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Monday, April 30, 2007

The Effective Reviewer

Oh, for Pete’s sake. Someone brought up finding the right reviewer on OWW. Boy-howdy, that’s a subject I’m well qualified to discuss.

When I first got it in my head to write, I dabbled. I wrote my first short story three years ago and felt I needed some feedback. So I trolled. I trolled a lot; analyzing different reviewers, different writing styles, different chemistry.

While I earned my “bees” (OWW uses bees to determine how prolific you are in reviews.) I realized that it wasn’t about how much I reviewed or how much others reviewed me. It was the quality of those reviews and by extension, my ability to comprehend and employ that feedback.

I’ve mentioned before, sometimes we’re just not ready to hear certain hard truths. I can guarantee you that there have been more than a few occasions when someone pinged me on something stupid I did in my novel and I ignored them, only to discover later they were dead right.

I don’t dismiss anyone’s opinion out of hand anymore, but then my crit partners have earned my respect and attention.

On the same token, I don’t rush in and take everyone’s suggestion either. My CPs can tell me where I went astray, but they still can’t write my story. Nor do I want them holding my hand. After all, this isn’t a novel by committee. LOL!

But finding excellent reviewers is not easy. In my case, I did it quite methodically and earned my reviewers because I gave as good as I got. Below are my criteria for a good reviewer/reviewee relationship.

Reviewer:
• Try to see the scope of what the writer is trying to convey.
• Be honest, but diplomatic.
• Provide sound logic for your conclusions.
• Be succinct. Waffles are for breakfast.
• Be available for follow-up questions.

Reviewee:
• No whining.
• You are not your story. It’s not personal.
• No "explaining" your story in follow-up emails.
• Thank your reviewer. Every time.
• Don’t be needy. That's my dog's job.

Reviewing is hard work. And a thorough review is an incredible amount of work. Don’t overwhelm reviewers with too many requests. The other day on our private forum I posted my synopsis. I actually have two synopses, a 1-page and a 3-page. Since I knew the one page would be the harder one to nail, I opted to post only that one for review. Whatever feedback I get should be more than enough to help me strengthen my 3-page synopsis.

I try to use my CPs only when I really need them. They are too valuable to me to exploit. And I kinda like ‘em.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Back Cover Blurbs

On Forward Motion someone brought up the subject of back cover blurb building. I love playing with blurbs and hooks. To me, it’s more challenging than the story and hence more fun.

As a reader, I don’t want flowery prose or endless characterization in a blurb. Save that stuff for the novel. Convince me that your story is worth my time.

Remember too, that not everyone is your audience. A blurb should speak directly to those who will like your kind of story. If you lead me to believe that your story is about a new kind of supernatural evil and it turns out to be just another vampire story, your book is headed straight for my garage sale box. I’ll likely never try you again for deceiving me, too.

A blurb should be crisp, tight and engaging. There should be a certain bounce in its cadence, so mix up your sentence lengths. Identify the conflict, the protagonist and the antagonist.

The conflict should not take more than a couple of sentences. One thing I recommended in my answer to the thread on Forward Motion is to go to IMDB and pick out a few movie trailers.

Don’t watch the video. Instead listen to the sound only. Ignore the scene audio and wait for the narrator to chime in. Every trailer should give you the thrust of the story in under 10 seconds.

Pay attention to the words they use. They are active, compelling and precise.

Now read your blurb out loud. Is there a rhythm? Is it focused on the core of the story? Does it tease you to want more?

Blurbs are normally not a comfortable stomping ground for novelists. And chances are you won't have to create your own if you go the traditional pub route, but it's not a bad habit to learn. It comes in useful when writing your query's hook.

Take a look at your existing hook or blurb and isolate the key words that describe the novel's conflict. Play with the sentence structure until it expresses only the very heart of the story.

I know. It’s hard. You’re dying to tell book browsers about the cool thing that happens on page 221, or the weird world building, or the character’s secret flaw. Hold back and just waggle the carrot. If it’s juicy enough, they’ll beg to read more.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bite Me

A spider bites me at least once a year. I’ve been bitten in new homes, old homes, and seemingly sterile environments. Most spider bites are harmless.

You can always tell a spider bite. The swelling is hard and rounded. In the middle of the bulge is a tiny scoop mark of black necrotized flesh. Can’t miss the signs. It itches like crazy too.

Oddly enough I recuperate well from spider bites, even the dangerous ones. The worst bite I ever had was from a brown recluse. Caution: Take all spider bites seriously, especially if symptoms appear rapidly or you run a fever. I was VERY lucky. Some people have severe reactions to a brown recluse bite. Never take any bite lightly. The most venomous spiders look inoffensive and ordinary.

