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Tech review: Aeon Timeline

One of the trickiest things to keep track of when writing a novel can be the passage of time, especially if you have two or more concurrent plotlines. Tolkien was apparently very good at this; I read somewhere that if you compare his published timeline to the text, you’ll find that not only does it all match up but that things like the phases of the moon are correct. Now, most of us writers are never going to have fans rabid enough to go into this level of detail, but I work on the principle that if I get it wrong, someone might just notice and lose their faith in my control over the story.

Of course you can plan your novel’s timeline on paper, and with Night’s Masque I’ve done some of that, particularly in the early stages, but software can make the task a bit easier and the results a lot neater. The best program I’ve found for Mac OSX, and the only one (as far as I know) written with fantasy and SF writers in mind, is Aeon Timeline from Scribblecode. I’ve been using this program since an early beta was posted on the Scrivener forums, but version 1 is now complete and available to buy (there’s a 30-day free trial as well).

On first startup the program looks rather intimidating, and I have to say that the video tutorial on the website isn’t much help – there’s no sound, and it runs too fast to really take in. However the user manual is fairly comprehensive and the program isn’t that complex once you get your head around it.

The core concepts are Events, Entities and Arcs. Events are pretty self-explanatory; they can be anything with a time duration, from the birth of a character to a war lasting many years. Entities are things that span multiple events; the default entity type is a person, but entities can also be places, objects, organisations, and so on.

Events and entities thus potentially intersect, and the program calculates the entity’s age at the intersection point. Note that you have to manually assign these intersection points; after all, not all events will affect all entities, and vice versa.

For example, my hero Mal Catlyn fought in the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1588, so I added an intersection point for that (click on the screenshot to enlarge it, and look for the blue line across the middle of the screen). The program then worked out that he would have been 20 at the time. Ages are automatically recalculated if you move the starting point of an entity or the date of an event. You can also hide the ages if they’re not relevant to your usage or are cluttering up the display.

Spoiler-free screenshot of part of the Night's Masque alternate history timeline
Spoiler-free screenshot of part of the Night's Masque alternate history timeline

Sets of events can be further divided up into arcs for clarity. I use three arcs in this overall timeline: one to track the history of the Tudor dynasty (my main alternate history element), one for other historical events that impinge upon the characters’ lives, and one for the characters themselves and events within the books.

One of the most useful features from an SFF writer’s perspective is the ability to define custom calendars. For Night’s Masque I use a tweaked version of the standard calendar, because England was still using the old Julian calendar in the sixteenth century; if I were to use the modern Gregorian one, the days of the week wouldn’t be right for the dates. However you’re not limited to minor changes like this. You can create an entirely fictional calendar for a fantasy world or an alien planet, with as many hours in the day and days in the year as you please, and of course with custom names.

When you’ve completed your timeline, you can export it in a number of formats, including an HTML table (great for putting on your website!) and also synchronise the file with Scrivener. I haven’t tried out this latter feature yet, as I’m mainly using Aeon for a higher level view of my story world, but I can see how it might be useful.

Aeon Timeline has lots of other cool features that I’m just finding my way around, like the ability to label events (similar to the Label field in Scrivener) and then filter by that label; hide selected entities and arcs (which I did when creating my screenshot, to avoid spoilers); and lock events so that they can’t be accidentally altered. As this is the first full version, I expect new features to be added with time, but even in its current state it’s perfectly useable.

In conclusion, this is a hugely useful program for any writer planning a complex novel, and I strongly recommend you give it a try!

Web Presence 101.6 – Facebook

It’s been a while since one of these posts, since spring was such a busy time for me, but with new social networks cropping up I thought I should get the ball rolling again.

Facebook is still (in 2012) the biggest and best-known social media site. There are two main kinds of Facebook content stream: individual user accounts, which is what most people are familiar with, and Pages, which are a bit like micro-websites within Facebook. You’ll need the former to use Facebook at all, and when you get close to being published, the latter is a good idea too.

I’ll admit right now that I’m not a big fan of Facebook, and don’t use it much, but it’s impossible to ignore, particularly as they have started creating “community pages” (read, “content sucked in from Wikipedia”) about every topic under the sun; presumably including any author with a Wikipedia page about them. Like it or not, unless you create your own Facebook page about yourself, someone else will probably do so—and you won’t control that content.

