Saturday, June 30, 2012

Seeing Story

Storytellers have two sets of eyes. There's the pair we use every day to navigate our way through the world, and then there are our inner eyes, through which we see all the possibilities around us. All that's needed to switch between the two is a little imagination.

Take this tree. To everyone else it's an old tree with a hollow. To the storyteller it's a palace of surprises and secrets. What's in the hollow? A sleepy owl, a nest of baby birds, the diary a girl hides there because she never wants anyone to read it? If you reach inside the hollow, will you find a squirrel's nut stash, an old bottle containing a mysterious note, or another hand that tugs at yours?

An old stack of beat-up shipping palettes isn't very exciting. Unless you're a mouse, then it's a castle, a labyrinth, a sanctuary. Or for a kid, it's the mountain they can be king of (until someone knocks them off) -- or something much more dangerous. When I saw this I had a memoir moment, because when I was a child I climbed a stack of palettes just like this. At the time I was also barefoot, and stepped on a rusty nail. I was so worried about being scolded that I hid the wound from my mother for a week, until the fever and the red streaks running up my leg betrayed me. If Mom hadn't been as observant as she was, I might have died of blood poisoning -- all from a stack of old boring shipping palettes, just like this one.

It's not a yellow brick road, but it could be. The diamond shapes want to be counted, encoded, decoded. A game of dodge car and hopskotch, all in one. Perhaps one of the bricks is loose, and when you pry it up there will be something hidden under it, or written on the underside. When the street pavers come, as they inevitably do, what happens to all the old bricks? Do you nick some from the road construction dumpster, a couple at a time, and take them home to build something?

Story inspiration is all around you -- you just have to look at it through your other pair of eyes.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Not So Blank Books

I'm on a new quest. Yes, another one. As most of you know I've been keeping handwritten journals since 1973, and I go through a lot of them. Lately I've been making my own or buying them from journal artists over on Etsy, so it's been a while since I've checked out the mass produced variety at the book stores.

While I was shopping at BAM last weekend I raided the discount bins for books and discovered a pair of journals that were a bit different than the usual ruled-page blank books. This intrigued me, so during my next visit to the big B&N in the city I checked out their journal section, and found a couple more that were quite different.

I learned from my experience working with teens on Keri Smith's Wreck This Journal that a journal that comes with ideas and instructions and prompts can be more inviting to novice writers than a journal filled with empty white pages (which, let's face it, can be intimidating.) Quotes and prompts and artwork also provide focal points for the journaler to respond to versus inventing something on their own. There is no better way to get someone into the journaling habit than providing them with a guided experience. Once they build confidence, I think they'll be more prepared to take the leap onto the dreaded empty page. Thus I thought it might be fun to hunt for different types of blank books the summer and report on what I find.

At BAM I found "The Sayings of Mark Twain" journal, published by Piccadilly, with quotations from Mr. Clemens printed on each page. The book is hardcover/spiral bound, and the pages are a nice weight, college-ruled and tinted a very light blue in keeping with the journal's color scheme. There were also other journals of the same design in different colors offering the sayings of Rumi, Buddha, and Jesus. I got my Twain for $7.97 discounted.

In the same bin at BAM I found "Map Your Destination", a blank book published by Retired Hipster Inc. This one is a hardcover, with color-themed bordered pages that were both ruled and blank in clusters of eight (which would make it a cool travel journal.) Nicely discounted at $5.00.

Over at B&N I noticed Parragon Books' "My Life Journal" that had decorated pages and writing prompts on at least every other page. Hardcover with really attractive pages, some filled with artwork, quotations, objects and other visual prompts that reminded me of scrapbook art. This would be an excellent journal for someone who wants to try art journaling but isn't ready to make their own pages. $6.28 with my membership card discount.

My favorite find from B&N was Sabrina Ward Harrison's The True and The Questions ~ a Journal. This is the first hybrid blank book/art book I've ever seen; it's made up partly of the author's own finished and half-finished journal pages, and pages for the reader to compose, complete or alter at will. It's an oversized trade paperback but the pages are like lightweight cardstock so it's likely very durable. If you ever wanted to collaborate on a journal with another writer or artist, this is the blank book for you. $15.25 with my membership card discount.

Have you ever used a not-so-blank book as a journal? Any type you can recommend? Let us know in comments.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Short Story Sins

I'm currently reading the June '12 issue of Writers' Forum, a UK trade mag for writers that I found while rifling through the racks at my local BAM. Why it was there I can't say, except that this one BAM carries a nice selection of international mags as well as the usual domestic suspects.

The majority of the articles are geared toward working writers, which I liked, and while there were a few of those "Make Millions Self-Pubbing" ads the content was very refreshing -- like The Writer used to be before they went the way of Writer's Digest. There was even an article spread on using notebooks -- the write-in kind -- in different ways to aid with the work. Made me tear up a bit, to be honest.

