Three years ago I had been a stay at home mom for seven years. Before that I was a fifth grade teacher for six years. The last serious English/Writing class I'd taken was in highschool and I won't put a number on how long ago that was. I didn't know the first thing about how to crack into the publishing business. Heck, I didn't know the first thing about putting together a story or a poem. I just knew that I needed to write. But where can someone like me start learning about writing if college isn't in the cards and money is counted down to the last quarter most months? Here are the things I did to educate myself in a free or almost free fashion:
1. I joined a local poetry/flash fiction/prose group-why you might ask if you write YA fiction? Here's why: It was the only group I found that was close and fit my schedule. Plus it was hosted by two local college professors. I was a nervous wreck that first time. Everyone seemed smarter and more capable than me. I barely knew what constituted a modern poem or what flash fiction even was. But I made myself bring something every single meeting and I listened to the group's feedback. The fact that I had to write microscopically short stories and poetry forced me to make every word count, to focus a scene. I grew by leaps and bounds. Bonus: the professors offered to let us audit their classes for free whenever we wanted. Now I had an inside line on writer presentations at the college and attended many without spending a dime. If you don't have anything similar, check with your local universities and start attending any writer events that they have. Most are open to the public and other local writers will be there.
2. I got online and researched, researched, researched. Thank God for the internet, because I'm not sure how else I would've managed. It would have definitely taken a lot longer to get saavy. I looked on author sites, writing sites, message boards...anywhere and everywhere that writing was talked about. I spent untold hours reading. Strange how the longer you're out there on the message boards and sites, the smaller the writing community gets. You begin to recognize other writers from the comment sections on blogs. It is wonderful and comforting.
3. I started my own novel critique group when I couldn't find one close by. Remember that other group from point #1? Well, turns out that more than one of those people wanted to or was writing longer pieces-either novels or short stories. I asked them to meet at the same time as the other group on a different day to do critiques on longer pieces. Was I freaked out? YES! I was a newbie leading people more experienced than myself in most cases who'd been writing longer. But they needed someone to organize them and that was one thing I could do after being a mom and teacher. Now I'm comfortable critiquing others' work as well as having my work critiqued. If you don't have contacts, ask at your local Barnes and Noble if they'll put your group on their schedule if you hold it there. Attend local writer events and start asking around...interested people will start to find you.
4. I never let an online critque partner match up pass me by. Many authors/writers sites will offer critique partner match ups from time to time. I did one on Maggie Steifvater's blog, Words On Words and at WriteOnCon.com. Even if I didn't gain a regular online partner, all of the crit reading I did made me a better writer and helped me understand what other writers in my genre were doing: where they were succeeding and failing. This by far is one of the best ways to learn how to write better.
5. I offered up my newly honed crit skills without asking for anything in return. I read all kinds of work-good, bad, boring, beyond repair. I took each one seriously and did my level best to help make those pieces better, which ultimately helped me figure out how to do the same with my own stuff.
6. I put myself out there. I met an agent through the poetry group I attended-another writer from it brought her to my novel group once I started it. I made a point to keep in contact with her. NOT with the expectation that she would look at my work and tell me what I needed to do to get published, but with the goal of learning whatever I could from her. I invited her back to our group. Once in awhile she would come, bring work of her own and participate. Her comments were always INVALUABLE. Sometimes they hurt like the dickens, but I always took them under consideration and I grew every time. Eventually over the past few years we developed a slow friendship and recently she asked me to meet her regularly for write a thons and is even considering my latest novel. Even if she never takes me on, our relationship continues to help me grow as a writer. Agents are extremely generous with their time and skill set if they know you're serious and you don't whine when they give you pointed criticism. Respect them and they will respect you back.
7. I watched about a thousand hours of video online of authors talking about their books and professors, now published authors like Justin Cronin lecturing on story structure--free advice, people, we'd be fools not to drink it in!
8. I started stalking Twitter. I am technologically slow-I'll admit it. I break out into hives over Facebook and Twitter, but I made myself start following agents and authors even though I was not actually tweeting anything myself and low and behold, they give out litttle nuggets of wisdom everyday. As a bonus you can really get a sense of what they like/dislike. It's an easy way to see if an agent might be a good fit for you.
9. I attended conferences in little sips. Conferences are expensive, like waaaaay over my budget expensive. As a result, I can't attend a big one or even a whole one. I try to save up and go for a day or attend the free nightly author readings at ones close-ish to my house(car pool with writer friends and this cost goes down even more). You can get a lot out of talking up the people sitting around you at the readings and if you attend a conference for the one fullest day, you can usually get a good amount of education/networking in. I am not above getting up in the middle of the night and driving to the conference site then driving home later that night. Coke Zero is my friend and ally on these trips. And if you don't have any conferences near you, WriteOnCon.com holds a yearly absolutely free online conference in August. It is directed at YA authors, but the advice is universal and the networking/critiquing/support there is invaluable. Many published authors and agents attend.
10. I treated my education seriously. I made a point of looking at every hour spent surfing the web, critiquing, meeting writers in group and attending conferences as an investment in my future. I gave myself permission to take some time away from my family, from my bed, from my cleaning and laundry to better myself. You can only get better if you allow yourself to dive in with both feet. I also wrote everyday and read everyday since that is the only truly universal advice there is out there for improving your craft. I read forty-five books this year-more if you count all of the nonpublished manuscripts I read as well.
So there you have it. That's my advice, now what's yours?