A Little Facelift

Screen Shot 2013-03-27

Over the last few weeks this site has been updated. Nothing major — improved typography, simplified layout. But a few changes might affect visitors:

  • RSS Feed. The RSS feed has been shifted from the dying FeedBurner to this site’s own native WordPress RSS feed. If you subscribe to the blog via RSS, you will need to update that address to the new RSS feed.
  • Blog posts via email. I have removed the option of receiving blog posts via email. The trouble with having a blog-by-email service — which auto-generated an email to subscribers every time I added a post to the blog — was that it inhibited me from using the blog as I often like to: for short, occasional, unimportant posts that are more like scrapbook entries than essays. Those quick posts do not justify bothering hundreds of people with an email, which made me shy about posting anything at all to my own blog. Former blog-by-email subscribers will continue to receive the once- or twice-yearly email newsletter, and can of course subscribe to the blog via any RSS reader.
  • Comments. The moribund comment sections of the blog also have been eliminated. There just weren’t enough people commenting to justify the cost in space and clutter. Eliminating comments allowed for a cleaner, lighter design. Most visitors who wanted to comment about something just emailed me anyway, which I encourage readers to do.
  • Tumblr. I have abandoned my Tumblr blog and merged the contents back into this blog. For the last couple of years I used Tumblr as a scrapbook for things I found around the web — images, video clips, links — while the main blog was reserved for longer, essay-style blog posts. Alas, those long posts have become rare, especially in the tumult of publicizing Defending Jacob. Also, maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like having everything in one place, here on the main blog.

Categories: Internet    Tags: ·

For Writers

A writer at work is about as isolated as it is possible to be. No matter if he is sitting in a crowded Starbucks, no matter how gregarious he may be at other times, when he is writing he is perfectly alone.

I have always welcomed the solitude. Most writers do, I think, otherwise we would not stick with the job very long.

At the same time, the writer’s isolation walls people out in an unhelpful way. Years ago, when I was unpublished and struggling to learn novel-writing (I never saw myself as any other sort of writer), I was eager to watch established novelists at work, to see what the job was all about. But of course the internal nature of the work makes that sort of access impossible. The real work of writing is invisible. Robert Olen Butler put the problem nicely in an interview once:

The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can’t really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It’s never been seen.

Even now, when every author has a blog and a Twitter feed, there are surprisingly few good peepholes into the daily working lives of writers.

I try to provide such a peephole on this blog. I discuss my writing process, some of the ups and downs of my writing life, the snags I run into as — slowly, slowly — I produce a novel. In conversation I am usually bashful on the subject, and on the blog too I weigh my words probably more than necessary. Still, I’ve been more forthcoming than most authors, I think.

I have gathered up some of that material from the blog in a new page called On Writing. It will appeal mostly to writers, I think, though anyone interested in books may find it worthwhile.

The page has two elements: a collection of quotations which I use as a commonplace book, a place to keep quotes I’ve run across that I like to refer back to; and an index of blog posts that have to do with writing. Both elements — the quotes and the links — are reshuffled every time the page loads, so On Writing will look a little different every time you visit. The idea is to browse at random, to stumble across things serendipitously.

Just to be clear: my purpose is not to teach anyone how to write. I am not so presumptuous. Even if I were willing, what works for me may not work for you. Hell, what works for me one day often does not work for me the next. In the theater, actors used to talk about The Method. For writers there is no such thing. There are as many methods as there are writers. Nobody can tell you what will work for you.

Nor do I think I have anything especially profound or insightful to say about writing. The truth is, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. No writer does. We are all just feeling our way along, trying to find the sentences that please us, that sound right to our ears. We all tinker constantly with schedules, environments, work habits — anything that seems to help. Believe me: nobody knows how to do this. Nobody has the secret, the one true way.

So the goal here is not to lecture, but to share some of my own thoughts and experiences. It is important for writers to support one another. Writing is not a zero sum game: one writer’s success does not diminish another’s chances. Hopefully this material will help someone out there.

Categories: Writing    Tags:


A very neat tool: FontFonter allows you to see any web site with different fonts substituted for the defaults. Here is how this web site looks with different fonts (very handsome, if I do say so myself). And here is the New York Times refonted. Great tool for web designers, great toy for everyone else.

I recently began using Typekit for this site to allow more elegant fonts than standard browsers are capable of. (For a discussion of the technical limitations that have crippled web typography until now and how they are being overcome, look here.) The typefaces you see on this web site now are FF Tisa Web Pro for text and FF Dagny Web Pro for the smaller bits in sans serifs, with plain old Arial/Helvetica for headlines, still, because I have not been able to settle on a more interesting sans-serif that renders properly in all browsers (damn you, Internet Explorer!) and lower-resolution monitors. But I’ll keep fiddling. That’s what web sites are for, no?

