Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Building a website.

How did I not know just how difficult this is?

I began with a free google site that I could tack onto this, write in proper words - but with such limited scope it obviously wasn't going to be flexible enough. I couldn't work out how to move things around, mould words round pictures - any of that. Which meant the page had too much white space - which is fine in a book, but not online.

Nothing for it, I was going to have to teach myself to do it properly, or pay someone. Paying someone appeals in some ways, but it would paying for ongoing maintenance, being able to phone them in a panic when something went wrong. Besides, if I could master the Kindle technology, surely I could do this?

So I bought a book, 'Build Your Own Website The Right Way Using HTML and CSS'. It's not a snappy title but tells you what to expect.

There's plenty of introduction in proper English; I could manage that. And then it began getting complicated. Surely I didn't need all that gobbledegook, just for one little website. I'm not building Amazon, or a newspaper, just a page or two with more information about the book and a photograph or two.

So I started skipping bits.

Then I didn't understand one word. So I decided it was designed to exclude everyone but computer geeks and I had plenty of better things to do with my life and who needs a website anyway. (Spot the tiny hissy fit!)

But I do - I know I do. I need to tell you more about my book (yes, very soon it will be a book and not just an ebook!). There may even be more books? I need to tempt you with photos from my travelling, tell you where I'm going next.

And so I went back to the beginning, and began to read every word. Practise every exercise. Build their pretend site - and my own, alongside it. One nugget of learning rests on another. It's like maths, or latin - it has a terrible logic that works, once you understand the code.

But the code is precise. I learned that < and = and " (not ') must be in the right place or a whole page can disappear. 'Scr' is not the same as 'src' - and the difference is almost impossible to spot in a pages of mark-up text.

This is not how I usually work. I throw ideas at the screen, ignore grammar and spelling, just get the shape of a story or poem or idea down, and then begin to unpick it, shape it, tease out what I'm really trying to say until - countless drafts later - it's as polished as I can make it. If I do that with the website it will never work. Finding mistakes hide among all  the <div>s and <a href>s and </p>s. I spent hours, yesterday, trying to work out why a link wouldn't appear, only to find I had instructed it to appear in white, against a white background.

I'm sure there are shortcuts. But please don't tell me about them. I've got this far, and I'm going to do this. But it may be a little while. (Though, please, tell me this is difficult, and I'm not being a really dingbat making a meal of it!)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An orchestra of white goods.

I have a new washing machine - no, don't rush off. This isn't a diatribe about white goods, nor a writing exercise just to prove I can write about laundry for an entire paragraph without sending you all to sleep.

Sorry - wake up there. No, my washing machine - sparkling white, undented, efficient, with clever programmes - sings to me when it has finished washing . . .

A merry tinkly tune - far too high to join in with; in fact, it is pitched so high it is almost at that point where only dogs can hear it. So high that only a toddler stung by a bee can reach it - that first, terrified cry before they take a deep breath and let out a proper bellow.

Which leaves me wondering - who thought this was a good idea? I don't want to appear all sexist about this, but somewhere a group of people (men? in suits?) sat round a table and brainstormed ideas.

'We need to find a way to make our washing machines more exciting. It's not enough that people have clean clothes. They need a complete laundry experience.'

Cue for enthusiastic clapping. 'Laundry experience,' they agree, 'is a great phrase. We must remember that.'

'How about we have different coloured machines - yellow, or stripes, or dots like Pudsey.'

'I'm not so sure. We need machines to fit in with the whole kitchen/utility room experience. So it has to be sleek and modern, and minimalistic.'

'I thought colours might be rather fun.'

Cue scowls.

'How about . . . well, I'm thinking, just brainstorming here, the washing is finished, and someone is busy with other things - cooking, looking after the baby - how will they know to sort their clothes? A little ping, perhaps? A bell chime?'

'No - a tune!!! A little song!!! That would be cheerful, and make the whole laundry experience more, well, enjoyable?'

'Hurrah, a tune, what a wonderful idea!!! Then laundry can really be fun!!!'

'Then people can have a little dance to celebrate the laundry etc.!!!'

