Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tales of the Arabian Nights (Board Game)

Each year whooshes by faster and faster. The last few months have been a whirlwind and the next couple don't look much better, but I did take some time off to hang out with my family.

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and got to spend time with those you care about. 

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a cool board game called Tales of the Arabian Nights. When I first hefted the gift, I thought it was filled with bricks, but it wasn't. It was full of pages and pages of game material. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure on steroids.

Unlike most board games, this one is about the story and less about the winning. If you're the kind of person who MUST.WIN.GAME. then you might not enjoy this. To be honest, I'm fairly competitive but I'm able to turn that off for this game. It's really fun to see all the crazy things that happen. Sometimes the fates are on your side, sometimes they're not. 

I enjoy creating a story as I go along. Here's how it works. Everyone starts the game with a random quest. You can ignore this quest if you want, but I like to build my whole character around it. Last night I discovered my father was the King of Thieves and I had to steal some awesome loot in order to take over as his heir.

I traveled through the desert and mountains to Constantinople. The first person I tried to rob enslaved me, then I had to go searching for money to buy my freedom. After many turns, I escaped slavery and obtained one of the quest relics. Huzzah! On my way across the sea to India I aided a prince and successfully escaped a merman attack. The next person I robbed threw me in jail where I rotted for many turns. But it turned out to be a good thing because I met a jailer who taught me some skills that I used to get the last relic and claimed my title.

I didn't win the game, but I had a blast trying to fit the crazy encounters into a cohesive story.

If you like stories and board games, and have a couple hours to play. You might enjoy this game. I know I do. And my older kids do too.

* The image of the cover of the game belongs to Z-Man games.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bound by C.K. Bryant (Book Review)

I know I promised shorter posts, but I had a hard time cutting this one down.

Bound by C. K. Bryant is like a YA Paranormal with romance, tension, action, and suspense. It also adds elements of magic, alchemy, and pseudo-science fiction to create a unique backdrop that shows off strong characters and compelling scenes.

The story starts with Kira—your typical high school girl—and her best friend Lydia, then continues to grow in scope all the way through to the end.

As a debut novel, Christine delivers a good story. She has strong scenes and does an excellent job evoking emotion. For me, the story slowed down in the middle, but it picked up at the end in a big way. Christine writes strong, complex characters with internal motivations and feelings.

If you're not into indie published books because of the low quality, you don't have to worry about this one. The whole book from cover, to layout, to editing was clean and very professional.

(Warning: A few minor spoilers ahead.)

There was one aspect of the story that bothered me so much, I almost didn't write this review. Octavion, the male lead in the story, has several weaknesses. One of them is physical aggression. This is not new to the YA Paranormal genre, but in this story it crossed the line to physical abuse.

I've known several women who have lived through abuse, and I guess that makes me especially sensitive. It is devastating. The women I know still feel its effects many, many years later.

I'm not telling you these things to scare you away from this book, but I need to tell you a few more things.

During the story Octavion shoves Kira several times, slams her against a tree, chokes her, holds her bodily against a car while she tries to escape, drugs her, kidnaps her, takes her to a place he knows is dangerous and she ends up breaking her arm, etc. After each of these episodes, he is extremely apologetic and even ashamed. Which is pretty typical in an abusive relationship.

With all this in mind, I was surprised to read the following reviews:

"Octavion . . . gives opportunities for swooning if you're the swooning type." - Mere Motherhood

"Believe me, Octavion will make you swoon." - Writing 4 Me

"Favorite moments involve a waterfall and a shirtless hottie named Octavian, . . . and some great kissing scenes that leave Kira—the main character—and the reader breathless." - Randomish

"Octavion . . . is a total hottie." - Rachelle's Writing Spot

"Octavion from Bound is one of my favorite new heroes, and I have to say, I'm a happily married woman, but he did make my heart go pitty-pat at least a couple of times." - Tristi Pinkston

"Octavian is a hot bundle of man that I'd love to meet one day." - Cindy M. Hogan

Then I realized something. Christine got it right.

There is something in the psyche of a woman that is drawn to the dangerous man. Just like there is something in the male psyche drawn to the mean girl. It's not an admirable part of us, but it's there. And Christine captured it in her story.

The real world is not a perfect place, and neither is Bound. I know Octavion can find redemption someday, but I hope it's with someone else and after he spends a couple years in prison because Kira deserves so much better.

It's not often that a fiction story (and a YA Paranormal at that) makes me think about a topic this deeply. I've wrestled my thoughts and emotions for weeks. I feel I have a better understanding why women stay in these dangerous relationships. So, I encourage you to go out and read the book, then let me know what you think in the comments.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

After Dynamic Views (Technical Tuesday)

Life after NaNoWriMo is finally getting back to some kind of normal. I'll be posting a few of my thoughts on NaNo later, but for this Technical Tuesday I'm going to report on my other grand experiment: Dynamic Views.

I switched my blog over a few months ago. During that time I tried most of the different views. In the end, I decided to go back to my previous template. Here's why.

Stats

From the moment I switched to Dynamic Views my page count skyrocketed. I expected this.

Take a look at a normal template. When you visit the main page it shows the latest 10 posts all at once. This counts as 1 page view. You see, Blogger doesn't know if you read one post or all 10. It just knows you loaded the page.

Dynmic Views are different. They only load what they need to. As the user scrolls down, it loads more and more posts. Each of these count as a page view. This means that if the person scrolled down through your first 7 posts, Blogger would count 7 page views.

I'm sorry to burst your bubble if you thought your blog became 10x more popular after switching to Dynamic Views. It probably didn't.

The real problem for me was the stats for individual posts didn't work the same. In other words, Blogger was counting how many total page views, but not which ones belonged to which post. This was annoying because I like to see which of my posts are most popular, but I couldn't figure out a way to do that.

For example, I had several thousand page views in October, but my most popular post was visited only 85 times. Really? Compound that with the fact that I had less than 40 posts published and you begin to see the problem. Where were all those "total page views" going?

Sidebar

I'm not a big fan of sidebars, but they do serve a purpose.

It may surprise you, but I don't blog just to see myself write. (Okay, maybe that wasn't a big surprise.) I want to build a platform I can use for other pursuits. I use the sidebar for that. My sidebar has an overview of the blog and information about me.

Also, my sidebar is used to spotlight posts and other places I think deserve a little extra attention. I have a place for my most popular posts, my friends and followers. In the future, I plan on featuring books and articles I've written.

The Dynamic Views didn't have any of this. They allowed my posts to be front-and-center, but they didn't allow for much else.

Confusion

The Dynamic Views didn't look enough like a blog. Sure they looked cool, but they were different enough that some people had a hard time figuring out what they could click on and what they couldn't. 

Sometimes readers had to click to read the entire post. A lot of people didn't do that. I know, that's mostly my fault. I could write posts better to have a hook "above the fold", but I didn't.

Conclusion

There you have my biggest concerns with the Dynamic Views.

From a technology perspective, I thought they were pretty cool. I like the dynamic loading, and if the stats issue could be resolved that would be a great thing. I think I could live without the sidebar if there were more ways to customize the layout and the look.

All in all, I enjoyed this little experiment and I hope to try more things like this in the future.

