"Beginning writers must appreciate the prerequisites if they hope to become writers. You pay your dues — which takes years." — Alex Haley
When you're starting out, you can often feel like you're working in a vacuum. Are you doing it right? How do you do this, or convince the reader of that? If you're in a critique group, you have to wait until you've completed a draft of your story before you submit it for feedback, and writers' groups aren't really the place for in-depth learning. If you feel you need more guidance while you're learning how to write fiction, consider taking a course, attending a workshop, or working with a tutor or writing coach.
Finding a course that's right for you
Don't know of any fiction writing courses in your area? The Internet has shrunk the world; type "creative writing courses" into an Internet search engine, and you'll be amazed at how many choices you suddenly have. Everyone from colleges to organizations to qualified (and not-so-qualified) individuals are offering some form of distance education — courses delivered via snail mail, email, or through a web site. Colleges often offer continuing education courses in creative writing; to find out if you're lucky enough to live near one that does, check the web site or catalogue of your local college.
The hard part isn't finding a course, but determining whether a course is suitable for you.
How can you determine if a course is worthwhile? For many, cost is a factor. Prices range from $25 for an automated email course with no feedback offered by a small writers' resource site, all the way up to about $2,300 for a 30-week one-on-one certificate program offered by The Humber School for Writers that requires hopeful students to apply for admission. Look at what you get for the cost — don't just go for the lowest price, or you may end up feeling like you've been short-changed.
Look at who's teaching the course. What are their credentials? Look at samples of their writing — this can range from their published books to the writing on the web site itself, if a course is offered by an individual. Do you like their writing? Or is it awkward and riddled with errors? There are people out there offering courses who cannot themselves write well. There's no point in taking a course from them.
Also look at what type of writing the instructor does — journalism, business or technical writing? How much do you think they'll know about fiction? If they write literary fiction, consider how they would view a sample of your writing if you write genre or niche fiction (romance, science fiction, children's, etc.). It's likely that they won't know the nuances of your particular genre, and they might even consider non-literary work inferior. A biased instructor will not benefit you.
Try to find people who have taken the course, and talk to them. Did they enjoy it? Did they feel they learned from it? Was the instructor a good teacher? If there's an email address for the instructor, contact the instructor and see how receptive they are to your questions; note the tone of their reply. If you get a negative feeling from that, you may feel inhibited when taking the course itself.
Learn as much as you can about the course before you sign up for it. If there's a syllabus — course outline — study it and determine if the lesson subjects are ones you feel you need to learn more about. Look at any lesson samples that may be available. Do you learn anything you didn't know while reading those? Is the lesson presented clearly and logically? Is it presented in the way that best allows you to assimilate the information? Not all people learn in the same way. If you learn best by doing, look for a course with lots of assignments; if you prefer not to hand in assignments, look for a course that doesn't require this. If you like verbal lectures, a correspondence course is obviously not your best choice.
Also take note of things like prerequisites, how the course is delivered (within fixed dates, within a set time period, or can you take as long as you want to complete it?) and refund policies — one writers' resource site does not offer any refunds at all. If you don't like the course, too bad.
Where can you begin your search for a course without being overwhelmed by an Internet search? Writing World's Writing Classes page contains links to many courses and programs.
Workshops: intensive experiences
Some writers thrive under pressure, or find more inspiration when interacting with other writers or by immersing themselves in an exclusively-writing environment. If you're one of those types, and you're able to find the required time, you might benefit from participation in a writers' workshop or writing retreat.
Many of the guidelines for finding a suitable course apply when seeking a writers' workshop. If you write genre fiction, look for a workshop that focuses on your genre. Look for experienced instructors and guest lecturers. Learn all you can about the workshop — does the fee include room and board, or will you have to pay extra for those? Are you qualified to participate in a particular workshop? Many are aimed at experienced writers, or require that writers apply for admission. Length is a factor — can you take two or six weeks off from your regular life to participate in a retreat, or should you look for a weekend workshop? Look at the structure of the workshop itself — does it seem more like a holiday, stressing social interaction with other writers and solitude and quiet while you work on your own projects? Is it an intensive pressure-cooker that requires participants to churn out numerous assignments?
Will you be required to sit and listen as the instructor and participants critique your work? Will you be able to handle it? One writer never wrote again after participating in the Odyssey fantasy workshop (http://www.sff.net/odyssey/), because she wasn't ready for the well-meant criticism her work received. Clarion, the science fiction and fantasy workshop (http://clarion.ucsd.edu/), is known as "boot camp for writers"; it's a grueling six weeks, but many of its graduates have gone on to successful writing careers. If you are more in need of encouragement, you might be better in the summer retreat.
Working one on one with a tutor
If you feel you really need personalized attention in order to blossom as a fiction writer, a tutor or writing coach may be ideal for you. I describe the tutoring I offer as "a one-on-one writing workshop, with your writing as the only assignment," which about sums up this type of ultra-individualized learning. Tutors are a bit harder to find than courses and workshops; try looking in the classifieds section at writers' resource sites, or type "writing coach" into an Internet search engine and work through the results. Some freelance editors also offer tutoring, so consider contacting them.
As always, consider credentials, cost, and working arrangements — expect to pay for a professional's time and undivided attention, but also expect a worthwhile return for your money. All editors will be able to help you with the overall mechanics, but some might not know about the submission process for marketing your work; a writing coach with a background in writing other than fiction won't be able to help you with elements fundamental to fiction writing; if you feel you need weekly assistance, make sure a potential tutor will be able to handle that workload; and so on.
Whatever type of guided learning you choose, remember that your goal is to be a writer, not a lifelong student. What you learn will only be effective if you apply it to your writing.