Monday, 29 November 2010


Interesting question on Twitter recently from an aspiring writer who was possibly having a wobbly moment about her writing. Sarah Callejo asked:
"Is there ever a time when you know that your writing is worth the investment?"
She then had to put up with me (and others) giving these and similar answers:
"Only you can know. Only you know what it means to you"
"The only necessary investment is time and courage."
But it turned out Sarah was meaning money. (Actually, I kind of guessed that but I was being a mixture of honest and facetious, if that's possible.) Specifically, there's a festival for writers, the York Festival of Writing, in March next year and she was wondering whether it would be worth going to. Sarah lives in Spain so this would be a significant cost for her. So, it's a fair question: how do you know what it's right and necessary to spend in the quest to become published? As she said,
"How do I know if it's worth investing money in my writing? Difficult to know."
And my answer remained: 
"Only you can know. Only you know what it means to you." And, "The only necessary investment is time and courage."
 Sarah said, "Time isn't enough. A writer needs guidance."

My response to that - bearing in mind this was Twitter, and Twitter falls down when it comes to detailed conversations - was, "Time can be enough." I pointed out that in my case, time was all I had. Twenty-one years of it. I had no money, knew of no writers' festivals or consultancies to help. So, all I could do was practise, learn, read, and just work away at it.

But this is not a fair or good enough answer. It's really not. I can't dismiss the palpable anguish of an aspiring writer who is probably at least as desperate as I was to become published and published well, for writing I believed in. Or wanted to believe in. (For, as Sarah later said, "I get insecure days when I wonder if i'm wasting my time and others when I feel it's really worth it." Yay! You're a writer! It goes with the territory. Having insecure days is essential.)

So, I think the question I have to ask myself is,
"If, when I was struggling to become published, there had been something I could have done, which would have cost money but which stood a good chance of helping me improve my writing and thereby speed me towards publication, would I have done it?"
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Because time can indeed be enough, but a) monkeys on type-writers could have all the time in the world and not get published and b) if it's a matter of getting there more quickly with good tuition or guidance, why not do it?

  1. I would not be foolish in my willingness to throw money at the problem. There are too many people trying to take money off would-be writers. So, I'd be careful about what I chose. I'd pick workshops by people with reputations, for example. Luckily, the York Festival of Writing does have workshops with people with good reputations...
  2. I would not spend more than I could afford to spend. At the end of all this there may be no publication and I would want to spend (lose) an amount of money about which I could say, "It was worth a try. It was worth that just to know." So, in a way, we are back at my original answer: "Only you know what it means to you."
  3. I would spend far more time practising what I'd been taught than I'd spent on receiving the teaching.
  4. I would value the people I met and the opportunity for new ideas almost as much as the actual information gleaned.
  5. I would do what felt right for me and not what other people said I should do.
  6. I would not measure the value of something by how much money I'd spent on it. 
  7. I would take the view that sometimes you don't know the value of something unless you try it and that some risks are worth taking. But others are not and I would not spend time regretting a wrong decision where money was concerned.
 All of which pretty much boils down to:
"Only you can know. Only you know what it means to you." And, "The only necessary investment is time and courage."
Just with a bit more detail. And, hey, it was free!

By the way, if you do want to come to the York Festival of Writing, I'm doing some workshops there! I'm also doing my own workshops, starting in March. And my aim for each one is that every participant will come away feeling they got great value for money and learnt something which should help them get published.

Are they worth your investment? Only you can know... But I hope so. And I believe so.


Sarah Callejo said...

Thank you for clarifying this extensively.
This year I've been to a writing conference and a course as well as reading dozens of blogs on writing, and the first two entailed a lot of money (by my standards, even if reasonable prices) but I came away with invaluable personal advice aimed specifically at my writing, so the investment was well worth it.

As a novice writer, I need a lot of guidance. I didn't know the basics, like what show and not tell was, or how to end chapters... I would've learnt these with time, as you say, but these events have saved me a lot of time.

However, as you say, I feel wobbly when I have to make the decision to go to these events, because maybe I'm just throwing away money and I should be thinking about starting crochet lessons.

When I say investment, I'm not saying I want a monetary return for it. I'm saying I want quality and recognition by the end of it and this is when I doubt if my raw material is up to standard.

Thanks again for your helpful and sensible advice. You are a lovely crabbit.

Unknown said...

Each workshop and conference has brought me something different and all equally valuable. I think each has probably moved me along different hurdles a little sooner than I might have jumped them on my own. But the most important thing I have gained is connection with other writers (more advanced and still struggling) and in the long run I think that is probably the most important because the connection keeps me sane!

Julie Cohen said...

That's a great answer, Nicola. One thing to add: keep all your receipts, and investigate how to file a tax return as a self-employed writer. You can claim these expenses off the income from your PAYE or other self-employed job, as long as you can prove that you are writing with the goal of publication and payment. And it can save you a lot of money and hassle in the long run, if you treat your writing as a job and tell the taxman about it ASAP.

The rules are probably different for Sarah in Spain, but I know that in my first few years, before I was published, I actually got a tax refund because of the money I invested in my writing career. No longer (alas), but setting myself up as a self-employed writer sooner rather than later meant it was all much easier when I did start making money out of my writing.

If you're going to spend money, treat it as a business!

catdownunder said...