'And let's be really clever and pitch the tune so high that they want to rip their own ears off each time it plays!!!'

I simply don't believe a woman would have done this. Nor would she condone hiding the instructions to turn it off so deep within all the little booklets that come with machines these days that anyone who with washing/cooking/cleaning to do (and some writing, or even travelling) would lose the will to live before she found it.

So, if anyone else has a new LG washing machine - any ideas? Other than soundproofing a room to hide it in?

And please - warn me of any other kitchen gadgets to avoid. I really don't need an orchestra of white goods.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Not so invisible - when I was travelling.

In my last blogpost I talked about the invisibility of older women - and it certainly resonated, if the comments are anything to go by. It's something that creeps up on us - and there is nothing we can do to slow it down. And it does, as I think we agreed, have advantages.

But when I was travelling I realised that it is culturally determined - a phenomenon common in western countries, where young people are seen to be the drivers of all thinking and energy. It is very different in other parts of the world.

Which means I was unprepared for being an older, white woman, wandering Indian streets alone. The Indians had no idea what to make of me, and made no secret of gawping at me as I tried to weave a path through the mayhem.  It didn't help that I was clueless when faced with somewhere so different, and so chaotic.
I didn't help myself by beginning in the north. 

If I'd read my Lonely Planet a little more assiduously I'd have known that life is easier - for everyone, as well as women - in the south. I'd have taken to the backroads of Kerala, and practised being visible among people who were both welcoming and curious. 

When I was in Kumerakon, a village on the edge of Lake Vembanad in the backwaters of Kerala (in the south), I found myself joining a group of children having a dance lesson; I managed their excitement and my general clumsiness and was waved away after a wonderful half an hour by a teacher - who spoke not one word of English. (My one word - thank you. It's the only word I learned in every country I visited.) What a wonderful introduction to the country that could have been!

Instead, I travelled down from Nepal, and spent a night in Gorakhpur, in a grubby hotel opposite the station. I was unprepared - not only for the chaos, but also for the lack of women in the streets. There are significantly more Muslims in North India; and it is rare for women to emerge into the streets alone - unless they are in air-conditioned cars, or begging on corners. Most commerce - the street-traders, the tuk tuk drivers, the waiters - are men.

And so one white woman, meandering down the streets - trying to avoid cowpats, beggars, the insistent calls of tuk tuk drivers, traders urging me to buy scarves, phones, betel nuts, cricket bats - was more visible than the queen in a primary school. Everyone stared at me - and, initially, I was hugely uncomfortable. It was like finding your skirt is tucked in your knickers and there is nothing you can do to extract it. There was no corner to hide in, no unremarkable cafe where I could sit in the corner and make sense of everything around me; even sitting brought someone to my side with questions or 'proposals'. Thankfully, I had a guide at the time, a gentle Nepali who found the whole thing highly amusing (it took so little to make him laugh) who was able to steer me through the worst of it, and kept me safe on those few occasions when . . . yes, there were some not-so-safe incidents.

And you - tell me your tales of your skirt-in-the-knickers moments. (Please - tell me it's not just me!)

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

It can be fun, being invisible.

Sometimes the invisibility of ageing women can be a nuisance. I speak, the room whirls round me, then the same words come out of the mouth of a man and everyone drools. But there is little point in foot-stamping; that changes nothing.

(I recall talking with Paul, my mentor, about this - and he was appalled. He'd never noticed older women . . . I rest my case.)

It has evolutionary advantages. The only logical reason for women to live so long after the end of their child-bearing years is to raise children. So - say your village is attacked; if those caring for the children are invisible then a few dead men matter less.

And it has its advantages. For instance, earlier this year I drove down the west coast of America. I found myself in a little cafe in LaJolla, sipping a cappucino, while three women at the next table seemed totally unaware of my scribbling in a notebook, looking up every now and then to check who was speaking. And here, roughly, is a transcript of a corner of their conversation. I shall call them A, B, and C.