I can see why this castle is in ruins. Who knew it was built on such a slope? Babak Fakhamzadeh did a great job of "framing" it though. You can find this and other photos with frames on Flickr

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Some Housekeeping

I Like that Old Time Blog Template

I'm going back to the old look for awhile. My experiment with Dynamic Views was fun and I learned a lot. I'll be posting about that soon.

We are the Champions of NaNoWriMo


I crossed the 50K word goal, so I WON! Hooray! I'll be posting about that soon too. Now that I have time to get back onto a normal blogging schedule.

Who Wrote the Book of Paranormal?


I have at least one book I'm going to review. Maybe two.

Y'all Ready for This?

Wow, there's a lot to catch up on, and the holidays are sneaking up on me like an elephant on a Harley. I'm sure you all feel the same way.

If you're still working on NaNo—KEEP WRITING!

If you're not working on Nano—KEEP WRITING or READING or RUNNING or WOOD WORKING or whatever you do for personal fulfillment.

See you soon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I'm Sad

Don't worry about me. I'm sad for a good reason.

I've reached the point in my story where the MC is at the lowest. He and his friends are in the hospital. Despite his best efforts, he's lost Thor's hammer, gloves, and belt. Some people who were on his side turned out to be traitors. He's failed in his quest and has no hope of succeeding. I feel so bad for him.

I've been at this point in stories before. It's always hard emotionally, but this story seems to be even more acute. Since I haven't planned anything ahead of time, I don't have any idea how he's going to succeed either.

I'm interested to see what the next 15K words have in store, both for my MC and for me.

Keeping Track of NaNoWriMo IRL (In Real Life)

I bet you're wondering why I have a picture of pretty fingernails on my blog today.

My friend and fellow writer, Marta Smith has an awesome way she keeps her NaNoWriMo status. She paints her fingernails blue, and I mean Blue. That's to remind her to write. Then she adds silver crackle to one nail for every 5,000 words she finishes. So her fingernails become a visible progress bar. Isn't that awesome!

I just have one problem: I'm a guy, and as much as I would totally paint my fingernails as a joke or for Halloween, I'm not going to go to work all month with painted fingernails.

So, here are a few ideas for my fellow dudes to track our NaNo status IRL. (Dudettes, you can use them too if you want.)

Public Shaming Option
Go ahead and paint your fingernails just like Marta. Choose a bright, bold color. Then for every 5K words you can remove the paint from one nail.

I predict that the guys who use this option will be finished with their 50K before the first work day of the month (or they'll take a couple sick days).

Discomfort Option #1
While this one is not as effective as the first, it hits a little closer to the wallet.

Go get 10 credit-card-sized cards. These can be from your stash of store rewards cards you barely use, or credit cards, old calling cards, empty gift cards, whatever. You just need 10. Cram them into your wallet. You've got to sit on that uncomfortable beast until you hit your word count goals. For every 5K words take one out.

Discomfort Option #2
This one is similar to the other discomfort option. This time get 10 extra keys and put them on your primary key ring. Not the one you keep in your bag or on your nightstand. I'm talking about the keys you carry with you in your pocket everywhere you go. Painful, I know. But for every 5K words you get to take a key off.

Reverse Progress Bar
Go buy 10 of your favorite candy. Go ahead and get the good stuff, king-sized if you want. When you get home, hot glue all of it to some poster board. For every 5K words, take one off and enjoy. Bonus: If hot glue and poster board isn't manly enough for you feel free to epoxy those suckers to a 2x4.

Discomfort Option #3
This one takes a bit more setup. Get an old T-shirt you don't wear anymore. I know you've got dozens of them. Then buy some Velcro (the kind that already has glue on the back) and 10 bean bags (you can usually pick these up for cheap at your local Goodwill). Attach the bean bags to the shirt with the Velcro. Make sure you use the soft side of the Velcro on the T-shirt.

Throw that lumpy mass of cloth and beans into your favorite recliner or your spot on the couch. You have to sit on it while watching TV, but for every 5K words you finish you can take one bean bag off the shirt.

I hope these ideas inspire some of my fellow writers to keep typing...Keep Typing...KEEP TYPING. We're halfway through. Huzzah!

If you have other creative ways to motivate you through Nano let me know in the comments.

* The photo is a real picture of Marta's nails near the beginning of the month. I think it was taken by Ali Cross. If you want to use it you'll have to get a hold of them. Thanks Ali and Marta for sharing this cool idea.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

My NaNoWriMo Groove

The other day Heather Justesen blogged about how she was able to win NaNoWriMo in 5 days. 5 days! She talked about her strategies and process for churning out 10K words a day.

I've been writing for NaNoWriMo, too. My current word count is 28,126. Which means I'm on track to winning. Hooray!

My goal for this NaNoWriMo challenge was to practice some new things. One of those things was to write without an outline.

Scary.

I admit, I'm a hard-nosed planner. Just ask my writers group. All through October I wanted to make an outline or at least some notes, but I resisted. I don't know if that was the best decision, but I wanted to try writing completely by the seat of my pants at least once.

Seriously, how can you know if your way is best if you don't try other ways?

I started strong. Even though I resisted planning, I'd had the beginning scenes bouncing around in my head. But by day 4 I felt like I was on the edge of washing out. I didn't know where my story was going. I didn't know who the bad guy was, or even all the good guys. Did I mention this was scary for me?

It's been 12 days now, and it's not bad. I have quite the groove going. Here's how it breaks down.

Each day, I grab a voice recorder and record the next couple scenes as they come to me. I usually do this while I'm driving somewhere or when I'm out for a walk. I just let the story flow. Sometimes I'm talking in first person, sometimes third, sometimes I end up recording stuff that sounds more like stage directions than a novel. I jump back and forth in time. In short, it's a cobbled together skeleton of a scene.

I tried doing this without the recorder (just talking to myself), but it didn't feel right. Having the recorder makes the process work. I don't know why.

Later in the day, I sit down and type what I recorded. I end up making a lot of tweaks and changes, but it follows the same basic flow.

I've been surprised to find that as soon as a scene is recorded, I can move on to the next one. If I don't record a scene it stays in my head like a road block keeping me from thinking of the next ones.

So far it's been a fun journey. I've learned that my imagination won't fail me. I don't know if pantsing is for me. I'm not done with the month yet, so it might grow on me.

What works best for you during the drafting process?

* I've always been fascinated by these slot canyons. Sadly, I never visited them while I lived in Utah, but I don't let my guilt keep me from enjoying awesome photographs like this one by Damian Michalski on Flickr.




Friday, November 4, 2011

NaNoWriMo Update

As you know, I'm writing a story for NaNoWriMo that is tentatively titled "I Can Finish This Story in a Month".

It's a small thing, but since I double click on that file hundreds of times it's nice to get the little cheerleader in the back of my mind saying, "I Can Finish This Story in a Month".

So far things are going well. I've written over 9,000 words. Hooray!

