Writing a book online? 7 frequent questions answered

Many aspiring authors worry about writing a book online and sharing their work for feedback. Others worry about the possible limitations sharing work (in part or full) might have on traditional publishing opportunities. Because we often field questions about the pros and pitfalls of digital writing tools in general (and Now Novel in particular), here are 7 answers to common questions:

1. What if my ideas or sections of my story are stolen?

Opening up and sharing your creative writing with others online can be daunting. Writers often ask us whether other members of the Now Novel community might steal their ideas.

The truth is this: Most writers are too busy worrying about protecting their own ideas to steal anyone else’s.

What’s more, even if you’re a published author, another writer could pass sections of your work off as their own.

Here’s what you can do to ensure your copyright is safe:

1. Keep or register supporting evidence that you are the original copyright holder. If you plan to share a substantial part of a complete manuscript, you can send a sealed copy by registered post to yourself first. It will bear the date. To keep a digital original record, save your work as a read-only document. This will show the date of the last edit and others will be unable to edit your document.

2. Don’t use writing websites that state in the terms and conditions that your writing remains property of the website.

3. Remember that if you find a publisher, it is normal to give up certain rights to enable your publisher to legally publish your work. Read terms and conditions carefully and submit to publishers you know are trustworthy and respected.

4. Check with your national copyright service what the specific laws and recommendations are for writers in your country.

As for having ideas (rather than actual text) stolen, Jane Friedman puts it well in her post on idea theft. Besides it being unlikely someone will steal your idea (unless you have a reputation for being a million-dollar-idea generator), nobody else can execute your novel idea exactly the way you will. Even if your story has the exactly the same central idea as another, your execution will likely be leagues apart.

2. Will publishers have an issue with having shared my writing online?

This depends on your publishers’ terms and conditions. If your entire manuscript is freely available online,  this would undercut any revenue a publisher could hope to make through sales. What’s more, publishers will be wary of prior publication where other third parties hold rights to your work in part or full.

On the other hand, if your work becomes viral, many publishers will see this as an indication of your commercial viability and market potential. There have been several stories of authors on story-sharing platforms landing publishing contracts through enthusiastic reception of their work by online writing communities.

Sharing extracts of your work with a private writing community typically will not be seen as prior publication, whereas uploading your entire manuscript for public access to a digital publishing platform such as Scribd will. Sharing work on a private platform requiring registration (such as Now Novel) does not leave a public trail. There thus won’t be significant signs for publishers that you have already published excerpts of your work online.

3. How do I find a critique group that shares my genre?

Many writers want to read work in their favourite genre (and receive critiques from other writers who prefer that genre) only. Sticking only to one genre can be limiting in some ways. While a suspense author might have mastered pace, a fantasy author might be adept at crafting compelling setting descriptions due to the emphasis on world-building in fantasy. We generally advise aspiring writers to read as broadly as possible.

When you read an author’s work in a genre other than your favourite, you might not be familiar with all the codes and conventions you need to fully understand the story in context. Even so, practice giving feedback on the universal elements of story, from elements of craft such as dialogue to balancing action and narration.

If you’d prefer to connect with writers in your genre, you can create your own genre-specific writing group and invite others to join.

4. I want to take an online writing course but what if it doesn’t work for me?

Read course descriptions, past members’ reviews (for example you can read Now Novel reviews here), and make sure there’s some form of money-back guarantee so that you can try a course out risk-free.

5. How can I build an online audience of other writers who appreciate my work?

Online writing groups are an excellent place both to improve your writing and find fellow writers and readers who appreciate your work. To build an audience of readers independently of your critique group, there are multiple options:

1. Start a blog on your author website. Share your writing journey, including any inspiring experiences or edifying lessons you learn along the way. Your blog is a place to show your writing ability as well as your personality, what makes your author voice unique. To build an initial readership, get active in the blogosphere by joining discussions on other authors’ blogs.

2. Set up social media accounts. Facebook is best for sharing humour and writing industry news, whereas Twitter tends to be more conversational. Share inspiring tips, industry news, your own insights – anything that other writers will find motivating or inspiring. Also share the best short extracts from your work from time to time so that potential readers can become familiar with your style. Posts with images tend to get more engagement.

3. Pitch online publications that have reading audiences similar to the audience you’d like to build. In the bio accompanying your piece you can share links to your social platforms and author website.

4. Read guides to spreading the word about your book by reputable industry insiders. But also remember this advice from Friedman: ‘First and foremost, platform grows out of your body of work—or from producing great work. Remember that. It’s very difficult, next to impossible, to build a platform for work that does not yet exist (unless, again, you’re some kind of celebrity).’

If you haven’t finished writing the novel that’s been sitting in a hidden away folder, do that now. Worry about your platform later.

6. How can I avoid using tools for writing a book online to procrastinate?

There are so many fantastic websites for writers. We’ve written about 151 helpful resources here, for example. Yet the internet is both a gift and a curse. It’s easy to get distracted and sometimes Now Novel members worry that they will use tools to procrastinate rather than progress.

If you’re a procrastinator, breaking the habit is hard but not impossible. Set time limits and deadlines for activities such as researching, plotting and organizing your novel.

If you are easily distracted, try a distraction-free writing environment for drafting (Lifehacker suggests 5 options here).

7. How do I find a good writing coach online for long-term collaboration?

If you prefer working one-on-one rather than in a group context, a writing coach could be ideal. A writing mentor or coach can provide external accountability, reminding you of your goals. A coach is an extra pair of eyes to look over your work and provide considered input and insight. There are certain things to consider when you decide to find a writing coach:

  • Do you prefer to work to a schedule, setting deadlines to send your coach work-in-progress and outlines, or do you need someone who is an email away when and if you need their input? Find out how structured or free the process will be.
  • What do you need and expect from a writing coach? Detailed feedback or general feedback and cheering from the stands? Communicate your expectations to your coach from the outset. That way your and your coach can develop a working relationship that is mutually satisfying.
  • Find out what will happen if you and your coach happen to not mesh. A good coach should be able to accommodate a variety of subject matters and styles. If you don’t fit with your coach completely, a flexible writing coach will be happy to refer you to someone who could be a better fit

Do you have any questions specifically about writing a book online? Ask in the comments section. If you’d like open, helpful feedback on your writing, join Now Novel now.

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