Under Siege #12: Let’s get digital

I have grown tired of winter.  The Friday before last, it snowed twenty inches (that’s 50 centimeters for those of you across the pond) in Washington, DC.  Three days later, the city was hit with another blizzard that dropped fifteen more inches.  Plows have pushed most of the drifts off to the side, creating mountainous piles of dirty, gray snow that are slowly turning to ice.  Walking the streets is like living inside a giant freezer.  I’ve had enough of it, and my disenchantment with winter seems to have infected my attitude towards blogging.  For the past week and a half, I have come up with any number of excuses to put off writing my blog.  I found myself longing for simpler days, when authors didn’t have websites or blogs.  Alexander Dumas got by fine with no web presence.  So did C.S. Forster, Robert Graves, and Hemingway.  All they had to work on was their novels.  Wouldn’t it be nice to return to those simpler days?

Well, on second though, not so much.  In Dumas’s day, writers lost all rights to their novels after they sold them.  The solution was to write serially for a newspaper, publishing a chapter each week.  If you could build up a big enough audience, then the papers would pay handsomely for your services, but you had to produce continuously.  Dumas wrote up to ten novels at a time this way.  Personally, I’d rather blog.

What’s more, in Dumas and Hemingway’s day, writers did a lot more than just write.  Before the internet, they went to salons, parties, or bars where they spent a great deal of time doing more or less the same thing I do on my website: creating a brand for their audience.  Hanging out with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a Parisian bar would no doubt be more fun than blogging, but it was also an exhausting way to live.  Hemingway rarely got home before 2am.  Dumas didn’t do any better.  Then they started writing.  Is it any wonder that these guys met tragic ends?

The author’s website is the modern equivalent of all this boozing and networking, and while it might not be quite so much fun, it is easier on the liver.  It has also become a necessary part of being an author.  One of the first things my publisher asked after they signed me was if I had a website.  And while I had planned on eventually creating one, I never thought in a million years that I would write a blog.  Yet here I am, and I am far from alone.  Go to your local bookstore and try to find a new book that doesn’t include the address of the author’s website.  Or better yet, save yourself the effort.  These days, it seems like every novelist has a website, and many have twitter feeds or blogs.

Is all of this really necessary?  Well… yes.  Websites are here to stay, and if you are planning on writing for a living, then you probably need one.  This isn’t a top priority: write your novel first.  But while you’re writing, you should be thinking about how you will create your website and what you will put on it.

Let’s start with content, because you’ll need to know what you want in your website in order to build it.  Some things are essential: a brief author’s bio; info on your books; a link to amazon.com where the books can be purchased; and some way of contacting the author.  After that, what you put on your site is up to you.  I recommend listing your favorite books: it will give visitors unfamiliar with your work an idea of what to expect from your books.  Blogs help to attract visitors to your site, and I have found mine to be a great way to force myself to think about what makes writing good.  (Until last week, for instance, I had never really thought about what makes for a great story.)  On the other hand, blogs are a lot of work.  I have seen several websites where authors take a less time-intensive approach, writing occasional articles related to their books (i.e. travel guides to places in their novel or recipes drawn from their books).  These are all good ideas, but the best way to get a feel for what you want on your site is to check out the sites of some of your favorite authors.  I think Stephen King and Conn Iggulden both have great sites, and I used them as models in creating my own.

Now for the hard part: how to go about creating your website?  I took the easy way out and hired someone to build it for me.  I provided the content and some design guidelines, and they did the rest.  I’m a writer, after all, not a programmer.  And while I have built websites before, I wanted something a cut above my foosball league website (don’t ask).  Think of how important book covers are in attracting readers.  Websites work the same way.  It’s worth paying for a nice one.  If you are lucky enough to have a friend who will design your site for free, then even better.  Otherwise, to find a designer, go to websites you like and check who they used.  Prices for designers very widely, so you can probably find someone within your budget.  And if you’re reluctant to pay for your site, just remember: the site will be up forever, and you only have to pay for it once.  If you really want to create your website yourself, then go for it.  WordPress is a good platform for building sites with blogs.  A note of caution, though: even if you are a programmer, building a site takes lots of time, time that could be spent writing.  And writing is, after all, your first job.

For the extroverted authors out there, a final option is to eschew a website and spend more time networking in bars and at parties: i.e. to become a personality.  If you choose this option, then I recommend adopting a distinguishing trademark: a pipe; a strange haircut; a monocle; or perhaps a very bright jacket.  Strange hobbies (like bullfighting or collecting umbrellas) work too.  It is a good idea to cultivate a mysterious silence, which you only break to talk about your book or critique other authors.  (“Hemingway?  Hmph!  A fool!  Now my book…)  Otherwise, you can go for the loquacious and urbane approach, but be warned: this requires a lot more work and a fair amount of wit.  Being silent is much easier.  Most importantly, becoming a personality will work best if you live in New York, London, or Paris.  No matter how charming you are in Omaha, Nebraska or Dallas, Texas, you’re not going to become a literary personality and best-selling author.

I don’t think I have what it takes to be a literary celebrity (and besides, I live in DC), so I think I’ll stick with my website.  In next week’s blog–Movies, Movies, Movies—I’ll discuss how to become a better novelist by watching movies.



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