Saturday, December 18, 2010

Don't Ask Don't Tell

This post isn't going to be about writing or about books.  I'm going to indulge myself today and talk about Don't Ask Don't Tell.  I was with my family on my way to an early Christmas dinner with the in-laws when I heard that Congress had voted to repeal it, leaving only President Obama's signature left to make DADT a relic of history.

I don't talk politics around the in-laws, and they've only just left, and I feel like I've been holding my breath all afternoon and evening to say this:

HALLELUJAH!

Although you know by know that I'm a woman married to a man and have two children, my online moniker Kate in the Closet is not a clueless accident (like Teabagger).  It's an intentional signal that I support the LGBT community and advocate gay rights; I have for my entire adult life.  I vividly remember piling into a bus with dozens of my UPenn classmates to attend a massive LGBT march on Washington D.C. in the spring of 1993.  At that time, gays and lesbians weren't allowed to serve in the military at all, but that seemed like the least of our problems.  Rampant violence against homosexuals was trivialized under the law as a form of domestic violence (itself trivialized under the law), the community was only just starting to understand how to control the spread of HIV (which was still considered a death sentence), and my gay friends were literally terrified that their bright Ivy League futures would end if they came out (or were outed) to one wrong person.

Nine months later DADT was signed into law.  The community wasn't thrilled about the compromise, but it was a step in the right direction, a temporary layover to full inclusion.

A 16-year, 11-month, and 27-day layover.  A time when the military, the supposed embodiment of American honor, forced its own to lie and hide.  A time when the law of the land told young gays and lesbians that no matter what service they performed for their fellow citizens, no matter what sacrifices they made, that we were ashamed of them.  A time when soldiers were required to fight for their country, but prohibited from fighting for themselves.  A time when thousands of servicemen and women and their families lost everything because of whisper campaigns, witch hunts, and cavalier carelessness by unaffected third parties.  It should have been called Don't Ask Don't Tell And Pray Nobody Else Does Either.

It's a little hard to grasp how far the rest of the LGBT community has come during this time, and there have certainly been setbacks, but relative to prevailing attitudes, this repeal was long overdue.  As chief opponent to it, John McCain has forever tarnished his legacy with his last-minute desperate and nonsensical arguments, and I can't express how relieved I am that his ultimately naked homophobia couldn't carry the day.

So now here we are.  Each of the gay men and women in the military, along with their families, will have to decide for themselves how to proceed, and the rest of us will have to decide how to react.  I hope that you will join me in openly supporting everyone in the military as this momentous transition begins, and offering congratulations to everyone who takes a step forward in their lives, their relationships, and their own attitudes.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scale and Perspective

When I was in elementary school, I read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.  I loved that book.  But the sequel, A Wind in the Door, ruled as my favorite for years and years.  My ten-year-old mind was blown by, among other things, the notions of scale and perspective in that book.  I've adored science fiction ever since.

This little bit of awesome would have gone along nicely.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On The Subject of Pitches

Like elevator pitches and query letters are pitches to agents, trailers are pitches to audiences. Book trailers are still a nascent artform, in my opinion. But movie trailers are, as an art... mature.

Warning: contains offensive language and characterizations.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Brothers

This is for my cat peeps, especially fairyhedgehog.

Identity

I'm having a hard time with my personal elevator pitch.

"Hi. Nice to meet you. So what do you do?"

"Oh, I'm a.. uh.. consultant."

When you say stuff like this, people immediately get idea you're full of it. Consultant. If you look like George Clooney they might believe you are an assassin-for-hire or a con man pretending to be an assassin-for-hire. But if you look like me, and call yourself a consultant, they think unemployed. If I'm lucky, they think, Mary Kay.

This would be fine if I just said, "between jobs" or "Mary Kay Consultant", but when I say "consultant" it sounds like I'm trying to pretend I'm something I'm not. Consultant is just one of those words that's taken on a life of its own.

And let me tell you, if gets worse when it comes up that I work from home and set my own hours. Then there is the fact that my clients are all... elsewhere. If it weren't for the business trips I'm not sure even my friends would believe me.

I don't call myself a consultant to be intentionally vague. First of all, it's true. Companies consult me for my expertise. It's just that the actual nature of my work is both varied and arcane, and I have this need to be both precise and complete. So I can either say "consultant" or hand you my resume.

If I ever get one of these novels ready for submission, I suspect it'll take me another year just to figure out how to pitch it to an agent.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Yeah, I Was in a Bad Mood

OK, so I have bitched about antiquated and at-this-point inexcusably unprofessional business practices among book publishers. Now it is only fair to balance that assessment with this one: the answer to why we put up with it is that unlike in most industries, publishers absorb essentially all the risk in the publishing world.

Let's look at the supply chain for books. It starts with the author. In traditional publishing, the author invests no money in the per-unit cost of production. She pays for her wordprocessing/internet/postage and other "R&D", but her primary investment is time. The same goes for the agent. Like the author, the agent is risking intangibles such as reputation and opportunity costs for time spent not selling something else, but essentially the agent risks no cash. It's the publisher who pays both the author and agent AND their own editors and designers and artists and printers and sales force and PR and marketing and legal/accounting to create and track a gazillion different contracts. Then there are the distributors, who get paid in any case. Then there are the booksellers who can return unsold books or keep them and sell them on clearance. Sure, there are costs associated with inventory and risk that they are giving too much shelf space to the wrong books, but again, the real cash risk lies with the publisher.

THIS is why we let publishers have their eccentricities.

But there has to be a better way.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Maybe I'm Just in a Bad Mood

*Sigh*

OK, here I go. I'm gonna do the one thing a writer is really really really not supposed to do on her blog: I'm gonna bitch about publishers for a second.

Let me be clear up front about what I'm not doing: I'm not whining about mistreatment. I've never submitted anything to a book publisher, nor do I even have any off-line friends who have had bad experiences with publishers, and I'm not here to bitch about editors' taste or how they wreck dreams or whatever.

My problem with publishers, based on information from agents' blogs, is this: they are so very precious that they can't be bothered to run their businesses like professionals. Ubiquitous errors on royalty statements, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, inability and/or unwillingness to communicate any status to authors who have provided work at their request. These represent the kinds of basic organizational skills that companies of every size in every other industry have to keep current just to remain solvent. Why do we continue to excuse publishers for sloppiness we wouldn't tolerate in any other business partnership? They are like the Hollywood starlet who shows up five hours late for a photo shoot and then lets her dog pee on the $8000 designer gown, and everyone whose day she's ruined THANKS HER PROFUSELY FOR THE HONOR. Rather, they thank her people, because she can't be bothered to speak to anyone outside her circle.

OK, it's true that I'm bitching about something I've no firsthand knowledge of. But all these anecdotes I hear bug me because I care - I want this industry to survive. But just like a bunch of alcoholic starlets, this brave new world will eat them unless they get their shit together and take some responsibility for themselves.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

High Altitude

First thing's first: Congratulations to all the NaNoWriMo winners out there! I hope you enjoyed your first day of rest. Speaking of which...

Greetings from Salt Lake City, Utah, USA!

Altitude: 4700ft
Temperature: 20's and lower
Humidity: negligible outside and lower indoors with the heat blasting

The mountains are beautiful and the city and surrounds are very nice, but I haven't acclimated enough to enjoy it - or do anything beyond work/eat/sleep. I haven't needed this much sleep since I was pregnant!

Luckily I'll be home Friday night. See you all then.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fantasy

You know the time turner that Dumbledore gives Hermione so she can take extra classes? I soooo want one of those! I wish that in every 24 hours, I had 8 hours to work, 8 hours to write, 8 hours to play, and 16 hours to relax and sleep. Is this too much to ask?

This is an especially fervent wish during the holidays. In the past decade, I've hardly ever been able to take time off during November and December. I've worked more Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Days than not. For some extremely stupid reason (considering I've never worked retail), work stuff always seems to get extra-super busy at the end of the year. For once, this year, I was hoping to take the holidays off to relax, write, and spend time with family. Isn't that supposed to be a perk of self-employment?