That is a hugely difficult question of course - and a great answer.
I have sometimes been able to go to what we call "Writers' Week" at the Adelaide Festival of Arts - a bit like the Edinburgh Festival event. That is also a way of learning a lot - although not specifically about your own writing. If I get the chance to go I choose the sessions carefully and try to learn from them. There are often free sessions at similar events. They can be worthwhile and you may only need to pay for your daily transport if you can get holiday leave at the same time!

Liz Harris said...

A really good answer, Nicola, to a question that everyone who, like me, is trying to get published must have asked themselves at some point.

I look upon all of the conferences and workshops that I've attended as invaluable stepping stones along my path towards becoming a published author, in terms of both the things I've learnt and the contacts I've made.

Once you have written your book, using everything that you have learnt, then I think it's time to put your hand into your pocket again to get a critique.

No one can see your writing as clearly and objectively as an independent reader, who knows what to look for.

Such a person can supply the objectivity that you, the writer, can't, and to send your work to agents/publishers without having a critique would, in my opinion, be spoiling the ship for a hap'orth of tar.

Rin said...

I went to the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival this year and it was so, so worth it. Not only did I have loads of fun, I also got some work out of it (interviewing writers for a magazine I do some bits and pieces for) and made contacts who I have no doubt will be very valuable to me in the future (like the retired detective who said I should call him any time I needed to clarify police procedure in my book). I think the fun element was key though, because even if it hadn't been "useful" I would have still had a blast, making it money well spent.

JO said...

this is such a helpful way of looking at it. It's obviously impossible to be prescriptive, as writers' needs change over time - one's year's confidence can be the next year's wobbles.
And I would like to underline your comment about practising - I know it can feel as if churning out exercises can be non-productive, when we really want to be getting on with something that might bring in a more immediate return on our investment. But practising feels so very important. (I think I'm trying to tell myself it's time to get on with some!)

Kristin Pedroja said...

An agent recently told me that she is impressed when writers mention the courses, workshops, and events they have attended. This sort of investment demonstrates a commitment to professionalism and learning.

That said, I always do my research on the event, the person, and the topic before committing any cash. And like Julie, I keep all records for my self-employment tax. There's a great free self-employment seminar by the HM Revenue & Customs that can clarify how you can make these work for you.

Thanks for this post, Nicola.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great question, Sarah, and an equally great answer from Nicola.

I don't get many opportunities to attend writing events and so have to choose very carefully. York last year was great in many ways and I enjoyed myself but also very tiring and a bit scary. Someone remarked that you could 'smell the desperation' in the air! Looking back on it, I am very happy to go again this year but I do think in all such events, listening to inspiring talks, taking part in workshops, meeting published writers, agents and editors and other writers in the same position as oneself cane only go so far in helping one become a published writer. (As Nicola said.)

What develops you as a writer is writing. These events may help steer you in the right direction but they can't teach you to write better. Only one person can do that and that's you.

There are no 'rules', no short-cuts, no quick fixes. You can learn a lot from conferences and workshops but they are only part of the story. You're not 'missing out' if you never attend any.

Anonymous said...

As I read this blog I continually thought to myself, this is me!!
I too attended a couple of conferences and have purchased many "how to" books, but still question myself and my ability.
This must be a common insecurity amongst aspiring writers as Crabbit commented.
Thank you for making me feel like I am not alone!!
Kindest regards

Hart Johnson said...

I feel like seminars and course may be very helpful, but I've never had the money or time (meaning I can't take several days to go somewhere) to invest that way. but it seems to me the very best thing I've found to improve my writing is to hone friendships with other writers--to exchange works and offer each other feedback. They help you, you help them... in the end, I learn as much from critiquing others as i do from any critique I receive.

And I love blogs like this that have really expert feedback, but I also think you can learn from reading people journeys as they go... watching them learn from the school of hard knocks, right along beside you... learning there are MANY paths to success and they won't look the same for any two people. Immersing ourselves in this writer's network has been invaluable... and free.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nicola.

It is possible to become a course junkie, a how-to-book junkie, even an editorial report junkie. I think this:

"I would spend far more time practising what I'd been taught than I'd spent on receiving the teaching."

is crucial. A course or whatever is a jump-start for your confidence or your technical skill or both, a bit of fast-forwarding compared to going it alone. What it's not is a way of getting stuff written: that you can only do on your own.

Tasmanian Devil said...

I looked at your pictures of Carlton Hill, Nicola, posted on 18th April this year. News channels in Australia are showing photos of it covered in a thick layer of snow. Our summer is underway and it's so cold, it feels like it should be snowing too. Anyway, back to the 16th of March, which had the post I was looking for. Conflicting advice. There's a lot of it about isn't there? The decision to 'throw money at the problem' is not taken lightly by the novice author and can end in tears more often than not. Lit festivals are too broad brush and MS appraisals can be confusing. Like school, one-on-one teacher help might be the answer, but then I might be giving conflicting advice too....

Tracy said...

thank you for the suggestions...I happened upon your site and look forward to learning vital information!

Tasmanian Devil said...

Interesting post by Emma Darwin about Nicola's post

Sam Pennington said...

A really interesting discussion and lots of sound advice. For me, it's so reassuring to read other aspiring writers feel as wobbly (as Sarah put it) as I do.
I stumbled in here by chance, but will have to make it a regular port of call!