Paragraph after Paragraph

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This was the month Paragraph Planet went global! Okay so let’s not get carried away….just I had great support from a particular group that I had emailed some weeks before. A newsletter must have gone out because there was a flurry of activity from America.

I have a thing called Statcounter on the site. These things are really common on websites and really easy to put on. Some people will no doubt object to the Big Brother nature of this, but what it shows is how many people have gone on the site and some idea of the ISP. Broadly speaking it shows patterns of which pages people go on the most, their route through the site, the pages they spend the most time on. It gives a good indication of what pages people are interested in. What I have to stress is it doesn’t tell me people’s names, addresses or details and I can’t suddenly hack into their computer. Maybe other people can, but I can’t!

I’ve previously put it on my painting and freelance writing sites. There’s a certain nerdish addiction, and it’s nice to know if people are interested in your site. When someone has clicked on a link from another site, it will show you that route, which is useful to know where your visitors have come from. It is also useful to work out the timewasters/scammers. If I get an email saying someone absolutely loves my paintings and as long as I send a holding deposit, they have a Sheikh who wants to buy all of my work, I can revert back to the Stat page to see that someone has spent 3 seconds on my home page and then straight to the contact page. Either they really like my work and at double-quick time, or - more likely - it’s a scam.

I have digressed. What’s interesting on the site is some go straight from the home page to submissions, others will be interested in seeing the archived pages - others again go straight to the links, including other writing groups or to see that day‘s author. I can also see spikes in the visitor level when the site has been mentioned in particular newsletters.

More great responses through the month - and a real mixture of extracts from novels and short stories and opinion paragraphs. I also had a lot of supportive emails from people who had started mentioning the site on their own blogs - what’s great is all the people who have found out through word of mouth, people enthusiastic enough about the site to tell their writer friends.

One final piece of coding that I was pleased with went on just at the end of the year. I found code that counted the words to make it easier to produce a paragraph within the form, and have a running word count. The fact that you could go over was a bonus, because the way I personally would write them is to over-write and then edit. Others may do things differently. Still, I have never got so much pleasure watching the numbers change as when I get a flourescent digital watch for Christmas back in the 70’s

Over and Out.

(C) Richard Hearn 2009


In the last week of October I had emailed QueenSpark Books, a community publisher in Brighton. I’d been a member of a novelists group - called variously ’the Thursday Novelists’ or ’Brighton Novelists’ - answers on a postcard as to when and where we met - that had used of one of Queenspark’s Rooms. Sarah was great at sending on info about Paragraph planet to her mailing list - and I saw instantly the rise in visitor numbers. It was a great boost, so thanks again Sarah.

For the moment, I’m not going to talk about individual submissions, because I don’t want to single anyone out at the expense of others. What has been encouraging though, is the calibre of the early submissions, and everyone’s enthusiasm. I had written a few to get the site off the ground, but the different voices in the writing opened the whole thing up; there’s nothing greater for me than reading a new submission. And the range of people - from published and about-to-be published novelists, events organisers, poets, short story writers was great.

There’ll be plenty more on the submissions in the future, and I’m sure the shape of the entries will change. As I’ve still been developing the site, it’s more behind-the-scenes decisions I want to talk about.

As I’ve said before, I’m new to HTML and web design. For anyone in IT, this blog is going to be the equivalent as that bit in ‘You’ve been Framed’ when a blindfolded partygoer is span around in their back garden and stumbles into the bird bath. IT people can laugh at the ill-judged mishaps. Everyone else can marvel at my ingenuity and skill.

November has been the month of solving a few problems, taking on some early feedback and trying to get the site more user-friendly for others, and more manageable for me. Now I mentioned at the end of October’s entry that I have to save the paragraphs as images, named after days of the week. I was struggling with a system of how to keep on track with these files on my computer off-line. (Made more confusing because the laptop I work on is not connected to the internet. One computer, a laptop and a USB stick that did the donkey work between.) My simple answer to have a folder, separate from the web pages, that contained sat-tue of each week and wed-fri of each week. That way - it seems obvious now, meant that I could save the files appropriately but would not be constantly overwriting the old ones.

At the beginning of the month, archive consisted of 3 previous examples. This was partly because, having just started, there weren’t that many more examples to put on there. This obviously soon grew. The feedback was I needed to put as many as possible.

First, I incorporated a ‘drop down menu’ with every date so far on there. When you selected one it changed the paragraph, but was essentially loading up a new page. What this meant, was every time I added a new paragraph, I’d be needing to change every single other day! Not good.

There are loads of sites on the net where you can access free code, and it was one of these where I found this ‘sliding effect’ now on the archive page. Instantly, it made my job at least 7 times easier - paragraphs were now grouped in weeks - so although there’s still work to be done on this page, and I’m sure there’s simpler ways, I’m pleased with the effect for now.

