I was part of a writer’s symposium in California this past weekend and one of the attendees asked what makes a good author’s website. I found it an interesting question (particularly since I didn’t have a ready made answer) and decided to give it some thought for my entry here today. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is enough to get the conversation rolling, at least.
I look at an author’s website as their primary means of interacting with their audience, aside from the book itself. It is the place a reader will go when they want to learn more about the author – who they are, what they’re like, and what else they might have written. Sometimes readers are looking for additional background on books they have read or a way to contact the author to tell them how much they liked or hated the book. In short, it is the central information portal for that author.
Given that, there are some qualities that I think every author’s website should have:
Can draw in a reader who might not have experienced your work before
Gives the visitor a reason to come back often
Can be found easily through search engines like Google
Let’s take them one at a time.
Professional appearance – By this I don’t mean designed and maintained by a professional team of web developers that cost an arm and a leg. I simply mean that it is organized and is presented cleanly without a ton of clutter. With the tools that are available to people today, particularly content management systems like WordPress or Blogger, the average writer can create and maintain an excellent website with very little knowledge of web design and structure.
Interactive – Readers come to your site to learn information and to be entertained. Providing reading excerpts, discussion forums, games, contests, video clips – all these things can provide the necessary interaction to make them feel as if they have shared an experience with you, the author, and gained something from it.
Draws in New Readers – Truth be told, this is the name of the game. You want to maintain your current audience and keep them happy, but you also want to be able to interest someone who has never read your work before. Providing information on who you are, what you write, and where readers can find your work is key.
Gives the Reader a Reason to Return – It is this element that has made journals or blogs for writer’s so popular lately. By providing constantly updated information, be it writing samples, a look behind the scenes, or just a day-in-the-life style dialogues, writers can provide their audience with a reason to return to their sites on a regular basis. When people enjoy interacting with you, they are more likely to recommend your site or your books to others, helping you grow your audience.
Can be Found Easily – Basic search engine optimization (SEO) techniques should be used on every writer’s website, not only to increase their rankings in the search engines for basic keywords such as their last names, but also for long tail keywords that help readers who might not know your name find your work as well. For example, looking my name up in Google will let you find my website rather easily, but so will doing a search for the term”knights templar” (though it doesn’t rank as high as I would like!)
So there you have it – five basic criteria that I think every author’s website should meet. I’ll be talking more about this topic in the future, as I think marketing is a vital tool in an author’s toolbelt, but I’d also like to hear your thoughts. What do you like in an author’s site? What do you wish you saw more of?
When it became apparent that my husband and I were going to be giving a home to one of the strays my daughter rescued two and a half years ago, I wanted to name the dog Audrey Hepburn. I figured if Charlotte from Sex in the City could name her dog Elizabeth Taylor, then Audrey Hepburn made sense. The dog was a mix of colors, transluscent light and striking dark, with golden-eyes, willowy, graceful and demure.
The friend of my daughter’s who first took the dog named her Mochaccino, but I didn’t think that suited her. My husband nixed Audrey Hepburn. He nixed Grace, my second choice, too. He doesn’t like people names for animals. He was ready to nix keeping the dog, so I let him name her, thinking if he did so, he’d consider her his. He named her Snickers, which fits, because she’s chocolate and caramel and, it turns out, a bit nutty.
I call her SnickSnick or Snickerdoodle or Miss Missy. My daughter calls her Monkey. This is the same daughter who rescued a stray cat and named her Jazzy Cleopatra VooDoo Kitty. My husband can often be heard calling out with very little patience, “D…o…g?”, his voice rising at the end, but patience or not, she worships the ground he walks on.
The dog we’d had for the twelve previous years was named Smith. No one got it until we explained that he’d had a brother named Wesson, and they were a Rottweiler Pit Bull mix. Smith made for good protection. Snickers, not so much. She makes a lot of noise, but Jazzy makes just as much. I call her an alarm cat.
As a kid, I had dog named Bow because he had a bow tie shaped swath of fur on his neck. I had a calico cat named Tigertail because, well, you can probably figure that out. Later, I had a cat named Flag because his tail always stuck straight up like a flagpole, and his brother we named . . . Brother. My kids had a blonde cocker spaniel named Angel who was not one, and later a black chow mix named Cowboy who starred in one of my books.
Naming characters is the first thing I do with every book I write. I’m typing this post on Sunday afternoon while sitting in the backyard populating a new story. Actually, while populating two – the one I’m already working on that needs some additional cast members, and a new idea I want to do a proposal on. I can’t move forward with the chapters or the synopses until my main casts are correctly named. Using Lynn’s three questions, I know the basics of what’s going to happen, but before I can answer “Who am I?”, I need names.
