How to improve your author website

My new website is done!  What a thrill! 

Weeks of hard work and it’s all up and running with a very clear theme and much simplification.  My neck is killing me (all that peering closely at the screen to get the sizing right) but I’m delighted with the way it has worked out.  At last I feel as if I know what I’m doing.  I feel as if I’ve got some sort of recognisable brand going – not that I necessarily want to be branded, as it were, but trying to get noticed as a writer is a Big Thing.

Some tips and advice (that worked for me):

  • Keep it simple.  I studied other authors’ websites and the best ones were very simple, particularly the home page.
  • My home page has exactly three elements on it:  MY BOOKS, NEW and DIARY.  These form the core of the website.  MY BOOKS link takes you just exactly there:  to the main books page.  This is pretty much where you would expect someone arriving on your website to want to go.  NEW takes you to my latest book.  This image will change as time goes by, making the home page feel alive.  (More about the diary later).
  • You are less important than your writing.  This is a grim reality to have to confront, but it’s true.  There is no bio on my website and no picture of me (if you want a pic, you’ll find it on social media).  There isn’t even the tiny bio on the home page (the one I use in all my novels).  I deleted them all, along with a variety of articles about writing.  Some of the better ones I’ll reblog at some point, so it’s not like I’m wasting anything.  They cluttered the website. 
  • You don’t need a contact page.  What’s that about?!  I’m not a shop, nor likely to engage with anyone via my website.  It was a wasted page of links that appear elsewhere.  Both the Twitter and Facebook links appear in the header on every page.  Those are, to date, the only places I engage with other writers and readers, anyway.  Other links are all at the bottom of the home page and very pretty they look too!
  • Books are key.  As an author, that’s all that matters.  There are only three links in the header on the home page:  HOME, BOOKS and DIARY.  The home page is a single page.  The diary page is my blog (about which more later).  There are no sub-headings under either.  But the BOOKS link is huge – it goes to all my books with sub-headings and sub-sub-headings.  I’ve tried to keep the same theme throughout so that it looks as professional as possible.  And on all the book pages, there are links to shops (Amazon, Smashwords, etc).
  • My diary and blog are now linked.  In fact, they are the same thing.  I’d intended the website blog (Diary of a Bloomsbury Writer) to be more of a diary thing, the day to day life of an author, separate from my writer’s blog, but it was just too much hard work, particularly as I wanted to spend more of my time actually writing.  Also, you can’t follow the diary on the website, but a “follow” link takes you to the blog, which you can follow.

It’s not perfect.  I’m not a professional website building.  I can only work within the extreme confines of Weebly.  But I feel as if I’ve learnt something over the years.  A website that engages visitors and encourages books sales is about all you could ask for.  Let’s see how it goes.

http://www.susannahjbell.com

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The Birth of the Fleet Quintet

The Fleet Quintet began originally with Commences, at that time a novella.  My intention was to write something about the beginning of the universe – but not the physical universe:  the universe of beings or entities or spirits, people who looked like people but didn’t have bodies of flesh.  Non-corporeal entities have always intrigued me more than any other.

I wanted to fill Commences with impossible magic, most of which proved to be so impossible that I couldn’t find the words to describe it.  The result was a gloriously incomprehensible mess.

I followed this with a short story, Access Denied, about a mindwalker called Gomenzi.  Once I discovered that this ultra-cool spy turned out to be an ex-Fleet being and that Fleet space was called space alternate – or alter-space – the first whisper of the Fleet novels was born.  A very short story called Baby Doll wrapped up Gomenzi – permanently, it seemed.

Another novella followed, Flesh for Sale, and suddenly the entire Fleet Quintet appeared in front of my eyes:  I had the titles for all five novels, though not necessarily the stories.  At that time, I had no idea what the fifth one was to be about, only the terrible depravity it was to contain.

The Fleet Quintet became my Great Work:  it was something I was going to write one day when I was a real writer.  One day when I had enough confidence as a writer to pull it off.  One day when I was more mature.  I had no idea when that day was going to be or what it would entail for me to get there, but when the day finally arrived, I wasn’t expecting it.

