Storyville: What's the Best Money You've Spent on Your Writing Career?
I often wonder where our dollars should go, as authors. Does spending money on advertising even work? What about classes or an MFA? Should we go to conventions, do book tours, buy business cards? I took a moment to reach out to some writers I know to ask them this very question: “What is the best money you’ve ever spent on your writing career?” Here are their answers.
Mercedes M. Yardley, author of "Little Dead Red"
“The best writing career money I ever spent was on the Storied Imaginarium Monstrous Women writing course presented by Carina Bissett. We studied together, wrote stories based on that week's module, and then critiqued each other's work. I immediately sold two pieces that I had written in the workshop, and made dear friends that I still associate with. I'm planning to sign up for another one of Carina's classes next time they open. It was astronomically helpful and inspiring.”
Fred Venturini, author of "To Dust You Shall Return"
“The boring answer: Scrivener. I was a Microsoft Word writer before (even worse, in sixth grade I had a typewriter, and while it may be a cute story I hated, hated, hated it and threw it away the first chance I could), and always felt disorganized and out of my element. Scrivener does everything I want a writing tool to do, and keeps me incredibly organized. I can jump from chapter to chapter with ease and the sidebar allows me to see an entire novel at a glance. In my latest book, juggling two POVs for what is my lengthiest work to date, across multiple drafts, would have destroyed my sanity if I was doing it any other way.
The more interesting answer: every single dime I've ever spent on a book, whether I loved it or hated it. You want to be a writer? The formula is actually quite simple. You read a lot and you write a lot. I mean, I can sum up King's On Writing in one sentence: read everything you can get your hands on and write 2,000 words a day. Simple, right? So you're not only reinforcing your book nerd credentials on social media, you're not just reading for fun, you're not just learning and being an interesting person at a cocktail party—you're investing in your education as a writer, fifteen bucks at a time. Beats MFA tuition, where—you guessed it—they force you to read great things and write a lot.”
A.C. Wise, author of "Wendy, Darling"
"I want to preface this by saying that it isn't a requirement to spend money on your writing career. If you can afford to and you choose to, that's wonderful and I say go for it! But you don't need to attend a fancy workshop, particular convention, or pour money into an advertising campaign to break into the business. Can it help? Certainly! Is it guaranteed to help? Not necessarily; it's very much a YMMV situation.
All that said, the best money I ever spent on my writing career was as much a matter of luck and a happy confluence of events as anything else. I attended the Montreal World Science Fiction Convention in 2009, which was my first real professional convention. At the con, I participated in a writer's workshop/critique session, which was also my first professional workshop experience. That one-off workshop led to a group of participants forming an online critique group that lasted for several years. The organizer of the workshop also happened to be able to connect me with an in-person group local to my area, which ultimately led to meeting people I still swap critiques with to this day and consider among my closest friends. Even though that first con itself didn't do that much for me, attending that associated workshop had a domino effect that led me to becoming more engaged with the SFF literary community and helped me improve my craft through the people I met."
Erin MacNair, award winning writer and metalsmith
“The best money I ever spent was on a writing retreat—Writers Adventure Camp, with Zsuzsi Garnder. It was a workshop, with extra classes available. But what was invaluable to me was the immersion of writing and writers. We bonded, we exchanged ideas, we ate and drank together, we were a community that quickly became like a quirky family. For four days all I did was be with my people. And it let me know I was a writer. I was with the right people. It was worth the money I spent, to get away, leave my role as mother behind and be that person, all in, and to write my ass off and learn at Mach Ten. I was physically tired when it was done, because it was like filling a vessel to bursting, I was so full of ideas after. The community I built there I have to this day. They became my writing group, my mentors, my network. I went back every year it was held—four years total—and it was (and still is) the best money I ever spent on writing.”
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Stephen Graham Jones, author of "My Heart is a Chainsaw"
“Best money I ever spent on book stuff would be gifts, I think. Just saying thank you in hopefully meaningful ways to people who have helped this or that book along. It's an easy thing to forget, but it means a lot not to. I hope to be better at this every year.”
