Monday, February 28, 2011

Keep Your Cash Ten

Ten Things You Can Have for Free

Freeware caution: always scan free downloads of anything for bugs and other threats before dumping the programs into your hard drive.

Books, the original/free version of BookShelf, is "a simple eBook reader for the iPhone. It reads HTML and text files stored in your ~/Media/EBooks folder, and is smart enough to enter subdirectories, if for instance, you've broken a book down by chapters" (Mac OS X)

ClipboardFusion supercharges your clipboard, and allows you to "Remove clipboard text formatting, Remove HTML tags from clipboard, Clipboard string search/replace, Modify clipboard with Macros, Preview clipboard images and HTML colours with a toaster pop-up, HotKeys to manage your clipboard and Sync your clipboard with other computers" (OS: Windows 7 and Vista (32-bit and 64-bit); Windows XP and 2000 [see special requirements on website download page]; Windows Server 2003 & 2008 [32-bit and 64-bit])

DreamScene XP allows you to "use a video as your desktop background, the same way you would have used a regular picture. DreamScene XP is designed for Windows XP customers to extend Windows features to make using your computer more fun. Change your desktop background to a video movie, which runs in a continuous loop to make your desktop come to life" (OS: Windows XP)

Knit Design Studio is "a handy tool for designers who need to make graphs with both common and not-so-common knitting operations. Great for graphing lace patterns, and also cables. When the graph is complete, a key is automatically made of any knitting operations included in the graph. There is also space to type in any needed knitting instructions (such as shaping). Files can be printed, or saved as a picture file (graph only) to be used in another application. Help files are included to aid in use of the program" (OS: Windows XP/Vista/7)

According to, LyX is "is a different kind of word processor. Most word processors let you focus on content and style, giving you inconsistent documents most of the time. LyX allows you to create professional documents while focusing on structure first, and when you’re done, you can export your document as a PDF or web page. This tool is excellent for professional reports, scientific papers and so on" (OS: Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later)

Money Manager Ex is "a free, open-source, cross-platform, easy-to-use personal finance software. It primarily helps organize one's finances and keeps track of where, when and how the money goes. It is also a great tool to get a bird's eye view of your financial worth. Money Manager includes all the basic features that 90% of users would want to see in a personal finance application. The design goals are to concentrate on simplicity and user-friendliness - something one can use everyday" (OS: Windows and Linux and Mac OSX)

NoteLiner "helps you structure and track your work; it provides a place to record meeting and conversation notes, manage todos, and store key project information that might otherwise be scattered about. It is a simple tool that will not slow you down, but will give you a means to stay on top of what you need to do and remember. Noteliner lets you create a hierarchy of notes. You can give these notes follow-up dates, indicate which ones need attention, assign people, prioritize, or mark them complete. Different views allow you to see all the notes assigned to a particular person, those that need follow-up, attention or are dated. You can also specify which notes are part of a To-Do list and then view all To-Dos across your projects along with other items that need attention" (OS: Windows XP; designer notes on web site "It is very stable. I run it on Windows XP but it should be fine on Windows 2000 and more recent.")

Repetition Detector "allows you to detect repetitions in texts. Features: Process text without size limitation; Word and letter count; Top 50 of most frequently used words; Highlight small repetitions (two indentical words which are close); Highlight intermediate repetitions (words used too often inside two or three pages); Highlight each occurrence of a word by clicking on it; Take into account similar words, i.e. with same beginning; Customizable and automatically saved parameters" (OS: Win 98/ME/NT/2K/XP/2K3)

Scribus is "an Open Source program that brings professional page layout to Linux/UNIX, Mac OS X, OS/2 Warp 4/eComStation and Windows desktops with a combination of press-ready output and new approaches to page design. Underneath a modern and user-friendly interface, Scribus supports professional publishing features, such as color separations, CMYK and Spot Color support, ICC color management or versatile PDF creation" (OS: Win NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista/2008/7, Linux, Mac OS X)

Stash is "a personal finance application designed to help you understand how much you spend and where it's going" (OS: Mac OS 10.5/6)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Character Box Lunches

My daughter is taking a culinary class at school, and one of her homework assignments was to make up a mini-cookbook with recipes and photos of some food she's prepared. She decided to write up one for bento boxes, which lead to a shopping expedition and cooking mini-marathon. Because she's never made a bento box (and neither have I) I was a bit worried at first, but soon discovered it's easy and a lot of fun.

Basically a bento box (or more properly, an obento) is a healthy, homemade lunch that Japanese moms make for their kids. It's also an art form, because the moms shape, decorate and garnish the food to resemble little critters, fairytale creatures and other adorable things. If it's almost too cute to eat, it belongs in a bento box.

Here are some shots of my girl's first finished bento box (click any image to see larger version):


I think she did pretty well for her first attempt. And I didn't help her at all in the kitchen; now that she's a culinary student she's got to wing it solo (and did fine, all the way through to cleaning up after herself.)

Earlier this month I bought a copy of Yum-Yum Bento Box by Crystal Watanabe and Maki Ogawa, which is a fantastic how-to cookbook filled with recipes, tips, ideas, techniques and lots of information about the different types of Japanese foods used for bento boxes. In the intro, the authors mentioned that kids and grownups like to make character-driven bento boxes, which are called charaben or kyaraben. For example, if you want to do a Goldilocks and the Three bears bento, you shape the faces of a little girl and three bears out of the food (there's a cute recipe for this one in the book, too.)

The writer in me immediately jumped on this idea and began thinking of how I'd make a character-driven meal for one of my stories. I wouldn't try to shape the food into any sort of physical representation (too much temptation to do something other than a face) but I know I could put together an assortment of foods and treats that I've used in my stories or that remind me of certain characters. I'd love to do a bento with what I imagine a Jorenian box lunch would be like, too -- some breakfast bread, candied flowers, herbal tea, lots of berries laced with cream . . . God, I hate dieting.

If you're looking for new ways to get to know your characters and/or your stories, you might try putting together a character-driven bento box (or any kind of meal, for that matter.) This would also be something fun to do if you take your lunch to work or plan to do something writing outdoors.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Twenty Years, Twenty Minutes

Let's take a trip in the KindaWayBack machine to 1989, to when most of the world had yet to discover cyberspace. I started writing in 1974, but I didn't really get serious about pursuing publication until '89.

Back then it was a very different world for writers. Imagine: no internet, no e-mail, no social media, no cell phones, no Twitter or Facebook, no nothing for the writer but the writing and us all alone by ourselves.

I've talked to other writers of my generation, and we all went through pretty much the same thing. We wrote all the time, endlessly, wildly, often shivering with the delight of it because we were so close to it. None of us were perfect, either. We fumbled, we ran out of steam, we crashed, we burned, we resurrected ourselves only to do it all over again. We wrote clunkers and stinkers and failures. We began piling them up along with legal pads filled with even more ideas and story fragments and mini-rants.

After the work stopped sucking quite so much, we decided we were good enough and dared to write up a submission. This we typed on a typewriter with a correcting ribbon, because no matter how thinly we applied it liquid paper (aka white-out) could never look anything but globby. Also, sometimes the ink from the typos would bleed through and leave a little dark ghost of what we never meant to say behind the correct words.

I'll tell you a secret: sometimes I still miss the smell of metal, ink ribbon and white-out. It was our writing perfume.

Anyway, twenty-seven or forty-nine drafts and at least one typewriter ribbon later, we mailed off our submission in an unpadded envelope with rows of stamps we had to lick to make them stick. A week later we went to the mailbox with all our expectations, which were naturally dashed when no response appeared among the bills and junk mail. A month later we started waiting at the box for the postman to arrive. Three months later we suspected the postman had delivered it to the wrong address and went around asking the neighbors if they'd gotten it by mistake.

Six months later we got a thin white business envelope with vertical creases on it from the publisher we'd submitted to. We knew this because it was the SASE we'd sent along with the submission, on which we had neatly written our own address in ink. We put it on the kitchen table and stared at it for at least an hour, afraid to open it for fear it would actually kill us.

When we finally tore into it, the outpouring of praise and admiration we expected was actually a one-page form rejection. Thank you for your blah, it's not for us, good luck yada yada. Sometimes it was even signed. We carefully enshrined that first rejection somewhere so nothing would happen to it (and also so we didn't have to look at it) and then dragged ourselves back to the keyboard. By that night we convinced ourselves of a thousand reasons (all mistaken) for the rejection, and made up the next submission.

Now read the previous paragraph again. Read it ten times, fifty times, a thousand times. We didn't spend a year or two doing that every week. We spent five years, or eight, or ten, until our shrine/hiding place began to overflow with rejections. We shrugged them off in public and wept over them in private. We drove ourselves mad with wondering: What was wrong with these editors? Didn't they read that amazing opening line, the one we spent two years thinking up? And what about the rest? Nobody was doing anything like us. Was that it? Were we too different?

And on and on and on.

The only thing we ever figured out for sure was that no one was going to answer our questions. Ever. We had to find the answers by ourselves.

