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What’s the deal with Alexa rankings? April 30, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging.
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4 comments

Traffic

I’ve been studying hard the last few days, meaning I’ve had to fight the urge to work on my novel (which needed a break anyway) and blogging.  Nevertheless, I figured since I’m not going to have a whole lot of time doing posts these next few weeks (because of upcoming exams), I might as well try and think of ways to drive more traffic to my blog.  Yeah I know, just a different way to waste the same time.

I’m virtually retarded when it comes to stuff such as Alexa, PageRank, Widgets, Buttons etc – things that have apparently been around for quite some time and yet I’m only just starting to find out what they are.  I even added buttons for stuff like Stumble, BlogCatalog and Technorati to my blog today (after much struggle) without really knowing what the heck they are supposed to do.

Why?

The whole point of this (apart from driving traffic in general) is that I’m trying to get my blog into in this top writers’ blog list that is calculated according to your Technorati Ranking, Alexa Ranking and PageRank.  Anyway, my blog has really spiked exponentially in hits over the last couple of weeks, largely thanks to my European travel posts (either that or this new stat system WordPress is testing).  Consequently, my Technorati Ranking has been steadily improving by a few hundred positions on a daily basis and my PageRank has improved too.  I started getting optimistic about my chances of getting into this list.  In fact, my rankings were good enough to rival some of the other blogs on it.

Alexa

Here's a sample Alexa stat graph I found online.  I doubt my one would even have a line.

Here's a sample Alexa stat graph I found online. I doubt my one would even have a line.

But my Achilles heel turned out to be my Alexa ranking.  I did a search and discovered that my Alexa ranking was only a tad over 4 million, which was just way over what I needed.  I know that this doesn’t mean much because Alexa rankings are supposed to be ridiculously unreliable, lagging and inaccurate.  It’s essentially a webmaster’s tool (I don’t even know what that is!) and gets manipulated all the time.  However, I still want to get on that list, damn it!

So I started searching for ways to improve my Alexa ranking, and man, there are stacks of them out there.  You can spend a whole week and you probably won’t run out of posts on this topic.  Most of them were way beyond my comprehension or too sophisticated for someone of my limited computer skills – or needed you to pay money or buy something (scam alert!).

The only things that I could do for sure were: (1) install the Alexa toolbar in my browser; and (2) get other people to do the same.  According to the tips, just doing these 2 things and visiting my website a couple of times a day will boost your rankings significantly!  So I downloaded the Quirk SearchStatus toolbar for Firefox and got my wife to do the same.  But then the weirdest thing happened.

WTF?

Since installing the toolbar a couple of days ago, my Alexa ranking has actually been getting WORSE day by day!  In just 2 or 3 days, my ranking has gone from just over 4 million to almost 4.2 million!  What is the deal?  I mean, my hits have been going up, so why is my ranking going down?

According to this page, it’s because Alexa is a relative score which indicates the popularity of a website relative to others visited by those with the Alexa toolbar installed.  Hence it is possible to be a victim of your own success if those with the toolbar visiting your site visit a lot more other sites, relatively speaking.

That doesn’t seem to make sense in my case.  With my ranking before, it suggested that very few people (if any) with the Alexa tooolbar installed were visiting my site.  Therefore, if my wife and I both added the toolbar to our browsers, that should mean 2 more Alexa users are visiting my site on a regular basis – considering there were almost none before, this should be a relatively significant increase.  But instead, no love from Alexa.  It has rewarded my effort by giving me a worse ranking!  Makes me wonder whether uninstalling the toolbar would stop the bleeding…

Update: Novel, Blogging and Exams April 27, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Novel, On Writing.
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4 comments

What I’ve been up to

For someone who doesn’t work (and hasn’t for some time), life has been surprisingly hectic.

I went to London today on a day-trip, almost certainly my final one until after my exams in June.  It was a splendid day, albeit with the typical miserable London weather (though to be fair, it had been quite wonderful over the last week or two!).  Caught up with a friend, had coffee at the place that just won the World Barista Championships (I admit it was very good), enjoyed a tasty lunch at Ottolenghi, then a subpar (expectation-wise) at a high end Japanese restaurant called Sake No Hana.  The wife bought me an LV belt, though the exquisite man-bag to complement it will have to wait until next time (out of stock).

I am now filled with guilt.  Exams start exactly a month from today, and the amount of studying yet to be done is phenomenal.  Mind boggling.  And what’s the first thing I do when I get home?  Do a post on my blog!

Blogging!

I must say, I’ve fallen in love with blogging.  Yes, it may be slowing the progress of my novel (oh yeah, and the studying), but it’s worth it.  I’m meeting new people, expanding my horizons, sharing and learning all sorts of things (not just limited to writing).  I have no doubt I will continue to blog, even after I finish up on my fairytale run in the UK.

On another note, I’m trying to steer my blog back to writing as much as possible.  I started this blog just so I could write about anything and everything, but it would be good to try and limit the material to specific categories and not diversify it out of control!  So hopefully, more posts about the craft of writing and particularly fantasy writing in the future.  That being said, if something genuinely interests me, I’m not going to hold back!