Alas, no. It turns out that self-employment means doing what you have to, and signing a contract for a new project the day before Thanksgiving augurs poorly for holiday free time. The ink wasn't even dry before my client asked if I could work this weekend, and my first business trip is already booked for Monday.

I'M NOT COMPLAINING, I SWEAR.

I'm just saying I wish there was more time in a day.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Foiled

OK, NaNo failure is now a forgone conclusion. I just landed a very excellent contract that will take my business to the next level (that's the universe rewarding me for having the balls to turn down that job last week), the crazy-busy holidays are upon us, and stress management is key just now. And in truth, I love this story too much to just spew it out.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Songs from Childhood

Why yes, J.J. deBenedictis and FairyHedgeHog, there was a song in my childhood that always made me happy. Unfortunately, it really hasn't aged well. Your choices made better classics.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Investing in the Future

If you've never checked out Miss Snark's First Victim, you should. It's a wonderful writing community / crit group / agent exposure vehicle. Authoress runs it out of pure love, and I cannot even imagine the amount of time she puts into it. She has finally and reasonably put up a Donate link. I chipped in a few bucks because I want her to still be around by the time I have a submission-ready novel!

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Janet Said

Janet Reid has a nice post today about writing what you know, and how if you are an average person, that's probably the recipe for boring.

I had just started this post when, as if to illustrate her point, the phone rang.

"This is Kate."

"Hi, this is Sarah, from Major Internet Company You Used To Work For."

Oy.

Long story short: They offered me a job, which I'm going to decline.

Like the plot of pretty much any story, it can be boiled down to that one sentence. In fact, this is approximately the sentence I'll use to describe the situation should it ever come up in conversation.

Of course there is waaaay more to the story than this, including the staple dramatic features of political maneuvering, subtext-laden dialog, soul searching, etc. But that's the problem: it's all staple. The story is utterly unremarkable in the collective experience of your average readership.

*Sigh* Janet's further point is to write what you are passionate about. Clearly this is easier said than done - what is passion anyway? But maybe the first step is to let go of the distracting sturm und drang of the ordinary. Free our eyes to see the extraordinary.

Or some bullshit like that. I need a bleeping drink.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Quick NaNo Update

Well, I kind of dicked around for a while and actually got started very late. I'm way the hell behind, but still have time to win if I stay motivated.

Cue motivation...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Scene Study

As I half-heartedly work through NaNoWriMo, I'm being a little bit conscious of scene structure. The Text-to-Movie tool at www.xtranormal.com is an interesting way to play with scenes. Here's one I just generated.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ah Inspiration!

Well, it's been a very busy couple of weeks, and by the time I got to Sunday night (which of course was also Halloween AND my wedding anniversary), I couldn't face an all-night NaNoWriMo kick-off.  In fact, I hadn't the foggiest idea what I would write about anyway, and decided a good night's sleep would be best all round.

And then the magic happened.  I had one those dreams.  You know, the kind with a plot that almost makes sense, and unexpected characters, and life-and-death on the line, and vivid sensations and emotions.  The kind you can't stop thinking about because you've tapped a vein that runs to depths you forgot you had.

And voila!  Like a gift from heaven, I have something to write about.  Here's hoping I still love it in 28 days.

How's it coming with everyone else?

Oh by the way, if you are in the U.S., please go VOTE!!!!!!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Bouchercon Post (that Isn't)

Last year a friend on mine went to Bouchercon, and between her raving and all the online author and agent posts about it, I decided I was for sure going to go this year.  Well, Bouchercon came and went, and I didn't, because I had a work thing.  Sadly, the work thing fell though too, and not even my friend who went last year could make it this year.  I will now draw upon my optimistically assumed-to-exist writerly talents to express how I feel about this:

Pooooo!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Who's Doing NaNoWriMo?

There are less than 30 days until NaNoWriMo starts - who's in?

I haven't decided yet myself.  I really want to, but I'll only do it if I have a chance of winning* (and having won last year I have an idea of the minimum amount of time necessary).  Unfortunately my work schedule isn't firmed up yet so I'm not ready to commit.

*Winning = Writing 50,000 words between Nov 1 and Nov 30.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Can Show My Face Again!

Dear friends, I confess I have been hiding in shame.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of five months ago, I offered to redesign a couple of author websites for free.  Two lovely strangers from blogland took me up on it.  I completed the first in a couple of weeks.  But the second was a little bit trickier, requiring a simultaneously simpler and more meaningful aesthetic, and a LOT more content and functionality.  It was taking more thought and more time and then... well, life got in the way. Life being primarily in the form of contractual obligations to paying clients, and secondarily in the form of two broken arms.  And while I can declare without qualification that I could not physically have accomplished it sooner (I haven't even completed my own website), I feel so very badly that this lovely, talented, and patient author had to wait until about thirty seconds before her book launch to get her new website.

So, as a favor to me, please go visit D.J. Kirkby's new site, and congratulate her on the publication of her debut novel, Without Alice.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guilty Pleasure

I just finished reading Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy.  Now I have to admit to you that I am excited about these being made into movies; there is already a deal for the first one, though no details yet.

Frankly, I wish I could work on it, preferably as a costume designer.  If I had the first idea how to land that job, I'd go for it.

Meanwhile, I keep finding myself fantasizing about the costumes, the sets, the music, the composition of shots, and of course the casting.  In fact, one of my favorite daydream-pastimes is producing imaginary movies from my favorite books.  Not many of my favorite books are YA though, and casting this one is a little tougher for me because I don't know too many young actors.  As for the older ones, though, let's get Hugh Laurie for Haymitch, Bill Nighy as Snow, David Allen Greer as Caesar Flickerman, and Jane Lynch as Effie.  I'll probably switch them all up again tomorrow, but you get the drift.

So now back to writing for a second... when you create characters, do you make up their physical appearance from scratch, or do you start with an actual person?  I find myself using actors (usually pretty unknown ones, since my characters can't all be, you know, gorgeous), and then recasting them as my characters - changing their costumes and demeanor and so forth, but drawing on the details of the real person.  Is this cheating?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Childrens' Micro-Publishing

My oldest daughter is going to start kindergarten on Monday!  Tonight we had New Parent Orientation, at least half of which was PTA* recruitment, but this turned out to be very interesting.

One of the PTA projects at this elementary school is actually a tiny publishing company!  Students are encouraged to write and illustrate a story, and Wildcat Publishing produces it in hardcover.  Not one book for the whole school, mind you - each child gets her own book.  In fact, the first one is free for each child, but she can pay for additional books.

The PTA mom in charge was looking for volunteers to do everything but the binding: scan, type, edit, layout and design.  She told me it takes an average volunteer about two weeks to produce one book.  There are over 900 students at this school.  I don't know how they make that math work, but I sincerely hope these kids appreciate it!


*In case they don't have PTA wherever you live, it is short for Parent-Teacher Association. Volunteer Parent Auxiliary might be more apt though; it is a corps of parents who volunteer time to assist with school operations and support school initiatives.  Since the work is typically done during the school day and on school grounds, most of the active participants are stay-at-home moms.

Monday, August 2, 2010

From My Friend, the Published Author

This is from my BFF, who has published a bunch of books in recent years, despite having less free time than the hamster who powers the internet.

I love to write.  However, when my editor said in reference to the next book they want me to write, "You do understand that a 450 page book will require 675 manuscript pages"... I felt like I got punched in the gut.
And here I was hoping this sort of thing got easier with experience.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

I Can't Stand it Anymore

I am nothing if not disciplined when it comes to work.  When I decide to "buckle down", I buckle down.  But in working like crazy on my business, it's now been something like six months since I've allowed myself any significant time to write, and it's driving me crazy.  Missing the most recent Clarity of Night contest was the last straw.

So, I hereby grant myself free time to write.  Being my own boss was the reason to start my own biz in the first place, after all.