As the years passed we still wrote endlessly, but the wildness and delight subsided and became a more deliberate, focused quest. We looked at everything in our bag of writing tricks and started sifting and sorting through them. We weeded out what seemed wrong and kept what felt right. We studied how-to books for writers and subscribed to writing magazines (the sum total of available information for poor writers back then.) The more our submissions were rejected, the more determined we became. We would write the book that would sell, by God, or die trying.

New and interesting torture came in the form of editors who would write to request a full manuscript only to reject it three, four, five months later. We began to loathe the words Not what we're looking for and I just didn't love the story. Sometimes -- more often than you imagine -- the responses were personal, and nasty. We stood at the mailbox and imagined socking the postman right in the nose the next time he gave us a sympathetic look. No, what we really wanted to do was call those editors and demand to know what, exactly, they were looking for, and why the hell their love had anything to do with it.

As for the editors who got nasty, we indulged in vengeful thoughts as a kind of anger management self-therapy. We saved all the really inappropriate responses in a special file marked with something like "Send copy of first book" along with more scribbled, rehearsed lines for when we signed it for them: Too bad you passed on this one. Thanks for sending me to a way better publisher. Hey, nitwit -- looks like you were wrong. We prayed our first book would go platinum overnight, not so we'd make a ton of money, but just so we could also include a copy of the Times bestseller list in the nah-nah-nah-nah-nah packages we'd send to every pinheaded editor who'd stomped on, spit at or sneered over our work.

Then something actually happened; usually when we'd hit a really low point, and were thinking about throwing in the towel, admitting defeat, and finally putting an end to the torture. Another envelope with a single page arrived, but this one wasn't a form bounce, or the lukewarm invite for more humiliation.

No, this one was serious. Bizarre, too, for it offered praise mixed in with all the nitpicking. It asked if we were willing to make some changes. It gave us a phone number to call, and a name to ask for, and when we called it, we found ourselves stammering like an idiot and agreeing to everything the editor said because oh dear God the last thing we were going to do was piss off the one person who could make all our dreams come true.

We made the requested changes, and more changes after that, and more changes after that, always frantically cheerful and ridiculously willing. Of course we would change anything, anything at all, because obviously this editor was the smartest one on Earth. It didn't matter how many times we had to redo this or rewrite that, we had his/her attention. Attention meant they liked us. They wanted us. If we did everything right, they would be very pleased and request approval to purchase us.

The final phone call came, and at last the editor uttered the words we had been waiting to hear, praying to hear, working our ass off to hear: "We'd like to make an offer." Once we finished silently shrieking, we dislodged our heart from our tonsils and offered joyous yet still humble thanks. We would not let the editor down no matter what. Then (if we were stupid) we agreed to accept an offer for a manuscript we had been working on for three or four years, an offer that was equal to the pay a worker at McDonald's earned in ninety days, and a month later signed a contract that deprived us of most of our rights as an author. If we were smart, we promised to call back as soon as possible and started (hysterically) looking for an agent to represent us.

Either way, from there we turned pro. The euphoria of selling the first book did give us temporary amnesia, so (fortunately) most of us didn't mail out those F-Y packages to all those cruel editors. If we were lucky, we survived our rookie year. If we were very lucky, we got through everything else Publishing throws at a writer. If we were very very very lucky, we even sold a lot of books.

And then came the internet, and everything began to change.

Today -- right at this very minute -- there is a writer out there who has just received (electronically) their very first rejection. Tonight that same writer will format their rejected manuscript into an e-book, upload it via digital self-publishing to an online bookseller and begin selling it immediately.

Just like that. No muss, no fuss, no heartbreak, no torture, no problem. From there the writer will move on to penning their next work, untroubled by the depression, anger and self-doubt inflicted by the harshness of a lengthy traditional submission process. They need not analyze, improve or even compromise. They might even get lucky and sell a lot of books.

When a writer can do in twenty minutes what it took me and other writers who came up before the internet so many years to accomplish, I'm thinking it has to be better. More tempting, too. How could anyone resist something so easy and painless as self-publishing just to put themselves through the innumerable levels of hell that is (even with the internet) still the traditional submission process? Believe me, I totally get why so many writers are abandoning the still-dismal chances of publishing with a major house in the rush to self-publish for profit. If I was part of this generation, I probably would have, too.

Am I sorry I'm not? Nope.

Don't get me wrong, it's not because my twenty years of slogging my way toward publication makes me superior to someone who does the same in twenty minutes. Technology marches on, and even though the Publishing industry has had to be mostly dragged kicking and screaming along with it, things do have to change. If they didn't, we'd still be writing novels in longhand with quills on parchment and vellum (and just imagine what those writers would think of my speedy little manual typewriter.) Also, plenty of writers are still doing things the old-fashioned way, mailing off hard copy submissions to publishers and waiting months if not years for responses. I don't think that will ever go away.

But for all the speed and ease and no-hassle perks that today's technology offers for writers pursuing publication, I feel like something is still missing. I think it's time. For all the hell I went through, I also got a huge amount of time along with it to find out who I am as a writer.

I had -- literally -- two decades to practice and think about the work, and study it, and develop it, and try things and discard things. During the last ten years, I had all the time I needed to develop theories and work habits, look and find ways to improve my productivity, and teach myself how to be a working writer. Every day I did this; I thought about it, I was obsessed with it. Before I published one word I had like seven or eight different major shifts in what I wrote, too, the same way a painter goes through a blue period or decides to change mediums.

If you ever wonder why I never run out of stuff to talk about writing, it's probably because I spent all those years alone thinking about it.

The solitude, waiting and wondering what would happen, yeah, was not so great, but because I am self-taught I definitely needed the time to grow and mature as a writer. I didn't simply find out what I could do, I had the time to understand it and get it under control and channel it and learn to live with it. It's all the things that have nothing at all to do with Publishing and everything to do with who you are as a writer. I don't know, maybe today's writers can figure all that out in twenty minutes, too.

I am all about speed and efficiency, and I think being able to publish almost instantly is an amazing thing (another reason I've been playing with self-publishing as promotion for ten years -- it's quick and easy.) This is the first time since I turned pro that I feel some optimism for the future of Publishing, too. But as a member of the old typewriter and snail-mail generation, I hope self-publishing and technology doesn't eliminate the entire journey of self-discovery. As arduous and heartbreaking as it can be, I don't think it's a trip any writer should take in twenty minutes or less.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Writers Hospital

"Harvey, Campo, Jennings," Dr. Daranda Star called out as she hurried across the coffee break room toward the trauma bay. "We've got incoming. Move it."

The three interns looked at each other before dropping their copies of The Fire Within, grabbing blank paper gowns and trotting after the chief resident.

"Was it an online train wreck, Dr. Star?" Lisa Harvey asked as she pulled on her gown and turned so Rafael Campo could knot it in place.

"No, thank God. After the last one we're still short of beds." Star snapped on her latex gloves and eyed the interns. "You three know what an MWI is?"

Terry Jennings raised his hand as if they were still in school, then flushed and dropped it. "Uh, doesn't it stand for Major Work Incident?"

"No, Jennings. Mass, not major, and writer, not work. Mass Writer Incident." Star pointed at the hospital's sign. "Remember, we're all about the writers."

"So is a Mass Writer Incident a situation where a bunch of writers are hurt at the same time?" Harvey asked.

"You've got it half-right," Star said. "We use MWI to refer to injuries sustained by two or more writers while gathered together in some way. Ulcerated egos at awards ceremonies once all the winners have been announced, exposure to unsafe levels of cheap perfume and lousy luncheon flatulence in the only elevator running at a con, cascading anxiety attacks on list-servs after learning a phony agent has swindled every hopeful on her list, that kind of thing."

"Dr. Star." Jennings gestured at four units rushing toward the trauma entrance. "Here they come."

"Get out your pens and take notes while you can," Star said, her expression bleak as she hurried to the first unit.

The back doors burst open and an AET jumped out to help unload the gurney, on which a pale-faced young man lay muttering. To Star, the AET said, "Epic fantasy writer, thirty-two years old, locked in a badly-ventilated garden shed with a laptop for three to four days. Regular wordcount but very low, about 10 per hour. His mother reports decreased appetite and general apathy. Patient is dehydrated and unresponsive."

Star leaned over the writer and checked his pupils with her pen light. "All right. Harvey, take this one to trauma room one and get him started on fluids."

The second unit delivered a young, groaning female in a cervical collar.

"Twenty-eight-year old female romance writer," the AET stated. "Reported to have fallen off her chair a few hours ago. No loss of consciousness, but the patient complains of neck pain and nausea."

"They absolutely refuse to move their butts from that chair." Star frowned. "Did you say romance writer?" The AET nodded. "What was she doing with dragon boy?"

"Can't say." The AET made a face. "But they were both logged on to the same writer chat room."

Star tilted her head back to better address heaven. "Baby Jesus, give me strength."