Writers' Forum also holds a monthly fiction contest with three prizes that sounds interesting. There's a small entry fee involved (discounted 50% for subscribers) but since the magazine awards three prizes (£300, £150, and £100 respectively) each month, it might be worth it to subscribe if you're a short story writer or actively pursuing the UK markets.

In this issue the judge of the mag's monthly writing contest wrote an article on why she chose the entries that won, and in a box provided a checklist of what the mag is looking for as far as winning stories: "Originality ~ Good storytelling ~ Pace, momentum, immediacy ~ Attention-grabbing openings ~ Satisfying endings ~ Action ~ Convincing characters with their own voices ~ viewpoint control."

The judge's checklist made me ponder what I think kills a short story, which led to me putting together my own list ala the seven deadly sins:

Convention Skirt-Flouncing: How do I describe thee? Let me count a few ways: the writer refuses to use quotation marks; surreal elements that have nothing to do with the story pop up randomly, like great big honking pink elephants; there's a chick with green hair who isn't a blonde who just got out of an over-chlorinated pool -- you get the general idea. Yes, to some it's artistic, it's tres chic, whatever; it doesn't work for me. Most of it comes off less like style and more like posturing. If you're more worried about what people think of you than the story, this might be a problem.

Dull Characters: There's hardly any time for me to get to know the story's population, so in some way/shape/form they'd better knock my socks off from page 1. Too often they simply don't. To figure out if your characters are absorbing, give someone half the story and see if they come after you demanding the rest of it right now or they'll hurt you.

Improper Length: Any story over 15K words always feels to me like it's trying to be a novel, it wasn't enough to make into a novel, or it wasn't edited properly (sometimes all three.) On the flip side, unless they're perfectly structured very short stories (usually under 2K) feel unfinished. A litmus test for this is if your reader feels bored halfway through (too long), or pissed after reading the last paragraph (too short.)

Sketches Instead of Stories: About half of the short stories I read disappoint me because they're glorified character/event/setting outlines or narratives instead of real stories. The big tell for this is when you take a hard look at the action -- if you reach the end of the story and realize nothing has actually happened, you may be sketching instead of storytelling.

Tellers: the writer is so proud of the neat things that they've invented that there is no story, there's just the writer nattering on about all the stuff they think is cool. The red flag for this one is how many pages you've filled with narrative. More than 60%? Possibly a teller.

Unsympathetic Buttons: The writer wants my sympathy for an unsympathetic situation. Example: it's so horrible to be rich, privileged, summer in the Hamptons, winter in Aspen and have Daddy write a check to pay for college, yes? Maybe it is, but from my perspective and life experience, no, I don't think so. I don't want to tell anyone they are obligated to write about the downtrodden; I'm willing to believe wealthy people suffer just like the rest of us. There should be more to that suffering, however, than a pitch of woe-is-me-I'm-too-entitled.

What is the Point?: I just finished two pretty terrible anthologies (neither were written by anyone who stops in here, so relax.) Both left me feeling as if I'd squandered two decent reading days and about thirty bucks of my hard-earned $$$ for nothing. They didn't enlighten me, they didn't amuse me, they didn't teach me and they didn't even attempt to entertain me. Mostly they made me feel tired (although one tried to sneer at me, the lip-curls weren't very convincing.) If that was the point, it worked, but it's not going to sell me any more books. Unless my insomnia flares up again.

So what are some of the sins you encounter in the short stories you read? Let us know in comments.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Soggy But Back

Tropical Storm Debby is still slogging her way over to the Atlantic, but we made it through okay. Lots of wind, lots of rain, but not much more than a bit of thankfully temporary flooding, and some minor tree debris scattered on the roads. The big loss was my keyboard, which weirdly decided to fry itself when I powered everything back up, but it was about time for me to get a new keyboard anyway. I hope everyone else in the storm's path made it through all right.

I've got a couple of sub ops and a self-promo op to pass along today; I got a heads-up from Rob over at from Circalit for two new writing contests they're holding, and I'll quote him here:

Launch Your Sci-fi Story into the Cosmos

"Cosmos, founded in 2004, is a literary science magazine that reaches 40,000 readers every month around the globe, and covers everything from science fact to science fiction. Cosmos are now on the lookout for innovative science fiction short stories that that make you think about the future in a different way. The winning short story will be printed in the next issue of Cosmos Magazine, and the two runners-up will see their work published on Cosmos Online." Entry is free, and you can read more info about the contest here.

Eclectica Flash Fiction Competition

"Eclectica, founded in 1996, is one of the longest running online literary publications, publishing a wide range of fiction from all different genres. Now Eclectica have teamed up with Circalit to host a flash fiction competition. Simply write a story on any theme in under 800 words and get your flash fiction published in the October/November issue of this notable ezine." Entry for this one is also free, and you can read more info about the contest here.

