Category: The writing life


Tips for authors: Creating a web site

By Midge Raymond,

As an author, you are probably well aware that having a web site is essential. What you may not realize is that it needn’t be expensive or high-end. It’s great to have a fabulous web site, of course, but many of us don’t have either the technical knowledge or the budget — and when it comes down to it, you simply need to have an online presence. You need a place where readers, potential reviewers or interviewers, and anyone else interested in your book can find and contact you.

A question I hear often from not-yet-published writers is: “Do I need a web site if I don’t have a book?” And there are a couple of answers to this question, depending on the writer and his/her goals. For one, if you have a book in the works with every intention of publishing it (i.e., you have a contract or plan to self-publish), you might go ahead and start planning a web site. And “planning” can mean anything from surfing around to see what author sites you like best to interviewing web designers. But if you don’t have a completed book just yet, your time will be better spent finishing the book than creating a web site. For now, anyway. (Trust me, writing the next book is even harder when you have a web site to procrastinate with.) There’s really no downside to having an author web site at any time, but if you don’t have a book to sell or events to list, there’s no huge hurry to get it up there, either.

However, even if you don’t have a book yet, I would recommend that you start a blog. This will give you an online presence and help you start building your audience and that “platform” that is so crucial to selling your book. Then, you can add your blog to your web site when you’re ready to make that leap. (See Book Promo 101: Creating a successful blog for more details and for tips on blogging.)

So, how to go about creating a web site? There are a million ways to do it, but these three tips will offer a good start.

– First, find web sites you like. You’ll want your own site to emulate what you like about your favorite author sites, whether it’s the bio page or the navigation bar.

–  Second, figure out how much time and money you’ve got to work with. A web site needn’t be flashy (in fact, the too-flashy sites, with bright colors or lots of animation, can actually irritate visitors) — it only needs to be pleasing to the eye and easy to navigate.

Third, define your goals as a writer and how your web site will serve these goals. If you’re on your sixth book and are ready to step into high gear to brand yourself as a writer, you’ll have a lot of content to manage and you might want outside advice and a professional designer. If you’re about to publish your first book, you may want a simpler site that focuses on your book and your bio.

Here are a couple of examples from two of my writer friends — wonderful and very different writers, with successful and very different web sites.

Anjali Banerjee is the author of eight books, for both adults and young readers, and she recently launched a new web site to help build up her brand as an author. Here’s a snapshot of her home page:

 

Anjali had her web site professionally designed by Authorbytes (if you ever see an author site you love, look for the designer credit on the home page), and her site is comprehensive, visually lovely, and user-friendly.

Elizabeth Austen is a poet and the author of a new book of poetry, two chapbooks, and a CD audio recording of her work. Her web site is through WordPress, which offers free blogging software with templates that allow you to create anything from a simple blog to a gorgeous web site like Elizabeth’s. Here is a snippet of her home page:

 

Elizabeth’s site is elegant, easy to use, and, like Anjali’s, it contains everything an author site needs. Elizabeth wisely uses a lot of photos in her blog posts, which keeps it visually engaging.

And I am somewhere in between … I have a domain name, no budget, and a techy husband who is not only very talented but also very patient. He built me a web site I love (and as thanks, I bought him many beers). Here’s a glimpse of my own home page:

 

 

So whatever your style or budget, with a little research and effort, you’ll be able to create the web site that’s perfect for your needs. And whichever route you take, keep in mind that your web site should have these essentials:

a home page, updated with the latest news. Because I don’t always have breaking news, I update the date on my web site so that visitors know I’m still alive, still writing, and still doing events and classes.

a book or publications page. Because Forgetting English contains only ten of the dozens of stories I’ve published, I’ve listed these other publications on my publications page, under the book. This is nice for readers who may want to know more; also, it makes me feel very prolific.

your bio, as you like it. Some authors write long bios that include their childhood forays into writing; others are short and to the point. Go with what you prefer — as long as it’s not so short that it doesn’t offer enough relevant information, nor so long that no one will read it.  Always include a good, professional photo (see Book Promo 101: The author photo).

an excerpt from your book. This is essential not only for letting readers do a test drive, but it’s also helpful for book bloggers who may decide to review your book based on a few pages. I’ve heard from several readers that the  Forgetting English excerpt on my site was what made them take a chance on reading a story collection, sometimes for the first time.

your reviews, blurbs and awards, of course! Show them off wherever you can (this is not the time to be modest), preferably on a dedicated page.

a reading guide and/or book club info. My Forgetting English reading guide is on my blog, but I link to it on my book page so that readers can find it easily. Anjali has a book club form to handle book-club requests, along with a link to her reading guide.

a link to your blog. My blog is listed on my navigation bar, but if your blog is separate from your web site, be sure to include an easy-to-find link.

