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Archive for April, 2011

HTMLI must confess something—I really love HTML. Also CSS. Those are the languages of the Web and once upon a time they were really easy to learn. Web creator Tim Berners-Lee is one of my heroes. I started writing my own Web code several years ago and, although I’m pretty much out of the business now, I still can put a Web page together, assuming I have time to remind myself how everything works. (Before we go any further, yes I still capitalize Web—old habits are hard to break).

Like a lot of other HTML heads, I ended up serving as Web master for a lot of different organizations. After all, I knew what I was doing and I worked for free. What more could you ask? But it’s one thing to actually build a Web page from the ground up and another to work with a content management program like WordPress or Blogger. If you’re the blog guru for your group, people who send you posts often have no idea what they’re asking you to do. To them, all Web stuff is magic, so you ought to be able to do whatever they need doing with a wave of your HTML wand.

In the interests of volunteer Web people the world over, I’d like to pass on a few hard truths for the less Web savvy among us. The next time you send stuff to your Web friend to post on your blog, keep these things in mind.

1. Placing images in blogs is frequently a bitch. I do blogs on both WordPress and Blogger, and I’ve had problems both places. Blogger in particular doesn’t work and play well with Safari where images are concerned (and the same is now true of Firefox, although at one point the two were relatively compatible). Placing an image in Blogger that shows up anywhere other than the beginning of the post frequently requires me to actually go into the HTML and cut and paste code (trying to respect the remarkably nonstandard code that Blogger uses)—it really isn’t a matter of placing my cursor in the text and clicking on the image button. You can imagine how delighted I am when somebody sends me a half dozen pictures to insert into a blog post.

2. You cannot send your Web person a Word document with pictures and expect him or her to simply do a copy and paste into your blog. To begin with, the pictures you’ve embedded in your Word document aren’t the right format for the Web and they haven’t been coded for a Web page. Your Web person will have to go into your document, cut out the images, take them into an image editing program like Photoshop and resave them in a Web-safe format. Then she or he will have to take them into the Web page and insert them using Web code. Or your Web person can either 1) tell you to send her the pictures you want used in the right format (probably JPEG), or 2) tell you to forget the whole thing. I usually do the former, but there I times when I really lean toward the latter.

3. Putting in Word formatting (like spaces before paragraphs or indented text or—shudder—automatic lists) will only make your Web person’s life harder. She’ll have to go in and remove them because otherwise a program like Blogger will immediately become weird in the extreme. In fact, Word code in general is not exactly Web friendly. That’s why WordPress includes a “paste from Word” option that strips out all that funky Microsoft XML crap before you try to paste it into your Web page.

4. Do not send your Web person high res pictures unless he or she asks you to. A 300 dpi picture easily can run around 2000 pixels across. That’s larger than any Web page can comfortably handle. Unless your Web person specifically asks you for a high resolution picture, send a smaller version (a lot of Web sites specify that pictures be no more than 300 pixels wide).

5. Links to Photobucket or similar sites work well in emails where they’ll pop up and be visible in the message. They also work in some chat rooms. They’re problematic in blogging programs. Sometimes they work as links, but your reader will have to click on them to actually see the picture and the picture won’t show up on your page. The most reliable way to make sure your picture gets placed on your Web or blog page is to actually send that picture to your Web guru. Let her take it from there.

Finally, I’d strongly suggest that everybody who’s going to be working on the Web should at least learn the basics about how Web code works. I’m the first to admit that Web code is a lot tougher now than it was in the good ol’ days—in fact, XML has pretty much returned the Web to the real programmers rather than amateurs like me. But still. Knowing what image formats can be used on the Web (.jpg, .gif, and .png) and which is appropriate for what type of graphic can save you a lot of grief. So can a basic understanding of HTML and CSS conventions. And last of all, if you’re asking your Web person to do something special, please and thank you never go amiss.

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Me at the Book Fair

Okay, every other author has now blogged about the 2011 Romantic Times Booklovers Convention except me. This isn’t because I have nothing to say about RT, it’s because I needed time to sort out all the things I wanted to say. Some of them are totally irrelevant (e.g., I completely hated the glass elevators at the Bonaventure), but some of them are more significant. Herewith, a selection of things I learned at RT:

1. The Nine Naughty Novelists (or at least the seven who attended RT) are the coolest women in the universe! You always worry that people you only know on line will turn out to be less nice in person. That so did not happen. And Skylar Kade became our go-to person for any and all organizing concerns.

