Every once in awhile, a friend or acquaintance will read a bunch of my posts and say, “Hey, I was stalking your blog.” I always thought this was strange because my blog is public. If I didn’t want people to read it, it would be on my hard drive, not the internet. Then I started to wonder if the feeling that they were “stalking” my blog came from the design.
Instead of a design that says, “Hey, this is someone’s personal blog. Maybe they don’t totally realize this is online and anyone can read it?” I would like a design that says, “This is the website of a speculative fiction author and freelancer, and you can read what they have to say about some stuff.” These roles, along with enjoyment of blogging and web design, are why I have this website. Yet, it doesn’t do a good job of expressing them, for good reasons as well as bad ones.
Hint: they’re the same reasons. They boil down to the fact that, although I’ve been designing website for 20 years, I didn’t design this site myself because I needed to avoid waffling. And maybe even waffles.
What’s wrong with the current design? In some respects, not much. It’s readable, for sure, and with the exception of the subheadings, (H2, H3, H4, etc) I like the typography. I even like the “Bleached Landscape” color scheme, which I picked in defiance of my own attitude that if something isn’t dark-colored, it’s deeply uncool.
However, the design is also decidedly personal blog-like. It also has a slightly dated look to it, which honestly, is part of the reason I picked it. It reminds me of a nicely- designed Livejournal with some cool details. There’s nothing actually wrong with it because I don’t consider not following current trends to be a wrong. What matters is that it doesn’t match my current aesthetic well enough, and I didn’t design it myself (aside from some tweaks over the years, such as the background from the cover of Spirit Notes Fading).
There are plenty of pre-made WordPress themes I could choose from to change the blog vibe to something more professional, if that’s what I wanted to do. But since web and graphic design are two of the areas I do freelance work in, it would be preferable to have a website of my own design. And since I’m also a speculative fiction writer, that is something I would also like the design to express.
One question I’ve been wrestling with: to what extent do I want to adopt the common tokens of author websites, such as typewriter-style headings and bookish body text? Do I need to bludgeon visitors over the head with my absolute writerly-ness, when everyone else who has a blog is also a writer? Many fiction authors’ websites appear designed to convey that they aren’t just some blogger, but a real writer. A writer’s writer.
As far as I’m concerned, typography is the second step of a web or graphic design project, after brainstorming. I always aim to make the typography and layout do as much of the heavy lifting as possible before I start adding color or anything else that isn’t absolutely crucial. And that’s where I am now. It’s a bit of a background project at the moment, but since I look at typography the way other people look at cat pictures, it’s been on my mind.
You only get three typefaces per project. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. It’s the “Show don’t tell” of graphic design. Like any common and seemingly wise platitude, you can find a number of places where people break the rule, for good reasons and bad. I won’t be breaking the rule in the redesign because the rule will serve my purposes.
My three typefaces can say any number of things, on their own or in combination, by their sizes, spacing, positioning, coloring, bolding, italicizing, proselytizing, and jazzercising. Will they convey a mood that is academic, provocative, sarcastic, persuasive, informative, intellectual, surreal, silly, serious, dark, weird, perfectionist, or diy-to-a-fault?
Furthermore, am I correct in thinking I’m the things I think I am? And even if I am those things, do I want to express them in an on-the-nose sort of way, or do I want to put a twist on them? And in any case, how many of these things can even be expressed through typography?
And that’s the story of how typography can pave the path right into an existential swamp of anxiety.
I enjoy the sensational, daytime talk show-esque nature of this question. But as it happens, it’s neither an episode of Jerry Springer nor a mythological Kullervo* or Turin** situation. It’s a possible solution to a couple of my own fictional characters who are each either vitally important or completely extraneous, with cases to be made for either option, but almost no middle ground. In short: it’s a decision. And I’m bad at those.
All characters are potentially:
Replaceable by any other character.
Replaceable by wind-up automata, golems, and holograms; they all need to fear that their jobs will be taken by robots. Whether their purpose is emotional, logistical, thematic, or plot-devicey, they can be replaced by another character who fulfills the same role, possibly better.
One of my characters frequently runs away from the family bakery to meet her secret girlfriend in a shady part of town where they take care of a stray dog. The girlfriend sees and says things she isn’t supposed to, and occasionally threatens to hijack my entire story with her possible homelessness and constant spying on the main character’s family, until I turn from her power and write some other scene. Or this blog post.