–  links to where readers can buy your book. This is a bit obvious, but it’s amazing how often this info gets buried. These links should appear on your home page, or, if you have many books, in prominent spots on your individual book pages.

links to your Facebook and/or Twitter pages. Use those perky little buttons, which make them easy to find, and put them in the upper right corner of every page of your web site, where visitors can’t miss them.

a contact form or email address. One of the main purposes of a web site is to connect with readers — as well as to be accessible to reviewers, reporters, etc. If you are worried about being inundated with spam, use a contact form. And do your best to respond to every (legitimate) email you receive.

a way for readers to “subscribe” to hear about your news and events. If you haven’t already, begin collecting a mailing list of readers — this way, you can send Evites or email newsletters to announce your events (use a service like Evite or Mail Chimp so that you don’t get busted for spamming people). Note: never sign up people for news unless they’ve asked, and never share their information with anyone else. Here’s the form that I use.

During the process of creating your web site, ask friends, fellow writers, and others for their feedback — it can be hard to take a step back and see your site objectively when you’ve been immersed in the process. Ask them whether they’ve found everything they need, whether anything was confusing or hard to find, and what might be missing.

And, finally, consider updating your site every few years — and particularly when you have a new book to promote. You don’t want to redesign your web site so often that you lose your connection with readers, but a nice remodel keeps your site looking and feeling up-to-date. And keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be a complete overhaul; even an occasional touch-up helps, such as a new photo.

Enjoy!

How to create an inviting writing space

By Midge Raymond,

When Forgetting English was reissued in April, I did a weeklong Virtual Book Tour, during which several stops focused on my writing space. Having moved into a new space just a few months before, it was interesting — and a little alarming — to see how quickly my nice, clear writing space became, shall we say, “lived in.”

Now, having had to replace a dying computer, I’ve once again spruced up my writing space — it’s now neat, organized, and clutter free. Why is it, though, that I only seem to clear my desk during a time of change, like moving or getting a new computer? The problem is, these changes happen only every few years, if that — and so I find myself living more often with a cluttered space than a neat one.

As an example, below are a couple of before-and-after photos of my desk, during my last move to a new house.

On moving day:

 

Shortly after moving day:

It’s not pretty, as you can see (though it is homey) — and the problem is, a lot goes on at this desk. This is not only my Writing Space, but it’s also where I read submissions, edit, email, chat with authors, and spend far too much time on Facebook. As a result, when I’m working on my own writing, I find that I’m looking for another spot altogether.

But it doesn’t have to be this way — and the writing must happen, no matter what sort of space we’ve got to work with. So here are few tips for all you writers who, like me, probably struggle with how to create an inviting writing space, i.e., one you can’t wait to get to and never want to leave:

Just do it. “Spring cleaning” should not happen only once a year, and this is especially true for your writing space. At least once a month, go through everything on your desk and see whether it needs to be there. If not, remove it. (I have many scratches from removing the cat, but it is nice to have a clutter-free space.)

– Allot a certain amount of time each day for writing, and stick to it. Even if your writing desk is the same desk at which you do your day job or pay your bills, set aside some time when you will do nothing but write. Set a timer if you have to; disconnect your computer from the Internet if you must. And move everything that’s not related to your writing project off the desk and out of sight. (This may sound like a bit of a hassle, but I’ve tried it, and it works. Out of sight, out of mind.)

– On the other hand, write any time the mood strikes you. Some writers work well with a fixed schedule; others fit in their work when they can. I do a little of both, and often it’ll depend on the project itself. So figure at where you are in your project and how you work best. Sometimes ideas need to simmer; sometimes plotting out a novel takes thinking, not typing. Allow yourself the freedom to write when you’re inspired rather than sit at the computer trying to force it; you’ll save time and avoid lots of frustration.

