Whether you’ve been writing all your life or are just getting started, it’s imperative for you to learn some of the tricks of the trade. I believe many writers do hold some amount of natural talent for words and stories, but even the most naturally talented writers must hone their craft. There are certain pitfalls to avoid, and certain principles and techniques that have been passed down from great writers for generations, and certain styles and techniques that worked a hundred years ago that don’t get through to an audience today. You must learn, and you must continue to learn. Forever.
Do I need to have a degree in English Lit or an MFA?
No. Authors without MFA’s or any degree related to literature write great books and get published all the time. Those degrees can give you a jump start, really help you develop your craft in a more concentrated period, and perhaps spur you along on your road to publication through networking, but they’re not a guarantee, and I think there’s very little you can obtain from such degrees that you can’t get in other ways for a lot less. It depends on your ultimate goals. I talk more about that HERE.
Do I need to shell out cash for workshops, classes, and conferences?
No. They can be helpful, wonderful even, but I’m pretty sure you can become a great writer without them. I have spent plenty of money on conferences, workshops, and classes, and I generally thought it was all worth it. I actually think conferences and workshops are sometimes more of a networking opportunity, rather than education, and while I attend them and recommend them, I think they can also give some writers the illusion that attending such classes and conferences somehow make them more legit. I am at a writer’s conference, therefore I am a writer! They are with other writers, talking about writing.
But talking about writing doesn’t make you a writer. Want to know what makes you a writer? Writing. Who knew? That said, if you can afford some classes or conferences, here are a few I recommend, along with the general price range.
Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers A five day conference held in Utah every summer devoted to the craft of writing for children and young adults. The full sessions include small morning classes (aprox. 12 students) with an experience, skilled, published author. Afternoon sessions include panels and presentations from some of the leading children’s authors on the market. Price is around $550, which is an absolute steal for this type of a conference. I really think this is one of the best children’s writing conferences in the country.
Institute of Children’s Literatureis a correspondence children’s writing course. This gave me a great foundation for craft and a sound understanding of the children’s market, particularly the magazine market, which I think is a great place to gain some writing and publishing experience. The course is spread out over a 2-year period for around $600. A good bang for your buck.
SCBWI– If you can’t afford to go to the national conferences, your local chapter probably hold an annual conference that can be really great, and often lots of regular workshops and free/cheap events. SCBWI can be a great resource to those just starting out. Dues are $85 for the first year, $70 every year after that.
Do you recommend books on writing?
Yes. There are some excellent books on writing craft out there that can be so helpful in developing your craft and writing life. Again, reading about how to write doesn’t always translate into great writing, but if you consciously put the principles taught into practice, you’ll see your writing gradually improve. Here is a list of books on writing and craft that I think are worthwhile. You can probably get most of these through your library, but they’re nice to own.
On Writing Stephen King
Bird By Bird Ann Lammott
Character and Viewpoint Orson Scott Card
Story Robert McKee
The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman
Stein On Writing Sol Stein
How to Grow Novel Sol Stein
The Fire In Fiction Donald Maas
Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maas
What are some free/online resources that can be helpful to beginning writers?
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) Happens every November! I participated in NanoWrimo in 2004. It was exhausting and a total blast, and though the novel I wrote was complete drivel, it helped build my stamina for writing, and taught me that I can do this! All for free!
Critique Groups or Partners Finding a critique group or a few reading partners will be invaluable to you. They will cheer you on while pointing out your weak spots. Reading and critiquing their writing will also improve your own. I talk more about critique groups/partners and how to from/find them HERE.
Agent and editor blogs I deliver this advice with a warning, because it can be so easy to get sucked into a blogging black hole and ten years later you still haven’t written that book. That said, there are some great blogs out there that offer great advice both in craft and business. You’ll start to see patterns of advice given, and certain principles will start to be ingrained in your mind. I could make a great long list of blogs that I think are worthwhile, but there are SO many and everyone’s needs and goals are different. You can get access to the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers here. You’re sure to find a few that fit your needs.
Writers On Writing A radio program that features interview with authors, editors, and agents. You can download the podcast for free on iTunes. I learned so much—about both writing craft and business—listening to these interviews!
The most important thing you can do to become a better writer…
Spend your time writing. There is no way around the fact that it will take time to develop your craft. I talk a lot about that HERE. At the end of the day, your best teachers will be your own writing attempts, great or awful, and the books you read, great or awful. Read with the eye of a writer. Pick them apart. Figure out why certain stories work, and why others don’t. Apply their techniques and principles in your own writing, or avoid the things you’ve read that don’t work for you. Write the kind of book you like to read, or liked to read as a child. Write the book you don’t see on the shelf.