Ten years ago this month, we built a human sized doghouse so that all the dogs (4 at the time) and people could enter and get out of the blistering SE Texas heat.

I sat in one corner to check out our handiwork and called one of the dogs to me. Isis jumped into my arms pinning me backwards. Only my right hand was visible but I couldn’t move it with a hundred pounds of dog on me. Just then a brown recluse dropped down from the ceiling. (most likely it was shaken down when Isis pounced on me.)

To this day I can see it clearly. It fondled me with one of its thin legs before it stuck me. (I never felt the bite, btw.) But it paid dearly for its folly. Being resourceful I squashed it by pushing Isis’ body against my hand.

It didn’t take long for my hand to swell up to twice its size. Ironically, I went to the doctor only because I had gotten a call from a company I really wanted to work for. All I had to do was pass their art test.

I wasted no time in making an appointment. I didn’t want my chances impeded by a bum hand. He loaded me down with antibiotics, steroids and something for the pain.

Believe it or not I consider Brownie my good luck spider since I outscored 11 other applicants for the job. While the bite wasn’t pleasant, everything worked out in the end. Except for Brownie.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Genre Snobbery?

Somehow, Margaret and I got on the subject of writer/reader elitism. SF writers denigrate Romance. Mainstream pish-poshes Genre. Mystery snubs Horror. Literary vs. Mainstream. It’s all a great pot of misfits, each sticking their collective noses up at the other.

Ironically, those who have profited have been the trailblazer writers who crossed genre or literary lines when it was taboo, and created something brand new and exciting. From LK Hamilton’s con bio: Laurell K. Hamilton is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of two series that mix mystery, fantasy, magic, horror and romance. How’s that for mixing it up?

All I want is a good story and since becoming a writer I’ve become more and more discriminating about what makes a good story. My all time favorite book is The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This is a historical novel that is so beautifully written the words bathe you in emotion. Not a drop of SF in the entire book. But I still call myself an SF fan. A True Believer. (snicker)

(By the way, here’s a review with Diamant you might find interesting.)

Margaret said something rather profound. She said that aspects of human experience, like romance or religion are an integral part of humanity. Why shouldn’t they exist in SF or Mystery, or Horror? Why do genre snobs look down on other markets?

I belong to several SFF forums and it never fails to amuse me when someone (usually from the SF camp) pipes up and sniggers at Romance writers. Um…look around. Science fiction isn’t exactly market wildfire. We are a very select group occupying only a sliver of the reader pie.

There are some killer SF writers out there, but their audience remains a small one. The romance market on the other hand is bigger than the gross national product of most small countries. Diehard SF reader that I am, I’ll still opt for the emotional draw of a powerful romance over the cliché ploys of an average SF story.

Forget about the genre. It's all about the story.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Markets & News

Noctem Aeternus
Noctem Aeternus will be a FREE quarterly PDF magazine where the reader will find science fiction, fantasy, western, or even mystery stories...but all tales will have an element of horror.
Payment: .10 word
Length: up to 4000 words

Glass Woman Prize
Fee: None
Restrictions: Women writers only. 1-25 pages.
First prize already taken. They are looking for a second place winner.
Award: US $380 and online publication.
Deadline: September 21, 2007

Pottery Making Illustrated
How-to instruction for all skill levels on all aspects of ceramic art.
PAY: $.10/word

Pagan Fiction Award And Anthology
Fee: None
Restrictions: Must have some pagan content.
1st Prize – $500. 2nd Prize – $250. 3rd Prize – $100.
Entries must arrive between March 1 and June 24, 2007.

*****
I’m adding this one, though I prefer not to post anything that pays less than .05 cents a word. SF has few good markets so I'll make an exception. It sounds interesting anyway.

Space Westerns
Maximum Length: 7500 words
Payment: ½¢/word to a maximum of $25, paid upon publication.
Reprints will be considered.

*****
NEWS
Habitable Planet Found
I just thought this was cool! Let's all go to New Earth. (snicker)
These news stories have short life spans so I'm including a piece of it here.

By Seth Borenstein
Washington (AP) - For the first time astronomers have discovered a planet outside our solar system that is potentially habitable, with Earth-like temperatures, a find researchers described Tuesday as a big step in the search for "life in the universe."

The planet is just the right size, might have water in liquid form, and in galactic terms is relatively nearby at 120 trillion miles away. But the star it closely orbits, known as a "red dwarf," is much smaller, dimmer and cooler than our sun.
(click here for the whole story.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Work it, baby.