User accounts

I won’t say much about user accounts except: be careful! Don’t friend all and sundry, and don’t be tempted to fill in all the information fields just because they’re there. There was a very disturbing story doing the rounds a few months ago, about a smartphone app that combined social media content to produce what was in effect the perfect stalking tool. Keep an eye on the privacy setting, or better still don’t put anything into your profile that you wouldn’t want made public. There have been plenty of articles published on the subject, and I invite you to check them out. Suffice to say that I post as little personal information on FB as I can get away with!

Pages

It might seem egocentric to have a “fan page” about yourself when you’re not even published yet, but really it’s just a handy way around the “mutual friending” structure of Facebook. If you don’t have a fan page, you will have to friend every single reader who wants to follow you – which means they get access to all the personal stuff you post! Much better—and safer—to set up a page they can Like. There’s also the advantage that Facebook pages are visible to the wider internet, including search engines, whereas your ordinary Facebook account is not.

Also, as mentioned above, once you are big enough to merit a Wikipedia page, Facebook will create a Page about you that you don’t control, so it’s worth getting in on the ground floor and attracting a following. That will push your Page above the automated one in any search results and ensure than anyone on Facebook who’s looking for you will find real, fresh information, not a bunch of third-hand, rarely updated stuff.

As you can see from the screenshot of my own page, the new “timeline” view allows, nay encourages, you to add an image to the top of your page. The size is fixed and a bit weird, so you may have to do some fiddling around with your chosen image to get something suitable.

I populate the page with my blog feed via RSS, and check back once or twice a day to see if anyone’s left a message. I also post the occasional bit of unique content, usually if I have some news that isn’t significant enough for a blog post but is too long for a tweet. Because I mostly post on here rather than my personal account, my friends who follow me aren’t swamped with content.

A word about “reach”

Since posting this article, my attention has been drawn to the fact that posts on your Page are not automatically added to the feed of everyone who Likes your page (betcha didn’t know that, did you? No, neither did I until just before I wrote this.). The probability of an individual fan getting your posts depends on how often they like and comment on other posts, i.e. how engaged they are with your content, but also how much interest the post is getting from other, more dedicated fans. Fortunately Facebook shows the percentage reach at the bottom of each item, so you can see how many of your fans are seeing the content.

On the one hand this is a blatant ploy by Facebook to get you to pay for advertising, but you can also see it as a way to judge how effective your content is. If you post boring stuff that no-one responds to, your reach will go down (the average is apparently only 16%!) – which is a good incentive to post better content! Mine usually range between 20 and 50 percent, and of course major announcements like cover art and publication dates get more interest than more general blog posts (the same is true of the number of comments on the blog itself). So, do keep an eye on these numbers!

 

That’s really all I have to say about Facebook. If you love it you may find it a great promotional tool, but for me it’s just a way to reach a few more fans, particularly who don’t use Twitter.

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Tracking word count with Scrivener

It’s been a while since I did a techie post, but this is a topic that came up on Twitter the other day in conversation with my fellow Angry Robot author Matt Forbeck. We’re both using the word-count tracking features of Scrivener but in slightly different ways, so here for Matt’s edification (and anyone else’s!) is a quick tour of how I use it.

I like tracking word count. Writing is such a slog sometimes, and it’s good to see yourself making actual progress. I guess it all dates back to my first NaNoWriMo in 2006 – the whole point is to hit a word count target (in this case, 50k) and not worry too much about quality because, heck, you can edit it later. However I now find word count tracking to be even more useful in the revision phase of a project, helping me keep an eye on scene length and pacing.

Scrivener has a number of word count tools:

  • A live word count at the bottom of the main document screen, that increments as you type
  • A per-document word count target, set using the target icon in the bottom left of the same screen
  • A Project Statistics window, showing total word counts, pages, etc for the whole draft and for the selected document(s)

and probably some other features I haven’t found yet!