S.L. Coney, author of ""Abandoned Places"" ("Best American Mystery Stories", 2017)
“The best money I ever spent on my writing career were on the things that led me to a community of like-minded writers. The first, was a move to a larger city that had a literary scene and a thriving arts community. This is insensible for most people, but it allowed me to join a writers’ group where I met my mentor and developed friendships with other writers that I still treasure ten years later. The second thing was an online writing class that took place via Skype. As with the writers’ group, the feedback on my writing was invaluable, as was the way it honed my analytical skills, but again, it was the people I met—my second mentor and my classmates—that turned out to be one of the best benefits. These are people I still see every week or so by video chat. We talk about what we’re reading, what we’re writing, and watching. We challenge each other, support each other, and celebrate each other’s successes. Learning the craft is a must, but it’s those relationships that will carry you through the rough times, that will challenge you to grow as a writer, and help keep you tapped into that writing life.”
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Karen Runge, author of "Seven Sins"
“Back in 2013, I was living in Beijing fiddling with a bunch of half-finished short stories and vaguely competent poetry, and trying to duck the question: Am I serious about this writing thing or not? I’d been dreaming since first consciousness of becoming an author, but had yet to make the mental shift from wannabe to gonna-be. I’d recently read a short story by this guy called Jack Ketchum, and was so blown away I started digging around for more information on him. Stephen King called him the scariest man in America—and I could see why. The tones of beauty and brutal realism I found in what he wrote captured exactly what I realized I’d always thought of as ‘my’ brand of horror. It was brilliant, it was powerful, and it didn’t flinch away. In one of those many ‘Stalking Jack’ Google searches, I came across LitReactor. The site was getting set to run a limited-space workshop on writing horror, titled Talking Scars… and this workshop would be led by none other than the man Jack himself. My heart seized and sputtered a few times when I saw there were still a few seats available. It seized and stuttered a few times more when I saw how much the workshop cost. While the dollar amount was by no means outrageous—especially given what was on offer—this was still the kind of money it would hurt to have to part with. It didn’t matter, though—I knew I had to do it. I signed on while I still could, completely overwhelmed by the fact that I was going to interact with Jack Ketchum. That this man, master of horror who had me so completely enraptured, was going to read and critique my work.
Naturally, paying that money and joining that class isn’t just some of the best money I’ve spent on my writing career—it’s some of the best money I’ve spent, period. Dallas Mayr (pen-name Jack Ketchum) was extremely encouraging of my work. One of the stories he critiqued for me went on to be published by Shock Totem—making it my first, full, professional-pay sale. In that group, I also met Simon Dewar and Sarah Read, amazing horror creators and friends I am so delighted to have stood alongside. When my first short story collection, Seven Sins, was published, Dallas wrote me one of the most moving and beautiful emails I have ever received from anybody, ever, congratulating me on the book and telling me how proud he was of me. I tear up just thinking about it, now.
Dallas has since left us, and his loss is still felt—as is the truly profound impact he and his work has had on his fans and readers. I’d pay any kind of money to talk scars with that man again. Rest well, amazing friend.”
(NOTE FROM RICHARD: I also took a class with Jack Ketchum, at The Cult, and it got me to a few stories that worked out, including “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. So I just wanted to agree with what Karen had to say here. Jack also blurbed The New Black, the first anthology I edited, which was an honor. Miss you, Dallas.)
Heather E. Ash, short story author and screenwriter (Stargate SG-1)
“The best money I ever spent on my writing career was my membership fee to join the Mystery Writers of America. After I moved from Los Angeles back to the Midwest, and from screenwriting to prose writing, I struggled to find my fellow writers. I’d never read many mysteries or heard of many of the professionals who still attended the meetings alongside the working-to-get-published, but little did I know I’d walked into one of the most selfless and supportive groups of writers I could have found. And they don’t look at you funny when you talk about murder.”