Update (8.12.10): So much for the Typekit experiment. I found it was slowing down this site much too much. At times, page loads were taking over a minute, an eternity if you’re sitting in front of the computer waiting. The problem, I found — and this is true nine out of ten times that a WordPress blog slows to a crawl — is that plug-ins and calls to external RSS feeds were slowing things down, especially because WordPress requires that most of these processes be completed before the page will load at all. Typekit seemed to be one of the culprits because every page load required the download of all those pretty fonts from a remote server. So it’s back to the boring but reliable “web-safe” fonts for me. I’ll miss you, FF Tisa Web Pro. [sniff]

Categories: Internet    Tags: · ·


Yesterday was the first anniversary of this blog, which went up on May 22, 2009. As I’ve written here before, I doubt that the blog will generate significant book sales, which was why I started doing it, but I’ve come to enjoy blogging for its own sake and I’ve made a few new friends in the bargain. I may never get to that mythical thousand true fans, but if you’re a writer, you write — even if it’s not clear how many people are reading.

Anyway, here are a few random statistics about this blog’s first year. They are culled from SiteMeter, which is linked at the bottom of every page (click the green badge in the footer), and WordPress itself, the software the site runs on, which compiles a slightly different array of stats.

  • Total visits: 8,547. Total page views: 14,946. Those are infinitesimal numbers next to some of the bigger blogs out there, but they are much higher than I expected a year ago. (The SiteMeter badge in the footer of this page understates the visits count because I did not join SiteMeter until a couple of months after the blog launched.)
  • Most views in one day: 180. A spike like that usually means a post got picked up by some high-visibility blog or Twitterer.
  • Average views per day: 41.
  • Total posts: 150 (not including this one).
  • Most Popular post: 848 hits, for a post on the writing habits of Graham Greene. The popularity of this post points up the difficulty of winning fans to my books by blogging. Most people come to this blog after Googling something completely unrelated to me but that I happen to have written about, like Graham Greene. Most of these visitors don’t stick around to learn about my books. Some of them do, I suppose, but it is a vanishingly small number. So is it worth it? Damned if I know.
  • Least popular posts: 1 hit. Eight posts are tied for this honor. And I can’t even be sure that the one lonely hit isn’t me checking to see that the post looks all right. I don’t do much to publicize this blog. I link to significant new posts on Twitter and Facebook, but most of the smaller stuff I just put on the blog and never alert anyone. So most of the short posts slip under the radar, which is fine. Anyway, I will award the honor for Least Popular Post to this one, in which I announced I was taking a vacation and inexplicably required three long paragraphs to do it. It cops the prize because of this pathetic irony: a post announcing there will be nothing to read — and nobody bothered to read it. Oy. Blogging can be a kick in the groin.
  • Total comments: 259. The best part of blogging by far is hearing from readers.
  • Total cost: $0. Well, this isn’t quite true. I do pay to have the site hosted at Media Temple. But the site itself has cost me nothing. All the software and services I use are free. All the design, the Photoshopping, the coding, and of course all the writing is done by me. Of course, all that labor is only “free” if you assume my time has no value…

Last thing: the map below, also clipped from SiteMeter where you can see an updated interactive version anytime, shows the location of the last hundred visitors. In the last two days or so, this blog has had visitors from Queensland, Australia; Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Israel, Ukraine, Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, plus several in England; and all over the U.S. Very cool.

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: ·

A Facelift

This site has gotten a little makeover this week. Since I launched my blog last May, I have been fiddling with the design nonstop, trying to come up with something that suits me. I haven’t found the perfect fit yet, but this update moves me a little closer. Here is what I’m after.

To me, the best-looking blogs — Subtraction, AisleOne, Frank Chimero, Iain Claridge — are design blogs and they share a common philosophy: minimalist, modernist, grid-based. Those blogs were all created by respected graphic designers. You’ll see bits of all of them on this site.

A few common elements that I like:

  • The designs use mostly black text on a white background and a very few classic fonts, particularly Helvetica. Personally, I prefer a serif font for reading longer pieces, which is how I tend to write, so I’ve used Helvetica mostly for headers and sidebars. (Actually, what you are seeing here is mostly Arial, which will offend the Helvetica purists, but browsers render Arial better.)
  • My favorite designers use very little motion (Flash, Java, etc.). There are not a lot of menus dropping down, popping up, sliding out, or otherwise moving around. The designs are not all that different from a print piece. The material is organized with elegant layout and typography, not hidden behind buttons. That traditional philosophy suits a blog, which is essentially an online magazine. The screen here acts more like a printed page than a video monitor. It just … sits there. (I know: weird.)
  • The designs are flat and geometric. No glossy reflections or realistic shadows to create a trompe l’oeil three-dimensional effect. They are proudly 2D, again extending the traditional techniques of print design.

