"author" Tammy Vreeland, bad website design, Nicholas Stirling, self publishing, the importance of spellcheck, unprofessional promo shots, using microsoft paint when you shouldn't, why people should be peer reviewed before calling themselves writers
Today, I’m going to Tammy Vreeland’s website.
I don’t even remember how I got here, to be honest. It was one of those places you get to when you randomly link between pages in the hopes that you will uncover some hidden gem buried in the recesses of the internet.
This wasn’t one of those gems.
I don’t normally like to pick on specific people like this, but there are so many things wrong here that I feel the need to dissect some of them as a public service. I want to show this to my students under the lesson heading “What not to do when making a publicly accessible website,” or possibly “How to convince someone that, despite your best assurances, you are not really an author.”
Web page design is a finicky thing; I freely acknowledge that. But there are resources out there now. Geek in Heels has some excellent advice for people using WordPress as a basis, most web hosts have templates you can use with no training at all, and there are about a million books on the subject of making your own website.
I also acknowledge that the nature of web design means that not every site will look perfect in every browser. You have to know what you are doing to make sure that you always have a professional quality layout no matter what browser, platform, or device someone is using to look at your work.
However, this site looks bad all the time. I’ve itemized the reasons why in the hopes that it will inspire change on a massive scale.
Item #1: Colours
I think I understand the design philosophy: the author writes horror, so black is de rigueur. But there is a big difference between gothic darkness and stark emptiness. This is just ugly. Putting pink highlights on it – even when they match your outfit in the photograph (we’ll get to that one in a bit) – makes it look like you are staring into the soul of a cupcake.
Item #2: Layout
There are a lot of basic rules for visual layout (centering single items, the law of thirds, balancing positive and negative space), and I am by no means an expert, but I still recognize the value in following a few of them. If you have a ten-foot long wall to cover, you don’t put up an 8×10 photo in the middle of it and call it a day. It would look ridiculously small and lonely. Also, you probably want to add some kind of framing element to whatever it is that you choose to hang, just so that it doesn’t look like you pasted the image to the wall.
Now let’s look at Tammy’s homepage.
There she is, floating in empty black space, not centered exactly, but not tastefully presented to one side either, not wrapped with text, or framed, or highlighted, not filling the void in any way. She’s just there. I don’t think you need a degree in graphic design to look at that and say, “Something doesn’t look right about that layout.”
It gets worse on the About the Author page. Again, not having worked in magazine layout I don’t feel that I am authority on presenting images and text together. But when it looks like the pictures have cropped up randomly in your writing like blocky hunks of mold, displacing sentences mid-thought and shoving apart lines at seemingly random intervals, you need to do a redesign. Almost anything would be better than this.
Item #3: Image Professionalism
Oh, Tammy. Is this the best picture you have? (Also, do we really need access to the whole 5 megapixel file, just in case?)
Everyone has a few snapshots of themselves that they really love, pictures not taken by professionals, usually with point-and-shoot cameras, that work wonderfully for websites and blogs. They capture something of your essence, they feel light and candid, or they capture an unselfconscious moment in time that defines who you really are. The quality may not be perfect, but they are beautiful nonetheless.
Many people also have professional photos of themselves from things like engagement shoots, weddings, red carpet events, and the like. Heck, with DSLRs so cheap, most people now have at least a few friends that can fiddle with the settings well enough to take near-professional level shots from time to time.
This picture is in that wretched nether region that exists between the two. It looks like a shot from someone that claims to be a photographer but only operates his $2000 camera on automatic mode. The flash has flattened everything out and killed the contrast. The setting feels amateurish because the background is in full focus and is shoved right up behind the subject, creating a shadowy edge that highlights the lack of natural light.
But all of that is just me being fussy compared to the bigger issue here: the arm shelf. No one sits like this in real life, so doing it in a picture means one of two things: either your “photographer” friend told you it would look good (they lied, as they did about the attractiveness of the setting (I’m guessing The Olive Garden, at a seat near the bathroom?)), or you did this yourself in a burst of creative posturing. In your mind, you thought this is what a “real writer” looks like while waiting for the unlimited breadsticks.
Arm shelves are always a bad idea. Don’t believe me? Go look at all of the examples at Awkward Family Photos.
Item #4: Department of Redundancy Department
Scrolling down the homepage, I was confused to see what appears to be a user guide for this website. I would have thought that the list of links at left would be sort of self explanatory, but maybe this site was designed for people that have never seen the internet before. I mean, I can hazard a guess about what I might find in the About the Author section, but maybe it is good to know that it will “give a personal insight” about Tammy. I was hoping for more than one insight, but I can live with just the one.
After that is a seemingly endless list of sites that carry Tammy’s books. But instead of hiding the URLS by hyperlinking each of the sites to their names, each individual URL has been carefully presented in all of its alpha-numeric-symbolic awkwardness. For crying out loud, hyperlinks were made to hide that ugly stuff from us! I don’t want to see it any more than I want to see the list of ingredients in the 1 kg bag of Skittles I just ate!
Item #5: Scary-Font-Microsoft-Paint Book Covers Extraordinaire
Picking just one of the books from this site was difficult. They all offer so much… material with which to work.
Looking at Tailor, we can see a few things right away. First of all, the font is meant to be scary, I think. However, it is also the red and black, spiky, quasi-gothic writing that often shows up on blogs posted by thirteen-year-old Twilight fans, so that kind of puts it at the same fear-inducing level as the Harry Potter cover font. The chair itself has kind of an S&M thing going on, but I can’t find any evidence of that in the prologue, so maybe I’m misunderstanding the whole strap thing on it. (Oh wait, it’s supposed to be an electric chair. The presence of electrical contacts on the chair would have cleared that up for me.)
