Monthly Archives: February 2007

WordPress.com for Authors

This is post is part of the ‘Choosing the right blogging platform – For Authors‘ series started four days ago. After reviewing Blogger I decided to take a look at another good, easy to use and ‘free’ (more on this later) platform available for writing online.

The popular Scobleizer blog (in the Technorati top 100 blogs list) is hosted on the WordPress.com platform (quite different from WordPress.org, which you have to download and install yourself). While it looks customized, don’t be fooled – WordPress.com is not quite the lovely maiden it seems.

wordpress_1.JPG

Ease of Use

WordPress is one of the most powerful blogging platforms out there, and it is a daunting task for the average internet user to mod and customize it. The good news is this: WordPress.com makes it easy enough for anybody to blog using WordPress, and look good while doing it. The bad news? It rips out a lot of the features that make WordPress so cool.

But back to its ease of use. WordPress.com seems polished and beautiful – posting is clean and easy (not to mention Ajaxy) and everything is distilled to checkboxes and menus. Want to add a link? No need to write a whole list of <li> tags – just go to the blogroll section in the interface and fill in the necessary blanks.

The way WordPress.com goes out of its way to ease things for you almost makes you feel pampered. Big fonts and even bigger buttons are everywhere, wrapped with a beautiful blue colour scheme. Feed subscribers and site visitors are seamlessly integrated with a Flash (or was it Ajax?) display panel. Quite simply, the platform treats you like an idiot. Very nicely, if I may add.

Looks

WordPress.com looks great. All the themes available are well selected – nice lines and readable fonts. Behind the scenes the platform looks just as good, if not better – the navigation bar at the top uncluttered and clearly defined. Any average Joe can really enjoy himself writing, but there’s a major problem.

header_1.JPG

You can’t edit or create or upload your own themes.

Wait! Let me elaborate before you start bombing me with comment spam – I’ve been waiting and waiting for them to release that particular feature, but weeks had dragged into months before any change was made. And, Oh! What a change it was! You need to pay to edit yuor themes – and even then only the css style sheets! If you’re sticking to free, WordPress.com has added features that might attract you – such as the fact that all their themes are widgetised now, and there are a wider selection of quality templates which i’m sure will grow over time.

theme_1.JPG

But, for the rest of the WordPress.com world (read: the users of the free accounts) is by and large based on the same themes, and no matter how good looking each of them are it’ll be hard top stand out on such a platform.

Blogger for Authors

This is post is part of the ‘Choosing the right blogging platform – For Authors‘ series started two days ago. Here i’ll be reviewing the suitability of the Blogger platform as a medium for blooking, or writing a book on a blog.

The Blogger platform has got it pretty good after being acquired by Google and coming out of a second beta. It’s a simple platform, free, instantly available, and very user friendly. The interface has only 3 tabs – posting, settings and template, keeping options easily accessible and providing a simple flow to any first-time blogger.

Ease of Use

Blooger is amongst the easiest blogging platforms to use. You start off with creating an account, choosing a theme and then you can immediately start posting with a simple interface.

betatour_dashboard.gif

One of its biggest attractions is the fact that Blogger is widely supported. You can post with it through email, phone and services like Flickr and Technorati work with Blogger (almost) seamlessly. Setting are very easily tweaked – a button here, an option there.

Looks

You can’t go wrong with Blogger’s default templates – they’re all clean, and beautifully done – both inside (code) and outside (looks). It turns out that the Blogger team hired Stopdesign to do their themes, and a look under the hood of these templates shows just how good these guys actually are.

betatour_customize.gif

The main problem with this, however, is the fact that after awhile it all becomes bland. Here is where the ease of use of the Blogger platform shines through. Templates are created in a one page xHTML document, although clever Blogger users have been known to create Flash and Ajaxified Blogger blogs. It’s flexible to a certain degree – but you can’t deny that your coding options are pretty limited. :(

On the up side, it’s incredibly easy to edit or create a template – for beginners, load up Minima and start tinkering. Extra templates can be found here and here, but bear in mind the design elements i talked about in my Writing An Addictive Blook series – particularly the point about fonts needing to be big enough for readers to be comfortable with.