I used to use spreadsheets, which had to be manually updated by copying the word counts from each document’s total. They were fun, but time-consuming to maintain, especially if I was juggling scenes around. A few months ago I realised I needed something that was less hassle and most importantly, didn’t take valuable time away from the actual writing. I poked around in Scrivener and almost by accident discovered that not only could you show word counts and targets in Scrivener’s outline view, but it would create cumulative totals for each folder. It did almost everything my spreadsheet could do, with zero extra work on my part. I was hooked!

In the picture below you can see my outliner setup for The Merchant of Dreams, the second book in the Nights Masque trilogy (note that I’ve blurred out the scene titles to avoid spoilers!).

Clickety-click to enlarge!
Clickety-click to enlarge!

I got this view as follows:

  1. In the menu bar, go to Group Mode and select the lefthand option to show the Outliner
  2. On the far right of the column headers you’ll see a double arrow symbol (>>) – click on that and select ‘Word Count’, ‘Total Word Count’, ‘Target’, ‘Total Target’ and ‘Total Progress’.

Voila! You now have a “spreadsheet” view of your manuscript, totalled by folder. Note however that if you want to see the total for the whole draft, you’ll need to insert a dummy top-level folder and drag all your existing folders into it – if you look at the Binder in the screenshot, you’ll see there’s a ‘Draft’ folder inside the ‘Manuscript’ one. This is because the outliner can only show documents inside another folder, not the folder itself.

The outliner preserves its state independent of other views and hierarchies, so you can flip back and forth between editing individual scenes in the normal document view, opening up your folders in the Binder, etc, and still come back to exactly the same view when you click on the Outliner button.

So there you have it, Scrivener fans – how to obsessively manage your word counts without resorting to spreadsheets. Enjoy!

Web Presence 101.5 – Twitter

As mentioned in my last post about social media, Twitter is my favourite social network. I tend not to use the main website, as (like Facebook) the interface is full of stuff I don’t want to see, e.g. trending topics, but there are plenty of third-party applications for computers, smartphones and so on.

Twitter icon by Mirjami Manninen
Twitter icon by Mirjami Manninen

I know that some people find Twitter confusing, perhaps because individual posts (tweets) are so short and the interface is pretty sparse. It’s best to think of it as somewhere between live chat and Facebook – I find it a more immediate experience than the “big content” social networks, and the ability to easily direct comments to your friends using the @ “mention” function feels more friendly than Facebook, which often feels to me like shouting into a void.

Another thing I like about Twitter is that I can follow, say, a big-name author without them having ever to acknowledge my presence, and likewise I don’t have to “friend” every random user who wants to follow me. It’s very like socialising at a party, where you can hover on the edge of a conversation or have a long one-to-one chat, depending on your level of acquaintance.

In addition, the very simplicity of Twitter means that I don’t have to worry about the complex privacy issues surrounding Facebook. A Twitter account holds your tweets and a brief biography – that’s it. One caveat is that you need to remember that unlike FB, Twitter is completely public. There is a DM (direct message) facility which can be used for private, one-to-one tweets, but anything else you say is visible to the entire Internet. Writer, beware!

So, how do you go about using Twitter to network as a writer? Rule one: do not spam your timeline with promos for your books. This bears repeating: do not spam your timeline with promos for your books. In particular, if someone is kind enough to follow you back, do not DM them with invitations to buy your book. This is really, really poor netiquette and will lose you followers.

This is not to say that you can’t promote your book at all, because that’s part of the reason people follow you – to get the latest news from the horse’s mouth. But make it just one small part. Talk about how your writing is going, retweet useful/cool/funny posts about your areas of interest (see the article on blogging), and most of all, interact with your followers and the people you follow. Capture people’s interest first, and then they won’t mind the occasional promo tweet.

One tool I find really useful is Hootsuite, which is a web-based Twitter client. Its multi-column interface allows you to see incoming and outgoing tweets, direct messages, mentions, etc all on one web page, and you can hook it up to multiple accounts, both on Twitter and other social networks such as Facebook. Even more useful, you can schedule tweets to go out when you’re not online – very handy if you want your book announcement to be seen at a busy time of day in another timezone, but don’t want to stay up all night.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can be more creative with Twitter. I’m currently running a second account, @MalCatlyn, in which I tweet in the persona of the protagonist of my Night’s Masque novels. Of course this is an additional commitment on top of my normal social media presence, and thus not to be recommended unless you really love Twitter and have the time to spare.

