Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Social media buttons on your blog or website

You're probably familiar with social media buttons on websites. You know the kind of things: 'Share this on Twitter / Facebook / some network you've never heard of'.

These buttons seem to be everywhere these days. Every news item. Every blog post. Every web page. Shouting at you to (please) share! Share! Share!

Recently, there's been a lot of debate in the web design community about these social media buttons and whether they are really a good thing.

Here's one enormous problem with these social media buttons: they slow down your website.

Every social media button you have downloads a bunch of crap from Twitter or Facebook or that-network-you've-never-heard-of. Your website has to contact Twitter / Facebook / etc. and download a file.

The combined effect of this can be to add two or three seconds to how long it takes your website to display, and this is at best irritating to users, and at worst, if your visitors have a slow web connection, it might make them give up altogether.

Add this to an experiment carried out by the large website Smashing Magazine. They removed their twitter button, and found that this actually increased the number of times their articles were shared on twitter.

And, because these buttons are so widespread, most of us have become accustomed to ignoring them, in much the same way that our eyes skate past banner ads.

On the other hand, I don't know about you, but I do sometimes find myself clicking on those share buttons. But I only really do it on a few, limited websites. I do it on the BBC news site, sometimes, and on one or two campaign websites (you know the kind of sites; the ones that allow you to sign a petition or send an email to some politician). Otherwise, I tend to just copy the web address and tweet it if I want to share something.

If you do have social media buttons on your website or blog, think carefully if you should remove them. If your content is very shareable (and you'll know that, because people will be sharing it a lot), then keep them, or at least a couple of them. 

If not, get rid of them, speed up your website, and maybe even find that you get more or at least better-quality shares.

Because if someone has actually bothered to copy the web address and post it on Twitter or Facebook, that may mean they really think their readers will be interested. And one good share is worth a dozen pointless ones.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Web Design from Scratch: Secondary Characters

Yesterday, I started a new blog series on planning, designing, and building your website. I asked you to think of your website as a novel or short story, and I started outlining how you could use the model of a story like this to plan your website.

I suggested that you put yourself, as the website owner, in the position of the protagonist in the story, and I came up with personal character motivations as the protagonist in the story I was planning.

Today, I'm moving on to the supporting cast of characters.

Secondary Character Motivations

The supporting cast in this story are the visitors to the website. They are the people I'm trying to interact with through my website, and I'm only going to reach my character goals through my interactions with them.

Here's the thing: much as in any good story, the secondary characters really don't much care what the motivation of the protagonist is, except inasmuch as it impacts on their own lives. My visitors don't care if I meet my goals. They have their own goals.

As George R.R. Martin put it, every character is the hero of their own story. Your visitors are following their own stories as they visit your website, and you need to know those stories if you want to be part of them.

There are three important questions to ask about every supporting character in a scene:
  1. Where are they coming from?
  2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction they have with the protagonist? (Hint: it's almost never the same as what the protagonist — you — wants out of it.)
  3. Where are they going to?
If you don't know those things, your supporting cast will be cardboard cut-outs; if you don't know these things for your website, those visitors won't be hanging about for long.

Okay, so I'm hoping my visitors will be:
  1. People who love reading fantasy short stories (particularly, but not exclusively, contemporary fantasy stories)
  2. Editors, publishers and other professionals in the field of middle grade fiction (particularly those with an interest in fantasy and steampunk middle grade fiction)
  3. In the future, middle grade readers, librarians, parents and so on.
You'll have your own potential visitors, and you should try to get as good an idea of them as possible. Once you know who they are, ask yourself the three questions above. It can be good to brainstorm these with someone else if you can.

Let's look at the first of my groups and try to understand them.

Fantasy Short Story Readers

1. Where are they coming from?
You can interpret this question in two ways: Physically, where are they coming from? And, what is their background?

(Jenny Crusie recently had an interesting blog entry where she asked herself the same question about the characters in the novel she's currently writing. Check it out if you want more inspiration to answer this question.)

