Want to Work With Me? Here’s How

Photo Credit: flattop341

The dos & don’ts of pitching yourself to a web designer

One of the phenomenona that comes with running your own web design firm is frequent inquiries from both wannabe and experienced web designers and programmers.

I love to help out folks getting started in the industry – I always appreciated it myself when I transitioned from working in film and TV production to the web sphere – but it always startles me how many people are completely clueless about the best way to approach me when they’re looking for work. I’m not alone; colleagues complain about the same pitching missteps.

Here are some practical dos & don’ts:

Don’t send me email attachments – especially when my contact page specifically begs you not to. I don’t need a 5-page PDF of your curriculum vitae, buy more about listing a chronology of your work & education; I want to see what you can do.

Do send a link to your online portfolio in the body of your message. If you’re pitching yourself as a web designer, nurse I want to see a minimum of 5 sites you’ve worked on – ideally more – with a clear description of your role in each project. They don’t all have to be live, archived on your portfolio site is fine. (You do have your own domain and online portfolio site, right?)

Don’t call me out of the blue and not ask if I have a moment before launching into a soliloquy so fast and loud that I have to hold the phone away from my ear so I don’t damage my hearing. (Yes, this has actually happened.) The work that web designers and developers do requires focus and concentration. If you’d like to have a phone chat, tell me why in a quick email, and we can schedule a call in advance to make sure I can give you all my attention.

Do have a few people carefully proofread your cover letter before sending it. If you can’t be bothered to spell correctly and use proper punctuation, I assume you’ll be as sloppy with your coding. This is an excerpt from an actual letter I received recently:

After a stint as a pratice lawyer in insurance litigation, I decided to move on and redirect my career in a more creative, dynamic and technological fiel of study.

I’m creative, inventive. I’m also a perfectionnist, with a great sens of job well done. I am very approachable and I have a great listening sense.

I excel in writing, in both English and French.

Don’t write a generic-sounding letter. Address me by name – it’s clearly on my website, take the extra three seconds to find it. Refer to something specific about my company that explains why you want to work with me. Doing these two things alone will make you stand out among the 100 others who’ve sent me job inquiries.

Do tell me what you’re passionate about. Are you a WordPress fanatic? Enthused about e-commerce? Driven by design? Let that excitement shine through your words.

Don’t write a novel. Be brief and get to the point: what specific role are you looking for and what makes you suitable? Do I even need your services? Check out my work first – pitching me your ASP.NET database programming skills wastes both of our time.

Do get to know me first, before even sending that first intro email. Twitter is a fantastic way to get a sense of whether we’re on the same wavelength, which is essential for harmonious collaborations. Start a conversation and see if we click. If you get fed up with my tweets about cats & food and decide you’d rather work with a World of Warcraft enthusiast, I promise I won’t be offended.

Dark Chocolate and Basil Truffles

A geek-a-liscious literary experience

It’s World War II and the allies have cracked the encryption of a major Axis communication codes. How can they act without revealing their access to this precious intelligence? Detachment 2702, overweight a rag-tag group of soldiers and intelligence agents, viagra sale is dispatched to create believable (and hilarious) alibis to justify why German and Japanese convoys keep getting sunk.

It’s the late ’90s and the grand-children of two Detachment 2702 members are part of an IT start-up venture in the Philippines. The discovery of a sunken WWII German submarine filled with gold leads to a set of encrypted punched cards that may contain the location of an even bigger Japanese war treasure hoard.

This genre defying novel is in fact a mashup of many stories: a WWII spy action, medicine a harrowing death camp escape, a modern-day treasure hunt yarn, a philosophical mathematics treatise and a high-finance techno thriller. All of these narratives are tied together with a profound insight into geek culture and an unrestricted glee for hyperbole of hysterical proportions.

One of its many themes is the invention of the digital computer, with particular attention to its use in cryptology (encryption), communication and currency. The word “Cryptonomicon” itself refers to a fictional book summarizing mankind’s knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

Stephenson has a knack for explaining complex concepts in the most entertaining way. For instance, he’ll use graphs and formulas to describe absolutely ludicrous situations as a means to illustrate some of his more abstract themes. He will also often segue into seemingly unrelated side-stories, such as a letter to Penthouse about furniture and stockings or the tale of a wisdom tooth removal from hell. Far from being annoying, these are some of the most entertaining aspects of the book.

Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite novels of all time. Reading this 1,100 pages behemoth has become an almost-yearly ritual for me. The reason I come back to this book over and over again is because of the sheer density and enjoyability of its material. Every reading brings a smile to my face and sheds new light into its many concepts and plot points.

Beyond History

Neil Stephenson, previously known for high-tech, high-concept science-fiction novels such as Snow Crash (virtual worlds) and The Diamond Age (nanotechnology), chose the historical fiction genre for this crazy chimera of a novel. Notable historical figures featured in Cryptonomicon are: Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan. We also encounter names that have the ring of familiarity such as Electrical Till Company (ETC), a reference to IBM (Idea Business Machines), a WIRED-like TURING magazine and a scrappy Finnish open-source operating system called “Finux”.