Features

Here Blogger scores less marks. A result of all that ease-of-use is that the Blogger platform is static, or severely limited. With the new Blogger (right out of beta) some of the old platform’s issues have been addressed, but unfortunately there’s bound to be a limit, what with it being a free service and all. What am i talking about? Well, let’s take a look at Blogger’s feed options for example.

By default Blogger offers both Atom and RSS, but what are your options for customizing these feeds? Can you exclude certain categories of posts from ending up being published in your feed? Can you edit the way your feed is presented? No, i thought not. And while Blogger has ‘linkback’ it doesn’t have trackback – the standard used by WordPress and Movable Type blogs.

Dang Sidebar

wordpress2.jpg

Just to let you know, i’m starting to seriously crack my head over my sidebar. This is one of those rare times i curse the day PHP was written … Or that the fact WordPress is written in PHP.But i guess it’s marginally better than dealing with Movable Type’s Perl Modules…

Nevermind. You’ll probably find this unbecoming of me to talk about my code woes on a blog about books – but bear with me for awhile. My War and Peace is stuck with Prince Andrew Bolkonski on the way to death, and my writing project is suffering a lapse as i dissect Edith Wharton’s ability to craft conversations that make your pulse speed up. Good stuff, just that it takes so much time.

PS: And, anyway, aren’t blooks literature on code? Think about that – ‘ol Dickens didn’t have to deal with programming languages to get published. He just needed a contract with a newspaper and a pen.

Choosing the Right Blogging Platform – For Authors

Alright. You have a story floating around in your head, or have already started writing your book. You have three choices from here on –

  1. Find an agent, a publisher and start praying
  2. Self publish your book after writing your novel/book (offline)
  3. Blog.

First question: what blog platform should you use?

Blogging platforms are wide and varied, some offering more features than others. Le’ts take a look at six free blogging platforms in this series:

These blogging platforms will be marked in five categories, all with the aspiring author in mind: Ease of Use, Looks, Features, Support and Reliability.
theme_1.JPG

Ease of Use

How easy is it to hop on and start writing? Does the user/author need to relearn the rules? Does he have to read a couple dozen documentation pages? We’re talking about the man on the street here – one that just wants to write stories, and has little time for code.

Looks

What are the selection of themes? Is the user interface pleasing to the eye? Is it relatively easy to code and create new themes? While looks depend on the coding ability of the author himself, some blogging platforms have limitations to how far they can be modded. it is usually easy to spot Blogger themes – limited rearrangement options, similar underlying link structure.

Harry Potter and The Last Book

Since i’ve been following the Harry Potter series religiously since 1999, i thought i might as well post something on the upcoming last book (due to be released on July 21st) which other blogs about books have been ranting about, other than the naked pictures of Danielle Radcliffe circulating around everywhere.

Now, i may be a Potter fan, but probably not as fanatical as the authors of dear Mugglenet. But, since they spend a lot of their time checking the HP world online, it’s a pretty darned good resource for finding out what is fact, fiction, pure speculation and confirmed blurb. Good ‘ol J.K.

Anyways, here’s what i found after a half an hour of secretive snivelling:

Confirmed Information

Character Information

  • We will find out something “incredibly important” about Lily Potter
  • We will find out who R.A.B. is
  • We will discover more about Dumbledore’s past
  • We will discover where Snape’s loyalties lie.
  • Something will be revealed about Petunia Dursley, although it will not be that she is a Squib
  • Viktor Krum will return (World Book Day, 2004 interview)
  • We will see a reappearance of Dolores Umbridge – “It’s too much fun to torture her not to have another little bit more before I finish.” (MuggleNet/Leaky Interview)
  • JKR has said, “There is a character who does manage, in desperate circumstances, to do magic quite late in life, but that is very rare…”

