25 January 2010

Writing for the web

It's simple, but it's not. This isn't a subject I tackle very often here on my blog, because many, many, many other bloggers cover this subject daily. In fact, I read about copywriting much more than I actually write about it.

However, since I had several conversations about writing "copy" rather than fiction today, I thought I'd put a few of my own ideas out there.

My first and most important thought on writing for web pages and blog posts is that it's still writing; you have to be engaging and informative. Like an article, you have to provide information. Like a novel, you have to move forward. If I visit a web site that bores or confuses me, I'm gone - fast.

After you take care of entertainment value, writing for the web needs to weave in keywords, for SEO or Search Engine Optimization purposes. This has to be subtle, but effective without creating awkward and unreadable text.

Have you ever found a web site that seemed like it wasn't authored by an actual person? You may have been reading the work of someone overly excited about Google's Keyword tool.

As Internet users, we all know we experience the web differently than we do a magazine or novel. But how do we read it differently?

We scan web pages for the one nugget we're interested in, click, then do the same thing again and again, hoping to read as little as required to: find a fact, make a purchase, get a location, obtain a contact, etc.

Web writers also have to structure their text differently. Use shorter sentences, more fragments, and often convert those fragments into even shorter bullets.

So I'll take my own advice and keep it brief. But if you write for the web and you're reading this post, please do leave a comment and let me know what you think, where I've gone wrong, or what I'm missing.

12 January 2010

Two and 1/2 weeks in Kenya

It's taken me almost two weeks after coming back to Victoria to put this blog post together. Granted, it took me several days to recover from jetlag and I'm still waking up before 5 am every day and I'm racing towards a rather crucial deadline.

Regardless, I think this journey to and through Kenya might have been the most influential trip in my life to-date. Not only did I travel halfway around the world, I did so to meet and work with an amazing group of writers. It's been a very long time since I've been around that many writers (for a sustained period of time) and it was wonderful.

So where do I start? The trip itself had three significant legs, so I think it's best to break it up that way.

Week 1: Nairobi (view pictures)

A long flight from Vancouver via Seattle and Amsterdam finally ended at Jomo Kenyatta airport on December 11, 2009 and I experienced my first taste of Africa, Kenya specifically. (Slightly distracted by sharing all my flights with TV's Clark Kent - but I digress.) Walking through the slightly humid airport, I saw kiosks, gift shops, prayer rooms, and not surprisingly, people going about the business of domestic and international travel.

However, unlike most other trips I've taken, I was unprepared for Kenya. Work, books, jewellery - life in general - seemed to have overtaken me in the weeks before, so I found myself scrambling for shillings at an ATM, with only the vague idea that I needed to purchase a visa and look for someone holding an SLS sign.

As soon as the bureaucracy of officially "getting into" Kenya was over, I collected my bags, found the sign and a travel guide behind it, and was on my way to the Kivi Milimani Hotel.

Only a couple of sleepless nights passed before I was in the rhythm of compound-style life in Nairobi. The term "Nairobbery" quickly surfaced as our safety was advised on, but we didn't have any problems and saw a fair amount of the city.

We toured the downtown area, Ngong Hills, and the Rift Valley. We attended the musical Mo Faya and a Storymoja reading. We sampled local cuisine and nightlife. And during the day, we workshopped fiction and attended lectures about what it means to be a writer in Kenya - the latter, I still can't pretend to understand the reality of. It was an amazing week, but the trip had only just started.

Safari: Maasi Mara (view pictures)

After an uncomfortably early start the morning of Friday, December 18th, a Dash 8 took me to Keekorok air strip in the Maasi Mara National Park Reserve. It was very much like a movie. I retrieved my bags from underneath the plane and hauled my oversized suitcase (embarrassingly slowly) across the gravel and red clay over to a cluster of vehicles, wondering if anyone was waiting for me. Fortunately, a large man was relieved that I was, in fact, Christine Hart, and he brought my bags into his safari van.