A cornucopia of themes

I will now simply list some of the themes covered in Cryptonomicon. Hopefully, this should give you an idea of the relentless fountain of craziness and though-provoking substance of this most unusual book:

  • What is encryption and why it’s so important;
  • Cracking an encryption code
  • The autistic-like nature of nerds and geeks;
  • Start-ups, NDA’s and business plans;
  • Pen-and-paper vs computer and card-based role-playing games;
  • The impact of horniness on concentration and the relative merits of self-administered relief;
  • Information theory and all the ways that information can leak our of a communication channel;
  • Mastering UNIX and TCP/IP;
  • Customizing a Linux-like fictional operating system to its core;
  • Building a digital computer using pipes and sound;
  • Encrypting messages using a deck of playing cards
  • Setting up a data haven;
  • Creating an electronic currency;
  • The social etiquette of the military;
  • The difference between Athena and Ares, the two gods of War from Greek mythology, and how this relates to WWII;
  • The optimal way to eat a bowl of Capt’n Crunch breakfast cereals;
  • The effectiveness of publishing encryption schemes vs keeping them secret;
  • Using anonymizer proxy services to protect your anonymity;
  • Using Zeta functions to generate pseudo-random numbers;
  • Eavesdropping on the contents of a computer display by detecting its electromagnetic emissions (Van Eck phreaking);
  • Using character classes from the Lord of The Ring as a way to categorize people;
  • Genocides and mass murders;
  • The logistics of digging a hidden treasure hoard in a mountain using slave labor;
  • Libertarian paranoia and gun culture;
  • And more, more, more!!!

Relevancy

When Stephenson published Cryptonomicon in 1999, the Web had reached mainstream status and was just starting to impact the life of everyone. Windows NT and 95 were still widely used and cell-phones with worldwide coverage were an oddity. How well has this novel aged and is it still relevant today?

Most of the forward-looking tech stuff has since become old news. However, the adventure is still thrilling, the jokes still gut-splitting and its insight are still significant.

Overall, I would still recommend it to anyone passionate about WWII, computers and Big Ideas as well as to anyone interested in learning more about the puzzling psychology of geeks and nerds.

Prequels

Following Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote a prequel of a sort to this story. Published in three back-breaking 1,500+ pages volumes, this “Baroque Trilogy” (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) is set in the 17th century and deals with the same dominant themes of Cryptonomicon (currency, computers, treasure hunts, etc.). Its main protagonists include famous Historical figures, such as Isaac Newton and Louis XIV, as well as ancestors of many Cryptonomicon characters and a mysterious, long-lived Alchemist.

While its tone doesn’t attempts to be as consistently comic as Cryptonomicon, the Baroque trilogy is a hugely entertaining follow-up. If you enjoy diving deep into witty, meandering, though-provoking stories, these ones are for you!

Links

Photo sources: Flickr and uboatarchive.net

“Jipi and the Paranoid Chip” is a science fiction short story by Neal Stephenson that appeared in Forbes Magazine’s July 7, 1997 issue. It is part of the Baroque Cycle/ Cryptonomicon universe.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

The holidays bring many opportunities to host and attend various potlucks, pill
dinners and parties. One of the eternal questions during the season becomes “What should I bring?” As it turns out, homemade chocolate truffles are a surprisingly easy, impressive and downright tasty option to have in your arsenal.

This particular truffle combines the complex, smokey and nutty flavors of a good dark chocolate with the bright herb profiles of basil. I know what you are thinking, but the combination of chocolate and basil is remarkably compelling.

Step by Step Recipe

Begin by finely chopping 12 ounces of 40 to 60 percent chocolate and 12 ounces of 70 percent or higher chocolate. You need the lower percentage chocolate to add some sweetness to the final truffle, and the darker richer chocolate for that deep smoky flavor. Put the chopped chocolate in a large bowl.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Roughly chop a large handful of basil. You do not want the basil chopped too fine, just enough to release the essential oils from the leaves. You could also use mint, tarragon or shiso depending on your mood and preferences, but chocolate and basil is an outstanding pairing, I promise!

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Add 1 1/3 cup of heavy cream to a heavy-bottomed small pan. Add the basil and salt. Bring the cream up to a boil 2 times, cooling it between the first and second boiling.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

When the cream comes to a boil the second time, strain the hot cream over the chopped chocolate, mashing any big pieces with a spoon.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Stir the mixture together in a circular pattern from the center and working your way to the edge with a wooden spoon. When you first start the stirring, the chocolate will look lumpy and almost curdled; do not freak out. The ganache will soon be smooth, glossy, and beautiful.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

When the ganache is smooth and glossy, pour the mixture into a shallow 9×12 aluminum baking dish that you have lined with saran wrap. Cover the mixture with more saran wrap, making sure that the saran wrap touches the ganache as this will prevent a “skin” from developing as the ganache cools. Place in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours until the mixture has completely chilled.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

After the ganache has chilled, remove it from the fridge and pull it out of the baking dish. Unwrap the block of ganache and place on a cutting board.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Using a very sharp knife, cut the ganache into small, bite sized pieces. Place the pieces onto a plate with sugar and roll the pieces in the sugar until they are thinly and evenly coated. Shake off any excess sugar and place the truffle pieces on a serving plate. Depending on how big you cut your pieces, you can expect between 60 to 100 pieces when you are finished.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

You can store the truffles in the refrigerator and they will keep for a week or two.

