Whenever possible I try to generate original images for this site. Sometimes that means I have to be a model. I am not a good model.
For my last post I asked my wife to take some photos of me wearing the sustainable clothing I was writing about. Supportive as she is, we did a photo shoot. You’d think it’d be simple. But when your model is self-conscious and has a neutral expression that reads “I want to kill everyone” it quickly complicates.
We tried all sorts of poses and I was terrible at all of them. Here are a few of the rejects we went through to get the one I actually used:
We realized that part of the problem wasn’t me (although it was, like, 90% a me problem) but the camera. My wife just wasn’t liking the images she was getting from her camera, so we switched to mine and I did a quick test shot with her as the model.
In conclusion, if anyone ever tells you they’d like to be a model because it’s easy kindly let them know it is not. Thank you.
A website with only words is a boring one. I wanted my website to read professional, be engaging, and have a certain aesthetic that wouldn’t turn people off. Therefore and hitherto, I knew I needed to include images with everything I wrote.
Unlike words, I can’t conjure images out of the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain. Otherwise this website would be wall-to-wall pictures of me and Ryan Gosling kicking back and hanging out. Maybe playing Wii. I don’t know. Imagination is a powerful thing.
(Un)Luckily for you, I can’t spontaneously make images such as those appear. I need to either find them somewhere, or go through the trouble of creating them myself. I have a hunch you’re in the same situation.
The easy answer, especially for a blog that’ll be lucky to get 100 total readers over its lifetime, is to just do a Google image search for the things I want, right-click, point to “save image as,” and go on my merry way. This is, that’s morally dubious and definitely illegal. As a struggling artist, I recognize that most artwork, photographs, or other media I might find from Google (or DuckDuckGo as is my case) would be stealing from another artist. I’m not about that life. Still, I’m not exactly in a position to be paying lots of money for a few images, either.
This left me (and maybe you) with two main options: 1) Generate images myself and 2) find free but legal images.
As you peruse this site (please peruse this site he says in his best Jeb Bush impersonation, which really isn’t very good) you’ll find a combination of both options. For example, all of the photos on the main pages of the site were taken by me or someone close to me (mostly my wife). All cat photos are taken by me, obvs. Where my imagination and skill set doesn’t limit me, images for the vignettes are also created by me. Like this one.
I don’t have any Photoshop or Illustrator skills. What I do have is a decent camera on my phone and some background with lighting from my time as a gaffer back in Buffalo (not a joke). For the photo linked to above, I used a simple three-point lighting scheme with a desk lamp and two candles. The desk lamp was too bright, so I bounced it off the white walls of our apartment. One candle was used to provide soft foreground lighting and the other was to add depth to the frame in the background. Voila, a halfway-decent photo I wasn’t embarrassed to put up as the front for a vignette.
Some stories don’t lend them easily to things I can do with my limited resources and skills. When I run into that issue, there are free resources on the web that you can pull images from. Places like the Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons.
The important thing to remember with these places is proper attribution. Creative Commons makes it really easy to attribute work because they provide HTML that you can input into your website that does the work for you. Wikimedia is a bit tougher, but the extra legwork is important if you’re going to be borrowing from elsewhere. You don’t want to be that person.
“But Craig,” you say, stroking your chin as your brain slides in the last puzzle piece of your brilliant upcoming question. “Not all images are photos. Some are graphical elements. Surely you have some solution that doesn’t require Photoshop or Illustrator or an equivalent tool?”
It’s true. All of it. And I do have a solution.
Enter: Canva. Canva is a free website (with tiered services for those that can pay) that provides a ton of graphical templates to produce Facebook banners, business cards, tab icons, pretty much anything you might digitally need. It’s not the most powerful graphics generator in the world, but it’s easy and–again–it’s free to use on their basic level. Don’t be greedy.
This has been my approach to entertaining the masses with jaw-dropping images that complement my brain-exploding words. If you’ve got other recommendations or tactics, let the world know in the comments.