2. For a midday book signing, be sure to have a Clif Bar in your purse. The mammoth event (over 300 authors) lasted from 10:45 until 2:00. By the time we emerged, I was ready to eat anything that wasn’t moving!

3. If you win an award, you’ll be expected to say something. I don’t know why I didn’t realize this. For some reason, I pictured a big cocktail party where I’d show my badge and be given this award that was sitting on a table somewhere. Instead, along with all the other award winners who attended the convention, I was seated in a reserved section and brought up on stage to say a few words. The more practiced award winners were locked and loaded. The rest of us stammered through something we could barely remember afterward (although Lindsey Faber, my redoubtable Samhain editor, assured me it was okay).

4. Boas, while fine in theory, have certain problems in reality. Ours left little trails of pin feathers whenever we wore them. After Kinsey Holley sat on my bed with her block boa, it looked like a large blackbird had molted on my pillow. And to add insult to injury, Kinsey herself sat on sombody’s purple boa that stained her white pants.

5. Five days of heavy earrings are about three days longer than my ears can stand. My earlobes are still aching.

6. Never discount the importance of comfortable shoes. I desperately love my Jambus (thanks REI), and I’m still stunned by Kelly Jamieson’s ability to wear stilettos at all times with ease and grace.

7. If you become Big Time, you can afford to be a mensch. I sat next to no less than Catherine Coulter at the awards ceremony, and she couldn’t have been nicer. On the other hand, some authors who weren’t quite into the Pantheon yet tended to be a bit more snotty, particularly with lesser authors in the vicinity.

8. Desiree Holt, whom I knew when I was a member of San Antonio Romance Authors, is phenomenal. A hundred books and still going strong (and still giving advice to all aspiring authors who ask). I do want to be Desiree when I finally grow up.

9. If someone offers you something to eat, for heaven’s sake take it! Between cocktail parties, balls, costume parties, etc., etc., etc. you never know when you’ll get a chance to dine. Unless, of course, PG Forte is one of your company, in which case you can always drop by her room for a nosh.

10. At book signings, you’re usually placed alphabetically. This meant that this year, unfortunately, both Juniper Bell and I got placed next to one author’s eleven-year-old son who was selling his self-published children’s books. This is a truly lousy idea, no matter how sophisticated you think your kid is, and it’s very tough on the authors who have to try to decide how to arrange their books and promo so that they don’t seem to be contributing to the delinquency of a minor. So the take-away from this is leave your kids at home, or at the very least, do not set your kids up with a stall at an adult book signing.

11. RT will help you get over your hang-ups about male sex objects. Sort of. All these cover models are wandering around competing for Mr. Romance. After a while I was able to ignore my impulse to ask what they really did for a living (I think it was Erin Nicholas who pointed out that guys never ask the female models at auto shows about this).

12. Impromptu parties in publishers’ suites sound like a good idea, but they don’t always work out, particularly when the neighbors call security because of the noise (but it was only nine o’clock or so).

13. Costumes require a great deal of panache, more than I have anyway. Next year I think I’ll stick to large earrings and black pantsuits. Hey, it works for Nora Roberts!

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Judge Not

I’ve been judging contests for a few years now. I started doing it because I figured since I benefitted from contests as an unpublished writer, I should pay my dues by serving as a judge too. Judging contests for unpublished writers is pretty straightforward. As a rule, you only see the first couple of chapters along with a synopsis. And the basic principle you go by is whether you’d want to go on reading this book if you had the whole thing in front of you.

Since unpublished manuscripts are also, usually, unedited, you also have to deal with typos, clumsy phrasing, and, occasionally, mechanical errors. Some contests tell you to pay no attention to this, but I always think that’s a mistake. Anything that detracts from the overall impression of a manuscript should be noted, and that definitely includes problems with the writing itself. Too many, and the chances are an editor or an agent will toss it on the discard pile.

However, this year for the first time I became a judge in contests for published writers. And suddenly, you’re in a whole different category. These aren’t manuscripts, they’re books. And they’ve been edited, so most clumsiness is gone. You’re now judging the book the way the book should be judged—on its story, its characters, its pacing. Only, of course, you’re not really doing that, at least not only that.