I also received an e-mail from the Australian Romance Readers Association about a self-promo op for authors interested in sending goodies or books for their convention in Brisbane, to be held March 1-3 next year:

"All authors are welcome to send (or bring) promotional items for display on goodie tables at ARRC2013. These items will be available to all delegates throughout the convention. Items might include bookmarks, bookplates, pens, badges, or any other promotional items. If you would like to send books, we will use these for door prizes and prize packs for games."

Our pals over in Australia are terrific folks who read a LOT of books and are very supportive of the genre, so this is a great chance for romance and romance-friendly authors to reach out to a wider audience with your promo. If you can't spring for the cost to ship actual books (which admittedly can be expensive) you might consider putting up a free story online and send bookmarks with the link. If you'd like the ship-to address and/or contact info, they can be found over at ARRA's website here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Off to Hunker Down

Debby is shaping up to be our first tropical storm of the 2012 season, so we're shutting down all the computers and devices and otherwise getting things ready here. We don't expect much more than some flooding and power outtages, but our region will likely remain under a tornado watch until it passes. I'll check in when I can. NOAA's latest advisory on Tropical Storm Debby can be found here.

Image Credit: NOAA/National Hurricane Center

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Summer SF Contest

Here's an interesting op for those of you who want to write SF but are having trouble finding receptive markets: Redstone Science Fiction is holding their 3rd Annual Fiction Summer Contest with a hopeful future via scientific advancement theme: "Read Sarah Einstein’s column in June 2012, RSF #25 to learn what we are looking for – “show (us) a hopeful future made better by scientific advancement.” Length: up to 5K (firm); the winning author "will be paid 5 cents per word" and their winning story "will be published in the September 2012 issue of Redstone Science Fiction." Electronic submission only, see contest page for more details, deadline August 15th, 2012.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

More on Smart Edit

Last week I mentioned the freeware program Smart Edit as a potential helper for writers who want to improve their editing skills. Since I can always use that, I decided to give it a personal test drive and downloaded it with no problems.

Rather than test it on a manuscript I've worked on with a professional editor (which tend to be pretty clean) I thought a better test run would be to use it to scan one of my freebie e-books, which are edited solely by me. I first converted the .docx file for Dark of Heart to text format -- the program accepts .rtf and text files -- and opened it in the program (the manuscript text appears in the center window on the program screen.) I then hit the Scan Now Icon and let it run.

The program finished scanning the novella in about thirty seconds, and gave me several windows of information with different tabs: Cliches and Dialogue Tags in the left window, Repeated Phrases and Repeated Words in the right window, and Monitored Words and Adverbs in the bottom window (to see another, larger screen shot of my file in the program, click here.) Double click on any of the words in any of the lists and the program takes you to the first time you've used it (at which point you can delete the offending phrase and move on to the next instance of use. You do have to delete or change the phrase before you can double-click to move on to the next one.) I also discovered I could save the scan report, open it in Word and print out a copy, which was really handy as the tabbed windows with the info are small and take awhile to scroll.

The scan report came back with 20 different cliches and the number of times I used them in the novella. Apparently I'm very fond of "hands on" as I used that seven times, and "get out of here" showed up twice. The remaining eighteen phrases were only used once, and I know most of them were used in dialogue lines, so I think I did fairly well there (but if I'd had this program while I was editing the novella, I definitely would have weeded out some of those "hands on".)

I thought I also fared well on dialogue tags; I used "said" 118 times, "thought" 51 times, "told" 43 times, "asked" 28 times and "called" 26 times; all of which I think are perfectly acceptable tags (I don't belong to the school of You Must Only Use Said.) What I didn't like seeing were the 27 times I used "nodded", the 13 times I used "added" and the 11 times I used "grinned"; those are not words I like to use as frequent dialogue tags and I would have yanked them out (and I am going to look over the ms. for exactly where I used "nodded" because I don't think I used it specifically as a dialogue tag; it was probably a physical action phrase to replace one, which I'm prone to do when I get tired of said.)

I did so-so on repeated phrases; my biggest offenders were "one of the" (32 times) and "as soon as" (20 times). My single words with the most repeats surprised me; other than the main character's names (which I think should be at the top of the list) I used the word "down" 122 times, "like" 121 times, "didn't" 116 times, "before" 112 times and "could" 103 times. Two of my ongoing problematic weed words, "eyes" and "door" both came in at 37 repeats which was less than I expected but more than I liked seeing.

The one list that didn't bother me much were the adverbs I used; I didn't have that many in the novella and I'm not allergic to any of the others I used. I know there are writers who spit on adverbs and won't let a single one sully their prose; I never got that memo so I think they can be used sparingly. One thing I did want to mention is that the adverb list never printed out on the scan report, so that may be a minor bug in the program.

You can edit the words and phrases lists that the program uses for scans; you click on "Edit Lists" and when the smaller options screen appears you pick the tab for the list you want to edit to remove or add anything you want to that portion of the scan (which you can see in this screenshot.) You can also customize your scans as to what you specifically want to search for by checking or unchecking the boxes in the Scan Options window (which you can see in this screenshot.)