All those queries have been paying off and I have several articles to turn in by the end of the week. I’ll be sure to give a head’s up when they appear in print.

I’ll try to post some new markets for you tomorrow.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Queries and Goals

I did it! I met my weekly goal for querying nonfic articles and stories. It was very hard to reach this week. I came down with strep throat last weekend followed by a cold. (I may never get well!) But I finally felt human enough to do some work yesterday.

Part of this success is due to my coaching group. We post our goals for public scrutiny and every Monday we have to log in and fess up to how well we did. I didn’t want to let the team down so I burned the midnight oil to make my quota.

So I guess under my blog post on Motivators, I should have added “taking responsibility” as one of the bullet points. If you set goals, you have to own up to them. I hope I can keep going. It’ll be a lot harder once I get back to the saltmine.

Queries: I was talking to Daw the other day about that contest they have over at Fangs, Fur & Fey (cool title). I mentioned that I definitely noticed a pattern in what the judges deemed good queries. I also liked some of the premises of a few that didn’t make the cut. It’s hard to pick a favorite but so far I still like one of the first ones they accepted. If the writing is as good as that query, I’d certainly read the book.

Meanwhile back at Camp Maria, I polished and passed out the query to my novel to several peers whose judgment I trust implicitly. They gave me some incredible feedback.

That query sparkles with energy and color! I’d like to share some of the things I did inside that query as well as some of the great advice I got from my writing buddies.

• Have a great opening statement but make sure it ties in with the character and conflict of the story. In my case I used an 18-word hook as the opener followed by a second sentence that explained the overall thrust of the story.

• I left out all mention of the very strong secondary characters. Only the two main characters and the antagonist were introduced.

• Identify the marketing possibilities. In my case, since this is cross genre I can pitch this as either SF or fantasy. I am also going to pitch this as paranormal romance to some agents because I think it has enough sensuality to lean that way.

• Don’t leave any questions in the agent’s mind as to what this is about. While you’re at it, also keep it brief. (No pressure!) Nathan Bransford has a really good example of a query he likes here.

• Let your voice shine through. Some agents only take a query, no pages. The weight of that query is going to have to carry you through to the next round. I wanted to give the query the same sort of immediacy that’s built into the novel.

• Sandy suggested mentioning what author's work most resembled my style. That’s not a tactic I’m comfortable using. It would feel like a copout to compare myself to an established author. But then Sandy went a step further and proposed this gem: My work has the dark sensuality of “such and such” a writer. That was a very subtle point. It implies without comparing directly. Super smart and sophisticated.

• Mike suggested focusing on the personal conflict for both my main characters. Originally I had the over arching conflict and the personal conflict of only one main character but as soon as I did both it really snapped.

• Maya asked me to make the characterization stronger than the science aspects. Boy, that bothered me to do that because I really like the science in this story, but I followed her advice and it immediately became personal. Good call.

• Daw has a gift for knowing the perfect word for any occasion. She questioned my sanity and made me see that a couple of her word choices were better than mine. Once she got finished with me I could see that query crackle with color. That woman is mean with a hot poker! LOL.

Since this is an active query, I don’t think it would be appropriate to post it on this blog. But I hope some of these observations were helpful.

Ironically, after all the polishing it came out a little longer than I expected, (300 words) but it reads ultra smooth. This has to be the best query I’ve ever written. Hope it does well.

We’ll find out in the weeks and months to come.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Nekkid

It’s the weekend so I thought I would tell you one of the other funny stories during my hospital stay recently.

No one could ever accuse me of being a prude, but I do put limits on how many clothes I shed at any given time. A lengthy stay at the hospital, especially when you’re slightly disabled changes everything.

Modesty flies out the window when you’re trapped in a hospital. The staff waltzes into your room like they’re punching in a time clock. Each one gives you a cheerful hello before whipping off your blankey and rolling up your hospital gown so they can check your incision.

Okay, I got used to that. Although I’m fairly certain the last person who checked under my undies was from UPS. The brown shorts gave him away. Nonetheless, he said my incision was healing nicely and did I have any packages to ship today. (uh...no thanks.)

But my humiliation was only starting to escalate. The fun really started the first time they allowed me to use the bathroom. There I was staggering into this enormous bathroom, rattling my IV crane behind me. Greg was on one side and a nurse was on the other.

I walked into the john and turned to find them still in the room with me. “OUT,” I ordered in my most authoritative voice. Neither one moved.

