TL:DR – anything that looks too good to be true probably is.
Dave Freer’s post reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a week or so.
Why do we want to be authors? Well, one reason many people have – if they’re prepared to admit to it or not – is the fame of being recognised as something wonderful. JK Rowling and Tom Clancy, for example, are household names. We want to be famous, to be admired for our talents. And, in many ways, the difference between a successful author and a failure is the mental discipline to squash that lust for fame under the hard work it takes to become successful.
Unfortunately, this makes us vulnerable to scammers.
Scams don’t work, as a general rule, on suspicious people. The person who learns to check every line in a contract and query everything he doesn’t understand is harder to fool than the person who allows his mindless optimism to blind him. No scammer ever became rich by telling his marks the truth. No, he told them what they wanted to hear and allowed their greed (for money, for fame, for everything they want) to do the rest.
Writers can and do get scammed regularly. New writers spend far too long searching for shortcuts, rather than working hard. That makes them vulnerable. Vanity publishers are almost always scams, designed to part the writer from his money rather than turn him into a household name. So too are dodgy agents, who will happily proclaim the writer the next Rowling and then suggest that the gateway to success is buying a boatload of editing and cover design services that will ‘unaccountably’ never materialise. Much of the stigma that still clings to self-publishing comes from vanity presses telling authors they’re great …
… Which leads to disaster when the kindest response an author gets is “who are you again?”
The reason I mention all this is that, a week or so ago, I saw an advertisement on Facebook for a writer’s university (or something along those lines). The basic idea was that would-be writers would send the organiser money, in exchange for courses that would teach them how to be writers. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested that the writer would end up spending around £480 a year … assuming, of course, they didn’t realise they were being conned.
Ok, you might say. How do I know it was a scam? Surely, all those lovely testimonials can’t be lying … right?
At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, everything I know about writing can be divided into three categories: stuff I learnt from other writers, stuff I learnt by doing and the technical skills needed to format, upload and print copies of my books. I don’t think there’s anything that falls outside these sets.
The first and third categories are amply covered on the internet. You could learn most of what I could teach you, simply by reading my blog posts. If I decided to delete them, there are plenty other blogs on the net that discuss writing skills and techniques. Amazon Kindle is easy to use, as are most of the other self-publishing sites. And there is no shortage of artists, formatters and suchlike online that the aspiring writer can hire. I have a list on my site if anyone’s interested.
That leaves the second category.
The only way to learn, the only way to find your voice, is to put your head down and actually write. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – the great secret is that there are no shortcuts to success. You have to write, you have to learn from your mistakes, you have to keep going and going until you can finally put together a workable manuscript. And then you have to keep going after that.
A decent editor, as I have mentioned before, can and will help you. I don’t think that being one of a crowd of aspiring writers, paying through the nose for an online educational program of questionable value, will give you the kind of experience you need. I could sit down with a single writer and offer advice, if they were prepared to take it (one of the problem with schooling today is that students think that paying huge fees entitles them to good grades), but I couldn’t do it on a large scale. I don’t see how any serious author could balance the need to write his own stuff with the need to mentor five or six students, all of whom are paying for a secret that isn’t really a secret. (It’s just worthless without bloody-minded determination.)
There’s a very good chance, in short, that anyone running these courses is running a scam. If they don’t have a long list of credits to their name, they’re definitely running a scam. The Creative Writing courses that Dave dismisses are actually more honest (but just as worthless.)
Even if they’re not intentionally scamming their customers, there are no guarantees of success. A person versed in writing MIL-SF may not be such a dab hand at writing romance fiction. (I’ve taken incoming fire over romantic elements in my novels.) You could wind up throwing away hundreds of pounds for nothing because the teachers don’t know much, if anything, about your chosen field. In short, writing lessons are about as useful as computer programs intended to help you keep everything straight.
I’d love to claim that there is a great secret – and that I would share it with you, if you paid me. But the truth is that there is no secret. The key to success is hard work …
… Not giving money to scammers trying to take advantage of you.