Here are few decent quotes.
"We're going to have to run for it." It was a long way around the school. We didn't have much time left, but we could still make it.
I ran to the right, but when I looked back Terry ran to the left. "This way. It's shorter."
"Yes, but this way is faster because you can go faster on the playground."
"Shorter is shorter."
"Faster is faster."
"Fine. You go your way and I'll go mine."
The bell was about the ring, I could feel it. We were going to be late. I didn't wait for him to say anything, I just ran. I didn't even look to see if Terry had come to his senses and followed me. I pounded my feet into the ground and swung my arms hard. I took the first corner and cut across the lawn. My heart started to beat faster and I breathed harder. Sucking air in and out. I weaved between a tree and the flower garden out front where they have the sign that shows all the important dates. Pizza day was coming up soon. I rounded the front of the school. My legs started to get tired, but I kept going. 
There were no cars parked on the curb and all the busses were gone. This was a bad sign. I couldn't see Terry yet, but he'd be coming around his corner soon. We could still make it.
Brrrrrrrrringggggggg!
Or not.
Poor Arthur, he was late for school. Then later that night:
I dreamed I was leading an army of ninjas disguised as guitar playing rock stars against Scott's army of paper sailboats, when someone turned on the lights in my room. It was a good thing too because, surprisingly, Scott was winning. I squinted my eyes shut even harder and brought the blankets over my head. "Not yet, Mom. I'm still tired."
The blankets didn't help. The light shone right through. Ugh. School always came too early. I slipped my head under my pillow then I remembered, today was Saturday. Were we going on a trip? I lifted up one side of the sheets to look at my clock. "It's two in the morning. I want to sleep."
Mom still didn't say anything. That wasn't like her. I felt a strange flicker in my head and along my back. It was like a little bit of electricity going up and down my body. I shivered and slowly pulled back my sheets. The whole room was so bright I couldn't see anything. I covered my eyes with both hands and tried to look through a little crack in one side.
Mom wasn't standing in her normal spot by the lightswitch. Maybe she was getting out clothes.
I spun my head and had to wait even longer for my eyes to adjust. I had one eye mostly uncovered when I saw the body builder. He was huge. His head almost touched the ceiling, his hair and beard was bright red, and he had muscles everywhere. I know because he was only wearing a pair of swim trunks with bright blue flowers printed on them. I pulled the covers over my head again.
To be honest, I don't know how well these quotes will read. I usually like to let things settle in my mind for a few days, but during Nano that's not an option. So, you get what you get.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? If so, WHY AREN'T YOU WRITING? (Just giving a little helpful encouragement, that's all.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pomodoro Technique - Surviving NaNoWriMo

This is my first year participating in NaNoWriMo, but as a computer programmer I'm no stranger to huge deadlines that require long-term focus to get done.

When work is mounting and time is dwindling I turn to the Pomodoro Technique to get me through the "hell weeks" with my sanity intact. It's simple. It's easy. It's powerful. And it strikes a good balance between pedal-to-the-medal activity and all-work-and-no-play-makes-John-a-dull-boy.

All you need to make this work is a simple timer. You've probably got one in your kitchen or on your phone. Either of those will work great. If you don't have one, I'll put some recommendations at the end of this post.
Step 1) Set your timer for 25 minutes. Put it somewhere you can see it. Start typing.
Step 2) When the timer dings, stop typing and save your work.
Step 3) Set your timer for 5 minutes and take a break. When the timer dings, go back to Step 1.

That's it. Like I said it's simple, but it works.

If anyone tries to interrupt you, point to the timer and tell them you'll be free in 11 minutes, or whatever your timer says. Then go back to work. There are very few things that can't wait a few minutes.

One of the keys, is to stop when the timer dings. Stop right then. Immediately. If you're in the middle of a sentence that's even better. It will help you get back into writing when you return from your break. Don't be tempted to keep going. You'll wear yourself out.

When I stop immediately, I've found that I get a burst of productivity when there's about five minutes left. When I don't follow the "Stop Immediately" rule I don't get this burst of productivity.

During your breaks, don't work on your manuscript. Sure, you'll end up having thoughts about your story, but try to make your break count. Stand up, walk away from the computer, stretch a little. Chat with a friend. Handle any of the interruptions that popped up. Anything except writing your story.

Then make sure to sit back down when the timer dings.

This technique does wonders for me. I hope you find it useful as well.

More Information

This post just scratches the surface. Go out to www.pomodorotechnique.com to learn even more about this amazing idea.

Timers

If you need a timer there are a lot out there.

On Windows or Mac I've used FocusBooster. They have an online version and a desktop version. I've also heard good things about Tomighty.

On both Android and iPhone there are built-in timer applications. They will work just fine.

If you want to download an app. On Android, I use Pomodroido. It's easy to use. It keeps track of how many sessions you've done and you can "level up" as you do more.

Since I don't have an iPhone, I don't have any recommendations here. All I can do is point you to this review by The Next Web that looks useful.

* Ooooo! Now I'm hungry for a tomato sandwich. The tomato picture was taken by photon_de and can be found on Flickr.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

NaNoWriMo Preparation

NaNoWriMo is less than . . . Seven. Days. Away. AAAAAAAAAAGH!

You should have seen the looks on my kids faces when I ran screaming from the room. It was a curious mix of "My Dad's a goofball" and "Not again." I think I also detected some eye-rolling. I guess they know me too well.

If you're like me, there are still some things you need to get ready for NaNoWriMo. My wife wrote several great blog posts on the topic. I recommend you read them.

I know she has other posts planned, so you'll have to check back to learn more.

I'm usually a plotter when it comes to writing, but this year I'm trying something different. I'm attempting to "pants" a novel. You know, like, write it by the seat of my pants. It's a little scary for me, but I'm also curious to see how well it works. I've never done it, so who knows? Maybe the story will turn out better.

If you're a pantser as well, you'll enjoy Elana Johnson's post on how she gears up for NaNoWriMo. I did.
The votes are in. I'm going to write the Middle Grade Fantasy story about Arthur and Thor. Not only did it get the most votes (thanks guys), but I think it will work better with my pantsing experiment. Middle Grade is supposed to be quirky and evoke a strong sense of wonder.

I'll be posting a few more thoughts on NaNoWriMo this week, so stay tuned.

* The NaNoWriMo logo belongs to the Office of Letters and Light. To learn more about NaNoWriMo or to participate visit NaNoWriMo.org.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Laughing with Agents

I suspect most of you already follow Rachelle Gardner's blog. If not, don't worry, you can still repent of this gross omission.

On Friday, she asked "How many agents does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Yesterday, she posted the winners, and they are hilarious.

Laughter is a great way to start the week.

* Just eight more days to NaNoWriMo!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Help for NaNoWriMo

It's almost November, and you know what that means. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. It's when tens of thousands of writers throw caution to the wind and attempt to write a 50,000-word story in a single month.

It's not as crazy as it sounds, but it isn't easy.

My plans are to try something new. I normally write contemporary YA fantasy. I'll stick with fantasy, but change the audience and time period. It'll be good practice and a good break from editing.

The problem is that I have two stories I want to write and I can only do one of them, so here's were you come in. I've written a blurb for each story below. In the comments tell me which one you think sounds the best and why. I'll write whichever wins. I'll also try to post story updates on my blog as I go through the month.

Blurb #1:
The Norse God, Thor, decides to take a long-overdue vacation, and he leaves his mighty hammer in the care of his great, great, great, are-you-still-reading-all-of-these, great, great grandson, Arthur Quirkelsteen, the smallest boy in his fourth-grade class. Arthur first tries to fly to school, but misses it by three states. Then he ruins his class service project--who knew the hammer would refuse to drive nails? But when his secret is discovered by the cafeteria lady he must keep the hammer safe until his great, great, great, he-is-pretty-great, great grandfather returns.
Blurb #2:
Elizabeth stands in the balance between an immoral peace and a war with the gods. She believes in the old gods--creatures who feed on human souls and grant fantastic powers to their followers, but she is also the daughter of a famous industrialist--a man who uses human labor, machines and money to build empires. Will she support the continued sacrifices to appease the gods? Or the slavery enforced by the industrialists? Or will her actions start a war that could spell the end of her society?
Leave a comment below and tell me which one you like better.

