Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Looking for a Writing Course

By Justin Stanchfield

2001, Justin Stanchfield 

Help, like the truth, is out there... 

But you have to be willing to ask for it. Not so long ago (six years to be exact) I realized, after a year and a half of rejection letters, that I needed a boost getting over my writing hurdles. Even though I was writing steadily, and had already had seen several of my plays produced locally, I couldn’t seem to make that all-important leap from hopeful to publishable. I wanted to write. I loved sitting down every night and pounding out short stories, and as importantly, I was sending manuscripts out as quickly as I finished them. Unfortunately, the same manuscripts were coming back nearly as I fast as I could stuff them into envelopes. I was stymied. After all, words are cheap and ideas are a dime a dozen, so why couldn’t I string them together into something an editor would be willing to buy? Much as I hated to admit it, I needed help. 

So, with no small amount of trepidation, I filled out an application form I had received in the mail a few weeks earlier and signed up for a correspondence course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. Let me state right off the bat, I am not advocating this course. For me it was a good decision, but it is not for everyone. I was paired with a wonderful instructor, whom I have stayed in touch with long after the classes ended, and who was able to work the assignments around to fit my schedule. However, the tuition was relatively high, and the marketing techniques used by the school are aggressive. I was very happy with the course, as are most of the people I’ve spoken with who have also taken it, but I am sure there are just as many students out there who were dissatisfied. Still, the bottom line remains: did the class make a difference? 

Yes. 

Within six months of starting the course I had, upon the advice of my instructor, sold one of my class projects to a magazine that more than paid for my tuition. In fact, over the years, I have managed to place several of the assignments I wrote for the class, not to mention the stories I have written and sold using what I learned. The information and feedback I gleaned over the eight months of instruction, and the confidence I developed, have been invaluable. Could I have eventually reached that point on my own? Maybe. Did taking a writing course get me there sooner? Absolutely. 

Help is out there. But it is up to you to ask for it. Realizing that my writing needed help was a major step for me. However, it was a step I was ready to take. I wanted to learn, and I dived into the material with abandon, devouring each new section, each new challenge with an almost childlike joy. And after a while I began to understand it was less what I was learning than the fact that I was willing to learn that made the critical difference. Finding a course was only the first part of the equation. In other words, how you approach a writing class is just as important as what you are shown. For a student, attitude truly is everything. 

More than once I have heard people comment that when it comes to instruction, you only get what you pay for. Personally, I don’t agree. Paying a high premium for a writing class is no guarantee of success. Instead, concentrate on finding a course and a teacher that you are compatible with, and more importantly, that offers what you want to learn. Far too many would-be  writers throw away their pens before they ever have a chance to discover their talents because some ‘expert’ advised them that genre writing is neither profitable nor a worthy pursuit of an author’s time. Choosing the wrong course or writing group, or suffering through a poor instructor/student relationship is worse than no help at all. Look for someone who shares your love and enthusiasm for the type of writing you want to create. If what you want to write is fantasy or science fiction (or mysteries, or romances, or westerns, or gothics...) and you’re unsure how your prospective teacher views genres outside the mainstream, ask him. Early is the time to discover that the class is not what you were looking for, rather than after you have already invested your hard-earned time or money. 

Still, finding the class is only the beginning. As with the horse that doesn’t want a drink, no teacher can make you learn. All she can do is give you the opportunity. Don’t simply approach a lesson. Attack it! Throw yourself into each assignment. Tackle the new material. Squeeze the drops from every paragraph you study. Push yourself to your limits and beyond with every assignment. And don’t be shy. Try to impress your teacher. Show her what you’re made of, and that you’re not afraid to prove yourself a writer. A class is a good time to experiment, a time to extend the boundaries of your skill. Part of the learning process is the feedback between teacher and pupil, and the harder a student is willing to work, the more an instructor can give in return. It is up to you, as the student, to find the challenge in even the simplest lesson. It is also up to you to listen to the criticism you receive, even when it is painful. Understanding your weaknesses, as well as your strengths, is all part and parcel of being professional.  

Fine. You’ve decided you’re ready to take a writing course. You know what you want to say, and you’re convinced you have the stick-with-it to jump into the class feet first with your eyes wide open. Now, where do you start your search? The options can be overwhelming. Take your time. Ask other writers if you can, preferably ones who have taken similar classes. Do you want to take an evening class at a local college? A correspondence course? Perhaps you feel that an on-line class will give you the best return. No one can make this decision for you. Keep in mind how the class will affect (the rest of your life maybe change this to: your daily routine). How much of your free time are you willing -- or more realistically, able -- to give up for homework?  Realize from the start that a certain amount of sacrifice is required for any class, no matter what the subject, and if you’re not prepared to make the sacrifice, perhaps you should rethink your choices.  

How much should the class cost? Again, the answers can be staggering. Prices for writing courses run from free to hundreds of dollars, and only you can decide how much you are willing to spend. But, please, keep in mind simply because a class is free doesn’t make it worthless, nor is a high price tag necessarily an indicator of quality. Scams exist, and it’s all too easy to fall prey to the unscrupulous, especially where your most private dreams and aspirations are concerned. Scammers rely on a person’s insecurity, rather than their desire or greed, to take advantage of them. Don’t let yourself be a victim. Ask around before you commit any money. Haunt the on-line bulletin boards and newsgroups to get a feel for what is legitimate and what is not. Are the class requirements and curriculum well defined? Are the prices in keeping with similar courses? And, most importantly, is there a guarantee of publication lurking somewhere in the pitch? If there is, walk on by. No professional teacher would ever make the claim that you will be published by the end of the course. Writing is simply too fickle a business for anyone to make that claim. After all, a teacher can only present you with the basic tools. 

The rest is up to you. 

Some useful links:  

SFWA http://www.sfwa.org/ 
Verla Kay's Webpage http://www.verlakay.com/ 
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators http://www.scbwi.org/ 
Speculations http://www.speculations.com/ 
Holly Lisle Forward Motion Community http://hollylisle.com/