Do try another spot. While you want your own space to be inviting, it’s always inspiring and eye-opening to get out for a bit. Go to a cafe or library, or trade offices with a writing buddy — often you’ll be most efficient when you’re away from (your own) home and the distractions of pets, kids, partners, bills, the TV, etc.

Above all, clear a space. You don’t need a home office, a b0ok-lined library, a sound-proofed room — all you need is a small and uncluttered space that will allow you to focus on your writing, and nothing else.

Are you still reading this? Go. Write.

 

Create your own virtual writing retreat

By Midge Raymond,

Lately my writing has taken a backseat to everything else — so I decided that I would take a long weekend to create an unofficial writing retreat. “Unofficial” essentially means that I didn’t need to apply, travel, or formally do anything other than pledge to write — perfect for such a last-minute decision.

When I mentioned this to my friend Wendy Call, an alumna of Hedgebrook, she too was up for the idea; she’d already been part of a more formal virtual retreat, Hedgebrook Writes (a brilliant idea). So when Wendy got a few other writers on board for a virtual retreat via Facebook, and my unofficial writing retreat began to feel a little more official.

Writing time is precious and necessary, but let’s face it — we can’t always leave home; we can’t always plan ahead. Yet there is no reason we can’t create our own writing retreats at any time, for any length of time, whenever we need to. A few hours of retreat time is better than none at all — it’s just a question of making the time. And so I finally did just that.

It was a great weekend overall, and I learned a few things that will make my next one even better. So here are a few tips that I hope will help you create your own writing retreat…

Just do it. My retreat was completely last-minute and completely unplanned. I wasn’t even thinking about it until I found myself, while writing an email to Wendy, realizing that I absolutely had to spend some time writing that weekend. So I decided to do it, told her my plan, and I’m so grateful that she ran with it, giving me no excuse to flake out on myself. Which brings me to my next tip…

Gather your fellow writers together. You don’t necessarily need to gather in one place; what’s important is that you all agree to write during the duration of the retreat. This will ensure that you actually write (be accountable to yourself and others by keeping in touch, or by reporting your progress at the end), and it’ll also give you the inspiration you need if your energy or creativity begin flagging. And, of course, if you do live close to your writing buddies, by all means, do get together, whether for a few hours of freewriting or a weekend retreat at a nearby inn. The group dynamic helps immeasurably.

– Clear the decks. On the first day of my retreat, I decided I would just do “one little update” to my web site, and as you can imagine, one thing led to another and six hours passed with no writing getting done. By then I had a headache, so I went for a walk, which ended up being a three-mile hike (albeit lovely — and I saw my first wild turkey ever, so it was worth it). But basically I lost my entire first day because I thought I could take care of one little thing before getting started. Make sure you’ve taken care of all that you need to do before retreating, so you aren’t tempted to do anything else that could end up overtaking your writing time.

– Create your space. You may have a place in mind for your retreat — a fellow writer’s house, a quiet cafe, a library — but perhaps more likely you’ll be writing at home. If you have other family there with you, you’ll need to let them know that you’re On Retreat and can’t be disturbed. Make whatever arrangements you need, from child care to pet care to hanging a DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door. This is your time.

– Stay offline. I didn’t check email, Twitter, Facebook, or anything else all weekend. It felt so great. For me, it helped that this was a holiday weekend during which nothing was happening work-wise — try to plan your retreat at a time when you won’t feel compelled to stay connected. And do whatever you must to be sure you don’t interrupt yourself with the lure of the web.

Give yourself guidelines. Whether it’s a timeline (writing from 9 a.m. Friday to 5 p.m. Sunday, for example) or project-related (finishing that first draft of your novel), give yourself clear parameters and stick with them. Figure out what works best for you (you may prefer a time-based schedule to avoid feeling pressured to finish a specific project; on the other hand, if you tend to procrastinate, setting a project-specific goal may be better). Then set your schedule and go.

Afterward, assess the pros and cons, the highs and lows. This will allow you to better plan your next retreat. Was being at home too distracting? Do you need to fit more reading time into a retreat weekend? Do you need to stay off the computer and write by hand? Figure out what can make your next retreat more productive and fun, and work it into the plan.

Schedule retreats often. I am already looking forward doing another D.I.Y. retreat over Labor Day weekend; I’ve decided that long holiday weekends are perfect occasions for me to carve out some writing time. But because waiting until September is too long a stretch to not be writing, I also plan to find a weekend to retreat sometime in August as well, even if it’s just a day, or a few hours. Plan ahead. You need and deserve this time.

