Welcome to the Jungle

A friend who recently dipped his toe into the web serial waters asked me to point him toward a noob guide to setting up a free WordPress site with a layout similar to the one I used for Graves and Crowmakers. Sadly, I know of no such guide. I spent a lot of time tinkering and Googling to figure out how to do things I wasn’t sure how to do. (And there were a LOT of things I didn’t know how to do.) So I’m making a few notes here to share with him and with anyone else who might be interested. (With the disclaimer that I tore down most of my infrastructure when I shut down my sites to head down the indie author road, so I have only my memory to rely on. And my memory is known to be sometimes unreliable.)

My very basic setup included an About the Story landing page that gave a little sales pitch blurb and provided a link to the first story page. Each chapter/post of the story then showed up on a single separate blog post page with Previous/Next buttons at the bottom of the post so the reader could easily stay in the flow of the story. I also had a Table of Contents page with a listing of links to the individual posts in case someone wanted that. My sidebar menu had links to the About page, the ToC, and the first chapter. (And my author site, but your mileage may vary there.) Later I added more stuff to the sidebar, but that was what I started with.

Sounds simple enough, right? Took me FOREVER to figure out how to make it look exactly like I wanted. Possibly that has something to do with me being just a little bit of a fussy perfectionist and not with the actual difficulty of the task. But here are some things I figured out, in case they’re helpful. (Note that all of this has to do with setting up a FREE WordPress.COM site. WordPress.org sites offer a lot more flexibility. They also, you know, cost money, which wasn’t a thing I was looking to do at the time.)

I’m assuming anyone reading this already knows how to do some basic stuff, like changing your theme, adding pages, and adding blog posts. If you don’t, that’s cool. You just may want to spend some time figuring those things out before continuing. There are some handy tutorials here: https://learn.wordpress.com/quick-start-guide/.

OK, then! Tips on how I set up a free WordPress.com site for my web serial:

Find a theme that has a layout that includes a single column for content and a sidebar menu. (Obviously, you don’t have to use this format. I felt it looked more ebook-y, and that was the look I was going for.) But spend some time thinking about how you want your site to look and then find a theme that comes close to that. It’s a lot easier to customize something that’s already close to what you want to do.

  • While you’re at it, try to find a theme with color and font choices that line up well with your story. If you find a layout you might like except the color/font seem wrong, check out the Customize options to see what alternate color palettes and fonts might be included.
  • Remember that you can filter themes to show only the free ones.
  • My personal choices were Nucleare for Graves and Twenty Fifteen for Crowmakers.

For your landing page, set up a static About the Story page with a blurb and a link to the first story post. (If you don’t have the blurb written or a first post made yet, that’s cool. Just create a placeholder page. You can add the content later.)

  • Add a new page and create your About the Story page.
  • Go to WP Admin > Settings > Reading > Front page displays. Choose the Static Page radial button. (To get to WP Admin, click on My Sites in the top left corner of your site. WP Admin is way down at the bottom of the options that pop up.)
  • From the Front page dropdown menu: Choose your About the Story page.

My friend appears to have already figured this one out, but in case anyone else out there hasn’t: The story posts themselves will be the blog pages of your site. To make them show up one chapter at a time:

  • WP Admin > Settings > Reading > Blog pages show at most… Type in 1. This forces the blog to show 1 post at a time.
  • You may also need to go down to Infinite Scroll Behavior on the same page and uncheck the box beside “Check to load posts as you scroll.”
  • If you haven’t started posting your story yet, it’ll be helpful to set up one or two “test” blog posts just so you can see if things are working right. You can always edit them later and add the real content.
  • Make sure there’s a link to your first blog post on your About the Story page. That provides the flow from your landing page into your story.

Test to be sure all of the above is working well: When you put in your site’s address, it takes you to the About the Story page. When you click on the link to the story on your About page, it takes you to blog post 1. You should have a Next link at the bottom of blog post 1 that leads to blog post 2. You should have a Previous link at the bottom of blog post 2. (Note: Sometimes when I first added a new blog post, the next/previous links didn’t show up right away. If yours don’t, don’t panic yet. Give it a few hours—I think sometimes it took up to a day for mine to show up. Not always. Just sometimes.)

Add a page and create your Table of Contents, which is just a list of links to your blog posts, formatted however you like. I never found a way to automatically update this page—I just had a note on my weekly publishing checklist to remind me to manually add the latest link after that week’s story update was posted.

At this point, your sidebar menu probably lists your About page and your ToC page. If it doesn’t, or if it shows more stuff that you don’t want, or if you want other stuff that isn’t there, then you’ll need to spend some time with WP Admin > Appearance > Menus and possibly WP Admin > Appearance > Widgets.

  • Under Menus, you can check and uncheck which pages you want to appear on the menu. You may have to play around with the “Select a menu to edit” dropdown list, if your theme has more than one possible menu location, to figure out which is which and where they show up.
  • To add a link to your first blog post to the menu, you’ll want to click on Custom Links in the list of things you can add to your menu (the boxes listed down the left side of the Menu page). Then just copy/paste in the link to your first page. You can also use this option to add in a link to your main or other web sites if you have them.
  • Under Widgets, you can add other content to your sidebar that will show up below and set apart from your main menu. This is where I added things like a list of other recommended stories, a copyright notice, a listing of the previous few blog posts I’d made, etc. There are a LOT of options here. Not all of them are useful. The one I made the most frequent use of was the Custom HTML option. With a little html know-how and some experimentation, you can add pretty much anything you like to your sidebar. That said, sometimes less is more, especially if you want your reader’s eyes focused on your story and not distracted by more links to click.

My very best advice regarding the sidebar content (and every other part of this process, for that matter) is to start small and simple and only add things as you feel you need them. And add them ONE at a time and test them. It’s way easier to make one change at a time and make sure that one thing is working before moving on than it is to make a whole bunch of changes and then have to figure out where in the huge bundle of settings you just tweaked things went wrong. (Learn from my mistakes! Someone should be.)

So, that’s a lot longer than I’d intended (no one has ever accused me of not being able to come up with some word count). And yet there are things I feel like I skimmed over, so if anyone out there has questions, holler at me here or at L_E_Erickson@hotmail.com. (I really don’t mind—I love talking shop. And, if you ask my kids or my husband, I also enjoy telling people how they should be doing things. But we’re not asking them.)

Happy WordPressing!

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