How to get started

Obviously you need an account first – go to twitter.com to register. Note that usernames are not case-sensitive – I registered as ‘annelyle’, but I usually write it as ‘AnneLyle’ for greater readability, and all the links still work.

Once you’ve created your Twitter account, use the “Who to Follow” page to find people:

  • Maybe you know someone who’s on Twitter (like me!), so you can just look them up and follow them.
  • Try searching for your favourite authors’ names – but beware that other people might have the same name and have claimed the username first (e.g. author Adam Christopher tweets as @ghostfinder because his name was already taken). There are also a few fake, identity-thieving account around. Read the mini-biography attached to the account and check out the user’s timeline to see if they look like a real person or a spambot
  • Similarly, type writing (or whatever) into the “Who to Follow” search box and browse the results for interesting feeds
  • The best Twitter users maintain public lists of good people to follow. When you find an account to follow, see if they are on any lists (the “Listed” number on their profile) and follow the links to find out who else is on that list.

Once you’ve got a bunch of people to follow, sit back and watch your timeline spool away. Don’t be too anxious to jump in, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to reply to others, retweet stuff, or just introduce yourself. E.g.

@AnneLyle Hi! Really looking forward to reading The Alchemist of Souls :)

As with most social media networks, you can import your blog’s RSS feed into Twitter, which will ensure you have a steady flow of tweets in addition to general chatter. I useTwitterfeed, as it’s very easy to set up.

Before you know it, people will start following you back – though some of them will undoubtedly be pornbots! Don’t worry, though, you can block unwanted followers. Some people leave the bots in their follower list to make the numbers look higher, but personally I would rather know that 99+% of my followers are real people who might actually be reading my feed.

Happy tweeting!

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Web presence 101.4 – Introduction to social media

Writers are frequently not the most social of people – sitting alone typing for hour after hour isn’t really a hobby/occupation for extroverts. And yet nowadays we are expected, as part of our online presence, to be active on at least one social medium if not several. So, is it a boon for writers, or a soul-crushing time sink?

As with blogging, it helps to have a strategy in place; a haphazard approach is wasted effort. And whilst social media can be addictive and a temptation to procrastination, it can also be the perfect way for a shy writer to network and get noticed.

Note that I’m not going to go into technical details on how to use any of the social sites mentioned – there are many fine resources out there, and in any case, available features change all the time. Just google “twitter for beginners” or “facebook tutorial” or whatever :)

Which social network(s) to choose

Do you have to join every network? Good question! On the one hand, as I mentioned in part 1, it’s wise to at least register an account on each popular social network, to stake your claim to your author name in cyberspace (do people still say “cyberspace”? I may be showing my age). On the other, there’s no point participating in an activity you don’t enjoy – it won’t be an effective use of your self-promotion time.

My strategy is to focus on the one I like best (which happens to be Twitter) and maintain a minimal presence on the other ones that are currently popular, so that members of that network can find out a bit more about me. Note that I say “currently popular” – the internet is evolving all the time, and some sites that were huge 2-3 years ago (MySpace, I’m looking at you) are now shrinking in popularity, at least with certain audiences. You don’t have to jump on and off every bandwagon, but at least be aware of where your readers are likely to be found, and make sure you’re there.

The care and feeding of social media

The issue that exercises the minds of most writers is: how do I maintain a presence on social media and still find time to write? The facile answer is that you need to limit your time on these services and use them effectively, but that’s easier said than done! However, here are some suggestions:

1. As with blogging, remember that the purpose of social media is to promote yourself, not just to sell books. It’s called social media for a reason – use it to engage with your audience rather than churning out spam!

2. Research the technology. The popular services have lots of add-on applications that can be used to schedule posts, generate posts automatically from, e.g. your blog RSS (see below), manage your friends/followers, and so on. A few hours spent trying out these add-ons can save you a lot of time and effort down the line.

3. Remember to be professional. Even more than your blog, your social media presence is your public face. Act like an idiot online and people will soon notice – and not in a good way.

4. As a corollary of 1, don’t sit back and expect people to come to you. Get out there and follow the interesting people. “Like” your favourite authors, publishers, TV shows and so on. The more you interact, the more likely it is that others will share your posts and spread your name around. Social media is the ultimate viral marketing environment!