And while creating your own, stay-at-home retreat is a beautiful thing, consider a more formal writing retreat as well — and if you do, check out these tips from Kelli Russell Agodon, an award-winning poet whose work is proof that writing retreats are necessary and magical.

 

How writers write

By Midge Raymond,

I recently revisited this Wall St. Journal article about writers sharing their processes — and I found it just as inspiring as when I first encountered it. It’s a great article only for the insider’s view into some of our favorite writers’ practices but for the comfort of knowing that there’s no “right way” to do things, and that the work can sometimes be a struggle for even the most successful writers.

Take Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, who “shuts himself in the bathroom and perches on the edge of the tub with his notebook when he’s tackling a knotty passage” — or Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who “often rewrites the first line of his novels 50 or 100 times.”

And then there’s British novelist Hilary Mantel, who writes in the morning, before before having even a sip of coffee (can you imagine?!). Russell Banks writes his novels in longhand, while Anne Rice writes on a computer in 14-point Courier.

Dan Chaon writes on color-coded note cards. Laura Lippman creates her mysteries using plot charts, index cards, sketchbook pages, colored ribbon, magic markers — and Edwidge Danticat begins her novels with collages of photos and images clipped from magazines.

And, like the rest of us, these writers don’t work without false starts. Kate Christensen was two years and 150 pages into her first novel before she started over; Junot Diaz tossed out about 600 pages before The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally began to come together.

What about when they’re not writing? Mantel always carries a notebook to jot down ideas, while Margaret Atwood scribbles “on napkins, restaurant menus, in the margins of newspapers.”

Sometimes when I read about writers and their rituals, I can’t help but feel as though I’m doing something wrong. For example, my schedule is such that I have no daily set writing time; I take it when I can get it. I wouldn’t dream of committing words to paper in a pre-coffee state (I need some tea, at the very least). And sometimes I write on the computer, sometimes longhand, sometimes in my head. It just depends: on time and timing, on where I am and when, and the story and how it wants to arrive in the world.

This is why I love articles like this one, showing us all the myriad ways in which writers work — they’re good reminders that what matters is not how the writing gets done but the fact that it does.

Ask the Editor: Writing for publication

By Midge Raymond,

Q: Is it better to write something, then seek out appropriate publications, or seek out publications and then try to write what they’re looking for?  Or both? — Sean P. Farley, Escondido, California

A: When it comes to poetry, essays, stories, and any sort of creative writing, I always say: Write what you want to write, first and foremost. (If you’re a freelancer and looking to write for hire, of course, you don’t always get to choose.) But when it comes to creative writing, you must tell the stories you want to tell. For one, being passionate about what you write is the only thing that’s going to interest you enough to 1) stick with it and 2) make it great. And even if you target a specific publication or publisher, unless you get a contract first, there’s no guarantee they’ll publish you anyway — and then you’ve written something that you may not care about as much or that you may not be able to publish elsewhere. So write what you want, always, and then start the publication search.

That said, it’s always good to get an idea of the publications and options that are out there, and this is where the “both” comes in. If you’re planning to submit a novel to an agent or press, do as much research as you can to make sure you’re a good fit. If you’re planning to submit to literary magazines, read and study them; learn what type of work they publish, and this will tell you whether your submission will be competitive. As this LA Times blog post reveals, the big secret to getting published in literary magazines is quite simply to read the magazines.

 

I wouldn’t recommend tailoring what you write toward any one publication — unless it’s something you’d write anyway — but if you read a lot and are always doing a little industry research, you’ll be in a great position to get your work published. An example: Years ago, I was working on a short story that just wasn’t going anywhere … I had this idea that I really liked but just couldn’t get it done (and believe me, I tried). So finally I set the story aside to give it some breathing room. Then one day, I was reading Poets & Writers and noticed a call for submissions for a short-short contest run by the literary magazine Witness. All of a sudden it hit me: That stubborn story of mine was meant to be a short-short. So I sat down, rewrote it, sent it off, and won the contest. This is not the sort of thing that happens every day (not even every year or two, actually) — but it’s the sort of thing that can happen if you write what you want to write and, at the same time, keep an eye on the opportunities out there.

 

Good luck & happy writing!