By that time, I had dropped writing altogether, started a degree, had a baby, followed by my Eureka moment, then started writing screenplays.  I developed Access Denied into a screenplay that absolutely didn’t work – the story was enormous.  The characters had vast back stories.  And the story was sucking me in to a vast black space called alter-space and there was no escaping.  The time had come.  It was time to turn novellas and short stories into a five-novel series.  My Quintet was ready to be born –

… something of a stillbirth, it transpired, as my first attempt at turning Commences into a novel was a dismal failure.  But with Access Denied already developed, it proved to be wonderfully easy to get going with Gomenzi and Nigel and the far-off distant Fleet.  I worked on Flesh for Sale in the same way:  I developed it as a screenplay and turned it into a novel that proved to be my best ever.  I was on my way.  The Fleet Quintet was in full throttle.

Without taking breath, I continued with the fourth, V. Gomenzi.  An intensely dense novel that covered the impossible time frame of the first three, this novel took me twice as long as the others and by the time I was done, I was running on empty.

Realising by that time the weakness of Commences, it got a full rewrite.  The writing came from the bottom of a bottomless pit.  I was half-dead with exhaustion from V. Gomenzi and with my mother dying in the middle of it, it became the most gruelling task I have ever undertaken.  I also managed to have a veritable personality change just before the editing process – resulting in a novel more brutal than I could ever have hoped for.

But it was still too weird and after much consideration, I decided to make it the fourth Fleet novel as its tone followed more aptly that of V. Gomenzi.

The last Fleet novel remains – to date – unwritten but the story has become clear.  I know exactly what it’s about, which is a lot more than I knew in the late nineties when it all began.

Uncovering the complex plot of the Fleet Quintet has been like having tiny sections of a vast painting revealed to me because to see it all, all at once, would have been terrifying.  And it’s as if the painting was already done when I first began to uncover it.  The story was already told:  I just had to find a way to release it from the darkness into novels that people could actually read.





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Writing vs. Marketing

It’s a no-brainer for me.  I’d rather write than work on my marketing.  I’ve got loads to do and loads planned but the thought of it makes me feel awfully glum. 

So instead of finishing that paperback I was formatting, instead of sprucing up my website, instead of finding a good book cover, I’ve started a new short story instead.  Quite happily poured out 1000 words in an hour.  Now THAT’s the sort of thing that cheers me up!

I only just finished a novel last week.  It’s the second Everlast novel and has turned out better than expected.  I’m still looking for an agent for the first (that’s something else I have to do…..) and should be feeling despondent about it.  After all, I’ve been looking for a year and a half now.  I’ve forgotten now many agents I’ve already approached.  Twenty, possibly!

My reluctance to do any “marketing” type stuff comes about because I’ve been so bad at it so far.  I haven’t been able to get anyone to notice my books, let alone read them.  I’m either doing it all wrong or just not doing it at all.  I used to berate myself for this.  I don’t anymore.  I’m a writer.  It’s what I do best.  It’s what I like doing best.  Does it matter that much if I fail at other stuff?  It just makes me write more, and that can’t be a bad thing.  It probably looks like a selfish endeavour:  who am I writing for if no one reads my books?  That would have to be me, then.

The short story is the next in the Exodus Sequence.  Story 2 in Volume 2.  It’s Volume 1’s cover I should be improving (the expense makes me baulk).  It’s the paperback version of Story 1 of Volume 2 that I should be working on (but Kindle Create is a bust and doesn’t work half as well as CreateSpace, which I loved).  And my website could do with a huge facelift but it’s such a big job that I’m not sure where to start. Is it any wonder that I’m overwhelmed by it all?  And summer is approaching, with heat and responsibilities and less time and less inclination to bother with anything. 

It doesn’t surprise me at all that I’d rather turn my back on everything and write about people who don’t exist, in a world that doesn’t exist, talking about things that don’t exist.  Writing them makes it exist.  What could be more satisfying than that?

Writing from Alter-Space also appears as a diary on my website here.

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Looking for Character Diversity in Fiction

It isn’t hard.  Take a trip on a tube or a train.  Open your eyes.  If you really start to look at people and see beyond their façade, you begin to realise just how weird and wonderful they are. 

Sometimes it’s just in the way they look. 

Today I stood behind a guy in the tube lift who was about 6’3”.  I could judge his height because he was about the same height as my late stepfather.  Near us was a young woman who was at least three inches taller.  And her boot heels were lower than my trainers.  This meant she was at least 6’5” or 6.  This is really unusually tall for a woman.  She was quite splendid, too.  Very slender, wearing tight black leather trousers on the longest legs I’ve ever seen.  As we all surged towards the turnstiles, a short, round, brown man went through at the same time as this tall girl.  The contrast was fantastic.  You couldn’t make this up.  At 5’7”, I came up to this young woman’s shoulder.  The short man came up to her waist.  Put the four of us together and it would have made an hysterical photograph (I’m the, er, older one with the silver-gold pixie cut).

