Let the Writer Beware

by Kathy Stewart

It began with a tweet.

The course promised a 20-week manuscript development program with a three-and-a half-hour face-to-face tutorship session every week of the twenty weeks in my nearest capital city. It also promised the meeting would take place in a quality boardroom or meeting room. The plan was that the group of students who signed up would meet once a week for twenty weeks to discuss what they had written the week before and then leave the session with a clear plan about what they needed to write during the following week. Depending on what type of novel was being written, this required an output of about 5000 words a week for 20 weeks, which would give the writer a finished product of between 80,000 and 100,000 words – perfect for most commercial novels.

Five thousand words a week is a huge commitment, but I felt up to the task. I knew it would be hard but I also knew I could do it – I’d written a number of full-length manuscripts already.

So why then did I sign up for this course? At $1000, it wasn’t cheap, but it did carry with it the lure of professed interest from two major publishers before we even started. I also felt that having a clear plan of where I was going with the novel and a clear plan of what I needed to write each week would help my writing no end.

So, together with four others, I signed up for the course in my nearest capital city.

All went well for the first few weeks, although I was a little disappointed at the slow pace at which we started. I had already done my detailed outline, so I knew where I was heading with the novel before the course started, but not everyone had done the same, so we began by drafting outlines for everyone. I did learn from this although I remained champing at the bit to get on to the ‘real’ stuff.

When the writing began in earnest, we were required to post our 5000 words onto a web site for our peers and our tutor to read before our next meeting. This worked reasonably well for about 2 weeks and then all of a sudden, with no warning, we learned that our tutor would not be arriving for our scheduled meeting.

It was a case of dressed up and ready with nowhere to go.

Fair enough, anyone can have unforeseen problems. A bit of notice about the no-show would have been good, though. No worries, we’ll all catch up the next week and the course will go on.

Except there never was a next week.

The tutor never showed up again, supposedly ‘sick’ with some mysterious illness, but of course how could we judge that, given that we never saw the person in the flesh again and never saw a doctor’s certificate?

Gone were the fancy boardrooms, the meetings face-to-face, the advice, the clear plan for the following week’s writing. All fell into disarray.

Eventually, after a few weeks of uncertainty when most of the people in the course still believed our tutor would return to guide us, it dawned on us that this was not to be. We salvaged what we could by holding sporadic half-hour Skype session with our tutor and by meeting each other to brainstorm ideas on our novels.

But it wasn’t what we’d been promised.

Then came the day when the manuscripts were completed. We were told to send in an outline (synopsis) and the first and maybe sixth chapter from our novels.

Now, I ask you, what publisher or agent asks for the first and sixth chapter? None that I know of. Usually, they require the first three chapters or the first 50 pages – and they certainly don’t want first drafts, which most of these manuscripts were. It was setting us up to fail.

Nevertheless, I went along with it, my reasoning being that if I didn’t keep my end of the bargain I could hardly gripe about the tutor’s lack of performance.

The tutor would submit the manuscripts on our behalf and we were given strict instructions that we were not to contact the publishers to ask about the progress of our manuscripts through the labyrinthine maze of the publishers’ process. Ha, ha, I can hear you saying. Yes, you’re right.

Guess what? After weeks of waiting, we were eventually told that all the manuscripts had been rejected. No surprise there. They had little chance of success anyway, regardless of any promises, kept or broken.

But here’s the rub: what proof is there that these manuscripts were ever submitted? I think it likely that they were, but we have no proof of that. We also have no address or phone number of the tutor, only a web site and an email address.

What’s the purpose of my story, you ask? Just this: if you are a writing tutor and you ask money for your course, make sure you deliver on your promises, otherwise you could come in for criticism, and if you’re a writer thinking of embarking on a course, make sure you check out who is giving it before embarking on an expensive and ultimately fruitless exercise, otherwise you too maybe be writing an article like this one.

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