RSS (Really Simple Syndication*)

You’ve probably seen the RSS icon (see left) on blogs and other sites you visit. It’s a way of exporting posts from a blog or social media feed so they can be read in, say, your email program or – more importantly for our purposes – displayed on another website. This means that you don’t have to post to all of your social networks all of the time. I feed my blog’s RSS into my FB page (using a Facebook app), thereby providing regular content even when I don’t have time to visit Facebook, and use the free service Twitterfeed to send it to Twitter. At the time of writing, Google+ doesn’t have this facility, so you can only post stuff manually.

* OK, so RSS actually stands for RDF Site Summary, but how dull is that?

So, is that it?

To be honest, without going into specific details about individual services, it’s hard to give more advice. So, in upcoming posts I’ll be covering the three main social networks I use: Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads. (I was going to include them here, but this post is already quite long!)

Find me on social media

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Web Presence 101.3 – Blogging

Last time I covered setting up your author website, and suggested using one of the popular blogging platforms as an easy way to run it. If you’ve done this, you now have full blogging capabilities at your fingertips – but what do you blog about?

Choosing a topic

Your knee-jerk reaction might be “Well I’m a writer, I’ll blog about my writing”. Thing is, there are a gazillion other writers out there doing exactly the same. I’m not saying you shouldn’t blog about your writing or the craft of fiction, but if you’re going to do so and build an audience, you need something unique to offer. A new voice, a new perspective.

Take for example, Terrible Minds, the blog of freelance writer Chuck Wendig. I should warn you in advance that Chuck’s blog is not for those who are offended by strong language. It’s colourful and profane but always very funny, and simultaneously very insightful about the craziness of being a writer. Chuck has a loyal following, enough that he can self-publish compilations of his blog posts and people will pay money to get this stuff that they can read online for free, which is the ultimate blogger’s accolade.

But what if you don’t think you have anything special to say about writing? Not a problem. Find something you are passionate about, something you can talk about endlessly without getting bored (because if blogging becomes a chore, your readers will sense your boredom and go elsewhere). Preferably it should be something that links to either your fiction or your target audience’s interests. Maybe you’re a keen gamer, or an expert on medieval weapons, or like to crochet tiny Cthulhu toys in your spare time. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it connects you with readers. The purpose of your blog is not to sell books, it’s to sell yourself as a cool person whose books might therefore be worth looking into. In fact that bears repeating:

The purpose of your blog is not to sell books, it’s to sell yourself.

This might sound cold and calculating, and I guess some people might approach it that way, but if you are genuine in your enthusiasm for a subject it will shine through.

If you don’t have a strong overarching theme, don’t worry. I really have two strands to this blog: stuff about (historical) fantasy, and posts like this about modern technology. They’re very different, but they’re both key elements of my personality and they probably bring in different readerships. A little diversity is unlikely to do you any harm, as long as you don’t stretch yourself so thin that you fail to satisfy any audience. Which brings us on to:

How often should you blog?

Again, opinions differ, but the general consensus seems to be that a) it’s essential to be regular and reliable and b) less than twice a month and you are probably going to find it hard to build a readership. I would recommend at least once a week, twice if you can. Daily blogging is good if you’re as prolific as, say, Chuck Wendig, but I think one good post a week is probably going to be more effective than seven indifferent ones.

A final confession

I actually cheat on both the above. In addition to this regular weekly blog, I have a Writing Journal where I blog about my writing progress on an intermittent basis (sometimes daily, sometimes hardly at all). It’s really just an online diary, which is why it’s tucked away behind the navigation bar rather than featuring on the home page. As a promotional tool, it’s not a model to be emulated!

So, what are you going to (or do you) blog about? Feel free to pimp your blog here, if you already have one.

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Mental breaks and GTD

I’m still on the Alchemist of Souls proofs re-read: typos are being slain, poor word choices whipped into shape, and formatting double-checked. Not that there’s many in each category, but I’d hate this book to go out in anything less than pristine condition.

