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I’ve put a section of the book I’m currently writing up on an online writers’ forum.

So what?  I hear a resounding cry.  People do that all the time.  They might, but though I’ve participated in several online writers’ groups over the years, reading other writers’ work, making comments, chatting on the general forums, answering queries as best I could, been encouraging, kept a discrete silence, gently suggested that boning up on correct punctuation would be a good thing, ditto grammar and doing at least a  bit of research when writing a historical novel ect,  I’ve never, ever put up anything of mine for inspection.  Until now.

One of the forum's most prolific contributors

There are two main reasons.  Firstly, I keep my work in progress very close to my chest.  I don’t like discussing it with anyone until it’s finished, the closest that even my family get to knowing what it’s about is if I need help on a specific plot point and then it’s only done on a need-to-know basis.  I’m not obsessively secretive it’s just that I feel that if I started talking about what I was writing to everyone I might talk it out and lose the impetus to go on and write the thing.  Also people cannot help advising you on what they think are improvements to the plot, I’m afraid I’ve done it myself, it’s confidence sapping and you end up feeling that it’s not really your story any longer.

The other reason is that I’m not sure how helpful posting work on internet forums is for someone who is beyond the rank novice stage of need help in differentiating between there, they’re and their (you’d be amazed how many would-be writers do).  Writers are usually very kind to beginners.

Forums by their very nature attract a huge range of people trying to write in wildly different areas and a critique on a young adult novel from John who wants to be the next Lee Child may not be very helpful if he doesn’t have a clue what twelve year old girls like to read.  While he can make some useful comments on sentence structure or that this bit or other simply doesn’t make sense, his comments may well lack depth because he doesn’t know the genre.  And if you’re on the receiving end of his criticism it’s terribly difficult to distance yourself and say, ‘Well he’s got a point there but there he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’

More importantly you normally only put up a small fragment of your novel up for criticism, usually somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 words.  A chapter, a scene, even a single paragraph of a novel are parts of the whole and I can’t see how you can properly judge a passage of writing out of context.  What might seen dreamily poetic gets downright boring when there’s too much of it, ditto action scenes when you aren’t allowed a break between the flash, bang, wallops, and how can you tell if a love scene is convincing if you don’t know whether the rest of the novel tends towards the Austenesque or is channelling Lynda La Plante.

Even opening chapters need to be read in context.  Initially I opened Something Stupid with my heroine being followed as she walked home from a party.  It was a cracking good scene, if I say so myself, very tight and tense.  I gave the manuscript to my husband to read and once he’d got over his unflattering surprise that I could write something readable he said flatly, ‘The first five pages don’t fit the tone of the rest of the book.’  Once I’d sulked for a couple for days I realised he was right, a real woman-in-danger scene, which this was, didn’t belong in romantic comedy.

I’m not dissing online writers’ communities, I think they’re great, writing is very lonely and it’s lovely to have others who are enthusiastic about the things that you are.  Writers also incredibly helpful about sharing information, whether it’s research help, submitting work, potential markets or a myriad of other things and the critiques can be very helpful indeed.  But just as you’d find it very hard to judge the artistic qualities of a left eyebrow if you hadn’t seen it in situ above the Mona Lisa’s left eye I still think it’s difficult to make a valid criticism of a 2,000 word passage from an 85,000 word novel.