There is value in learning about the craft of writing, but I believe you should choose your educators wisely.
From one-day workshops to an MA, I’ve completed or participated in various writing events, courses and schemes; some I paid for, some were free, some free-for-all and some with entry based upon merit. I’ve had many great experiences and a few horrible ones. I’ve been inspired and I’ve been ripped-off, variously immersed, bored, encouraged and, (unintentionally I bloody hope) discouraged along the way.
Thus weathered, below are some questions to ask yourself, which might help you get the best value from opportunities to learn:
How much time will be needed? Really?
The better schemes I have seen tend to lay out a detailed schedule at the outset so that you can be crystal clear about the time investment required, whether it is, for example, one day of eight hours, or one hour a week for three years. Or whatever.
In the past I’ve not given reasonable consideration to the additional time factors; how much prep would be expected before or after, and basic stuff like how long will it take to get to the venue and back. If it is a regular thing and the venue is a long way away, a morning’s commitment can suddenly transmogrify into a whole day. What will have to give? Sanity? Best to find out in advance and not when you are on the M6 having a nervous breakdown. Every. Week. For. Three. Years.
How much will it cost? Really?
Obviously if the course or scheme has a fee then you’ll be able to see from the receipt. Other schemes are free and/or entry is based on merit. But free or not, there are still associated costs; work not done during that time, petrol, travel, accommodation, parking, childcare, learning materials and evening events and so forth. I am not suggesting you get a spreadsheet out every time but it is a relevant factor when considering value.
And be honest with yourself. If it is going to financially stretch you, you need to be absolutely sure that it is going to creatively stretch you, at the very least an equivalent amount (and how you figure that out is a creative challenge in itself).
Will the scheme/event unrelentingly be implying that they are doing you a massive favour?
In my opinion, the best schemes have a friendly, respectful, and collaborative feel to them. And that’s probably all I should say about that.
This could be more my failing to be honest; I struggle to maintain a grateful expression for more than about 25 minutes.
Is this a disguised opportunity for someone to flog their own book?
I’ve attended quite a few writer events which are just PR for books or collections and whilst I don’t begrudge anyone flogging a few tomes it is irritating when you were expecting a little more meat in the transaction. If they charged you on the door for the privilege then so much more the irritation.
There is a corollary here for panels made up of authors who know each other and who share in-jokes for so long that the only hurried question from the floor, squeezed in the last minute is from the batty superfan who’s travelled from Orkney to ask the keynote the crucial query, “WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?”
What will be required of you in the session – if anything?
You can go in expecting to be mentored and find it is more an opportunity to network. Or, perhaps you are expecting lots of social stuff and it’s exercises and being talked at. All of these things have worth, but when expectations aren’t met an opportunity can feel like poor value. Let’s break down the different types of session:
Networking – A great many schemes and groups seem solely concerned with placing people together to network – like some sort of literary Teddy Bear’s Picnic and the onus is on the participants to get on with it, to have a chat and a pot of teddy tea together.
For fundamentally antisocial types like myself this is frequently a bit excruciating and I would want to know in advance at the very least, so I can practice my winning smile and bone up on teddy small talk.
Mentoring – Whereby very important and accomplished teddies will help you become the teddy you always wanted to be. I personally really like schemes with mentoring. We all want help and this is damn straight help given. Mentoring rocks. With a caveat that the person mentoring should at least have a few more writerly experiences to draw upon than the participants. Else it’s pretty much just networking in a smaller room. With no buffet.
Doing – By this I mean the type of event or course where you undertake exercises, group work, writing challenges and basically putting your brain to work and being very active in the session. Brilliant if you want to hone your skills. Awful if you were hoping for something less formal and more sociable, and if you hadn’t brought a pen.
Lecturing – Where you are clear about the offering in advance this can be brilliant – hearing a favourite author opine on just about anything can be fascinating. An agent or publisher giving targeted advice about what’s hot and what isn’t would always have my pen scribbling away. However if you were expecting to be able to ask questions, or to interact more with other particpants or those leading the event, it can be disappointing if it is only one-way. Again, it’s about expectations.
Study – the academic pursuit of a considerable amount of new knowledge, for example a longer course and things like the MA programme. These can be utter bliss when you are immersed in a subject which fascinates you or that you need to get good at in order to progress.
It is worth having a think, however, about whether this really is information which will be of practical use- for example, learning about children’s publishing over a six 6 month period may be a great investment if you have several children’s books in draft form, but if your portfolio is all X Rated screenplays then it might be fun, but not be the best use of your time to progress your writing career.
Value or vanity?
Sometimes if entry to the scheme is merit-based and exclusive with only a few places, the opportunity can seem particularly mouthwatering – but stop and consider -is the merit really relevant to what you are working on? Is the exclusivity interesting? Can you justify the time and money it will cost? Will anyone else give a toss?
Be honest because you’ll have to see it through and it might be a high price for one line on your CV. It might be that it would be the perfect course – but just for someone else. No big deal – it just might mean your time is better served getting on with the business of writing.
Are you an opportunist or a masochist?
A connected – and cautionary tale to finish: The BBC recently offered a training opportunity for a Birmingham Writer in Residence. The lucky golden ticket winner would/will get to have input into scripts for various TV and Radio shows including Dr Who and The Archers. The Archers no less! Sounded tantalising. Well, mostly I was tempted because, let’s be honest once again, it sounded rather grand and impressive. I was all set to apply – and a few years back I would have in a flash – until I recalled one pertinent fact. One tiny fact which undermined the point of any application from me.
I really really really…. hate The Archers. And the only thing that bores me more than The Archers is Dr Who. So there you go. Or there I didn’t go.