You’ve planned out what you want your site to be, you’ve found a good host, and you’ve chosen the platform on which to build. I can’t (won’t) provide a good tutorial on the actual act of building a site, so I’ll just say that I found WordPress to be pretty intuitive. After some trial and error I was able to build my site within maybe six or seven hours spread out over a few days. If you watch tutorials or do any type of book-learnin’ about WordPress beforehand, you can probably easily cut that time in half. It’s really not hard. I’m just an idiot.
Anyway, none of the above is the hard part. No, the hard part is actually generating content. If you’re like me you have a plan (see this post) for the types of things you maybe want to write about. So where do ideas come from?
Ideas aren’t really an issue for me. I initially wanted to prepare a year’s worth of vignettes, thinking I had enough written of sufficient quality that it’d be easy and I could place most of my focus on maintaining the blog, leisurely writing new stories for next year, and working on long-form fiction. But here’s the funny thing about looking back at work you’ve written over a period of years: You probably won’t like a lot of it. Taking stock of what I have made me realize pretty quickly that I’d have to generate new stories. And that made me realize I’d need a system to track these ideas, when they were to be published, and what state of creation they were in. Enter: Spreadsheets.
Thinking in this way gives me a clear path forward, but also allows me to tailor content for certain times of year, move things around based on what interests me in the moment, and generally just keep track of all my ideas and how they fit into the larger narrative of this site. While the vignettes are important, blog posts are the main thrust of this site. Of course, that also required a spreadsheet.
Before going live with the website, I had about eight months of vignettes brainstormed or written and four months of blog post ideas. I like this because it gives me options and keeps me on track to schedule consistent content.
Let’s pause there and just let that word clang around in our heads. Content. Con. Tent.
Content is king on the interwebs. I learned that when I ran my first blog a few years ago. If you post enough, about a wide enough array of topics, eventually you’ll build an audience. Maybe not a large one, but a supportive one. And that’s the goal here. To allow people to find this place and then entice them to stick around a while. Maybe say hello.
Ideas are one thing, but as us authors (aspiring or not) know, the act of writing is a different beast than just generating ideas. With my day job, I know that I need to schedule posts far ahead of time because my time can ebb and flow drastically week-to-week. For example, I’m writing this post after working 10-12 hour days for six of the past eight days, including the weekend and a holiday. When this happens, my backlog of scheduled posts goes up quick and I find myself in a spot where I need to write lots of new content quickly, lest I miss my own deadlines.
In short, maintaining a website with consistent content requires a lot of foresight, depending on your personal comfort and individual situation. Recognize this and tailor your efforts and strategy to that.
Once I had a sense of what a website, like, even is, I needed a place to host it and a way to build it without having any technical skills. This is also the step where money becomes involved, which made my decision on where to host and on what platform to build that much more important.
Choosing a Host
There are lots of places to host a domain out there. An overwhelming amount, to be honest. There are the big ones, like GoDaddy and BlueHost, and in my research most hosts cost similar amounts (at least for the first few years and depending on what sort of hosting you want to go for–more on that in a bit), so cost became less of a consideration. There were plenty of other distinguishing factors between hosts, though, including, in no particular order:
WordPress Compatibility – I knew that I was going to use WordPress (more on that in the next section), so I wanted to find a hosting provider that made doing so as easy as possible. This meant things like one-click install, constant server uptime, and automatic updates. Again, I am a technical idiot.
Plans – I knew I would only need a simple hosting plan. I don’t need anything fancy like… I don’t even know. I can’t emphasize enough how non-technical I am. It was also a plus to find a plan that included a domain name.
Technology – Obviously, you want your IT to keep with the times. A host that has a plan to stay modernized is a plus. I’ll also include storage space in this. While I’m not planning on uploading videos or anything that eats up too much filespace (at least not at the moment), I didn’t want to run the risk of running out of space and needing to pay for more. So, included server space was a consideration. If you research hosts you’ll also find that technology dictates the speed your site loads. I found most to be so close as to be negligible, but it may be more important to you than it was to me.
