Meetup Removes Critical Feature

Meetup.comI am singularly unimpressed with the announcement today from Meetup that they are removing the File Storage capability from their web site. I belong to two writing groups, both of which are hosted on Meetup. Removing this feature makes the site virtually useless for writing groups.

With both my writing groups, a selected number of people submit documents each week at least three days before the meeting so that they can be critiqued at the meeting. Guess what? No File Storage capability means no documents to be shared. And this isn’t just my writing group…most writing groups work like this.

Oh, yes, of course, we can find someplace else to store our documents for each week’s meeting, like Dropbox or some other service. But then it’s not really INTEGRATED into the group experience, is it?

I mean, each new member will have to learn TWO systems instead of one. And we’ll have to worry separately about giving people access to our file storage solution or not, because it won’t be built into the site anymore. So, everything will be much less convenient…for EVERYBODY in each writing group.

But never fear, anybody that wants to store photos is fine because that’s apparently still cool.

Let’s think about this whole situation a little deeper. The point of Meetup is to arrange meetings. Duh. Thinking beyond writing groups, isn’t it reasonable to make meeting agendas available before a meeting? What about meeting notes after a meeting? What about class materials for people who use Meetup to organize any sort of educational sessions or seminars?

Removing this critical feature is just about the most boneheaded thing I’ve heard of a company doing, at least one that operates in the social media realm. Or, hey, let’s examine this from another perspective. You don’t hear Facebook saying: “Hey, we don’t want you to store your photos, videos or notes on our site anymore.”

Now Meetup might be a relatively small Internet startup. But there’s a LOT of meetings out there, and Meetup is a paid service. If the hosting for files is difficult, then partner with somebody that does it already. If it’s a matter of cost, charge $20 extra each year to have the File Storage capability (it could be Meetup’s second upwell option, after Meetup Pro). Put some kind of reasonable size cap on storage to prevent abuse.

If my writing groups are paying for something that doesn’t meet our needs any longer because Meetup removed a critical feature, then we have to look at alternatives. Heck, Meetup is already forcing us (with absolutely no advance notice) to figure out how we’re going to make files available to members for our next meeting. At the end of the day, here’s what Meetup needs to remember. The competition is only a click away.

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Into the Technical Vortex: Producing a Kindle Ebook

Well, I’m in the mix now. I’ve signed up to create the Kindle edition of Uncommon Threads, the anthology released last June by my writing group, the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. So, I’m deep in the throes of researching how to professionally produce Amazon’s mobi format for Kindle ebooks, as well as the epub format for other vendors.

I’m a software architect for my day job, in which I build large-scale web applications for various clients. At the end of the day, ebooks are HTML. which is something that I’m an expert in. Quite frankly, I think there’s a lot of substandard advice on the web regarding how to produce ebooks.

Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to produce an ebook. It’s much harder to produce a professional caliber ebook that will work on the wide range of readers and reading applications that are available in the wild.

My personal approach is evolving based on my research and experimentation. Right now, it appears as if my process is going to be something like this:

  1. Set up the ebook in Scrivener.
  2. Export to HTML.
  3. Massage the HTML.
        — Remove extraneous HTML elements.
        — Add custom CSS style sheet.
        — Organize HTML and images.
  4. Import HTML into Calibre.
  5. Export to epub format.
  6. Import epub to Amazon.

We’ll just have to see how this all works out. In a way, this is a dry run for producing my own ebooks in the first quarter of 2016.

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My First SF Panel

As a fledgling writer at Capclave 2014, I got to participate in my first panel at an SF convention. My fellow panelists were Paolo Bacigalupi, award-winning writer of The Windup Girl and the Guest of Honor for the convention; D. Douglas Fratz, the moderator for the panel, a writer and a climate scientist in his day job; James Maxey, a fantasy writer; and Max Gladstone, a fantasy writer. The topic of the panel was:

Writing About Climate Change: Climate change is the new nuclear winter. Post-apocalyptic novels used to be set in a post nuclear detonation landscape; now they’re set in environmentally wrecked futures. Most of these books are dystopian and theoretically predictive. Why do authors write the way they write about climate change?

Fellow writer Jennifer Povey was kind enough to “capture the moment” for me:

Writing About Climate Change

Writing About Climate Change: (left to right) Panelists: James Maxey, D. Douglas Fratz (Moderator), Paolo Bacigalupi (Guest of Honor), Max Gladstone and David Keener.