My character also has a mother [OR DOES SHE?!?!!?] who has come and gone from different iterations of my draft, drifting away like vapor only to turn up again more vibrant than before: a woman as wise as she is muscular, kneading bread and doling out life advice. The father and the family bakery drive some important plots, so her conspicuous absence has become more and more irritating, like a hole in a sock that you keep putting through the wash only wear it again after forgetting about the hole. By unwritten rule, all first draft mentions of the mother must include a dramatic, bracketed, all-caps statement, a note-to-self for my revision.
“My chance had arrived. “You don’t need me, do you father?” I asked casually. Casual, with just a hint of sweetness. The lemonade of asked questions.
And sure enough, he waved a hand to the door. “No, no. Go see your mother.” [IF SHE HAS A MOTHER]
When combining the two characters occurs to me, I am typing away at an especially small and sunny Dunkin Donuts. I sit with a mess that has been made in seven minutes, although I only have an hour to write before work. My backpack on the table forms a wall defending a sprawl of index cards, laptop, bullet journal, project notebook, an iced cold brew the size of the Argonath, and a squishy croissant sandwich.
On this morning, the Dunkin is solely populated by pairs of old men. Two talking about the comings and goings of local businesses, two talking about music and the capo on a particular guitar. Another pair is made up of one talking sports to his companion as though he’s reading a bedtime story while the other frequently interjects with a hacking cough that sounds like a rottweiler.
WHAT IF HER GIRLFRIEND IN ACTUALLY HER MOTHER? The thought slams on some kind of mental caps lock, startling me into locking eyes with the man who is the living memory of failed northern Rhode Island businesses. Does it make selfish Vilari more sympathetic if she’s sneaking away to see her absent mother? Do I want her to be more sympathetic? What about the spying plotline—wait, is it more poignant if it’s the mother? Is it now appropriate rather than annoying that this character, Fya, has a name that rhymes with that of the main character, Tya?
Writing fiction requires a lot of decisions, and I can’t understate my awfulness at making decisions. I spent a week—fine, two weeks–refreshing the page for these reusable baggies every time I came across that tab in my browser, paralyzed and unable to decide what color I wanted. Would the smiling octopus make me unhappier on depressive days? Did I like the watercolor pattern or is it a little too suggestive of a girly floral? Should I spend the extra dollar to get the patterns I like best because they will make me happier, or will I stop noticing the pattern after a few weeks anyway?
My challenge with the story is to find the story’s true north in a sea of infinite choices. It’s like the old Lucky Charms commercial where there are suddenly a bunch of Lucky the Leprechauns, and none is obviously the real one until you acquire some gizmo from the cereal box. 3d glasses? But I don’t have 3d glasses to pick the right character, and there is no GPS to tell me my way—I would need to input a destination I don’t know. All I can do is squint at the horizon, try to figure out if the purple smudge is a mountain, and then try to figure out if I am full-on ready to go to a mountain right now. Which reminds me that I have lived my entire life in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and never earned a “This car has climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker.
All I have to go on is the strength of my own taste, and my own concept of what I want my story to be about.
Ultimately, I did the right thing: I didn’t let the decision derail me. I’m procrastinating on figuring this out so I can avoid procrastinating on the meat of the story: all the stuff with the bakery and the dreaded wedding and how my main character is basically using the most powerful magical item of her time as a poor coping mechanism for depression. I wrote my question on an index card to carry around in my pocket, in the hopes that this will be like a program running in the background of my brain, working on cobbling together a GPS out of 3D glasses.
*SPOILER ALERT. In the centuries-old Finnish mythology collected in the epic The Kalevala, Kullervo falls in love with a woman who turns out to be his sister.
**DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT. In decades-old Middle Earth mythology written in The Silmarillion, based partly on The Kalevala, Turin falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a sister, and it’s maybe a dragon’s fault. I forget. It’s been seven years since the last time I read The Silmarillion.
I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.
When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.
Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s perfectionism in a nutshell, but the nutshell also has a fuzzy outer husk of anxiety and the frustrating problem of “I don’t have a nutcracker due to impatience and the wide availability of pre-chopped walnuts.”
Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.
Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.
I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)
Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.
But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.
*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.