Even so, it’s hard work. I think I managed to get just over halfway through before my brain exploded and I needed to do something else for a while! And, since it’s autumn, my instincts say I need to sort out my “nest” before winter comes, so I have a snug place to hibernate. At least that’s my explanation for why I prefer to do “spring cleaning” at this time of year…

First step has been to get organised. If I’m going to juggle a full-time day job and a writing career, I need to be able to keep all those plates spinning! I was converted to Getting Things Done a couple of years ago, but I’ve let things slide lately: I keep skipping my weekly reviews, and I know my lists aren’t as up-to-date as they could be. As GTDers will know, this is A Bad Thing; you have to be able to trust your lists, or you might as well not be doing it at all.

I use two different programs to organise my lists, so that I can keep my day-job and personal life separated. Omnifocus is ideal for the former, as I have lots of time-sensitive projects on the go at once; for the latter I use Things, which is less complex but still has enough features to use it for GTD. Neither program is cheap (especially if you want them on Mac, iPad and iPhone, as I do), but I’ve found that not being organised actually costs me money, so I don’t resent paying for good tools. Both are quite complex, too, so I’ve been using the excellent video tutorials at ScreenCastsOnline to help me get back up to speed.

All this organising has obviously eaten into my proofreading time, but I reckon I’m more productive when I’m less stressed, so I don’t think it’s going to impact adversely on my deadlines. If anything it should give me just the confidence boost I need, going into NaNoWriMo!

Web presence 101.2 – Your Website

In the first installment of this series, I talked about the importance of claiming your name online (before someone else does!). Once you have a domain name, you are probably going to want a website for it to point to – even before you have a book out, people such as agents may want to look for you online, and you want what they find to be interesting and professional!

Creating a website can seem daunting if you’re not technically proficient, but it needn’t be – and it needn’t cost a fortune, either. Sure, if you make money from your writing, you might want to invest some of that in a more original design (all tax-deductible!), but these days it’s not hard to put together an attractive site using standard tools and templates.

For a beginner, I would recommend using blogging software as the basis for your site. I will talk about blogging itself in the next post in this series, but modern blogging software can be used to run an entire website (like this one), not just a blog. Blogging software also comes with a user-friendly “control panel” that allows you to update your content without being reliant on a web developer.

You have two main choices, each of which has their pros and cons:

Free blog site

At the time of writing, the two main sites offering free blogging facilities are WordPress and Blogger (soon to be renamed Google Blogs). Both services come with a choice of free templates which you can further personalise with a header image, allowing you to set up a professional-looking website in a matter of minutes.

The disadvantage of such sites is that, being free, they are limited in the features they allow, and you are at the mercy of the blog site remaining in business and continuing to provide the features you want.

Blogger is the simpler of the two, allowing you to add up to ten normal web pages to your blog (e.g. About Me), and is therefore ideal if you are a total beginner. You can also customise your blog’s template, including using custom stylesheets – if you don’t know what that means, don’t try to use it or you may break your site!

WordPress is more flexible but also a bit more complex; some people find the WP dashboard a bit daunting at first! Unlike Blogger, however, you don’t have to include a blog on your site. Just ignore the “Posts” section on the dashboard, and instead create some normal webpages. Then under Settings -> Reading, set one of the pages as the home page for your site. This is the option I use for my Night’s Masque site, which is actually a separate WP “blog” (albeit hosted independently, as described below). You can do this and add a blog later, if you’re undecided about blogging – just switch the radio button back to “Your latest posts”.

The downside is that some customisations (e.g. tweaking the stylesheet) are only available as paid add-ons. In my opinion, if you are looking to customise your site more heavily than the free service allows, you are better off with an independent WordPress installation (see below).

More information (Wikipedia):

Paid web host

WordPress isn’t just a blogging site; it’s a free software package that you can download and install on any web server. So, for a few pounds/dollars/euros a month, you can have a WordPress site of your very own, with as many plugins and bells and whistles as you want, hosted on an independent web company’s servers. Some web hosts will install WordPress as part of your package; if not, find an internet-savvy friend who will install it for you (a bribe of pizza and beer never hurts!). N.B. if your chosen web host doesn’t offer WordPress, ask your techie friend to check what’s included before paying up, to make sure you get the features (e.g. at least one free database) needed by the WordPress software.

