How Research Can Save Your Book

barclayI’m funny about doing research for my novels. If I’m not collaborating on a project, I like to wing it with what I can pull from my subconscious memory, on the first draft at least. Then I go back and fill in the missing holes. It’s fun to cover a fresh printout with sticky notes and make lists of what I need to know. But I’m kind of geeky that way. Continue reading

More Reasons Why I Hate Your Website

A while back, I wrote a post about irritating website features. I’ve just done another round of heavy Internet research, and ran into more disturbing trends–not as much in the data, but in the execution. Maybe these features sounded like a good idea when you planned your website, but consider their effect on the user. Or at least on this user. Here are six more reasons why I hate your website:

1. Slideshows. Oh, how I hate slideshows. When I’m doing research, I’m on the clock. I want my information and I want it quickly. If I’m writing an article on cooking with insects, I don’t want to manually scroll through 45 separate windows containing a paragraph each on different ways to serve Madagascar hissing cockroaches. This makes me not only want to leave your site and never return, but write you a nasty letter demanding a refund for all the time I wasted going through all those slides. Yes, they can be fun and entertaining. But please, either limit your slideshows to ten panes or offer the information in a quick list form.

2. Save your surveys. Imagine that I’ve just arrived at your home page. I’m quickly scanning the information, looking for what I need. I find the right link, and just before I’m about to click on it–Bam! The entire window fills with an invitation to take your survey. I am not happy. I don’t know you, you’ve done nothing for me, but you’re asking me how I like your business. If I approached a brick-and-mortar establishment, and a salesperson stopped me as I was opening the door to ask what they could have done to improve my shopping experience, I’d wonder what she’d been imbibing during lunch break. If you have given me information, for instance, if I’ve downloaded something or signed up for your newsletter, if I’d spent a lot of time on the site or was a returning customer, then I’d consider your survey invitation more seriously. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. New Balance’s website, shopnewbalance.com, has this down to a science. They wait until you’ve bought a product to ask for your comments.

3. Readability, people! I was recently sent an HTML e-mail chock full of links. It was for something that I really wanted: a fun-filled day at ComicCon as a reward for attending a trade show last year. Unfortunately, these links were dark blue on a black background. I couldn’t even read them to figure out what I wanted to click on. Prevent this from happening by sending a preview of your HTML e-mails to someone over 40 before you blast them to your entire database.

4. The geek factor. Now, I love geeks. I am 70% geek, by my estimation. Even if your website was designed by your IT department, don’t make it look that way. Dead giveaways? Type that runs all the way to the edge of the windows. Lots of charts. Too many fonts and no apparent thought as to their alignment. More attention given to navigation than design. For the best combination of user appeal and user friendliness, your site should be designed by an artist who has been trained to create websites, rather than a technologist who has been trained to create art.

5. No means no.  Unless I’ve experienced a power failure, leaving your website requires a decision and a physical action. When, upon deciding to leave, various windows keep opening imploring that I reconsider my decision to go elsewhere, it smacks of desperation. I’ve made my mind up. Leave me alone. Okay, maybe I’ll tolerate one reminder in case I’ve accidentally closed the window. After all, my software says, “Are you sure?” to my decisions throughout the day, so I’m accustomed to one bit of nagging. But that’s all. I mean it. Don’t make me come down there.

6. Proofread. Just because you can make changes to your website any time you wish does not excuse you from throwing it up there full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. We’re all human (gasp, even me!) and we all make mistakes. But when the errors are excessive or unfortunate—for example, “pubic” when you meant to write “public” (yes, I’ve seen this, in an e-book)—it makes your pages unreadable and seriously undermines your credibility. If proofreading isn’t your thing, hire a professional. Otherwise, I’ll be navigating somewhere else.

What are you seeing lately on the web that ticks you off? Anything going on that you especially like? Let’s talk!

Keeping A Reader’s Trust: It’s All In The Details

I am a detail person. Others define this as a “picky pain in the ass.” But I see it as a positive attribute. It’s important to have a detail person on your side, someone who will find your errors before your readers do. For every Captain Picard there must be a Wesley Crusher, saying why the First Officer’s suggested fix for the wonky warp drive will lead to disaster. For every emperor strutting about in his invisible finery, there must be someone to say he’s got no clothes. And every writer should have another set of eyes on his or her work, particularly a sharp set of eyes belonging to someone who isn’t your spouse or your brother, unless that person can give you the dead-nuts truth. A sharp set of eyes may prevent the following small, but significant errors like:

1.  The dreaded anachronism. This is devilishly hard for people who write historical fiction. Especially those who write stories set in recent decades that many readers might have lived through. I once read a manuscript set in the early 70s (yes, sadly, in our age of immediate gratification this is considered historical fiction) in which a character was drinking a Diet Coke. No. No, no, no, no, no. I am a recovering diet soda addict. I know my products. Diet Coke did not come on the market until 1982. This character would be drinking Tab. Yes, it’s a small, picky pain in the ass thing, but if a reader catches it, this can compromise not only his or her experience but your credibility, too. Do your research. Even for the small things.

2. The location flub. That old bit of writing advice, “write what you know,” is sometimes correct. I don’t put total faith in it, otherwise, where would science fiction and fantasy come from? But if a scene in your book takes place somewhere you’ve never been, particularly if this is a well-known location in that area, learn all you can about it. In the best of all possible worlds, you would go there and take a walk around, absorbing all the details from the sights and smells to the sound and the fury. Then you would know, for example, that the Poughkeepsie train station (see photo), is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been maintained in its original, 1918 style, with wooden benches, and gives off a particular smell that’s somewhere between wet wood and old urine. It would not contain rows of blue plastic seating, as one novelist has described. Since I live near Poughkeepsie and have been to that station many, many times, hearing that novelist’s description made her a much less reliable narrator in my eyes.

3. Why is that character wearing a down coat in the middle of summer? This happens to me at times, especially after multiple drafts of a novel. Playing switcheroo with scenes can often mean little details get ignored. Watch for consistency. If you moved the pivotal argument scene between the protagonist and antagonist from an outdoor skating rink in winter to the protagonist’s cabin in Ecuador, she’s going to be awfully warm in that coat.

Have you come across anything in a novel that’s left you scratching your head? If you write, what do you do to make sure some picky pain in the ass won’t write you a letter about your protagonist’s choice of beverage?