I stood there tapping my foot as Greg argued with me to let them stay. “I can manage without you,” I insisted. By this time my foot was tapping out Morse code. They left--barely. I could still hear their heavy breathing on the other side of the door. As soon as they heard my IV crane creaking they both charged into the room like a swat team, cradling me like I was so much fine china. Pulllease!

I wasn’t even allowed to flush. They had to check my urine output in a little bowl. Indignation knows no bounds.

Ah, but that was only the beginning. The next day they let me shower. Only I couldn’t be trusted to do that on my own. They had a bright yellow band on my wrist labeling me as a fall risk. I had every reason to believe Greg had ratted on me and told them I was a klutz.

I desperately wanted a shower. At this point I didn’t care who saw me naked. So I acquiesced to their demands. I don’t know how many people were in that bathroom, but it felt like there was an octopus in that shower stall with me. Hands were everywhere. One brought a stool for me. Another folded a towel over the seat. Yet another held my IV tube out of the way, then wrapped my IV’d wrist in a glove so I wouldn’t get it wet.

Finally Greg was next to me. He was sweet, bathing me and washing my hair. I would’ve even called it kinky if I hadn’t felt like such a train wreck. Ah well, timing is everything.

By the time it was over I didn’t care who saw me naked as long as I was clean. We all have our price for shedding our modesty. I guess in my case, cleanliness is not next to godliness.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Crit Groups

The other day Miss Snark said that your crit group is only as good as its members. Holy cow, she said a mouthful.

I’ve had wonderful critters, snarky critters, crispy critters and clueless critters. I’ve learned something from each of them---yes, even the clueless ones.

But MS was right. You are only as good as the company you keep. I’ve had critters I liked very much on a personal level, but their work never matured. I learned what NOT to do from them.

I’ve had other critters who were so malevolent and ill tempered I hated to see their name come up on my reviews, but so help me they knew their stuff. If they were willing to put up with my insufferable drivel, I was willing to tolerate their acid drool. I learned humility and compassion from them.

Then there are those who started out as drive-bys. Folks just looking to pick up an extra point, and somehow ended up on one of my stories. We had chemistry, honesty, disagreements and epiphanies. I call them my friends as well as my reviewers.

We poke holes in each others work until it bleeds. We offer suggestions and resources. We rally (I mean really RALLY) to each other whenever any of us have something big coming up. My critique partners are at the top of their game. Many have been published. Others are so close to book deals I can taste it. All of them are supportive and instrumental in getting me this far, this quick.

I will give part of the credit to myself. I am really good at reading people. When I first started and didn’t know anyone I deliberately targeted writers I deemed as better than myself. At first I only read their posts and the reviews others had given them. Eventually, I took the plunge and reviewed them too and thus started a secret cycle of mentor and student.

As with any relationship, there has to be a fair amount of give and take. I tend to write very thorough reviews. If that’s not reciprocated it doesn’t take long before I start feeling used. The next step is the door for that reviewer.

I think it was Sarah who taught me the phrase, “mutual admiration society”. That just cracked me up. I think that’s what Miss Snark’s writer was talking about when she said crit groups didn’t do her any good.

Writers tend to be such weenies on a psychological scale. We really crave that validation. But you know what? You won’t get it from a crit group. They aren’t the ones buying (or not buying) your work.

A good crit group is a rudder, not a petting zoo. I love my CPs, every last one of them. I try not to saddle them with my baggage. They do enough work keeping the world safe from bad writing.

Hugs and kisses to all my CPs. You guys are the best!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Markets, Commentary

That Mystery Door
Maine Tales of Fantasy & Speculation Anthology
Deadline: June 16, 2007
Pays: .03 - .05 per word

Tony Hillerman Mystery Prize
Entry Fee: None
Unpublished manuscripts of book-length accepted (minimum 60,000 words) in English.Must contain murder or another serious crime.
Deadline: July 1, 2007.


*****

Do you trust your writing?

On Forward Motion, an experienced author asked the question: Do we trust our writing?

A lot depends on our confidence as a writer and our experience in disseminating feedback. Passion about the story is also important but it’s not enough. Nearly every writer I know is passionate about his story. He has to be or why would he write it. But this is where those rose-colored glasses are hard to take off. Passion has a way of blinding us to the truth.

It’s like a new love. We never see the warts and bad habits in people when we first fall in love. In our eyes, they’re perfect. It’s only after we’ve lived with them for a while (and compare them to others) that we see reality.

