Thursday, January 31, 2008

Websites and Writing: Here I Am, World!

So. You're on the web. Now what? Well, you could promote yourself. Visit other authors' websites, and share the love. Post a polite comment on their blogs or message boards with your website attached in the signature (be sure you aren't just spamming and you really do like that author - mind your manners, as Mom used to say). Reciprocate by inviting them to do the same on your blog or message board. Announce a website launch to your friends, your family, your neighbor, etc. Distribute business cards with your web address on them (especially useful at conferences). In this industry, self-promo is often the only promo an author gets. Break out that elbow grease and pitch yourself!

Also, submit your website to search engines. There are some services that do it for you, but for a little extra legwork, you could find the names of the most popular search engines, and submit your site yourself. Start with Google and work your way down. Welcome to the web, fellow writer!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Heath Ledger & Fellow Author News

By now, most of you know that actor Heath Ledger died Tuesday. He was best known for his roles in "Brokeback Mountain," "The Patriot," and "A Knight's Tale." How sad this is - he was only 28, and left behind a 2-year-old daughter. With a 1-year-old myself, I feel all the worse for his family. My heart goes out to them.

What's strange is, I was just telling my husband the night before how much I liked Heath in "The Patriot." I had even planned to use him as inspiration for a character in one of my books down the road. Sigh.

On a much more positive note, fellow author Kari Lee Townsend entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest with her novel, DESTINY WEARS SPURS?, a Western romantic comedy that will keep you in stitches. She got a lot of nice reviews, including one from Publishers Weekly! Check it out!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Websites and Writing: Free, Free, Free (Or Is It?)

Public domain, open source, freeware, and free-use information can be useful in web design. Want a nifty font, graphic, or website layout? Chances are, you'll find one free somewhere online, and you're welcome to use it in your website, or distribute it as you see fit. Buyer beware, though: research carefully to be certain there are no use restrictions or copyrights on the item before you use it. Sometimes the authors kindly allow you to use an image however you like, but they want you to link back to them on your website. This has always rubbed me the wrong way - a "sneaky" (albeit legitimate, and anyway, you're the one who wants the graphic, aren't you?) way for people to plaster their names and "ads" on your website, whether or not their website is something you want to link to. If it's free, it ought to be free, no strings attached - but that's just my opinion. Otherwise, give some thought to making a Copyright page that explains who owns what that you used on your site, and always be sure you have documentation that you obtained permission to use it. (Keep copies in your files.)

Sometimes it's a case of "you get what you pay for." If it's free, is it of good quality? Is it on everybody else's website, too? You might want to learn Photoshop and make your own graphics, or create your own layout, or modify one so much that it bears no resemblance to the freeware template you pulled it from.

Always, always check into copyright if you have any doubt whether the item you're using is free. It's not worth a lawsuit, no matter how cool a graphic is.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Websites and Writing: The Have-Nots

Wanna kill your readership? Make a website they hate. OK, well, it's sort of an exaggeration, but not by much. Some train-wreck-gogglers will visit a bad website to see just how ugly it is--and believe me, there are websites devoted to a worst-of-the-worst listing (pray you're never on one)--but most people will avoid such monstrosities. Fear not, for below I will clarify some major items to avoid on your website. Brace yourself, 'cause I've got lots to complain about on these.

1. Too Much Junk - In web design, as in life, people appreciate neatness. Don't add lots of graphics and videos and audio (I prefer no audio, unless you are a musician, which most writers are not. Even then, a smart singer makes the audio optional, and does not force it on the web surfer automatically upon page load). A few classy, well-placed, relevant graphics will do (a page of text-only gets real dull, real fast). Don't clutter your reader up with all that extra junk, because that's what it is: junk. That, and it slows down page load time. The average reader is only going to wait a matter of seconds for your page to load before they go elsewhere. This is the single most important deterrent to a web visitor. FYI, some of us still have dialup.

2. Unreadable - We. Hate. Unreadable websites. Stick to a base font that isn't cutesy, curly, tiny, or enormous. Don't blind us with day-glo colors. Give us painless colors, and high-contrast fonts in two, maybe three sizes for base text, headings, and subheadings. Stick to one or two fonts, and be consistent in where and how you use them from page to page. Don't drive us nuts with a frou-frou background image that makes text impossible to read.

3. Bad Graphics - You may as well have no graphics, if your graphics are choppy, blurry, or overbearing. A bad picture is worse than no picture at all, no matter what they think on eBay. Personally, I hate cutesy graphics, too. Unless you're writing about angels or kittens, please avoid the angels and kittens. Instead of adding pictures just to add pictures, make your graphics count. If they aren't doing a job, they don't belong on your site.

4. Poor Layout - My personal pet peeve is a website that shows obvious lack of attention to layout. Good layout conveys an organized mind. Organized mind equals organized writer, equals someone who knows how to organize a good story. I know. Silly of us to think that. Don't cram your text up against the sides of a window, or against the sides of your graphics. Learn to use margins! Don't throw graphics willy-nilly all around your page. Lay it out so that the most important factors of your website have prominence. We will pay the most attention to things you show us have importance. Check the front page of any decent newspaper, if you don't believe me.

5. Poor Navigation - This is a sub-peeve of poor layout. Give your readers a menu, in the same place on each of your pages, so that we can easily find where we are, and how to get somewhere else.

6. Broken Links/Graphics - Your website should always be updated and sanity checked. Correct or delete broken links. People hate getting excited about finding what they're looking for, and then getting a 404 File Not Found page when they try to click that link. This also goes for graphics that don't appear because the reference to them is incorrect or broken. That red X is just as annoying, so fix it! You want your page to display right - right? Show us you care about us, and keep your site up to date!