A. 'Well, I had this job, in Silicon Valley, and it was so paid, well you know what they pay there, thousands, hundreds of thousands. We had this wonderful house, in the mountains; it was just darling. But then they effectively asked me to choose between work and family (she shrugs), so here we are.'
B. 'Oh, that's such a wonderful story!'
C. 'Oh, and you are such a wonderful mother.'
(They talk about the wonderful things they are doing with their children.)
B. 'I've gone back to school, so I can help little B with his math.'
A. 'Oh, that's so cute.'
B. 'And I've given my daughter a diary, so she can record the way she feels.'
C. 'Oh it's so important that daughters feel good about themselves.'
A. 'Oh self-esteem is the most -'
B. 'I talk with my daughter about her feelings all the time.'
A. 'I want to go to meditation with my daughter.'
C. 'Meditation is wonderful. The pregnant mothers I work with, they do this meditation together, and go into this womb-like trance, and then they all stay connected to each other, sort of embraced by the process.'
B. 'Isn't that just beautiful?'

And so it went on. (In my notebook I commented that this was another reminder of the things that obsess us when we are removed from the necessity of foraging for our own food or keeping ourselves safe.) I have yet to weave this into a short story, but I can't help feeling that all this mutual adoration hid some serious envy. I'm not sure I believe A's tale of deciding to leave Silicon Valley for her family; and, if it's not true, why does she feel a need to make this up? What is B's daughter really writing in her diary? And what do the pregnant women in C's medication class think when in the throws of labour?

On a lighter note - a lad on a bus intended me to hear this: he clambered on with a large musical instrument, bumped into everyone on his way to the back seat, and the turned to his friend and shouted for us all to hear, 'Have you heard, like, Verdi's fucking requiem; it's fucking great!' (I think he wanted me to be shocked.)

So - what have you overheard recently? And does it find its way into stories, or simply simmer in the pages of your notebook?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

What do you look for in a website?

I take your point. I need a website.

The next question - what to put on it.

So, just supposing you're wandering the internet, in a random fashion, what makes to stop to look at a website? What is genuinely interesting, and what is filling pages for the sake of it?

I know what I look for. If it is someone who genuinely interests me, I'll flick through the 'about me' page - just to see if they are telling me how wonderful they are or if they can come across as flawed like the rest of us. I might look at what they write, what they read. If they travel I drool over photos.

I don't care about exercise regimes/diets/strange health ideas. I don't care what car they drive/house they live in, or even when they prune the roses. I'm not good anyone telling me what to do.

But I want to make my site welcoming for everyone. It is not simply a reflection of my whims and fancies, but a place that responds to those of anyone who might drop by.

So I'll tell you of the ideas I've had, and I've be grateful if anyone can chip in with others:

  • I probably need an 'about me'. It will all seem too random otherwise.
  • A page of travel photos, which I can change from time to time - just to whet the appetite of anyone wondering if he or she should follow in my footsteps. 
  • A sample chapter - the first - from the book. With a link for anyone who wants to buy it - yes, people have been buying it!
  • A page of travelling thoughts - things I learned along the way that I wish I'd known before I left, but didn't seem relevant for the book. Such as how to manage one's washing (walk on it in the shower). (Except the time I arrived at a hostel in New Zealand with a rucksack of filthy clothes which I had saved for their machine. I slipped into the only skirt and shirt that weren't walking on their own, put the rest in to wash, and then went to breakfast. I've often wondered what the energetic young people alongside me would have thought if they'd known the wrinkly in the corner had no pants on.)
I think I'll keep my thoughts on the MA for this blog, because my ideas around that will evolve, and the blog seems a better vehicle for recording change than a webpage.

So - over to you. What do you look for in a webpage? 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

In case you were wondering, I'm still doing the MA.

It was a few weeks ago when I blogged about the challenge of online seminars. I was, initially, frantic - how would I ever keep up with the waterfall of ideas. I was the old lady in the corner, thinking, while everyone else was typing away throwing ideas and witticisms into the ether.

No, I haven't given up. And I'm even beginning to learn. But it's been a challenge.

The first task was to give myself permission to 'say' nothing. So I only contribute to seminars if I have something I really need to say. That, at least, took care of the anxiety.