"Physically", these readers are likely to come to my website because they've either:
  1. read one of my stories somewhere else (in a magazine, an online publication, or, conceivably having read one of my ebooks), 
  2. they've come across me elsewhere and I've seemed interesting (...), 
  3. they've read a review of one of my stories, 
  4. because someone has linked to me, or 
  5. because they've come across me in another context entirely and saw that I write fantasy short stories.
In terms of their background, this group of people already like fantasy. They probably know the genre reasonably well. Short stories are, generally, a smaller and more specialized part of the genre than novels; they're harder to come across and discover than fantasy novels.

Because my short stories range from YA to much older fiction, I don't think my readers are restricted in age, although I suspect most are adults, and probably in their thirties and forties. From what I can tell, both men and women read my stories.

Because of who these people are, I'm not going to have to sell the idea of fantasy, or the idea of these type of stories, to the readers. I'm having to sell them on the idea that my stories are interesting and exciting enough to read.

2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction?
Clearly, people come to your website for a reason. They have to click on a link to get there. They have something in mind. Even if they are randomly surfing out of boredom, they want something as a result of visiting your website. So, what do these readers want? I think there are three reasons that this group of people would visit my website.

  1. To read one or more of my short stories.
  2. To find out if any of my short stories seem interesting enough to actually read.
  3. To find out something about me (for whatever reason). We could drill down further on this to try to work out what they might want to know about me.
If I don't satisfy these desires of my subsidiary characters, they're not going to stay in the story I'm creating here. They'll decide it's not their story, and they'll head off elsewhere, never to return.

3. Where are they going?
This one is a bit more tricky.

What we're essentially asking, in the context of a story, is 'Where were they heading to after this interaction, and how have they been changed by the experience?'

This is the nature of interactions in stories; they cause changes of direction for someone (probably for everyone, although I'm only focusing on the secondary characters, right here).

We can ask the same questions for visitors to the website. Where were they heading next? For the most part, visitors will either be intending to go to another website (often to one of their usual haunts, like blogs or twitter or facebook, or, if they came looking for something to read, to another author website) or they are intending to go offline.

I want to interrupt this progress to another destination, or, if I can't interrupt it, then I want to create the desire in my visitors to come back. I want visitors to read my stories, so I want my stories to be a step on the visitor's path. They may still be going to their eventual destination, but I want them changed by the journey, in such a way that they'll read and enjoy my stories.

Likewise, if they came to read one of my stories in particular, I want them to go on to read others, and maybe even buy my ebooks. I want them to remember me as a writer for that possible future when I have a book or more stories to share.

Let's take a real life example for this particular question. A couple of years ago, my wife, Stephanie Burgis, visited Nalini Singh's website. She was only intending to visit quickly to find out when Singh's next book was out. But while she was there, she noticed that there were 'extras' available: free short stories, deleted scenes, behind the scenes stuff. She stuck around to read them.

As Singh keeps adding more, Steph goes back to read them. And, as a result, she's bought several novellas set in Singh's worlds. She became involved in the worlds, and Singh changed her as a result of the interaction.

This is what we're going to be aiming for in building the new website: A change in the subsidiary character (the visitor), so that their arc includes doing whatever it is we want them to do, while still satisfying the desires they had when they visited.

If you can answer these three questions for each of your groups of visitors:
  1. Where are they coming from?
  2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction they have with the protagonist?
  3. Where are they going to?
Then you will know what you need your website to do.

The next stage will be figuring out exactly how to do it, and that's what we'll be looking at next time on the blog (although sadly not this week...).

(Unless people particularly want me to, I won't blog the answers to the above questions for my other two groups of visitors, but the principle is the same.)

There are, of course, plenty of other ways you can look at your characters in a story. For example, by asking, What do they want? What are they doing to get it? What is standing in their way? And where do they end up? But I like the approach above because it allows me to focus on the interaction of the characters (visitors) with the protagonist (me) through the medium of the website. Use whichever works for you.

As always, feel free to leave comments, questions, or requests for anything you'd particularly like covered in this series.

If you want to follow along with this series but you're not interested in the rest of the blog, you'll be able to see all the entries under the web design from scratch tag.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Web Design from Scratch

If you've been following me for a while, you'll no doubt have seen me blog about how I really need a new website. I do a variation on that blog entry about every six months, and then nothing much happens.

The thing is, being a web (and ebook) designer, whenever I'm designing, it's always for someone else. I never get around to building a new website for myself.

