Writing for your website is nothing like writing your novel. It’s a genre of its own. Short sentences. Fragments. Graphics. Bullets. “Special effects” you’ll never find in a novel . . . ellipses (in place of commas), words in boldface or colors . . . or Arabic numerals (e.g. 3) instead of (three).
Get started with these pages:
Your new genre: writing web pages
Writing web pages is a world apart from writing fiction. It’s a new genre . . . one with
- lots of white space
- short sentences and paragraphs. . . and fragments
- visual text . . . bold . . . italic . . . colored words
- ellipses (. . .) rather than commas . . . periods . . . or semicolons
- bulleted lists (like this one)
When people hit your website, they’re skimming . . . not reading. They’re looking for facts. When they click into your web page, they’re not after fine prose . . . they’re after information . . . and they want it fast.
If your page doesn’t deliver immediately . . . click . . . they’re gone. You’ve lost them.
It’s not a new problem . . . think walking into Barnes & Noble looking for a read.
A novel’s cover grabs your eye. You pick it up. You read the pitch on the back cover. Maybe the blurb on the author . . . and the review snippets of praise. Thumb chapter one. Then you buy . . . or more often, slip it back and try another.
Same process writing web pages. Only now it’s lightening quick. Click in . . . skim . . . click out.
It ain’t fine fiction:
How to write an easy-to-read web page
You’ll find a short synopsis right up front on every novelist’s website. That’s because we’re used to the harsh reality of getting fiction published . . . the 60-second pitch toagents at writers’ conferences . . . the one-paragraph synopsis in a query letter.
But a webpage . . . make it appear even shorter . . . think Lilliputian.
Remember how I did it for Soda Springs on my homepage:
Soda Springs is a young man’s quest to bring Martin Luther King’s civil rights message to his hometown in outback Colorado. Idealism smacks head-on into . . .
• prejudice • discrimination • hardball politics • protest • violence
And the civil rights battles get muddled by . . .
• love • sex • rejection • redemption
In a nutshell, Soda Springs is a tangled love story set in the forgotten Mexican-American civil rights movement of the Sixties . . . interwoven with the Martin Luther King-led 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and MLK’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
Now, compare the above to my original pitch, right off the back cover of Soda Springs:
Soda Springs is a young man’s quest to bring Martin Luther King’s civil rights message to his hometown in outback Colorado. Idealism smacks head-on into prejudice, discrimination, hardball politics, protest, and violence. And the civil rights battles get muddled by love, sex, rejection, redemption. In a nutshell. Soda Springs is a tangled love story set in the forgotten Mexican-American civil rights movement of the Sixties, interwoven with the Martin Luther King-led 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and MLK’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
Same words . . . a short paragraph, too. But, man, it’s impossible to skim.
Hey, wait a sec:
Let’s take a closer look here
In reality, I made only one tiny change in that paragraph . . . I added bullets to highlight the words that evoke an emotional response.
You noticed each word, too, didn’t you? • prejudice • discrimination • hardball politics . . . Thought so. Makes a big difference, doesn’t it?
For even more emphasis, I could have used a bulleted list. I didn’t. It seemed like overkill.
- hardball politics
Or, I could have used a boldface prejudice, discrimination, etc. or even a bright red <spanstyle=”color:red;”>prejudice, discrimination, etc. Those options are open to us in writing web pages. Here again, in this case it seemed like overkill. And it looks too much like a high school textbook.</spanstyle=”color:red;”>
As for short sentences . . . fragments . . . ellipses (. . .): not so much in this example: the first sentence and last paragraph are still too long. I’ll work on them some more.
On the other hand, take another look at the second section of our homepage. Notice the short sentences . . . short paragraphs . . . use of bullets and again . . . Mr. Ellipsis.
Now, on to another nifty website writing trick:
Unlike the printed page, we aren’t space-limited in writing web pages. We can add a paragraph here and there and not have to worry about running onto the next page.
So, I added a paragraph to open my pitch . . .
(Soda Springs) is an out-of-the-way fictional farm town . . . acres of verdant fields . . . a spectacular mountain range . . . but a poverty-stricken barrio in a town fragmented by its Mexican-American struggle against a history of racism.
It sets up the pitch better . . . plus, it makes liberal use of our new-found friend, Mr. Ellipsis.
And a final note:
Writing web pages gives us some cool tools we don’t use in a published novel. Not only bold and color . . . but pulsating images . . . clever graphics . . . smiley faces . . . videos . . . and who knows what else. My advice? Go easy. The idea is to get the skimmers to pause a moment . . . and read what we’re offering . . . not entertain them with pinwheels or jumping jacks.
Your Keyword: the key to a winning web page
Keywords . . . the bugaboo for a fiction writer’s website. Why?
