Monday, 4 January 2010

A Tale of Two Websites

When I finished my first novel, Torbrek...and the dragon variation, I was filled with happy pride. I sent the first three chapters off to six lucky agents, who sent me six form rejections. (Bless you, PFD, whose reader scrawled that she'd enjoyed the story.) I realized my novel might not be as good as I thought it was, so joined YouWriteOn in December 2006, hoping someone would tell me what was wrong with my opening chapters.

Once I'd got enough comments to enter the charts, I rushed to see where my book was. In those days, the charts only showed the top two hundred or so entries. And Torbrek was not among them. It was worse than I thought. But I loved the site, enjoyed reading and commenting on others' books, and hoped to profit by the comments on mine, though still nobody had told me how to fix the start.

Or so I thought...but after three or four months, it dawned on me how much I'd learned. I'd changed the opening chapters considerably, and was aware of all sorts of issues of which I'd been ignorant. I'd pounce on any nugget of good advice in a comment, and act on it.

YouWriteOn was where my writing went to school and grew up.

When Harper Collins launched Authonomy, I was an enthusiastic beta member. It was a terrific site. But over the last year, its ethos has changed. Now the only way to rise to the top of the chart and win a coveted gold star and HC editor's review is to praise and back as many of the books on the site as possible. Look at the comments on any book there, and almost all say the writing is brilliant, the story compelling, the ideas terrific. Dare to write a critical comment, suggesting how it can be improved, and you are unlikely to get a thank you - and indeed why should the author take any notice, when he has dozens of comments assuring him that his writing is excellent?

Today I wonder how my writing would have fared had I, as a newbie writer, had the current Authonomy to load Torbrek to. Reassured by so many that my novel was superb (and please to back theirs) would my writing have stuck at first draft level? Would I ever have understood why it was rejected by literary agents?

Is Authonomy doing naive new writers a disservice?


  1. The ethos of YWO has morphed as well. It is (or was, I've not checked for a few months) esp noticeable in the forums.

    I suspect there are still reviewers who will recommend adjustments, but they are not the norm (though I AM the Norm). I remember the first review I received on YWO, it was poorly written gibberish.

    When thinking of the effort involved in doing a thoughtful review and then getting reviewed, one is reminded of lyrics in James Taylor's song , Mexico (paraphrased), "gets a long letter, sends back a postcard."

    Have you (has anyone) been back to YWO?

  2. True.

    Pete M summed it up thus: YWO has a solid core of critters who really know writing, and a small army of dunderheads who think they do.

    I put the start of Heart of Bone on YWO a couple of months ago; it was around the 13 to 16 mark in the chart, and one comment made me alter something. I felt there were more dunderheads than there used to be.

    But your reviews were a legend, Norm.

  3. I have avoided Authonomy for the reasons you mention. It seems to be sort of self-perpetuating, although I can't say I've had more than a quick look around. I'm a bit skeptical of most online reviews, except Flogging the Quill.

    Too many times we authors either pussyfoot around, or nitpick. It's hard to find someone who will give you that solid, in-between feedback. The valuable kind.

  4. You may be interested in listening to the following podcast, about The Care and Feeding of Writing Groups. I found Sean Dent's observations to be true of writing groups in general.

    Fortunately there are more than two online groups from which to choose.

  5. I was one of the original members who were invited to join Autho. At this time (as you know) people were giving really helpful comments and tips. My book benefited from this and I tried to give genuine advice from my limited knowledge too.
    After Autho changed and people started flooding in with their tribes and families, I just couldn't deal with it anymore. I pulled my book and haven't been back in a long time. I'm not saying I wouldn't go back, but not for now.
    I do think that it's a pity it's changed for the worse. It was a great site.

  6. I don't think you're missing much, Christine - except I'd say it's worth belonging to one writing forum at least, to keep up to speed on writing-related topics.

    Stace, I will check it out. Thanks.

    Anne, maybe I should have followed your example. Beta and immediately afterwards was a golden age on Authonomy. I think you picked a good time to leave.

  7. Hi Lexi
    YWO's mission was supposed to be about helping writers improve; authonomy's just about being popular. The 'prize' on each is worth having I suppose: the 'free' crit from someone in publishing; but along the way there's a minefield of poor advice and misplaced compliments. On both sites.

    One problem I have as an amateur writer is that I don't actually know what is publishable, and finding out is almost impossible. Once you get above a certain technical standard, it becomes subjective. So, I leave a book on authonomy for the exposure it gives (just in case), I occasionally look at the forums to keep up with news of who's published and how, do return reads if anyone does stumble on mine, and sometimes look at what you've supported as you have such good taste! I don't use that site or YWO for advice any more, although I'm sure I still need guidance. But I have 'met' people online whose opinions I can now trust offline.

    So, neither site did me a disservice. My writing definitely improved after exposure in both (and other) places. But, you're right, the amount of bad advice going round has definitely increased. I can only hope that no one who is serious about their writing is only using one of those sites.

    Hope your writing's going well.

  8. K, you've reminded me that one of the best things about both sites is the people I've met there. Perhaps I should adjust my post.

    As well as making good friends, I've now got a small number of trusty beta readers, and a larger number of people who, flatteringly, contacted me for the full typescript of Heart of Rock.