* You gotta wonder how long that place has been looking for help. I hope you guys step up and send help a little faster. It made a great picture for Brenda Gottsabend. You can find it on Flickr.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

There's a Fire Burnin' on the Dance Floor

Last Saturday I got a call from a friend. His DJ partner was sick and he asked me if I could help.

Could I help? Of course. I enjoy music and he has a sweet setup. I also like dancing. Not to brag or anything, but I was good back in the day.

We played a youth barn dance. The whole time we had to balance body-thumpin' base vs. blowing the fuses. Yes, I said fuses. The whole barn was on the same circuit, so if we blew something we'd take all the lights out with us. That would have been . . . let's not think about that.

I did have a great time and I learned two things.

First, there's a lot of good music out there that I've never heard before.

Second, kids haven't changed much.

There were the shy kids hanging around the edges who'd often refuse to dance even when asked. There were the cool kids who had too much to lose to try anything new, so they mainly stood around chatting except for the slow songs. There were the kids who just came for the food and socialization. And there were the few who knew every step to every line dance and were dancing almost every song.

As a writer, this made me smile. I didn't grow up with powerful computers connected to the internet in my pocket. I didn't have social networking or text messages. Or thousands of songs literally at my fingertips. But even with all these changes, underneath it all, people are still people. Our hopes and fears, our personality, who we are--that hasn't changed that much.

* Back in the late 80's I got to see a huge outdoor laser light show. I've liked them ever since. But it's hard to capture them on film. Fabio Venni did an awesome job. You can check out the full version on Flickr.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Putting Boxes Around Text (Technical Tuesday)

Let's go outside the box . . . and inside the box. In fact, let's talk about the box itself. I've had a few people ask me how I put boxes around text.

Like this.

It's not hard to do, and I've made a tool for you to quickly create your own.

Note: This tool may not show up in a news reader. You'll need to visit the blog.



There are some basic instructions included with the tool. If you need more details, I've got your back. Read on.

Box Content

You can type as much text as you want into the box.

You can also put HTML in there. This means that you can have images, buttons, multiple paragraphs, whatever.

Widths

There are three widths you can control with this tool.
  • Border Width: The thickness of the line.
  • Inside Padding: The space between the line and the text inside.
  • Outside Margin: The space between the line and everything outside.
Here's a quick graphic that may make more sense, or you can just play around with the settings. As you change them the Preview will be updated.


Colors

All that's left is choosing some colors.

Get the Code

Now that your box looks just right, switch to the "Get the Code" tab. There you can copy the code and paste it into the HTML view of your blog post. You can also use this code on your website.

Happy Boxing.

* Origami is one of my wow-I-wish-I-could-do-that-but-not-enough-to-actually-practice skills. So when I see things like this decorative box, I'm in awe. And Dominic Alves did a great job photographing it. You can find it and others on Flickr.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"All of Me" by Jon Schmidt (Video)


What makes great art? What makes a great artist?

I've been looping this video for several days now. I think I'm personally responsible for at least 50 views. It inspires me, excites me, energizes me. 



Isn't that what our favorite art does? It lifts us up for a brief moment. It fills us until we are forced to expand ourselves or let some of the essence overflow.

And like any great artist, Jon Schmidt makes it look easy. It's like the music is flowing directly from him. When I hear this, I don't hear the years of practice or the fingering techniques. I hear MUSIC. No, I hear more than music. Don't you?

This is why, as a writer, you need to read. Read great stories by great authors. They will teach you. They will entertain you. But most of all, they will inspire you. 

I recently heard a successful writer say than any time he experienced writers block it was a sign that he wasn't reading enough.

Thanks Piano Guys for a wonderful and inspiring YouTube channel. Thanks Jon Schmidt for sharing your inspiration and the fruits of your hard-won talent with us.

Now, I feel like writing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Death Cure (Book Review)

I just finished The Death Cure by James Dashner.

Wow!

I started reading the first chapter and didn't come up for air until page 240. Then I dove right back, finishing the whole thing in one session.

In this final book in the Maze Runner trilogy, James has heightened everything: the tension, the stakes, the emotions, the sacrifices, the setting, everything. If you liked the first books, I think you'll love this one.

Some of you may recall my one-word review of The Scorch Trials. Why?!

Why had the world changed? Why were kids subjected to such callous tests? Why did so many people have to die? If you felt the same way, you'll be happy to know that this book has the answers.

On a personal note, I've been a Dashner fan for many years and I can't wait to see what amazing story he comes up with next. If you ever get a chance to take a class from him, or hear him speak, or watch him present at a school, do it. He's a lot of fun. The next best thing is following his blog or Twitter.

Monday, October 3, 2011

How to Set a Background Image with Dynamic Views (Technical Tuesday)

I figured out how to jump Hurdle #1 in my continuing journey to use Blogger's new Dynamic Views. If you remember, I wanted a way to make it more my own and not just black and white.

While the new views are cool, they don't have near the customization available to the normal templates.

I first tried to use my old background, but it didn't work at all. It was too big and didn't look right in all the different views. One thing I've had to get used to is that my readers can choose any of the views they want, so I have to test my customization using all of them. It's not hard to do, but it's something you need to remember.

I experimented with several options to get my background working, but ended up choosing a simple one: I cropped the image.
  1. Crop or re-size your background image to be 65 pixels high and as wide as you need. Mine is 1600 pixels wide.
  2. Login to your Blogger Dashboard -> Templates.
  3. Click the "Customize" button below the "Live on Blog" template, and the Blog Template Designer will open.
  4. Select Background then click on the down-arrow next to the current background image.
  5. Upload your newly-cropped image.
  6. Choose the alignment that works best. You can see the results in the preview pane.
  7. Select "Don't tile".
  8. Apply the changes to your blog.
My image looked great, but I couldn't read my blog title because it was the wrong color. There isn't a simple way to do this, so I had to use the Advanced settings.
  1. Login to your Blogger Dashboard -> Templates.
  2. Click the "Customize" button below the "Live on Blog" template, and the Blog Template Designer will open.
  3. Select Advanced then enter the following code into the Add CSS field.

    #header .header-bar .title h1 { color: white; } 

    Change the color to whatever you need. You can either use a color name like I did ("white"), or specify the color using RGB or hexadecimal. If I just lost you, don't worry, there's more details on each option and and examples below.
  4. Apply the changes to your blog.
HTML Color Names

The list of accepted names can be found in many places online. I prefer to use W3Schools.com. They not only have great information, but they also have many tutorials that teach different web technologies.
List of HTML Color Names
RGB and Hexadecimal Colors

You can also specify colors by RGB values. To do this, use the following code:
#header .header-bar .title h1 { color: RGB(256,256,256); }
Or you can specify using the color's hexadecimal value. It looks like this:

#header .header-bar .title h1 { color: #FFFFFF; }
These codes can usually be found in an image editor or color picker. A decent place to get these codes is using the HTML Color Mixer page.