7. Scrollbars and Frames - I hate frames. I will, nearly always, leave a website that has frames and internal scrollbars. They make navigation annoying, and sometimes impossible. Sometimes, you get trapped on a page that has frames, even when you hit the Back button on your browser. The only scrollbar I want to see is the one on the right that lets me scroll down a long page. Also, do not (did I mention DO NOT?) make your reader scroll sideways. Many readers still have 800x600 resolution, which means that pretty page you designed in 1024x768 resolution is going to make them scroll sideways to see an extra slice of page on your right margin. When in doubt, make your page layout fluid, so that it adjusts within reason to whatever display resolution your reader chooses. See an HTML/CSS book for details, if that's unclear.

8. Pop-Up Windows - They have their place, but don't abuse them. Most readers don't want a million different windows open at the same time, and if you force a new one every time they click a link, they'll stop a-clickin', and just leave. They're happy to let the browser re-use the same window to get to a different page on your site. Keep these to a minimum, and only where they are most useful. Not sure where that is? Don't use them.

9. Ads (and Sometimes Links) - Thou shalt not ad-plaster, nor allow to be ad-plastered, your website. It's unprofessional. You are a writer. The only thing you should be plugging is yourself. Do you really want an ad for Brylcreem to be flashing at the top of your page? If you do want to plug your pal John Q. Writer, or anything else, do it voluntarily, in your blog, or even a Links page. Just remember, the more links to outside sites you add, the more suggestions you give your reader to leave your website for other pastures. (There is a certain amount of reciprocation among writers, though. When you link to them, they often link to you.)

Next Time: Public Domain and Open Source Info

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Websites and Writing: The Haves

There are some important details any author's website should include, even if you are unpublished. Let's jump right in, and talk about what an author's website should have.

Content, Content, Content (and Stuff)

Who's going to want to visit your website if you don't have anything good to say once they get there? Don't run on about unrelated subjects unless it's in your blog or a newsletter. Tell the reader the facts, quickly and clearly (layout for easy access is also important - we don't want to dig deep to get this info). Make it hard for your reader to get the facts, and you will confuse her into heading to Bored.com instead. And please, for goodness' sake, use proper spelling and grammar! You're an author - show me you know how to be a good one (especially if I am an editor/agent, and happen across your website). No excuses - spellcheck and hand-check every word you write. Fix typos ASAP. Here are the other major must-haves:

1. Who - This ought to be obvious, but sometimes, regrettably, isn't. Your reader wants to know your name, profession, and genre/subgenre of focus, if any. So tell us you're Susie Q. Author, Writer of Exciting Romantic Suspense. Right away. Or, if you don't want to pigeonhole yourself, just say Author (Bestselling Author, if you are one, but most authors realize that offhand by the time they become one, so moot point there). This should be on every page. Search engines like readily available topic info.

2. Bio - A little snippet of who you are and how you got that way. It doesn't have to be so extensive that you lead fanatic readers to your front door, but readers do like to know how you came to be an author, what you do in your free time, and maybe whether you have kids or dogs. It helps us to connect with you! (Sidebar: don't be so generic about your hobbies. It seems like all romance writers like gardening, so much that we might boilerplate that for our bios. What do you do that's unusual and memorable?)

3. Your Book List - What have you written? What's it about? Is it related (and in what order) to another book you wrote? Even if you haven't published, tell us your book title, and a little few-line blurb about the book. If you are published, tell us where to get your book, and include a picture of the cover. Savvy published authors will include a printable list that readers can take to their favorite bookstore. Include ISBNs and publication dates. And hey, plug yourself. If you won awards with that book, or have praise quotes from other authors or industry publications, say so! (Your mom's glowing review doesn't count, sorry.)

4. News and Events - What are you up to now? What's next? This freshens your website so that readers keep coming back to learn the latest dirt. You could start a blog to serve this purpose, but remember that this is an important obligation - keep it updated regularly (that goes for your whole site - keep it current)! Once a week updates or blog entries would be nice. We don't like our news to be stale. Funny how that is, but there you are.

5. Blogs, Message Boards, and Guestbooks - Speaking of blogs, let's talk about blogs. And message boards. And guestbooks. These provide some form of reader interactivity - we like to chitchat about our favorite authors/books with other fans. Remember, though, that you may need to monitor these to ensure the comments/entries are not offensive, abusive, or inflammatory, etc. I don't like censorship, either, but you don't want a 9-year-old to come across your website and find someone has posted links to X-rated material, for example, do you? Or you can add a disclaimer stating that you are not responsible for any content therein other than your own posts. Little butt-saving measure there, in case your forum gets rowdy.

6. Contact Information - Please, please, please, let readers, editors, agents, and newspeople know how to find you. Even if it's no more than a form to fill out and submit electronically, or your E-mail address, or your agent's name and contact info, at least we will feel like we can personally reach you to say, "Wow, your writing rocks!" And if you are worried about stalkers, your agent can filter those letters and handle them gracefully. If you don't have an agent, get that cast-iron stomach, and then block the scary E-mails. Don't ever post your home address (see earlier entry on WHOIS searches). Use a PO Box, or don't add a physical address at all.

7. Copyright - It is implicit that whatever you publish to the web is copyrighted to you as soon as it hits the page - no filing of copyright necessary. However, just for argument, at the bottom of your webpage, state that your site is "Copyright [year or range or years] Susie Q. Author, all rights reserved." That way, everyone knows this is yours, and to respect it as such. See intellectual property copyright laws for more info.

8. Extra Goodies - We like freebies and goodies. If you write to a soundtrack, tell us which songs you used. Post excerpts or teasers. Hold a contest for something we want. Add recipes. Include a press kit (these are nice for newspeople, and if you can provide a neat package for easy promotion, why wouldn't you?). The list goes on as far as your imagination.

Next time: What not to add to your website.