Smart Edit won't ever replace a real live editor, and it won't take the job of editing completely off your hands. But I do think it can be helpful for analysis purposes, not only for finding problem words and phrases you may have missed but also by identifying the ones that we as writers are prone to regularly overuse or misuse.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wandering for the Well

After two months of working sixteen hour days to finish up the Lords of the Darkyn trilogy, outline some new proposals, deal with family dropping in, the computer crashing, the nesting dove dive-bombing anyone who came near the front door and various and sundry other domestic crises, I needed a day off. Mostly I needed to shut off the computer, turn off the phones and leave the house so I could reset my head, recharge my batteries and restock the well.

You know that term writers always use for random inspiration: everything is grist for the mill? That one has never worked for me because as demanding as writing can be, the inspiration for it has never been grinding or crushing. It flows, like water from the world to a fountain within. My creativity also feeds itself, in the same way a fountain works. I get a rush of ideas, I pour them out, they pool and percolate and recirculate and then pour out into another rush of new ideas. As a storyteller I'm never finished, not really. One thing always leads to another, and even when I'm ending one thing there's already something else in the works or brewing or that I'm prepared to begin. I don't question or mess with this because it's my natural process and frankly I don't want to jinx it.

My well has never run dry, but it does work overtime and every now and then it needs repriming. I get bored and I need something fresh to add to the waters. Going out into the world and searching for it is fun and keeps me from becoming stagnant. I also have a proposal that I need to finalize and get to the agent, one that I wanted to let percolate. So when I decided to take my day off, I grabbed my kid and we spent a day out together shopping and hanging out and generally wandering around doing nothing in particular.

When you open yourself up to the universe of possibility around you, wherever you are, you'll find inspiration. Mine came in the form of a little out of the way park where we spotted this interesting tree. It was huge, old, and appeared to be engaged in a battle with some sort of vine. I'm not an expert, but I think the vine already lost, because when we walked up to it the vine appeared dead, and the tree looked pretty smug.

While I was taking photographs from different angles, my daughter noticed something, and called me over. There was a short length of rusty chain embedded in the trunk of the tree. The chain was on the road side of the tree, and there were no other trees nearby, so it couldn't have been from a hammock. I didn't think anyone heartless enough to chain some poor pup to the tree would do so within a few feet of a road, either. The chain was an interesting mystery, especially because it looked like there might be more of it inside the tree -- and as I thought that, I thought of the proposal idea, and how I could use the ideas from the tree to cement one side of the story.

From there we walked through the park, where we came across several signs warning us of low-flying hawks. I've never seen a warning sign for birds, so this tickled me. I want one for my dove now. And sure enough, as we made our way along the walk we saw a beautiful hawk soar over our heads, and paused to listen to its piercing call. Why were the hawk and his pals hanging out in this pristine, pretty little park? What if it had something to do with that old warrior tree? And in my head, another side of the story idea went from slightly muddled to almost painfully clear.

A few minutes later we came upon a sudden burst of bleeding heart vines, all tangled up with the otherwise politely manicured landscaping:

The splash of color and the chaos of blooms brought me to a standstill. Unless he was lousy at his job, the groundskeeper couldn't have planted them like that, not with everything else so perfectly arranged and trimmed. Seeing this beautiful, delicate thing growing wild twined itself around the third and final side of the story triad I'd been unhappy with, and the proposal crystallized. If I'd had a computer with me, I could have written it right there and e-mailed it off to New York.

The rush of all these new ideas tempted me to tackle one final problem I'd been having with the proposal, namely the series title. I've been tinkering endless with that, and I came up with one that was almost, but not quite, fitting. It's a single word, I coined it myself, and it names the universe, the storyline, the setting, the characters, the whole shebang -- almost.

Even as great as my day had been going, I wasn't getting my hopes up. I'd spent almost a month hammering away at that title, and I'd been so close to nailing it that I could practically feel the right version of it hovering in the back of my head. I felt like I was pushing it, too -- I'd gotten plenty for the well and my story from the tree and the hawk and the flower, but to expect the universe to hand me the perfect series title during my day off? That was never going to happen. Never. Never.

And then, just like that, I had the title.

Tomorrow I'm going to clean my house, catch up on laundry, spend time with my family, and not rush to the keyboard to type up everything in my head. It's tempting, believe me, but it's also foolish to rush the rush. The well is definitely refreshed, and ready to pour itself out on the page, but all the new ideas need time to cascade and pool and percolate and cycle through a few times. I do, too. I want to spend a few days resting and relaxing and wondering a bit more. The well isn't going anywhere, and neither am I.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Much Better Now

I'm (finally!) back online and now dealing with all the work stuff and e-mails that piled up while I was tinkering.