Case in point: I’m currently reading a book given to me by a Christian friend called ‘God, Actually’ by Roy Williams.  No prizes for guessing what type of book it is.  My friend has been trying to convert me for years without much success, but he’s still trying.  So far it has been very interesting.  I’m definitely looking forward to doing a review the book as soon as I finish.

Exams

I haven’t sat for an exam since 2004 (I think), so I don’t really know (or remember) what to expect.  One thing is for sure – I’ve never had this much time (1 month) to prepare, but at the same time, I’ve never had this much to prepare!  A Master in Law is truly no walk in the park.  Cramming an entire subject in a couple of days (like I used to) just won’t cut it this time.

So I’m dreading the exams for two reasons.  The first is the obvious one (it is, after all, the exams).  But the second, and stronger reason, is because the exams signify the end of the great ride I’ve had in the UK.  The Master in Law has been hard work, but it’s given me time away from actual work and more time than I’ve ever had to really have a crack at my dream – writing my first novel.  It’s a shame I won’t complete it whilst here, but it’s given me a goal for the future – a goal I have no doubt I will achieve.

Novel progress…

So how is that fantasy novel coming along?  Well, to be honest, not great.  First of all, my grand European adventure, as fantastic as it was, kind of severed the momentum I had gathered before the break.  Secondly, my priory has obviously shifted to study now, so writing has been pushed down the list.  Thirdly, when I do get a chance to write (like now), I’ve been leaning towards doing blog posts rather than work on the novel – because posts are discrete and on different topics and thus making them more interesting and much easier to do!  I know…naughty naughty.

And when I have been working on the novel (almost on a daily basis, though in shorter time periods), I feel I’ve been going through the motions a lot lately.  Words are being typed and the story is progressing, but it’s lacking in…something.  A spark, excitement, heart.  I’m not quite sure what it is.  The thing is, I’m still passionate about my story and I want to complete it.  I just don’t know what’s wrong.

Has anyone else had a similar experience?

Thoughts on ‘Revolutionary Road’ (the novel and the film) April 26, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Movie Reviews, On Writing.
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4 comments

revolutionary-road

I suppose there’s not much point in reviewing a book that is widely regarded as a masterpiece and one of the best English novels of all time.  The classic  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates was first published in 1961 (and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962), but I only discovered the book following the recent movie adaptation starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  The movie was so explosive that it made me run out to buy the book, and I’m glad I did.

I’m sure there are plenty of great reviews of the book out there, so I’ll save myself the embarrassment and just share some thoughts on it.

Thoughts on the book and the writing

In a nutshell, the book centers around the lives of young couple Frank and April Wheeler, who dream of being special (ie ‘revolutionary’) while struggling to deal with the pressures of conformity in 1955 suburban America.  It apparently caused some controversy at the time due to the inclusion of a taboo subject (which I won’t spoil by revealing), but boy, no one can deny that Yates can write!  I think ‘jealousy’ would be a more suitable word than my usual ‘envy’ in this particular case.

I was stunned to learn that Revolutionary Road was Yates’ first published novel.  Yates’ writing simply flows off the page with effortless grace, but at the same time fills the story with intensity.  The scenes are incredibly vivid without being weighed down by excessive description.  The dialogue is so brutally honest and effective that you have no doubt the characters are real, and in fact at times you may even feel like you’re in the room with them.  In particular, I loved the imaginary conversations the characters would have in their heads, contemplating the reactions of others if they said or did things a certain way.

What impressed me the most was the how Yates managed to make a seemingly mundane topic (the banalities of everyday life) into something so riveting and emotionally truthful.  Ordinarily, if I saw such a book on the shelf I would think – man, what a boring thing to write about!  But thankfully (largely due to the film), I was able to put my prejudices aside and I ended up being captivated by it.

young-yates

A young Richard Yates - kind of reminds me of the guy who shagged Stifler's mom in American Pie

Even after more than 50 years from the time in which the book was set, the issues that Yates tackled in Revolutionary Road remain pertinent today.  I’m grateful I was able to read the book now (as I’ve moved into the latter part of my twenties) because I can fully relate to the emotions the characters are feeling.  That desire to be something more, to strive to be something better, but at the same time too afraid to take the big steps that would take you away from the safe, comfortable existence you’re used to.  I think Yates captured that dreaded feeling of being stuck in life to perfection.

I would have loved to have been able to observe Yates write (unfortunately he passed away in 1992), to see whether the words came as easily to the writer as they did to the reader.  I think I finally understand what Stephen King meant when he said in his brilliant book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (my comprehensive review here) that writers need to ‘write the truth’ and be ‘honest to their characters.’  Yates embodies those principles.  There’s no pretentiousness in his writing, no veiled attempts to impress with his vocabulary or metaphors or gimmicks – he just tells the story as it is.  That’s something I can definitely learn from.

It’s terribly tragic that despite the critical acclaim Yates received throughout his career, none of his books were ever commercial successes – I assume until now, that is.

The Book vs The Film

I saw the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road when it first came out.  I posted a short review of it in Part III of my Golden Globe film reviews for 2009, which can be found here.