And with the writing, I should be around here a little more often too.  Talk to you soon!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nerd Power

This story makes me proud to be a nerd.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Use Your Imagination

Things I like about having two mildly broken arms:
  • no diaper duty
  • no dishes
  • no laundry
  • no cooking
Things I don't like:
  • no driving
  • no beverage opening
  • no good sleep
And in an untitled third column:
  • inability to manage my own bra

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Dog Ate My Homework

Pop Quiz!

If I were to tell you that, in the past week, my harddrive crashed, I became so ill I needed paramedics, AND I broke both of my arms, which of the following would you believe?

a.  I am the worst liar in the world.
b.  I am the worst writer in the world.
c.  I am mocking you.
d.  I am seriously unlucky.
e.  All of the above.

Sorry, it's none of the above.  In fact, all of these things actually happened in the past week, and it is so rediculous that I haven't told anyone in real life yet because I don't believe it myself.  And because I would then have to spend all this time reassurring them it isn't as bad as it sounds: yes, I broke both my arms, but just small fractures of the left radial head and the some bone in my right hand, neither of which require casts, and I can already type (and I have insurance); yes, I thought I was having a coronary event, but it turned out I'm just a lightweight who wigs on Vicodin (taken for the broken bones) and the firemen were very nice; and yes, my harddrive crashed, but I'm a professional and lost minimal data - it's just a time-consuming inconvenience getting the warrantee replacement set back up.

So anyway, it's all good.  Sorry it's been so long since I've blogged.  I've just had to put the new business first.  I hope that by the end of the summer I'll have time to write again, and hence to have something related to writing to blog about.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Influential Characters

There is a apocalyptically silly political campaign ad that asks viewers, "who would Jack Bauer vote for?"  In case he isn't part of pop culture in your neck of the woods, Jack Bauer is a fictional character who fights terrorists in the television drama "24".

This isn't the first time that Jack Bauer has been invoked in public debate.  His fictional success is frequently cited as proof that torturing terrorist suspects in real life is a good idea.  You have to hand it to the writers of this show; they have created an influential character.

After my eyes stopped rolling, I realized I personally would be more interested in Atticus Finch's opinion.  Now I find myself trying and failing to think of fictional characters who are so clearly drawn that I actually would be influenced by their hypothetical opinions.  Who might sway you?  How would you create such a character?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Real Life Horror

If you haven't heard, the Texas State Board of Education has decided to micromanage the content of history textbooks for openly partisan purposes, claiming they are correcting a liberal bias.   Actual historians are horrified.  Along with every Texas parent I know.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kate's Guide to Author Websites, Part IV

This blog is first and foremost about my journey as a writer, and I learn something every day about writing and publishing from this fantastic community.  I’ve taken the time to build Kate’s Guide to Author Websites as a way to give back what I can, and I trust it is received as such.  That said, in my non-writing life I do offer the professional services described below, so I hope you’ll forgive me for not mentioning any competing companies by name.

Working With a Professional Web Designer

If I did my job right, Parts I, II, and III gave you the knowledge and confidence to go out and create your own website at minimal cost.  But if you want to take it to the next level, hiring a professional has some significant benefits.  However, it isn’t like hiring a house painter.  You need to know what you're getting into.

The Players

You will discover immediately that there are a lot of players in this field.  There are big marketing companies, online website factories, and one-man part-time outfits.  There are web designers, web developers, graphic artists, marketing consultants, and more.  Ultimately, neither the nature of the company nor the individuals’ titles determines the quality of the result; it is how they do business.

The Cost

Costs vary widely.  My feeling is that if you are technical enough to blog, and take the advice in Parts I, II, and III of this series, you can create your own website as well as the cheapie cookie-cutter services out there. If you are going to go with a professional, really go professional and expect to pay US$2000 and up for a good looking, truly custom, author website. I know this is a lot of money to you, the author, and I won’t pretend it is cost-effective for most of us. But I can tell you it isn’t gouging. Professional design takes a lot of time, talent, knowledge, and skill with some very expensive and hard-to-learn software. The designer is not getting rich on $2000/site, or even $5000/site.

In addition to the cost of the design and site launch, there are some potential ongoing costs.  Of course there is domain registration and web hosting, but one of the most crucial decisions when working with a pro is how changes will be made to the site after its initial launch.  A typical model requires you to go back to the designer and pay her an hourly rate for changes, and wait for her to implement those changes.  This can get expensive if your site changes frequently, but a site that changes frequently is going to be more successful, so you should at least discuss ways for you to update content directly and only go back to the designer for design changes.  This could mean a content management system or you learning a little bit of HTML.  Designing a site that accomodates either of these could increase the cost of the initial design, so have this discussion upfront and decide if it's worthwhile.

Cutting Costs

On the other hand, there are some ways to drive costs down. 
  • There are often discounts available with bundled services, such as hosting, or marketing packages.
  • Authors should check with their publishers and agents for any such services they provide.
  • Look for someone who is motivated by something other than money: a student project, someone building his or her portfolio (ahem), a friend who is a graphic designer but thinking about getting into web design, etc. Obviously quality may vary here, so you will need to analyze the risk/reward ratio.
  • Commission a custom blog theme instead of a full-blown website.  Many professional websites are actually powered by blog systems (CMS's).  It may or may not be much less expensive up front, but you should be able to eliminate maintenance costs (including hosting!) this way.  Just make sure you still use your own domain name.

Making a Choice

First I will say that while it isn't necessary to hire someone with experience designing author websites, I do think you are more likely to be satisfied with the process and the result.  Take it from me: working with people who don't understand your business can be very frustrating.

In any case, you need your designer to be savvy about the business of websites.  I've talked a lot about putting business before cool in Part III, and I am sorry to say there are a lot of players who simply don't think in these terms.  To get a sense if a candidate does, ask her what she thinks the goal of your site is and how she will design to best meet that goal.

This should probably go without saying, but in my opinion, you need to be able to communicate directly with your designer.  This can actually be a problem with large firms that employ account managers as middle-men, and some cheap online design factories actually charge you extra for this privilege.

As for aesthetics, your website will represent your author brand.  Style and taste are highly individual, so if you are going to be paying anything up front, it is important to see and like the portfolio of the specific person who will be working on your design, even if it's a small portfolio.  This can also sometimes be difficult when working with large firms or marketing firms that farm out design work to independent contractors.

Finally, deadlines are important.  If you are paying for a site, you are paying to get it within a certain time frame.  Don’t hire anyone who is cagey about their process or how long each step should take them.  (On the other hand, recognize that if you are slow to return feedback, decisions, or payment, it may throw off their whole schedule and create delays that are your fault, not theirs.)

The Process

Pros all have different processes, but typically it works like this:
  1. You have a consultation to discuss your needs and the scope of the project.
  2. You are given a cost estimate and time estimate and probably asked to pay some percentage up front.
  3. The detailed organization of the site is determined – the pages, navigation, what information goes where.
  4. The designer creates “comps” for you, which are representations of design concepts. The number and sophistication level varies by designer. Some will provide 3-5 hand-drawn sketches, while others provide 1-3 mock screen shots.  Comps are often expensive to produce, so you may have to pay more for additional comps if you don’t like anything in the initial set.
  5. Once a concept is chosen, you and the designer go through the process of refining it.  Make change requests thoughtfully and bundle them together; a certain amount of refining effort will be included in the initial cost estimate, but endless drafts will drive up costs.
  6. When the design is finalized, the functional site is created, the content is filled in, tweaks and tests are completed, and the site is launched.
The Details