This time, however, I've come up with an idea to force myself to do it and to make up for the fact that I'm rubbish about blogging regularly here. As an added bonus, the whole thing is designed to give you, yes, you, dedicated and neglected reader, the chance to find out how to build your own website from scratch.

This is the idea:

I am going to blog the process of planning, designing and building a whole new author website from scratch right here. I'm going to try to do it in such a way that if you're thinking of building a website (or getting someone else to build one for you, or even if you're just planning to get a simple pre-built template for your website) you can follow along and see what you need to do and how you can do it.

And, what's more, I'm going to approach the whole thing from a novel (!) angle.

I've blogged about building websites before, but that was quite a few years ago, and as Stephen King would say, the world has moved on, and I'm a far better web designer than I was back then. I also have Ideas.

Now, building myself this new website is going to take place in the few free moments I have between my paid design work, my writing and my looking after my son, so this is going to take quite a while to get through, but stick with it and we'll get there eventually, and if you've walked with me all the way, you should have a shiny new website at the end of it.

(If you're following this blog because you're interested in ebook design and formatting, don't worry, I'm not neglecting you. I'm planning a whole series of blog posts on how to convert and format your novel as an ebook. Hang around. We'll get there...)

So, let's get started on websites.

Character Motivation

Okay, huh, what? I'm supposed to be talking about websites, not characters, right?

As it happens, I've spent the morning writing my incredibly awesome, ground-breaking, block-busting (ahem) novel, so I'm in writer mode.

Conveniently, writer mode is actually a very good mode to be in when you're planning a website. I'm going to treat this whole website as a novel, rather than a website, and I think you should do that too.

Isn't that just a gimmick?

No. I don't think so. You see, some terrible lethargy and lack of imagination seems to come over people when putting together their websites. They might be the best writer in the world, full to the brim of exciting, mind-blowing, sparkling ideas, but when they start making their website? They design and write with all the imagination of an underpaid temp being forced to sell a bargain brand of carpet cleaner. It seems like a chore. (I've been that temp; believe me, you're not going to feel inspired.)

I want us to attack our new websites with the same energy and understanding that we do when we write a new novel or short story. (Or, if you're not a writer yourself, then with the same enthusiasm you do when you crack open a new novel by your favourite author.)

I don't want us treating it as an oh-my-God-I-don't-know-how-to-do-a-website. Because you do. Know, that is. You just didn't realise it.

The protagonist

In this particular story we're creating, I'm playing the protagonist (yes, I do write most of my stories in first person, since you ask...), and I know enough to realize that you don't launch into a writing a story without knowing the motivation of your protagonist.

Planning and building a website is a big job. It's an investment in time and/or money. It can be a tough challenge. There are going to be obstacles and reversals and possibly some big tragedies. As the protagonist, you need the motivation to start it and get through to the end.

First up, let's look at where I am as a writer. (Your own position will be different, and it will influence where you're going with this if you're playing along, but the principles are the same.)

I've been writing short stories for, well, a long time now. My first stories were published in 2002, and I've had another fifteen or so published since, along with a bunch of reprints. About five years ago, maybe, I turned most of my efforts to writing novels. Although my incredibly awesome agent is currently sending my most recent novel around, I don't have a book deal. A month or two ago, I put a bunch of my previously published short stories up on Amazon as ebooks.

So, from my point of view, I want my website to:
  1. Promote my short story ebooks that are on Amazon
  2. Let visitors find out about and read my other short stories that aren't on Amazon
  3. Present me as an exciting author to potential publishers
  4. Be able to be easily repurposed to promote my books if I'm lucky enough to get a book deal
Right now, my website is painfully inadequate to meet any of those requirements. My primary motivation in this whole process is to be able to reach those goals, and to do it better than any other author websites out there. (Reach for the stars, etc, etc...)

The current (and very old) website: not up to the job. At all.

My secondary motivation is entirely selfish and not really related to my writing: as a web designer, I want and need to be pushing myself by learning new techniques and technologies. I can't always experiment with client websites, but I can with my own. I'm planning to learn a few new things in this process. More on that later.