Makes about 60 to 100 truffles

Variations

This recipe can be tweaked with any number of other flavors to keep things interesting. Consider replacing the basil with any of the following:

  • Curry powder
  • Chipotle chiles
  • Tarragon
  • Espresso powder

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces milk or mild chocolate (40% – 60% cacao)
  • 12 ounces dark chocolate (70% or higher cacao)
  • 1 bunch of basil, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Sugar for dusting

Internet In Hotels

Photo Credit: Abigail Thompson

This topic gets discussed enough but I rarely give it much thought because most of my experiences are through business travel. The expense therefore is not mine and so the wound doesn’t cut as deep.

Plain and simple – Internet connectivity in hotels sucks!

This trip isn’t a personal one but the fact remains, anabolics Internet isn’t free and on top of that, connectivity is barley workable. We have people trying to connect to their email and waiting for 10, sometimes 12 minutes to see their inbox. If too many people connect to the wireless service in the hotel then someone else will get arbitrarily bumped off. So the speed is slow and the rules aren’t fair.We are not in a Motel 6 here either. This is a large Chateau as we call them that hosts many people and large conferences.

Staying in large hotels a few times this year it is easy to see during the week that most are there for business, be it meetings or conferences. That means that they need to be connected. Some will rely on their Blackberry but due to the corporate cost of BES servers and data; some don’t have that luxury.

It seems to me that the hotel industry needs to update their infrastructure but also needs to adopt a new philosophy. Let’s be clear – most travel these days is business related. Quite simply they need to consider their Internet connectivity as a essential service in their hotel.

More and more I am asked which hotels I recommend based on their Internet service. Nothing is more frustrating to people who organize big events than everyone complaining to them about something as simple as Internet access. They have so many other small issues to take care of, they just don’t need to be bothered by people regarding something they can’t fix.

You ask if I can give any recommendations?

  • Call ahead! Don’t wait until everyone is on site or the meeting is booked to figure this out. As a event planner this should be on the top of the list.
  • Make sure that they can handle a lot of traffic. Ask them if their system is equipped to handle every room connecting to wireless or wired Internet at the same time.
  • Check the cost. Some hotels do actually offer free access. It seems to me that they all should in 2010 but some charge $25 a day per connection or even more. If you have 100 people on a 5 day conference that can add $12,500 to your budget.
  • Let’s just say that I have never had a good experience in a hotel that has the DataValet service. I am sure they don’t want to hear that but more often than not there is a lot of trouble connecting to corporate VPNs.
  • Get a fairly competent person to test the VPN connection on site if you can. I know this isn’t always possible but perhaps you have a sales force with someone near by.
  • If you aren’t a big company or you are traveling on your own then perhaps scouting out a backup location with free Internet is a good idea in case of emergency. A Starbucks or other cafe might be the solution to this.
  • If you travel often then mobile Internet might be a better solution. At $20 a day for 5 days you have spent $100 on a week’s trip. That will offer you quite a good plan for mobile Internet, even in Canada where I live and mobile services are usually more expensive.

I think the most important thing is to educate yourself and others around you. Hotels offer inadequate service because they aren’t pressured to improve. If we make the call to the hotel and aren’t satisfied with their Internet plan, then we should tell them we are going to look elsewhere for that reason.

Of course this was all prompted by my current stay – I wrote this article while tethered to my Blackberry, not from the hotel service.

Good luck in your travels, geek on!

Becoming an Author in the iPad Era

Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith

If you’re like most folks, buy information pills at one time or another, decease you’ve thought about taking that one great idea, hunkering down in front of the typewriter or word processor and just letting the words flow till they all come together to form The Great Novel. Many have actually done so, launching themselves head first, typing out the first few sentences of their masterpiece. But if you’re like most, you probably gave up after less than a page, never mind finishing one chapter. And from there, the numbers thin out to just the very few who somehow plug away till their book is done.

If you managed to finish the first draft of your very first novel, congratulations. It’s not easy. But you like it. You think it’s good. Real good. Now you want to share it with the world.

The world of book publishing has changed. A lot. For a budding new writer, now may be the best time ever to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big players.

Consumption versus Creation
Technology has accelerated people’s ability to consume endless amounts of information and media. There is an abundance of choice today previously unknown in human history. The industrial revolution created an almost limitless supply of physical goods that consumers could buy and enhance their lives. Now with the information revolution, media content has exponentially grown to the point where no one person could ever conceivably watch, listen, read or experience everything they find enticing.

Oh. But there is a downside.

With all this consumption, individuals could miss out on the other opportunities afforded by today’s technology: content creation.

Okay. So maybe you can’t sing or play an instrument. And for most, making a movie or a television show is out of the question.

But we all have one skill that we can leverage into content: language. As long as you can string a sentence together, you can write a book. All it takes is a good idea, a computer with writing software and patience to see it through. And a good book can propel a person from obscurity to fame and fortune.