There are a lot of different layers involved in building even a simple website, and you need to be sure you understand what services you are paying for. Specific things to ask about, in no particular order, are:
  • Information architecture.  Is the designer responsible for determining how your site is organized, or are you?
  • Content management.  Is the text on the site stored in static HTML, or is it in a database? Who is responsible for writing the text? What is involved in making updates?
  • SEO (search engine optimization).  This is a complicated issue, but it starts with using good design techniques.  Your designer should be able to speak coherently about how she will make your site highly searchable.  If he skips straight to “keyword purchases” or “Google adword buys” that could be a red flag.
  • Quality assurance.  How will the web designer test your site?  Will he guarantee it works on all major browsers used by your target market?  (Does he know what they are? It varies by region.)  Will he guarantee certain maximum average download times?  Will he guarantee it works well with screen readers and is otherwise accessible?  All of these things should come automatically with solid, standards-based design, and your designer should be able to articulate as much.
  • Metrics and analytics. Make sure you know what data will be available to you vis-à-vis user statistics.  Savvy authors can use this information in a lot of ways, from optimizing the site to planning book tours.  Knowing where your visitors are, what browsers they use, and how they find your site can all be really helpful.
  • CRM (customer relationship management).  Are you going to allow people to contact you from the site, or will you collect their contact info for a mailing list, etc?  This stuff can get complicated and expensive, but you need to know what your designer is providing.
  • Blog.  Will the site include a blog or link to an outside blog?  What platform will be used?  Can they provide a blog theme that looks like part of your website?  If you decide to stop blogging, how much will it cost to remove the blog or links from your site?
  • RSS, Facebook, and Twitter.  Like blogs, there are many levels of integration possible here – from simple links to feeds to creating Facebook and Twitter pages for a cohesive look.  And yes, it’s perfectly OK if you are not on Facebook or Twitter or just don’t want to link to them.
  • Forums.  If you want to have your own user community, ask your designer for an example of how it would look, work, and what it would take to administer.
  • Artwork/Creative.  A professionally designed site will almost certainly include illustrations, photos, and/or other graphic design elements.  If you ever want to reuse any of these elements on another site or in printed products like posters, you need to know if you have the right to do so. I also want you to know where the designer got them. There are really only three right answers here: they are royalty-free purchases (as from a site like iStockPhoto); public-domain or otherwise expressly free (from a site like stock.xchng); or original artwork by the designer.  It is not OK for anyone to simply copy a photo from another site.  I’ve said it before, but I'm kind of making a big deal about this because as authors we don’t want people ripping off our work.  Artists and photographers don’t want their work ripped off either, and I think we all need to stick together on this.  Finally, you should be wary of displaying a photograph of a recognizable person on your site (exclusive of yourself and book covers), because you may need a model release to do so, and making sure you have one can be a pain.
Working with a pro sometimes has other strings attached.  For example, some will only design for you if you also buy hosting from them.  This isn’t typically to make an extra buck, it just makes it easier for them to manage your site and generally saves both of you time and money.  If you do engage your web designer to provide hosting, just find out if the server is in his living room, or leased space from a reliable company with guaranteed uptimes and 24x7 tech support, with the latter being preferred.

Finally, do a little Google and Better Business Bureau research for any complaints, and be thoughtful about anything you find.

Epilogue

Well friends, this marks the end of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.  I hope you have found it interesting and helpful, and if so, that you will pass it along.  I encourage questions in the comments, or your can email me directly.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Functional Design Considerations

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Functional Design Considerations

As I've said before in this series, I assume you are not a web developer and that you are using some sort of tool to create your author website.  I've actually already talked about a lot of functional considerations in my discussions of visual and informational design.  There are just a few more aspects to be aware of.

Browser vs Website

Let's have a little thought experiment.  You have a room full of people, each of whom has pencils and paper.  Now you issue them the following instruction:
Draw a happy face.
What do you think will be the results?  Some people will draw two dots and an arc for a mouth inside a circle, and some will just draw the two dots and arc.  Some may also draw noses, or eyelashes, or eyebrows.  But even the ones who draw the same elements will draw them a little differently.

Your website is just you, issuing the instruction, "Draw a happy face."  The many different versions of many different brands of browsers and other internet-enabled devices will all interpret that instruction a little differently, and each will express it according to its own capabilities.

Hopefully the website you generate will have specific and sufficiently unambiguous instructions that all major browsers will display it acceptably if not identically.  But the only way to be sure is to test your website on as many browsers and other internet-enabled devices as you can, and on multiple versions of those.  Test it with zooming on, testing it with a screen reader, test it on a mobile phone, test it on an iPhone.  You get the picture.

Links

Of course you will test all your links, on every page. But unlike the rest of your site, you need to test your links, especially test links to other sites, on a frequent basis, in case those external pages get moved or taken down. Broken links not only make your site look stale and abandoned, they also make it less interesting to search engines crawling your site.

Technologies

A web page, as it is received by the browser, is made up of some version of HTML, CSS, often Javascript, and possibly some other technologies.  You should be aware that very old and very new technology will be the least well supported by your visitors' browsers.  HTML and CSS are universal (though there are different versions), and Javascript is virtually universal except where users have disabled it (usually for security), so you generally don't need to worry about these.  However, anything that requires the user to install a plug-in might cost you some visitors.  Flash is a prime example.  Not only do several percent of users refuse to install Flash on their browser, but many can't even if they want to.

Last week I was headed to a new restaurant, and Google maps on my iPhone amazingly gave me the wrong location.  So naturally I went to the restaurant's website for directions, and crap, I couldn't open the site.  It was a slick animated Flash site, and Apple doesn't support Flash on the iPhone (or iPad or iPod Touch).  So I went to a different restaurant.

The restaurant used Flash for their entire site because they wanted that cool factor.  Cool is great, but they made the mistake of putting cool ahead of business.  You can make your site cool in a way that doesn't eclipse or block access to the real content.  If you use Flash, use it in addition to - not in place of - all regular content.  This goes for any technology that requires a plug-in.

Well this marks the end of Part III: Design Considerations.  Next up is Part IV: Working with a Professional.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Informational Design Considerations

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Informational Design Considerations

There is an entire academic and professional field called Information Architecture, which is concerned with organizing information in a way that it can be easily located, accessed, and consumed.  Although your author website is unlikely to have so much content that you need an expert architect, you shouldn't take your content for granted.  You also shouldn't treat it the same as your books or your blog.

In the Design Considerations prologue, I talked about putting yourself in your visitor's place and making it easy for her to do what you want her to.  Now we get to the specifics.


The Basics

First recognize that users do not read websites the way they read books or newspapers or even blogs.  Users scan websites.  You need to make your website highly scannable by doing the following:
  • Break up text with whitespace.
  • Use a lot of headers and labels.
  • If you can describe something with a one-word label instead of a sentence, use a label.
  • Keep paragraphs short and concise.
  • Use simple and direct prose; the scanning part of your visitor's brain has a sixth-grade reading level.
  • Redundancy is good, but saying the same thing in ten different ways, as you might when you want to teach something, impedes scanning.  If you aren't teaching, say whatever it is in the simplest, most concise way, and repeat that same wording on different pages as needed.
  • Be consistent in your layout, navigation, use of font styles, and overall organization. 

The Funnel

One of the obvious things people do when creating websites is separate the content out into different pages, and then create a navigation system of links to those pages.  There is a sort of instinct among writer types to approach this the way a librarian might, thinking only of the taxonomy of the information.  This is a good start, but I'm here to tell you that a commercial website is not a library.  It is a funnel.

Remember that the purpose of your site is to get your user to perform a specific action.  No matter how a visitor reaches your site or what their point of entry is, you should always be funneling them toward your goal.  This is more than having a navigation system that keeps them within a click of every other page.  It means punctuating every topic of content with a call to action:

Blah blah blah enough about me.

Purchase now at
Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Borders, Chapters,
or your favorite independent bookstore using IndieBound

If this strikes you as a little pushy, let me assure you this is how successful sites work.  I have tested the revenue generation and user satisfaction of site flows with and without these embedded calls-to-action, and I assure you the sites with them not only generate much more revenue, but users rate these sites higher as well.


Navigation

Most of the time, a user is visiting a site with a specific goal in mind. Often, they have a specific word in mind, even if it is subconscious. As soon as they get to your site, they will scan for this word, starting with the top of the home page content, and then navigation. Create your menus to match the most likely words the user is looking for.

For example, an author site should have a top-level menu link labelled Books. A common mistake is to omit Books and instead include the actual titles. But if a visitor is not familiar with your work yet, a menu that reads like the one below is confusing, throws off their scan, and can even seem like a rude inside joke:
  • Home
  • Stephen
  • The Shining
  • Thinner
  • Rose Madder
  • Appearances
  • Contact
Your top-level navigation needs to have the simple keywords a new visitor would look for, and more detailed or custom keywords should go in submenus or other link lists.