The richness of human diversity is hardly a new idea.  Diversity itself has been a serious topic for quite some time now, particularly on the political stage.  I’m thinking about it more in fiction.  Is there enough diversity in writing?  I don’t just mean diversity in writers themselves:  I mean in actual characters.  My demographic is never, ever represented.  This is, no doubt, because my demographic is considered to be utterly boring.  All middle-aged women are, apparently, conservative;  are married/divorced/sexually frustrated;  have growing up kids;  are caring for aged parents;  have a mortgage and a career;  are juggling a thousand things on a daily basis;  are struggling with weight, menopause and/or some or other illness;  like foreign holidays;  would consider an affair with a younger man;  read literary fiction;  have an educated opinion;  think Fleabag is funny.

But what if you aren’t like this?  Oh, right, in that case, you are a bit funky, smoke dope (my generation does not say weed) and would consider an affair with a younger man/woman.  If you’re a middle-aged female artist type, then you’re a hippy.  A different class?  Then you’re a drudge. 

None of these stereotypes are me.  And yet this is the only type of middle-aged woman I can find in fiction.  At least, this is the only type I’ve found so far.  Diversity isn’t always about race or age.  Physical diversity is probably quite easy to do – superficially, you can come up with all sorts of variations.  But the problems are always the same.  It’s this lack of diversity that drives me nuts in fiction:  no one ever seems to think/do/act any differently to anyone else, no matter who or what they are or where they come from.

It’s true that the mark of a good author is one that creates a character which you can identify with, even though they aren’t like you at all.  This isn’t really the kind of diversity I’m talking about, though.  Everyone my age in a story (whether in books or television or film) is always a “mom” character.  Much as I like being a mother, this isn’t the only thing that defines me!

I’m quite sure, though, that for every divergence from the norm, there is someone who never sees themselves represented in fiction.  No matter how original an author might be, characters can invariably be categorised in some way.  And if you can show me an author who doesn’t do this, please, let me know, because I’m so unutterably bored with “normal.”

Writing from Alter-Space also appears as a diary on my website HERE.

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Finding your main character’s voice

It’s taken me all the way to chapter 12 to find my main character’s voice.  And now that I’ve found it, it’s funny and clever and brilliant.  Scenes are rolling from my fingers.  I’m writing twice as much each session.  The novel itself has come alive and feels exciting.

But why did it take so long?

Several things hampered this novel’s progress:

  • It’s the second in the series.  The first in the series was exciting, not only for the protagonist, but for me as a writer.  It was all about discovery.  My heroine was discovering the thrill of hidden magic.  I was discovering the delight of writing a novel that was lightweight, funny and magical.  I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to recreate the tone of this novel and was proven right.  It’s going to take some hard work to recapture the magic (during edits).
  • It has a different narrator.  It’s a feature of this series that each book will have a different narrator.  And they won’t all be teenagers or girls, either, which removes the YA tag at once.  This means I have to find a new voice for each novel.  The teenage girl in Book 1 came to life at once.  I got inside her head and no problem with her.  She was alive from the first page.  The narrator in Book 2 is this heroine’s mother.  The reader has already met her and knows she’s funny and interesting.  So how did I lose her voice?
  • It has a new point of view (POV).  While Alice, the mother, was easy to create in Book 1, by changing the POV to her POV meant that something was lost.  She worked less well when I was looking through her eyes.  This has proven to be excruciating for me as a writer.  I can’t recreate her humour, her cleverness, her quirky opinions.  It all seems to have died in the switch.  I wonder:  if I hadn’t created her so well in Book 1, would I have had less problems in Book 2?
  • The MC knows nothing.  In Book 1, our intrepid heroine is on adventure of discovery.  The reader goes with her and the discovery is mutual.  Alice, however, knows nothing.  The reader is thus left in the frustrating  position of knowing everything while the MC is blind to the facts.  This is intensely frustrating to write.  It’s also hard to create any excitement when the MC is being so thick-skulled.

There has been no secret formula in finding Alice’s voice.  I couldn’t tell you how I did it.  I had planned to just chug away to the end of the first draft, knowing that my work was going to be cut out for me in the second.  The resurrection process was going to be huge.

