Thursday 29 May 2008

Authors and Websites: What You Need to Know

Before anything else, a bit more shameless publicity: I'll be doing a two hour workshop at the British SCBWI annual conference on 22-23 November. I haven't got a title yet but I've pretty much decided that it's going to be in the format of a web designer/client meeting going through step-by-step what the client needs to know about putting up a website. The tragedy is that my workshop is at the same time as a workshop on character and plot headlined by my friend Miriam Halahmy, uber creative writing guru. Drat.
Anyway. Speaking of the internet. I keep finding myself in little conversations with friends about author websites.

Do authors really need them? What's the point if you're writing picture books for little kids who don't go online? Should authors blog? Aren't there too many blogs in the world already? Aren't MySpace and Facebook just a big waste of time?

And what if THIS is the sum total of our computer savviness:

It's a big, big subject. And if I wrote too comprehensively about it, nobody will ever invite me to speak at their conferences again.

So instead of giving everything away, here's a list of things that authors who are thinking about getting a website need to consider:
1. Which gatekeepers are you targeting? The look and feel of your website is determined by your audience. Are you at a stage in your career where you need to present a professional face to publishers or stir up the interest of readers? Are you trying to get librarians and booksellers interested in your book or are you trying to meet like-minded people for support and contacts?

2. It's not about you, it's about them. The internet is no longer a world of static homepages. The internet-user is used to being able comment, upload, download and engage with a site in a million different ways. If your website can't engage with your visitor, you might as well print out a flyer.

3. It takes five visits to make a sale. I don't know where that fact comes from but it comes up time and again in reference to website effectivity. Whatever it is you are selling (your book? yourself?), ask yourself: how do you get someone to return five times? The answer is what will make your website successful.

4. Nobody can drive it but you. Content management is the bugbear of author websites. You see a lot of author websites that were last updated in the previous century. Ask your web designer, how am I going to update this without you? These days, you don't have to learn code anymore to be in control. The reason blogs are so popular is because blogs are just websites with easy-to-use content management systems. You don't have to be a blogger to have a blog.

5. Write the book. You can blog, you can facebook, you can myspace ... you can do everything possible online but your web efforts are nothing if your product doesn't measure up. At the end of the day, the internet cannot save a bad book.
So go write.

And write well.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Shots rang out, as shots are known to do

My writing pal Christopher Klimowitz forwarded this hilarious list of similes and metaphors formulated by kids in school essays - makes you revise that manuscript a bit more closely!
Every year, English teachers from across the country can submit their collections of actual similes and metaphors found in high school essays. These excerpts are published each year to the amusement of teachers across the country. Here are last year's winners:

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E.Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are known to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

Saturday 24 May 2008

How Brad Pitt Didn't Turn Up for the SCBWI Retreat

So I've just returned from a weekend of writing at the British SCBWI retreat in Codsall near Wolverhampton.

It was very fattening.

Anita Loughrey
Anita Loughrey preparing to gorge during the retreat.

But ultimately inspiring. Don't we all look inspired?

SCBWI retreat
Well-fed retreat attendees just before yet another meal. Click on the image to find out who was photoshopped into the picture (that's what you get when you leave early).

We also saw this goose:

SCBWI retreat goose
Goose with grass on its beak

What did I learn?

Well Julia Golding (The Diamond of Drury Lane) assured us that it was entirely possible to write 10 novels in two years even if you have three children (and be slim and beautiful and composed but I'm not going to go there).
SCBWI retreat goose
Julia Golding - and she visits schools and conducts seminars and ...

The charming Shoo Rayner demonstrated how easy it was to get published. All you have to do is write books, illustrate, know html code, learn flash, sing songs, play the guitar, create your own cartoons, design ebooks, have a wonderful, manly speaking voice, speak Norwegian ...

I was so transfixed by Shoo that I forgot to take his picture. Here's a picture of Brad Pitt instead:

SCBWI retreat goose
Shoo Rayner is a polymath. But Brad Pitt isn't. Or maybe he is. He should get in touch and let me know.

On the last day, the ethereal Tessa Strickland of Barefoot Books came to explain how to solve all your childcare problems by starting up a publishing business. Barefoot Books' business plan combines a conscience with a real love for books and by the time Tessa finished speaking, we had all become Barefoot Book authors ... if only she would have us.

Tessa Strickland
We fell in love with Barefoot Books and Tessa Strickland

The word I would use to describe the SCBWI retreat is 'transformational'.

I came away with a fresh perspective, new avenues into writing, and a sense of confirmation that this thing I am into ... writing for children ... is a really good thing!

Thank you to Sue Hyams for organising the retreat!

Shameless Advert: if any of you are at Hay-on-Wye for the Guardian Book Festival, please, please attend my friend Elizabeth Pisani's talk on Sunday. She drew the graveyard shift ... well, it's at 9 in the morning. As an incentive, she is giving away chocolate and durian flavoured condoms.