While I'm catching up, here is an artful video about a bookmark with a secret life. It has background music, amazing animation and the best ending ever:

Much Better Now from Salon Alpin on Vimeo.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Off to Tinker

I have to replace the hard drive on my internet computer today, so I'll be unplugged until I download all the updates and transfer my backups (have you backed up lately? If not, go, do it now.) I should be back up and running by tonight, and I apologize for any inconvenience this causes.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Request

I've been trying all day to think of humorous spin I could put on the story of this dude who deliberately shot himself to promote his book, but it disturbs me on so many levels that I can't think about it without feeling sick. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing, or self-promoting, or taking a shot at any dream you have. Everyone has the right to pursue their dreams. Taking a shot at yourself because you think it's a nifty shortcut to fame/fortune/success, however, is not the way to get there.

Writing is a solitary art, and I've always been grateful to the internet for making it less lonely. When I was chasing my dreams I didn't have other writer people to hang with, so for me it's always been a privilege to be here. I practically witnessed the birth of the online writing community, from the first day I logged on to Prodigy and started reading the message boards back in '94. At the time I was too shy and scared to talk to anyone, but it still seemed like a miracle, to be able to read other writers' stuff and follow discussions and know that it wasn't just me doing this.

When digital self-publishing became available for free to anyone, I knew it would change the industry. I even made some predictions about it. I also saw this evolution/revolution dividing the writing community into separate camps, exactly as e-book publishing did when it joined the market twelve years ago, and that happened, too. Sometimes I get so disgusted with the name-callers and the snobbery and this "every writer for themselves" attitude that I start thinking everyone in the industry is like that, and I know they're not. You all have taught me that.

Reading the story about the guy who shot himself for self-promotion confused me. I thought to do something like that he must have no friends at all. Or if he does, he doesn't talk to them anymore. Or he got so caught up in this crazy idea that he cut himself off from everyone. I don't know. I'm a pretty solitary, independent soul, but even I can't wrap my head around it.

Anyway, because of this story I come to you today with a favor to ask. It's not a big one, and it will only cost you a few minutes of your time. When you have a chance, get in touch with someone else in the writing or reader community. It doesn't matter who it is; pick someone you know at random if you like. Send them an e-mail, drop a comment on their blog, Twitter them, Facebook them, whatever is convenient for you. And when you do this, try to share something positive. Tell them a joke. Recommend a great book you've just read. If you can't think of anything, ask how things are going with them. Basically, be their online friend.

For all the changes we're going through, we're not alone in this. We are a community, and we do care about each other, and sometimes I think we need to be reminded of that.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

No-Nos for the Nasty

Ten Excuses for Your Paranormal Heroine Not to Have Sex with Your Paranormal Hero

A hell-gate will open and release a demon army to ravage the earth, starting with the two dummies snoring in the bed just in front of the hell-gate.

Any child born of such a union is guaranteed to become the Anti-Christ. P.S., Ms. Absent-Minded keeps forgetting to take the pill she was prescribed to regulate her monthlies.

As sworn enemies, their people are consumed by eons of pent-up frustrations and hostilities, but prevented from battling by an iron-clad truce that can be broken only if one side is caught physically fraternizing with the other.

Either the hero or the heroine will lose their abilities, which the other will absorb, turn evil and use to destroy the planet.

Her virginity was promised long ago to the Prince of Darkness, who is also her fiance, eats heroes for a mid-morning snack and has set up a closed-circuit monitoring system in her headboard.

He has long been lusted after by an insanely jealous and incredibly powerful stalker, who has been posing as a harmless family friend while bugging his phone, GPS'ing his car, and keeping a silent alarm on that condom tucked in his wallet.

His manly sweat/her delicate sheen will cause the other partner to shift into a mindless, ravenous, slavering beast-demon with razor-sharp talons/teeth/scales, and whose last meal was a quivering, stringy, under size rabbit two months ago.

Mom and Dad be demi-gods who hath sworn to guard their only child's pulchritude by any means necessary, and smite unto death anyone who messeth with it.

She is unaware that she possesses a glittering but secretly evil hoohah that will suck the soul/life/goodness out of the hero, and then laugh while his lifeless husk withers away.

The obnoxious immortal deity, who needed a little leverage to insure her subjects' chastity, gave permission for a "Will They Do It?" pool, the winner of which will be awarded an indestructible sword of immense power against which there is no defense. P.S., the villain picked tonight.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Network Your Notebook

I'm off again taking care of some work stuff. In the meantime, while hunting around for any online alternatives for the novel notebook, I found this freeware:

Piggydb is "a Web notebook application that provides you with a platform to build your knowledge personally or collaboratively. With Piggydb, you can create highly structural knowledge by connecting knowledge fragments to each other to build a network structure, which is more flexible and expressive than a tree structure. Fragments can also be classified with hierarchical tags. Piggydb does not aim to be an input-and-search database application. It aims to be a platform that encourages you to organize your knowledge continuously to discover new ideas or concepts, and moreover enrich your creativity" (OS: Multi-platform, requires Java Runtime Environment.)

