On learning to write without spending any money

I’m writing this post because I’ve recently heard some more people bemoaning the fact that they can’t afford to take a creative writing course. I’m all for creative writing courses – never done one myself, but I know a lot of people who have, and who had a brilliant time as well as learning lots. But the idea that people feel held back by the fact that they can’t afford one makes me sad. Honestly, you do not need formal teaching. It is great, but not critical.
So here are my tips about how to put yourself through your own DIY creative writing course. It’s basically what I did, and you have to be very focused and determined to make yourself do it, rather than relying on a course for structure and impetus. But then, you need to be focused and determined if you want to be a writer anyway, so we’ll take that as read. šŸ˜‰

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main things that people get out of a creative writing course (apart from the kick up the arse to actually write, which we’ve already agreed you don’t need):

1. The generic teaching of the craft – classes, lectures etc.
2. Skilled critiquing of your own writing
3. The supportive peer group

The thing is, all these things can be accessed for free, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have access to the internet and a library which can order in books it doesn’t already stock.

We’ll take them in reverse order.

3. The supportive peer group
If you have a local writers’ group, great. (I would love one, not least so we could go to the pub afterwards.) Otherwise, join an online writing forum. AbsoluteWrite.com is one. Scribophile is another. And CritiqueCircle. There are loads, and you can join several.
Once you’ve joined, start developing friendships with other writers that you hit it off with. Offer to critique other people’s work – this is vital. It will help you learn to write, it will leave you with a pool of people who will be eager to help you by critiquing your work when the time comes, and it will make the advice they give you easier to take on board.

2. Skilled critiquing of your own writing
This is where the friendships with other writers come in. Some websites also have a section where you can post things for anyone to comment.
Of course, I’ve had some wonderful, helpful insights from people I’ve been fortunate enough to know who happen to be talented writers. However, I have found that some of my best critiquers aren’t fiction writers themselves – my readers have been a mixture of writers and keen readers. As a historical novelist I’ve been lucky to have a few historian friends who read my stuff. But I’ve also had excellent advice from friends who simply love reading and are capable of expressing opinions about what they’ve read.

1. The generic teaching of craft
There is plenty of stuff online – helpful blogposts, discussions in forums about particular aspects of craft. However, for depth and detail, I have found books essential. The writers’ forums are fantastic for helping you work out which books, though. (I’ll write another post listing a few of my favourites.)

So, how do all these elements work together?
Well, the first thing you do is begin writing. Start to write your first draft (with or without planning, depending on how you work best).
As you start to write, you will start to understand where the gaps in your knowledge lie. You realise you don’t have a clue how to put together a plot – or, you have a good idea of the plot but can’t work out how to write dialogue.
It may not be a good idea to go rushing to the creative writing books at this stage, though. What I would recommend is to keep going until the end of the first draft, writing and writing without stopping to think. For actually getting through that first draft, you will find your supportive peer group essential. Cheerlead each other, post daily wordcounts, tell your friends when you’re flagging and the chances are you’ll get a friendly nudge back on track.
Once you’ve got to the end of the first draft, you put it in a drawer – don’t show it to anyone yet – and that’s when the creative writing books come out. Take a while to work through a couple. Now you’ve had the experience of writing a whole draft they will make a lot more sense to you than they would have done a few months earlier. You’ll start to get some sense of how much you know and how much you don’t know.
After a month or so, when you’ve more or less forgotten about the story that was consuming you a few weeks earlier, get the draft out and read it again. This part hurts – you will cringe at bits, either because they’re just plain badly written, or because your newfound knowledge from the creative writing books makes you see more clearly what doesn’t work. You go to your supportive peer group, cry a bit online, then buckle down and do drastic rewriting. Then you put it away for another month and do some more reading of creative writing books, maybe critique some stuff for a friend, chat about writing online. Oh, and read more fiction. Obviously. You never stop doing that.
When you come back to reading draft 2, you might feel ready to show it to a friend, or it might be too early for that – if you can see for yourself what needs fixing, better to fix it yourself before asking anyone else to expend effort on it. It might be draft 2 or 3 or 4 that gets read. Once you have comments to work with, you might find yourself going back to the creative writing books again, this time re-reading relevant bits that relate to the comments you’ve had on your draft: how to tighten your saggy middle section, or make your lacklustre love interest more compelling.
There’s no limit on the number of drafts you will need. Keep going as long as you can feel it getting better with each draft.
Of course, you don’t end up with an MA this way. If you’re very lucky, and talented, you might end up with a publishable book. Most importantly, though, through the repeated feedback process of writing-reading-writing-reading, your writing will have come a very long way.

Click here for my post on my favourite creative writing books

Normal service will resume shortly…

Last time I wrote on here was midsummer and now it’s September!
The second half of my summer disappeared in a whirl of moving house with ten days notice, my computer getting broken in the move so I had NO COMPUTER AT ALL for over a month, and finding myself, husband and three children living in a huge, decaying Georgian house with a jungle of a garden. And ducks.
The house move shouldn’t have been a shock – we knew we were doing it – it’s just I never really believed it until it happened. There were legal issues of the sort that make mortgage companies laugh incredulously and say, ‘No. Sorry.’
But here we are. The builders are still here. Much reroofing has been done and much is still to do. There are interesting gaps in windowframes and places where the paint has flaked off to show us a hundred years’ succession of different colours. The garden is so overgrown that we haven’t even been into the corners.
Yesterday, the children started their new school, which my daughter loves so much she wants to go on Saturdays and Sundays too. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) And now I am sitting at my desk in my lovely new writing room with Scrivener open, poised to restart the book!

This is the view from my new window:

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(The things in the sky aren’t UFOs, just a smudge and a beetle.)