10 Things not to Ask on a Writing Forum

Writing forums can be lots of fun and full of useful advice from your fellow writers. From my many years of reading them I’ve come up with a list of 10 things not to ask on them.

1) “Would you read this?”

Well maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t, but so what? What does that tell you about the merits of your idea? There are lots of great books that I wouldn’t read because they aren’t my cup of tea. But someone else might gobble it up. On the other hand maybe the book is the kind of thing I’d usually read and your idea sounds great to me. But that still doesn’t mean I’d read it, because your execution of the idea might fall short, or your writing may have serious craft issues I can’t get past. So there’s no useful answer to this.

If I say no I wouldn’t read it, because it’s not my kind of thing are you not going to write it because someone who isn’t in your target audience anyway isn’t going to read it? Let’s face it, most people in the world are not going to read your book. Write the book for the ones are are going to read it.

2) “Has this been done before?”

Because I can tell you now that the answer is “Yes.” But the answer is also “So what if it has?” Okay, so you don’t want to write anything that’s uncomfortably close to an existing book, even if the similarities are coincidental. But on the other hand you can strive too hard to be “original” and end up writing something nobody is interested in or can relate to. The same story elements, tropes, ideas, whatever, come up over and over again because they are interesting and people want to read and write about them. The trick is, you put your own spin on them. You say what you have to say about this idea.

Also, nobody can say for certain that a story hasn’t been done before. People on writing forums may be very well read, but even all of them together haven’t read absolutely everything ever published. Maybe a story in a anthology published only in Finnish in 1971, that sold 653 copies is basically the same premise as your novel. So? Are you going to abandon your novel idea because of that?

3) Don’t ask anything a Google search would give you the answer to on the very first page of results.

Don’t be lazy. Do your research and ask for help when you reach the limits of what you can find out yourself.

4) Anything you could pick a book off your shelf, or ereader and find out.

How to punctuate dialogue seems to be the one I see most often. Open a book. Look.

5) “Tell me all about your horribly triggering or oherwise intensely personal issues, experiences or illness.”

It’s not the job of a member of a marginalised group to give you an education, or sufferer of an illness or trauma to provide a list of symptoms for you to paste onto your character. Do proper research and don’t be so insensitve.

6) “Is my character a Mary Sue?”

Tell you what, let’s just assume all characters are Mary Sues to someone and move the hell on from this often mysoginistic, concept, okay?

7) “How would my character react to this?”

How should we know? They’re your character. Even worse “How would a person of this group react?” Fun fact, people are individuals and will react in a way that reflects that individuality.

8) “Is this believable/cool?”

Unless you’re a master at “pitching” then even really great ideas can sound unspeakable lame, stupid and far fetched when reduced to a quick summary on a forum post. But in prose they can be fantastic.Think about what it’s like when you try to describe to a friend the really great movie you saw last night. You can’t do it justice, can you? They have to see it for themselves to know if it works. Stories are full of things that are totally unbelievable, but convince the reader for the duration of the story. That’s all you need.

9) “Can I have swearing/sex/gay people/real people etc etc in my book?”

Have you read any, you know, books? Because they have all of those things and more. Obviously there are genre conventions as to what’s acceptable where, so again the answer is “pick up books. Read.” Closely related to the “is this too shocking?” question. The answer to which is “get over yourself. People study books more controversial than that in school.”

10) Any questions about the minutea of querying, publishing etc before you’re written a word of a book.

You don’t need to know about standard manuscript format if your book currently only exists in your head. Also, see point number 3. You’ll almost certainly find the answer in a web search. There may be things it’s useful to know about the publishing game before you write the book – like the usual word count for that genre, or document formatting things that you should do from the start so they don’t cause you a headache to change later. But stop fretting about cover art and query letters until you actually write a book.

Bonus! Don’t ask any question you’re going to ignore the answers to if you don’t like them.

Nobody says you have to follow the advice of every answer you get – especially as the answers may well contradict each other. But if you’re merely seeking validation and approval of a choice you’ve already decided to go with then stop wasting everyone’s time. You’ve made up your mind, so get on with the writing. Ask questions for information, not to rally a cheerleading section.

3 thoughts on “10 Things not to Ask on a Writing Forum

  1. Good points – but I’ll argue the dialogue punctuation.
    I haven’t found anything useful about UK dialogue punctuation – the closest I’ve found is ‘adopt a style and follow it’ which doesn’t fit well with editors and proof readers. I’m learning about US dialogue punctuation, and have a lot of “gotten” moments with it. I’m trying to be less sensitive about it all!

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