My co-worker, Jane Friedman, recently wrote a column for Writer Unboxed titled "Stop Being Afraid of Posting Your Work Online." Her column lists reasons why writers should not be afraid of posting material on websites. The column is in response to my usual advice to writers, which is that posting work online is generally a no-no. Essentially, we disagree on the value of it (a delicious little point-counterpoint). But the truth is: This is not a yes/no answer. Both answers are incorrect, but I still lean toward not putting your work online, and I will try and convince you why here.
NONFICTION VS. FICTION
The first huge point to address is that with nonfiction, yes, posting work online is something I/everybody will usually encourage, versus the opposite for fiction. Look at the site you're reading right now: GLA (nonfiction). I am posting content (instruction, interviews, columns) for free. Maybe you're a blogger. If you write columns of any kind, whether about raising your three kids or your struggling life as an artist, you are posting content online for free. This is all well and good. You're building an audience because you have something to sell, or want to sell something in the future. So Michael Larsen was right when he said "test market." He was talking about nonfiction. Blog-to-book deals? Same thing—it's nonfiction, and all is well and good.
But with fiction? I do not recommend putting stuff on your website/blog. (And by the way, when Jane and I talk to writers at conferences or intensives, I'd say 75-90 percent of the audience is fiction/memoir.) Notice how I said "your website/blog." I'm not against you pasting stuff in a small critique forum where people meet to offer feedback on each other's work. But if you post work on your own website, you need to know that--
FACT: WRITERS STEAL STUFF
Fundamentally, one of my biggest points is that you cannot copyright your ideas or concepts, so by putting stuff online, you are vulnerable. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Agents and editors don't steal stuff; writers steal stuff. So if you post your first chapter on your website, what are the chances some agent will come across your blog and say "Brilliant! I want to sign you!" Slim to none. But who will come across your site? Writers you don't know, and you cannot stop them from pilfering some of your ideas.
Granted, they will not cut and paste entire paragraphs of your work, but consider this: Perhaps you start your thriller with a cop walking out of an eye doctor appointment. He has sunglasses on and his pupils are all dilated and he has someone about to drive him home ... then he witnesses a murder in the parking lot, but he can't be sure exactly what he saw. Kind of a fun first chapter idea, right? But I can't protect that idea! (In fact, if you like it, go on—take it. It's yours.) Be careful, especially if your entire book is based on a great idea—one that we would call "high concept" or "a great hook." Which leads me to--
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PROTECT YOUR HIGH-CONCEPT IDEAS
Let me take you back to a writers conference. I was sitting in a room listening to writers give live pitches to agents while 150 other writers listened in. The writer pitched a project called "The Dude Who Knew Too Much." BAM. Now that is a high-concept idea. We knew from the title alone that it was about a teenager who got involved in spy stuff and was in way over his head. High concept! Funny! $$$$! One of the agents asked, "It is a comedy, right?" Astonishingly, the writer said no. That's when—I kid you not—I heard someone nearby murmur that they were taking that idea. They were going to take the title/concept, but do the story right—making it a fun teen comedy instead of whatever the original writer had in mind. That was my turning point. Since then, I have become an advocate of protecting your ideas and playing it safe.
Let's continue talking about protecting high-concept ideas. Perhaps you have a blog, and in your profile, you want to say that you're a writer. Fine. Maybe you want to mention that you're not just a writer, but a writer of YA paranormal. Fine. But maybe you want to include a one-paragraph pitch of your book (like you would in query letter). So ask yourself: Why? So agents will see it? Agents are busy people; they're not prowling around small writer blogs, of which there are thousands. The people you want to see your idea will not be looking at your blogger profile, so where's the benefit? We already know the downside is theft.
Keep in mind that, once again, this is not a yes/no discussion. Let's say you're writing a YA humor book. If it's like Superbad, the pitch would say it's about "Two best friends that get into wild adventures on one of their last days in high school." This is not a high-concept idea. The charm of that story was all the writing/characters. This pitch is fine to release on the web or fly behind a plane. But what about this new movie coming out called HIGH School, where an honor student tries pot for the first time, only to hear that a drug test for all students is around the corner—so he embarks on a quest to get every student in school to try weed that week, so they all fail the test together. High concept! Protect such an idea, because anyone could simply snatch it right up and beat you to the punch.
WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO GET OUT OF IT?
Jane kinda touched on this, but simply ask yourself: What is your plan? What do you want to get out of it? If you want thoughts on your fiction, pass your work to other readers ("beta readers") in a writers group. Or possibly put some of it online at a critique site. Don't just paste it on your Wordpress blog and hope you get feedback. You may; you may not—but your writing is out there.
If you want an agent, then query, and write an awesome letter. Don't paste work online and hope they'll come round, because they will not. And yes, people are always happy to point out those special exceptions, such as that one writer who had an agent come by his blog and saw his pitch and signed him. But like I've said before regarding word count, we cannot aim to be a 1-in-100 exception.
Ultimately, I do not advise posting fiction excerpts online just to see what happens. I have seen ideas get taken before, and I always advise writers on the safe side. That's just how I roll. Regardless of your decision, as always, I wish you good luck.