Unlike love, where eventually we accept or forgive weakness in those we love, we cannot allow ourselves to forgive our manuscripts’ flaws. Be passionate about your story, but in order to trust your writing you must also be dispassionate about its editing.

I do trust my writing, but I trust my reading more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

About Blogs/Mini Movie Review

Had a killer sore throat yesterday and today. My cold is back but at least I don’t have to worry about tearing my stitches out. I’m still careful when I sneeze though. Doc says my innards are still fragile.

Yesterday I fixed Greg up with his own blog so he can chronicle his modifications to his Hayabusa. He is still trying to lure me to the dark side and get me to ride with him, but it’s a futile endeavor. It’s no secret I like to go fast, but there’s no sport (or fun) in being a passenger. And I don’t need a new hobby. I like my bones intact.

We talked a bit about why people have blogs. Blogs range from the technical to self-indulgent public diaries.

Oddly enough, while it seems everyone and his mother are blogging, I still get the best information from people who don’t blog at all. I’ve gotten contest information, markets, and great links from them.

The flip side to blogging is commentary. I feel badly that I don’t make a lot of comments on blogs. Greg even noticed it and mentioned it to me yesterday. Personally, I’m not comfortable commenting unless I have a question or something unique to add. On top of this, I’m almost always late in commenting at an appropriate time because I browse blogs only every few days. By the time I post, the blogger is on another thought.

If I have a legitimate comment, I usually email that person off list. This way we can get personal without putting our laundry out for public scrutiny. Recently, one of my friends put out a blurb she’d been working on. As usual, I missed it when she first posted it, so I emailed her. Well, our emails went back and forth as we tinkered on it. That would look pretty unruly on a blog (imo).

Greg’s blog is a totally different vehicle. He’s doing it as a record of sorts, cataloging the modifications on his bike. (I catalog it too, but my notes usually include the price tags for said modifications. ) He likes to include pictures too which is important for what he’s doing. The people who visit his blog are interested in stuff like that.

Most likely, he will talk about the dogs as well. Many people on his motorcycle forums are big animal lovers. So it’s all in keeping with what’s important for his particular audience.

I guess that’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter whether you have twelve or twelve hundred people visit, as long as you write for the audience exclusive to your blog.

Mini Movie Review: Yesterday we rented The Prestige, with Michael Caine, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. This was a very interesting movie about two rival magicians in 19th century England. It was a window into true obsession that kept us intrigued the whole way. I can't reveal much of the plot because it is so multi-layered that it will give away the twist. What I especially liked was the SF element that Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie) introduced as part of the ultimate magic trick. The SF ploy was terribly thin on science logic but then this was a movie about magic.

The Prestige is a complex film told in a non linear fashion. If you get distracted for even a second, you can easily miss the clues. The characterization alone left us with some meaty discussion about the depth of obsession.

Tomorrow: Markets

Monday, April 16, 2007

Motivators

Last week, my coaching group brought up the topic of motivation in our forum and I thought it would make a good post for today.

I don’t have any trouble staying motivated, and subsist well on minimal encouragement. As a matter of fact, I usually do better when my peers shame me into accomplishing more. (Guilt does wonders for me. Gotta be the Catholic upbringing.)

These are the things I do that keeps me on track.

• Break your goals down into manageable bites.
Don’t worry about landing an agent. Work on creating the best query he’ll ever see. Little steps.

• Have a game plan on how you want your accomplishments to happen.
I always have the big picture in my mind. Then it’s just a matter of assigning all the little goals to get me to the big goal.

• Stay positive.
A dozen helpful friends may give you a shoulder to cry on but you can’t take them home with you. Learn to count on yourself. A good attitude is everything.

• Have multiple interests.
It’s like the stock market. You don’t want all your money in one stock. Diversify. Writing may not be the end-all you think it is. It could be just a stepping stone.

• Be proactive.
Expand your horizons. Don’t stay in the same group just because it’s comfy. There’re tons of resources to help you in your writing career. And you meet the nicest people too.

• Be accountable.
Blaming everyone and everything for the things that go wrong with your writing career is a cop-out. Take charge of your future.

Nurture your relationships, especially with people who are honest with you.
Truth hurts, but so does rejection. I’d rather have practical advice from a trusted peer than a form letter from an agent.

• Make small successes your inspiration.
Every time I sell an article, every time I post a helpful blog, every time I get a paycheck, it’s one small success that assures me I’m headed in the right direction.

• Know what works for you.
I happen to know guilt works really well for me. So does friendly competition. But everyone is different. Know yourself and you’ll know your personal motivators.