Khoi Vinh, the design director for NYTimes.com whose Subtraction is one of the most admired (and ripped off) blog designs out there, sums it up here. If you’re interested in design, click through. Otherwise, the name of his blog, “Subtraction,” says it all: if it is unnecessary frill, out it goes. Simplify, minimize, reduce.

Let me know what you think. Yes, I do all the design and coding, so changes are easy enough. And don’t be shy. My wife doesn’t like this design, so I’ve heard it all before.

Also, note that I have finally begun a mailing list. You can sign up here. I am late getting this started, of course. Like all writers, I am still learning how to be my own P.R. man. Please do join so that, when my next book comes out in spring 2011, I can reach you to let you know. Thanks.

Categories: Internet    Tags: ·

Why authors should (and shouldn’t) blog

I began this blog for a purely mercenary reason: to sell more books. But I discovered to my surprise that I enjoy doing it. Good thing, too, because after three months at it I seriously doubt this blog will ever be an effective sales tool.

Of course, the logic behind author blogs is unimpeachable. The blog attracts new readers as flowers attract bees. These new readers, stupefied by the insights to be found here, return again and again until they decide they simply must have more, at which point they rush out (or more likely click) to buy a book, which they take to be like a blog post only very much longer. Or something like that.

The problem is not that this sort of thing cannot happen. It does. It has happened to me, in fact. The problem is that, as book-selling strategies go, this one is massively inefficient. The number of visitors is just too small to justify the investment of time. More important, counterintuitive as it sounds, most visitors to this blog simply aren’t interested in my books.

In the first few months of my blog’s existence, the overwhelming majority of traffic has come from Google. (I know this because statistics about blog traffic are harvested by several services.) Google referrals tend to be one-time visitors, not regulars. And they come looking for all sorts of things. Here is a small sample of the Google searches that have led people here: “Boston + movies,” “friends of eddie coyle,” “philip roth writing method,” “Graham Greene words per day,” “alphasmart neo.” Do you see a pattern? Me neither. Well, I see one: often as not, these people are not Googling “William Landay.” Of course I’m delighted to have visitors stumble upon my blog this way. That is the whole flowers-and-bees strategy, after all. But there is no reason to expect that these readers will be easy to convert to fans. Most of them have never even heard of me. A few I might be able to sway, but how many and at what cost in time?

Of course, a fraction of my blog traffic does come for the “right” reasons, that is, they enjoy my books or my blog, or both. For them alone, writing this blog would be worthwhile, not because it is going to goose them into reading my books (they already do that), but because core fans want and deserve a place where they can get a better sense of the writer behind the books or even contact him. What’s more, it is valuable to me to have them here. Novel-writing is a grueling, solitary business. The company of these readers — the occasional messages they send or comments they leave, the encouragement — is enormously heartening.

Which leads me to the main point. Even though a blog may never yield a single additional sale, I heartily recommend that all writers launch one anyway. Just remember why you are doing it: because you enjoy it, not because you think it will turn you into a bestseller. Only your books — and a boatload of luck — can do that.

Of course if you are blogging for pleasure rather than to impress potential book-buyers, your blog will look a little different. It will be a truer reflection of yourself, your personality, your quirky tastes. This blog has been a little dry and generic, I think. I have been reluctant to post anything that was not “A” material, longish essays full of deepish thoughts. The result has been a blog with none of the serendipity that characterizes the blogs I enjoy most.

Take Terry Teachout’s blog about theater and the arts, About Last Night. I have been reading ALN for years with great pleasure because I never know what I will find there. It might be a longish essay full of deepish thoughts, but it also might be a YouTube video, a snippet from a book Terry is reading, a notice of an art exhibit. The randomness is what makes it fun.

I am going to tack in that direction myself here. The last few days I have posted a quote, a picture, a video, and a poem, little stuff I would previously have bit.ly’ed and lobbed into the bottomless black hole of Twitter. Look for more of that. Finds like these are what “web logs” originally were: scrapbooks of the interesting nuggets people ran across as they went sniffing around the web. It’s why blogs like Terry Teachout’s work so well, why they keep renewing themselves with a mix of found and original material. This blog should be more fun than it has been, for you and me both.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·