"Dr. Star?" Campo asked, his voice tentative. "Could it have been a word war that got out of hand?"

She straightened and glared at him. "That or fake cyber sex scene practice. Doesn't matter anyway. Take this one to two and get a chatroom history. I want all the numbers and positions." She jabbed a finger at him. "And no talking shop. I mean it."

Campo nodded and wheeled away the moaning female.

By that time the third patient, who had climbed off his gurney, had reached Star. He cradled his right arm against his chest as he demanded, "Why are you people pretending you don't know who I am? Have you any idea how many awards I've been nominated for? My current release was featured this month as Pick of the Day on My God, do I have to carry around a book like Dan Brown?"

The AET with the empty gurney caught up to them and gave Star an apologetic look. "Forty-seven year old male, ah, science fiction writer--"

"I do not write science fiction!" the patient said through gritted teeth. "I am a prose stylist of future speculative reality-based singularity surrealism, you idiot."

"My mistake, sir." The AET lowered her voice as she said to Star, "Patient refuses to be examined and denies injury and pain as well as presence in the chatroom--"

"I told you, I wasn't in that stupid chatroom!" the patient shrieked. "My girlfriend forgot to log off before she went to work!"

The AET stepped closer to Star. "Visual assess negative for fractures, carpal tunnel, and the girlfriend. Positive for general weakness, ego overinflation, possibly . . . " she rolled her eyes up toward the fourth floor psych ward.

"Got it. Sir? Sir." When Star had the patient's attention, she poured on the sympathy. "I am so sorry about this. We just need to make sure that you're okay. For insurance reasons, you understand." She grabbed Jennings by the arm and dragged him forward. "This nice young man will take you up to the fourth floor for a complimentary podcast. It's our way of apologizing for intruding on your solitude and disrupting the important work you're doing."

"A podcast, huh? I don't usually bother with that kind of thing, but perhaps, just this once . . . ." The patient gave her a suspicious look. "Will it be broadcast on NPR, or just the internet?"

"Oh, on both, sir," she assured him.

The patient heaved a long sigh. "I suppose I could explain one or two of my theories about the effect of solar flares on the evolution of sentient squid." He sniffed. "If I'm offered a suitable honorarium, of course."

"That would be so generous of you." Star kept her sad face on until Jennings had led the patient in toward the elevators. "Jerk." She glanced down at the fourth unit. "Where's the last one?"

"We only transported the three logged onto the chatroom, Doctor," the AET said as she peered at the unit. "That looks like an information highway pickup. Why aren't they wheeling out the patient?"

"Oh, God. Because they can't." Star ran toward the unit.

Yanking open the back doors, Star looked in on three AETs, all of whom were still frantically working on the motionless, battered body inside. "What have you got?"

"Fifty-eight-year-old female series writer, exertional angina, recent anterior descending percutaneous coronary intervention," one of the AETs panted. "Unstable presentation requiring three sublingual nitro, possibly persistent right coronary artery ischemia. Attack occurred while she was reading hate-mail. Patient tried to refuse treatment but subsequently collapsed."

"What the hell happened to her?"

"Hatchet-job," another AET said. "Nasty one. Went viral on her. Doctor, she's not stabilizing."

Star climbed into the unit and straddled the gurney. As soon as she recognized the writer, she paled. "No, no, no." She leaned over. "You can't quit on us now, honey. You haven't finished writing the last book in your series."

The patient's eyes fluttered and tried to focus on Star. "No one . . . cares. Why . . . bother?"

"I care. I damn well care. And I am not living the rest of my life without knowing if Rex and Heather are ever going to stop fighting long enough to get married and have babies. And there are a hundred other working writer doctors at this hospital who feel just the way I do." As the writer's color improved, she nodded. "That's right, honey. You stay with me, and I'm going make sure you get through this." She turned to the AET. "We're going to take her right to the heart unit. Let's go."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Creative Places

Any time I have an especially chaotic week I try to take a couple hours and escape to the water. When I've had a choice of where I lived I've always picked a place within driving distance of some coast. While I prefer the Atlantic to the Pacific, I think one of the reasons I was so productive as a writer when I lived in California was half the state is just one long beach. I never had to drive more than twenty minutes to be in a creative place.

A creative place is exactly what it says: a place where you can be creative. This is not the same as a writing space, workroom or wherever you choose to practice your art. A creative place is not about the doing of the work; it's a place that inspires you and gives you the time and space to think without the demands of your life and the rest of the world intruding or distracting you.

I know why my creative places are always around water. Water seems to be my natural element, and not just because I grew up in South Florida. For some reason the sight, sound, smell and feel of water has always rejuvenated me. When I need to quickly relax, I take a shower or a bath. When my insomnia is at its worst, playing a CD with the sound of ocean waves, a rushing stream or a rainstorm is the only thing that can help me fall asleep. The only place I've ever visited that completely creeped me out on every level was the desert.

Moving away from the sea to a place where lakes are the only significant bodies of water proved to be quite an adjustment, and at first I didn't like it at all. There is no comparison between walking along the beach and hanging out by a lake where 90% of the water's edges are on private property. Also, lakes don't smell the same, there aren't any seashells to pick up and the only waves that come in are from boaters who ignore the no-wake signs.

Driving and photography helped change my mind. I found a seldom-traveled road by one of the big lakes that quickly became a favorite route when I wanted to look at the water, plants and birds without being charged with trespassing. The first time I photographed a sunset over a lake, the light and the sky and the water conspired to blow my mind. Unlike the sea, lake water is generally calm, sometimes enough to act like a mirror.

Lakes, I quickly learned, are also very quiet, private places. You can't escape the hordes of noisy, nosy tourists at most beaches, while lakes are almost always deserted. When you can find the right spot on an empty public dock or in a small lakeside park, the solitude and silence can feel welcoming, as if the lake is lonely and wants you to pause and relax and think just to keep it company.

I've grown to love lakes so much that I've had to turn in my beach snob card, but I don't mind. I needed to reconnect with the water. I'm always finding new lakeside spots and retreats to love, and over the last couple of years have amassed a nice collection of places to go when I need some time to myself. Occasionally I'll take work with me if I'm planning to be there a while, but most of the time I just got to sit and look at the water and soak up the peace. That's when I get my best ideas, when I'm away from everything that buzzes and rings and demands my attention. If there were such a thing as an ivory tower, I'd build mine next to a lake.

Finding a creative place of your own isn't that difficult; you probably already have one. It doesn't have to be an outdoors spot, either; it could be an art museum, a library, a porch, a spare bedroom, a tea room or a little coffee shop. Where and what it is doesn't matter; it's your place. All it has to provide is the room for your creative side to bloom.

Now it's your turn: where do you go when you need some creative space?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Warning: Highly Addictive

Gerard over at The Presurfer always tracks down the coolest online art generators, but PsykoPaint, his most recent find, is possibly the best (and most instantly addictive) discovery ever.

Psykopaint is a Flash online paint program that allows you to upload a photograph and then convert it to art by painting over it with different tools. The colors that appear in your painting are based on those in the photograph, so you don't have to change colors or even worry about them. And it's so much more than that. Using Psykopaint you get to play with all kinds of brushes which you can further customize by selecting different options (among them, presets that give you the look of some famous masters.)

Here's one of my rose photographs, as it might have been painted by Renoir (click to see larger version):

It's not just typical brushstroke conversions, either. There are tons of options to do with each tool, and one (the Psykocannon) allows you to paint with shapes like mosaic tiles, splashes, letters and even hearts. This is one I did with the Psykocannon set to the confetti option:

To do this, you just move the brush back and forth over your image via the mouse; the program does the rest. Here's what the screen looks like when you're working on an uploaded photo (click image to see larger version):

You can upload your image, work on a sample image provided by the site or start with a blank canvas. Also, this is a great generator for all ages to use because it's very simple and does all the work for you (I think kids would have a blast with this.) A quick and easy video tutorial plays when you go to start painting, too.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing Virtues

MENO: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?

SOCRATES: O Meno . . . [Plato runs off at the mouth for 149 more words, and then finally sorta answers the question with]. . . I am certain that if you were to ask any Athenian whether virtue was natural or acquired, he would laugh in your face, and say: 'Stranger, you have far too good an opinion of me, if you think that I can answer your question. For I literally do not know what
virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not.' And I
myself, Meno . . . [another 83 unnecessary words.]

MENO: No, indeed. But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to

SOCRATES: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.

--Meno by Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett

I don't like Plato, so I did take great pleasure in deleting 232 words from that excerpt. It was just so we could get to the point before all of us qualify for AARP. Where Plato is concerned, one always has to wade through a vast sea of his schlock before even catching a glimmer of one tiny pearl o' wisdom.

Now let's forget about the source and examine the point that the old fussbudget probably considered wholly fictional anyway: the matter of virtue. And because everything is about writing anyway, let's take a look at writing virtues.

To me, a writing virtue is like the right of way when you're driving: most people believe it belongs to them, or they "have it." Right of way, however, can only be yielded to us by other drivers. Same thing goes for virtues. They are the qualities about us and our work that other people in the biz recognize.

