Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to Be a Writer for Free

1. Write. You don't need software or special materials. The best novel writing software? Any software that will give you a blank page. The best journal? One that you'll actually write in. Cute little handmade journals with recycled paper aren't actually all that comfortable.

Get a $1.50 spiral notebook you can beat up, carry in your bag, write in even when you don't have a flat surface to lay it out on. Some people like legal pads. Or raid a paper recycling bin and use the blank sides of printed paper. Since it's not lined, you can add drawings, write any size you want to. Since it's "trash" already, you never feel you're "wasting" good paper.

Writing at a cafe can be nice, but don't let yourself believe that you can only write with a giant coffee and vegan muffin. Learn to shut the door at home, make your own coffee, and turn off the Internet if you need to.

2. Read. Read the sorts of things you want to write. If your goal is publishing, read mostly new and recent publications. Check them out from the library, get them from paperbackswap, read online journals or stuff random people post (good for poets, essayists, or short story writers), or read in bookstores. Sometimes I've read entire books in bookstores over the course of several days--not entirely ethical, but not a mortal sin, either.

3. Learn about writing. The best way to learn about writing is to write. Most writing classes are really glorified critique groups, so instead of paying for classes find a writing group or writing partners (see point 4).

Books about writing can be transcendental or worthless. Check them out of the library or skim them in a bookstore. Take notes. If you're compelled to check out the book a second or third time, maybe it's worth buying a copy. Online sources may be even more valuable than books for genre-specific information or solutions to specific problems ("how to write a romance novel," "naming characters," "plot doesn't go anywhere").

Test different methods and tools. Be skeptical of people who say you "must" or "have to" write in a certain way. Use what works for you and discard what doesn't.

If you really want to take classes, ask at local libraries first to see if anyone is offering anything for free. I once found a good teacher through one of those "Learning Annex" catalogs--I think it was $75 for six sessions.

4. Get feedback. The main benefit of most writing classes is the feedback. It's valuable to find one or more people who are as good or better at writing than you and who write things that are at least roughly similar to your writing (i.e., don't team up with a bunch of hard-core literary types if you're writing cozy mysteries) who are willing to read your writing and offer advice or talk about writing with you. In-person groups are ideal but can be hard to find. Try:

  • www.meetup.com
  • writing organizations like RWA or SCBWI (local reps or chapters will know of critique groups)
  • writers' forums like AbsoluteWrite, the National Novel Writing Month forums (active year-round), or Verla Kay's message boards. In the Chicago area, there are regular "write ins" during NaNoWriMo, which I've found to be a low-pressure way to meet people as you're mostly writing, not chatting.
  • again, the local library
  • Google "writing/critique groups [your city or state]" This worked well for me in Austin, not so well for Chicago.
  • Go to readings or other writing-related events and talk to the other people there looking for like-minded writers
  • Post on bulletin boards at libraries or bookstores
Be ruthless about weeding out crazies and people who you don't mesh with...or even perfectly nice people who just at a different skill levels. You want people you can build a give-and-take relationship with.

Where I Do Spend Money on Writing
  • Research. I took an out-of-state trip to research the setting of my novel, and did get a much better perspective on the town I was trying to recreate. But try researching from home first--look at detailed maps and photographs, read biographies and journals of people who lived there, visit websites of local businesses.
  • Some memberships. I'm a member of SCBWI because I'm trying to sell a young adult novel and some agents give preference to SCBWI members. Before you join an organization, look at what you'll be getting and consider whether there aren't other ways to get the same benefits. Don't renew automatically--think about whether you've really used your membership in the past year enough to justify the expense.
  • Supporting other (living) writers by buying their books. I read somewhere that anyone trying to publish a novel should be willing to buy a new hardcover novel every week. I agree with this in theory and at times have done so. Right now the combination of ambitious savings goals and minimalism means I don't buy many books. At some point I'll start buying again and either donate or sell the books when I'm done with them or buy them electronically.

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