Plot Information

  • Harry will face Voldemort for the final time
  • Harry will be attempting to find and destroy Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes
  • Harry will return to the Dursleys’ during the school vacation, but the magical protection Dumbledore arranged will expire on his 17th birthday when he comes of age
  • Harry will visit Godric’s Hollow
  • There will be a reappearance of the two-way mirror
  • We will see the wedding of Fleur and Bill Weasley
  • The fact that Harry “has his mother’s eyes” will prove to be an important plot point
  • At least one character will die

Other

  • The last word is expected to be “scar,” but may change
  • We will finally learn the full reason why some people become ghosts when they die and others don’t
  • The final chapter, which has already been written, will detail what happens to the characters that survive
  • There will be no more Quidditch matches

A few things caught my eye – scar? How does that fit in the overall picture? And i like the one about Harry and his mother’s eyes. So typical of Rowling to twist something she’s been subtly reminding us over and over again for the last 6 books. It’s like Chekhov’s Gun just got reloaded, and is about to go off. With about a decade or so in between.

And the part about Doleres Umbridge returning? Now that should be interesting. :)

Read the original article here. And if any of you readers out there are Chinese and reading this … Happy Chinese New Year!

Dan Brown Wannabes

16masl600span.jpg
Just came over this extremely hilarious article, well thought out and written with tongue so firmly planted in cheek it showed through the writer’s ear – Dear Dan Brown, All Eyes Are On You.

Janet Maslin was brilliant – she pointed out an immensely daft trend happening recently – that of Dan Brown copycats. With blurbs like “is more shocking than anyone could ever have imagined.”; “may solve one of the greatest riddles of history” as well as “from the fog-shrouded mazes of Venice to the beautiful Big Sky country of the American West.”

Here’s a little quote:

Take a sacred treasure. Add a secret conspiracy. Attach a name well known to scholars — Dante, Poe, Wordsworth, Archimedes, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, the Romanovs, Vlad the Impaler, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” whatever — and work it into a story that can accommodate both the Glock and the Holy Grail. If there’s any room left for the Knights Templar or DNA samples from Biblical figures, by all means plug them in.

Thanks, Dan Brown. Look what you started. In the sound-like-Brown genre the stakes are high, the scruples are absent and the copycatting is out of control. Your own next book (possibly to be called “The Solomon Key,” arrival date unknown) is already a pre-sacred text.

Oh, i’m a fan already. :)

Writing An Addictive Blook – Part 2

This is a continuation of my Writing An Addictive Blook – Part 1 post, and if you haven’t read it yet it doesn’t really matter, since the points in part 2 do not build on the points in part 1. Part of these techniques require basic coding skills – after all html, css and xml are the underlying languages of the web. So, we’ll start off with something we’ve all seen …

Pullquotes

Pullquotes are especially effective to catch the attention of readers – and creating them requires very minor tweaks to your CSS style sheet(s). I haven’t implemented pullquotes in this blog (most of my time in Novelr is actually spent wrestling with the sidebar, grr), but trust me on this one. In blogger, for example, i did it with a blog called BUGS (example: here) and it took a total of 15 minutes to get everything the way i liked it. WordPress junkies can go here for a brief tutorial on implementing pullquotes in WP blooks.

Excerpts!

Don’t let your episodes run uncontrolled on your main blook page – personally i hate seeing a flood of words with not one pretty picture to break the monotony of the text. Instead, cut off your posts and place a Read More link – WordPress users have this built-in (the more tag), but Blogger blogs will require a CSS hack to do so.

Writing An Addictive Blook – Part 1

crossroads.jpg
The trademark of a great book would be the inability to put it down. Blooks are no different, although the distractions are multiplied tenfold. If you fail to deliver, fun is just a click away.

Personally i’ve found Flow to be more engaging than Hackoff, but as a blook writer i have to explore new blooks. Here are some of the ways i’ve learnt to stickify the text that i’m working on.

Write Short

Online readers are daunted by long passages of text. Cut your chapters into byte-sized chunks. Serialize everything into as many pages as possible. This serves two purposes – one is that search engines place more importance to blogs with more posts. The second being that no one sane is going to read your 400 page novel in a single page. How long exactly should you write? A personal rule i favour is that the text should be around 6 spiral-bound notebook pages. Admittedly if that particular post is integral to the plot or to character development, letting it run longer is perfectly okay. You can do what you feel is right, but as a general rule of thumb don’t cut for the sake of cutting.