Well, okay. Rarely. But you just know it’ll be you this time, right? Right on.

Electronic Distribution
The publishing industry is a big machine with a chain made up of authors (the folks who write the books), agents (the folks who match up authors with publishing houses), publishers (the folks who print, package, market and ship the books), retailers (the folks who sell the books) and consumers (the folks who buy and read the books). Like baseball, music labels and movie studios, publishers found that they could make oodles of cash by taking raw talent and turning it into gold. And by getting as much strict control on as many links in the chain as they can, they can make sure they maximize their profits. In the good ol’ days, you needed their big machine to do all things required to print and distribute a book. They liked it this way. It’s understandable.

Now it’s different.

There’s the internet. There are e-books. There are e-readers. There’s EPUB. There are short-run book manufacturers like Blurb and Lulu who can make one book at a time that looks as professional as anything at your local bookstore. There are turnkey solutions like iUniverse. There’s the Kindle. And then there’s the iPad and iBooks. And even more to come.

You don’t have to go through the machine anymore.

Media Lessons Learned
The music industry failed to embrace digital technology from the outset and they’re paying the price. By its nature, music is a low commitment medium. It takes about four minutes to consume one distinct unit. CD players and radios are cheap. It can just hover there in the background while you mow the lawn or drive your car. The file sizes are small (thanks, MP3), so pirating piles of songs is like using up a wad of napkins at Mickey D’s that you don’t really need, but like to have around, just in case. Plus the quality can be middling for most people’s tastes. Not a good medium to stake your financial future on.

Then there’s movies and television. Bigger commitment. You need to be sitting still for between 30 and 180 minutes to consume one distinct unit. Television sets, video players and trips to the theater cost more. The file sizes are much bigger, so that stems piracy. Somewhat. They’re looking at the music industry and thinking, ‘maybe we should be a little more open to digital technology’. It’s helping. A little. But their industry isn’t been on the verge of tanking like music has. Yet.

Now, publishing. Books? Huge commitment. You really need to have your nose in front of that page. Hours, days, even weeks to consume one unit. Photocopy a book? Who has the time? If there’s no PDF floating around, who would bother ripping it off? People have a much more visceral relationship with books. Almost a sensual one. And the publishing industry, thanks to Apple and Amazon, have decided to embrace digital technology.

There’s an opportunity there.

The Writing Process
So. You want to be a fiction writer? Fire up the ol’ Word or OpenOffice and just start typing away, right? Well, that’s probably not the best way to go about it.

Introduce yourself to the concept of non-linear writing.

Word processors by the nature of their architecture presume you will begin your document in the upper lefthand corner, work your way to the right, make a carriage return and drop a line and so on till your manuscript is done.

There’s a better way.

What if you want to start a third of the way in? Then maybe write a scene near the end. Or maybe you have an idea for a prologue before the first chapter.

In the olden days, there were these small pieces of cardboard called index cards. You could write a story idea on one and just lay it out on a corkboard or table. Then you could just play with these discrete ideas and reorder them till you fleshed out your narrative.

For Mac users, there’s Scrivener. For Windows folks, PageFour and others. They will free you from the bonds of linear thinking and make your writing project that much more pleasant. If not for Scrivener, I would have never been able to finish the first draft of my first real novel.

For years, I took stab after stab at writing a book. Never could do it. I always ran out of steam very early on. A non-linear text editor like Scrivener really changed everything for me. Like the first time I put together an Ikea bookcase with a cordless drill instead of breaking my wrist with a screwdriver, doing a major project was something to look forward to, not dread like some awful chore.

Good tools make a difference.

In the process of writing my book, there were some valuable lessons I learned that every newbie writer ought to know. There are many others, but these are all pretty basic.

Show. Don’t tell. In other words, describe the scene using the senses. Don’t just report what’s happened.

Remember the rule of three acts: establish your lead character, make him or her in face ever-mounting conflicts, end off with a huge climax.

Read good authors. Learn from them.

Raise the stakes. Constantly. Keep the action juiced up with a few breathers here and there for some balance.

Finish every scene with a sentence that has an emotional touchstone or a springboard to propel the reader onward.

You can’t completely avoid using adjectives and adverbs, but use descriptive, illustrative images instead when you can.

Keep the final manuscript to between 80,000 and 120,000 words. 100,000 is the sweet spot to aim for.

Hire an editor. If you can’t, be brutal with yourself, even if it is your baby and lop off excess limbs to make it better.

Use a dictionary, thesaurus and spell checker. Watch the grammar.

Keep the drama high and the peril ominous. But don’t be preachy or melodramatic.

Avoid clichés.

Trim the dialog. Keep it punchy, quick and understated.

Expect criticism.

The first draft will be garbage. Period. Don’t worry and don’t self-edit till it’s finished. Once the first draft’s out the door, you can brutalize it all you want. Whatever you do, don’t stop in the middle and nitpick.

Wikipedia is your buddy. Hang out.

Don’t frontload your story. Let it stretch out naturally. Don’t give it all away in the first chapter. Feed the reader by the morsel.

Enjoy every minute.

