Challenge,  On Writing

How To Keep Learning When the Money is Tight…

For Most Writers, It Is Always Tight…

But the question is real and wow do I remember a ton of years where I had an intense desire to learn and no money. How do you keep learning?

Now, some background on me. I went to three years of law school. I paid my way through college by playing on blackjack teams. I also tended bar and drove school bus and owned a bookstore. Yup, did all of that while going to law school.

I got done with law school and my own desire was to be a writer, not a lawyer. But I had spent all the money and three years of intense work and focus to go through three years of law school and end up only wanting to be a writer, so one day I decided that I would give writing the same focus, the same money, the same intense desire as I gave law school.

But I was no longer playing blackjack, and was newly married. So money was tight, but I managed the same focus and intensity.

Here is how I did it…

  •  I bought every how-to-write-fiction book I could find. Sometimes got only one or two details out of the book, but still worth the cost.
  • I typed in the opening pages of every major writer that I read.
  • I wrote a lot, picking up speed as I went along. (My first two written novels were written on a typewriter in 30 days each, about 70,000 words each.)
  • I went to every convention to talk with professional writers and editors that I could get to. Sometimes shared rooms with up to seven other writers, often had no money for food, so I grazed the food tables at the convention suites and parties. Many days all I ate was peanuts.
  • I sold short stories to anywhere that paid a decent rate. Sometimes that few hundred bucks was enough to get me to a convention.
  • I hung around with other writers of my level who were as driven as I was.
  • I shared information with other writers through an APPA format. All of us in that information sharing group went on to be bestsellers.
  • I lived as cheaply as I could. No car payment, $200 apartment, spent little on food, every extra buck was used to mail a manuscript to an editor or get to a convention.
  • I got rid of every friend or family member that didn’t support what I was doing. Sometimes that was the hardest of it all. I was married and divorced twice mostly because they just got in the way of me being me and the writing.

I other words, I wanted it. I did this over years and years and years.

Money or no money, you can still learn to be a fiction writer and sell on an international level if you want it bad enough. Money helps in some places. Just like money was required for me to go to law school. Learning an international art form takes respect and drive and time.

As I often say, the reason I am where I am at is because I have worked harder than anyone else. And I still do.

Why? Because I will never take what I have earned and learned for granted.

Below is a picture of me in early 1988, with an envelope with a large check in it (half advance on my first novel that was like $3,000 for the half, but was such huge money for me at the time (in my $200 apartment) that Kris and I celebrated in a hotel in New York while seeing our agents and editors for the first time. A trip we could not afford without that check.)



  • Philip

    My father, God rest his soul, used to say, “Some people don’t know how to be broke, we do.” What he meant was exactly what you’re talking about: working hard AND sacrificing to achieve what you truly want out of life.

  • Balázs

    Cool post Dean, thank you. Sometimes I need to remember I must want to be a writer. I already do my Best but sometimes the tight budget scares me. I am glad you made it. It’s a good Example and I like your stories, too.

  • Connor Whiteley

    Thanks for sharing this Dean and thanks for the special lifetime sub sale.

    And I just wanted to mention to everyone that typing in the words of how other writers does work. I tend to find that the workshops give me the awareness and basic knowledge, but it’s the studying of other authors that really improves my writing.

    Like just last night, I was studying some pacing in Dean’s Ring Game and came across something that shouldn’t have worked in terms of paragraph level pacing. But it worked because the pacing at the sentence-level. This is why you need study authors work so you can learn things in more detail.

    Also, Dean know of resources for learning about writing humour? Can’t take your scifi humour class because i go back to uni that week. So know any books (nonfiction or fiction) or courses to help me move up a floor or two please?

    • Kat

      Hi Connor,

      Dean may have some better suggestions for Comedy writing craft books, but I’ve found The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus and How to Write Funny by Scott Dikkers (he has a few books on this topic) pretty useful, if that helps at all.


  • Phillip Quinn Morris

    Great story of perseverance and paying your dues. Thanks for taking the time to write it and for posting it.

  • Kayla

    I feel like I’ve been called out by a teacher, but it’s okay. I have learned. I am doing some of these things if not all. I think the only one I haven’t done is copied and examined other authors’ opening pages so I will try it. Currently doing Camp NaNoWriMo to work on writing fast.

    • dwsmith

      Don’t worry about writing fast. Just write clean, not sloppy. Saves a ton of time in the long run.

      • Kayla

        I have been working on that with this draft. It is very conflicting with NaNoWriMo’s views, but I can’t finish a draft the way that they say to. I’ve tried and tried several times. The only time I remembered doing it, I hated going back to edit them because it took so long. So I don’t know what to do with my inner editor and it and I are confused.
        I mean, so far I am writing clean enough I think, but not cycling as much as I did before this week.

        • dwsmith

          Old Proverb of the Turtle and the Hare… Speed in per hour rate has nothing to do with how much you get done. Clean draft, not sloppy might be slightly slower, but then you have a ton more time after it is over to write something new. So figure our clean copy speed, words per hour, then figure out how many words you need and get the number of hours it will take. Then simply schedule the hours.

          And have fun with the writing. That really is the secret.


          • Kayla

            Thank you, sir. You’re very kind. I wrote over 2000 words today but tomorrow I think I will throttle back and just have fun. I will come back here and look at yours and Mr. Harvey Stanborough’s blogs.

  • Kayla

    Correction, Mr. Wesley. Now that I have looked back at that list for a third time, I am missing more than just the one I said in my last post. Oh well. Now I have a game plan.

  • Sheila

    You don’t have to spend much at all to learn to write. Libraries are free (I’m speaking from a US standpoint, other countries may not have the same set up), and most will have books on writing. Many libraries are part of a lending system, and can get more books. Get friendly with your local librarians. Not to mention all the books you can read and see how other writers put those skills you’re learning to use.

    Most everyone has access to the internet, where there are boundless sources to learn about writing, and some of it is free. Many libraries can provide access, or something like an internet cafe. WiFi is available in lots of other places, too.

    Through the internet, there’s access to writer’s groups, critique groups, beta readers, publishing platforms and so much more. Find what you need, and find a way to get it free, or little cost.

    I feel we should all be keeping expenses in hand these days, when we’re still suffering aftereffects of Covid shutdowns. It’s a good idea even when times are good. Build a cushion, if you can, use some saved money to buy things you can’t find for free (like more books on writing, though my opinion is, you don’t need most of them).

    Being a writer is almost a matter of mind. Don’t expect others to do it for you, learn on your own. Practice what you learn. Put in the time. Learn to write clean, so you don’t need editors. It’s faster in the end, and less stressful.

    I see lots of people who say they want to be writers. But they aren’t willing to learn, to put in the time. They think it’s easy, you can sell the very first thing you’ve ever written, make millions, and be famous. All in about a week (and yes, I’ve seen that said, more than once). Those folks, we should probably ignore and spend more time on someone who puts in the effort.