Great Characters

This is one of J.J. Abram’s personal rules while script-writing – nobody’s going to care about your story if they don’t care about your characters. Writing fully fleshed-out characters is tough, and i’m still working on mine online as well as offline – with paper, profiles and brainstorming sessions to build up the character as a person sitting next to me. I’ll write about my forays in this in a separate post.

Bestsellers vs Award winners

I recently came across Roald Dahl’s Matilda again, which i had read as a child. I picked it up, started flipping through and then actually reread it. I know, i know, i should’ve continued reading War and Peace or finished a hanging review on Hackoff.com, which i had drafted in Novelr earlier in the week.

You realize something interesting about novels overall? If it’s a bestseller, it’s likely not to be an award winner, or at least not one of those glittery, top-notch types, like the Booker or the Pulitzer. One of my favourites, The Age Of Innocence, won the Pulitzer way back in 1921. But guess what her most popular novel is? Oh, no, not Innocence – the Pulitzer golden egg. It was Ethan Frome.

Now, i’ve never read Ethan Frome, but i daresay it should pale in comparison if parallels were drawn between it and The Age Of Innocence. This is, of course, pure assumption (i must read that book), but on a wider scale bestsellers don’t win awards now do they?

I only suppose the reasons are out there for all to see – bestselling fiction makes money, and in the same way critics scoff at James Blunt’s popularity in the mainstream, so does the literary elite. Then there are the usual set of typical reasons: bestselling fiction is entertaining, does not set out to do anything other than to provide a good 400 pages worth of escapism to readers (hence chick lit and sappy YA novels), does not require intelligent and elegant use of the English language.

Matilda is one such book – it may have won a Children’s Choice award (which is, as the name suggests, chosen and voted for by children) but you can’t say that it has lasting literary value … it’s just enjoyable to read, that’s all.

Now which would i want? To write something so engrossing it hits the bestseller lists for weeks on end, or to write for literary achievement and recognition?

Hmm.

In the meantime, check out the Lulu 2007 Blooker prize – i’m waiting for the nominations to come out and check it all out. ;-) Good times lie ahead.

[Update! Just ran a search and found out that Ethan Frome is available for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Hooray for expiring copyrights! You didn’t hear me say that.]

The problems with digital text – Sophie

I was logged into MSN when one of friends nudged me, wanting to show me something important. The conversation we had went something like this:

Friend: Have you heard of Sophie?

Me: No.

Friend: No? You write a blook and you don’t know what Sophie is?

Me: …

She led me to a few pages, and I downloaded the introduction to Sophie, wondering what in the world it was. Apparently Sophie is a reading software touted as the next format for eBooks, all eBooks. The Institute for the Future of The Book (what a mouthful) is behind this effort, and it’s got some interesting points at the current limitations of digital text. Let’s take a look at the various forms of digital media and what they say are the drawbacks of each platform:

The Joy Luck Club

It’s funny what gems can crop up when immigration is concerned. 2006’s Booker Prize Winner, The Inheritance of Loss, dealt with the issue fairly heavily, and look where it got? Nevermind that i don’t like the book – i’ll run a review sometime later.

The Joy Luck Club, however, written by Amy Tan and published in 1989, is one of those books that remain as relevant today as it was a decade ago. I like it. A lot.

the_joy_luck_club.jpg

The premise

Joy Luck can almost be called a book of short stories, and if the author’s note is anything to go by some of the stories have been published in woman’s magazines. The book opens with one from Jing-Mei Woo (“June”)’s perspective, just after her mother’s death, and we’re quickly ushered into their world of clashing cultures, and of the tender and sometimes fragile bond linking mother to daughter.

There are four families in the book, four sections, and four stories per section. The first and last sections of the book are written by the mothers (with the exception of June, since her mother has passed away) and the middle two written by the daughters. It’s nicely structured and the interlocking stories give a sense of balance to the narrative.