The Urge to Write
They say do it for love. Not for money. That’s good advice for anything worth spending your time on. For writing, the motive should be for the pure pleasure of telling a story.

As a web designer, there is a great satisfaction in the process of starting with nothing and then creating something beautiful and functional that all the world can experience. That’s the great thing about the web. Anyone anywhere can see what we’ve made.

Creativity is what satisfies the ongoing personal struggle we all deal with when trying to decipher the hidden meaning of our existence. It is in making something beautiful out of our pure imagination that gives us as designers, programmers and authors a real sense of purpose that is tangible. In a sense, we all are storytellers in our own right.

The art of writing fiction gives everyone an opportunity to explore the sheerest heights and depths of human emotion and experience, pitting characters who represent us in the most extreme situations, putting to the test our values, aspirations and our weaknesses and sharing them with others in insightful and entertaining ways. Everyone should, at least once in their lives, write a long form story, if only for the experience.

And there’s no better time than right now.

Rock Star

Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith

If you’re like most folks, buy information pills at one time or another, decease you’ve thought about taking that one great idea, hunkering down in front of the typewriter or word processor and just letting the words flow till they all come together to form The Great Novel. Many have actually done so, launching themselves head first, typing out the first few sentences of their masterpiece. But if you’re like most, you probably gave up after less than a page, never mind finishing one chapter. And from there, the numbers thin out to just the very few who somehow plug away till their book is done.

If you managed to finish the first draft of your very first novel, congratulations. It’s not easy. But you like it. You think it’s good. Real good. Now you want to share it with the world.

The world of book publishing has changed. A lot. For a budding new writer, now may be the best time ever to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big players.

Consumption versus Creation
Technology has accelerated people’s ability to consume endless amounts of information and media. There is an abundance of choice today previously unknown in human history. The industrial revolution created an almost limitless supply of physical goods that consumers could buy and enhance their lives. Now with the information revolution, media content has exponentially grown to the point where no one person could ever conceivably watch, listen, read or experience everything they find enticing.

Oh. But there is a downside.

With all this consumption, individuals could miss out on the other opportunities afforded by today’s technology: content creation.

Okay. So maybe you can’t sing or play an instrument. And for most, making a movie or a television show is out of the question.

But we all have one skill that we can leverage into content: language. As long as you can string a sentence together, you can write a book. All it takes is a good idea, a computer with writing software and patience to see it through. And a good book can propel a person from obscurity to fame and fortune.

Well, okay. Rarely. But you just know it’ll be you this time, right? Right on.

Electronic Distribution
The publishing industry is a big machine with a chain made up of authors (the folks who write the books), agents (the folks who match up authors with publishing houses), publishers (the folks who print, package, market and ship the books), retailers (the folks who sell the books) and consumers (the folks who buy and read the books). Like baseball, music labels and movie studios, publishers found that they could make oodles of cash by taking raw talent and turning it into gold. And by getting as much strict control on as many links in the chain as they can, they can make sure they maximize their profits. In the good ol’ days, you needed their big machine to do all things required to print and distribute a book. They liked it this way. It’s understandable.

Now it’s different.

There’s the internet. There are e-books. There are e-readers. There’s EPUB. There are short-run book manufacturers like Blurb and Lulu who can make one book at a time that looks as professional as anything at your local bookstore. There are turnkey solutions like iUniverse. There’s the Kindle. And then there’s the iPad and iBooks. And even more to come.

You don’t have to go through the machine anymore.

Media Lessons Learned
The music industry failed to embrace digital technology from the outset and they’re paying the price. By its nature, music is a low commitment medium. It takes about four minutes to consume one distinct unit. CD players and radios are cheap. It can just hover there in the background while you mow the lawn or drive your car. The file sizes are small (thanks, MP3), so pirating piles of songs is like using up a wad of napkins at Mickey D’s that you don’t really need, but like to have around, just in case. Plus the quality can be middling for most people’s tastes. Not a good medium to stake your financial future on.

Then there’s movies and television. Bigger commitment. You need to be sitting still for between 30 and 180 minutes to consume one distinct unit. Television sets, video players and trips to the theater cost more. The file sizes are much bigger, so that stems piracy. Somewhat. They’re looking at the music industry and thinking, ‘maybe we should be a little more open to digital technology’. It’s helping. A little. But their industry isn’t been on the verge of tanking like music has. Yet.

Now, publishing. Books? Huge commitment. You really need to have your nose in front of that page. Hours, days, even weeks to consume one unit. Photocopy a book? Who has the time? If there’s no PDF floating around, who would bother ripping it off? People have a much more visceral relationship with books. Almost a sensual one. And the publishing industry, thanks to Apple and Amazon, have decided to embrace digital technology.

There’s an opportunity there.

The Writing Process
So. You want to be a fiction writer? Fire up the ol’ Word or OpenOffice and just start typing away, right? Well, that’s probably not the best way to go about it.

Introduce yourself to the concept of non-linear writing.

Word processors by the nature of their architecture presume you will begin your document in the upper lefthand corner, work your way to the right, make a carriage return and drop a line and so on till your manuscript is done.

There’s a better way.