Monday 12 May 2008

Doris Lessing on the Inconvenience of Success

Doris Lessing. photo by WikipediaSo apparently winning the Nobel Prize has been a "bloody disaster" for Doris Lessing - now incessantly dogged for interviews and photo-shoots .

Lessing, only the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature says she no longer has time to write:
It has stopped, I don't have any energy any more.
In fact, she says she's giving up writing completely.
This is why I keep telling anyone younger than me, don't imagine you'll have it forever.

Use it while you've got it because it'll go, it's sliding away like water down a plughole.
Mind you, she's 88.

Listen to an interview with Doris Lessing on BBC 4's Front Row on 12 May

Saturday 10 May 2008

Meg Cabot Does Another Video

So if any of you guys are planning to get into video to entice kids to read your stuff, you can all take lessons from Meg Cabot. Here's her latest video - short, sharp, sweet and to the pointy point:

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Do teens really prefer their books without eyeballs?

Over at the blog of Justine Larbalastier (Magic or Madness), the cover of her much awaited new YA book How to Ditch Your Fairy has just been posted.

It kind of reminds me of the cover of Screwed, the new book by Joanna Kenrick, who I met when I spoke to the Scattered Authors Society:

In fact it reminded me of an army of YA novels (interestingly, they all seem to target a girl readership):

Justine's fans knowledgeably discussed this 'eyeless' phenomenon in YA books:
Elodie: What is with that “girl with the eyes cut off” thing being so popular on covers?

Karen: I’ve been told the reason for truncating the face on book covers is that if the eyes are shown, the story seems to be about that person on the cover, whereas if they’re not shown, the reader can more easily imagine herself in that person’s position. It sounds silly, but I think there’s probably some truth to it.

Gabrielle: Om em gee, you caught Maureen’s eye-missing curse! I do love it though, especially how she flicks the fairy. Totally suits the title. Now I wanna read!

Faith: Oh no ...Your publisher got bit by the eyeless girl bug. WHY? I’m still psyched about the book… but WHY, COVER ARTIST? WHY? THE EYELESS GIRL TREND MUST STOP! *breathes* ...
Here is Justine's reply:

As for the eyeless thing. As some of you know I’m not a fan . . . In comment no. 10 above Karen explains that one of the main reasons for the eyeless covers is that “if the eyes are shown, the story seems to be about that person on the cover, whereas if they’re not shown, the reader can more easily imagine herself in that person’s position.”

Also these covers sell. The identification thing may be why. Gazillions of teenage girls have responded positively to them over and over again. Indeed, Maureen and Diana’s books sell very nicely, thank you very much.

Ultimately, the cover is about selling the book. Hence the lack of eyes.

I think looking at these books each on their own, they are very attractive covers. But together on a shelf, they kinda look the same to me.

These are all cool writers I enjoy reading. Maybe they deserve more stand-out covers, huh, publishers?

Meanwhile, over at the Booksquare blog, there is teeth gnashing over romance book covers. Hmm. Covers seem to be topic of the week.

The Wisdom of Whores Launch Party

My friend Elizabeth likens her experience of the AIDS world to riding her motorbike in India in the good old days when she worked there as a journalist.

Getting from A to B was straightforward enough. Except for the sacred cows. You spent all your time veering and dodging and braking to avoid the sacred cows.

And that's what her book The Wisdom of Whores is all about. The blurb on the book launch invitation declared:
An insider lifts the lid on the multi-billion pound AIDS industry - funny, fearless and ultimately shocking
Funny, fearless and ultimately shocking - that pretty much describes Elizabeth (in the fondest way possible of course)!

Unfortunately, having for days been looking forward to the free alcohol, er, book launch at the Wellcome Collection branch of Blackwells, I was not very well on the day.

Here I am looking decidedly blah amongst all Elizabeth's well wishers:

The Wellcome exhibition focusing on Death didn't make me feel any better. This is what greets you as you enter:

And this:

Elizabeth however was as awesomely vivacious as ever, showing no signs of any previous pre-launch nerves. Here's the author:

Her agent:

And her publisher:

All looking very happy indeed.

And here are the books! Aaaah. The tills were ringing as Elizabeth's friends obligingly bought their fourth copies.

if you look closely at the picture, you will note the "£2 OFF" stickers on every cover. The sticker on my copy chopped the byline off so that it read "By Elizabeth Pis -"

Sadly my blahness made it impossible to stay for the carousing (which I'd been looking forward to for WEEEEEKS!) after the launch, I had to crawl back into my sickbed.

So now you've done it, Elizabeth!

What's next?

No pressure.

Sunday 4 May 2008

Book Trailers: Putting the Multi into Multimedia

In another life I wanted to become a film-maker.

But then I sat in on a film-makers' convention in Manila (ages ago) and noticed that you had to wear a lot of make up and dress like an ice cream dessert.

