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.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Being Boring

I’m back at work today after being on vacation since August 28. This was the first time I’ve had a totally unstructured week in God-knows-how long. I was sinfully boring—I left the house only a handful of times and didn’t do anything that most people would classify as “exciting” or “fun.” I caught up with a friend I haven’t talked to in way too long, read several books, worked out most days, wrote a little, and DH and I hung out, watching the third season of Survivor and starting up a scheme of tracking the calories we’re eating on a spreadsheet.

The last time I spent money was 8/31—just realized this and am rather proud. Lately DH doesn’t seem to be wanting to eat out quite as much. Usually he’ll suggest eating out about twice a week, and we’ll end up eating out 6 or 7 times per month. But in the last month I think we’ve only eaten out 3 times. This is probably not because DH doesn’t want to eat out, but rather because he’s getting sick of the places we close to us. Also our homemade pizza is getting better, so there’s less incentive to get delivery. Any reason is fine with me. I don’t like eating out as much as he does and it’s one of our more significant expenses.

I picked up a few groceries on Monday night, but paid for them on a gift card we bought back in April. In an upcoming post I’ll talk about our grocery strategy, which is not as cheap as it could be as we buy a lot of luxuries, but I think we generally get the best possible price for each item we buy.

Two big projects I worked on this week were trying to get a literary agent and preparing to volunteer at a nearby Sudbury school. I sent out ten or so letters to agents and got a bite back from one of them—my first request for a full manuscript! I spent a big chunk of yesterday looking at my novel and tweaking sentences here and there. This agent apparently requests a lot of manuscripts, but I’m very pleased that there’s enough strength in my manuscript for someone to ask for it.

A Sudbury school is basically a democratic school, meaning the students choose what to do with their time and each individual has a vote in school decisions. Most people find this concept odd or frightening, and I don’t know enough about it to really defend it in detail, but the principles behind it are similar to the principles behind unschooling, which I have more experience with. I’ve seen unschooling work very well for many individuals, meaning that they become functional adults who are generally happy, able to find work that they enjoy, and able to attend college if they want to.

I visited a Sudbury school last spring and am really hoping to be able to volunteer there. I think schools like Sudbury schools might be a better model for society in general than unschooling is, as there are various practical considerations that make unschooling difficult for many families.

I considered this vacation a mini-mini-retirement. I loved being free to structure my own days, deciding when to get up, what to do, and when to do it. I did some things that might be considered "work" (particularly the query letters), but I enjoyed them because they were things I wanted to do and I could decide how to approach them.

When I started thinking about coming back to work, I dreaded having to go back to doing things that I don't consider very important or useful. I just don't care very much about a lot of the things I do. I look forward to the day when all my days can be filled with thing I do care about.

At some point I'd like to do a "sabbatical" or mini-retirement of a few months and see how I deal with freedom over a longer period of time. My suspicion is that I would like it so much I would end up not going back to work. DH sometimes says he thinks I would get too lonely or depressed being home every day. I did get lonely one day last week, but quickly remedied it by having two good phone conversations. I don't think the limited and low-quality social interaction I get at work is really that valuable to me.