Then two things happened:

  • My MC Alice had an extraordinary experience which basically freed her as a human being.  I’d had no idea that this sequence was going to affect her in this way.  In fact, in my notes, it appears that she was to have remained untouched and that the change was to have happened later.  But later was too late.  And her experience, once I began to write it, took on a life of its own.  Thus Alice was freed from the shackles of her character.
  • My MC left the location of the book’s setting.  By leaving it, she becomes exterior to the village and her experience there.  She is (briefly) thrown back into her old life (she attends a funeral) and the changes in her character become apparent.  Because she is free and unaffected by her horrible family, the real Alice emerges:  funny, clever and brilliant.

At the same time as these revelations, subtle changes to the plot have occurred to me as well.  It seems that by understanding my MC, I am now able to write her story properly.

I still don’t understand, though, how some characters arrive fully formed and blaze through a novel, while others are dead on the page.  On the other hand, some of the characters that I’ve struggled with the most turn out to be the strongest, most complex, and fully formed characters I’ve ever invented (V. Gomenzi, in his eponymous novel, is one.)

So if a character doesn’t work, take heart.  Battle on.  His or her secrets will eventually be revealed as long as you’re prepared to work for it.

Victoria-falls-zambia.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smart

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KDP Paperback Problems Part Two

KEEP LINES TOGETHER!

Remember that.  It’ll come in handy later.

In my last post I complained bitterly about the new KDP template for a book, highlighting three immediate problems:  American spelling (disaster when you write in anything else);  bizarre circles when you turn on the Pilcrow button;  and uneven pages with white gaps at the bottom of pages.

By Friday evening last week, I was shattered with exhaustion trying to mend the last of these problems.  Angry, frustrated, miserable, foreseeing a future in which I couldn’t publish any paperbacks because (a) the template was so rubbish and (b) no agent in the universe was ever going to take me on.  Truly, I was in despair about this.  There’s only so much a one-man operation can cope with before crumbling to dust with the weight of problems.

While trying to pull myself together, several emails passed between me and KDP support.  The first one told me to turn on the Pilcrow button (explaining it to me as if I’d never heard of the thing) and turn off all the page breaks.  Except it wasn’t page breaks causing the white gaps.  So I sent images of what was happening and got another email to say that I needed to check the Don’t Add Space Between Paragraphs Of The Same Style option.  I tried this to no avail.  In fact, until this morning, I had checked and unchecked and rechecked every bloody option available in an effort to get rid of those goddamn white gaps.

Then I gave up and began to construct my own template.  I followed the instructions religiously in KDP’s “Build your book”, learning such interesting things such as custom-sized pages and customising margins, things I hadn’t ever done before.  Most interesting was discovering that you can make mirror pages, which is what you need for a book.  However, having spent several hours doing all this and feeling quite pleased with myself, I noticed that my document didn’t look quite the same as the document made in KDP’s own template.  With my very sharp eagle eyes, I tried to get everything exactly the same (except for the white gap error, obviously) and it still wasn’t right.

So I gave up, went for a walk, had lunch, read my book, ate chocolate, drank tea (some not very nice stuff from Whittards – remind me to get some Lapsang Souchong next time I go shopping) and then sat down again this afternoon to have another bash at this utterly infuriating document.

Oooo, what’s this, I wondered, noticing that the option (under Paragraph, Lines and Page Breaks) called KEEP LINES TOGETHER was checked.  I unchecked it but it made no difference.  So I selected a troublesome area and tried again.  No difference.  I selected the whole document and tried to uncheck it but it wouldn’t allow me.  So I tried placing the cursor in different places and bloody miracle of miracles I FIXED IT!!!!!

Yep, it was that option KEEP LINES TOGETHER that was forcing paragraphs to stay whole and not break up from one page to the next.  When unchecking the option, it’s VERY important that you have the cursor at the beginning of the paragraph you want to break up, i.e. at the start of the page, immediately before the first letter of the first word.  It’s unbelievably laborious going through an entire novel unchecking all those boxes.  I will have serious words to KDP about this but you can be damn sure they’ll not do anything about it.

And as for the weird circles….?  As soon as I had changed the margins on my new document, the circles appeared out of nowhere.  So it’s not a bizarre KDP thing or an internet thing or very small aliens trying to invade your document, it’s some kind of bizarre formatting doobie-dad.  Could have lived without that one.

I hope the following screen captures will help.  I’m sorry the pictures are so small.  WordPress has decided that we are no longer allowed to change the size of images.  Another platform sabotaging authors.