I think a reasonable organization for a typical author website would look like the one below.  Omit those that don't apply, and remember that EVERY page should have an invitation to Buy Now.
  • Home (list the latest news here)
  • About the Author
    • Bio (emphasis on writing and relationship to subject matter)
    • Links to past interviews/video/transcripts/etc
  • Books
    • Title1
      • Description
      • Praise & Awards
      • Excerpt
  • Coming Soon
    • Title2  (or Untitled Work-In-Progress)
      • Description
      • Status
      • Release time frame
      • How to get announcements
  • Resources (Particularly if you write about coping, such as with alcoholism or a specific disability, consider including links to associations or communities dedicated to this subject.)
  • Appearances
    • Calendar
    • Links to past interviews/video/transcripts/etc.
  • Forum
  • Blog
  • Contact (email address, blogs, facebook, twitter, etc.)

Let me know what you think. 

Next up in this series: Functional Design Considerations.  That one will be short, I promise!


Friday, May 14, 2010

O Bliss!

I'm still working on the last few installments of Kate's Guide to Author Websites, but first this breaking news:

I have the greatest husband evah!

A few months ago I told him offhandedly what I wanted for my birthday: complete sets of two out-of-print mystery series by one of my favorite authors.  I said this in the way one might wish for world peace or children who never say embarrassing things.

Well, Happy Birthday to Me!  Today I found all fourteen books nestled into my spot on the sofa.  Two of them are even the same novel under different titles; Dear Husband just wanted to make sure I had a really complete set!

The books, by the way, are Sheri S. Tepper's Shirley McClintock and Jason Lynx mysteries, originally published under the pseudonyms B.J. Oliphant and A.J. Orde respectively.  Sheri told me once that they're like popcorn; she wrote them on breaks between her heavy science fiction/fantasy epics.  I think there's a lesson or two in there...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Visual Design Considerations

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Visual Design Considerations

This is a vast field so I'm just going to stick with the tips that I think will be most helpful to non-professionals.  I'm assuming you are using a tool to create your design.

Where to Start

If the very idea of designing your own website gives you hives, I suggest you hire a pro or simply use a template/theme you like on one of the sites I've already recommended. 

But if you plan to design your site from scratch or modify a template/theme, I recommend you start your visual design process by collecting the images you know you will include: book covers, portrait, and your logo if you have one.  Then add a set of colors and fonts.  Then add other graphics if you like.  Now step back and make sure it all goes together and isn't too much.

If your books suggest a specific aesthetic - like steampunk, hippie, french country, or Atlantian, you should by all means reflect that in your design.  If you don't know, ask your readers!  If your books are too disparate to pin down, then just go with your personal taste.  Use Google to find web template galleries and design galleries for ideas.

I personally happen to love interior design, and find the visual web design process quite similar, so I often browse decorating magazines for inspiration. I look for the way colors are used together, the lighting, scale, and the balance of elements.

Although simplicity is fine, it really is important to have a coherent and complete look.  Google is probably the only site in the world that can get away with one pic and a handful of tiny words on a big white page.

Fonts

There are two kinds of text on web pages.  There is regular text data, and then there are pictures of text.  You can tell the difference in any page by attempting to select the text the way you would in a word processor.  This is text data you are reading right now, while the big word "Google" on the Google home page is an image.

The difference is important for two reasons.  First, when you create images with text in Paint, Photoshop or other design tools, you can use any font you have installed on your system (and another several million you can get online).   That font is converted to an image that is sent to your user's system the same way a photo is.  But regular text is sent as simple strings of letters, and is rendered in a font that resides on your user's computer.  If all they have is Helvetica, your text data will be displayed to them in Helvetica.  All you can do is specify your first few choices, and a default font family.  Sans-serif fonts are thought to be the most readable, so this is what I recommend.

The second difference between regular text data and images of text is searchability.  The Google search engine has no idea what its own logo says.  (It only knows that the HTML img element has an alt attribute that says "Google".)  For this reason, and also because it requires a lot more bytes and therefore slower download times, image-text is generally only appropriate for logos, titles, and navigation.

Color

I could talk all day about color theory, but at the end of the day, you just know what you think looks good.  Here's the important stuff:
  • Website colors are specified in RGB values, unlike colors for printing, which are CMYK.
  • Aside from graphic images, there are two primary uses of color on websites:
    • Highlight text, particularly headers and links.
    • Blocks of background colors that visually contain discrete chunks of information on the page.
  • Website color is a little unreliable.  Go ahead and use any of 32 million colors, but be aware that they will look a little different on different screens, and very different on a tiny number of really primitive screens.  The bigger issue with color is that a significant number of users, especially men, have some form of color blindness.  Generally speaking, you should avoid color-coding.
  • Anywhere you need contrast, such as contrasting text to background, you need to contrast in value: light next to dark.  For example, use black-on-white, yellow-on-black, or light blue on dark blue, but don't use bright red on bright green.
  • Excluding images, limit your color palette to four or five colors.  If you are unsure about mixing colors, just choose two or three.  If you are really scared, use a few (not too similar) shades of the same hue.  Here is a nice deck of colors that makes this easy (scroll down a bit to get to the good stuff).  But if you really want to play, check out Kuler.
Images

Creating/sourcing/editing/optimizing images is out of scope here, but please keep the following in mind:
  • Don't rip off graphics; we artists need to stick together.  Buy photos and illustrations on sites like thinkstock.com, get them free on xsc.hu, or use images you created yourself.
  • Monitors typically display in 72dpi, so you require much lower resolution online than in print (300dpi). Use whatever photo management program you have (and you almost certainly have one) to crop and compress the images as much as you can while maintaining an acceptable level of quality.  This may take some experimentation, but is enormously important for download times.  There is no better way to push away users than to have a slow site.
Layout

Depending on your design tool, you may be limited in your layout choices; this section is primarily for those of you creating your websites manually.
  • Keep your visual elements organized and lined up.  One hallmark of an amateur site is a bunch of randomly sized photos randomly strewn on a page.
  • Balance! Balance! Balance!  Use layout to balance positive and negative space, frame discrete blocks of content, and make the page easier to scan.  Another hallmark of an amateur site is a single wide column of text, usually with a ton of white space beneath it.
  • Liquid layout, in which a column width changes when the browser width changes, makes is difficult to control visual balance.
  • Test in as many browsers and devices as you can. Test resizing, zooming, and changing text size.
  • Using frames is very old school and poorly supported.  Use divs.
I hope you find this helpful.  Next up: informational and functional design considerations.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kate's Guide to Author Websites, Part III

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Design Considerations: Business Before Cool (A Prologue)

Web design is a vast, multidisciplinary field.  In order to boil it down to the most important points, I need to start by making one thing very very clear:

The purpose of a commercial website is to compel the user to take a specific action.
This is a point that tends to get lost in all the creative and technical geegawry, one that even a lot of professionals forget, so I'm going to say it again.


The purpose of a commercial website is to compel the user to take a specific action.

Your author website is a commercial website.  You may not want to think of yourself this way, but you aren't stupid; you know this is business.  So approach your website design as a matter of business. 

