Lurn 2 Ryt Gud

Millions of people have, it seems, a craving to write a novel. God alone knows why. It’s a lonely activity, it’s hard work, and if you think you’re any good at it, you’re probably kidding yourself. If you were any good, you’d have grave doubts about whether you’re any good!

There are two kinds of aspiring novelists: those who think their work is fantastic and will surely win them fame and fortune, and those who are aware, however dimly, that their skill set could use a little burnishing. Or maybe a lot of burnishing. Today’s diatribe is aimed at the bunch who are in the latter category.

A few days ago I clicked on a Facebook ad for a writing course that is hosted by Stanford University. I think I clicked on another similar ad too. I was curious to see what was on offer. The Stanford course, I found, is expensive and very leisurely (it lasts more than a year). If the course description is to be relied on, it’s aimed primarily at the needs of novices, not at those who have already written several novels and are seeking help with problems of plot and narrative that are both complex and specific to their current project.

In the days since my innocent little mouse-clicks, my Facebook feed has been inundated with ads for how-to-write courses (see below). Some of them, I’m sure, provide a legitimate bang for the buck when it comes to providing good information on how to write. I’m not going to propose that any of them are outright scams. No, the problem is simpler than that. The problem is, if you think you can benefit from taking any of these courses, you’re a damn fool.

Why, you ask. So nice of you to ask! Here’s why:

All of them, without exception, are repackaging the same generic bits of advice. I state this confidently, even though I haven’t investigated any of the actual course offerings other than to read through a few online blurbs. I can state it with confidence because there are no secrets to successful writing. None. You won’t learn anything from course A, B, or C that will not also be explained to you in course X, Y, or Z. A different instructor may offer different anecdotes, provide different examples, or emphasize the importance of factor N while downplaying factor M — but it’s all the same stuff.

Of course they will use sex and your yearning for stardom to convince you that their course is special. Viz, to wit:

The simple truth is, you can learn everything that any of these courses offers by buying seven or eight good how-to-write books. The books will cost less than a quarter of the tuition in a typical course. Buy the books. Read them. Keep a pencil handy. Underline salient passages and scribble in the margins.

And write. Write, write, write. Try some experiments and make mistakes. Rewrite. Read lots and lots of books in the genre that you’re writing in. And read other writers’ fiction technically, not for enjoyment. Notice how your favorite writers handle dialog, flashbacks, characterization, world-building, conflict, opening sentences, theme, pacing, diction. The how-to-write books you’ve bought will tell you what you need to study in the work of your favorite authors.

That’s how you do it. There aren’t any secret formulas, and there aren’t any shortcuts. Don’t waste your money on an online course. The online how-to-write industry has a fairly simple goal, though nobody who organizes or teaches in such a course will ever admit it: to fleece hopelessly bad writers by convincing them that this time, they’ll learn the secrets of the pros!

Now, it’s true that personal contact with other writers can have some value. There are a few associations (such as Sisters In Crime and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) that may set up critique groups and have forums where you can chat and network with other writers. But joining such an association will be much less expensive than signing up for a course.

In an extremely rare case, the instructor in the course might be a writer who has an agent, and might be so impressed by your work that she will be happy to introduce you to the agent. That can happen. But if you’re truly writing at a professional level, why the hell have you wasted all that money signing up for the course? Networking with other writers has nothing to do with the content of the course, and dreaming that you’ll have that magical moment of contact is not a good reason to plunk down five hundred or a thousand bucks.

If you want to spend some money, scout around and hire a good developmental editor. You’ll pay a couple of thousand bucks to have your novel edited, but it will be one-on-one work with someone who is focused directly on your manuscript. That’s a much better use of your money. But first you’ll have to finish writing the novel — and let’s hope you have bought and read those books and learned to apply the principles in them, because those are the things a developmental editor is going to be looking at in your manuscript.

It’s not magic. There are no secrets. It’s just hard, lonely, confusing work.

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2 Responses to Lurn 2 Ryt Gud

  1. Lol lovely post. And I’m in the second category as well, so this post relates to me. In the end, writing is like exercise. You can study all about it, but doing it is the only thing that’s gonna get you the muscles. Thanks for this post!

  2. Pingback: Hit Me with Your Best Shot | Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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