So what’s your motivator? What makes you go back to that keyboard day after day?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Building Websites, part 3

What goes on your website? Here’s a simple checklist.

• State your purpose
Kind of like a mission statement. You want to state definitively why the heck you’re putting up a website. Most people combine it with their welcome message.

• Have an easy to read site map
Each link should work.

• Content is critical
What are you offering that will bring people back on a regular basis?

Consider some of these options (in no particular order of importance).
- articles
- contests
- e-books
- newsletters
- resource links
- interviews
- games
- excerpts of your work
- freebies
- your bio
- your book signings or events
- links to all your books or products

• Contact info
This one’s not negotiable. Always make sure people can reach you.

*****
Which reminds me…my old email server is gone. If you wrote me on the old email address and you haven’t gotten an answer from me---that’s why.

*****
Happy Friday, the 13th, everyone!
I'm gonna go break a mirror.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Building Websites, part 2

Using color and photos
I love color. My color choices are not nearly as adventurous as my personality but I’d like to think it punctuates my promotional collateral effectively, be they on business cards, blogs or websites.

Color is a very personal choice. My favorite color is red. It describes me well, but since I am using my website as a broad base of operations I needed a color palette that implies tradition and sincerity. I wanted my visitors to take me, and my genres seriously, so I chose a deep blue and white as my color scheme.

On my website, the blue banner has a drop shadow, a subtle reminder that there is depth and weight. And depth provides the psychological effect of significance.

The layout is traditional, the heavy border reinforcing a left to right read. The fonts are lightweight and refined. I used one fancy font for the banner on each page and that’s as extravagant as I wanted to get.

Font/background color: As jazzy as you think that neon lime background looks you’ll find that’s not the general consensus. Same goes for that shocking pink text. Don’t paralyze your visitors with tawdry color.

Photos: Photos require load time. If you absolutely must use them on the page itself, consider posting only the thumbnail (small photo) with the option of viewing the bigger image if the visitor so chooses.

Color correct your photos if you can. Most are not in web-friendly colors. It’s not that they won’t show up, but if you’re a perfectionist like me, you want the color to be true to the original.

Personal pictures: In my opinion, it’s never a good idea to post pictures of your kids. There are a lot of creepy people out there. And it’s far too easy to get personal information from public sources. Don’t risk your children's safety.

Use a little decorum in how you portray yourself too. If the website is about your writing, no one needs to see you red-faced drunk or skinny dipping in the Ponchatrain River. Keep it professional.

Uniformity: Nothing says professionalism like a uniform image. Keep your colors and layout consistent between pages. You want to present an author package.

Proof your pages: This is a pet peeve of mine. Never post anything unless you've proofed it for spelling and grammar errors. Your website is about your writing. Show them your best.

Tomorrow: Websites: What goes in the pot?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Building Websites, part 1

Several of my buddies have talked about setting up their own websites. So I thought I would talk about design tips.

Disclaimer first: I am a professionally trained graphic designer, not a web designer. My website was created using Dreamweaver and I learned that on my own. There is other software out there, or you can build your site using HTML. Here is a great tutorial aimed at kids, but it is just as useful for adults.

What I hope to do for the next couple of days is give you some design tips to consider as you plan your website. I’ve come across some awesome websites, but there are also a lot of bad ones. Don’t be one of the bad ones.

I have to admit, a blog is easier to maintain, but a website is just more unique and aesthetically pleasing. The main function of a website is to deliver information about your product--in this case, you and/or your book.

Navigability and Readability: Navigability should be self-explanatory. You want folks to be able to travel from one page to the next with ease. Every link should work; every page should pop right up.

But here is where Murphy's Law comes in. All browsers are not created equal. The plainer your page, the less trouble you’ll have. But every time you add an element, whether it’s a picture or a block of text, you run the risk that someone’s browser won’t be able to see it.

Fonts: Stick with simple fonts that can be read by any browser. San serifs are fine if they have clean lines and the size is large enough. If you use a serif, stay conservative.

You don’t want to tire the reader out with any of the more lavish fonts. Save them for headlines and banners. Remember too, that many browsers won’t support the fancy fonts. You’ll have to save them as jpg files if you want them to show up.

White Space: Not only is the font and size critical, but also the amount of white space. The eye needs a place to rest.

Say you visit a site that has a six-inch block of text. No matter how fascinating the information is, your brain has already decided that it’s boring because reading that much copy is exhausting.

Break your copy up in small bite-sized paragraphs. Visitors can nibble one paragraph at a time. They’ll keep reading if you truly are that interesting.