    A writer, tapping away alone, needs some encouragement now and then.

  9. Quite right!
    There's a post on similar lines at talking about the benefits of 'community' to the writer.

  10. K,

    My recommendation for story writing advice is Larry Brooks' site and specifically his "Story Structure Series." His structure system works every time for me, unlike the Hero's Journey which often seems forced.

    "Story structure is to novels and screenplays," Brooks says, "what wings are to airplanes."

    Start here:

  11. I haven't tried YWO but I did dip a toe into Authonomy (which is how I came to this excellent blog). At first I was amused and flattered to see my book shoot to the top of its genre chart, but soon I realised that many of the messages I was getting were of the "I've backed your book, now back mine" variety. I was trying to read people's work and post helpful comments but on reflection I decided that I'm not a published author, I'm not an editor, I'm not anything to do with the publishing industry, so what do I know? I couldn't contribute anything useful so I pulled the book and haven't been back. It's a shame because I 'met' some really nice people there. (Hello Lexi!)

    I'm not sure peer review sites are all that helpful. It's easy to take flattery for informed comment.

    Not that I should be commenting at all now I've given up on the novels altogether...

  12. I do hope you don't mean that, as Looking for Buttons was one of the best books on Authonomy, in my opinion.

    It's a pity you missed the start of the site, before the anything-goes-to-get-to-the-top mentality took over.

  13. I joined YWO in 2007 and was lucky enough to gain a free critique when my very amateurish chapters got into the top 5. Before I did so I was also critiqued by Guy Saville and HJW. On reflection I thought their critiques of my amateurish chapters were far more insightful, immensely helpful and encouraging than the professional one (it was a bit insipid to be honest). In 2007, I really felt at home in YWO - it was a vibrant writing community. It felt very new and very inclusive and the forum was lively, funny and I met some fabulously unhinged eccentrics whilst there. I left about a year later when for whatever reason the critiques got quite nasty, the forums started to be filled by disgruntled, pompous, arrogant, know-it-alls who were there not to learn but to be noticed. Also Ted got into this POD malarky - so for me the whole ethos of YWO as I perceived it, shifted to getting published first rather than as a writing community.
    I did dip into WriteWords too around that time and I think Nik Perring and Dee? (I can't remember her name but she was very nice!) tried very hard to make the Beginner's group there a good place to learn and grow as a writer. But that site was far too big and you felt far too small really. As for Authonomy - I never understood how that worked! Anyway I suppose my aim was to learn how to write and improve my writing and YWO was a good platform for my wake up call to keep trying! Shame it did change not for the better over the year or so I stayed on. Sorry, this is a long post but this post on your blog really brought back all those memories when I was so naive, so silly, so certain and yet uncertain about my ability (or lack of!) to write stories.

    Btw, Hello! I do remember you from the early days of YWO and have always thought you had the most amazing name!

  14. Hi Kitty, lovely to hear from you.

    Goodness, the old YWO forum was fun, wasn't it? I remember roaring with laughter, all alone over my computer. I go there occasionally now, and alas, it's just as you describe it. Perhaps all forums in time attract club bores.

    My name is rather amazing - I made up the Revellian bit to make sure it was unique to come up first in Google. A cunning plan.

    (Nice blog - I see you like cats and shoes...)

  15. Hi

    It's me again! I've been trying to figure out how Authonomy works as I've come across this blog "Coffee and Roses" by Miranda Dickinson. Her book "Fairytale from New York" got published via the Authonomy site. I'm not too clear if her book got to the top of the Authonomy chart before she got published or was her manuscript picked up just like that and then published? How did it all happen? Maybe I ought to ask her straight? I've read all her blog posts (yes from 2007!) and it's not clear as she is extremely excited and excitable about the whole process, except that "it got noticed", "it got picked up". Is she the only one from authonomy that got published then?

    p.s. It's good to have a cunning plan!

    pps. Good luck with your book authonomy! I hope it gets picked up too!

  16. Miranda Dickinson's novel was spotted by Harper Collins when it was in the top hundred - I don't think it got higher than the 70s. She hadn't finished it at that stage, and wrote 20,000 words in three days.

    No one who has achieved a top five gold star has been offered a contract, though interest has been shown in a couple. HC have published two other books that were on Authonomy, though it's uncertain whether they discovered them there, or via some other route.

    On the other hand, quite a few people have been approached by agents who read their books on the site.

  17. So what hope is there? I agree with everything that's been said. I just had another go at Authonomy and it has soon settled into read swaps. It is noticeable when you watch the message logs how some people back 15 book a day, obviously in an attempt to push theirs. I read stuff that others say is marvellous and I find it unconvincing.
    Should we just start a private reading club for those who read Lexi's blog?

  18. I think we wait for the next good writers' website to come along and take off...

  19. Hi

    Ah, now I understand. But at least it's good to know that publishers do read and use sites like Authonomy to give unpublished writers that all important publishing deal that would otherwise have been elusive to every unpublished writer. Even if it's such a very small window of opportunity. But it's there - it happens, next time it could be you. So one must never lose hope! Hang on in there guys and gals.

    Good Luck!

  20. Yes - it's a good idea to push every available button. You never know which will work.

  21. Hello again,
    just wanted to say thanks to Norm for the link above. Looks interesting.