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Johann Thorsson, author of "Whitesands"
“The best money I ever spent on my writing career is without a doubt the $20 or so it cost me to buy a copy of Stein on Writing. It taught me tricks to writing gripping dialogue, how to intersperse chapters, and how to write for tension in every scene. There are many books on writing, and some of them are pretty good. But none of them come close to the sheer amount of craft in Stein on Writing. Without it, Whitesands would not exist as it does today. And repeating readings of Stein on Writing lead me to appreciate it even more.”
Philip Fracassi, author of "Beneath a Pale Sky"
"One of the best ways I've spent money on my writing career, and I’ve done this twice now, was when I had the opportunity to handpick an artist for my book cover. I’m more than happy to pay any additional money (that may be above and beyond a publisher’s set budget) to bring that artist in. Don’t listen to the old axiom, because readers absolutely judge a book by its cover, and in this crowded market of new releases your book needs to stand out—to pop—in order to catch the eye of a reader. Beautiful, original, professional-looking covers will give you a huge head start with a new release.”
Dino Parenti, author of "Dead Reckoning"
“Though I’ve taken quite a few short-story writing classes—some free, some not—my best use of money on a writing class was when I spent around $75 on a three-day playwriting seminar after college. It opened my eye to brevity in a way the short-story classes never quite did. The instructor and the examples of plays from Shakespeare to Mamet showed me how a couple of lines of dialogue, expertly crafted, can take the place of an entire page of prose to both describe and more importantly—imply—motive, emotion, and subtext. Because of this, if I have a dialogue scene that’s more than a few exchanged lines in a short-story or a novel, I will first write the scene only as dialogue without tags or prose, and with the bare minimum of physical “stage direction.” I figure if I nail the point of the scene in just dialogue, the prose becomes not only easy, but obvious and minimal.”
Lucy A. Snyder, author of "Halloween Season"
“The best money I ever spent was attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop. Our instructors were Tim Powers, Samuel L. Delaney, Nancy Kress, Pat Murphy, Karen Joy Fowler, and Joe and Gay Haldeman. The workshop was an intense six weeks. It connected me to writers who I still share work with today, and it set me on the path to becoming a well-published short fiction author.”
Rebecca Jones-Howe, author of "Vile Men"
“The first real investment I made for my writing career ended up being the best. I joined Chuck Palahniuk's "Writer's Club," which was the basis for what eventually became LitReactor's Writer's Workshop. At the time, I loved writing but never had people in my life who knew how to critique my work. Meeting other writers did so much for me personally, both with my skills and for networking. Some people I met on Write Club over 15 years ago are still friends now, and we share in our writer trials and tribulations. I've made valuable connections, gained skills, and also have people to lean on when times get tough. Because let's face it, like 90% of writing is tough stuff, and it's nice to have people who actually know how to empathize when you get rejected, instead of just telling you about how Stephen King became successful, like all your non-writer friends do.”
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“I thought I’d add in my two cents here as well. I think the best dollars I’ve ever spent went to buying extra copies of my books. Over the years, I’ve bought extra copies of my collections, anthologies, and novels, and then sold them to fans (or given them away in contests and other events) signing them, stamping them, adding in bookmarks, and other fun stuff.
Typically you can get your books for 50% off of the list/sale price, so you’ll end up making a little money. But that’s not why I do it. It allows me to connect with my readers, and as a collector of books myself, I have whole shelves committed to signed copies of books that I’ve bought from bookstores, or directly from the author. When Medallion went bankrupt, I was able to secure 15 cases of Burnt Tongues, and while I had to spend $200 to get them shipped up here from Tennessee, that meant that I had 200+ copies, which I’ve since signed, sold, and donated to various charity causes. When I left Dark House Press, I was able to get cases of the books I published, mostly focusing on The New Black and Exigencies (since I teach out of them, sending out signed copies to every student in my Contemporary Dark Fiction class). Also, most publishers will send you a set amount of copies for free. Author copies, they’re called. I’ve gotten anywhere from 12-48 copies, depending on the press. So while I definitely think that advertising can work, and conventions are totally worth it, and there are some great classes out there, this is something that I think has helped me to connect with my readers.”
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