I'm going to work on a couple more hurdles this week. If you find this information useful let me know.

* Don't stare at the picture for too long, you might go cross-eyed. It's mesmerizing though. The image was created by fdecomite and can be found on Flickr.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I Have Dynamic Views (Technical Tuesday - Special)

My initial impression: Dynamic Views aren't quite ready for everyone.

In this post, I'll walk you through the switch-over and some of the hurdles I encountered. There's a fair number of them and I don't want this post to become negative. I'm going to keep working on finding a way over each of them and will post my suggestions as I figure things out.

The Big Switch

Switching to Dynamic Views is very easy. Here's what my blog looked like before:


  1. Login to your Blogger Dashboard and go to the Templates section.
  2. Make a backup of your current template. I posted instructions for doing this a couple days ago.
  3. Select one of the Dynamic Views and apply it to your blog.
  4. Done.
I decided to use the Classic view mostly because it was the first one in the list. Here's my blog after the switch.


The Hurdles

The new view is simple, clean, and worked like a charm. All my posts showed up and were formatted well. I don't use a lot of fancy formatting in my posts, so I didn't expect any problems with this.

Hurdle #1: Branding

I like the new look and how it makes it easy to read posts, but I want to make it a bit more my own. Right now, there aren't a lot of people using the new views, but as more people use them my blog will blend into the sea of simple black & white.

The new views are all about the content. They push everything else to the background and put the posts in the spotlight. I think this is a good thing.

Still, I want to put my own spin on it, and this is hard to do right now.

Hurdle #2: Who Am I?

As you can tell, my sidebar is gone along with all the gadgets. So, how are people supposed to know who I am? How can they find my profile? How can they find me on Twitter or Facebook or Google+?

Hurdle #3: I Lost My Friends

I haven't really lost my blog followers, but you can't see them anymore.

Honestly, this doesn't bother me much. I know there are many people who put a lot of emphasis on how many Followers they have. The problem is that there are so many other ways to follow a blog than clicking on the "Follow" link.

If you're a reader who uses the Follow button to keep up on blogs then you're out of luck.

Hurdle #4: No Preview

I don't know if this is related to switching to Dynamic Views but since switching over I can't Preview my blog posts. The button is grayed out.

Hurdle #5: Tags and Archives


This isn't really a hurdle. It's just different. The new search feature is way cool. Just start typing in the box and it will filter the posts like magic.

Hurdle #6: Money, money, money, mo-ney

If you use your sidebar, header, or footer for ad space, then it's gone.

Hurdle #7: Platform

Most blogs use their sidebar as a platform to promote products, other blogs/websites, events, and show off their awards. The sidebar is gone, so how can people see the cover of your latest book and purchase it? Or see your most recent blogging awards?

To be completely honest, most people don't see those things anyway. When was the last time you visited a blog and just perused down the sidebar looking for something interesting? Even if your answer was "just five minutes ago" ask yourself how many time a week do you do that? Not often.

People aren't looking at your sidebar much at all. And if your visitors are like me they rarely see your sidebar ever. I read blog posts in Google Reader. This means that I only see your posts formatted the way I like to read them, nothing more.

Still, I think the sidebar images are like billboards. Marketers learned long ago that billboards rarely drive sales directly. Instead, they reinforce a brand. When you see a billboard over and over again, you form a subconscious relationship with that company. Then when it comes down to making a sales decision, your familiarity will give them an upper hand.

The new views have torn down all the billboards. Great for people who think they are eyesores, not so great for people who want to promote their brand.

Hurdle #8: Copyright

I try to be a stickler for copyright. I make sure I only use images and quotes with permission and I try to give proper attribution. For example, my header image is based on the Night Sky theme by Ray Creations. In my old template, I added this attribution to the footer. The new view doesn't have a footer, so where do I put this?

Also, everything I post on my blog (unless otherwise noted) is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. This means that anyone can use any quote, image, or whole posts from my blog without asking as long as they give me proper attribution. This information used to be in my footer.

Hurdle #9: Javascript is Broken

This won't apply to many of you, but I use custom javascript in several of my posts. For example, the tool I made to create image buttons. It doesn't work anymore, and I'm sad about that. I know that it's possible to make it work because one of the Google blogs did it. I just need to figure out how.

The Finish Line

Whew! That's a lot of hurdles, but I'm planning on finding a way over each of them. If you have any suggestions put them in the comments. Or if you want to add a hurdle or two--feel free.

How do you like the new view?

* The hurdles photo was taken by David Morris and can be found on Flickr. I'm short, so this is pretty much exactly how I envision skyscrapers hurdles.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How to Backup Your Blogger Template (Technical Tuesday - Special)

I enjoy reading Nathan Hale's blog. He's an incredible artist/illustrator and often tells stories, a page at a time, on his blog. He shares tips, advice, and events from his life. He also runs some really fun contests. You should follow him.

A couple months back he re-designed his blog. That sounds boring, but he allowed his readers to see each step and even participate in the decisions. He'd  post some new artwork and get feedback, then we'd see the blog change. Sometimes the changes didn't work out the first time and he'd try again. It was a lot of fun and I learned from it, too.

I hope that this journey will also be entertaining and educational. I don't think I can compete with Nathan's illustrations, but I'll do the best I can.

With that high bar to clear, let's get started.

Step Numero Uno

The first step on our Dynamic Views journey is to create a backup. I've put a lot of work into my current setup and I don't want to lose it. Also, if I don't like my changes I want an easy way out. In this post, I'll walk you through creating a backup of your Blogger template.

Official Backup

Blogger provides a way to download a file with all your template information. You have to be using the updated version of the Blogger Dashboard, because the backup option doesn't appear to be in the old interface.
  1. Go to your Blogger Dashboard.
  2. If you see a link near the top of the screen that says "Try the updated blogger interface" then click it. If not, you're good.
  3. Go to the Template section of the Dashboard.
  4. Click the "Backup/Restore" button on the top-right.
  5. Then click "Download full template" and save the file to your computer.
Fail-Safe

One of my rules for backups is that I need to be able to understand them. The file Blogger creates is nice and easy, but I like to have a fail-safe--something that I can understand without a lot of technology. In this case, I'm mostly interested in recording how my blog looks, so a screenshot will do the trick.

The backup file Blogger creates is an XML file. I work with these all the time, so I could probably recreate everything from that if I had to, but a little more insurance is a good thing. Especially when it won't cost that much.

I took four screenshots of my blog to get the header, sidebar, and footer information. I also copied the text and html out of a few of my sidebar widgets and pasted them into a text document for safe keeping.

I saved all the files in a single directory.

Simple Test

We're done, right? Wrong.

This is the step people skip. They think, "I've got a backup, now I'm safe." But you don't know that until you try it.
  1. Go back to your Dashboard -> Templates.
  2. Click on "Backup/Restore" again.
  3. This time Choose your backup file and Upload it.
  4. Now, check out your blog and make sure everything still looks good.
If everything worked, nothing will change on your blog. It should look exactly like it did before. If there is a problem, then you can either use the screenshots (our fail-safe) to put everything back. Or you can keep moving ahead with the knowledge that you don't have a good backup. It's up to you.