I have two male protagonists in one of the books, and it took me DAYS to figure out their names. I’d known the first name of one since the idea came to me, but I went through at least five last names before settling on one. Most of the time, it’s a sound thing. A rhythm with first and last, though for my main characters, I need a name that would have been a part of shaping who they are. In this case, the name also fits the role of this particular character. He’s the one who will help my female protagonist connect with her roots. He’s grounded, solid, stable. Even his occupation comes from the earth, from nature. I didn’t go into naming him thinking of those things. It all just fell into place as I tried on first and last name combinations.
My gIRL-gEAR series was very heroine-centric, and the gIRLs’ names, for the most part, were more exotic – Macy, Chloe, Sydney, Melanie, Kinsey, Poe and Lauren – while the male characters had basic no-nonsense names: Leo, Eric, Ray, Jacob, Doug, Patrick, with an Anton thrown in for good measure. The heroes in my SG-5 series are spies, and needed a bit more . . . sexy oomph to fit their dangerous occupations: Christian, Tripp, Julian, Kelly John, Eli, Mick, Ezra, Finn, Simon and Kingdom (whose story won’t hit the shelves until December), with a Harry and a Jack to even things out. Trey Davis, the dragster mechanic in my March Blaze A LONG, HARD RIDE was originally named Aubrey but my editor wasn’t thrilled, so I had to rethink who he was before I could move on. (Aubrey ended up being his father!)
For secondary characters, those who I know will never get top billing in their own story, I have fun with names. Many of my books have someone named Annette, who in real life is my closest non-writing friend. I love sneaking friends into stories. In ONE GOOD MAN, coming in September from Harlequin Blaze, I have a character named Stephanie Monroe, and another named Kass Duren, whose wife is Helen. Those five people know who they are. *g* My husband gets a bit part in an upcoming book, too, though not one of mine! He helped out an author friend with a tech issue, and was thanked thusly.
I have several proposal ideas in different stages of completion, but every one of them has a full cast of characters, from the main protagonists to the drugstore owner and the county judge. I don’t have a single To Be Named character in the bunch, even the cow dog, the horses, and the bottle calf in my western suspense have names.
What about you? Are you as name obsessed as I am? Do you reuse names from book to book? (I know I’ve used Grant for two or three secondary characters, but I never repeat my main character names.) Can you remember all the characters’ names in your books?
Every now and then I get an email from an aspiring author asking for advice, whether it’s on writing, publishing, getting an agent, or just general inquiries. Every so often someone emails me their manuscript in the hopes I’ll read and critique it. Though common sense says to ignore unsolicited manuscripts (on the off chance the sender will claim I stole from them), I’d be lying if I said I didn’t open one or two out of curiosity. Consider it a hard-to-break habit from my days as an editor.
The other day I got an email from a man who wanted my advice. He’d published a novel through a vanity press (my words, not his). The press told him that they required he hire a freelance editor before they would accept his manuscript for “publication.” He did just that, then when the freelancer’s job was complete he paid the press for the right to publish his book as well. He told me that in a little over a year, he’d spent over a thousand dollars publishing his book and had not received a dime in compensation. In his own words, his book needed to begin paying him rather than the other way around.
I wrote back and gave him my honest thoughts on vanity presses (they’re financial sinkholes, useful only if you want to see your book bound, not to make a living or attract publishers/agents), as well as advice on the publishing process, resources on how to find an agent, and the like. He told me he’d sent the book to many agents after realizing the vanity press wasn’t the path to riches. He said the most common rejection he got was that the book was not edited thoroughly enough. He also told me that at this point he refused to edit the book any further because everyone who read it told him it was a “good book.” It was the fault of the publishing establishment for failing to recognize the book’s virtues. When I asked him who “everyone” was, he said 1) the freelancer he hired, and 2) the people at the vanity press.
That’s when I opened the file he sent me. I didn’t need to read past the first page to see what the agents were talking about. Plot and character aside, there were innumerable spelling errors. Grammatical mistakes. Changes of tense and voice. In short, unless things changed dramatically after page 1, this was not a “good book” and would not last five minutes on an agent or editor’s desk.
This post is not to embarrass or single out this guy (perhaps he is capable of writing a good book down the road) but to point out the psychological fallacy of being complimented. As painful as bad reviews are–trust me, they’re like a punch to the gut that lasts for hours–when it comes to honing your craft, they do far more for you than any positive review. The moment you start believing people who tell you that you do something well, you become complacent. Your work no longer requires the same diligence. When you once wrote six drafts, now you’re writing three. When once you wrote three, one is good enough.