Customer Service – This is a big one. Something will go wrong with your site. This site, for example, locked me out recently. I was trying to edit a years old blog post I had ported over from Blogspot, got a JSON error, tried to refresh the window, and suddenly could no longer access WordPress to edit anything. If I tried to go to my website directly, I got an error page. I ended up submitting a trouble ticket through my host (GreenGeeks) and they fixed the issue within a half hour. I was impressed.
Price – Obvs. For a first website most hosts will have deals or promotions you can use, and I didn’t find a lot of difference between the lowest tier pricing between them (usually somewhere between $2-$4 per month to start).
Sustainability – It’s not something people think about very often, but web hosting takes up a lot of energy. Not only do servers need power to, ya know, run, but host providers also use a lot of energy to cool the servers. Finding a sustainable host became important to me the more I learned about it. Unfortunately, there aren’t many out there.
In the end, with many of the differences between hosts being minimal, the sustainability aspect became the difference-maker. That’s why I chose GreenGeeks as my hosting provider.
There are lots of ways to have a web imprint, but the way to have the most control is to buy your own domain. But how do you choose the best for you?
The first thing you’ll be asked to do after choosing a host if to register a domain. Depending on the host you choose, the domain usually comes free (although registering more than one will start to cost). I already knew that, as an author website, my name was easiest. That’s how I ended up with the blindingly genius craiggusmann.com.
I didn’t need to put a ton of thought into my domain name because I wasn’t interested in being clever (if clever is a possibility for me, anyway…), but it was in the back of my mind that a domain should be a couplea things:
Descriptive: It should give you some sense of what the site is about. Notawriter.com might be self-deprecating and clever, but it’s also misleading and might turn readers away.
Easy to remember: I didn’t want a URL that people couldn’t remember if they didn’t bookmark it or, perhaps worse, misspelled and ended up elsewhere.
Aside from hosting provider, the most important consideration you’ll make is what platform to use in building your site. Again, there are a lot of options. Personally, I only looked at the two big ones: Squarespace and WordPress.
WordPress comes in two flavors: WordPress.com and WordPress.org. I spent far too much time being confused about which was which, but hopefully you’re smarter than me. Here’s the difference:
.com = hosted on WordPress servers for you. Any URL you create will have .wordpress.com at the end of it. So, if I had used WordPress.com to build this site you’d be reading craiggusmann.wordpress.com right now.
.org = hosted on your choice of servers. You own the domain, then, and can choose to do what you want with it.
I think it’s clear which I chose.
To a layman like me, the differences between Squarespace and WordPress weren’t chasm-like. There are major differences, especially if you’re more of a techie, but on the most basic level they’re both drag-and-drop site builders. There were two reasons I chose WordPress over Squarespace:
WordPress is used by a significant chunk of the internet, and by a majority of authors that I looked into while researching what my site might look like. That gives it pedigree, expectation, and tells me that the service is here to stay.
After doing a free trial of Squarespace, I didn’t feel like I had enough control to do what I wanted. WordPress isn’t perfect by any means (more on that in a later post), but I felt like there were more templates and more control over how to use them with WordPress. I’m also always looking toward the future, and thought I might get more technical as time goes on, in which case WordPress provides more tools for customization.
I should stop here to say that these are just my choices for what I thought worked best for me. Everyone should do their own research and test runs to find what suits them.
After deciding on a platform you start a site by choosing a template and customizing it. I first looked at the big list of templates, scrolling through each one that looked interesting. Most are designed to meet specific goals. A website for a lawyer serves a different purpose than one that sells artwork, which serves a different purpose than someone who just needs a site to show off their portfolio. Each template is tailored to these needs.