Clearly, I was the junior member of the panel. And Paolo Bacigalupi and D. Douglas Fratz were far and away the most expert on hardcore climate change science and policy. Nevertheless, I think I acquitted myself reasonably well. I was also pleased that my fellow panelists were quite nice and didn’t exhibit any of that bias against self-published writers that I’ve heard others talk about. I had a great time.

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Workshop Attendees at Capclave 2014

Some of the attendees from my workshop, “Public Speaking for Writers,” hard at work on, of all things, a writing assignment (a brief story pitch, which they than had to present to the class). The man in the middle on the far side of the table is Tom Doyle, best-selling writer of American Craftsmen.

You can just FEEL the concentration…

Workshop Attendees: Public Speaking for Writers

The workshop was held at Capclave 2014 in Gaithersburg, MD, in a room aptly called “The Boardroom.”

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Public Speaking for Writers

Mark TwainI’ve been asked to run a workshop on public speaking at Capclave 2014. I’ve incorporated a Mark Twain theme to the workshop, since he was a great writer, a world-renowned public speaker and an early science fiction writer (thanks to his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). I thought I’d reveal the official description of the workshop:

Title: Public Speaking for Writers
Panelist: David Keener

Description: David Keener, an experienced public speaker, conference organizer and writer, will lead a workshop on public speaking for writers. In today’s publishing world, simply writing a story isn’t enough – you also need to get up in front of an audience and promote yourself. In this workshop, you’ll learn techniques to be a dynamic speaker. You’ll learn how to apply these techniques to be an effective panelist at conventions, whether as a moderator or as a participant. You’ll also learn to describe your fiction in succinct sound bites designed to intrigue potential readers.

You’ve seen it all done wrong – find out how to do it right.

Limited: 16 participants.
Duration: 2 hours

FYI. I’ve worked out the design of the workshop, which will be pretty cool for the participants, I think. I’ve validated the workshop design and timing with some of my Toastmasters friends, including professional speakers and educators. And I’ve begun working on the accompanying PowerPoint slides for the instructional parts of the workshop. The workshop will consist of three instructional sections, one short writing session, one collaborative session and two public speaking exercises (including a mock panel for each group).

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My Business Card Concept

As a writer, I have now been in a number of networking situations where I really could have used a business card. However, I have also been handed lots of business cards by writers, editors and other would-be industry professionals that can only be described as, well, distinctly amateur. I decided that if I was going to have business cards to support my writing, then they were going to have to be good cards.

I wanted a business card that was memorable, something that could even function as a conversation opener. Here’s an example of what I came up with:

Business Card, Zombie Edition

Yes, writing is a business, but it’s also a creative endeavor. My card says, “This guy is doing some wild and crazy stuff, but hey, this card looks really professional.” When I hand out this card, I want the recipient to believe that I’m both creative and business-like, a person that they might reasonably want to do business with.

As a secondary goal, I wanted my business cards to tie into the rest of my marketing activities. My business cards are modeled after my Facebook page, complete with an inset photograph of myself. I decided that I wanted custom cards, with sixteen different pictures on the front. As a gimmick, when offering somebody a card, I can fan out a stack of cards, and then say, “Pick a card, any card. There’re all different.”

Here’s what I came up with for the back of my cards:

Business Card Back, With Quote

One of my pet peeves involves business cards that are blank on the back, or worse, that have a link to the free service that the individual used to print their lackluster cards. A business card is an advertisement for your business, whether that’s writing or something else. If you’ve managed to get an advertisement into somebody’s hands, you should make sure they get the most of it. Give ’em something useful on the back.

For my cards, the front tells the recipient what I do, “Writer, Speaker, Futurist,” and implies that I’m both creative and business-like. The back of the card delivers my contact information, as well as a memorable and positive quote that has something to do with writing or creativity. And every card has a different quote.

It’s a well integrated one-two punch of marketing information.

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Social Media Changes: Building an Online Platform

Social MediaIf you’re planning to be a professional writer, you need what is euphemistically known as a “platform.” Put simply, a platform is a presence on the Internet that can help attract and, more importantly, retain the type of people who might be interested in your works. Most traditional publishers won’t even consider publishing an author that can’t already demonstrate that they have a platform. Today’s publishers want a ready-made audience so that they can reduce their risks.

For writers engaged in indie-publishing, a platform is even more important. The biggest problem an indie-published writer faces is discoverability. People can’t buy your stories unless they can discover that your story exists and find enough information about it to allow them to decide whether they want to purchase it.

Think of your platform as a way to interact with your potential audience. At a minimum, your platform should feature a web site with some information about you and your stories (with links so people can go purchase them). There are numerous components that can be a part of your platform, from general social media sites to content dissemination sites. A few potential components for your platform are:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • Goodreads
  • Wattpad
  • Slideshare.net

Except for your core web site, none of these components are essential, but you should probably include at least some of them. Simply choose the ones that make sense for you.