Sound bites: No matter how cute you think they are, try not to use them. Trust me, they’re irritating.

Music: Your favorite song has personal significance only to you. Don’t force your pleasures on others. You want visitors to feel welcome.

Web animation: If I told you how web animation was created you’d be slapping them in left and right. It’s a really neat process. And it’s easy to get carried away, especially if you created the animation yourself. But it is intrusive and takes a long time to load, especially on dial-up.

Remember, Writing = Business.

Tomorrow: Color & Photos

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Markets and Links

The Healing Project: Alcoholism Anthology
Pay: Up to $200
First person essays about your experience or a loved one's experience with alcoholism.

I have the perfect essay for this anthology but I’ve already subbed it elsewhere (yesterday!) so I’ll have to wait and see.

Woodwork Magazine
PAY: $35 - $75
Submit your original tip or technique, along with a photo, a sketch or a plan.

I always have trouble with magazines that ask for tips. You never know what truly is an original idea or one that’s been around a while. But this one is via email so if you have some woodworking tips it won’t cost you anything.

Links

Behind the Name: This one looks useful. It gives you the etymology of names. The part I like the best is that you can go in and list what specific words you’re looking for in a name. Since I like to dabble in the psychology of words that’s kind of helpful to me.

Tomorrow: I’ve been thinking about giving design lessons. Let’s talk about website design tomorrow.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Research Whore

Right now I have 23 binders full of writing notes, and one spiral bound notebook that I take with me whenever I’m on the road.

I’m a research whore. Why do you ask?

There’s a method to research though. It should never be a haphazard compilation of every internet page you find. These are the steps I take.

• Research the researcher. You can’t trust every entry you find on the internet. Google the author’s name and see if he’s legitimate.

• Scan the page for keywords. I use the Find tool a lot. Rather than read the whole site, I’ll scan the page for specific words that are key to my query.

• Read the article. I consider myself a smart rabbit, but my eyes glaze over like white icing if the article is dry and lifeless. Gimme the dirt.

• Copy & Paste. If I find something interesting, I copy and paste to a separate Word document. In the beginning, I made the mistake of not noting where I got the original info. Nowadays, I diligently add the url so I can refer back to it if need be.

• Highlights. If it’s research I am going to use a lot, I will print it out and get out my yellow highlighter. I read through the article and highlight the things that will have direct bearing on my story.

• Storage. I don’t print as much as I used to. I’ve grown comfortable with reading things off the screen. And it’s way easier to file electronic documents than paper ones.

• Last tip and most important. Just because you found it doesn't mean you have to use it. Info dumps are the kiss of death.

The dummy gene: We had an unfortunate incident with some spilled varnish and in my frantic attempt to save the carpet I hurt myself. Then I tripped down the stairs. Is there no end to my inelegance?

I am staying horizontal today. Mel is stopping by tomorrow with some emergency chocolate cake.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Saving for the future

Time Management: LOL. Now I know I’ve reached critical mass. I had to remove myself from one of my writing forums in order to make room for the coaching group. The forum is a nice chatty place but fresh information is sporadic. Two of my friends still visit there so they’ll let me know if anything interesting comes up.

Me Update: Looks like I’m grounded through all of April. This is the second abdominal surgery I’ve had in my life. The first one (27 years ago) was a quicker recovery but I think it was more painful. Medicine must have come up with some good pain-killers over the years. Either that or I’m less of a wuss today.

All in all, I think I’m recovering well. Not that I had a choice. Greg has been watching me like a hawk. I can’t get away with anything.

Taxes: Taxes are done. Another fiscal year behind us. In the US, they had an interesting section for Hobbies. If your hobby costs you more than 2% of your adjusted gross income you could deduct it from your taxes. I don't spend that much on any five hobbies. But it's something to look into if you happen to have those kinds of expenses. This was the first time I've ever noticed this deduction.

As for writing expenses, I keep my receipts and invoices separately from the household so they'll be easier to track. It's a good practice even if you don't have deductions for your writing yet. It won't hurt and it'll give you an idea of what money is coming in and going out.

Here are a few good links for saving money. I’m proud to say that I followed these tips religiously over the years and they do work.

50 ways to save money
7 radical ways to save money
Cheapskate Training Center
Dollar Stretcher

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Markets & Links

Outlook Magazine
CURRENT NEEDS: "Pieces related to the gay and lesbian community about art, home/interior design/pets/unsung G&L heroes, book reviews, movie reviews, fashion trends, DVD reviews, celebrity life and new idea pitches." Pays starts at $0.10/word for 600-800 words.