Most of the time writers think they write nothing but crap, which I think (in moderation) is good for us. A decent amount of virtue denial keeps us interested in looking for ways to improve our craft. When a writer starts believing their own hype, however, the work always seems to suffer.

Almost every editor I've worked for the last six or seven years has said one virtue I have is that I always deliver a very clean manuscript (aka one with hardly any errors.) It doesn't sound like an especially valuable writing virtue, but from my POV any work you save an editor is a very good thing. I've had a couple manuscripts that were so error-free they went direct to copy-edit in first draft. Which always made me a little suspicious and rather nervous (I'm not perfect; somebody must have missed something.)

It's also not a natural virtue; I'm not a great speller, and I never cared enough about grammar to pay attention when I should have in school. I had to teach myself how to edit my work, and it took years before I learned how to do a decent job proofing a manuscript. I'm always happy to hear an editor's praise, but I still remember the days when my manuscripts were so not-clean they looked like I wrote them at a mud drag.

Nor can I expect to hold onto that virtue forever. Currently I'm being plagued by Forgetful, one of the seven gremlins* of menopause, and I keep making really stupid spelling misteaks misstakes mistakes. We won't talk about how many times I've started out in chapter one with a blue-eyed blond sailor secondary character named Jack and end up in chapter five with the same guy somehow morphing into a green-eyed redhead tailor named Jake. I'd like to think as I get older I'll stay sharp, but I have a parent with Alzheimer's, so it's always a roll of the dice.

All the other writing virtues attributed to me by others are nice, but I don't really believe in them, or think they belong to me. Whatever I've written in the past is history, gone, over and done with. It's not that I'm an ingrate who can't take a compliment (most days); it's plain old terror. Complacency scares the hell out of me. I can always improve and get better at something, but I can't do anything if I stagnate or spend all my time preening.

I'm only as good as my next manuscript. If I can request any writing virtue, that's the one I want.

Now it's your turn: what virtue (writing or otherwise) do people say you have? What's the one you'd most like to earn? Let us know in comments.

*In case you're wondering, the other six gremlins of menopause are Bitchy, Rashy, Sweaty, Sleepy, Weepy and Psycho.

Excerpt from Meno by Plato was found over on Project Gutenberg.

Monday, February 21, 2011

McLit Checklist

Ten Signs That You May be Writing a Literary McNovel

Coy McTitle: Your title implies that your novel is not, in fact, a novel, but some sort of potentially explosive factual account, secret diary, scandalous sexual memoir, actual criminal evidence, etc. which you in turn cleverly disguised as a novel in order to smuggle Its Truth out right under the noses of those who would immediately seize every copy and burn them before deporting or incarcerating you.

False McStarts: The story in your novel doesn't begin until page 15, stops and restarts on page 16, fumbles around a bit, talks to itself and then finally starts up again on page 32. And starts again on page 42. The actual beginning of your story, however, can be found halfway through the third paragraph on page 52, after the third weather report and before the nineteenth introspective interlude. At least, this week.

Handy McArtwork: Something you hand-wrote or drew is included in the manuscript, probably an arcane symbol, a partly-torn note, a crude map or a message rendered in blood (which you will use ketchup to draw because you're convinced that will make it look authentic.)

Lofty McStyle: You consider your writing style to be something like stream of consciousness (and maybe it would be, if a horde of angry dyslexic beavers took up residence on the crumbling banks of that small and sluggish stream and dumped a lot of tell-not-show debris in it every three feet or so.) You plan to speak of your writing style only when you guest-lecture at a small, prestigious university, and only then to shoot down any student's proffered earnest theory about it.

Mysterious McWordage: Your novel is chock full of archaic, ambiguous, difficult and enigmatic words, most of which no one has employed in real conversation since Rome was sacked for the first time. One pretty-sounding phrase you filch from a foreign language to name a character, a place or an event will translate to something extremely unpleasant in English, such as "aborted fetus" or "projectile vomit."

Offensive McPromo: Your plans to promote your novel after publication include anonymously submitting a copy to a national organization run by parents who ceaselessly lobby to have books they consider offensive removed from school and public libraries. Your anonymous submission will include a shell-shocked letter with lengthy descriptions of explicit/offensive elements (that aren't really in the novel), how horrified you are that your sixth grader (who doesn't exist) brought it home from school, and a babbling gusher of gratitude for the important work these parents are accomplishing (you really think they're idiots, but acknowledge that they can provide plenty more notoriety than the fake comments you leave under assumed handles on censorship-oriented web sites.) You end it by quoting Ephesians 6:11-17, 1 Corinthians 6:13, or Psalm 18:16-24. Bonus McPoints: You deliberately include in the novel enough explicit/offensive elements to guarantee the book will be shortlisted for the year's top twenty most frequently banned new books.

Radical McPunctuation: You consider the use of ellipses to be the mark of a brain-dead amateur, yet employ the interruption mark so often your manuscript pages appear to be basted by an inebriated quilter. You also disdain the proper use at least one common form of punctuation as a deliberate flounce of your skirts at convention.

Sage McQuotage: You use a minimum of three quotations to preface the novel. The first will be a line of lyrics from a song written and performed by either a very famous or completely obscure rock band; the second will be an excerpt from some manifesto spouted by a controversial pop cult fig who was arrested multiple times before dying too young of an STD (the third will quote either Nietzsche or Kafka. Always.) All of these quotes will sound very cool; none of them will be particularly applicable to your story.

Sex McScenage: If there are any sex scenes at all in your novel, they will be composed of a confusing mish-mash of inappropriate euphemisms and clinical terms orbiting a lot of personal compensation-sized phallic references that obscure the actual doing of the nasty, or an overlong droning play-by-play as might be worded by a virginal voyeuristic wannabe thespian who knocked back one too many Diazepam with his fifth gin-and-tonny of the morning. Either way, by the time your reader realizes what is happening, your characters will already be sharing a cozy post-coital joint.

Writerly McBio: You do not refer to yourself as an author or a writer in your lengthy bio, which is a rambling list of your academic achievements, your tiny and entirely OOP backlist, the odd people who parented you, the name of the star that hovered over the place of your birth the night your unsuspecting surrogate Mom went into labor, and/or that award you won from the miniscule underground writer's organization in that foreign demilitarized zone just before they were bombed out of existence. If you're not already divorced, your long-suffering spouse will get a brief one-line thank-you, usually followed up by a startling and lengthy outpouring of your love for the family pet(s), who really got you through this wretched experience. If you are divorced, you will thank your current honey for helping proof the manuscript or looking after you during the time you still think of as your Disheartening, Damaging and Yet Ultimately Worthwhile Struggle to Release Your Art on an Ignorant, Ungrateful and Undeserving World.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Aha Moments

Just an FYI before I get started: I'm going out of town today, so any comments you try to post will not show up on the blog until I get back tonight to approve them.

Three days ago my guy (who himself was out of town) called to tell me he would be home by early afternoon on Friday. I promised to make something for dinner he could warm up, this because he is never on time for anything.

I'm not exaggerating; the man is has a chronic case of punctuality phobia, and cannot be relied upon to show up when he says he will, not even when I went into labor with our daughter (for that one I almost had to drive myself to the hospital.) It used to be a point of contention between us because like most men my guy always assumes he's right, but now we just laugh about it.

Sure enough, late Friday afternoon I got another call from him: "I haven't left yet, but I will as soon as I yada yada yada." So my kid and I went out to get her hair cut and have some dinner we didn't have to cook, because I had the feeling he wasn't coming home at all that night. Soon as we got home the phone rang and it was Mr. Tardy again: "Honey, I'm still here, and it looks like I'm going to have to stick around another night . . . "

I'm not always right about things, nor do I have to be, but I love it when I listen to my instincts and they turn out to be right on the money -- even when I have to wait a few decades for the satisfaction.

Here are a couple of other Ahas I've recently enjoyed:

Skye's Problem isn't a Problem: We've had no problems with our new pup, Skye, except that she hasn't gown much. I've had a lot of dogs in my lifetime, and for the last 22 years at least one of them has been a Sheltie. Raising three from pups and reading every book about Shelties I could get my hands on, I can say I'm pretty familiar with the breed. So when the vet told me Skye seemed to be having growth issues, my instincts all but yelled "Wrong."

I did agree that Skye was too small for a Sheltie, but other than her size she was healthy, lively and normal. There were some things about her that didn't make sense, such as her bark (which sounded funny), her muzzle (too short) and her fur (far too silky for the breed, and it was growing out weird, too.) She had the right markings, and most of the physical characteristics, but her personality was all wrong. Mostly she reminded me of Penny, my grandmother's chihuahua, who lived with us when I was a kid.

The vet eventually decided that my pup was a malformed runt; this largely based on Skye's papers, which classified her as a purebred Sheltie. I decided to find someone else who knew more about Shelties than either of us, and hunted around until I met a terrific lady who bred Shelties for thirty years, and sent her pictures of Skye along with a list of the things that seemed odd about her. We agreed to meet at a local dog park so the lady could have a look at her in person.