Bad reviews can be harsh, but they often point things out that, if corrected, could make your work better. I’ve read a few negative reviews of my work that, despite that stomach punch feeling, were accurate in their criticisms. This is not to say that you should heed a review that states, “You suck and should never write again”, but rather look at the reviews which actually do contain nuggets of constructive criticisms. Perhaps a character’s motivation wasn’t as clear as it was in your mind. Maybe your research wasn’t as comprehensive as you thought. Perhaps someone will let you know they thought a plot twist was unbelievable, or a section ran on too long. These kind of bad reviews, if swallowed gingerly, will make your future works better.
I appreciate every single person who’s read and liked my books and cherish the letters from people who have taken the time to tell me that. Those letters can make your day and confirm that those hundreds and hundreds of hours spent hunched over a keyboard are worth it. But every author knows you can receive 99 letters from people who loved your book, yet it’s the one person who lets you know they hated it that will really stick with you.
A bad review is like a rejection letter in many ways. It stings like hell, but it can also help you focus. Obviously this guy I’m talking about is an extreme example of this psychological fallacy. He was being buttered up by people he was literally paying, the very definition of “yes men.” But most writers do not go to conferences, or read literary blogs, or have subscriptions to Publishers Marketplace. Once you’re published you have no choice but to learn the tricks of the trade on the job. Before they’re published, most authors simply don’t know what questions to ask.
I can’t tell you how many times, as both an author and an editor, somebody told me they knew their book was good because either a friend or family member told them so. These days, with innumerable resources available to writers, I tell people there’s no excuse to be ignorant either about the publishing process or the writing profession. Just like you don’t build a house by grabbing kindling from your backyard, you shouldn’t publish a book using only advice from those closest to you. Venture a little farther out, and you’ll find wood for a much sturdier frame.
Every writer needs unbiased critiques. When you’re published, your editor and agent will likely do that for you. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and have a friend or relative who can do this, but not often. Your best bet is to find writing groups or critique partners. Or, best of all, edit your own stuff. If you have the tools to write, you have the tools to edit. Writing a book doesn’t need to cost more than a pen and paper. Writing a good book, however, will cost a little pride. But if you want to be good, you’ll swallow a healthy amount of it and ask for more.
Last year I wrote, sold and published my very first dangerous book; this year I’m going to write one just for me and a small circle of friends who are not writers. I’m not submitting it anywhere; my agent will never see it, and the only people who will be able to read it are those non-writer friends of mine.
Why would I do that when I could instead spend my time writing something that would earn me another nice pile of money? For the joy of it.
It sounds selfish, and in some ways it is, but there is more to writing than publishing, and more to this writer than selling everything I create. Although I occasionally write blog posts about my restoration work or a new addition to my collection, the fifteen years I’ve been working on it simply isn’t for sale or public consumption.
I’ve written a couple of quilt-making books (glorified chapbooks with pictures demonstrating techniques, to be honest) for my guild friends, but aside from some hand-written notes in my quilt diaries I’ve never written a book about my quilt collection, and I think it’s time I did before I drop dead and no one knows or remembers why the heck I owned fifty of the same pattern quilts.
Along with being a serious quilt maker and conservator, I’ve also been a dedicated collector of double wedding ring quilts for about fifteen years. Each of the quilts in my collection is a bit like one of my novel characters: it has a name, a personality and a backstory. Despite the fact that they’re all made with the same pattern, they’re all unique and very different from each other.
I fell in love with the double wedding ring because my grandmother used that pattern to make the quilt I slept with every winter when I was little. Yes, it was my security blanket, my very first wubbie, and I adored it. I would stretch out on that quilt and look all the little colorful patches and wonder what sort of clothes they had come from (Grandma never threw out any old garment she could cut up and use in a quilt.)
That first, wonderful double wedding ring quilt got very ragged over the years, and while I was off in the military, my mom threw it away (she’s not a quilt person.) And it broke my heart, so from that day on I searched for a double wedding ring quilt with a soft blue background made in the thirties. I also started making quilts myself around that time. Eventually I found one that is probably as close to my grandmother’s quilt as I’ll ever find:
It’s a bit too old to use on my bed now, but wherever I live, this quilt is always hanging on display somewhere in the house.
I know the stories involved with the wedding rings quilts that I’ve found, restored and collected aren’t going to set the world on fire. I imagine that unless you’re a quilter they’re pretty boring. But I’ve always wanted to photograph my collection and put down on paper the stories that go with the quilts — not because my collection is important, but because it is important to me.
Not all of my quilts are beautiful. I have a half-dozen in the collection that I take to shows and conferences to demonstrate just how much ugly you can make with this pattern:
There’s the rare antique wedding ring quilt with 72 small rings that I spent six months restoring, and that our dog chewed a hole through in fifteen minutes; that taught me that nothing is sacred to teething puppies. I also have a great story about a rather homely-looking old gray and yellow quilt that my sixteen year old fell in love with and has me patch now about every six months so he doesn’t have to give it up. In another five years I think it’ll be a completely new quilt.