I'm going to discuss design considerations in three parts: visual, informational, and functional.  But since all of these play a role in getting your user to do something, your first order of business is to determine what that is.  For fiction writers, the purpose of the website is probably going to look like this:
  • If you have a book on the market, you want your visitor to buy it.
  • If you expect to have a book out at any time in the future, you want your visitor to pre-order it as soon as becomes available.
  • You want agents and publishers to request your work.
  • You want retailers to stock your book.
  • You want potential reviewers to review your book, and review it positively.
  • You want potential interviewers to interview you.
Make your own list now, and keep it next to you as you create your site.  Now you agonize over how to actually make these things happen, right?  Well, the general answer is of course to make your books and yourself sound interesting.  And while that may be the grossest oversimplification since "the world is big," there is one little secret about the web that should make you feel better:
Making a person want to do something is not difficult; real success is determined by how easy you make it for them to carry out.
So now put yourself in your various visitors' shoes and make a list of all the ways you can make the above actions easy for them, easy enough to overcome whatever objections or obstacles they might have.  Here are some examples:
  • Including interesting facts about yourself and your relationship to your subject makes it easier for a reviewer to write a compelling article.
  • Demonstrating that you are articulate about yourself, your book and your writing process assures interviewers that you would make a good guest.
  • Displaying an email address (your's or your agents') allows industry folks to get in touch as well as fans.
  • Having purchase links displayed everywhere a book is mentioned makes it easier for a visitor to buy your book the moment they decide they want it.  Especially mention if it is available on kindle/nook/etc.
  • Fair linking (including all major retailers and indies) helps buyers get your book from their preferred retailer, and assures retailers you aren't undermining them.
  • Having direct links to your twitter, facebook, and blog pages makes it easier for them to stay connected.  Likewise, allowing them to sign up for email notification of new books lets newsfeed-weary users get just the information they want.
You're probably thinking this stuff all sounds obvious, and that you were planning to include it all along.  I'm making a big deal of it because I want you make a big deal of it, and not unthinkingly bury it as so many amateurs do.  When I worked at WellKnownInternetCompany, we received 100% of our revenue directly from consumers who purchased services on our websites, so we had to make a science of ushering them to the finish line.  I know first-hand what a significant difference you can make designing purposefully, so I'll be discussing visual, informational, and functional design explicitly in terms of how it efficiently it compels and facilitates users to take the actions you want them to.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Kate's Guide to Author Websites, Part II

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Choosing Your Path
The nuts and bolts of getting your author website up and running involves three basic actions:
  1. Register a domain name.
  2. Choose a hosting service.
  3. Create the website itself.
Unfortunately, you really shouldn't look at these as a step-by-step process of decision making, because they are deeply interdependant. Deciding on a path is like building a tasty, well-balanced meal from a bunch of casseroles.

Click on the links above for details about each.  However, it's a lot of information, so I'll make it easy for you by providing three options you can use right now with no further fuss.

Path One
Make a website here on blogger.com.  If you don't want to extend your existing blog, create a new one.  Use a different email address if you need to (I recommend creating one on gmail.com)  Go to Customize->Posting->Edit Pages to create new pages, and add navigation.  Under Settings->Publishing->Custom domain, you can purchase a domain name for $10/yr.  Your blog is still hosted for free here on Blogger, but both the original blogspot.com and your new domain name will both point to it.

Path Two
If you want something less bloggy, go to weebly.com and create a free website.  The process is self-explanatory.  If you like what you come up with, go to the settings tab and click on Change site address.  Choose Register a domain if you don't already have one.  They will do the DNS setup for you and charge about $40/year.  If you want to save a little money but have a little more work to do, purchase the domain at GoDaddy.com for about $10/year first.

Path Three
Hire a professional and let them handle all this stuff.  I'll talk more about hiring a professional in a later installment, but perhaps the most interesting point is that it will probably cost at least $2000 if it's worth doing at all, and there are still lots of decisions to make.  So actually, there is some fuss with this one.

Check back for Part III: Design Considerations

Monday, May 3, 2010

Do-It-Yourself Web Development

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

I'm assuming that you are not a web developer yourself, and that you will need either a tool to create your site (similar to creating a blog) or you will hire a professional web designer/developer.

I'll talk more about hiring a pro in a later installment, but if you go the do-it-yourself route, there are many ways to easily create great-looking author websites.

Blogs
If you are here, you probably already blog.  Blogs can be customized to the point that they look like a regular website, and they can run under your own domain name.
  • Here on Blogger.com, go to Customize->Posting->Edit Pages to create new pages and add navigation. Under the Settings->Publishing tab, you can specify your own domain name. Your blog is still hosted for free here on Blogger, but both the original blogspot.com and your new domain name will both point to it.
  • WordPress is another highly-customizable blogging platform (really a Content Management System or CMS) that can be also run on your own host/web server. Doing so allows even more customization and you can eliminate the “Powered by WordPress” branding. This requires a little more technical knowledge, but the super-customized results can be seriously professional – many high profile, big-company sites run on WordPress. Joomla and Drupal are other popular CMS’s that you might hear about.

Hosting Service Tools
Many hosting services provide other tools to create websites using templates and components while still allowing you to use your own domain name. Many are even free, such as weebly.com.
  • Only consider such hosts that promise not display ads on your site.
  • The template quality and options vary widely, so you might want to try out several of these free services to find the one that gives you the best results.
  • Download speed is important. Some of these services create very bloated web pages, or have slow servers, or are on the other side of the world, any of which can make your site take forever to load in a typical visitor’s browser, and people tend to abandon slow sites.
  • Make sure the created site works on all major browsers. For example, wix.com creates slick flash animation sites (though you have to pay to use your own domain name). The downside is that not all of your visitors will have the flash player installed, and it’s not supported on the iPhone.  I’ll talk more about browser compatibility in a later installment.
  • The main downside of using these template-based sites is that they tend not to be very flexible and your site may look an awful lot like a lot of other sites.
  • The other minor downside is that you probably can’t take the template with you if you move to another host. Since you’ll probably be moving in order to update the look of your site anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about this.

Website Creation Software
You may have heard about WYSIWYG website creation software.  Examples are Adobe Dreamweaver and Microsoft Expression.  These purport to be easy to use and are advertised with phrases like No Coding Required!  What they don't tell you is that you still have to understand the code (plus a lot more) to make the tools really work for you.  So try out free versions if you want to, but without basic working knowledge of HTML/XHTML and CSS you will probably get very frustrated very quickly, and you will still have to figure out how to test your site and publish it to an actual hosted web server.

Another option that might seem appealing is using the “Publish to Web” feature in your word processor. I do not recommend this. The web pages these generate are not standard and are not well supported by browsers. They simply aren’t going to give you professional-looking results.

Choosing a Hosting Service

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Your website must live on a web server. A hosting service is basically a company that owns web servers and rents space on them.

I recommend you decide whether you will create your website yourself or hire a pro before choosing a host.  If you hire a pro they can help you with the hosting decision.  If you create your website yourself, you will probably want a host that has tools to help you do this and create your site for free.

The details:
  • Expect to pay $0 to $20 per month.
  • There are different kinds of web servers running different kinds of programs and different kinds of sites. However, a typical author website should be able to run on practically any kind of web server.
  • Look for a hosting service that has a guaranteed availability (or uptime) of 99.9% or better. This assures you that your visitors will be able to get to your site any time.
  • Look for a hosting service with excellent customer service, preferably one with a prominently displayed phone number that is answered by a real person 24x7x365.
  • If they offer multiple packages, the lowest-priced one will usually more-than-suffice for a typical author website, and you can always upgrade or move later if necessary.
  • Most hosting services also offer domain name registration, but make sure you actually own any domain you reserve with them and get it take it with you if you change services.  This is almost always the case with larger providers.
  • Many hosting services offer free or inexpensive tools that allow you to develop your own website similar to the way you customize your blog.  In fact blog sites themselves are free hosting services, and these days you can make your blog look very much like a regular website by simply adding pages.
  • Many web developers and development firms also offer hosting. Although they may not guarantee 99.9% uptime or answer the phone at 4am, this disadvantage may be offset by the fact that they know you and your site and may be more comfortable for you to deal with. Others resell hosting services from larger providers, potentially giving you the best of both worlds.
  • Avoid using a small hosting company in a different part of the world. They are unlikely to have servers near your visitors (which impacts download times), and may be difficult to communicate with. 
  • If you are a minimally technical person and want to create your website yourself on the cheap, I recommend using weebly.com.  It is free and has an easy website creation tool, and unlike some such sites, weebly doesn't charge extra to use your own domain name (though they do charge a premium to register it for you).  There are two main downsides.  The first is that the site might look more simple and less unique than you'd like, and the second is that you have to pay extra if you don't want the "Create free website with Weebly" branding at the bottom of the page.  However, you can always move to something more sophisticated later if you feel compelled to.

