Pamela Moriarty left a career as a public school teacher three years ago to try her hand at fiction writing.
She had the encouragement of her children as she followed her muse.
"You've done your time on the rock pile," they told her. "You need to do what you want to do."
But it was a website, TheNextBigWriter.com, that gave Moriarty an international community of writers who shepherded her through the agonizing process of writing and rewriting. The Lexington author - pen name Roisin Moriarty - is now completing a final edit of her first novel, "The Willow Tree of Tullamaine," a political coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl in 1890s Ireland that she said had been "lurking around in my head for years."
Just as it did for independent musicians, the Internet is proving to be a dynamic outlet for aspiring writers. Online workshops are flourishing as the writing profession migrates from ink on paper into cyberspace. Online workshops and online publishers encourage writers, provide editors for their work, then publish and promote it.
The websites operate far afield from the big East Coast publishing houses that dominate The New York Times bestseller lists. But they are still in their infancy, and they see themselves setting the stage for publishing's next phase: Books, they say, will move slowly but surely away from paper and find their way to readers' computers, e-books, and iPods, diminishing the influence of the big publishing houses just as the online distribution of music altered the role of the major music labels.
"Writing, like music, is a digital product," said Sol Nasisi, the Newton entrepreneur who owns TheNextBigWriter.com and its companion site, Booksie.com. "It's not constrained by the paper world we've lived in. Once that happens, it opens up all kinds of possibilities. Every individual now can become their own publishing house to some degree."
The most famous online workshop, Zoetrope All-Story, was created for screenwriters and fiction writers by Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather. Others have emerged, including writing.com and youwriteon.com for fiction, and specialized sites such as critters.org, which is run by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and mediabistro.com, a networking site for professional writers in advertising, newspapers, and other media that also offers writing classes and workshops.
Nasisi launched TheNextBigWriter in 2005 and Booksie in 2006. He said TheNextBigWriter has 5,000 poets, novelists, and short-story writers who are members and pay $49.95 annually to join its editing group. Nasisi also sells ads on the sites and said he's turning a profit from his ventures, though he declined to disclose the amount.
Online sites promote their writers. That is the sole purpose of Booksie, which is free. Online writing websites also sponsor contests, tout outside awards received by their authors, or feature various pieces of fiction, short stories, and poems, creating a buzz for their most talented writers. TheNextBigWriter.com promotes writers, who are being recognized by their peers as talented, with a constantly changing Top 10 list.
"My bet would be that bright young editors [at publishing houses] are grazing these websites every day looking for the new talent, because, especially when it comes to fiction, there's never enough exciting new talent to fill the publishers' lists," said Jane Isay, a private book editor who is the former editor-in-chief at Harcourt Trade Publishers and sits on the board of The New Press in Manhattan.
After Andy Wasif and Rick D'Elia's book was featured last fall on TheNextBigWriter, sales of "How to Talk to a Yankee Fan" surged as the Red Sox headed toward the playoffs.
Edward Aubrey got a boost on TheNextBigWriter for his novel, "Static Mayhem," about a man whose life is changed by adopting two children who are also survivors in his end-of-the-world novel. His was the top-ranked novel on TheNextBigWriter, which helped propel his book into the semifinals in Amazon.com's Breakthrough Novelist Award; he did not make the 10 finalists but plans to tout his status in both contests when he solicits publishers for his book.
TheNextBigWriter uses a novel technique to give writers a strong incentive to help each other. At the center of the editing room is a bank. Each writer has an account and is rewarded with credits for editing fellow writers on the site. They then use the credits they earn to "pay" fellow members to edit their own work.
As Moriarty completed each chapter of "The Willow," she would post it. Other writers there gave her feedback, suggesting how to iron out the wrinkles, fill in the holes. She also took refuge for hours in the site's chat room, talking with others about her book - and returning the favor when they needed her. She is displaying the first three chapters of "The Willow" on Booksie.
"Writers don't want to read other writers' stuff," said author, storyteller, filmmaker, and humorist John Klawitter, because "they're the most egotistical paranoid bunch of people you'll ever find in your life."
TheNextBigWriter, Klawitter said, found a way around that, using self-interest to create an online community of writers who critique and support each other. Nasisi's site, he said, "makes you read other peoples' stuff so you can put your stuff up."
Klawitter's first books "Crazyhead," about his experiences in the Vietnam War, and "Headslap," a biography of Deacon Jones, a black, 1960s football star, were published in 1990 and 1996, respectively.
Unimpressed by agents and mainstream book publishers, Klawitter has gone digital with a vengeance. Since September, he has published three e-books, through Double Dragon Publishing Inc.: "Tinsel Wilderness: Lessons On Survival As A Creative Person In Hollywood & Other Extreme Climates"; "Devils" about a Los Angeles cartoonist whose wife and daughter disappear; and "The Heart of Desire," an adventure about a man living dangerously on the back roads who tries to bring order to his life.
His e-books can be downloaded on Amazon.com's Kindle or The Sony Reader and read in paperback form. They were available as audio webcasts, and he's now trying to marry his film and literary talents with video webcasts.
Klawitter said he wants his books "in as many venues as possible."
Kimberly Blanton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.