Writing a book for the joy of it means telling stories and documenting things that have made life on this planet a little more bearable for you during your time here. Although some writers have no problem publishing that kind of personal book, to me it’s not something I can slap a price tag on and toss out to the world. I don’t believe everything we are has to be sacrificed on publishing’s altar.
Quilting is an old art, and traditional patterns and techniques will gradually be lost as the craft of making them inevitably fades from popularity. You can buy beautiful quilts in any department store now, not that you should — the imported ones are made in sweatshops for pennies — and with the convenience of longarm quilting machines, hardly anyone hand quilts anymore. In another fifty years quilt-making will likely be viewed something quaint but silly, like handmaking smocked dresses and tatting lace.
I don’t think this book I’m going to write will exist much longer than my collection will, but you never know. Maybe one of my great-great-grandkids will discover, as I did, a great love of quilts and their patterns and wonder about the people who used to make them. Maybe they’ll dig through some old computer files and find the last e-copy of this book, and chuckle over the cheeky title I gave it:
And then I will have a chance to tell them all about the day I found our puppy under my sewing table, quietly chewing a hole through the binding I’d just hand-stitched on . . .
“I’d rather be a could-be if I cannot be an are; because a could-be is a maybe who is reaching for a star. I’d rather be a has-been than a might-have-been by far; for a might-have-been has never been, but a has-been was once an are.” – Milton Berle
I found that quote on the internet, and it gave me a bit of a kick in the pants. You see, for the past year I’ve been struggling. I’d like to say I’ve been struggling with being creative, with balancing life and work, or even with the business of writing for a living, but that’s not really true. What is true is that for the past year I’ve been struggling with myself.
It seems clichéd to blame it on the fact that I’ll be turning 40 later this year, especially since I’m someone to whom age has never mattered, but I can’t fight it anymore. You see, when I started writing my goal was to be feeling confident in my career as an author by the time I turned 40. I was smart enough to know that you can never be completely secure as an author, but I wanted to feel like I was doing my job, and moving forward. And therein lie my problem. Little by little, things were eating into my confidence that my career was moving forward, but I kept burying my head and pushing onward, because it had always worked for me in the past. And when it didn’t work, I stopped dead to try and figure out why.
So here’s what I’ve figured out.
There is no figuring it out. It is what it is. There will be good days and bad days. Days when I love what I do, and days when I hate what I do. Days when someone’s careless and hurtful words in a review can make me cry, and days when a reader letter can make me feel like a Rock Star. Part of being an author is accepting that there will be times I struggle not to put my fist through my computer screen, and others when it feels like magic is flowing from my fingertips. You know what else I figured out?
All Glory Comes From Daring To Begin.
Yep, that’s another motivation saying. One of two motivational posters that I’d had mounted for my walls over ten years ago. Last summer, when I was repainting and decorating my condo, I figured they didn’t look as nice as my other artwork, and they didn’t fit, so I gave them to a friend. Now I think that might’ve been a mistake because that was about the time I stopped pushing myself. So, I’ll be taking my camera out next week to take some shots that inspire me, and I’ll be putting my two favorite saying on them, and putting them back on display. What was the other saying that always kept me going?
Success Doesn’t Come To You. You Go To It.
Have you got any mantras that help keep you on track?
I’m on the road this week, visiting my brother in Oregon, so here’s a quick post: egoboo.
Yes, authors really do go into bookstores and take pictures of their books on the shelves. This is from my trip to New York City last month, at the book store in Grand Central Station. It wasn’t until I got home that I saw I had done double duty egoboo: here are Lynn and I, almost side by side in the romance section!
There’s a whole other topic, about how my books get shelved in both science fiction/fantasy and romance, how urban fantasy is weird because it crosses so many genre boundaries, and what the heck do genre boundaries mean anyway. But I’ll save that for another time.
I’m usually not one who is big on posting videos to blogs, but I listened to this speech from Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the international phenomenon EAT PRAY LOVE) yesterday and felt it said so much about the writer’s psyche the fear of failure, the fear of success, dealing with our muse – and more – that I just had to use it as my essay this morning. Anyone who has ever struggled with the creative process, who has slaved over a blank page or stared at a white canvass or stumbled over the right dance steps should listen to this speech – I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
I posted it on my personal blogs late last night but I think it belongs here as well. After all, you all chase after creativity as much as I do.
I’d also love to hear your thoughts on what she has to say, so don’t be afraid to comment.