What if you want to start a third of the way in? Then maybe write a scene near the end. Or maybe you have an idea for a prologue before the first chapter.

In the olden days, there were these small pieces of cardboard called index cards. You could write a story idea on one and just lay it out on a corkboard or table. Then you could just play with these discrete ideas and reorder them till you fleshed out your narrative.

For Mac users, there’s Scrivener. For Windows folks, PageFour and others. They will free you from the bonds of linear thinking and make your writing project that much more pleasant. If not for Scrivener, I would have never been able to finish the first draft of my first real novel.

For years, I took stab after stab at writing a book. Never could do it. I always ran out of steam very early on. A non-linear text editor like Scrivener really changed everything for me. Like the first time I put together an Ikea bookcase with a cordless drill instead of breaking my wrist with a screwdriver, doing a major project was something to look forward to, not dread like some awful chore.

Good tools make a difference.

In the process of writing my book, there were some valuable lessons I learned that every newbie writer ought to know. There are many others, but these are all pretty basic.

Show. Don’t tell. In other words, describe the scene using the senses. Don’t just report what’s happened.

Remember the rule of three acts: establish your lead character, make him or her in face ever-mounting conflicts, end off with a huge climax.

Read good authors. Learn from them.

Raise the stakes. Constantly. Keep the action juiced up with a few breathers here and there for some balance.

Finish every scene with a sentence that has an emotional touchstone or a springboard to propel the reader onward.

You can’t completely avoid using adjectives and adverbs, but use descriptive, illustrative images instead when you can.

Keep the final manuscript to between 80,000 and 120,000 words. 100,000 is the sweet spot to aim for.

Hire an editor. If you can’t, be brutal with yourself, even if it is your baby and lop off excess limbs to make it better.

Use a dictionary, thesaurus and spell checker. Watch the grammar.

Keep the drama high and the peril ominous. But don’t be preachy or melodramatic.

Avoid clichés.

Trim the dialog. Keep it punchy, quick and understated.

Expect criticism.

The first draft will be garbage. Period. Don’t worry and don’t self-edit till it’s finished. Once the first draft’s out the door, you can brutalize it all you want. Whatever you do, don’t stop in the middle and nitpick.

Wikipedia is your buddy. Hang out.

Don’t frontload your story. Let it stretch out naturally. Don’t give it all away in the first chapter. Feed the reader by the morsel.

Enjoy every minute.

The Urge to Write
They say do it for love. Not for money. That’s good advice for anything worth spending your time on. For writing, the motive should be for the pure pleasure of telling a story.

As a web designer, there is a great satisfaction in the process of starting with nothing and then creating something beautiful and functional that all the world can experience. That’s the great thing about the web. Anyone anywhere can see what we’ve made.

Creativity is what satisfies the ongoing personal struggle we all deal with when trying to decipher the hidden meaning of our existence. It is in making something beautiful out of our pure imagination that gives us as designers, programmers and authors a real sense of purpose that is tangible. In a sense, we all are storytellers in our own right.

The art of writing fiction gives everyone an opportunity to explore the sheerest heights and depths of human emotion and experience, pitting characters who represent us in the most extreme situations, putting to the test our values, aspirations and our weaknesses and sharing them with others in insightful and entertaining ways. Everyone should, at least once in their lives, write a long form story, if only for the experience.

And there’s no better time than right now.

Photo Credit: Tim Samoff

Justin (a fictional person for this article) considers himself to be a very good designer. He trained at a local college, discount got decent grades, and even landed a respectable job at an agency in his area. But Justin feels that he can do more with his skills as a freelancer, or perhaps move on to a more well-known studio for work. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to get the attention from those who will ultimately help him achieve his long-term goals.

Part of the problem is how easily Justin becomes frustrated when he sees work that is superior to his own. He begins hitting creativity walls and starts asking the wrong questions, like “Why can’t I be that good?”, or “Why don’t people see me for my worth?”,  or even “Do I suck at this?”.

You might be Justin, or you might know someone who is. I’ve had days where I feel just like this, and so have you. We all know these feelings, because deep down inside, we all kind of like the idea of being mini-rockstars in our own circle of what we do, yet we also have days where we feel that we don’t deserve it when seeing what our peers are up to.

The obvious response would be to tell the Justins of the world to just keep at it. “Work hard and never give up!”, “Be strong!”, and “Hang in there!”. I know I’ve heard that more than a few times in my life. And even though it’s the pure truth of what needs done, there’s so much more to it than that.

An Analogy

Let’s say that there’s a chef who is looking to really make a culinary impact on his city. To make something that people would want to come to his restaurant for. He makes a killer dish, but his food turns out tasting much like that prepared by 40 other chefs in his area. So, he has an idea: to alter his recipe into something that few other chefs are doing. He creates his own blend of flavors.

At this point, something very interesting happens – his audience begins to divide into two primary groups: Those who criticize his cooking skills, and those who rave about it. All eyes (and taste-buds) turn to our chef to see what he’s been up to. Even people reading the critics turn up, generally out of curiosity – because most people are a little nosy. The raving reviews even earn him a couple of mentions in the local newspaper, which he appreciates.