Where my eyes kind of want to roll themselves back into my skull is the border composition. Back when I was a kid and computers were all crap, we had access to this old program called Microsoft Paint. (I just checked my computer and I see that it still exists within the latest version of Windows.) Microsoft Paint is to artwork as wheat germ is to fine dining: yes it is edible, but good luck using it alone to make a professional-level culinary experience.
It would be bad enough if the “blood” drops on the cover were simply photos cut and pasted decoupage-style, but it is so much more offensive that they were very clearly drawn in Paint by someone (I would guess the author, or maybe the aforementioned “photographer”) using their mouse. It’s like something a third grader would do for his short story assignment.
Anything would be better than this. Even if it used the Harry Potter font.
Item #6: Spellcheck (sp?)
I very rarely refer to myself as a writer. I do write, but I don’t make my living from it, and I’ve only been published as a professional on two occasions. I have written two books (both pretty lousy), but I have not been able to sell either of them and I don’t have the inclination to self-publish and self-promote.
However, I treat my writing seriously. The way I figure it, I’m putting this stuff up on a public forum, my writing will be subject to judgment, so I should strive to make it as good as possible. I check my spelling pretty carefully. I watch for glaring grammar mistakes. I use all the punctuation conventions that I know. I operate primarily in sentences.
I also expect the same from other people, especially people that call themselves “writers” or “authors” or “bards.” I don’t think that is any more elitist than expecting people that call themselves “artists” to be able to draw or people that call themselves “surgeons” to be able to cut in a straight line. There are conventions in place that should be followed unless there is a solid creative reason not to, and you had better know what you are doing before you start ignoring the rules.
So why is it that even a casual perusal of Tammy’s site reveals multiple significant spelling and grammar mistakes? (Gold star if you can find the word “lovinging” in there.) Everything else I have discussed is forgivable compared to an author’s website filled with grammatical errors. It actually causes me pain to look at it.
Okay, if I wanted to be really generous, I could maybe accept that the content of the website was not given over to an editor (or GED-qualified friend) before being thrown onto the internet. That is a reasonable assumption based on the amount of time given over to layout and design. So what about the book excerpts? You know, the books that have been published and are available all over the world as evidenced by those handy URLs?
Go read the excerpt from Class Reunion first. Then see if you found the same issues I did (written in italic bold, for emphasis, with the mistakes underlined). To be fair, I’m only looking at the serious grammar or spelling errors, not issues with scanning, awkwardness, or plain-old bad writing.
The shadowy figure goes over a list that is in front of them. Beside the list is an invitation to a class reunion. They smile to themselves as they think of what a big event it truly will be. They walk over to a huge cork board filled with names and pictures.
Some names and pictures had (Pick a tense. Don’t switch back and forth between present and past.) a class ring attached to them. The figure smiles as they caress the rings lovingly. It had been a good class, small and never really any major problems. (A class can’t be “any major problems.” It can have no major problems, but you need to have that darned verb in there to show it.)
That’s what (is) nice about a small school, (This should be a semicolon or a colon. Commas don’t separate two independent clauses unless there is a coordinating conjunction, like “and” or “but.”) its (it’s) so much easier to keep the outside world out. But that all changed after graduation. Each one going their own separate ways.
The world corrupting them into people you could hardly recognize any more. It was a shame (comma) and something needed to be done. A small school had a reputation to uphold.
It was the very symbol of American life. Classmates actions should not be allowed to tarnish that class or school’s reputation. And yet, so many had strayed. Too many.
They reach over for Tonya’s book (comma) reading the title out loud (Comma again, or possibly a new paragraph.) “Classmates”? (If this person is asking it as a question, the comma needs to be inside the quotation marks. If the preceding sentence is supposed to be a question, you don’t know what a questions is.) What would Tonya think if she knew her book would be the basis of a cleansing of her own classmates? They walk back over to the list and mark the last name off. They silently smile, (Comma splice error again.) all were accounted for now.
I’m sorry, but there is something really, frustratingly wrong with so many mistakes in such a short piece of published writing. Any qualified editor (and even most unqualified ones) should at least be able to pick up on the clear-cut issues of “its” versus “it’s,” missing words, or run-on sentences. Any writer should see them. Those are the basics. Those are the minimum. Why are they there?
I’m not even going to start into the quality of the writing. This is not meant to be a critique of the quality of this woman’s prose. It is not meant to be vindictive or condescending. Rather, this is a desperate crying out against the forces of laziness, inelegance, and posturing.
I want to call myself a writer, but when other “writers” present themselves this way, I feel like I am keeping company with those that want the name without the work.
Tammy, for the love of everything that has ever been written, please open your manuscripts in Microsoft Word and look for the red and green squiggly lines all over them. Hitting “autocorrect” would likely make your work significantly better than it is right now.
Spruce up the old website a bit while you are at it. Get a professional photo of yourself and don’t make it the centerpiece of the homepage. Get someone qualified (or just handy) to redo your cover art so that it doesn’t look like an homage to the graphic properties of the Windows 3.1 OS. Hide your URLs using the magic of hyperlinking. Proofread before you post.
And before you say it, Tammy, I don’t care if you do write me into your next novel. There’s a damn good chance that you’ll end up in one of mine.