Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blogging for Authors


I have been mulling over for months writing an article about blogging for the many authors who read PODBRAM, and the time is finally here. My personal history is that I bought myself a Christmas present in 1998 so I could jump onto the much ballyhooed super highway at the beginning of 1999. I had been waiting for the Windows 98 era to usher in a decent level of computer power and I was not disappointed. I spent most of 1999 learning about the internet and the new phenomenon of POD publishing; then I spent most of 2000 editing and technically preparing my first book, derived from articles that had already been published in a local newsletter during a period spanning more than a decade.

My next order of business was getting involved in the publishing of my own website. In order to learn as much as possible about the many procedures and concepts of website development, I wanted to learn each technique on my own. My first website was a very simple one built with Netscape Composer and hosted for free from my local dial-up ISP. It did not take very long to discover the many limitations of that concept, so the next thing I did was to buy a copy of FrontPage 98 and learn the intricacies of that software. I put up with many aggravations from FrontPage 98, combined with a basic pay site server at WebIntellects, until WI changed over to the later FP 2002 system. I got the '02 update, learned that system, and soldiered onward, but the whole thing was slowly becoming more unwieldy. The last straw for me was when I could not hang onto Windows 98 SE any longer and the time for this IBuyPower beastie that I use now had arrived. FrontPage had to be retired at that point.

Although I did not mention it earlier, I purchased the e-tabitha URL for ten years back in early '01, and I have been carrying my little URL from server to server and system to system during most of the past decade. By 2005 I could no longer ignore this thing called Blogger. The more I struggled with Frontpage 2002, the more I felt like an idiot when Blogger was essentially a free website server. I do not even remember what my first blog was - I have had so many. I began by setting up a blog separate from my e-tabitha website, but the more I worked with Blogger, and the more the company kept updating their software, making website management easier and easier, the more deeply I became entrenched as a serious fan of Blogger. At this point, you may be wondering if I have tried WordPress. The answer is that I have considered it, but the bottom line is that I like the KISS Principle too much. WordPress seems to offer a higher level system that caters to those who are more than a little computer literate, but whenever I have compared WP with Blogger, the direct simplicity of the latter wins every time. This is going to be a strong recommendation for Blogger. You will have to look elsewhere for information about WordPress because I know very little about it.

I have ten blogs now. Don't panic: only four of them are active. Two are just placeholders from older blogs to direct readers to their new equivalents. The remaining four are ones that I staked a claim to because I may want them later. They happen to be political subjects that someone else might suddenly claim at any time if I had not already done so. The placeholder blogs are just one of many concepts why I like Blogger so much. You can add, subtract, delete, archive, or rename your blogs at any time, and the Blogger system supports your efforts without a big cat fight. In other words, Blogger is very good at evolving and adapting to your needs, and that is one of my favorite characteristics of Blogger.

One of my cats could probably set up a blog at Blogger, at least a blog of the more basic, default nature. All you have to do is go to Blogger and follow the simple steps. My purpose in writing this article is not to take you through the process step by step, although that might have been my plan at one time. I think by this point, most everyone who reads PODBRAM is already more than a little familiar with how blogs look and operate. They are basically designed to look like a newspaper with three vertical columns containing a center column of text called posts and side columns of basic, strategic information and links that is used to guide the reader to whatever particular information he seeks. As soon as you sign up at Blogger, you have to select a theme. Some of these themes, or formats if you will, contain only two columns instead of three. The Harbor theme I have chosen for all my blogs is one of those few containing only two columns. I particularly like this theme because I do not want my blogs to look like a newspaper layout. The newest theme-oriented addition to the Blogger system are somewhat more exotic layouts with pictures that do not scroll and center columns of text that do. There may even be one of these with only two columns, but I have not investigated this issue because I am happy with the Harbor theme I have. Anyone who is setting up a new blog should experiment with these themes and formats, as well as colors, fonts, and other details until you have found the style that suits you. As I said, one of the best things about Blogger is how easy it is to make changes as you go. As an author, of course I want all my proofreading to be perfect, and this was always a headache with FrontPage and other systems I have used. With Blogger, if you find a missing comma when and where you have least expected it, on a post you just made or one you wrote a year ago, you can fix the mistake quickly and easily.