Potential readers Google a specific keyword or two. Up pops a page of would-be matches, and zip, they click onto the site they were looking for . . . say, John Grisham. Or The Firm . . .
But if you aren’t famous and your novel is unknown . . . no one will click directly to your page. You’re invisible. Your potential readers don’t know your name or your novel’s title, so they can’t Google you or your book. You’re not a keyword. Nor is your protagonist . . . villain . . . setting . . . climax . . . or your key scenes. (Not yet.)
We all know the importance of a good hook: that right-up-front line that grabs a reader by the blouse and plunges her into your novel . . . the spark that convinces her your novel is a must read.
Internet search engines, though . . . they’re one-dimensional animals. They don’t recognize crisp dialog . . . heart-stopping action . . . intrigue. They’re blind to prose that sketches a character so vividly you want to grab her up and spirit her to safety.
Search engines want keywords . . . that’s it . . . nothing but the words readers type into their Google searches. Narrow minded little buggers, those search engines. Trouble is, they’re in charge here. Plus they read 20 zillion times faster than we do . . . and they don’t take time to fondle your book and sniff the prose . . . all they care about is delivering on the keywords.
If your book were a biography . . . memoir . . . how-to-do . . . or even a fictional rendering of a famous world event or personality, readers might find you through keywords associated with real people, events, and actions. But it’s not; your novel (by definition) is fiction. So what to do?
Tell! Don’t show:
Expand your pitch with a few choice keywords
By itself, putting your dust-jacket pitch or your synopsis on your website won’t bring readers to your site. Nor will adding your first chapter or two to the site. A well-written pitch captures your style and story . . . and your sample chapters deliver the goods. But that package derives from your need to show an agent or editor why he should take on your work. It may . . . or may not . . . respond to your readers’ Google searches . . . or the search engines’ hunt for keywords.
Despite the oft-repeated mantra of fiction writing, a fiction website has to tell, not show. So,
- Expand your pitch . . . add keywords that both tell about your novel and respond to topics that potential readers are searching for.
- Cast your pitch in terms of what readers want . . . fiction writing tips, for example, rather than an intriguing tale of life in Soda Springs, Colorado.
- And salt your pitch with keywords. Don’t forget: a single mention of one keyword does not a keyword-focused webpage make.
Here’s an example. The primary keyword on my homepage is fiction writing. It appears throughout the page, starting with the headline:
- An invitation to fiction writing:
Tips from the fight for civil rights
Then, we begin the page with the keyword. . . and use it throughout the page:
- Fiction writing your cup of tea? Even if you’re widely read, you probably don’t know Soda Springs. . .
- . . . I show how you can use Soda Springs to sharpen your own fiction writing
- . . . I’ll show you why we made those choices . . . and the questions they raise for your own fiction writing
- Use Soda Springs as your personal writing workshop . . . I’ve salted the discussion with writing tips, writing hints, writing exercises that will help you with your own fiction writing. Read it. Enjoy it. Criticize it. Learn from it.
- Chapter summaries. One-paragraph summaries of each chapter. (A fiction writing tip we picked up from our writing groups over the years.) Good chapter summaries give both you and your readers an easy handle on your story line.
- The art of cutting: Good fiction writing means deleting entire scenes, pages, themes, characters . . . even well-written ones. View the secrets that published novels never reveal: the parts the author cut out . . . plus comments on why we decided these sections had to go, and useful tips for your own fiction writing.
Okay, plenty of examples there. If you like Where’s Waldo searches, take another look at An Invitation to fiction writing. You’ll find the page’s keyword, fiction writing, throughout the page.
Hooking the search engines:
Use all six basic elements of a webpage
There’s more to a webpage than text. In fact, every webpage has at least six components. Each should include at least one example of the page’s keyword to maximize the page’s ability to get the search engines’ attention. The webpage you’re reading now, for example, includes the following:
File name: keyword
The file name is the short-hand name you give to each web page . . . the file name, together with your domain name, make up a separate URL for each page.Example: the URL for this page is http://www.terrymarshallfiction.com/keywords.html. The URL appears in the top left corner of your screen where you would type in a specific web address rather than a keyword. It is used by the search engines, but also in internal links within your web site. The page keyword should appear once in the file name.
Page title: The keyword-based web page
The page title appears on a computer screen just above the web page . . . and on the tab if you have several web sites open at once.Notice that it changes each time you click to a different page on a site. Your readers may not notice it, but search engines do. Include the keyword once in the page title.
Keywords: keyword, keywords, key words
Readers don’t see your keywords . . . unless they right-click anywhere on your page, then left click on the source code button . . . but the search engines use them to help determine relevance of the page to their search.You should have one primary keyword . . . and, optionally, up to three or four secondary words for each web page.