Okay, my protagonist has his motivation. But the protagonist isn't the only person in a story with a motivation. In fact, in this particular process, the protagonist's motivation is arguably not the most important one.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about the other characters in our story, and what you need to know about them.

Feel free to leave comments, questions, your own character motivations (if you're planning to do this yourself as I go along), or requests for anything you'd particularly like covered in this series.

By the way...

I've called this series 'Web Design from Scatch', but I'll be covering a lot more than simply web design. I'll be looking at all the planning, structuring, writing, designing, building and deploying of the website.

If you want to follow along with this series but you're not interested in the rest of the blog, you'll be able to see all the entries under the web design from scratch tag.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Coming up next week on the blog...

Starting next week, I'll be posting a series of blog entries about planning and building your author website (although if you're not an author, you'll still be able to follow through the series and get something out of it). The series will be spread out over several months, and I'll cover absolutely every aspect of making a website, from the first concept through to the completed site.

I'm going to actually plan and build a website as I go along with this series, and you're going to be getting it 'live'. I'll be doing the work as I blog about it, so you'll get to see the process in its full glory, or you'll get to see a complete disaster. Probably a bit of both. It's like reality TV. But with less TV, and more reality.

If you're thinking of getting an author website, this is the series for you!

First up, I'll introduce you to a novel method (yes, there's a pun there; yes, you'll have to wait until next week to find out what it is (and, yes, I am now trailing puns...)) for figuring out exactly what you should have on your website and how you should create and present it. By the end of this stage, you'll be putting together the actual content for your website, all before you even have a sniff of the design.

Watch this blog if you want to follow along.


Further into the future, I'm going to be running a series of blog posts on how to convert your manuscript into an ebook and format it. Stay tuned for that too. And shout at me (virtually) if I'm taking too long to getting around to that one.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

That's not how I imagined it! A quick look at a book cover

One of the most important things to remember, as an author, about the cover of your book is that it isn't a picture of a scene or of the characters in your book.

In a previous blog post, I argued that,
Your book cover has two jobs:
  1. To represent the type of book it is.
  2. To grab the attention of a potential reader.
A few weeks ago, I came across a cover that perfectly illustrated this principle. The cover is for Caitlen Rubino-Bradway's wonderful middle-grade novel, Ordinary Magic.

Here's the cover:

And here's blurb from the cover flap about the book:

In a world where having magical abilities is considered normal, Abigail Hale's life is about to become a lot more interesting. That's because Abby has just been judged an "ord" —someone without any magic. None. Zero. Zilch!

Fortunately, Abby enrolls in a school that prepares young ords for getting along in the world despite their unmagical disability. [...]

The cover is clearly meant to show Abby standing in front of her new school. It captures the wonder and magic of the world perfectly, and it reaches out exactly to its target audience.

However, let's look at the description of the school from the book:

Dad parked the carpet right in front of a large building on an unusually empty street. [...] Carved into the paving stones was ward upon spell upon curse. [...] The school was square, and built out of dark-brown bricks. It was smaller then the buildings around it, only four stories tall, with a glass structure on top that gleamed so brightly under the sun it hurt to look. There was a fence all the way around the building, with bars on the first-floor windows and thick, strong shutters on the upper windows. The main entrance was barred by a sturdy gate that stretched above our heads, then arched into a short tunnel, revealing a courtyard beyond.

And so on.

In the book, the school is clearly in the middle of a large city, surrounded by other buildings. It is fenced and barred (for safety), with a courtyard.

On the cover, it's in the middle of the countryside, or at least in extensive grounds, with no other buildings around. There are no fences or bars.

In other words, the cover does not show a picture of a location or scene in the book. It's not "accurate", and it would be very tempting for the author to protest and ask for it to be changed. It would also be wrong.

It's very easy, as a writer, to react to a cover by thinking, That's not how I imagined it! That's not what my character looks like! But it really doesn't matter.

What matters is that the cover feels right for the book. That it stands out on the shelf. That it catches the attention of exactly the right audience, and it tells them what kind of book they're going to get. If it does, and if they are the right reader, there's a good chance they'll pick it up and try it.

That's the point of a good cover.

Buy Ordinary Magic: Indiebound | Barnes and Noble |

Credits: The cover illustration for Ordinary Magic is by Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac. The cover design is by Donna Mark.