifically, read the ones that relate to what you write. I write children's books (mostly YA). Books by people who like stories about 40-year-old adults who vacation in the Bahamas are less helpful than books by editors of children's books. Books on revising and editing can be extremely helpful because they apply to more than one genre. A highly technical one that is excellent is The Fiction Editor, by Thomas McCormack. You may have to take notes as you read to understand it, like I did. But it's a good one.

3. Write. Discipline yourself to write regularly according to the schedule that works for you. Connections with People in Publishing Power are all well and good, but you still need a saleable work. The writing itself is the first priority.

4. Use the internet. I can't say enough for sites like or They are not only places to find answers to your questions, they are a community that will support you as you support them. Be friendly and helpful. Share. People have shared so much with me this way. I hope to do the same. On the internet you can find resources like, where you can research agents who represent the things you write. You can find editor and agent blogs, as well as author web sites. You can personalize your approach to writing so much more this way than if you just read the one-size-fits-all writing book, copyright 1978, that you found on your library shelf. You may even find conference notes on the internet. So many people are so generous in sharing their thoughts and impressions from conferences. Be generous and share when you have the opportunity to go.

5. Join a critique group, or find a critique partner. This is the single biggest educational step I've made. I don't doubt that it's an amazing experience to get a critique from a top editor in your field. But it's also pretty amazing to exchange a manuscript with someone and be forced to identify and explain just why some things work and others don't. It's especially helpful when you realize that the problem in the book you're critiquing is also one you have--and you've just articulated how to solve it. And, when you see another writer excel in something you're struggling with, that example goes a lot farther than a made-up example in a writing book. One manuscript I read had the most delectable prose I'd ever eaten--er, read--that ever after I've paid particular emphasis to nouns and verbs, hoping to raise the bar a bit on my own writing. In the past month I've done quite a number of critique exchanges, and every one of them has taught me something different.

Writing the cheap way is a time investment, as well as an investment of willpower and attention. But knowing what I do now, do I wish I'd had it easy?

No way. So I guess I'm glad for that rejection when I was twelve.