When you sign up to judge a contest, you indicate what genres you’re willing to read, so that you can avoid the kind of romance you’d usually avoid in your book-buying decisions. But you soon discover that these broad categories include both the kinds of books you normally read and the kinds of books you may avoid. Maybe you signed up to judge paranormal, but you suddenly realize you meant vampires and they’re sending you werewolves. Or you signed up to judge romantic suspense and you come to the conclusion that you really don’t like books with paramilitary heroes.

Erotica is a particularly charged genre. Some contests have a specific category for erotic romance, but many don’t. And some judges get a little crazy when it comes to erotic content. I know one judge who sends any book with “erotica” on the cover back to the contest administrators with a stiff note saying she refuses to read this stuff. Another judge marks all erotic books “wrong category” because they’re the wrong category for her. This latter judge, by the way, violates all kinds of judging guidelines when she does this, but she’s on her own personal crusade and woe be anybody who gets in her way.

So what do you do if you end up with a book in a category you don’t particularly like? In my case, I try to take on a different persona as I read, i.e., I may not read paramilitary romance as a rule, but if I did, would I like this? That may sound a little insane, but it sometimes works for me. You can ask yourself whether the problems you encounter are genre related (i.e., are they ones that a typical reader wouldn’t object to) or whether they really are a problem for the writer herself. You have to ask yourself if, leaving aside the paramilitary stuff, the plot works, the characters are interesting, and the story is engrossing.

The point is, when you read a contest entry, you can’t entirely read it as yourself. You’ve got to be able to judge the book on its own merits, not on some personal scale that’s largely specific to you. Does that work? Maybe. You hope so anyway. And I’d suggest it’s a lot better than deciding that you’re going to rid the world of dirty books, one contest entry at a time.

 

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Sisterly Love

Gypsy Rose LeeI recently finished reading Karen Abbott’s American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s one of those historical biographies that includes a healthy dash of something approaching fiction (e.g., Abbott recreates Gypsy’s last thoughts as she’s rushed to the hospital in an ambulance). I enjoyed it—sort of. It’s very well written and it presents a vivid picture of America in the twenties and thirties. But it’s not exactly what you’d call a fair biography of Gypsy Rose Lee.

For those of you who have never heard of her, Gypsy was a stripper in the thirties and forties. But she was a stripper with a difference—she kept a running monologue going as she took her clothes off, spoofing herself, her audience, and even the very idea of stripping. She was also a writer, appearing in venues as sophisticated as The New Yorker, and her autobiography, Gypsy, was the source of the well-known musical.

I remember Gypsy—not well, but well enough to know she was the archetypal example of a “dame.” Smart, funny, pragmatic, and outspoken, she was a helluva broad, and, like a lot of other people, I liked her. In Abbott’s portrait, she’s all of that, but she’s also conniving, selfish, vulgar, and somewhat depraved. Abbott doesn’t really approve of her, and biographers who don’t like their subjects frequently don’t do a particularly good job of portraying them fairly.

I think the real problem, though, lies in Abbott’s source for much of the “intimate” detail about Gypsy—her sister, June Havoc. June was an actress and director, but she never achieved the level of fame that her sister did. Gypsy died in 1970 at the age of 59. June died in 2010 at the age of 95. Unfortunately, it’s the survivors who tell the stories, and much of American Rose has the slightly nasty smell of revenge. It’s June who supplies all the evidence of Gypsy’s depravity, including the rather shaky implication that Gypsy was a murderer. It’s June who claims that Gypsy’s striptease act was degrading, and who regards her sister’s fame as evidence of her corruption. It’s June who claims that she threw a fur coat Gypsy gave her for Christmas into the fireplace because she refused to take anything purchased by stripping (and I found myself thinking, Yeah, sure you did).

Abbott repeatedly damns Gypsy for providing fictional versions of herself, but it apparently doesn’t occur to her that June was equally capable of inventing the version of herself she wanted Abbott to see. Despite an occasional reference to June’s earlier peccadilloes, Abbott calls her a “national treasure” without really questioning her motives in slamming her sister.

There’s a moral here, and this is it. When you die, who’ll be around to tell your story? Will your relatives be kind, or will they take the opportunity to give you a couple of good kicks when you’re down? If ever I needed a reason to make sure my relations with my family are good, American Rose definitely supplies it. However, if you want a more enjoyable portrait of Gypsy, even if it’s a highly sanitized one, I recommend her own version of events in her autobiography rather than her sister’s version that Abbott provides. As they once said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

 

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