Kate Fenton

 

Books
The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up

 

 

JOURNALISM

On Becoming a Dot.Com

Let me say at once I’m not some born-again cyber-evangelist, here to persuade you that every author needs a website. I was only recently inspired to venture on to the web. My sixth novel was due for publication, and since the fifth had exploded into print with all the éclat of damp, twopenny firework (hark the whingeing mid-list author), I resolved to apply myself to some promotion this time around. Thus, KateFenton.com, my grand strategy.

I am not, however, about to offer tips on DIY site construction. It took me less than five minutes to decide I would pay an expert to handle the nuts and bolts. Sure, a geek will assure you that anyone can master the requisite skills, but I foresaw half my life gurgling down a computer-shaped plughole before I ended up with the cyber-equivalent of a helicopter built by an amateur plumber. Nevertheless, even with Mike Jarman of Webart masterminding the technicalities, the creation of the site took me a good two months of sweated labour. That’s why I thought it might be worth sharing my dilemmas and travails here.

I employed Webart, incidentally, because it was a local firm and Mike, as well as being a book-reading member of the human race, was a friend. From the outset, it was clear our roles in the creation of the site were distinct. My function was to supply the content, his to display it to best advantage. He talked about scripts, search engines, images, colours. I paid scant attention because I was grappling with far more fundamental questions: what precisely was the purpose of this site? At whom was it aimed? What would they expect to find here?

Our parallel universes soon collided. Mike needed a design concept, some guidance on the feel of the site. Should it be coolly minimalist? Picturesquely rural? Flowerily romantic? Since I write contemporary comedies of manners, threaded with a love story, which are often set in the Yorkshire backwoods, any of these notions might seem plausible. But they all sounded dead wrong to me. In order to articulate why, however, I had to undertake some salutary and quite uncharacteristic self-analysis. I was forced to stand back and appraise my work with a stranger’s eye; to ask, in all seriousness, what I was about as a novelist. This hurt. What was more, once defined, that elusive essence had to be translated into pictures, or at least a visual style.

You might retort that this is merely the process required for every new dust jacket, and you’d doubtless be right. But publishers come up with jacket roughs, and the most we authors generally contribute is our blessing, or a few pertinent comments. Mike and I were starting with a blank screen. Besides, considering the boggling variety of pictures which have fronted my books – wishy-washy landscapes, Hockney-bright acrylics, in-yer-face photo montages, droopily artistic collages – it seemed clear to me there is no single right correlation between words and imagery. I did some more hard thinking.

The prime function of the site however was defined – albeit inadvertently – by Mike’s understandable emphasis, in his early plans, on the selling of books via Amazon or my publisher’s own mail-order operation. After all, most small commercial websites are aimed at flogging a product or service. But I realized mine wasn’t. It was aimed at selling me. Yes, we’d have a link to Hodder’s madaboutbooks, but an author site is principally a public relations exercise, not a shop. Progress.

Which brings me to site visitors. I worked out I should be aiming at three distinct categories of browser: my fans (yeah, yeah, all two of them); potential readers (the key group) and straightforward information seekers – journalists, for example. Clearly, they’d require rather different content. An established reader might want entertaining background to novels and novelist; a new reader had to be tempted into trying the books; a hack about to interview me would be after dates, titles and quotes, and wouldn’t appreciate wading through the gigabytes of jokes, family snaphots and piquant life-fiction parallels included to amuse/seduce the other two categories.

Allied to that was the issue of tone. Should I be concocting this multi-purpose text in the first person or the third – a chatty letter, or a formal slab of arts page prose? Snooping round other authors’ sites – and Tom Porter’s article in last summer’s Author provided helpful pointers – I found approaches vary widely, although the nature of the medium nudges even the most austere writer towards informality.

The content then had to be intelligently apportioned in labelled chunks – ‘pages’ in geek-speak. Clearly I needed some sort of introductory letter (the home page) – with beaming mugshot? Then there was to be a biography section. More photographs – could anyone really want to see me as moon-faced toddler? I settled on a separate page for each novel, topped with a smudged detail from a jacket design (Mike’s pleasingly arty touch); an adapted blurb with a couple of flashy review quotes; a link offering a substantial ‘read-the-book’ excerpt, and what I suppose you might call an extended essay which put the story in an autobiographical, topographical and – I sincerely hoped – comical context.

Plainly there were going to be a lot of words on my site. This caused me a few qualms because the web, by and large, is not a word-friendly zone. The screen prefers graphics, zappy captions and grasshopper links. It says everything that Mike, in reproducing my whacking slabs of prose, frequently found himself running out of gif background – the coloured wallpaper he painstakingly laid behind the text. If I count in the book excerpts and articles included on the Press and Journalism pages, I reckon the site contains a good 60,000 words, half of which I wrote specifically for the purpose. At least this explains why it took so much work. Staunchly assuring myself that people would expect a novelist’s site to be on the verbose side, I wrote on.

More unsettling, however, was a creeping realisation that I’d embarked on the most monstrous exercise in megalomania. This site was just me, me and – blow me down – encore plus moi. I found myself thinking of Mr Toad – remember his grand party plans at the end of the book? Speech by TOAD; address by TOAD (with reflections on English Law, The Waterways, Rights of a Landowner); song by TOAD (composed by himself) and so forth. Quite. As truth is the first casualty of war, modesty’s straight for the recycle bin on a website.

Still, I’d come way too far to beat a blushing retreat. I should say that Mike, before we began, had asked what I was planning to spend. I’d said a thousand pounds, which he assured me was more than adequate. Only now I was beginning to be excited by the manifold possibilities of the new medium. Frankly, after all these years of working in static old black print on a white page, it was more than flesh and blood could have borne not to have just a little dabble in colour, sound, animation… Next thing you know, we were making a movie, right here in our own North Yorkshire backyard.

Health Warning: playing Cecil b. de Mille costs money. Without my animated introductory sequence – ‘flash front’ is the indelicate-sounding technical term – we’d have come in comfortably under budget. As it is, after a forty per cent overrun, we have my name spelt in a moody, moonlit maze (complicated plots); brightening to colourful daylight with twittering (post-modern, ironical) bluebirds – and a saucy little statue of Cupid (brief to designer: Michelangelo meets Benny Hill) who rounds off the sequence with a knowing wink. Expressing the subversion of traditional romantic clichés in English rural surroundings – geddit?

Well, maybe the symbolism’s obscure but, hell, it was fun. And the site feels right for me. What’s more, I did come to appreciate – profoundly appreciate – the expertise Mike had been wafting past my distracted ears about typefaces, search facilities, all the nuts and bolts. If you’re going to write the equivalent of half a novel on your site, you damn well need text that’s comfortable to read, and speedy navigation methods to get around it. He also insisted throughout that a website isn’t a static creation like a book, but something that must continually change and adapt. To which end, he supplied a diary facility which I can update without assistance when I feel inspired, along with the essential contact page.

So has it been worth the time and money? Put it this way. A week after the site was launched (I think ‘went live’ is the term) I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in praise of Georgette Heyer. The next day, I got an e-mail – addressed to me at KateFenton.com. ‘I loved your article’, wrote my correspondent, ‘so I’ve looked you up on the web, and now I can’t wait to read your novels.’ Hallelujah.


©Kate Fenton 2002