As soon as the lady saw my girl she recognized the problem at once: Skye is not malformed, a runt or even purebred Sheltie. She's actually a Poshie -- a new designer breed that is half Sheltie, half Pomeranian. She's not going to get any bigger because eight pounds and twelve and a half inches is her adult size. The lady also speculated two sets of papers or two pups might have been accidentally switched at some point before I adopted Skye. So now I have to read up on Poms because all I know about the breed is that (like my Skye) they are adorable.

Night Photography: Back when I started playing with point-and-shoot digital cameras a friend with more experience told me I'd never be able to shoot anything in low light or at night with a point-and-shoot because the camera wouldn't focus. For that I needed a much more expensive camera with professional settings, special lenses, etc. etc. I thought it was just a matter of figuring out the right setting and angle along with much patience and practice.

I've tried to photograph the night sky when the moon is full for years with no success. I didn't give up, though, because digital point-and-shoot cameras are getting better every year, and sometimes I nail shots that under the circumstances I shouldn't have. Cameras make me believe some technology is a little magic. Besides, I could just delete all the blurry shots with the press of a button.

The other night the full moon was so lovely I had to have another go at it, this time using the landscape setting on my Canon, It's a pain because you have to hold the camera perfectly still for several seconds while the shutter does its thing. I knew it was too dark, the clouds kept dousing the moonlight, and the first couple of shots I took were blurred. The third, however, was not, and I finally got my spooky Aha full moon pic here.

Goth Wedding Gowns: Even when I was a little kid I thought white wedding gowns were boring. Also, hardly anyone looks good in white, except for African-Americans and other dark-skinned people, who actually look pretty fabulous in it.

As a teenager who went Goth before there even was such a thing as Goth, I told my mother when I got married I was going to wear black. After Mom smacked me in the back of the head, she told me that wearing black was for funerals, brides always wore white, and pigs would fly before anyone designed wedding gowns with even a hint of black in them.

Many years and a few husbands later I flouted convention by getting married in a black-and-white dress. It was not a wedding gown, but it was what I wanted to wear, and since that marriage happened at the JoP no one fainted in horror. It made me very happy, but I admit, I didn't show my mom the pictures because I didn't want to get smacked in the head again.

The other day my daughter and I stopped at the display window of a bridal shop, which featured a white gown lavishly trimmed with black embellishments. We went inside and saw another black-and-white gown, and that one even had a sheer black skirt. I thought they might be new/trendy bridesmaid's outfits, but no, the shopkeeper assured me that they were actual wedding gowns. I know she didn't understand why her answer made me laugh so hard.

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to listen to your instincts, especially those that everyone else tells you are wrong. Innovation generally doesn't happen when you follow the herd, because the herd doesn't like new things. Anything untried or risky threatens most groups because they stay safe by doing everything the same way. It's why we call them herds.

In some ways they're right. Unless you're psychic, your instincts are never right 100% of the time, so taking a new direction or doing something different won't always pan out for you. It is always a risk, and it may cost you. It will always teach you to think for yourself versus going along with what you're told is acceptable or correct, something that people who want to blend in should definitely avoid.

Twelve years ago I was told my novels would never become bestsellers. I was also informed -- repeatedly -- that I was an idiot for giving away original work as free content online. Imagine if I had listened to those who assured me that as a female author I'd never get a lengthy SF series published, or that I would never get my vampire fiction into print because no one wanted to read about vampires, and that I should only write in one genre (romantic suspense) because that was the only way to build a proper readership. Alas, poor Jessica Hall, if she had been my only incarnation she'd probably be working in a library now.

It's great that in each of these cases the no-no-no people were all wrong, but if I hadn't followed my instincts they would have been right. I never would have tried to do otherwise -- and that's why those Aha moments are the best of all.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

3 Mags

The Feb/Mar/Apr 2011 issue of Artful Blogging is not only visually gorgeous -- the cover art made me want to immediately go and dye a batch of Easter eggs -- but also has an impressive collection of motivational articles by art bloggers. I always like the photographers who write for this one, as they regularly prod me into trying more things with my camera. This month Pink Picket Fence proprietor Chris Carleton has me taking my Canon off auto-mode and again trying some of the other settings I wasn't as comfortable with (so I can blame her for all the blurry pics I will likely be snapping. At least for the first week.)

This magazine is a great spirit booster when you feel mired down by the negative energy that so often spreads like a bleak plague around the online writing community. Whether you're an artist or a writer or knitter or whatever, making the choice to focus on your art and go Renaissance with your creative life can make your work better, richer, more meaningful and definitely so much more fulfilling. And why bother? Well, Angela J. Reed, whose blog is called Parisienne FarmGirl, sums it all up with two lines: You cannot turn off a creative brain. You simply can't. Amen, homegirl.

For those of you who are handy with a needle or sewing machine, the Winter 2011 Sew Somerset issue is chock full of mixed-media creative sewing projects, from themed journals to scrap bookmarks. I know, it's all about the e-readers these days, but you can get a lot of satisfaction out of hand making your own books and journals. These are skills which might also come in handy if we ever get hit with a massive cosmic EMP that turns all the electronic gadgets and machinery in the world into useless junk. Hey, it could happen.

I thought Connie Freedman's how-to article A Bundle of Bindles was particularly cool, and has me thinking of ways I can translate one of my poems that way (a bindle used to be that knotted cloth sack on the end of a stick sported by hobos and runaway children in cartoons; in this incarnation it's a little cloth pocket in which you put a small necessity or treasure. Connie made a small bindle sewing kit themed to the song Do-Re-Mi.) I'm also wondering if there's someway I make a set of bindle bookmarks or ATCs. I like the projects published by Sew Somerset because they're usually pretty simple and small-scale. That means you won't spend weeks or months working on a single project while attempting to master difficult techniques and investing in a lot of pricey supplies you'll never use again.

I'm fond of creative projects that incorporate recycling and repurposing, which is also the theme of my quilting guild challenge this year, so I've been keeping an eye out for the Spring 2011 issue of GreenCraft. (Warning: if you're a arts/crafts snob this mag will probably seem hokey to you, but then, it's really not written for your end of the market.)

Jeannine Stein, the author of Re-Bound: Creating Handmade Books from Recycled and Repurposed Materials and the upcoming Adventures in Bookbinding: Handcrafting Mixed-Media Books also has an article in this issue: Repurposed Paper: Stitched that shows a couple of different, neat notebooks you can make from stuff you probably have sitting around the house. One of her photos of a gift wrapped in an old dressmaking pattern sheet made me feel vindicated, as recycled gift wrap is one of my latest obsessions (do you want to know how many Simplicity patterns from the sixties and seventies that I've saved that I never used, or will never use again? No, you really don't.)

Friday, February 18, 2011


I was sorry to read that Borders has filed for Chapter 11, and among many others will be closing the last of their stores that is within reasonable driving distance of my house (Borders already closed my favorite mall bookshop last year.) Because the big store was almost an hour away I didn't get there very often, but when I did I always found what I was looking for.

I have some good memories of Borders. The first time I saw a book of mine on a shelf was at one of their stores in South Florida. I held my first booksigning there, too (that's me and my daughter at it eleven years ago.) That store had a wonderful children's section, so I was always taking my kids there.

I think what I most enjoyed about that store was meeting a writer friend there in the cafe to exchange chapters to read and talk shop. We did that once a week until my friend moved away. A couple years later I got a job working as a bookseller at another nearby store that was acquired by Borders Group, and that was likewise a marvelous experience.

I was reading an article the other day that predicted 90% of all brick-and-mortar bookstores will disappear in a few years. I don't like to imagine a world without bookstores, but I tell myself at least we'll still have public libraries. Maybe. If we're lucky.

There are many folks employed by Borders in the stores who have been fierce and loyal supporters of my work. If any of you are reading this, I am beyond grateful for all you've done to introduce readers to my books as well as so many other authors. I am sending my prayers and good thoughts your way, and I hope you guys don't give up, either. You do much more than simply sell books, and we need you out there to keep sharing the love.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cover Shock

Occasionally I follow advertising links to keep tabs on how much writers are being persuaded to pay for things that should be pretty reasonable. Like cover art, for example. I love to play with images and art, and even make up covers for books I want to write someday, like this one for Falling (in my defense, I found the photo while looking for another on a stock photo site, and it was so perfect I had to buy it and make up a cover with it immediately. It now resides in my Kyan and Melanie file, waiting for me to get back to their story.)

Lots of authors are self-pubbing their backlists now, and not everyone is as crazy as I am, so it's logical to assume that many of them are going to hire someone to design it for them. When I went to this design site, though, and found they charge almost a thousand bucks for one cover, I was stunned. I had no idea it cost so much these days. Naturally I went right to their portfolio, thinking for that kind of money I'd see the most exciting, eye-catching, state-of-the-art covers of all time . . . and found a collection of ho-hum boring stuff I could have done myself in five minutes with standard clip art and Felix Titling fonts.

