Tag Archives: writing tips

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About Blogging

Why blog?

When I started writing, I decided I wanted to do it to the best of my ability. I bought the books and scoured the Internet, and over time, in my opinion, my writing improved. Obviously that’s a personal point of view, but for the sake of the hours I put into it, my ego would prefer to believe that’s exactly what happened.

During this time, I concentrated on the creative process, the mechanics of the writing: how to write fluent pros or how to define the motivations for the protagonist, that sort of thing. I plotted and planned, wrote and edited, and produced a series of short stories that I was proud of. These stories were writing exercises and helped find my voice for the larger projects which were bouncing around my head, some of which I have since embarked upon.

Throughout this, I hadn’t even considered the commercial aspect to writing. So as I became more content with my writing, I started to research what I needed to do to get those stories read by as many people as possible. Obviously the financial side played a role, many people could equate to many pennies, but it’s also the pride of being enjoyed by a large readership. During that research, one of the pieces of advice that I came across time and time again, was to create a blog.

Blogs serve many purposes, they’re not just solely marketing and promotional tools. They can share links and other interesting tit-bits of knowledge, they can give your readers a window into your life or they can show how your writing is able to adapt to non-fiction. Personally, the thing I find most helpful about blogs, particularly blogs centered around writing, is to see what other people are doing, how they did it and what traps they either avoided or fell into. This is what I’ve personally tended to blog about so far though I do hope to include some fiction in the near future.

Hosting

So, having established that a blog was worthwhile, the next step was to turn that concept into a reality. The first stage was easy: registering the domain name. I used 123-reg, found the domain name I wanted, set up a direct debit and pressed “go”. That was all done in less than five minutes. There are heaps of registration companies offering these services, both registration and hosting, and these are easy to find and are very affordable.

Luckily a friend of mine offered to host the site so that saved a bit of money. Speaking of which, if you ever need anything web related, speak to him, Allan Jardine; he’s a smart cookie and has just started consulting.

My site is managed by cPanel, a hosting management platform that enables non-technical users to setup and maintain their servers. In just a few clicks I had a basic web page and an email forwarder. So far so good, everything progressing very nicely.

It was then time to think about how I would create and maintain a web site and blog. Fifteen years ago I created my old employer’s web site by using Notepad to hand craft HTML. It was laborious, but it worked. I wasn’t expecting it to be that cumbersome these days, fifteen years is a long time in the computer industry, but then again, I wasn’t expecting it to be as easy as it was either. I knew Word could export web pages, but I suspected I could do better, so I started to look into what other authoring tools were available.

Blogging packages

Google searches kept returning references to WordPress, which I soon learned, like Movable Type and Textpattern, is a blogging package that can also be used to build a basic web site. Yep, you can’t do fancy web-sites with these, but I had no intention of doing anything particularly whizzy, a bit of text and a few images, nothing more than that. After more research, I chose WordPress.

WordPress provides a step-by-step video on how to install their package through cPanel, following that was a doddle. I spent a few hours poking about, making pages then tearing them down, trying the different formats and templates, but generally the defaults were good enough for what I wanted to do. Note that WordPress can host your blog if you don’t mind using their domain name, i.e. your-blog-name.wordpress.org, or you can install on your own server as I did.

By the end of that first evening, the “Welcome to my blog” post was up and running. It really was as simple as that.

Add-on’s

Over the next few weeks I wanted to extend the blog. So more research, more following of simple instructions and finally more stress-free functionality. All for free. Isn’t that a great price? Bear in mind though that it is good practice to ‘tip’ the creator of add-on’s if they’re doing it commercially.

These are the add-on’s I’m currently using, or widgets in WordPress parlance.

  • Mailchimp. Excellent for collecting mailing lists. You can use this to notify your loyal follows when you release your next ‘latest & greatest’. Mailchimp is free for small lists; charges only start when you reach a following where money wouldn’t be an issue anyway
  • Social Sharing Toolkit. Allows articles and pages to be ‘liked’, mailed, tweeted, etc. by all the social networking sites that you’ve heard about, and many that you probably haven’t.
  • User Photo. Allows your mug-shot to be displayed in your posts.
  • Pretty Simple Progress Meter. Shows your readers how far through a project you are

The final one, and in my opinion the most valuable, is Google Analytics. At a basic level, this phenomenal piece of free software allows you to see how many people are visiting your site. In addition, if you’re interested, you can also see how long each visitor spends on each page, where they live and pretty much everything else about them apart from the colour of their underwear.

Try it!

I must confess, I do work in I.T. so I’m not entirely clueless when it comes to computers. But the ease with which these packages can be installed and the functionality they provide, and provide for free, is extremely impressive.

I hope this post has helped show how easy it is to set-up up a blog. Please look around mine and see what you think. I know it won’t win any prizes at the next technology awards, but it’s exactly what I wanted: quick, free and low maintenance.

The tools are there, so give it a try. Get blogging!

Trophy

Competitions aren’t just about winning…

In the beginning

It was a competition that encouraged me to to write. I’d always planned to ‘knock out a novel’ at some point in my life but there was always something with a higher priority and lower importance that seemed to get in the way (drinking, watching TV, etc.).

As the saying goes, deadlines force results, and for me, it was that first competition deadline that drove my writing ambitions. My first short story, Body Recyclers, was entered into the Bristol Short Story Prize (BSSP) last year. Their fifth competition is being launched this week which I’ll be entering with hopefully better results! I’ll also send a couple of flash stories to the Reader’s Digest 100-Word Story. It’ll be a busy month.

It’s not just about winning…

The point of this article is that these competitions serve two purposes for me, well, three if the entry is successful. If successful, the marketing value would be immense. I would no longer be ‘new author Colin Marks,’ I would be ‘award winning author Colin Marks.’ Plus, I’d win enough money to replace my sick beer fridge, my broken pride and joy.

But even without the prestige of winning, these competitions are rewarding. First, it forces me to try something new, like fitting a complete story into 100 words. All those Creative Writing courses and books instruct us to frequently practice different techniques and styles, but how often do we do that? It’s hard enough to find the time to write what I need to write, let alone find additional time to practice along the way. Competitions force you to do just that. Writing exercises are always done half-heartedly and with little enthusiasm, but when you write for a competition, where the quality of your output will be judged, the motivation level sky-rockets.

The second benefit, is that writing something to a restricted length forces the prose to be tight. The 100 word flash is an extreme case, but even the BSSP’s 3000 word limit is challenging. I’m currently writing a novel which I hope will be ready in a few months, though my self-imposed end-of-year deadline is currently looking frighteningly ambitious. After stripping down my 100 and 3000 word competition entries until they were tighter than the trousers at a Weight Watchers gathering, my novel now feels incredibly bloated. That first edit is going to be brutal, large sections of text will be slashed and any long-winded descriptions will be kicked into the bin.

The challenge

My aim is to enter at least six competitions a year. I will always enter the BSSP as this one is special, it opened my eyes to a whole new creative world, plus I live in Bristol so it’s local! The others will be varied so I can regularly try different techniques. It’s worthwhile and I do benefit from it.

Competitions are easy to find on the web, with sites like Prizemagic and Story giving a comprehensive list for those based in the UK.

So give it a shot, I’m confident you’ll find the experience valuable. And should you happen to win a beer fridge in any of these competitions, remember me, you’ll instantly become my best-friend-forever!