Full Test

My next test was to switch my blog over to a Dynamic View and then restore it back again. I wanted to make double-sure I could go back if I needed to. This may seem like overkill, but I would rather know that I'm working without a safety net instead of believing that there is a safety net protecting me.

Note: Please read all the steps before trying this. I ran into problems part way through this test.
  1. Go back to your Dashboard -> Templates.
  2. Select one of the Dynamic Views and Apply it on your blog.
  3. Visit your blog and make sure the new view works.
  4. Go back to your Dashboard -> Templates.
I know what you're thinking, "Just click on Backup/Restore and upload the backup file." Well, I tried that and it didn't work. Agh! It appeared to work , but my blog never changed.

See? This is why it's good to test each piece as you go.

I did discover a work-around. You're mileage may vary.
  1. I chose one of the "Simple" templates and applied it to my blog.
  2. Then I was able to click on Backup/Restore and Upload my file.
My blog looked the same, so the backup worked. Hooray!

I suspect there is a bug that doesn't allow the older templates to be uploaded when a Dynamic View is active. If Blogger fixes this then you won't need the work around.

Now that we have a backup and we know it works, we're ready to embark on the Dynamic Views journey.

Thanks for hanging in there with me. I know this post was a bit dry. I felt it was important to cover--not only for this journey, but also for any time you want to make big changes to your Blogger template. I hope you find it useful.

Tomorrow, I switch to using a Dynamic View. Which one do you think I should try first?

* They don't make night deposit boxes like that anymore. This photo by Mira Hartford can be found on Flickr.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blogger Dynamic Views (Technical Tuesday - Special)

Blogger just announced a new template feature called Dynamic Views. They change the way your readers can see and use your blog in some dramatic ways. Here's a video trailer Blogger put together that gives you a quick introduction:


Over the next few days, I'm going to try out each of the views and give you my thoughts. I'll also post the steps I used to get each one working.

I'm sure some of the views won't be right for this style of blog, but I'm going to try them anyway--for science. Okay, maybe not for science, but it should be fun.

Try It Out Now

Blogger has a way to try out the new views without changing anything on your blog. You can go right ahead and see what yours will look like if you switched. I don't know if it's completely accurate, but it's worth a shot.

Just type the URL of your blog (or anyone else's) and click Preview to see.


.blogspot.com

A Quick Warning

If you use a custom template (like Cutest Blog on the Block or Hot Bliggety Blog) then you might have some problems. I tried previewing couple blogs and they mostly worked, but some of the views had problems. I don't know if this is because of the custom template or because of stray codes in their posts.

The new views won't have any of your cool themes (background, colors, etc). I'll be researching how to make that happen.

Why It's  Cool

Before I get into the technical pieces over the next several posts, I thought I'd share a couple points that I think make these new views cool.

First, "Infinite Scrolling". This is what Blogger is calling it, but it means that your readers will be able to keep scrolling through your posts without having to click a "See previous posts" link. Your visitor can scroll all the way back to your first post if they want to.

When I find a blog I like, I typically scan through until I get to the bottom of the page then move on. Now, I could keep scrolling and scrolling. This will allow me to see a lot more content before I visit someone else. Cool.

Second, "More Content". The new views allow for more of your posts to be accessible faster. Currently, blogs fill the front screen with the latest post. You might see the top of the next post if the first one is short.

With the new views more of your posts will be visible "above the fold". I hope this leads to visitors clicking on more than one post. It can also lead to your popular posts getting more visits. Cool.

Why It May Not Be Cool

It's not all singing birds and happy elves. I can think of a couple problems with the new layouts.

First, "Where's the sidebar and gadgets?" A standard feature of many blogs is the sidebar. Some blogs have multiple sidebars that go on and on and on. But I don't see that feature with the new templates. Maybe it's there. I'll have to let you know when I try them out.

Second, "Pictures, pictures, pictures". Many of the new views put a heavy emphasis on the images you include in your posts. If you don't have a lot of images, or your images are low quality, this could adversely affect your visitors. The new views will even pull images out of old posts to show, so if you have a bunch of old, blurry images it might not be pretty.

Aaaaand We're Off

Stay tuned for my experiments with the different views, and if you have any questions put them in the comments and I'll work them into my research.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Use Multiple Browsers (Technical Tuesday)

The web is a marvel. It changed our society in so many ways. And like most marvels it does a great job of working even if you don't understand how. Think of your car, or your air conditioner, or your refrigerator. You may know some about how they work, but mostly you just let them do their job.

Today I'm going to teach you a teensy bit more about how the web works. Don't worry, it won't get complicated, and having this knowledge will help you if you have your own website or blog. It may also help you if you've ever visited a site that didn't work.

We're going to talk about browsers and why you should have more than one.

Ice-breaker

Back in high school I worked as a summer camp counselor. Before camp began they held a series of training meetings. At the first one we usually played an icebreaker game. You know the drill--they force you to interact with all the strangers in the room?

One game involved picking a person out of the group and showing them a simple line drawing. The person described the drawing while everyone else drew what they understood. In the end, we'd all show our drawings. Often the results were--how should I put this--awful. Then they'd pick someone else to be publicly embarrassed It.

How this game was supposed to help us get along better, I'm still not sure. But it is a great example of how the web works.

Browser-breaker

Quick Definition:
Browser: Short for "Internet Browser" or "Web Browser". This is the program you use to access the web. The most common browsers are Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, and Mobile Devices.

Any time you go to a website it sends a stream of letters and images to your computer. Your browser receives these data and displays it to you. Using our icebreaker game, imagine that the website is the person describing the picture and your browser is the one trying to draw it.

Browsers have been playing this "game" for a long time. They're pretty good at getting things right, but there are still small differences (and sometimes major differences) between the browsers.

Have you ever gone to a blog and seen all the wonderful comments, but it won't let you leave one? Or have you visited a website and everything looked all messed up? Has anyone ever told you that YOUR blog or website was messed up, but it looks just fine to you? Many times, these are symptoms of the different browsers "drawing different pictures".

This is why, as a provider of web content, you need to test out your product in all the major browsers. You'll be surprised how different each one looks, and you may even discover why some of your users complain that they can't see your stuff.

Get the Browsers

All the major browsers are freely available to download and install. I recommend installing Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome. This will cover over 80% of your potential readers. If you have a big following using Macs you'll also want to install Safari.

Click on the following links to download and install. If you already have a browser you don't need to install it again.
Quick Tour

Each of these browsers approaches the web a little differently. Don't let that worry you. You don't have to spend a lot of time with them. You're just using them when you need to. Here and there.

All of the browsers will allow you to type (or copy) in a web address and press Enter to visit a page. All of them will let you scroll through your page and click on links. And that's it. There's a lot more to learn about each browser, but you don't need to know all that just to test your site.

To Browse or Not to Browse

First, when someone complains that your site or blog doesn't work right, make sure to check it out in each of  the different browsers. Odds are, one of them will have the problem. If that happens, then do a search specific to that browser such as "Internet Explorer won't allow Blogger comments". You might find your answer.

Second, any time you make big changes to your blog or site, test it with the browsers--especially if you're changing your theme. There have been numerous times I've visited a blog to find the titles overwriting the comments link, or jutting out into the sidebar, or have the posts all jumbled with strange colors. This is usually caused by the theme not supporting all the browsers. Sometimes you can report this to the theme creator and they'll fix it. Sometimes you'll have to choose another theme.