Even more troubling, it's not the only site charging an arm and a leg for cover art. I did a search and found five others offering the same kind of yawner art for prices that range from astronomical to appalling.

When I make cover art for my e-books -- and I do design and put together most of it -- it generally costs me $0 - $2.00 U.S., depending on if I use my own photos or buy an image from a stock photo site. The fantasy landscape image I purchased for the cover Ravelin, one of my favorite e-book covers, cost exactly one dollar. The most I've ever paid for a stock photo was $50.00, and that was a one-time deal to extend the usage license so my publisher could in turn use it for their digital publication of Master of Shadows. One cautionary note: I was promised full reimbursement for that particular license expense, but the publisher never paid me for it. So if you do supply your publisher with cover art you've paid for, get a check before you send it to them.

I know people believe quality has to cost a lot, but spending many hundreds or even thousands of dollars on cover art for a self-pubbed book is an unnecessary expense, especially if the author is footing the bill. Here's a thought: why not first try to create the cover art yourself? You can do what you want, you don't have to show it to anyone, and you may discover you have more talent for designing than you realized.

If you don't care to fiddle with photoshop programs, stock photos (and the sometimes complicated licensing involved with them) or you simply don't have the inclination to create your own cover art, then you should take some time to compare prices and services before you hire anyone. I've paid designers to do two of the covers for my free e-books (one I got by making the winning bid for her services via a charity auction.) Not only did I pay a very reasonable fee both times, I got exactly the covers I wanted for the books from those designers. I had a terrific experience working with Deena Fisher, who designed this lovely cover for the 2009 reissue of Sink or Swim.

Also, ask around. Author Shiloh Walker blogged about having Angela Waters design the cover for her self-pubbed novel Beg Me, in which she mentioned that Angela's standard fee was $150.00 U.S. (Added: corrected the blog link to take you to Shiloh's post)

If you'd rather work with a company than a solo designer it still pays to shop around. Self-pub companies often provide autonomous cover design services, and I found the charges $350.00 to design a four-color cover from your art or their stock photos. That's still a bit pricey to me, although it's definitely better than a thousand bucks. I also liked that they posted their fee upfront versus providing a phone number to call for a quote, which is highly annoying. My only other gripe is that the samples they showed were thumbnails (to me a full-size image portfolio gives you a better idea of the quality of the art, because you can actually see it.)

However you decide to handle the cover art for your self-pubbed book, do me a favor -- don't assume paying a thousand bucks or more is going to guarantee you a bestseller. Another thing I noticed about all of the portfolio covers at the very expensive design site? I'd never heard of any of the titles -- or the authors who wrote them.

Do you know a cover art designer who offers great work at reasonable prices? Please let us know (and if you have them, post links to their design service) in comments.

Falling cover art photo credit: © Geo Martinez
Sink or Swim cover art credit: © Deena Fisher
Ravelin cover art photo credit: © Bertrand Benoit |

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ISSN 2159-9424

Last month I wrote to the Library of Congress to find out if I needed a new ISSN for Paperback Writer (I've been using the same one I received for my old weblog ten years ago.)

I have gotten a response, and turns out that I did need a new one:


Dear Publisher:

This is your official notification that the following ISSN assignment(s) have been made under the auspices of the U.S. ISSN Center at the Library of Congress. Please print or save this notification for your records.

Paperback writer
ISSN 2159-9424

Please note that a separate ISSN is needed for each medium version (e.g., print, CD-ROM, online) you publish. For your convenience, we have reported the ISSN of all medium versions of this title we have in our database even if not all were assigned at this time.The preferred locations for displaying the ISSN on a printed serial are the upper right-hand corner of the cover, or the masthead, or another prominent place. The ISSN should always be printed with the letters ISSN preceding the number as we have listed it above. The preferred location for display of the ISSN on an online publication is the title screen or home page. If you publish a title in both print and online versions, please print both ISSN together on each version, filling in the blanks in the example below with the digits of your ISSN:

ISSN _ _ _ _- _ _ _ _ (print)
ISSN _ _ _ _- _ _ _ _ (online)

An ISSN remains valid as long as the title remains unchanged. Please inform us in advance of any planned changes in your title so we can determine if a new ISSN is needed.

Attached to the email version of this message are documents about uses and benefits of the ISSN, how to present and title your serial, and your Copyright obligations. Our web site at includes these documents as well as additional ISSN information and an ISSN application form that you can download for future ISSN requests. If you have any questions or if we may be of additional assistance, please feel free to contact us.


ISSN Publisher Liaison Section staff

So that's the official ruling on whether or not you need a new ISSN if your weblog name and URL changes. If you would like to apply for an ISSN for your blog or online serial publication, here are the links again:

For U.S. bloggers, go to the Library of Congress's U.S. ISSN center to get started (where you can now even apply for an ISSN online.)

If you reside outside the U.S., you can apply to either the national ISSN center in your country or (if your country doesn't have a center) the ISSN International Centre in Paris.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Free for All Ten

Ten Things You Can Have for Free

Anki is "a program which makes remembering things easy. Because it is a lot more efficient than traditional study methods, you can either greatly decrease your time spent studying, or greatly increase the amount you learn. Anyone who needs to remember things in their daily life can benefit from Anki. Since it is content-agnostic and supports images, audio, videos and scientific markup (via LaTeX), the possibilities are endless." This freeware was designed for study, but the features it offers makes it a great multi-media index-card creator, too. For all of you who use them for writing, this one might be worth giving a whirl (OS: Win 98/ME/NT/2K/XP/2K3/Vista/7)

Apophysis is "a windows application made in delphi for creating, editing and rendering fractal flames. Fractal flame is an extension on the IFS fractal." Gerard over at the Presurfer posted this cool animated fractal video which was made using this freeware (OS: All 32-bit MS Windows [95/98/NT/2000/XP])

Kevin Perryman offers two versions of Envelope Print, a freeware which stores and prints return and mail-to addresses; one for Domestic and another for International mailing. This would be a good one for all of you who do a lot of mail-outs (OS: not specified, but looks like Windows)

Fountain Pen is "just what you need to write, with none of the clutter. A menubar, a compositions panel, a toolbar with four buttons… all can be hidden. It’s just you and your writing." I like the sound of that! (OS: Mac Snow Leopard or newer)

Fractalus is a "freeware fractal generator with movie, deep zoom and multiprocessor capability. Hundreds of example parameter files included" (OS: Windows XP/Vista/7)

I liked the look of the free online photo album generator jAlbum so much that I gave it a personal test drive, and found it to be fast, ridiculously easy, nicely customizable and 100% user-friendly (here's my test album, which took me about two minutes to create.) This will be perfect for the pics I take this year at the County Quilt show. A free account begins with 30 MB, but you can get an additional 70MB free by completing a short list of things like taking a tour, creating a profile, inviting friends to have a look, etc. They also have a free desktop app for download. Quite impressed with this one (OS: Windows [all])

KeepNote allows you to "store your class notes, TODO lists, research notes, journal entries, paper outlines, etc in a simple notebook hierarchy with rich-text formatting, images, and more. Using full-text search, you can retrieve any note for later reference. KeepNote is designed to be cross-platform (implemented in Python and PyGTK) and stores your notes in simple and easy to manipulate file formats (HTML and XML). Archiving and transferring your notes is as easy as zipping or copying a folder." Sounds like it would be an excellent program to use to create and update novel notebooks, too. (OS: Windows, Linux, and MacOS X)

LangOver is "a freeware that helps when you tried to type in one language but the result was in another... Annoying, eh?! That's because the keyboard layout was in a wrong language, and you forgot to use "ALT+SHIFT"... NO MORE! With LangOver 5.0 you'll be able to convert your text quickly between languages. Just Click "F10" and your text will be fixed! LangOver 5 is free and Supports ANY language" (OS: Windows NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista/7)

Remind Me Later is "one of the Top 50 downloads on the Mac App Store. You can add events to you iCal in a matter of two clicks. You can also sync the program to an iPhone" (OS: Mac OS X Leopard (10.5), Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6), Intel-based Macs, PowerPC-based Macs)

To-Do Desklist is a "Free to-do list software that automatically arranges to-do notes on your desktop. Synchronize your tasks between computers and users. To-Do DeskList has beautiful minimalistic design and multiple themes to choose from. Supports reminders, notes, and more. It is very lightweight, easy and simple to use, and much more efficient than complex task management packages. Features: Simple, nice looking and easy-to-use interface; To-Do Notes placed directly on your desktop; Assigning priority levels to to-dos; All to-dos can have a reminder to a specific date and time
Hotkeys for adding a new to-do and displaying all to-do notes in front of other windows; Sorting To-Do Notes by priority or by date; Well-arranged to-do list on your desktop instead of a complex structure" (OS: Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Wishing You

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Not Here

I am not here. Nope. Nor am I posting this. You are hallucinating.