I'm going to test drive it when I have a chance and I'll report back on how it works for me. If you collaborate online with a writing or creative partner, and need to build a novel notebook or series bible, this freeware might be particularly useful.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Free Quilt Design Online

I rarely see any free online stuff for quilters, so I'm going to hijack today's post for my quilter pals and anyone out there who likes to sew and design.

The August '12 issue of American Patchwork & Quilting has some interesting patterns in it, and while I was figuring out yardage for a neat maze quilt I noticed a little ad on the page for "free online quilt design" with something called Quilter's Toolbox. The advertiser, Thousands of Bolts, also called it "a new way to shop for fabric."

I figured it was some kind of fabric picker thing, but I decided to visit the site and see what the deal was. Turns out they offer an actual block and quilt generator that you use with swatches of fabrics you can buy from the site. Once you register and choose the fabrics you like (it's free, and you just add the fabrics you like to your wishlist) you can begin using the toolbox right away.

The toolbox, which allows you to drop-and-drag fabric swatches from your wishlist into a variety of patchwork block templates, is extremely cool and very easy to use. In less than a minute after registering I designed this:

The block design screen looks like this:

And when you drag and drop your fabric choices, changes to this:

Once you're happy with your quilt block, you can then use it to design a quilt:

You can save your block and quilt designs, keep them private, or share them with the site's community, which makes it an excellent generator for friends or groups who want to collaborate on the piece. This is also so incredibly neat for anyone who has ever wanted to try quilt designing by computer but didn't want to invest in the pricey design software. It's most definitely a new and excellent way to shop for fabric.

To use the toolbox, I recommend you watch the two-part video tutorial first (part one is here and part two is here). Also, if you don't have a pattern for or know how to make the block you're designing, no worries there -- click on the little blue question mark beside "Quilt Block Instructions" at the bottom of your wishlist window and complete instructions on how to make the block will come up on your screen.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Art of Making

I'm taking off today to take care of some business. To make your stop here worthwhile, do check out this video by Dimitris Ladopoulos, who creates short but gorgeous films about people who make things by hand. This one features the crafting of a flamenca guitar (with the same music playing in the background):

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

O Boy

About three months ago I started receiving O, Oprah Winfrey's print magazine, in the mail. I have no idea why, either. I didn't subscribe to it, and everyone who might have purchased a gift subscription for me swears they didn't (any of you want to confess? E-mail me, it's driving me crazy.)

The magazine is very nice, as big and glossy as the lady herself, with lots of pictures. Unfortunately I'm not too interested in fashion, make-up, changing my throw pillows monthly, or the wisdom imparted by Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz or Finance Suze. Celebrity experts make me too nervous; I'd rather stick to the garden variety who aren't worried about their next close-up. I've also never watched Oprah (even back in the eighties when I did watch some television, I skipped it) so all of the show references are likewise lost on me.

I wanted to get something out of this magazine, so I've checked out the recipes in each issue. While they're very photogenic and apparently quite nutritious, my family would not willingly consume any of them. Some of them I don't think my crew would touch even if you held them at gunpoint. Imagine my guy coming home after a long, hot day working in noisy equipment rooms to the delights of grilled peaches with yogurt and pistachios, or the perfect summer salad of heirloom lettuces, wild arugula and fennel drizzled in a apple cider vinegar/raw garlic/Dijon mustard-based dressing. I can almost hear him asking me if my menopause has restarted just before he sneaks out for Bob Evans.

On a side note, when did lettuce go heirloom? I thought they only did that to the poor tomatoes. Is no vegetable safe from these people?

Of course then there are the books. Oprah does love books, and there is plenty to be read about what you should be reading. The July '12 issue is jammed packed with recommendations, articles, a bunch of cute young thang authors all dressed up pretty, and the inevitable beach reads (perverse soul that I am, I hardly ever read anything at the beach; I pick up shells, take pictures of the birds and check out the really interesting graffiti.) Oprah has also started a new book club, which seems to be the e-book version of the old club.

I don't buy the books that Oprah recommends, and I think I know why; simply reading the blurbs depresses me. Not that I have anything against books of the horrible-personal-event-that-I-bravely-survived sort, or the horrible-ficitional-event-that-ends-very-badly-for-everyone-involved-but-should-make-you-feel-better-about-your-crap-life-unless-you're-so-depressed-after-reading-the-book-that-you-decide-to-end-it variety. Evidently these alligator tear jerkers are considered moving and inspirational, so if that's your poison, by all means, drink it.

Actually I have read one book that Oprah recommended some years back with Ye Old Book Club, a book she in fact made very famous (not because she did; I had to read it as kind of a professional courtesy. Long story.) When I limped to the finish of that one -- and it was one long-ass nightmare of a slog, let me tell you -- I felt a bit like a deer frozen in the headlights of an unmanned freight train carrying several dozen tanker cars filled with corrosive toxic chemicals about to derail and wipe out a town in Pennsylvania. For only the second time in my life I wanted to shout at everyone I knew to run from a book.