Page Description: Keyword-based pages are a must to attract readers to your website.But fiction is about story, not about salting your prose with hooks for the search engines. The solution: a keyword-laced introduction to each web page.The page description appears in the search engine’s results page beneath the page title. It’s the pitch for the page, and is crucial both to the search engines and potential readers. Based on this description, readers choose to click onto your site . . . or not.
Headline: Keywords: the key to a winning web pageThe headline is obvious. It has the same function as headlines in newspapers . . . to give the reader a 1- or 2-line summary of what the page (or article) is about.
The keyword should appear in the first sentence, preferably at the beginning, and should be scattered throughout the text . . . not indiscriminately, of course, but in a context that makes sense to the reader.
Editing is key to a good webpage. As are cutting . . . rewriting . . . pruning.
Your homepage is the first impression most readers get of your writing . . . big dilemma: it may be your only chance to convey your fiction writing style . . . but it also has to attract the search engines.
My novels don’t use elipses . . . not every paragraph is a short sentence or two . . . it’s not shot full of bold face and italic and sentence fragments . . . it’s not studded with carefully chosen keywords. I write fiction to tell a story . . . not to pull in the skimmers or the search engines.
So what to do with a webpage about fiction?
Write with care . . . edit . . . rewrite . . . condense . . . the same process you go through with your fiction. Webpage writing isn’t honed fiction, but like good fiction, it takes editing . . . revising . . . rethinking . . . reworking. Try these suggestions to sharpen your webpage prose.
Start with analysis and reflection
Wait a day before you start to rewrite
- Set your draft aside . . .then approach it with a clear mind and a fresh perspective.
Read your draft for wording and grammar . . . in 4 different ways:
- Read silently . . . then aloud.
- Read word-for-word to catch spelling and punctuation errors.
- Print it and read it from a hard copy.
- Have someone else read it . . . a friend . . . your spouse . . . a different set of eyes.
Read for content
Remember that each webpage has its own tightly focused theme. Ask yourself:
- Does each paragraph support my main theme?
- Does it engage my readers?
- Does it answer the key questions I think my readers have?
- Does it convey who? what? where? when? why?
- Does it convey my fiction writing style?
Read for flow
- Does the overall page hang together?
- Are the transitions smooth . . . does it flow from sentence to sentence . . . and paragraph to paragraph?
Now, pull out the red pen . . .
and get on with editing and revising
Cut, cut, cut . . . no, stop . . . don’t add more . . . cut
- Cut the verbiage . . . the wanderings . . . the irrelevancies.
- But also cut those lovely sentences, paragraphs and scenes that sound wonderful . . . but don’t advance the theme of your page. (Yes . . . even if your prose does sing! Sorry.)
Delete jargon and 50-cent words
We’re writing to inform, not impress. So . . .
- Delete the English-prof talk: no
- As for
metaphorsand similes. . . don’t talk about ’em . . . use ’em sparingly) to make your page sparkle like a bubbling brook . . . or, save ’em for your fiction.
Find active (and vivid) verbs . . . strike out the passive voice
- No more The angry denial
was written byGinny Sue.
- Rather, Ginny Sue wrote an angry denial.
- Or better yet, show us how she wrote . . . and how she felt about it: Ginny Sue pounded out a scorching denial.
Remove excess words
- Strike any word or phrase that doesn’t add information:
in the event of . . . for the most part . . type of . . . it seems that . . . there are. . .
- Erase phrases you can replace with a single word: it’s the last guy . . . not The guy
at the end of the line.
- But make sure you don’t delete your keywords
Root out vague modifiers
- famished . . . not
- exhausted . . . not
Editing in Action:
some examples from my homepage
OK, so much for tips and guidelines. Let’s see how editing works in real life. The following examples show some of the editing I did on early drafts of my homepage.
An invitation to fiction writing:
writers and readers:
Tips from the fight for civil rights
Come with me into Soda Springs
Why the changes? First line: fiction writing is one of the page’s keywords; writers and readers aren’t keywords . . . use your keywords up front.
Second line: The headline should introduce a page from the readers’ point of view . . . not the author’s . . . Tips from the fight for civil rights does two things: 1) it suggests something you as a reader might be able to use (writing tips) . . . 2) Until you read my novel, Soda Springs won’t spark any images for you. But civil rights? That’s a topic that rings a bell . . . and introduces one of the novel’s major themes.
Even if you’re writing fiction, you probably don’t know Soda Springs. Fiction writing your cup of tea? Even if you’re widely read, you probably don’t know Soda Springs.
Why the change? It’s a snappier first line . . . plus, it puts the page keyword (fiction writing) right up-front . . . lets feed those picky search engines.
