Joe Konrath has an interesting post (as usual) today about the cost of being a writer (visit http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2009/01/writer-as-spendthrift.html to read the full text). I completely agree that there are a lot of people out there who are willing to charge writers money in order to teach them what they already know. And amazingly, there are a lot of writers who will pay it. They run from one conference to the next writing course, dropping enormous amounts of cash while talking about what they're going to do someday when they "become writers".
Here are my own caveats to Joe's very excellent advice:
1. Taking writing courses from people who've never or only rarely been published. There are writing courses, and then there are writing courses. Some people need help with the basics. These are the people who've managed to drift through 12 years of schooling without realizing that verbs must be paired with nouns. They need to be taught by a licensed professional, and it doesn't matter if the pro has been published or not.
Why do they want to be writers, you ask. Because telling people you are a writer is cool. If you're a man, you get to wear turtleneck sweaters. If you're a woman, you get to have headshots taken that make you look gorgeous without feeling self-indulgent. OK, you and I know that being a writer is not cool, it is hard work because you have to actually think, and turtlenecks are hot and itchy and headshots are a big pain in the butt. But let these people have their fantasies. Maybe they'll take a few classes and decide it isn't worth having to tell the difference between an adverb and an adjective. Or maybe they'll learn and want to keep writing. You aren't the boss of them, so smile and be encouraging when your 80-year old illiterate uncle tells you he's going to write a memoir of when he was at Iwo Jima, except you know he had a desk job in Roanoke the entire war. At the very least, he will be keeping the local writing instructor employed.
2. Don't buy what you can get for free. There are so many wonderful blogs on the Internet now about writing and editing and being published, it's a wonder that anyone should pay for a class or a seminar or a conference. Yet, there are some times when you should. One is if you are reading all of these wonderful blogs and are still flailing about, because you can't organize your thoughts around the information you're being given. The other is when there is a payoff you can't get from the Internet. I have gone to several writer's conferences in the past 3 years, due to both of those reasons.
In September, 2006, I attended my first Southern California Writer's Conference in Palm Springs. At the time, I was a newspaper and magazine columnist who wanted to write a novel, although I didn't know what to write it about. I sat in workshops and listened and took notes and decided to take one of my short stories and turn it into a novel. I didn't plan to go to the San Diego SCWC in February, but I had a big chunk of my horrific novel written and I couldn't figure out why it was so horrific, so I went. In San Diego, I heard the professional writers/publishers/editors tell me why it wasn't good, but I still didn't "get" it. It took me another conference to figure it all out. That's when I wrote a good book, went to another conference, met Karen Syed and sold FREEZER BURN.
Did I spend a bit of money? Yes, BUT it was concentrated in one direction and I got results from my investment. Do I think everyone at SCWC gets a good return on their dollar? No, because I've seen a lot of people at these conferences who don't go to the workshops or listen to the experts. They use the conferences as a writer's group, sitting in read & critiques and submitting their first 20 pages to every editor and publisher on the panel. If you're one of those people, save your money. Join a writer's group and learn to send out queries.
Nowadays, I do visit a lot of bloggers and take a lot of their advice to heart. For example, LJ Sellers was waxing poetic about the need for a character database. I didn't build one for FREEZER BURN, but now I'm starting the next book about Peri and her friends (tentatively titled HIT OR MISSUS) and I spent most of an evening looking at the previous book for characters I wanted to re-use but couldn't remember their last name, hair color, etc. LJ was right - the database makes everything SO much easier.
Will I continue to attend the conferences? Depends upon who is going to be there and what I need from the conference.
Joe is absolutely right to warn writers against poring money into the process unless they absolutely need to. Sometimes you do need to spend a little money, but you need to look at what you're ultimately getting for your dollar. Is it moving your writing career along, or is it teaching you more of what you already know?
Stop talking about "becoming a writer". Write and "be a writer".