How to Make a Writers’ Website in the Age of Facebook

Last year’s Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball was a great success.

Joy Castro was an incredible key note speaker, insightful and gracious.

Writers and scholars discussed the state of crime fiction since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, tried to explain the “badness” of so much workshop fiction, and chronicled African American literature in New Orleans.

And the authors of Lavender Ink, as well as many other readers, gave a haunting introduction to their work.

Reception table!

However, in order to keep the festival growing, it was clear that we needed to improve its online home. The festival had originally been a page on the overall Burlesque Press website, but two years in, there was now just too much information, too much stuff for potential participants to process.

And with the big AWP Conference coming up, we would be telling hundreds of new people about the festival, and they would want a website to check out.

There are a lot of moving parts to a multi-day festival, even a relatively small one like The Hands On Festival. Potential attendees need to work out:

1. Is this festival credible, worth going to?

2. What would I get from attending?

3. How do I take part?

4. What do I need to pay?

5. Where, when, and what will happen at the event I’m signing up to attend?

In other words, the site needs to be promotional, on the one hand, explaining the event, and functional, on the other, guiding interested parties through the actual process of proposing papers and readings on Submittable and registering on Eventzilla.

After I came home from New Orleans, I started looking through conference websites, seeing what I liked. Could I improve the existing Burlesque Press site, or should I design a new conference-only website, one that would effectively introduce The Hands On Festival to new people?

I also had two rather thorny design problems in mind.

1. People in web design talk about the importance of “mobile-first,” about designing a site primarily to be read on a phone’s screen. Most people will view your site on their phone, the wisdom goes, and this implies that the site’s layout be simple and clear, and that it will look good when scaled to a five-inch device. So while the festival might be complex, a website needs to present that info very simply, and make clear choices about fonts and images, so that it looks good on a desktop’s screen as well as a phone’s.

For example, mobile-first means you probably shouldn’t have a busy side bar with a long link-roll, listing a few dozen friendly blogs and relevant websites. On a phone, no one’s going to see those links.

2. But maybe the bigger issue is designing a website to be “Facebook-first.”

Years ago, when I started blogging, everyone cared a lot about search results and links, because that was what drew people to your website. I’m speaking here very much as an amateur, but in the advice I read, it seemed to imply that a bigger and more complex site was better, because the more links you garnered, and the more potential keywords your site held, the higher it would rank in Google search results, and so the more people would visit.

But today, while web search results are still important, from what I’ve read, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and (to a lesser extent) Twitter provide the most traffic. Now, in 2015, people mostly visit websites because they saw a post on social media. If you came to this blog throug a link on another website, or even through a Google search, you are now somewhat old-fashioned.

This Facebook-first model, I think, suggests a different outlook for building a website. Sites can be smaller and more focused, perhaps with a single purpose. The goal is not to garner links but to be shared. If so, such sites need to deliver their message quickly. After all, the visitor is going to come in from Facebook, take a brief look around, then return to Facebook to leave a comment. Each page needs to be able to stand alone, and the website (perhaps) should not attempt to offer the visitor a comfortable home, with lots of options for wandering around and settling in. The visitor already has a home: Facebook.

Perhaps, in fact, the website should only try to guide a visitor to a particular decision or reaction.

After looking at various conference websites, and considering all the above, I decided that The Hands On Festival needed its own website. The “parent site” of Burlesque Press could remain, but it would be too difficult (at least for me) to design a site that described everything the press does and which also promoted the festival in a streamlined, Facebook-friendly fashion.

Once I had decided to build a stand-alone site, I started looking for models. I found that I responded best to Tech conference websites. Perhaps that’s strange, given that our festival is about writing and reading. But I found in web-design and Apple-focused conference sites like those of An Event Apart and Úll a streamlined explanation of a vision. These websites certainly contained a lot of information, but that information seemed subordinated to the goal of demonstrating the conference’s value to a prospective attendee.

So I set out to create something similar.

The difficulty, of course, is that I’m not a web designer. I would have to use a WordPress template, and this would limit what I was able to create. Still, when I discovered the Sela theme on, I saw that I would be able to do almost everything I wanted.

Here’s what the Sela theme looks like in its demo form:

sela demo screenshot
To see what I created from that theme, take a look at the new site for The Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball.

Have a look!

Or click the picture below. That will also take you there:


I think this new site offers potential attendees much clearer answers to the questions of why they should attend and how they go about getting involved.

Perhaps it could be even simpler — what do you think?

PS If the above was interesting, you should read how Ezra Klein’s Vox describes their methods for building a readership through Facebook.

PPS I’m very excited for this year’s festival. Dorothy Allison is the keynote speaker. Why don’t you join us in New Orleans?


One of Many Bright Moments From This Year’s AWP Conference

This was during the Five-Fingered Discount reading: the dynamic, wonderful Elena Passarello, essayist and public reader extraordinaire, rocking the room with an excerpt from her new book about famous animals.

At the moment the picture was taken, she was speaking mostly about a pigeon. To her left, Jeni Wallace, the party’s organiser, looks on in awe.


How I Introduce College Undergraduates to the Novel

I’m teaching a literature class this coming autumn, on the history of the novel. The only difficulty is — now I need to choose which books to teach.

This class is a 200-level course at the University of Tennessee, and it’s intended as a general education / writing intensive course for undergrads. The goal is to introduce students to the broad history of the novel, to read several novels, and to guide them to write good papers about those books. I’ve been advised that five or six novels is the usual reading load, and that they should range in time from the eighteenth or nineteenth century to the contemporary period.

How to represent the whole of the novel in six books? If you had to design a reading list to teach the history of the novel form, what six books would you choose? And why? Would you also include short stories?

At first I thought about a very global perspective, including books by Achebe and Murakami. But then I wondered if my students would know the English language tradition. Should they be more urgently taught the “standard” Anglo-Irish-American historical run, before learning about all the great books written elsewhere? Another problem: how to make intriguing and surprising the very long books that seem to best characterise the nineteenth century, and which would most likely take up the first month of the course? How, too, to do justice to all the types of writers who have composed great novels, and how to create an inclusive reading list?

Here is my current long-list, mostly novels with a few short stories. Who would you eliminate, include?

Emma, Austen

Jane Eyre, C. Bronte

The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas (probably the first 300 pages, only)

Moby Dick, Melville

Great Expectations, Dickens

The Cossacks, Tolstoy

“Talma Gordon,” Hopkins

The Dead, Joyce

Mrs. Dalloway or Orlando, Woolf

Nightwood, Barnes

Native Son, Wright

Lolita or Pale Fire, Nabokov

Norwegian Wood, Murakami

Station Eleven, St. John Mandel

“Who’s Irish?” Jen