Buying Your Own Domain Name

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

If you plan to have a professional author website, you will need your own domain name. Although janedoe.com may look better and be easier to remember than janedoe.somecompany.com, the real reason you need to own your own domain name is to be able to print it in books and know that as long as you pay your bill it will belong to you no matter how many times you update or move the website itself. Here is a cautionary tale of why this is so important.


Now the facts:
  • Registering a domain name just takes a few minutes from any of a zillion online services (google to see what I mean). You can almost always buy it from your host or developer as well.
  • Expect to pay around $10 a year.  There is usually a discount for buying more than one year up front.
  • Be absolutely certain that YOU own the domain. Sometimes web development firms or hosting sites will register a domain name on your behalf, but you only get to use it as long as you are their customer (and they stay in business). The whole point of getting your own domain is to be able to take it with you.
  • For an author site, you should naturally use your name as it appears on your books, preferably followed by .com or the most prevalent commercial suffix for your geographic region: janedoe.com, janedoe.co.uk. If that isn't available, add the word "books" to the end of your name: janedoebooks.com.
  • If you check with a registration service and discover your name is available, I recommend you purchase it immediately. Likewise, don't discuss your specific domain name ideas in public forums. There are some unscrupulous people out there who, upon learning someone is interested in a specific domain name, will buy it up and then offer to sell it back to you at an outrageous price.
  • If you checked your name a while back and it was in use, try checking again. There used to be companies that would buy every name in the phone book. Thankfully, most of these companies seem to have gone out of business and zillions of names are back on the general market.
  • Once you have purchased a domain name, you will have to "point it" to your website.  This is process is usually called DNS setup.  This can happen in a lot of ways, but if you use the same company to both register and host your site, it will usually do this for you.  Generally, if you sign up with a different host, they will give you one or two name servers.  You then provide the name servers to the domain registrar.  It might sound a little complicated right now, but in practice is really simple.
  • If you are buying a domain name by itself, I recommend using GoDaddy.com.  Their prices are competitive and they have very good 24x7 phone support.  The main downside is that they try to upsell you to death.
  • Although often included automatically, it is worth paying a bit extra for private domain registration.  Anyone can look up who owns a domain name, and this information includes an address.  As an author, you probably don't want your address visible to overzealous fans.  Domain registration privacy service hides it.  This also protects you from a lot of spam.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Kate's Guide to Author Websites, Part I

In my last post I offered to redesign a few authors' websites for free.  In the feedback I learned a lot of you want (and in some cases need) to get a website up and running in the first place.  I can't afford to do that for you for free, but I can teach you to do it yourselves.

People will tell you getting a website is a simple and cheap process.  Other people will tell you only amateurs do simple and cheap.  There are more facts and opinions that you can possibly sift, and nothing authoritative or neutral ever gives you anything specific enough to work from.

So I will do this for you.  Over the next several posts, I will tell you how to get your website up and running.  I won't cop out and say, "look for something like this."  I will give you actual company names, and while I won't guarantee they'll be the best choices for you, they will be good choices for most authors and I am in no way compensated by any of them.  I'll give you the pros and cons of using pros and shortcuts and hybrids of the two.

But first thing's first.  Do you need an author website?  I've been re-reading what blogging agents have to say about it (see pubrants web-related posts for example).  It comes down to this:
  • If you are a published auther: YES.  You need a professional author website for readers.  (Wait wait wait, you say.  Professional?  Is this a sales pitch?  No.  I'll explain what I mean by professional further down, and it doesn't mean you have to pay someone to design it.)
  • If you have a book deal: YES.  You need a professional website for advance readers/sales/publicity/etc.
  • If you are querying agents:  NOT REALLY.  If they like your query or meet you at a conference and see you have a website, they might take a look.  If they do, it had better make a good impression, so the real answer is: ONLY IF IT'S PROFESSIONAL.
  • If you are not yet to the querying phase: NO.  It really can't help you at this point, but it can hurt you if it's unprofessional - even if you take it down, because a cached version can show up in a google search down the road.  Don't fret if you have one, though.  Cached google results are unlikely to be a problem as long as you replace a bad site with a good site by the time you need a good one.
OK then, what do I mean by a "professional" site?  I mean that it presents you as a professional author.  A professional author website meets these criteria:
  • It is functional.  It is clearly organized, easily navigable, there are no broken links, and it looks and behaves the way you expect it to on all major browsers.
  • It is well-written. For the love of God, have it proofread.
  • It is current.  By this I mean that content is up-to-date.  If nothing has changed in a while, that's OK, but be careful when listing current and future dates.  Your site mustn't look frozen in time, all aflutter about your book release coming up in October 2008.
  • It has all the content it needs to have.  It tells about you, about your book(s), how to buy your book(s), cites reviews and interviews, lists appearances, and includes contact info.  It is targeted toward readers who already like you or are positively disposed to like you.
  • It has none of the content it shouldn't have.  It has no offensive content, nothing off-topic, no inside jokes, nothing that would embarrass your agent or publisher, no dirty laundry, no crazy, no anything that would make your readers feel they've stumbled into an awkward conversation between you and your demons.  If your blog has these things, think twice before linking to it.
  • It has your own domain name: janedoebooks.com as opposed to janedoebooks.wordpress.com or janedoebooks.wix.com.  This isn't because your own domain name makes you seem more important or is easier to remember or just looks better.  You need your own domain name because only by owning it can you take it with you when you want or need to change hosts.  I'll talk more about this later.
Note I didn't say it has to look really slick or unique or have a bunch of bells and whistles.  (Look at Suzanne Collins' website if you don't believe me.)  I think people tend to stress a little about whether their site is cool enough, or has enough multi-media and whatnot.  The important thing to remember is that the real purpose of your site is to sell your books, present and future.  I'll talk more about which design considerations really matter, which are just nice-to-haves, and which can backfire.  In the end, though, content is king.

Check out Part II: Choosing Your Path.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Would You Like an Author Website Redesign?

This post falls in the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your's department."

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I recently left my very cushy job at a very well-known internet company.  I've decided to start my own web consulting firm, and one of the services I am offering is web design.  I'm in the process of building up a portfolio I can show prospective clients.

I would like to include an author website redesign or two.

To this end, if you are interested in a professional redesign for your author website, send me an email at kateinthecloset at gmail dot com.  If it's something I can do in a reasonably short time, I would be happy to create a free design for you to look at.  If you like it, you can have it in exchange for a testimonial and permission to display it as part of my portfolio.

Sound like a good deal?  (It is.)

OK, now back to talking about writing...

Art

Every year I look forward to "Art in the Square", the annual art festival Southlake, Texas.  Although I've had no time to write or even read lately, I made time for this, because every year I find a new artist that blows my mind.

This year it was actually two artists, the McDonalds, Sheryl and her husband Jimmy.  One could not walk by without noticing the colorful mannequins lounging around their booth.

As I stepped closer to appreciate the whimsy, I realized I was not looking simply at a painted mannequin.  It was actually perfectly decoupaged with hundreds of photographs.  Getting photographs to smoothly cover a human-shaped object is no easy feat.

But then I looked closer, and realized these were not simply colorful photographs.  They were photographs of paintings.  And what's more, they were all wildly different and yet seemed to me to have been from a single source.

In fact they were.  They were all Jimmy's paintings.  Twenty years-worth.  Photographed, printed on acid-free paper, and painstakingly arranged to balance color, subject, and composition over every inch of 'Ruby'. 

There was even at least one joke in the piece, a picture of a painting of a feather plastered to Ruby's inner thigh.

I used to appreciate art for how it made me feel.  Art like this frankly makes me feel lazy and inadequate, but I absolutely appreciate it.  So now I'm forced to change my mind.  I appreciate art that makes me look closer, look longer, and make discoveries.

I suppose I'm growing up.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

R U annoyed by teh internetz grammar alot?