Kidding. I snapped some neat photos at the lake last night, some of which inspired a poem. I posted them together over at the photoblog here. I figured all the people who get annoyed with how private I am with my poetry might enjoy seeing what often inspires it.

I am spending Valentine's Day with the ones I love, so see you on Tuesday.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Unkindest Cut

Marcus Antonius: For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov'd him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart. . . .

-- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act 3, scene 2, 181–186

The last place I expected to find myself at 5:30 am this morning was sprawled by the front door and staring at the ceiling while two Shelties whined and barked as they circled around me, unable to understand why Mama was horizontal and dripping blood all over the floor.

Yet the math is very simple: Rain + dogs tussling + tangled leash + wet floor + slick-soled flats + drowsy writer = nasty spill.

Of course the noise -- and the two bad words I shrieked on the way down -- woke up my kid, who came to my aid and then (very calmly) woke up her father because I was afraid to get up even with her help. I could see myself having a second tumble and taking her down with me.

I don't think I've scared my guy this much since I woke him up one morning nineteen years ago by telling him that my labor pains were three minutes apart. He kept it together, though, and after checking me over he got me vertical and helped me to the bathroom, where we took care of my wounded hand. I kept thinking Stitches concussion emergency room x-rays oh God I don't have time for this now until I realized I wasn't feeling broken bone-level pain. I had a small bump on the back of my head, a slightly sore shoulder and a cut hand. We washed off the blood to examine the wound, which didn't even need stitches.

Everyone has gone off to school and work (my guy didn't want to leave, but I made him go.) My daughter drove us to school so I would only have to drive home. I'm fine. No, actually, I'm not. I'm an idiot. I have a throbbing hand and a bruise on my shoulder and lots of angry hindsight. Why didn't I take the extra three minutes to put on my sneakers this morning? Because, stupid me, I was tired and sliding my feet into my flats was easier. Why didn't I go to bed earlier last night so I'd have been more alert? Because, stupid me, I stayed up late working. Why didn't I control the dogs better? Because, stupid me, I refuse to scold the dogs unless they fight and try to hurt each other. Along with the realization of my own stupidity comes the unnecessary what-if terrors: What if I'd been alone? What if I'd lost consciousness? What if the cut had been deeper, or sliced open my wrist? What if I'd broken something, like my leg/hip/neck?

I am being a drama queen, and I know it. My hand is already mostly useless, so the cut will just cause me a few days of inconvenience and discomfort before it scabs over and begins to heal. I have every bandage known to mankind in our first aid cabinet, so I can keep it dry and protected. End of story, or as my pal Raine would say, Onward.

Perhaps the unkindest cut is the one that could have been easily avoided (if only we'd known it was coming.) We're just doing our thing, and out of the blue, wham, someone knocks us down. No matter how accidental it is (and no matter what we did to contribute to the situation) it feels undeserved. It's the sort of thing that gleefully climbs into our baggage, and forces us to lug it around until we get over it. Unless we don't, and then we have to feed it and give it attention and let it breed until we end up hauling around it and dozens of its spawn in industrial-size crates of resentment.

As with real wounds, allowing the unkindest cut to fester instead of heal poisons you. Imagine if I'd punished the dogs for what happened this morning. Some people would say I had the right to, but my pups didn't wake up this morning and conspire to hurt me. They were just being dogs. I was being human. Add in all the other factors, and it was probably inevitable.

I could stop walking the dogs, but I would be depriving myself of daily pleasure to eliminate the remote possibility of getting hurt. Besides, I've fallen before, and I know it's likely that I will fall again. If the dogs don't knock me down, someone will bump me, trip me or otherwise make me lose my balance. Next time I might blow out the knee, or fracture a hip, or break my neck. I could do that just getting out of bed, too.

The unkindest cut is difficult to forgive, and painfully tough to forget. Learning from it, and taking whatever positive steps you can to guard against a repeat injury, however, is absolutely essential. So tonight I am going to bed an hour earlier, and tomorrow morning I will take three minutes to put on my sneakers. I think I'll also put the little one in her crate before I take out Cole to avoid any future tussles at the door.

My hand feels better already.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Must-Have Kits

The current issue of Country Living magazine has a great article by Katy McColl about Victorian chatelaines, which can best be described as small tool kits which were designed to be worn like pendants (some were also worn at the waist, like this example from the Grant-Kohrs Ranch collection, which sports a penknife, button hook, perfume, note cards and what looks like a watch case.)

I think it's a shame this charming practice fell out of fashion; I'd love to wear some of the tools I use every day in smaller sizes on a chain. I think the vegetable chopper would be a challenge to downsize, though, and I'd probably get a lot of weird looks.

My version of the chatelaine is my must-have kit, which resides in my purse. I was just restocking the other day for the next quilt show I plan to attend. It's a long, flip-lidded tin that usually serves as my quilting kit whenever I travel, and holds whatever essentials I can't live without away from home:

When I'm being a writer, I stock it with a pen, notepad, hair pick (crowded shows get hot and stuffy, and sometimes I'll put up my hair to feel a little cooler) various paperclips and other bits. When I buy a particular fabric from a vendor I like to paperclip their business card to the piece so I can add them and a snip of the fabric to my source book, in case I want more fabric.

This year I actually have my own business cards, so I added a few of those. I'm not planning to toss them around like confetti, but I think they'll come in handy when I get that blank stare from someone who asks, "Who are you again?" or I need to give someone my phone number (which I'll jot down on the back.) I'll probably add a little bottle of hand sanitizer (I like people well enough, but it's always the sick ones who insist on touching me) and a couple sticks of gum. Having everything in one place is convenient and saves time, especially when you're in a hectic situation.

Making up your own must-have kit is easy; about the toughest part is finding the right-size container to hold all your ephemera. If you can't find one that works and you're handy with a needle or crafts, you can always make one (I've recycled old tins and made up my own kit holders from scratch.) Remember to check TSA's prohibited items list if you're planning to take your kit on a plane so you don't bring anything that will be confiscated at the airport (scissors are now a big no-no.) You can also make up must-have kits for writer friends as gifts; they make great bon-voyage presents if your pal is planning to attend a conference.

Related links:'s Make a Travel-Size Craft Kit

Naomi Szeben's article How to Make Your Own Desk Drawer Emergency Kit has some great ideas on kits you can make up for life's various emergencies.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

From Focus to Palette

After reading my Story Palettes post last month, some of you asked if I would give some working examples of how I create a character palette.

Simone, who is a female protagonist in an upcoming novel of mine, has been gradually developing over the course of the last six months while I've put together her backstory, built her personality and figured out who she is, what she wants and, of course, what is the worst thing I can do to her. Simone is a woman of contradictions; everything about her is new and old, yesterday and tomorrow, fire and ice. The problem with all those lovely contrasts is that they make her very hard to nail down. Despite all the character development I'd done, I still had trouble seeing her in my head.

Recently at an art festival I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with watercolor artist Peggy Engsberg Furlin, who painted this little gem (click on any image to see a larger version):

As soon as I saw it I knew it was the focus piece I needed for Simone's character. I can't tell you why; most of the time there isn't a why, it just clicks and I know. So I bought the painting and brought it home, at which point I began building the character palette. First, I took a photo of the painting and cropped it so that no other colors showed:

I then ran the image through DeGraeve's Color Palette Generator to get a working palette, and set up the page for my novel notebook. From there I cut and pasted the DeGraeve palette, and began adding images from my digital collection that I felt suited Simone and worked inside the framework of the palette, until I had this page of visuals:

Colors are an important part of my process. They're symbolic and evocative, and so are the real world elements that I associate with them. They also create new ideas when I combine them. All of these images and colors echo different aspects of Simone's character and what she has to face in the story; defiance, temptation, risk, silence, loneliness, endurance, realization, fruition. They relate to each other, too: Old death, new life; the transition from winter to spring; flowers blooming in snow, what ends to begin/what begins to end, etc etc.

I could go on for pages because now that I have Simone's colors, I know her better. I feel as if I can make her come to life on the page now. Because while I can imagine all the character elements I want, if I don't make the connections between them I can't feel the character or get inside her head. Having a character palette often helps me navigate my way through a lot of uncertainty.

As for inspiration, you should always be ready for it to come at you from any direction or source. Take these gorgeous lampwork beads, which I purchased last week from Pond Art Glass Studio:

I have been revising and updating Korvel, a character who has appeared in the Darkyn series, to serve as one of the protagonists in the new trilogy (there, you have some insider info no one else but my editor has, too.) I never created a character palette for Korvel, and I needed one, but I kept dithering around with old visuals I had from the original series notebooks, none of which were really tailored to his character.

It wasn't until the lampwork beads arrived and I was photographing them for an appeciation shot that I saw Korvel's colors gleaming at me from the intricate swirls in the glass. Twenty minutes later I had put together this palette for him:

For most character palettes I usually narrow it down to three colors, but Korvel and I have a lot of history together, so that's probably why he got a wider range. Readers know a lot about him as a secondary character; now they need to rediscover him as a protagonist, which requires a different approach than presenting a brand-new character. This palette will definitely guide my choices and help me shed some light on the Korvel no one but me yet knows.