After taking far too much time to figure this out, I searched for different variations of “writing” and “author” templates, ultimately narrowing my choices down to three. Of those, I chose the one (with help from my wife cuz, c’mon) that most closely matched the look I had in my head.
I’ve mentioned money a few times in this post. It’s true that you have to pay for server space and, in some cases, buy your domain (or rather, it’s more like lease your domain as there are yearly fees). For me, and possibly for you fellow first-time website guru, the costs aren’t much. In total, I only paid for hosting (again, the domain was free for this year at least). Through GreenGeeks I paid for three years of hosting at an average of $39 per year. And that’s it, right now. After those three years the costs are likely to skyrocket, but for what I’m trying to do now I’m ok with that. In short, for a beginner like me the costs weren’t prohibitive.
Unless you assign a monetary value to your time. That’s a very different prospect, as you’ll find when you start generating content for your website.
As I’ve studied what it might take to become a successful author, the idea of a personal website kept popping up. “You can’t just be a writer anymore,” goes the wisdom. “You need a platform. At the very least a basic website for people to search you.”
I have mixed feelings on the topic. On the one hand, it’s a lot of investment with very little return. On the other, I like the idea of a place where people can learn about me, read my unfiltered work and thoughts, and maybe build relationships. After a lot of thought and a few aborted starts I decided to go for it.
The first thing I did was study other websites. I was looking at two main things: 1.) overall aesthetic and content and 2.) all the individual pieces that make up the whole. I wasn’t looking for ideas, necessarily, but trying to understand what people expect from websites that are, ostensibly, similar to mine. The second point (individual pieces of the sites) was to understand what I’d need to prepare. Each page of a website has basic building blocks that need content associated with them:
Navigation Title: This is the end of the URL. For example, you’re reading this at www.craiggusmann@com/blog
Page Title: The title of the page. My blog is called Pro-fun-dit(t)y–or what passes as a clever play on words around these parts.
Description: A bit of narrative that welcomes the reader to the specific page and describes what it is.
Picture: A visual component.
Having learned this, I created a Google Doc and brainstormed all the different pages to this site I thought I might want. That includes my home page, this blog, an “About Me” page, the vignettes page, a contact page, and “Belle and Athena.” I also thought I might want pages for a mailing list and news items, generated ideas for them, but ultimately decided I don’t need them right now. (See, the problem is that to have a news items page you need news to report.)
While working this out, I had to decide what exactly I wanted this place to be. What should the vibe be? What type of content do I want to write? How often should I update? How much can I update without becoming overwhelmed?
I had some experience with this from a blog I ran a few years ago. Back then, I tried to update three times per week with lessons from my writing journey, film and book criticism, and more general posts. It seemed to work well enough back them, with my readership being modest but substantial enough to keep going. But I stopped blogging back then because of time constraints. I don’t want that to be an issue again. I work best in a structured environment, knowing what I need to do so I can go ahead and do it, so I brainstormed all the different types of content I could write across a blog, but also more creative things that don’t fit neatly in this space. I wrote everything down and figured out the frequency I might be able to provide each piece of content without being overwhelmed or getting burned out:
The hope is that there is enough variety of content to keep readers interested and keep the writing fresh for me. Again, the major issue is frequency. Consistency is super important in blogging, but with a day job that sometimes has unpredictable hours and tight deadlines I worry that I won’t be able to keep a good cadence. So, with that in mind, I tried to give myself enough leeway to post frequently enough that I’m consistently generating new content for readers, but not too frequently that I’m burning myself out or breaking promises.
Obviously, what works for me (I think–it’s really yet to be proven this is the right approach even for me) may not be for everyone. The point of this post is that if you decide to build a personal website, to cut down on the work involved and the long-term stress of maintenance, plan ahead.
I’ll continue to share my approach to building a website and the lessons I’ve learned along the way over the coming weeks and months. If you have experience with websites, leave your own advice in the comments.
Future Soldier in the Word Wars
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.