• Jane O'Reilly

I want to write but I can't afford it

There's been a thing doing the rounds on twitter this week with regards to a thing called Pitch Wars. This is a (primarily American, I think) contest where you can win a crit of a full manuscript from an agented author or someone who works within publishing. It had been funded by voluntary donations, but wanted to move towards charging a fee to enter. This started a backlash on twitter, and it has now been decided that they will carry on relying on voluntary donations for funding.

I can see both sides of the argument, TBH. I entered quite a few paid contests before I was published, ones which offered feedback on a partial. I went to conferences. I went on a couple of writing retreats. I don't think that paying for feedback is wrong - it is often given by published authors, and we need to pay our bills and feed our teenagers just the same as everyone else and our skills and time are valuable. Many authors supplement their income by teaching writing, because income from fiction has been cut to the bone. It's not just down to the end of the net book agreement. There are so many other options now - netflix, gaming, social media, huge amounts of free fiction online - combined with a sense that art is not something we should pay for (although it's absolutely fine to pay £3 for a lukewarm coffee and another £3 for a slightly stale slice of not very good cake that will keep us entertained for all of 10 minutes, but that's a whole other issue).

However I am also aware that a whole industry has sprung up intent on persuading not yet published writers that publishing is a mysterious locked door and that in order to obtain the key, it will cost you your first born child, a hair from a unicorn's tail and a first edition Harry Potter. That the only way to get a book deal is to spend thousands on a fancy writing courses or to have your work assessed by a literary consultant.

I am sure that these courses are amazing. I am sure that, if you can afford it, they will improve your writing. But I also know that plenty of us can't afford it or are already trying to squeeze our writing into 20 minutes at 5 in the morning and couldn't fit a London based course in even if we had the money. It can feel like there are no invites to the party for people like us.

But there are some, if you know where to look. It is possible to get your writing to a standard that will get the attention of an agent without spending a lot of money. When I first started writing, I was at home with 2 young children. We had moved from a town in the north to one close to London, tripling our mortgage in the process, and money was tight. I started writing precisely because it was a creative outlet that didn't cost anything. I had a laptop, a library card and an hour in the evening between the kids going to bed and my husband coming home. That kept me going for a while, but I did eventually reach a point where I needed more, and I needed it low budget, and preferably no budget.

If this sounds like you, then keep reading. I've put together a list of resources, most of which are free. Some I've used personally, some have been recommended to me by the twitter hive mind (thank you twitter hive mind!)

The Open University offers an assortment of free creative writing courses and it is well worth having a look at what is available on their website. I've linked to one of their courses, but there are others.

Writing forums. Again, usually free. For SFF writers, SFFchronicles.com is worth a look. Often sites like this will have a place where you can post a short opener and get feedback. You can learn a huge amount from a crit of a couple of pages, especially if you are a beginner writer. You don't need a crit of a full manuscript, or beta readers. Just a few comments on your opening page from someone who knows what they are talking about can give you the tools to fix an entire book. Remember that you're not striving for perfection - you're looking to make the script good enough to get agent or editor interest. (Even if it is perfect, they'll ask you to change it. Trust me on this.)

www.absolutewrite.com another useful forum for writers

Contests, if free to enter, and especially if they have forums attached. It's a great place to connect with other people who share your interest in writing, and to give you experience of working to a deadline and sending work off to be looked at. Mills and Boon run a big competition every year which is worth joining in with if you want to write for them.

Author talks/writing workshops at the local library or bookshop. It doesn't matter if the author is writing in your genre - if it's local and it's free, it's worth it. You can learn a lot from listening to authors talk about their work and the writing life, and sometimes authors will offer a workshop, so you get a bit of teaching thrown in. For example, Waterstones run lots of these.

Lots of authors blog about writing techniques, so finding some you like and following them is another great way to get information. Emma Darwin has a well known blog on writing, and Julie Cohen is another great author to follow.

You tube is also another good resource. Robert McKee has plenty of videos that are worth a watch regardless of your genre. Brandon Sanderson also has a few. Steer clear of videos that talk about publishing and marketing stuff. What you're looking for is information about writing. How to construct characters. What plot is. How to write good dialogue. Things that will give you the tools you need to get the book right. Because at the end of the day, that is what will get the attention of an agent and an editor, not the fact that you spent the price of a second hand car on writing courses.

Now for a few things that sadly aren't free, but might be accessible if you have a little bit of money to spend.

Books on creative writing. There are SO MANY. I have my favourites, which I will list in a separate post. You can learn a huge amount about the nuts and bolts of how fiction works from these. Some you might be able to get from the library. Some are worth investing in, so I'll call this a cheaper option rather than a free one. If you are really skint, you can find cheap second hand copies on sites like amazon and abe books. Normally I would say to buy new if you can, because that way the author gets paid for their work, but I know that sometimes cost is the most important factor. (It might interest you to know that if you take a book out of the library, the author gets a little bit of money. And please don't download pirated copies from the internet. Just don't).

For science fiction writers, consider joining the BSFA. It costs £35 a year, but they have active writing circles (via email) which you can join as part of your membership, so it's a cost effective way to get crits on work by people in the genre, and a way to make friends with other writers.

Romance writers - for you, it's the Romantic Novelists' Association, or if that isn't suitable, Romance Writers of America, which regularly runs contests. You pay a small fee to enter but get comments on your work, again by someone who knows about writing.

If there are any other free resources you think I should add to the list, please post them below!

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