I think the key to creating palettes that help you with writing is not to cheat on the focus factor. Inspiration is not something you can artificially generate by throwing together all your favorite colors. You'll be creating a pretty palette that looks nice, but you'll find it does nothing to help you explore your character. Instead, look for something (and not just art, it can be anything at all) that inspires you to think of your character in ways you haven't before you saw it. That's when you know you've got the beginnings of a great character palette.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Just. Not. Ready.

I always reserve the right to make fun of anyone who SPAMs me by e-mail, and this latest piece of work to clutter my inbox is simply begging for it:

Ready To Self-Publish?

No, but I'm fully prepared to rip someone's head off this morning, thank you for asking.

My name is [KINDNESS DUCT TAPE], and like you, I am a published author.

While I've never heard of you. But to be nice, I'll cover all the names in your e-mail with kindness duct tape. Okay, so what other things don't we have in common?

I have worked with traditional publishing houses, and I have self-published. Quite frankly, I have found that self-publishing is more fun, more satisfying, and more lucrative!

Really? Because we're both published authors, that means I, too, could have more fun, more satisfaction and make more money self-publishing. Wow. I should call New York right now and tell them to tear up my latest contract. Tell you what, you hold your breath while I do that.

But don't take my word for it.

You think?

Just ask the many authors I have helped self-publish about their experiences. Authors such as [LOTS OF KINDNESS DUCT TAPE]. Not only have they self-published, they have relied upon [KINDNESS DUCT TAPE] to make their self-published works as ready for discerning readers as any traditional publisher.

And this would be because they also found self-publishing to be more fun, more satisfying, and more lucrative than traditional publishing, or because they can't sell their stuff anymore to a traditional publisher, but still thought they could make a few bucks if they hired you to dress up some trunk novel to make it pretty for and do some substandard overpriced marketing that no one would pay attention to even if they were stranded by a blizzard and it was the only thing in the house they could read?

(peeling back the kindness duct tape to study the names on the list of the many authors you have helped.)

Monty, I'm going to have to pick door #2. I bet you also offered them a discount for giving you testimonials.

Click here to view our testimonials.

Jesus, I am psychic.

You Have Questions...

Only one -- who gave you my e-mail address?

Self-publishing can be overwhelming for even the most experienced writer.

Maybe if they've had their head stuck in the sand for the last five years. Or they're so lazy that their couch has a permanent impression of their ass in their favorite spot. Or they're too busy waiting for the planets to align again properly so they can write a hundred words before tumbling to the floor from spiritual exhaustion. It's their pain and their struggle, you see, and you and I will never ever ever understand it.

"Where can I find a professional editor who understands my book?"

Working at a traditional publisher? Oh, sorry, I forgot, according to you they're unsatisfying no-fun profit-sucking vampires. But does that mean they're also unprofessional and they don't understand books? I mean, why would traditional publishers worry about that kind of thing? I know if I were a traditional publisher, I would only hire amateur idiots who couldn't comprehend the instructions on a bottle of shampoo.

"Can I afford eye-catching cover art that matches the style of my work?"

Um, if you work for a traditional publisher you never have to pay for it. Just saying.

"Is there someone who can convert my book into an ebook or lay it out for print as well as the big publishers?"

My head hurts. Is there someone who can give me an aspirin?

"Do I have to do my own marketing?"

Marketing hard. Marketing bad. We hate marketing. (wringing hands) Why oh why isn't there someone out there to step in and do it for us? Off topic for a sec: did you like get the biggest ninny in the writing universe to think up these idiot questions? Or was it another discount trade-off thing, like the testimonials?

"Should I have a website, and can I afford one?"

Oh, screw the web site. Be really aggressive and get the title of your book tattooed on your forehead.

"Do video book ads really work?"

(raising hand) I know the answer to that one: No! (Unless you're Kinsey Holley or Brent Hartinger.)

Every self-publishing author must answer these questions, but you don't have to do it alone!

I didn't get that memo, so I've been doing it alone for ten years. Shame on me. Should I stop now? Should I ask for someone to come over and hold my hand while I do it? Maybe you guys should help me answer these questions. Okay: Should I have a website, and can I afford one? Why are you guys laughing? I'm serious.

We Have Answers!

You've got something.

[KINDNESS DUCT TAPE] provides all the services a traditional publisher does—editing, cover art, ebook conversions, print layouts, marketing, websites, and video book ads.

Out of the goodness of your heart? Or are you going to pile fee atop fee before the book is released on some digital self-pub platform that takes 40% of the sales and doesn't pay the author until they accrue a certain amount, assuming there are any sales to speak of? Let me guess.

We're ready to transform your manuscript from a rough idea to a polished book at prices you can afford.

While my traditional publisher takes my polished manuscript, does most of that and pays me. I can see why I should dump them like immediately.

Don't give your profits away to the publishers!

No, just give them to you. Before I make them. Yep. Going to jump right on that. Everyone get out of my way!

Don't risk your reputation by publishing a book that isn't ready!

My reputation being so pristine already (yawn.) Sorry, dude, but I guess I'm just not ready to self-peddle my wares on's street corner. Or hire you as my pimp. P.S. if you SPAM me again, next time I won't use the kindness duct tape.

[KINDNESS DUCT TAPE] is ready to help you produce the book you've dreamed of.

I think I had a nightmare like this once. In it I was in a beautiful meadow with a handsome vampire, and then suddenly all my e-mails turned into razor-toothed critters and started attacking us. Wait, no, they were dandelions, not e-mails. Never mind.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Digiart Ten

Ten Things to Help with Your Digital Art

Daz Studio 3D is "a free, feature rich 3D figure design and 3D animation tool that enables anyone to create stunning digital imagery. This is the perfect tool to design unique digital art and animation using virtual people, animals, props, vehicles, accessories, environments and more. Simply select your subject and/or setting, arrange accessories, setup lighting, and begin creating beautiful artwork" (OS: Windows XP/Vista, Mac OS X 10.4 or higher)

Greenfish Relief Map Generator is a neat utility program that "generates random images which resemble real relief maps. The randomized maps contain settlements with random names, hills, plains, lakes and seasides. The program can generate random town names (which are fictious and do not exist anywhere), or pick them randomly from a provided text file. The generated images are public domain and can be used anywhere" (OS: Win 9x/NT/2000/XP/Vista)

Inkscape is a "Linux, Windows & OSX vector graphics editor (SVG format) featuring transparency, gradients, node editing, pattern fills, PNG export, and more. Aiming for capabilities similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw, Visio, etc." (OS: 32-bit MS Windows (NT/2000/XP), All POSIX (Linux/BSD/UNIX-like OSes), OS X, Linux)

OpenClipArt, founded in 2004 by Jon Phillips & Bryce Harrington, is a project that "aims to create an archive of clip art that can be used for free for any use. All graphics submitted to the project should be waived of all rights, including copyright, according to the CC0 Public Domain Dedication."

PhotoFiltre is "a complete image retouching program. It allows you to do simple or advanced adjustments to an image and apply a vast range of filters on it. It is simple and intuitive to use, and has an easy learning curve. The toolbar, giving you access to the standard filters with just a few clicks, gives PhotoFiltre a robust look" (OS: Win 98/ME/NT/2K/XP/Vista/7)

Sculptris is a "free, 3D digital sculpting program. Sculptris is small and focused at its main task, which is sculpting and painting models" (OS: Windows XP/Vista/7)

Shape Collageis a "free and easy to use Java based application that will allow you to create picture collages in less than a minute with just a few mouse clicks. Shape Collage will place photos automatically and intelligently using a machine learning algorithm" (OS: Windows XP/Vista/7, Mac OS X, Linux)

TrueSpace is "a fully-featured 3D authoring package that will let you model, texture, light, animate and render 3D content. As well as traditional images and movies, you can also make 3D content for online shared spaces, and for Virtual Earth. Truespace features quick easy character animation and physics. 1000 frames real time can be rendered in a couple minutes. An entirely re-written X format exporter lets you save your trueSpace creations to load into game engines such as XNA to develop games for Windows or the Xbox 360. Also included is an export to Virtual Earth which will let you place your 3D creations straight into Virtual Earth from trueSpace. Now you can place whatever you make into real world locations in Virtual Earth and share them with others" (OS: Windows XP/Vista)

Whiteboard Lite is a collaborative drawing tool which allows "two iPhone or iPod touch devices to create pictures together over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth peer-to-peer."

WPClipart is "a collection of high-quality public domain images specifically tailored for use in word processors and optimized for printing on home/small office inkjet printers. The common image format is lossless PNG, but in most cases there are also JPG versions as well as transparent PNG, more clip art now includes SVGs and, for some of the page borders/backgrounds, PDFs" (OS: Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7)