Diversity

Having different browsers can be a pain sometimes. It means a bit of extra work for us bloggers and website creators, and it might be tempting to complain about that. Don't.

Having different browsers forces them to compete. Which means they're doing new things. Some of those new things are what makes the web so awesome today, and they will make it even more awesome in the future.

Now instead of feeling helpless when your browser or a site doesn't work, you can be proactive. Jump to another browser and see if that works.

Happy Browsing.

Question: Which browser do you use most often? What do you love/hate about it?

* The cool ice picture (pun most definitely intended) was taken by BuildArk and can be found on Flickr.

** Browser statistics are based on August 2011 data.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Scrabble: Howard Taylor & Dan Wells Style

I was manning the help desk at a writers conference last year when I saw two of my favorite writers, Howard Taylor and Dan Wells, playing a game. It looked like Scrabble, but they were having fun.

I'll admit, I don't like Scrabble. That may sound strange coming from someone who enjoys words and stories and writing, but it's true. I just can't get into it.

Curious, I walked over after my shift, and got my first introduction to Speed Scrabble. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it's actually a very descriptive name. I didn't get to play with them, but I did jot down some notes.

The game itself is small (it requires no board). Games last less than 10 minutes. It works with many age levels (you don't get prodigious advantages for comprehending erudite lexicon).

Here are the rules:

  • Put all the tiles in a bag or upside-down in a pile on the table.
  • Everyone draws seven tiles.
  • When the game begins everyone attempts to make word(s) with their letters. You can make as many or few words as you want as long as they all connect, crossword-style.
  • As soon as someone uses all their letters they call, "Draw."
  • When "Draw" is called, everyone must draw one tile. You draw a tile even if you haven't used up all your letters.
  • Play continues until there are no more letters left to draw.
Scoring:
  • We play that the person who calls Draw when the tiles run out is the winner. It's easy.
  • You can also tally up the score for each tile used and subtract your unused tiles. The winner also gets to add everyone's unused tiles to their score.
  • You can give bonus points for longer words.
And a couple quick notes:
  • The letter Q can be used as "Qu".
  • Blanks are wild (just like in Scrabble).
  • You can rearrange your tiles at any time. This means you can break up existing words and recombine them to form different ones.
  • Draw different amounts. Try a game where you draw two or three tiles at a time. I, personally, like drawing a single tile because it forces you to rearrange your words more often, but drawing more tiles will make the game go faster.
  • There are other sets of rules online. Just search for "Speed Scrabble."
If you're looking for a fun game that you probably already have in your home, then you might like Speed Scrabble. It's also portable, so you can take it to your next writers conference. If you see me there, I'll play a round with you.

* Oh, man! What I wouldn't give for all those vowels in the photo. It was taken by janetgalore and can be found on Flickr.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lastpass (Technical Tuesday)

As a computer programmer I feel that I should apologize to the world for a big problem my profession created. There's no way to measure the number of lost hours or the amount of frustration.

In our defense, we didn't mean for things to get this bad. Every step of the way, we were just trying to make things better--safer. And now, even programmers are caught in the quagmire.

I'm talking about passwords. They're a necessary problem, but a problem nonetheless.

As I see it, there are two things that cause us the most grief:
  1. Passwords are too complex (and getting worse all the time).
  2. There are too many of them.
History in a Nutshell

It all started out simple enough. Huge machines were easy to secure--lock the door. Then computers got smaller.

Smaller computers were more public and had more users. Those users wanted security, so in came the password. Back then passwords could actually be real words. Then computers got faster.

See there are only about 250,000 words in the English language. That may seem like a lot, but my computer can count to 250K in about 1 one-hundredth of a second. So guessing a word is trivial.

We started requiring rules for passwords like they couldn't be words, they had to be eight characters long, they had to have uppercase and lowercase letters, they had to contain numbers and symbols. I'm sure you're all familiar with these.

Today people have to choose a mishmash of letters and numbers, and we're not built to remember things like that. Sure we can remember one or two. More than that and it's a lost cause, so we take shortcuts.

We use our name. Either your own name, the name(s) of your children, spouse, parents, or even a nickname. Then we tack a number on the end. For example, "Thomas11".  If we don't use the number 1 then we use a number that is important to us--our birthday, anniversary, graduation or phone number like "MyName1990" or "MySpouse1996".

We use a simple word we can remember like "password" or "letmein". Sometimes we get sneaky and replace letters with numbers: "P4ssw0rd" and "L3tM3In". Again, we'll tack a single number on the end until it's long enough usually the number 1.

We also like series of numbers or patterns on the keyboard: "12345678", "Qwertyui", "Asdfghkj"

Have I come close to guessing your password yet? Most likely.

The worst part is this. Even if you do have a very secure, hard-to-guess password, odds are that you use the same one or two of them on almost every site you sign up for. Because you can't remember dozens of different ones.

A Horror Story

I don't want to dwell on this sad story, but there's a lot to learn in it. By the way, I've changed the names and details of the story, but the heart of it is the same.

I have a friend who ran an online business. He reviewed items on Amazon, and people used his affiliate link to buy things. He wasn't making a fortune, but the couple hundred dollars each month helped a lot.

One day, he was surfing the net and found a cool site where he could track his exercise. He signed up with them so he could get access to training schedules and a weekly reminder email.

A few months later, the exercise site was hacked. The hackers got away with everyone's username, password, and email address, but they were sneaky and the site owner didn't know. The first thing the hackers did was write a program to access everyone's email address using the password they stole from the exercise site. They were able to get into my friend's online email account.

Once they had access to his email, they changed his password. Then they did a few searches through his mail and found out the name of his bank, his paypal username, and his Amazon ID. They went out to those sites and tried the same password, but it didn't work. A friend had told him to use a different password for his business affairs, and he took their advice.

That didn't bother the hackers. They clicked on the "Forgot Password" link, and changed the passwords using the hacked email account. They then proceeded to buy stuff with his credit card on Amazon, they wrote offensive reviews for products, they sent rude emails to clients and customers, they sent money through PayPal to random people, and turned off his automatic bill pay.

It took many, many months to recover. He never did start up his business again. His reputation was tarnished and his motivation was in shambles.

Don't let this happen to you.

LastPass

Here is one thing you can do to keep yourself safer. Use a program called LastPass for all your sites (except your primary email and financial sites).

This program installs in your browser (on your computer and on your phone) and fills in password prompts for you. It will even help you generate passwords when you're signing up for sites. By using this program, you can use a unique, random password for every site. That way, even if hackers strike they won't get access to everything.



As the video explains, passwords are encrypted and stored using a master password--your "Last Password". It is encrypted in a way that even the company couldn't access your information without spending years breaking the code. Lesson: Don't lose your master password.

Personally, I don't put my email or financial passwords into LastPass, so that means I have to remember four passwords: my bank, my PayPal, my email, and my master password. That's not so bad. LastPass remembers everything else for me. Besides, if LastPass completely tanks, I can still use the "Forgot Password" link on any of the sites to access my accounts.

What to Do

This is Technical Tuesday, so here are some steps for you to follow to get setup with LastPass.