Now, our chef is becoming locally famous, is bringing attention to his area (and his restaurant), and is beginning to make some of his dreams really come true, all because he stopped trying to make everyone happy, and started specializing in something truly unique. By altering his recipe just a tiny bit, he was able to move forward in his career.

Back to Justin

The one thing that keeps Justin from “good” versus “great” at this point is being afraid of creating something that some people will not like, by trying to make something that everybody will like. It’s nearly impossible to pull this off, but yet there he is, over and over again, creating designs that look like everyone else’s because trying something different is too high risk.

Justin probably has one thing in his skill set that he’s good at, more than anyone else, because it’s something he loves personally. By learning to focus his attention on this, channelling his design energy into that skill, he will, in point of fact, be creating his own chef’s recipe.

If we all learn one thing from Justin, it’s that we can’t be afraid of creating something that may potentially not be liked by everyone. When we design with our hearts, with passion, people recognize that, and follow you on your own path to greatness. We don’t need to be better than everyone else, we just need to be better than ourselves.

Mantis Wallpaper

Photo Credit: flattop341

The dos & don’ts of pitching yourself to a web designer

One of the phenomenona that comes with running your own web design firm is frequent inquiries from both wannabe and experienced web designers and programmers.

I love to help out folks getting started in the industry – I always appreciated it myself when I transitioned from working in film and TV production to the web sphere – but it always startles me how many people are completely clueless about the best way to approach me when they’re looking for work. I’m not alone; colleagues complain about the same pitching missteps.

Here are some practical dos & don’ts:

Don’t send me email attachments – especially when my contact page specifically begs you not to. I don’t need a 5-page PDF of your curriculum vitae, buy more about listing a chronology of your work & education; I want to see what you can do.

Do send a link to your online portfolio in the body of your message. If you’re pitching yourself as a web designer, nurse I want to see a minimum of 5 sites you’ve worked on – ideally more – with a clear description of your role in each project. They don’t all have to be live, archived on your portfolio site is fine. (You do have your own domain and online portfolio site, right?)

Don’t call me out of the blue and not ask if I have a moment before launching into a soliloquy so fast and loud that I have to hold the phone away from my ear so I don’t damage my hearing. (Yes, this has actually happened.) The work that web designers and developers do requires focus and concentration. If you’d like to have a phone chat, tell me why in a quick email, and we can schedule a call in advance to make sure I can give you all my attention.

Do have a few people carefully proofread your cover letter before sending it. If you can’t be bothered to spell correctly and use proper punctuation, I assume you’ll be as sloppy with your coding. This is an excerpt from an actual letter I received recently:

After a stint as a pratice lawyer in insurance litigation, I decided to move on and redirect my career in a more creative, dynamic and technological fiel of study.

I’m creative, inventive. I’m also a perfectionnist, with a great sens of job well done. I am very approachable and I have a great listening sense.

I excel in writing, in both English and French.

Don’t write a generic-sounding letter. Address me by name – it’s clearly on my website, take the extra three seconds to find it. Refer to something specific about my company that explains why you want to work with me. Doing these two things alone will make you stand out among the 100 others who’ve sent me job inquiries.

Do tell me what you’re passionate about. Are you a WordPress fanatic? Enthused about e-commerce? Driven by design? Let that excitement shine through your words.

Don’t write a novel. Be brief and get to the point: what specific role are you looking for and what makes you suitable? Do I even need your services? Check out my work first – pitching me your ASP.NET database programming skills wastes both of our time.

Do get to know me first, before even sending that first intro email. Twitter is a fantastic way to get a sense of whether we’re on the same wavelength, which is essential for harmonious collaborations. Start a conversation and see if we click. If you get fed up with my tweets about cats & food and decide you’d rather work with a World of Warcraft enthusiast, I promise I won’t be offended.

Photo Credit: Anton Peck

They say that finding a Praying Mantis in your yard will bring you luck.

I wanted to share this one with all of you, visit
found at a time when I needed a little luck in my own yard.

Photo Credit: Anton Peck

Download now: 2560×1600, 1920×1200, iPad (1024×1024), iPhone 4 (640×940)

My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 3: The Two Trails

Photo Credit: Phillip Capper

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, malady I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.

This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, viagra and survived. Just. (Read Part 1 and Part 2)

Follow The Pink Arrows

I decided that retracing my steps was no longer an option—not least because I was unsure which direction to head. (Plus I wanted to avoid the marsh if at all possible). Squinting upwards through the canopy, more about I checked the position of the sun in the sky. The trail had failed me spectacularly, and I decided instead to continue heading West, which would at least take me towards the highway—and hopefully out of my predicament.

I slowly forged a path around the edge of the ravine. It was hard work, as the vines had become ridiculously thick. Cursing the forest and my own stupidity, I gingerly made my way down into the valley. While it was difficult, the descent I chose was far more manageable than the trail had suggested, and at the bottom I was rewarded with a river containing running water that was crystal clear.

I sat in a tiny clearing and filled my bottle. As I caught my breath, I looked up at my green prison, spotted another pink arrow and grimaced. The “trail.” Great.