Then please read about this handy coping mechanism for OCD grammarians in the Age of the Internet.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My First Ever Query - Sort Of

Today marks a bit of a milestone for me.  I submitted a query for a non-fiction (technical) book to a rather unique series publisher.  (I hope McKoala counts this as a point!)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sometimes It Only Takes A Few Words

I would really love to write a novel that communicates some universal truth that transforms the reader in some fundamental way.  We all would, right?

But sometimes really important ideas are really simple.  They don't need an epic context to explain or substantiate them.  The most profound thing I've ever read was on a scrap of paper stuck to a friend's parents' fridge:
No one ever lay on his deathbed and wished he'd spent more time at the office.
I love this line.  It is both a literal fact and a meme.  Substitute "at the office" with "doing laundry" or "being afraid" or "holding a grudge" or "waiting" and soon you have a little test that you can apply to every little decision you make in a day.  Just today I decided making my daughter's birthday special - by spending it with her - was more important than cleaning the house for her party.

The one little problem with writing a brilliant pearl of wisdom, as opposed to a tome of it, is that it gets paraphrased all over tarnation and attribution rarely survives.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I'm No Good at Pranks

I briefly toyed with coming out of the closet and admitting I'm really Sarah Palin, but I'm just no good at April Fool's jokes.

Speaking of which, have you visited google.com today?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Don't Tell Her Where I Live!

The Koala is not going to be pleased with me!  I haven't written any fiction this month at all.  I haven't even read any, unless you count job descriptions.

Friday, March 26, 2010

I Have Not Forsaken Thee, Blog

I've just been busy reinventing my life, which was the whole point after all.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Physical Sensations When Writing?

(No, I'm not talking about the feeling you should get when writing love scenes.)

I've noticed the weirdest thing.  A few years ago I went to Japan for the first time.  I was told that all food is served basically bite-size and that you are supposed to eat pieces whole rather than nibbling them from between your chopsticks.

No one explained the exceptions.

So there I was, staring at the 1"x2"x2" block of glutinous rice I had randomly speared from a pot.  I'd never had it before and thought it was tofu.  Whatever it was, there was no turning back.  I popped in my mouth.

It filled up my entire mouth.

I tried to chew it.  It seemed to grow bigger. 

I tried to chew off swallowable bits, but it just wouldn't break down.  I started to gag at a little.  I wanted desperately to spit it out, but I was at a fancy restaurant with gracious hosts and didn't dare.  So I just kept chewing.

It took - no exaggeration - five minutes to chew and swallow that thing.  Five of the longest, most uncomfortable minutes of my life.

So here's what's weird: whenever I'm having trouble with wordiness, I get that sensation in my mouth.  It's as if even imagining reading the words out loud fills my mouth with them until I'm afraid I'll gag.

Anything like this ever happen to you?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Hardest Thing I've Had to Write

My resume. 

Regardless of my immediate 'career' plans, the first thing I have to do is update my resume while my memory is still fresh and I still have access to any supporting documentation I might (ever) need.

But OMG this is so hard!  Condensing 16 years down to two pages, positioning myself as this and/or that, branding myself...  well this has to be more difficult than writing a novel synopsis for submission.  And I know I know I know - everyone has to do it now and then.  That doesn't make it any easier.  I don't like to define myself in life, and I like defining myself on paper even lesss.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Possibly Big News

In my very first blog post, I mentioned that I have a great job, and jokingly lamented that it was keeping me from writing.  Well, my job as I know it today is going the way of the dodo.  All things come to an end, and corporate reorganizations are inevitably only a question of "when".  My team is breaking up, and with it all the things I love about the work.

The safe and rational path would be to find another job in the same company or elsewhere, but I just can't get excited about being a corporate cog anymore.  My heart has moved on.

So, unless some amazing cog job befalls me, I've decided to take half a year and have a go at being something else.  I wish I could tell you that "something else" is novelist, but more likely it'll be entrepreneur.

No matter what happens, it's going to be exciting -- and stressful.  I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Last but not least...

Do you use any of the advanced features of your word processor?  For example, customized AutoCorrect Options, AutoSummarize, or Track Changes?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Question #3

I mentioned authoring software yesterday.  By that I mean programs that go beyond word processing to help writers develop fiction in particular.

The ones I've seen are focused on a) organizing the work by chapter and scene, and b) allowing you to enter metadata for scenes, characters, locations, and items.  For example, you can enter the date and time of a scene along with the location and whoever appears in it.  In some cases they show you outlines and graphs of the data you enter.

I haven't used any of the commercially available ones because the advertising puts me off.  ("Learn the SECRET best-selling authors DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW.  We GUARANTEE you'll finish your novel in 24 HOURS!")  The free versions look innocuous enough; a typical one is yWriter5.  I have used similar programs for screenwriting and was underwhelmed.  I already have a way to store notes, and I can already save my work by scene or chapter or whatever I like.

That said, there are lots of things I would love to have.  Here are a few.  I've even started writing my own programs that do these things. 
  1. See most frequently used words and phrases, including counts and distribution through novel
  2. See count and distribution of best-in-moderation things like "-ing" words, parentheses, semicolons, and dashes.
  3. See count and distribution of modifiers.
  4. See ratios and distribution of dialog, description, action, exposition, etc.
  5. See variation in sentence, paragraph, scene and chapter length.
  6. See all the written description pertaining to a specific character, location, or thing.
  7. See all the dialog spoken by a specific character. 
And this brings me to today's question.  Do you think any of this stuff sounds useful for the way your write?  What would you want to add?

Monday, February 22, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Question #2

Have you ever tried using authoring software?  Have you ever wanted to?  Do you even know what I mean by "authoring software"?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

TOOL WEEK! Question #1

My professional background is Systems Analysis.  I'm always fascinated by the processes people use to accomplish tasks, and the tools that (may or may not) help them be more productive.  In many occupations there is a small set of tools that are essentially industry standard.  Authors' tools are sort of interesting to me because there doesn't seem to be one tool that is standard, unless you count Microsoft Word, which in my opinion isn't actually an authoring tool at all.  Instead it seems we all use our own random combinations of tools.

So tell me, please, what tools do you use for creating fiction?
  • Word processor?
  • Authoring software?
  • Websites?
  • Office supplies?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Fantastic Story I Can't Tell You

You know, life really is stranger than fiction.  I've been collecting crazy real-life stories for ages.  The last time I told one at a party, the next person to tell a story prefaced hers with, "but this story is true!"  My story had been not only true, but easily verifiable via Google.  Alas, it was simply too fantastic.

Well now I have another one.  The most gripping one yet.

And I can't tell you.

It's acutely frustrating to have to keep this a secret for many many reasons.  But I can't tell you because of the nature of my own involvement in the story, because it isn't actually over yet, and because there is still a lot at stake.

*Sigh*  Maybe one day I'll be able to write the book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Climbing the Walls

It drives you crazy, but life wouldn't be worth living without it.  I'm reflecting on suspense today, and it's required me to make up a word:  concludability*.  One way to categorize suspense is in terms of its concludability.

First, there are things you can be confident you will learn in a give time frame - the outcome of a contest, the sex of a baby, or whether you got into your first choice college.

Second are the things you may be confident you'll learn at some point, but you have no idea when.  Are they going to promote me or lay me off?   What comes after Blu-Ray?  Will I ever have children?

Third and finally are the things that you aren't confident you'll ever know at all.  Will I have great-grandchildren?  Have humans permanently destroyed the environment?  Does he love me?

In real life, suspense with a more-or-less imminent conclusion is usually both the most intense and the most enjoyable.  Certainly this explains why fiction is popular- the reader gets to experience suspense with the comfort of knowing (a) whatever happens won't actually hurt the reader, and (b) the suspense will end by the end of the story.

But in books, we writers get to play a special game.  We can simulate any kind of suspense we want to.  We can get the reader identifying so strongly with the protagonist that they can temporarily feel as if they might never know the answers.  The question is, should we?

Do you think about what sort of suspense you are setting up in a story?  Many successful novels set up a neat problem on page one, answer it on the last, and everything in between is either part of the problem or part of the solution.  Other successful novels meander are more complex.  Do you have a preference?


*No idea if this is already a word, but it's probably misspelled anyway.