Long ago, a friend and I thought we should make an annual guide to spider webs. The idea amused us, because webs appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly. They are ephemeral, accidental, and hard to find. We never wrote the annual guide, although we did get as far as "rules for approaching webs," and "best webs of the season." The unwritten book is still with me--floating in the land of many unwritten books--and sometimes when I see the proliferation of websites, it resurfaces--a testament to my penchant for bad puns but also my sense that there are so many websites in this ephemeral medium, it's hard to know how to find them. But then I remember Google, something our annual spider guide couldn't supply, and how its mandible-crushing search engine creates an instant recording of whatever springs into the etheric world--a thread to a virtual and authoritative business card.
Very few writers are web spinners. They could be. They want to be. But nearly every writer I know (published and unpublished) has at least one writer friend who is good at web design, mutters a few incomprehensible magic spells and tells them It's easy! After which the writer goes through a period in which they are, any day, going to get around to creating a website. This period can last from five months to ten years. Five years is the average. It took me six until I allowed myself to think:
Guess what? I'm never going to learn html. And why? Because I haven't. And because the idea of learning it is as dreadful as having to spend time after school with my Latin teacher Miss Irma L. Crabbe because I didn't finish my corrections in her workbook Living Among the Romans. How awful. How humiliating. I'm going to have to find someone else to do it for me.
It took me six months after that to find a web designer. And three years after that to find a web designer whom I clicked with.
Hence, from my admittedly shameful experience involving procrastination and bewilderment, I have a few thoughts to offer about why all writers should have websites.
1. People are curious by nature and Google has allowed this prurient and voyeuristic streak to run wild because it is undetected. People may catch you looking in their windows and call the police. But they'll never fault you for looking at their web site. In fact--and this is the great difference between virtual and non-virtual voyeurism--they want you to look at their website in a way they never would want you to look in their windows or dresser drawers. And this desire leads to a second great Website Truth:
2. Just as Google has allowed a rampant epidemic of voyeurism, it has also allowed a rampant outbreak of exhibitionism. This is subtle, furtive exhibitionism--the sort that is comforting to writers. People will look you up whether you want them to or not and if you have a website they will learn the very things you are too shy to tell about yourself. You don't have to blow your own horn when you are contacting an agent, an editor, a fellow writer, or a friend you knew in junior high and found on Facebook. All you have to do is include your website with your e-mail. Because of the second noble website truth, people will look.
There are, then, two hurdles that writers must face in the decision to create a website. The first is that they aren't ever going to do it themselves--a hurdle that involves looking deep into the soul of procrastination. The second is subtler and involves the eternal conflict most writers feel between being public and private people. There is no cure for overcoming the first hurdle except time---time, that is, between the determination to create a website and realizing that you haven't. The second hurdle, though, has an obvious palliative: You don't have to put anything on your website that you don't want people to know about. It is yours and yours alone, as though you knew in advance that someone was going to open a dresser drawer, chose the objects carefully and arranged them with remarkable symmetry.
This is where a good web designer can help you. He or she will never pry you for information you don't want to give, stories you don't want to tell. A good web designer is interested in presenting you in the virtual world in a way that creates a calling card with taste, authority and (oh yes!) subtlety.
Since most of my website angst involved procrastination and fear of being seen, I can only offer a few pieces of advice about the website itself:
1. Present yourself as a writer on the splash page. Don't clutter it with information about the panoply of skills you've acquired in your day job, ranging from technical writing, to teaching yoga classes, to painting murals to giving workshops in stress management. You can have a separate page of Other Amazing and Extraordinary Skills. And if you want to earn money from one of these skills, it's usually better to have a different website. I realize this is cruel advice. But Google's impersonal churning gyre is about hits: People looking for stress managers will Google "stress management" and people who really want to spend a lot of energy doing stress management usually see to it that their web sites pop up long before yours does.
2. Think about your goals for the website. If you're an unpublished writer querying agents, for example, think of everything you can that is related to a visible writing life. That may mean a prize you got in an MFA program. Or words of praise from a teacher. It may mean writing something interesting about the writers who have influenced you and/or the life that has influenced you. If you're published online, make sure that you have links to every online site you want an agent to see. If you've published in journals or anthologies or have published books, make sure to have a web designer who can duplicate copies of journals you've been in or books you've published. If you have given readings list them. However you decide to do it, make the splash page be about your writing and keep it professional and short.
3. Whether or not you're published, make sure you have a web designer who can have professional-looking copy of one or two stories (preferably short) or the first few pages from your novel and a scene from your novel. It's best to put this on a separate page and make the first page an introduction to your writing.
4. Create a separate page for your biography and include a picture. The first page should entice people about your writing. It usually works best if there's a separate page that entices people about you as a writer. If you're a nonfiction writer, talk about what subjects have drawn you to them--and when. If you're a fiction writer or a poet talk about what interests you, when you got interested in it, and how you have pursued your interests. A biography can feel daunting to an unpublished writer. But a well-written biography can intrigue an agent--or an editor looking for an online publications. It's particularly interesting if the biography isn't filled with scattered details about your life but is about your development as a writer--your sensibilities, your influences. And in an age where writers have to sell themselves a picture will convince an agent that (in spite of your eternal desire for privacy) you are willing to be seen and known. A professional should take the picture.
5. Blogging is generally considered a very good idea in an age where more than half of a writer's public image appears in the virtual world. But not all writers go to the trouble of having separate blogs when there are wonderful places like Red Room :) If you're going to blog, it's often helpful to have a theme, a hobby horse, an interesting obsession--or a series of them. And it's helpful, too, to include your friends. There is sometimes a sense of conflict in the virtual world between networking and friendship. But particularly as more publicity takes place online, most writers are willing to help each other. Blogging on your own web site doesn't appeal to everyone. But it can be a good way to launch yourself and show the sincerity of your vision.
6. Find a web designer who understands and appreciates your vision. If you are the architect of your vision, your web designer is an invaluable alchemist. There are a lot of good web designers in the world, but not all of them will resonate with your vision. Look at sites of writers you resonate with (as well as sites you resonate with) and find out the name of the designer. You may want to start with three simple pages to keep costs down; but your website will change as you get your footing. For this reason it's ideal (as well as cost effective) to have a web designer who will grow with you. It's extremely helpful if a web designer is interested in writers and writing. And it's a gift if a web designer is interested enough to read your work.
Given that the virtual world has resulted in an unprecedented (if furtive) outbreak of voyeurism and exhibitionism, a website is still a formal introduction. And since the writer is like the weaver, working on the wrong side of the cloth, be sure that you and your web designer take care with the side of the cloth the reader will see. Remember that you are talking to a stranger, albeit a voyeur, and that your exhibitionism is the most secret of natures. These curious contracts are made possible by ethers that spiders themselves could never spin. Well, maybe Charlotte could. She may be weaving ephermeral threads right now, suspended somewhere in cyberspace.
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