I enjoy a good film as much as I enjoy a good book.  Occasionally, I would read a book after first seeing the film version.  Conversely, sometimes I would see the film after reading the book on which it is based.  You know what’s going to happen in both cases, so is there really a point?  I say yes because books and films, even when based on the identical story, can provide vastly different experiences.

I’d say that reading the book after seeing the film is probably the better choice (if one was to do both), at least in the case of Revolutionary Road.  Generally, books have a lot more depth than their movie counterparts, which can be restricted by adaption problems, budget constraints, bad actors, poor directors, inept screenwriters, a tendency to be more style over substance – the list goes on.  Hence if I were to experience both the film and book of a story, I’d generally prefer to watch the movie first, because the book has a higher probability of being able to pleasantly surprising me with things not in the film.  On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to find a movie adaptation that outdoes its original source.  For instance, the only examples I can think of where I preferred the film(s) to the book are (with respect to JRR Tolkien and Nicholas Sparks) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Notebook.

That said, I was amazed at how incredibly faithful the film version of Revolutionary Road was to the novel, to the point where almost every event that happened in one was in the other, and even the majority of the dialogue was taken verbatim.  That doesn’t automatically make the film good.  But it was.  Really good.  Much of the credit has to go to the director (Sam Mendes) and the actors (especially Winslet, DiCaprio and Michael Shannon), who captured the overall feel of the novel as closely as I could have imagined.  While it doesn’t fully live up to the book (which I don’t think was possible to begin with), it does about as good of a job as it could.  I thought it was a good film before, but after reading the book, I came to appreciate the brilliance of the adaptation even more.

Example: two scenes that stuck out in my mind from the movie involved Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) at the train station – the first when he was just like everyone else, walking along the platform with hundreds of other workers dressed in the identical suits with identical hats and the same glum expression on their faces; the second after he decided to change his life for the better, where everyone else remained the same, but he was different, perched atop the stairs without his hat or jacket, peering down at the endless streams of robotic workers with an intense, lively expression and a fire in his eyes.  Those scenes weren’t described in the book, but it nevertheless managed to effectively convey Frank’s emotions and his changed view of the world without him saying a word.

So yeah, the book may have been richer but the film was pretty darn good too.

The one sad thing about movie adaptations is that it can turn people away from reading the book (though it can probably also lead them to it, like me in this case).  I remember being at a family function a couple of years ago where I sat next to a teenage boy of around 17.  We were taking movies and books, and he surprised me when he said that there was no point reading books because every book he has ever wanted to read has been made into a movie, so all he had to do was watch movies!  It was funny but also equally sad.  I think Revolutionary Road is just one example that tells us that reading the book can also be very rewarding, even when you’ve already seen the film.

Useful Resource for Writers (who want to get published!) April 25, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
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2 comments

Just quickie – I’ve started getting seriously serious about my studies, given that exams are just a month away!  That being said, while randomly surfing during one of my, er “breaks”, I came across FirstWriter.com.

The layout looks fairly plain, but it seems there are lots of goodies on it.  I haven’t looked at its ‘Writing Tips’ section yet, but what caught my attention were the specific search engines for literary agents and (book and magazine) publishers.  In particular, you can modify your searches to limit them to your particular type of writing (eg fiction or non-fiction) and genre, plus you can allocate a specific geographic region.

There is also a writing competition search engine which I’ve tried, and it’s pretty cool too.  Recently I started thinking about (and even did a couple of) short stories, so maybe I’ll give some of these competitions a go to try get some writing credits to pad (well, start) the portfolio.

‘The Book Thief’ Author Talks About Writing April 24, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, On Writing.
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zusakFollowing my book review of The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak, I decided to look a little deeper into the life of this wonderful writer.  And so I came across a series of videos from Sutherland Shire Library in Australia, where Markus Zusak (who grew up in Sutherland) discusses his childhood experiences and how he came to write The Book Thief.

What struck me as amazing (and gave me plenty of both hope and despair) was how much Zuzak struggled to write The Book Thief.  Reading it, you would have thought that the words must have flown effortlessly from his pen (or fingers), but reality could not have been more different.  He claims that it took him 2 years (!) to write the first half of the book, where he struggled especially with the point of view the story would be told from and the characteristics of the narrator.  But when he figured it all out, it took only a month to write the second half of the book!  Further, he says that he revised the first 90 pages of the book 150-200 times just to get it right!  Wow.  Success really doesn’t come easily.

The video is split into 3 parts.  Click on the links to see them.

Part I – Zusak discusses his childhood through a funny memory, and uses it as a lesson in storytelling before discussing how he came to write The Book Thief.

Part II – Zusak answers questions about The Book Thief and writing in general.

Part III – Zusak concludes the talk with a story about the impact of his work on people and a short passage from the book.

PS: I’ve been hearing rumors of a possible film version of The Book Thief.  IMDB has a preliminary listing for it with a 2010 release date.  While this doesn’t surprise me, I wonder how they’ll convert the book onto the big screen.  It’s certainly not going to be easy and the results could potentially be disastrous if they don’t do it right!

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