Everyone knows the internet’s a great promotional/marketing tool for writers, but it can also be a wonderful way of extending the creative inner world of your books, and enriching the ‘lived-in’ texture of your stories and characters. Creating a blog, website, Facebook page, You Tube channel or Twitter account for your characters and writing as them can be not only a great adjunct to the ‘suspension of disbelief’ we all want to promote in our readers; it also means you can put up heaps of things you can’t include in the actual books for space/plot reasons, as well as add to the tension of certain moments in the stories by making visual what you are reading in the book itself. What’s more, it’s all free to use and create, with only time and your imagination being the limit. And with the advent of e-books of course, and the possibility of hyperlinking to sites you’ve created, you now have an added immediacy.
I began doing this several years ago, for a series of four YA romantic thrillers which I wrote under a pseudonym. With each of them, I wanted to create an Internet element which whilst not revealing major plot points, wouldn’t also be a side issue with no relevance except a bit of fun. I wanted instead that each element be a strong creative part of each book, which would fill in ‘backstory’ and create a very real-feeling ‘virtual profile’ for the character in question. In the first one, I created a blog for the main character, complete with her own profile and comments from her friends, as well as another blog which is revealed later in the book and which belongs to ‘the bad guy’ ; in the second one, I created for the band described in the book a You Tube channel and a Bebo band page (this was when Bebo was the preferred medium for bands—these days they’d have a Soundcloud or Bandcamp account! ) and then commissioned my musician son and his friends to write and perform music for the song the band composes, and this went on the You Tube channel, with a video clip I’d created. Two of the main characters in that one also had Bebo personal pages (once again, before Facebook really became universal!). In the third book, it was a website on dreams I created in the name of a peripheral but still crucial character; in the fourth, another You Tube channel, but this time featuring the main character’s video clips for her school projects.
How did it all work?
Really well, generally! It was great fun, extended my own understanding of the rich creative possibilities that the internet offers authors, and most important of all, was a big hit with readers—and with my publishers! The ones that worked the best were those two blogs for the first book—they got thousands of hits, especially the main character’s blog(interestingly, the bad guy’s creepy blog only got about a third of the hits—young readers clearly found him disturbing! The first blog also worked well in extending the life of minor characters such as friends left behind early in the story–the comments they make give you a feel for what they’re like, enriching the background of the book. So well did the blogs work in fact that some kids asked me if I’d been inspired to write the book after reading the blog on the Internet! The dreams website also worked well, but the You Tube/band page element did not work half as well as the others, however—possibly a reflection of the fact not so many young readers accessed You Tube in those days—or couldn’t at school, anyway(as many schools bar access to it.)
That experience, using the Internet creatively, taught me a great deal, and I’m continuing to experiment with all kinds of possibilities for future projects (in my own name!)
Some tips for creating these elements:
- Some types of sites work best—the most personal ones, blogs in particular, but also Facebook pages(an example being one I created for a character in a separate book, who is keen on Paris street art and has collected lots of real street artist Facebook friends!) I think blogs also work well for readers because they are a ‘reading experience’ themselves, unlike, say, the visual medium of You Tube.
- If you’re creating a character blog, make sure you block off all comments except for the ‘identities’ you’ve created yourself. It works really well to have a ‘virtual community’ of commenters on the character blog, but you really don’t want some troll or spammer to destroy your creation by posting malicious, obscene, spamming or even general comment. Of course, creating that ‘community’ involves signing up for lots of different Gmail or other accounts and remembering many passwords but that’s a small price to pay for the integrity of your site. (With passwords, what I did was not variations on a theme, which could be hacked, but something connected directly with each character—but not a line or character name from the book!)
- Best to keep the creative online element in a book to one type of thing–my experience with using more than one in a book has been that it places a rather heavy obligation on you as you juggle creating those, keeping up with their immediacy, and trying to write the book too! Don’t get so distracted by the faux social media experience that the writing of the actual story suffers!
- Use only your own photos, texts, music etc, or those for whom you have the permission of the creator/copyright holder.
- It’s best to create each element as you’re working on the book, not after you’ve finished writing it, as otherwise it will not work properly as a plot element. But don’t spend so much time on the creation of these elements that you neglect the actual writing of the book!
- If you do decide to go for a video element, such as a You Tube or Vimeo clip, unless you’re great at making films, it’s best to create a clip using still photos, then work on them with MovieMaker or other simple computer-movie technology to create a ‘moving image’ feel which looks infinitely better than an amateurish filming effort. Of course, if you’re skilled with video filming itself, so much the better!
- Purely visual ideas using still pictures on such platforms as Instagram and Pinterest could work well too: I can imagine the Pinterest board of an artist character, for instance, or a collector of strange things!
- Include at least the idea(and maybe a beta version) of your element in a book proposal package to publishers. But my advice is not to spend any actual money on it: as I said earlier, time and imagination are the real keys to success here.
If you’ve already experimented with using the internet creatively in your own work, I’d love to hear about it. Has it helped to enrich your writing, or only served to distract you?