I’m planning to be what’s known as a hybrid writer. I intend to indie-publish my longer works and seek traditional publication in various professional venues for my short stories. I’m also actively trying to build my platform. Naturally, this web site, with its informative blog entries and free content, is an essential piece of that platform.

Some of you may have noticed that this web site has begun morphing subtly from day to day. That’s because I’ve started adding social media engagement features to the site. These features make it easy for users to recommend blog entries on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (and I’ll be adding more later). In the upper part of the right-hand sidebar, I’ve added links to my most used social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter. I’ve been using Twitter for ages in my alternate life as a software developer, so I created @keenersaurus to be my Twitter presence for my “creative” activities.

The next few media buttons in the sidebar may surprise folks. I’ve got a number of videos that I’ve made available online with YouTube, with plans for many more. The next button is for Slideshare.net, which is where I upload my presentations. By the way, I’m in the Top 2% of contributors on Slideshare, so I’ve got some fairly serious content out there for free. Finally, there’s a link to the site’s RSS feed, for people who’d like to have my blog entries delivered to them via a feed.

These are all important aspects for building my own platform. I’d be pleased if you’d help me build my web presence. In return, I promise to continually challenge myself to produce the best content that I’m capable of. Stick around, there’s good stuff coming down the pike.

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I Made the Slideshare Top 2% Viewed for 2013

I got an email from Slideshare.net a few days ago announcing that I’d made the list of the Top 2% Most Viewed for my presentations on Slideshare.net.

Most Viewed on SlideShare

I’ve had more than 75,000 views of my presentations. I have 19 presentations out there, of which 17 are related to my day job. However, 2 of them are, I think, of general interest to the readers of this blog. My presentation, 21st Century Writer, is all about the changes in the publishing industry and the opportunities available for writers. My presentation, Titanic: The Forgotten Passengers, is all about the pets that were on the Titanic during its ill-fated 1912 journey.

Check out some of my presentations. There’s some good content out there, and I’ll be posting more in the future.

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Neil Clarke on Producing Ebooks

One of the workshops I attended at Capclave 2013 was “Producing Ebooks,” hosted by Neil Clarke. Neil is eminently worth listening to because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Clarkesworld, a monthly online magazine that he started in 2006, which is also distributed via ebook subscriptions.

Each month, a new issue of Clarkesworld appears. Readers can peruse it online for free, or subscribe for a small fee (currently $1.99 per issue) and receive each issue automatically as an ebook. The fiction stories from each year of the magazine are collected and published in anthologies, which are available in both print and ebook form. Additionally, Neil provides contracting services to produce ebooks for other publishers. So, Neil knows a thing or two about the practical aspects of producing ebooks.

As one might expect for a workshop like this, the audience encompassed every skill level possible when it comes to publishing ebooks, from advanced web developers like me to newbies who didn’t even know HTML. Neil did his level best to ensure that everyone went home with knowledge that they could use.

For me, the biggest lesson was that ebooks are simply HTML. My career knowledge of HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) applies directly to the production of ebooks.

Here are some of Neil’s technical tips about producing ebooks, focusing mostly on the HTML aspects:

  • Keep the CSS simple. A minimalist approach to designing an ebook leaves the most power in the hands of the user and provides the fewest opportunities for device differences to mar your ebook.

  • For an ellipse, i.e. – the standard “three dots in a row,” use periods with a non-breaking space between them (a non-breaking space is represented as “ ” in HTML). There is an ellipsis construct in HTML, but some devices don’t support it, so it’s best not to take chances.

  • The right indent is not currently supported by many ereaders, so it’s currently advisable not to use it.

  • When editing, regular expressions will be your friend. For those who aren’t familiar with them, regular expressions are patterns that are used in searches. For example, searching for “Ne*” would search this current article for all words that begin with “Ne”, allowing me to cycle through the hits and double-check that I’ve spelled Neil Clarke’s name correctly.

  • There are some interesting problems with readers and word wrapping. Here we have the HTML for a reference to Neil’s magazine in italics:

          Neil is the founder of <i>Clarkesworld</i>, an online magazine.

    Note how the comma appears outside the closing italics tag. With some ereaders, it’s possible for word wrapping to place the comma on the next line, which is generally considered a rookie mistake in epublishing. It’s best to include the comma within the italics to ensure that word wrapping doesn’t cause problems. This same issue occurs with bold tags and, sometimes, with quotes as well.