Savvy Miss
CURRENT NEEDS: "Fun, Sassy, Smart pitches regarding careers, finance, dating, diy projects, college, health and sanity." Pays $0.35/word. Submit query by email to writers - savvymiss.com

Links

Sex-Lexis
Everything you ever wanted to know about sex-ual terms. A myriad of English and pseudo-English vernacular including some with historical context. A pretty cool site. Who knew there were so many words for all the fun parts!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

How to write a bio

I mentioned the other day that I joined a career coaching group. We are still in our infancy but I sense so much energy and determination. Kudos to Sandy and Nancy who came up with this brilliant idea. I’m anticipating some great things for the future.

Like most groups, we were invited to provide a bio as a means of introduction. That gave me the idea for today’s post.

I’ve written bios for lots of occasions. I also read a lot of them for the various newsletters I’ve edited over the years. So what’s in your bio?

• If it’s a bio for an article, please keep them short. Anything under 50 words is acceptable and most magazines and newsletters put a limit of 100 words, tops.

• Keep the personal stuff to a minimum. I love my dogs but I rarely mention them unless it’s for an article about pets or animal husbandry.

• Say something clever. I usually give some off the wall comment that makes people take notice. It does two things for me. #1, it exposes my quirky personality, and #2, it piques people’s curiosity. Again keep it short. It’s easy to go overboard.

• Keep to the venue. My bio for advertising articles stresses my expertise in the field, such as: "Maria Zannini has been a graphic designer for 25 years." --yadda, yadda credentials.

My humor story continued its wit into the bio. "Maria Zannini is a writer and graphic artist living anonymously in Texas. After this international fiasco, U.S. officials have asked her not to leave the country anytime soon. They have enough to worry about."

• Generally, bios are written in third person. If I write a bio for a group where we are all intimates, I’ll write it in first person.

• Let your personality shine through. Go through any magazine and pick out the bios that appeal to you. Chances are they are short, funny and friendly. Dry bios suck lemons. No one cares how many degrees you have unless it has direct relevance to the preceding article or query. Note: If you are writing about a serious topic, (like death or dismemberment) leave the funnies out.

• Only list your website or blog if it directly applies to your article or story. For example, my writing blog wouldn’t appear in any article about animal husbandry but it would appear in articles about writing or the business of writing. Always keep your audience in mind.

Bios are tiny slices of your life. It provides contact information, credentials or flavor to give just the right finish to a stellar article or story. Use them to your advantage.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Ego & the Id

This proves how far behind I am in reading blogs. I found a discussion on Miss Snark’s blog from 3-14-07 about not discussing an unpublished novel socially.

It would have never occurred to me to do that.

I have a problem with people who have to tell/show you anything within a social situation. Much as we all suffer from a lack of self-confidence to one degree or another, it’s just plain rude. I discuss my work with my writing groups and occasionally Greg if I really need his help on techy stuff. But that’s it.

Very (very) few people outside of my writer’s circle know that I write. That’s deliberate. Heck, even my sister-in-law found out about my writing by accident. She discovered one of my articles while waiting for her hair appointment. I got an earful that day, but I stuck to my guns.

Writing isn’t an ego trip for me. I want to clearly define my boundaries between a website that will draw attention to articles, books and illustration and a blog for writers to visit. This is the reason I separated the two.

It's still an ongoing process that will mature over the next three years, but starting this blog is my first step to delineation between my writer life where I discuss writing topics, and my actual writing. A lot of authors meld both in the same website or blog and I think it's a business mistake. A writing website and a writer's website attract two different kinds of audiences.

Unless it's an author I actively follow, I don't visit their websites much, but I might visit their blogs if I can glean information on how they write or conduct business. See the difference?

Here's an example. If you're looking for a plumber, do you go to his website to see what services he offers or do you go there to get tips on what kind of advertising worked for him?

Miss Snark's post took me by surprise because I can't imagine why anyone would discuss an unpublished novel with people who probably don't give a flying fig.

Some people like the attention. But consider the long term. If you talk it up, yet go year after year without getting published it makes you look foolish. We all know within our writers' circles that it takes more than talent to make it. Non-coms simply wouldn't understand.

It’s better to target your audience than get clobbered with requests (or bizarre and unsympathetic questions) from friends and relatives.

Admitting you’re a writer (even an unpublished one) carries a bit of celebrity, much like admitting to being an artist. Do you have any idea how many requests I get to draw somebody’s cute baby?

---okay, if you asked me to paint your dog, I might do it if he were cute. But he has to be really cute. And you have to pay me. :o)