Since the Os started arriving I've been sticking them in the guest room, but honestly, I don't want my guests reading this stuff. I have no heirloom lettuces, no arugula, no pistachios. And I hate yogurt. After Dad died I didn't shoot up heroin or walk my way across the Pacific Northwest, tempted though I was. My poor opinion of O's content could be envy-born, though. I mean, the tremendous amount of thought and research and craft that must be involved in writing such classic articles as $30 Bag! $15 Ring! $40 Dress! is frankly beyond me and my modest writing superpowers. Yes, I think that's probably it. I'm jealous.

When it comes to gifts I know it's the thought that counts, and I am genuinely touched that someone thought enough of me to send me a subscription to O. If that is the case, it didn't turn out to be a good match, but maybe next time you could check the gift-script box for Archaeology or National Geographic or even Popular Mechanics. Until then, I thank you on behalf of me and all the patients waiting in the lobby at my physical therapist's office, who will be reading my Os from now on.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hang Me Ten

Ten Things I Made Into a Slideshow
(because no one will believe this without proof)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Virtual Free Editor

According to the designer's website, SmartEdit is "an automated tool that scans your finished novel or your work in progress and highlights areas that might need closer attention. It runs five individual checks, such as highlighting words or phrases marked by you for monitoring, counting the different dialog tags you have used, and searching out over-used phrases, words and clich├ęs. It's not a word processor - its sole purpose is to assist you when you edit your work, much like a grammar or spell checker."

At present it's available as freeware for Windows 7, Vista & XP, so any of you with those systems who would like a free editing program might want to give this one a test drive.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

In Demand

Educational book publisher Saddleback has announced that they've partnered with On Demand Books to make their catalog titles available via On Demand's Expresso Book Machine, currently the only digital-to-print service with which customers can push a button and print, bind and trim a paperback book in under four minutes (a .pdf of the press release can be read by clicking here.)

When I read this I had one of those glimpse-of-the-future moments and imagined EBMs or something like them in every book store in the country. If all publishers made their catalogs available to print on demand in this fashion, customers could walk up, pick a title, press a button and have a new copy of any book they want in a couple minutes. It would redefine the brick and mortar store; reducing the number of physical copies they'd have to carry while making every book available (no more waiting a week for the store to get a copy from a distributor or their warehouse.)

I'd like to see the same kind of partnership evolve between On Demand and independent authors who want to sell print copies of their digitally-published works. Having these titles made available via EBMs would relieve the author of having to invest in printing and storing physical copies plus dealing with the ordering/payment/shipping headaches. It would also eliminate the portion of the profits the author currently has to pay online booksellers for selling print copies; the EBM would be a soup-to-nuts solution. We just need more EBMs now.

Friday, June 08, 2012


Making journals is one of my favorite arts, so I really enjoyed reading all the suggestions you guys offered for the Art of Journaling giveaway. I hope everyone will get a chance to try out an idea or two in the future, too.

We cranked up the magic hat tonight, and the winner is:

Atropa, who wrote: I once thought of making a journal/photo album for a friend of mine out of CDs.

Atropa, when you have a chance please send your full name and ship-to address to so I can get your package out to you. My thanks to everyone for joining in.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Always There

As many of you have heard, author Ray Bradbury passed away yesterday at the age of 91. His novels have been beloved by millions of readers all over the world; as a writer and creative soul he has had an enduring influence on me and countless other storytellers.

This is something he wrote about death:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there.

It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.

I haven't the slightest doubt that Ray Bradbury's work will continue to thrill readers and inspire other writers for many more generations. And Mr. Ray? Thank you for changing me. God speed and safe journey.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Art of Journaling

Lynne Perrella's Artists' Journals & Sketchbooks was an online impulse buy I made mainly because it's published by Quarry Books. I'm building a nice little collection of Quarry's art titles, and not one of them have yet to disappoint me.

The book arrived today, and after looking through it I was quite impressed. Being a writer and an artist often means I have to choose between the two; Ms. Perrella's book speaks to both sides of my creativity by adressing not only design but content.

The book contains works by over forty different artists as visual and inspirational examples, covering a wide variety of styles, materials and approaches. Every time I turned a page I was surprised by how beautifully visual the ideas were, without having that over-done, overly-complicated look to them. Most of the examples included found objects and recycled items such as cigar boxes, antique photo slides and aspirin tins. One artist even made a journal skirt that could be worn as clothing.

Some years back, when I first began making my own journals, I was very intimidated by the concept. I did take a class in book-making and binding, but I still struggled with certain aspects of it, especially art and design. I wish I'd had this book to start out with, because it doesn't have all those endless rules and weird material lists and complicated techniques. There really aren't any rules in this book. And while there are plenty of ideas for the advanced journal and sketchbook artists, I think Lynne Perrella has something here for anyone who wants to try art journaling. If you've ever been afraid it's too difficult, or you don't believe you have the artistic talent to pull it off, I think you're going to find something in this book that speaks to you and convinces you to give a real try.