Soda Springs is
the story of a young man’s quest to bring Martin Luther King’s civil rights message of justice and hope to his hometown. His idealism smacks head-on into prejudice . . . discrimination . . . . .runs smack dab up against . . .
Why the changes? The deleted words are unnecessary . . . also, the verb smacks is more vivid than the verb run, even when modified by the adverb smack dab.
Writing fiction is hard work.
It takes time. You write . . . rewrite . . . root out the underbrush . . . cut, cut, cut . . . rewrite again . . . banish unneeded characters . . . oust cliches . . . delete screwy tangents. . . spiff up the language . . . present realistic love and sex in ways that don’t cross the line from erotic fiction into pornography . . . then rewrite yet again . . . on and on over and over.
Why the changes? Wordiness . . . plus, “present realistic love and sex in ways that don’t cross the line from erotic fiction into pornography” . . . comes out of the blue . . . it teases: ah, what’s this? Graphic sex? But it doesn’t fit the rest of the paragraph . . . and it doesn’t explain my plan to use passages in the novel and cuttings from it in a section on writing erotic fiction. So, I’ll cut the reference to erotic fiction here, and introduce it later on its own webpage.
This website goes beyond Soda Springs as a novel into a behind-the-scenes world of fiction writing as it morphs . . . of writing fiction as a process of revision. So, what IF . . . we use Soda Springs as an on-line writers writers’ workshop? I’ll show you the warts that only an author knows a novel’s author knows . . . the warts . . . excesses . . .the false starts . . .
- the revisions . . .
evensome of the excesses we cut out . . . even somewonderful scenes we left on the cutting room floor . . . not because they were poorly done, but because they slowed down our story. Oh, my, it hurts to throw away riveting scenes and clever phrases!)
Why the changes? Wordy . . . let’s get right to the point.
Finally, let’s look at some of the editing I did on two of the entries at the bottom of the homepage. These summarize the main topics I’ll address in showing how you can use Soda Springs to help your own writing.
Good fiction characters come to life through what they say and do, as well as what they look like. A whole company of players await you in Soda Springs. Meet them, see how the author describes them, then, link to In our own words, where the main characters describe introduce themselves to you. (Note: you won’t find these descriptions in the novel; they’re from the author’s private reserve. And please don’t let the characters see these descriptions. Some . . . like Ginny Sue Bennett . . . are pretty touchy about my exposing their secret lives and thoughts.)
Why the changes? Too wordy . . . I deleted the note because this paragraph should be a brief summary, not a full explanation. The three deleted sentences belong to the Creating Characters web page, not here. . .
The word introduce implies you will meet the characters . . . it draws you as a reader into the action . . . ” describe ” positions you outside the action, reading about the characters, rather than meeting them.
Writing erotic fiction: Soda Springs is about love and sex, as well as civil rights. (Be forewarned: there’s more than a kiss or two here.)
We’ve tried to show our You’ll read some hormonal- drenched protagonist and his encounters charged adventures in this novel. We’ve tried to show them in a way that’s true to our cast’s emotions and actions. Watch me wrestle Join me in wrestling with the dilemma of writing about sex without being pornographic: “Exactly how explicit should this scene be?” (Yep, we’ve got some outtakes here that didn’t make it past the in-house censor . . . let alone the out-of-town reviewers. Use them as fodder to think about how best to present the sensual side of life.)
Why the changes? Both You’ll read some . . . and Join me in wrestling better engage the reader rather than convey authorial voice lecturing to the reader. Other deleted sentences were excess. Titillating perhaps, but not essential.
And finally, here is an example of a whole concept I cut from the homepage:
The cast strikes back: I like the folks in Soda Springs . . . especially Flor and Rick and Concha and Tia Lupita . . . even Odell Andrews (who, quite frankly, is a first class asshole) . . . and I hate to stuff them on a shelf. So I won’t. (Truth to tell . . . they wouldn’t let me. They picketed and carried on, and demanded I let them out.) Some of the cast think I distorted what really happened that summer . . . others say I should have kept the more salacious details to myself . . . or, in Odell’s case, that I didn’t get his every conquest. (You can’t please anyone these days.) Step into our rogues’ gallery. Ask the Soda Springs gang about the summer of 1963 . . . whether they think what I wrote about their loves and hates and crazy deeds is true . . . or what they’d doing now . . . or even what they think of today’s anti-immigration movement or Tea Parties or how Barrack Obama is doing as president. They’re eager to put their two-cents in on a variety of topics, not just their own halcyon days. Then let me know what you think.
Why delete it? Too long for the homepage . . . and a concept too difficult to squeeze into a single paragraph. I’ll cut it here . . . and introduce it later as its own blog.