So, I'm surviving. But if I'm simply surviving, then there is little point to doing an MA. I want to learn. And I am. Though rarely in the seminar itself. My learning takes place afterwards, when I can wallow in thinking time, unravel the ideas that have swum around the internet-seminar for the past couple of hours. Constructs such as 'narrative tension' begin to make more sense when I've let them swim in my head for a while. I begin to see that setting can act as a container for a story, and is not simply the backcloth. (Frey, in his book 'How to Write a Damn Good Novel' talks about setting as a crucible. I like that idea; I want to live with it for a while and see how I can use it in my writing.)

Solitary thinking can be so productive. For a start, when having a conversation with myself I am always right. New ideas pop up from somewhere and I can claim them all for myself. New ideas, like feathers, float about somehow, until (sometimes) the sink into something coherent. And then I can risk feeling smug that I am so clever, what with my originality verbal dexterity.

You're right. Ideas need airing in company. And our seminars, with their flood of comments, are no place for unpicking complications, or even delving into ideas in any depth. I could use the course forum; but no-one else uses in this way, and I'm not brave enough to be the first to put my head above the internet parapet.

So how can I possibly know if my thoughts are original, or useful, or even right? I can't, of course, though I would argue that there are few rights and wrongs in writing. But the reading and talking has opened up different ways of looking at things. And that has to be a start, surely?

And you - do you have your best ideas when you are on your own, or do they grow in discussion with other people?

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Marketing. Please don't yawn, I need you.

So, I've done it. Produce the book. And you can even buy it here. (If anyone can tell me how to put pictures and clever links on the side of this blog so that it looks inviting and not just gobbledegook web address I'd be grateful.)

I must, I am told, market this book.

That's business-speak. It wears the jargon of business. Which is, of course, terribly important and without it the country would be in a dreadful state because no-one would buy anything and then where would we be ... Honestly, I'm not suggesting it's not important. But, from my perspective, it's, well, a bit boring.

But I am stiffening my shoulders. Trying to behave as if I'm not at the back of the class passing notes. I must learn. I have a book to sell.

And I have friends who know about these things - and even care about them. So I've had a lesson.

Marketing, I'm told, is about product, price, place, and promotion. I must think about each in turn - without resorting to the wine and chocolate and who-really-cares-about-this-stuff option.

Product: I have the book. Well, ebook. It's in the real world now. Well, the eworld. I've done the very best I can with that, and I am proud of it. It is the right book for me. (But, whispers businessman, it doesn't matter what you think. Is it the right book for your readers? As if I know the answer to that.)

Price: I've read blogs telling me not to underprice the book; it will look cheap. I've read blogs telling me not to overprice the book; people will not buy it. There is obviously no right answer. So I've plucked a sort-of-middle price out of the air. My current plan is to leave it at that - some writers seem to fiddle around with the price. Do they not have better things to do?

Place: Amazon, and Smashwords. I must be realistic. The local bookshop might be persuaded to take a copy or two, but it's unlikely to reach the front tables of Waterstones (unless I pay them enough, and even then it may not sell unless I stand on my head and dance in an effort to draw attention to it. Maybe not dancing while standing on my head ... you take my point.).

Which brings me to promotion. Yawn. I tweet, I facebook, and I blog. I am thinking about building a webpage (note - thinking. That's enough for now). I comment on other people's blogs, though only when they interest or entertain me. Surely that's enough? No - apparently. I have read advice suggesting I should join forums - on Amazon, on Kindle, on travel sites, on writing sites - really? To say what - to witter endlessly about the book, which will surely bore everyone. To join in general writerly conversations? Which are fine for a while, but I have real writing to do. Besides, so many of them repeat themselves, and there is a limit to how many times I can recommend that writers read a lot, only to be shot down by someone with wobbly grammar insisting that he or she has never read a book and doesn't mean to stop now.

So - realistically - what do you think I should do now? Carry on as I am, or join in some sort of internet-frenzy in order to sell a few more copies? (I know, I've made it obvious what I want you to say. But if you disagree, please say so. Maybe I'm being a bit bah-humbug about all this.)