As always, you don't have to take my word for it. In comments to this post, name any object you think could be made into an interesting journal or sketchbook by midnight EST on Thurday, June 7, 2012. I'll choose one name at random from everyone who participates, and send the winner an unsigned copy of Artists' Journals & Sketchbooks by Lynne Perrella along with a surprise. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Neo 2 Neatness

The folks at Renaissance Learning are offering a couple of neat incentives for their new Neo 2 smart keyboard/mobile writing device:

Send them your old Alpha-Smart (any model, age or condition) and they'll give you $25.00 toward the purchase of a Neo 2. Renaissance is planning to recycle and donate the old models you trade in, too.

Buy a Neo 2 before July 1st and they'll send you a nice-looking portfolio to protect it at no charge.

These smart keyboards are terrific; you can store around two hundred manuscript pages in their memory. They're also incredibly durable and portable, and much cheaper than a laptop. The Neo 2 weighs less than two pounds, and will run for up to seven hundred hours on three AA batteries (you can also buy a model that runs for up to 200 hours on rechargeable batteries.) They're great for writers who want to work without any distractions, and perfect for meetings, conferences or an evening session at your favorite coffee shop.

Monday, June 04, 2012


I am taking off today to spend time with my mama, who is visiting for a few days, but I thought I'd share this:

The Guardian reports that an autobio/cookbook manuscript, written by Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders and (allegedly) discovered only recently in KFC's corporate vaults, will be published online and given away via Facebook.

I avoid fried foods and fast foods these days, but I do think it's nice that the company is giving away the book instead of selling it; free books always get a gold star from me. Certainly Colonel Sanders was a self-made man, and can be considered one of the earliest, iconic founders of American fast food, so it might even be an interesting read from those perspectives (I won't know; I'm not on Facebook.)

Thing is, the man's been dead for thirty-two years, and evidently he didn't choose to publish this work while he was alive (or it would be in print, yes?) Based on what I've read quoting his opinion of KFC's food (scroll down to the bottom of this page for an angry tirade about the gravy) I wonder if he really would have wanted his opus to be used by the KFC corporation for any reason.

Yet another reason to destroy before you die anything you don't want published posthumously -- it might end up being part of a Facebook fast food marketing campaign.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

For the Letter-Writing Lovers

In this age of e-mail and texting no one writes letters anymore, and Stephen Elliott and the folks over at The Rumpus are trying to change that by introducing literary authors to readers via their Letters in the Mail project.

The Rumpus has also begun connecting their readers by offering them a chance to write to each other. Even better, the latest Letters to Each Other is open to anyone, not just subscribers to Letters in the Mail.

The basics: you write a one-page letter (double-sided is fine), send it along with a self-addressed stamped envelope and $2 to cover postage to the address specified in the post. The folks at the Rumpus make five copies and mail them to five other people who participate in LTEO. If you want the folks who receive your letter to write back, you include a return address in your letter.

I participated in the first LTEO, and I had a lot of fun replying to the letters I was sent. Do be aware that this is an entirely random chance sort of thing, what with the shuffling of letters and not knowing where they go. Think of LTEO as a way of sticking a message in a bottle and tossing it into the sea of the universe -- who knows where it will land?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Quilt or Innocence

Back in March I mentioned discovering The Writer's Knowledge Base, author Elizabeth S. Craig's site that provides among many neat things a search engine specifically geared toward writers. They also put out a free monthly newsletter, for which they kindly interviewed me in April as their featured blogger.

Since then I've been shamelessly rifling through the links on the site, and while reading Elizabeth's blog post Covering Our Bases I noticed her June release had quilts in the art and one in the title: Quilt or Innocence. Fiction featuring quilts is pretty rare to begin with, but this one is the first novel in a mystery series set in the North Carolina mountains, and features a retired art museum curator turned amateur sleuth.

Here's some copy on the book from the author's web site:

As the newest member of the Village Quilters Guild, Beatrice has a lot of gossip to catch up on—especially with the Patchwork Cottage quilt shop about to close. It seems that Judith, the landlord everyone loves to hate, wants to raise the rent, despite being a quilter herself…

But when Judith is found dead, the harmless gossip becomes an intricate patchwork of mischievous motives. And it’s up to Beatrice’s expert eye to decipher the pattern and catch the killer, before her life gets sewn up for good.

The quilt-themed books I encounter are generally of the memoir, angsty Amish or bestest-girlfriend/lafemmance variety, so I was happy to order a copy from B&N. Buying it also gives me an opportunity to show my support for an author who provides free resources for writers on the internet, aka practicing what I preach.

What authors have you discovered via their support for their peers? Let us know in comments.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Road Trip

What would you see if you travelled 5158.3 miles in two weeks, chasing the colors of your dreams? (warning for those of you at work, some background music)

5158.3 Miles by Jorge Gonzalez