Finally, I might as well talk about adverts, if only to provide some comic relief. I always anticipated putting them on the site, not so much for the income (see later) but firstly, just to understand HOW to do them, and secondly, to use as a form of framing. Using Google Adsense, you choose sizes and types of boxes, cut and paste the code, and then adverts magically appear. Google’s robots look at your site and work out, based on key words I suppose, what your sites about, who’s likely to visit, and therefore what adverts should be on there.

The more text on a page, the more accurate Google was; however, because I was converting the actual paragraphs into images, the only info about the home page it had to go on was the title. It seemed to ignore the ‘para…’ part and went with the philosophy that ‘if you like graphs and you like planets, you’ll LOVE Paragraph Planet.’

Likewise the contact page, which surely you have on most sites, seemed to throw up Dating Agency adverts. Don’t ask me why. Still, it’s made me careful about keywords I use in case the adverts alongside become irrelevant. Hopefully, by picking up on the text above, it’ll recognise that this page is a diary about a writing website. Rather than, say about golf, sex, or cheap dishwashers.

Right, that’s it for now.

(C)Richard Hearn 2008


So how did ‘Paragraph Planet’ start? Where did the idea come from? Why am I doing it?

Instead of definitive answers to these questions, it feels more like an accumulation of ideas, interests, what-ifs, that all came together. For those yet to visit Paragraph Planet, I‘d better explain it. The home page simply has one 75 word paragraph written by someone who has submitted to the site (and occasionally by me). This could be a description of an object or a moment (on a separate page I use the examples of a matchbox or that pause between dropping a glass and wondering whether it would break). One main rule: the paragraph should be exactly 75 words.

And…er that’s about it. It changes every day - giving a slice of daily writing - and one of my ambitions is people might click on it briefly as a habit, like checking the headlines on the BBC, the football news, your emails. It would be great if that happened.

The other pages are the machinery to make the front page work - some background on the original idea for newcomers to the site, a submission and contact form, and also extra info for people who want to know more; more about the writers (author pages) or previous examples (the archive pages).

So why the strict word count? Well, I’ve always liked writing within restrictions, rules, guidelines, a brief. I think it stimulates the creative process - this is your title, it must fit this criteria etc. When writing magazine articles, my favourite stage is when I’ve got all the points across, in pretty much the manner I want to get them across, but I’m say 10-20% over the word count. That chiselling away at the sentences invariably improves the writing. I imagined other writers would feel the same.

Another impetus for the site was a place for writers to have a simple info page. As a member of a writing group for a number of years, I’d played around with the idea of creating a site that would showcase our particular group’s writing. This never really happened - instead, with Paragraph Planet, there’s a less static feel (because the home page changes daily) and with the Author Pages, any writer - not just part of the original group - would be able to put info about themselves.

Having designed a few websites on a hobby basis - to market my own writing and painting - I’d enjoyed working in HTML, but liked the challenge of developing a website with daily changing content.

Paragraph Planet was not my first choice as the title. Embarrassingly, my initial idea was was based on mispronunciation. It was going to be called My New, until I discovered that ‘minutiae’ is not pronounced that way, but instead something like: My New Shia. It felt like it would be sending out the wrong message, having an illiterate title for a writing website, so I needed a new a title. (By the way, I still hold: so if anyone out there is thinking about opening up an online neckwear business, just make me an offer!) Next it was going to be - then I put a load of words in a bag and drew them out at random. Paragraph junkie? Just a paragraph? Monkey planet? (Isn’t that a film with Charlton Heston?)

I won’t go on. There’s no suspense when the final decision is in your browser. So Paragraph Planet it was.

Title decided, I moved on to design. I wanted the feel of doodles on the back of exercise books, a slightly nerdy, academic feel, but also the hint of great ideas scribbled hastily after too much café, backs of envelopes. I wanted to keep it fairly simple. Clear. I love the look of biro, and the grid came simply because that’s the notebook I’ve got. I scanned a few different styles of paper, took photos of bulldog clips, pencils, sharpeners etc. (Yes, the logo is supposed to be a mixture of upper and lower case.)

The new paragraph was always going to be on the home page, just so that author gets the limelight. I didn’t want a site where you have to know where to look too much. I also wanted it in its own little frame, to give it a deserved focus. (I had thought of putting more about the author next to the paragraph, but I didn’t want clutter.) The fact that it changed every day did mean I had to work out getting it changed automatically. Otherwise I’d have to make a pretty big commitment of uploading a new paragraph every midnight. No matter how much I wanted the site to happen, my guess was there was some code to do this - that’s what computers are good for.

It actually took a while to find the code, but when I did it was the final bit of the jigsaw in getting the site off the ground. Essentially, the code works out which day of the week it is, and loads up the correspondingly-named imaged (Monday.gif, Tuesday.gif etc - each paragraph is turned into an image using Photoshop Elements). This at least allowed me to upload the next six day’s pages in advance.

Finding that out was key, as it meant the whole idea was sustainable. Ready to go. went live the last week of October.


For Writers and Readers.

All words and images (c)2008 Paragraph