My WordPress dashboard
My WordPress dashboard

Once up and running, it’s as easy to use as the free version, except that you have a lot more control. I run this website on WordPress, hosted by United Hosting, with lots of extra plugins that allow me to write and send out newsletters, create an event calendar, embed my Twitter feed on a page, and much more. Being a pro, I’ve been able to heavily customise the standard template and integrate multiple blogs into one site, so don’t expect to produce something quite as complex as my website on your first attempt!

Note that there’s no downloadable equivalent for Blogger; there are other blogging programs you can install, such as Movable Type, but these are beyond the scope of this simple tutorial series. Google “cms blog software” for more information.

Website Content

Apart from the blog itself, what else should you have on your website?

About me

An author biography is the obvious first item; agents and readers will be coming to your site and want to know more about you. Note that this page isn’t meant to be a dry resumé, nor do you have to reveal personal information (home town, family details, etc) if you don’t want to. Instead, focus on the things about you that make you a unique writer: interesting and relevant hobbies, quirky trivia about yourself, that kind of thing. Give it your voice and personality! A good photo of yourself is a bonus – people want to know what you look like, and it comes in handy when you need to meet someone at a convention. I had mine done by a professional portrait photographer, as I needed a publicity photo for the press release about my contract, but any good quality picture (i.e. not a drunken party snapshot!) will be fine to begin with.

Your work

Obviously if you have books to sell, you will want to feature those – but on the other hand, many readers don’t like the hard sell. Make it easy for them to find and buy your work, but don’t shove it in their faces either. I put my book details on a separate page, with a (hopefully clear) link in the navigation bar.

Contact me

A feedback/contact page is another essential, allowing visitors to get in touch – don’t openly post your email address, as it will just get harvested by spammers! With the rise of social media (and of course comment facilities on blogs), most people will use those channels to contact a writer rather than email, but I think it’s good to make some kind of direct contact available as well.

Other content

Readers of fantasy and science fiction love the genre because of the worlds described, so a bit of background information on your books can provide interesting content and avoid your site looking too spartan. You don’t have to go overboard and provide a “world encyclopaedia” (save that for a spinoff non-fiction book when you’re a huge success!) – a few tidbits are often enough.

Beyond that, it’s up to you what you put on there, but I think it’s best not to dilute your “brand” too much. For more about establishing your brand – and why you want to – see We Are Not Alone: A Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb. It’s a bit dated (the author still seems to think that MySpace is an important social network!) but the basic principles are sound.

What features do you like to see on an author’s website?

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

 

Web Presence 101.1 – Claim Your Name

NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org
NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

Nowadays it’s generally considered vital for an author to have a web presence, and yet a lot of writers don’t really know where to start. I’ve been online since the mid-1990s, and a professional web developer for over a decade, so I thought I’d share some of my experience – what to do, and just as importantly, what not to do!

Once I started jotting down ideas, I realised there were a lot of things to consider, so this is going to be a multi-post article. First up: laying claim to your online identity.

Register a domain name

There’s really no excuse not to have your own domain name nowadays; they’re very cheap (as little as $5 a year) and they look so much more professional on a business card or email footer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a website yet – the important thing is to lay claim to your online identity so that no-one else can. Buy a domain the minute you’ve decided on the name you will publish under. Seriously.

You can buy a domain name from any domain registrar – a company that looks after domain names and handles all the techie details for you. In the UK, I recommend 123-reg, as they’ve been around for a long time. Although they aren’t the cheapest, they aren’t overly expensive, and when it comes to a cornerstone of your online presence, reliability is too important to scrimp on. Do some research before you choose a registrar, as there are plenty of cowboys out there! For starters, your registrar should offer the ability to forward web addresses and emails for free, not as a paid add-on.

Caveat: If you are planning on putting up a website or blog, I strongly recommend not buying your domain name through the company that hosts the site. About ten or twelve years ago I had a web host go bust on me, and it took weeks, months even, to get my domain name back. During that time I couldn’t use the address for email, and anyone following links to my site was presented with a holding page saying the site was no longer available. DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU. A decade ago it was an irritation; nowadays it would be a disaster. Register your domain with a well-established domain registrar and host your website elsewhere.