So I became a writer.

Comes the internet, digital cameras, YouTube and the advent of book trailers and I decided I'd still love to have a go at film.

I mean, you only have to watch a few videos on YouTube to realise that the bar can't be that high. I took the advice of Edgar Wright, director of Hot Fuzz:
People always ask me how to become a director, and I always reply: Get camera. Start shooting. it's not great English but it's good advice. No matter what your background or experience, just get out there.
The Guardian Guide to Making Video (Jan 2008)
I went through my list of writerly friends, looking for gullible, willing and attractive talent to exploit and decided Elizabeth (whose sex-drugs-and-AIDS book The Wisdom of Whores is coming out next week! Buy it! You know you need to!) would be an ideal victim er, subject. She is pictured above preparing to throw a spear.

My equipment was rather thrown together - but hey, Edgar Wright, also says:
Don't let a low budget stop you. Having no money means you have no real limits. Just go for it. No excuses.
So what equipment does one need to create a book trailer?
1. Camcorder - my old hi-8 camcorder was last used filming my daughter falling out of her cot (she's nine now). The battery no longer charges so we had to keep it plugged into the wall. No problem.

2. Tripod - I had my late father-in-law's old tripod but it didn't have the right connection to my camcorder. So I decided to handcarry the camcorder. I brought up three kids, surely that means I've got steady hands.

3. Light - we had no lights but hey, there was a lot of sunshine around.

4. Sound - thankfully my old hi-8 camcorder had a socket for plugging in a microphone. And I had only recently blagged a proper microphone from a BBC friend (I was thinking of experimenting with podcasting) . In fact the microphone was the last piece of BBC equipment out of a news hotspot during one of the Beeb's quick escape routines - but that's another story ...

5. Red lipstick - presentation is key.
So Elizabeth came with a rather bedraggled sheet of paper listing the points she had to make. Lipstick was duly applied, camera plugged in. We could only shoot a certain distance from the open door because the power cable was rather short. No problem, no problem.

We shot a few lines and it was good. Then it began to rain. So we moved inside. Setting up inside involved moving all the furniture away from the door (we needed the natural light from the doorway).

We needed Elizabeth to sit because if she stood, the background would include some unattractive grey window frames. Also without the chair, the camcorder's power cable unhelpfully kept making cameo appearances.

Because we had no tripod, I had to stand rather painfully with bended knees. At one point the knees gave way - you will notice in the intro that in one shot the picture appears to turn over. That wasn't intentional fancy schmancy video work. That was me falling over. Having physio now.

Elizabeth had to hold the microphone, a rather tumescent presence in our video which happened to be about s-e-x. Without the mic you could hear the pitter-patter of the rain, the occasional rumble of thunder, and the neighbour's stereo blaring from an open window.

We tried to recruit some small people from the next room to act as microphone stands but they demanded compensation and Equity membership. So keeping faith with the traditions of indie cinema, we coped.

Here's the finished product -

The video was edited using Roxio Easy Media Creator - which pretty much does everything from capturing and editing music to cutting videos. I suppose next time I experiment with book trailers, it would be more appropriate for this blog if I sought a subject who's actually writing a book for children.

And in the spirit of committed geekery, I've started up my own channel on YouTube:
Now all I need is a beret. Oh and dark glasses.

Thursday 1 May 2008

The Age Ranging Debate

My grandmother was not allowed to go to school beyond a certain age because she was a girl. She was desperate to improve herself and read voraciously, usually romances and serials.

When I was six, I opened one of her favourite book series, a 1930s serial about a character called Beverly Gray, and realised that I could read. I remember it to this day, that lightbulb going off in my head as I discovered that words together formed sentences and sentences formed paragraphs formed chapters.

I couldn't stop reading after that. I read the whole of the Beverly Gray series that long hot summer.

When I went back to school (age seven), I headed straight for the library in search of more books to read.

When I presented my stack of chapter books to the librarian she said, no, you're not allowed to borrow those books. The books were classified according to age.

I must have looked miserable because she sighed and said, all right, read this one aloud and prove that you can read. She made me read a paragraph from one book. And then another. And then another. And then she compromised and allowed me to borrow one of the books if I took one title from the younger reader section.

The majority of book publishers have just backed plans to print age guidance on their books.

In a Guardian piece titled Don't tell me how to buy books , Jack Hope denounces the idea as cynical:
The proposed move fundamentally misunderstands the egalitarian nature of reading - the idea that any reader can choose to read any book - and the choices all readers employ at times to challenge or soothe themselves. It also fails to understand the complex process of choosing the right books for the right child.
It does make me wonder. What will the kids make of it? Will the slow readers skulk around pretending that they are looking at picture books for phantom baby brothers? Will those kids who've had the reading lightbulb go off in their heads find themselves banished to the early reader department?

Here we go again.

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