I stood up and began the process of nimbly discerning some semblance of a path. Pulling back vines and thorny foliage was no longer a novelty and had become a downright chore. I cursed as I removed each and every hurdle keeping me from my freedom. At one stage I thought I saw a clearing up ahead.

Nope.

I Want To Break Free

It was another 30 minutes of battling vines, prickles and thick overgrowth before the forest eventually began to grow thinner. My heart raced as I rushed towards the light and finally burst into a clearing, free from my labyrinthine prison. The rain had eased, and occasional rays of sunshine were attempting to shuffle their way through the cloudy ceiling.

Whew.

I took a deep breath and surveyed my surroundings. I was standing in a paddock, behind a short, barbed-wire fence. I had no idea where I was in relation to the road or the coast. I was relieved at not having to battle the claustrophobia-inducing web of vines and thorns, but I wasn’t completely out of the woods yet, even if I had achieved this milestone in the literal sense.

In the distance, across a dozen or so paddocks, I spotted a white farmhouse. I deduced that somewhere near the house would be a road. If I followed that road, I could make my way back to the train station. I just had to make my way across the muddy paddocks.

Unfortunately, luck just wasn’t on my side. With my very first step after emerging from the forest, I slipped on a particularly swampy pothole and fell forward … onto a pile of barbed wire.

Instinctively, I put out my hands as I fell, so they suffered the most when I landed: a 20cm scratch ran up the inside of my right arm (a faint scar remains to this day) and a barb pierced the webbing on my left hand, between my middle finger and ring finger. The wound was quite deep. What’s that? Oh. Yeah, it did hurt, actually.

“Fuck!” I said out loud.

Again.

Battered, Bruised, but not Broken

I removed the barb and blood began to drip from the base of my finger. I clenched my fist to try and halt the bleeding, and cursed as I found my feet in the mud. Conscious that the fence next to me might be electric, I climbed over gingerly and began hiking towards the farmhouse.

Half way across the paddock, the bleeding began to subside. I washed my hand in a babbling creek and contemplated what my circumstances would be like if this was, say, some country town in Texas, for example. I decided that the inhabitants of a remote farmhouse in Texas would be probably be firing shots at me with their rifle from the farmhouse at this stage, but convinced myself that this was far less likely in New Zealand. Just to be on the safe side, I veered to the right, so that I was hidden from anyone in the farmhouse by a hill.

I had to cross several fences to get out of the farm. Most of the paddocks were empty, except one that contained several hundred cattle, and I stayed well clear of that one. However, in keeping with the events, I wasn’t even able to climb a couple of fences in an uneventful fashion. It was while I was halfway over the third fence that I discovered first-hand that the fences were indeed electric. I had tested them, but it turned out that the electricity is delivered in a pulse every 10 seconds or so. I guess there wasn’t a pulse while I was performing my test.

ZAP!

The electric shock was not enough to be painful, but it was enough to startle me into falling off and into the mud for the umpteenth time. And it made me angry. Perhaps I was angry with myself for being so stupid; or perhaps being angry immediately after injuring ourselves is an impulse that is ingrained from birth; or maybe I was just pissed off at the fact that I’d made a fool of myself in front of three hundred cows. (And they were watching intently, too—every single one of them.)

Regardless, any hope of achieving a zen-like state while looking over a picturesque view was long gone.

Mooove it, Mister!

It took me another 30 minutes to cross the four wide, swampy paddocks that lay between the edge of the forest and the road that would take me back to Paraparaumu. As I scaled what I thought would be my final hurdle—a six-foot-high barbed wire fence—the cows who had been staring right at me since I began trespassing in their paddock began mooing like whiney, tantrum-ridden toddlers.

Hopefully you’ll appreciate that I was clearly not in a terribly rational state of mind when I reveal this next fact: I do recall actually shouting out loud to the cows, telling them to, erm, fuck off. It was not my proudest moment.

I put my woodland incarceration behind me—I’d found the road. The next question was: which way should I walk?

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

The elderly staff member at a local vintage car museum pointed me in the right direction. (That is, after I absorbed the absurdity of their being an enormous vintage car museum here in the middle of nowhere.)

If I hadn’t just emerged from such a gruelling ordeal, I definitely would have stayed to admire some of the classic, shiny automobiles on display, restored to their former glory.
As I trudged along the highway, narrowly avoiding being collected by speeding traffic, I eventually came to a sign pointing in the direction of Paraparaumu.

To the left of this sign, There was another, smaller sign.

Nikau Forest Loop Track begins here.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Here was the track that the lady in the train station was talking about. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I took a closer look:

Do not follow the pink arrows. They are used for pest control.

I slapped my head in disbelief. No wonder the ridiculous pink arrow trail had been so impossible to follow! It wasn’t a trail after all—it was an indicator of something else entirely! I felt like a completely naïve wilderness noob.

Scratched, muddy, electrocuted, tired, hungry, and soaked with sweat, I stood on the side of the road and laughed out loud. Then a crazy thought entered my head … what exactly was this Loop track all about? Should I find out?

My body resisted, but I just had to know what this actual loop track was all about. With considerable trepidation, I approached the entrance.

What could possibly go wrong?

Next issue, Part 4: Return From Mordor