Fixing bad template 1

HERE YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE THAT THE TOP RIGHT HAND PAGE DOES NOT END AT THE SAME POINT AS THE ONE ON THE TOP LEFT, WITH A LARGE WHITE GAP

Fixing bad template 2

OPEN PARAGRAPH, THEN THE LINE AND PAGE BREAKS TAB. YOU WILL SEE THAT KEEP LINES TOGETHER HAS BEEN CHECKED. IT’S NOT VISIBLE HERE, BUT THE CURSOR HAS BEEN PLACE NEXT TO THE WORD “YANI” ON THE BOTTOM LEFT PAGE, AT THE VERY START OF THE PARAGRAPH.

Fixing bad template 3

UNCHECK THE KEEP LINES TOGETHER OPTION AND CLICK OK.

Fixing bad template 4

MAGIC. THE PAGE NOW LINES UP. THE PARAGRAPH STARTING “YANI” HAS BEEN BROKEN OVER ONE PAGE TO THE NEXT.

 

 

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KDP Paperback Problems Part One

I never thought I’d say this but I miss Createspace.  God, it was easy.  You uploaded your manuscript as a Word document.  They sent you another Word document with your manuscript magically turned into book format, with “left” pages and “right pages.  You spent a few days fixing everything up:  the spacing, chapter headingss, what you wanted on what page where, page numbers, embedding fonts………….it was such fun.  It was easy.  I got really good at making my self-published paperbacks look good (the contents at any rate……not so much the covers!)

But Createspace has been killed by KDP.  I wouldn’t mind so much except that they’ve replaced it with a really shit programme.  If it ain’t broke, why fix it?  There was nothing wrong with Createspace.  Why replace it with the worst template in the universe?

What you do now is download a template for your book.  You can pick one that is blank or has placeholder text.  Since I’m smart enough to know how to actually use Word, I went for the blank one.  Then I copied and pasted my novella and off I went to work on it, getting it into shape, chapter headings, fonts, etc etc etc.  All the usual stuff you do when working on a document for a book edition.

It should have been easy.  Clearly KDP had worked out this was an easier option than uploading to Createspace.  I don’t know WHY they thought this, but I was ready to go with it.  I didn’t really care HOW I got my book contents published, as long as I could.  As I said, it should have been easy.

But the template is rubbish.

A major issue is WIDOWS AND ORPHANS.  I am not going to explain what this is.  If you don’t know, google it.  Something about this damn template has FORCED all new paragraphs to start on a new page, thus preventing widows and orphans.  Now, any book in the universe that you pick up is full of widows and orphans and paragraphs that start on one page and end on the next.  This is normal.  This is what books look like.  But, oh no, not this goddamn template.  ALL new paragraphs start on a new page if they don’t fit in at the bottom of the previous one.  This means that there are large white gaps at the bottom of EVERY PAGE.  It means that the pages are uneven.  And it looks HORRIBLE.  Upon querying this, KDP told me I must have hidden page breaks and instructed me to click on the Pilcrow button, as if I didn’t know what this was.  I am a goddamn professional author who REALLY KNOWS how to use Word.  Did they not think I would check?  I have gone into the Widows and Orphans function and tried everything but it’s jammed.  So basically, there is NOTHING I can do to make my book look nice.  It’s a shit template and there is no getting round it.

Another extremely annoying matter is that the template is stuck on AMERICAN ENGLISH even though I’ve got Word options set to UK English.  This means that about 25% of the manuscript is now littered with red squiggles which is REALLY annoying.

A more worrying factor are the SMALL CIRCLES.  What the hell is that about!  Clicking on the Pilcrow symbol brings up returns, spaces, page breaks……..and millions of small circles, like degree signs, littered all over the document in no apparent order for no apparent reason.  I tried to delete one and the space deleted.  What is it?  It looks like contamination and I fear that my uploaded document (if I ever get that far considering the widows and orphans fiasco) will somehow be affected and the formatting ruined.

All the excitement I felt in creating a new paperback has died.  The setbacks are just too enormous for me to cope with.  I’ve struggled and struggled and struggled for years, putting in endless time and energy in trying to get my books out to people to read and have failed again and again.  This is just another huge big failure on my part.  I’m not entirely sure I can take anymore.

 

Bad KDP template 2

Check out the little circles everywhere.

Bad KDP template

An example of a bad white space and one made with a page break.

 

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