We drove the rural roads to Keekorok Lodge and I thought I really had been whisked into a movie. The open-air lobby, to me, looked lavish and opulent. Another man, this one dressed as a Maasi warrior, brought me a glass of juice and checked me in. I looked around the lobby at the artwork, particularly the cheetah carved into the front desk, and remembered (briefly) that everything during this trip (behind and ahead of me) all cost hard earned money which I would need to start replacing immediately when I got back to Victoria.

I suppressed financial worries and another staff member helped me get my bags back to my room. It was a lovely room, nicer than I'd had in Nairobi, but I was a bit sad to be there by myself. My own scheduling error had wedged my safari into the middle of my stay in Kenya instead of at the end, with everyone else in the program.

I took a minute to get oriented, then grabbed my camera bag and purse. I planned to have a drink at the lodge to kill time before the afternoon game drive I'd been informed was on my schedule.

Then I saw them trotting across the lawn. Monkeys! I did double take. Were those ... monkeys? Yes, they were, I thought as I'd paused mid step to examine them. They'd noticed me too, but unlike me, didn't stop to assess the situation. In a second, two of the three animals were on me, one on each leg, scratching, clawing, biting, grappling my calves as I tried to alternately shake them loose.

It was really happening! I was really being attacked by two cat-sized monkeys. And they were doing damage. I started to panic. Then I got angry. I dropped my purse and started to beat them off with my camera bag, yelling "shoo" as I finally shook them loose. A Maasi lion-clubbing stick flew overhead and sent the monkeys running.

Within minutes, I had received medical treatment consisting of a large bandage, at tetanus shot, and a 5-day course of ciprofloxacin. I went back to my room, had a good cry, then had my drink before going on the afternoon's game drive.

It was all worth it. The Maasi plains were like the geographic embodiment of peace. The air smelled like fresh rain and I wanted to stay there forever, driving back and forth, looking at the mountains and clouds and umbrella trees. After another three game drives over the weekend, I'd seen everything. Lions, elephants, cheetahs, leopards, all the prey animals - even a black rhino, which I was told is rare.

Week 2: Lamu Island (view pictures)

Two short days later, I was dragging my luggage across another dusty remote air strip. This one, however, was the most humid air that I'd ever come into contact with. At first, I told myself it was just like being back in the Okanagan. After thirty seconds of hauling bags in that heat, I was dripping with sweat and it was nothing like back home. From the air strip, we braved the sun and dragged our bags to a wooden ferry that took us from Manda island over to Lamu.

The boat docked and we scrambled up the worn stone steps to an intense group of would-be bag carriers, boat captains, donkey masters, and city guides. Following our SLS-approved guide, we navigated narrow dirt streets, walled in by rustic plaster buildings. Donkey shit was everywhere and the smell was overpowering, but then the scents of burning wood, fresh jasmine, and barbecued meat all traded places as we walked.

"Jambo! Karibu Lamu! Polle, polle sister ... sawa sawa, asante sana." Swahili phrases greeted and chased us. (That also constitutes most of the Swahili I remember, so that will probably be all you'll get.)

Everywhere we went we were offered dhow boat trips and 'company' such as it was. In a group of mostly women, we soon picked up on the presence of male prostitution as it was rampant on the island.

We all had shirts and dresses made for mere dollars. We talked lazily about fiction in the morning and drank malt Tuskers in the afternoon. We took boat rides, swam in the bath-warm ocean, and ate crab at shacks on the waterfront at night. I don't think there is anywhere like Lamu in the world.

Not to worry, I took loads of photos along with all the other SLS students. In the era of Facebook (and book deadlines), I've got links to albums for each leg of the trip, rather than reformatting and reposting them here.

With a sunburn turned tan, mendi on my arm, healing monkey wounds, and faded hair dye, I do feel fully transformed. The marks of Kenya are written on my body and I'm completely delighted that travel still has the capacity to make an impression on me.