  1. Visit https://lastpass.com/ and learn more about the program. They have several good videos and FAQs.
  2. Download and install LastPass on your computer. Follow the steps to setup a new account. Use their recommendations to choose a secure-but-memorable master password.
  3. Change your password on your email and financial accounts. Pick a password you haven't used anywhere else. You can let LastPass remember these for you, or not. It's up to you.
  4. That's it. Now, as you surf the internet and login to your sites change your password using LastPass. Also, when you sign up for new sites use LastPass to generate the passwords.
  5. If you like the product, buy something from them. This is what keeps the free version free, and what pays their paychecks to create more great products.
Soon, you'll only need to remember a few secure passwords and LastPass can remember the rest.

Note: Today's post wasn't an answer to anyone's question, but I felt this was an important topic to cover.

* I'm always impressed when someone can use a simple, common object and take a great photo. tehusagent did just that with the key photo. You can see the full-sized image on Flickr. I especially like the little strand of pocket lint clinging to the side.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Castle Miranda Pictures

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

That's not true; Some pictures are worth more than others.

It takes a good photographer to capture more than the light--to capture the feeling, the motion, the story of the picture.

When I saw these pictures taken by David Herreman whole stories formed in my head. The Miranda Castle has a lot of history, and David's images captured so much of it. They're awesome!

I immediately emailed him and got permission to post a few for you. I hope you find as much inspiration in them as I did. (Click through the image to see the full-sized version on David's website.)



The castle is in ruin today, but its stately arches and elegant lines still struggle to show through.

Can't you imagine royalty gliding down this stairway?

Servants in full uniform bustling through the halls

Foreign dignitaries heading to an important meeting?



The castle was used as an orphanage during World War II. That's an old black board on the wall.

This reminded me that castles were large, multi-function buildings. During hard times, these structures were remodeled to handle many needs. If you're writing about a castle, it is good to remember this. How often have you read a story where the characters visit the area in the castle where the tutors worked?

I also loved the peeling paint and the mildew working through the walls.



This is my favorite. It's so creepy.

The floor tiles were either removed by the owners or looters.

Again, you can see the beauty of this hall with it's graceful curves and majestic doorways even after suffering such degradation. Imagine what it must have looked like in its prime?

The inherent beauty just adds to the creepiness. That was a good lesson to me. When I write about creepy places, I need to let the former glory and beauty show through the grime.




There are more pictures of this amazing location on his website and Flickr stream.
Go check them out.


If you liked the castle, David has pictures of other old buildings on his Flickr photostream. Check out his Belgium collection for more incredible castles and abbeys.

If castle's aren't your thing, he also has stunning photos of landscapes, seascapes, and nature.

Where do you find inspiration?

* All images in this post belong to the awesome David Herreman. Used with permission. (Thanks, David, for allowing me to share these.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How to Create an Image Button (Technical Tuesday)

Today, I'm going to teach you how to turn a book cover into a clickable button you can give to your fellow bloggerites blogarians your posse. Don't worry if you don't have a book cover. You can use these steps to create any kind of clickable image for an award or special giveaway.

Rebecca Talley asked, "How can I make a button with an image of my book that others can put on their blogs?"

Quick Steps

I've created a tool to help you. Just fill in the form on the left and click Generate. You can preview your button in the middle section. If it looks good, copy the HTML code from the right and paste it into your website or blog. Done. By the way, you can make changes to the form and regenerate as many times as you want, so go ahead and play around.

(Note: This form may not work in an RSS reader. You'll have to visit the blog to use it.)


Settings
Image URL
Link URL
Message
Options:

Show Message

Show Copy Text Box


Preview

Code
Enter the details for your button. Preview your button.

Be careful when clicking on the button, it will take you away from this page (just like your real button will).
Copy and paste the code into your blog or website. Enjoy.

Longer Steps

If the tool didn't work for you (or you want more information), don't worry--I got your back. I'm going to cover all the steps you need to do to make your button.

Find Your Image

First, you're going to need an image. Follow the instructions on my previous post to find and re-size your image. Your final image should probably be between 125 pixels and 175 pixels wide. If you are unsure what size you need, try 150 pixels.

Since Rebecca asked the question we're going to use the book cover of her latest release The Upside of Down. Here it is:


Post Your Image Online

Your image needs to be publicly available online.

The very best place for it is hosted with your website, but different companies have different ways to get files on the internet. If you know how to do this, then do it and skip the rest of this section.

If you don't know how (or don't want) to upload your file to your website, I've got the next-best thing. We're going to upload it to Google Photos. (This used to be called Picasa Web Albums. Google is in the process of changing the name, so you'll still see it called both.) If you have a Google account or a Blogger blog then you're good. If not, you could create one, or you could use any number of other photo hosting sites.

Visit Google Photos and login if you need to. Click to "Upload" your image, then find the file on your computer and upload it. When you upload an image you can choose what album it is placed in. I chose to create a new album called "Public Album", but you can call yours whatever you want (or put the image in an existing album). Then click OK.


Now that the image is online, we need to make it publicly available. If you tried to make your button right now it would work for you because you have access to see the image, but everyone else in the world will just see a missing picture. That's not good.

In Google Photos, you should be viewing the album you just created. If not, navigate to it now. Select Actions, then Album Properties. This will bring up a window with the details of your album. The only thing you need to change is the Visibility setting. Change it to "Public on the Web". This means that anyone can view the pictures in the album without needing to login. They will also show up when people search.


There's one last step, you need to find the URL of your image. In Google Photos, click on your picture to view it. In the right sidebar click on "Link to this Photo". This will open up a couple text boxes and some settings. Make sure that you Select the Size of "Original Size". Then check the option "Image Only (no link)". Now, the information you're looking for is in the "Embed Image" field. Copy the text from that field, and paste it into notepad or Word for safe keeping during these steps.)



The Link for our example image is: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-pBtyGpRaAAA/TmusHRfIyGI/AAAAAAAAAEQ/LkEgwDolKXs/s800/upside%252520of%252520down.jpg

Wow! That's ugly and long, but it works and the people who view your site won't have to see that link. They'll just see your awesome image.

Decide Where You Want the Button to Go

When someone clicks your button, where do you want them to go? Open up an internet browser and go to the page. Then copy the full text out of the address bar. Again, paste this into the notepad or Word doc you used in the last step.

For our example, we have several options.


We're going to use the link to her book blog, but there is no wrong answer. Here is the URL: http://theupsideofdown2.blogspot.com/.

Use the Tool

You now have the information you need to use the tool. Just copy and paste the information from your notepad or Word document into the tool. Put the image URL (from Google Photos) into the Image URL field. Put your destination URL (the blog address) into the Link URL field. Make sure these links include the full address that means it has to have the "http://" part.

Click Generate and see what it looks like. That's nice.


Extra Options

The tool has some other options you can try.

If you enter a Message and check Show Message then it will display the message under the image. You can use this for short blurbs like "Buy Today", or "Ends Sept 24th", or "Available in Oct".

If you check "Show Copy Text Box" then a text box will be created under the image with the code people need to copy and paste to get your button on their site. This is useful when you post your button on your own site. Anyone who wants to grab your button can copy the code and use it.

Go ahead, play around with the options and see what works best for you.

There you go, a quick tool for creating image buttons for blogs and websites. If you use the tool let me know in the comments. And if you have any other technical questions, send them over.
Creative Commons LicenseUnless otherwise noted, all posts on the John Waverly blog by John Waverly are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
* Background image based on Night Sky theme by Ray Creations