Before you register a name, you have to choose what it will be! I recommend not registering the title of your book – or rather, not as your sole domain. Firstly, the title may change. My first novel, The Alchemist of Souls, went through several working titles before I even submitted it, then my publisher asked me to change the title I submitted it under. Secondly, you’re going to write more than one book, right? So you don’t want your web presence tied to a single title. I have registered my series title, www.nightsmasque.com, but I forward that address to this website rather than using it directly.

Of course if your chosen name is common, someone else may have already nabbed the .com address. (I got lucky – whilst neither my first name nor my surname is rare, the combination had not been registered.) In that case, you may have to try a different TLD (top level domain) such as .net or .info, or choose a country-specific one like .co.uk (they are often cheaper because there’s less demand for them than the generic ones).

Once you have your name, I recommend you start using it. If you’re not ready (or don’t want) to set up a website, forward the URL to your blog, Twitter profile, Facebook page – anywhere is better than your registrar’s standard holding page! Similarly, emails to “name@authorname.com” can be forwarded to your existing email account, and your mail client can often be configured to use the same address in the “From” field. No-one need know you’re still using Hotmail ;)

Claim your name on social media

I’ll get onto the ins and outs of social media in a later post, but right now I’ll just say that it’s worth at least trying out the various social media services. Some of them, like Twitter, allow you to use a unique name from the start, so it’s a good idea to claim your author name there if it’s still available. Twitter has a limit of 15 characters on user names, however, so you might have to be a bit more creative on that one (you can still display your full name in your profile).

That’s it for names. Really. Why are you still here? Go forth and stake your claim. Now!

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Writing a novel on the iPad

When the iPad first came out, I dismissed it as a “toy” because it was clearly designed for the consumption of media, rather than creation. But more and more productivity apps were released, until I was forced to admit that it might actually be useful as well as pretty! Add in a battery life that was triple that of my laptop, and the iPad started to look like a practical device for writing.

The decisive moment, however, came with the availability of the Zaggmate bluetooth keyboard, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Suddenly I could seriously see myself actually drafting a novel on the iPad, even if I needed the power of Scrivener for later revisions. So, I decided I would use the iPad as my main device for writing my work-in-progress, The Merchant of Dreams (sequel to The Alchemist of Souls).

Software

In addition to the iPad itself and the keyboard, I’ve been using a number of key apps:

Notebooks

A plain text editor with the big advantage that it syncs easily with Scrivener via Dropbox (there’s a nice video tutorial to walk you through the process). You can sync just your Draft folder, or all the text documents in your project, and whilst Notebooks doesn’t allow subfolders within the Draft, each folder is transferred as a text document, so you can at least see where your chapter breaks fall (if you have them).
There are a few gotchas, principally that if you add formatting in Notebooks, the file is synced to Dropbox as HTML and then won’t import into Scrivener. On the plus side, any formatting changes you make in Scrivener are retained (in the Scrivener document) even though what you are syncing is plain text – which is pretty awesome!

Index Card

This is a corkboard emulator very similar in appearance to Scrivener’s corkboard, and it syncs with the synopsis fields in a Scrivener project. You can drag cards around, and they will be reordered in Scrivener after syncing. It has a few problems that make it less useful than Notebooks – it has no hierarchy at all, and it requires using a Collection in order to sync, which means that if you add new cards in Scrivener, you have to add them to the Collection as well before you can sync them to Index Card.

Carbon Fin Outliner

When I’m brainstorming a plot, I don’t necessarily want a one-to-one relationship between items in my outline and scene documents within Scrivener – a single plot point could require several scenes, or several plot minutiae might fit into a single scene. Hence I like to use simple notetaking tools for this stage. Outliner from Carbon Fin is very basic, but it does the job with the minimum of fuss.

iCardSort

I’ve only just bought this one, but it looks like an interesting alternative to Index Card and/or Outliner. Unlike Index Card, it allows freeform arrangement of cards on the corkboard, so I think it will be better for brainstorming.

With all this kit, I’ve found it surprisingly efficient to get writing done without a proper laptop. I still go back to my desktop regularly to sync Notebooks and keep a tally of my finished wordcount, but even that is far from essential, since I also have a copy of Numbers, the iWork spreadsheet app. I reckon the iPad can be considered a serious weapon in the writer’s arsenal.