  • External links can bring special problems. Some sites like Amazon.com don’t like outgoing links in your ebook. They especially don’t like outgoing links to competitors like Barnes & Noble. Your ebook can be rendered unavailable by an eseller if they don’t like the links you’ve included. Avoid links to competitors. Minimize other links within your ebook. Be prepared to defend the validity of the links that you have included if the eseller balks at making your ebook available.

  • Internal links within an ebook are fine, especially for the Table of Contents.

  • The title attribute on h1 tags are used to produce the Table of Contents. By default, the header text will be used unless the title attribute is provided.

          <h1 title=”Stranger at the Gate”>I. Stranger at the Gate</h1>

  • Neil recommended 150 – 200 dpi (dots per inch) for ebook covers, unless the cover basically just featured stock art.

  • If possible, try not to start with text copied from Microsoft Word or saved as HTML using Microsoft Word. First, Microsoft Word documents contain some characters that are problematic in HTML. Second, when Microsoft Word is used to save documents in HTML, the resulting HTML tends to be: 1) really nasty and ugly, and 2) sometimes contains constructs that really only work reliably in Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer. If you must convert from Microsoft Word to HTML, there are many web sites that do this. One reasonably good one mentioned by Neil was word2cleanHTML.com.

  • The Adobe ePub reader is absolutely awful according to Neil. Interestingly, this makes it a good test platform, because if your ebook looks good using this ereader, it’ll probably look correct on most other ereaders.

  • Don’t underline links. When links aren’t active, it misleads people into thinking that they’re still active when they’re not.

  • If you’ve had Microsoft Word anywhere in your workflow, remember to search your document for constructs like an <em> tag followed by a space and then a </em> closing tag. This is a common remnant from Microsoft Word.

  • Neil on the “indent the first sentence” vs. “no indent” debate regarding organizing text in ebooks: “Personal preference.”

In his two-hour workshop, Neil touched on a number of other subjects related to producing ebooks. He noted that the ePub format was something of a standard for ebooks. If you could produce your ebook in the ePub format, then there were numerous tools that could convert it into other formats as needed.

While Neil used some commercial products such as InDesign for his own work, he understood that many people didn’t have an extensive budget for purchasing tools. He listed Sigil as a solid, open source tool for producing and manipulating ebooks, particularly in the ePub format. Scrivener was also mentioned as a relatively low-cost commercial tool that a lot of writers were using ($45 based on my research, but with a 30-day “try before you buy” option). Neil said that he’d also heard good things about draft2digital.com but hadn’t tried them out (they convert documents and publish them to esellers for roughly 10% of the money earned by the ebook).

Calibre was another open source tool that was mentioned for converting between formats. It’s also good for examining the metadata associated with ebooks. Neil noted that it was an excellent choice for converting an ePub file into a Mobi file (the format used for Kindle ebooks). Another free tool was validator.idpf.org, an online ePub validation tool provided by the International Digital Publishing Forum.

InDesign is considered to be the gold standard for producing ebooks. It’s not cheap, and it has a steep learning curve.

Interestingly, Neil was not a fan of SmashWords, an eseller that has carved out a niche with short stories, and has added services to distribute those stories to other esellers.

One thing that struck me as amusing was Neil Clarke stressing that PDF files (Adobe’s ubiquitous Portable Document Format) were not ebooks. They were representations of what a document would look like if printed. While I can see his point, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with him. I’m a practical guy…if my ereader can present it to me, then it’s an ebook. Or, to put it another way, if it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.

Overall, it was an excellent workshop, filled with useful information. Neil did a good job of trying to make sure that 1) everyone left the session with a solid idea of what it took to produce professional quality ebooks, and 2) everyone had been exposed to tools that could help them in their endeavors. He also promised to provide the attendees with sample HTML and CSS code that he uses in ebooks (which he recently published in his own blog entry, Capclave Ebook Workshop).

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Neil Clarke:

“Minimize the automated processes. Give your ebook the time that it needs to look right.”
Posted in Tools for Writers, Writing Tips | 2 Comments

Charles Stross Hates Microsoft Word

Author Charles Stross has produced an excellent blog post about Microsoft Word called “Why Microsoft Word Must Die.” It’s dead-on accurate, with in-depth commentary that betrays Stross’s technical origins — he was a computer programmer before he was a successfully published writer.

As someone who has produced a lot of large documents in my time, I personally hate Word’s Master Document and outline features, which have never actually worked well enough to use for production purposes, and which have never been improved in twenty years. Microsoft Word really is a lowest-common-denominator product.

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