Google owns both Blogger and Picasa, and this makes the whole system even more agreeable. Just sign up for a Google account and password and then use it at Google, Blogger, and Picasa, the photo wrangling program similar to Yahoo's Flickr. I installed Picasa directly on my computer, as well as use it to store my photos at Blogger. The online Picasa stores all the pictures that are in all my blogs on their server. All the photos in my computer are in the Picasa version that is installed inside my computer. I use the at-home Picasa almost exclusively to crop photos because the Picasa cropping system is the simplest I have found. Remember that I love The KISS Principle! All of this stuff is totally free. Remember when I said I was feeling like an idiot struggling with FrontPage?

One of the neatest things about Blogger is their Elements page. You can go to what is called Design and click on Elements to add to your blog. These include link lists, photos, slide shows, polls, archive lists, and others of somewhat lesser common interest. Whenever you write a post, the title of that post is also a link back to that post. You can build your blog navigation however you want, using link lists, archives, or whatever. My blogs are designed to all be identical in their navigation. I build an alphabetical link list of every post I write. The archives by month and year are retained further down the left column, or sidebar, as most bloggers call it. I often put a poll at the top of the page that I set to expire at the end of the month and then I usually compose a post about the results. You can set up these lists, polls, and other elements in many different ways, in alphabetical order or in the order you choose.

The biggest limitation I have found to Blogger is the insertion of photos. You can choose the photo from your files, select small, medium, or large for its size, and left, right, or center for its placement, but that is about all you can easily do. The photo can be very large if you want, and the viewer can click it and the large version will open in another window; however, without using the HTML page offered by Blogger, this is about all you can do with pictures. If you are more adept with HTML than I am, you may wish to venture into these deeper waters where you can place your pictures more specifically within your posts. As I have mentioned, though, if you are this competent with HTML, you may wish to go check out the WordPress competition. If you look at the layout of not only PODBRAM, but any of my blogs, you will quickly notice that each post has exactly one photo. There are a very few exceptions to this. You can place a pair of medium-sized photos side by side or three small ones in the same manner without too much despair, but when you look at the column widths, particularly with the three-column layouts, you will see why it generally looks better with only one photo per post. As the commercials always say, your results may vary.

The next limitation at Blogger I want to point out concerns the use of text. There is a drop down box with a few font choices for each post, and you can choose the size as well. However, I strongly recommend that you check out some of these choices in several different browsers and monitor resolution sizes before settling on your final choice. There is a lot more variation in exactly how the page displays according to the browser and resolution setting than you would expect. The next hint I am going to tell you should be in bold red text. If you compose directly into Blogger, fine, but if you compose in a Word document and then copy and paste it into Blogger, you might be heading for the biggest Blogger storm of all! When you least expect it, some bit of Word formatting will block Blogger from accepting the post. The trick is very simple: copy and paste your Word composition into WordPad and then copy and paste that into Blogger. It's works like a charm every time! You will likely lose any italics or other formatting details, but you can go through your Blogger document and easily correct these. You are likely to have a number of links in mind as you compose your post and you can add these in the final Blogger version, too.

Soon after you get your blog up and running, I recommend that you go to Google Analytics and set it up for your blog. This may require a bit of copying and pasting a little HTML code into your blog, but the instructions at Google Analytics are quite simple. You also should add your blog's URL to Google's search engine while you are at it. Remember when I mentioned that e-tabitha had traveled with me through many different systems? You can also purchase your own URL and use it on your blog instead of something like elmerfudd.blogspot.com. If you stay with the default system, you can name your blog whatever you want and the dot blogspot dot com will follow it. Once you have selected your URL and turned it into Google's search engine, and set up Google Analytics to track your traffic, the next thing you should do is to add Feedjit. Go to Feedjit.com and follow the instructions. As with GA, the instructions are very easy and straightforward. You can even tell Feedjit you are with Blogger and Feedjit will know just what to do. The result of all this is that Google will have your blog's URL in its system so when a potential reader puts Elmer Fudd in Google, your blog will come up on the list. Of course it helps if you are a lot less famous with a name like Floyd M. Orr so your blog is not listed on page 5000 of the Google results. If your name is too similar to a much more famous name, you might wish to consider naming your blog something else. Google Analytics will track your traffic on a day to day, week to week, month to month, and even year to year basis. Feedjit tracks your visitors on a right now basis. When your blog is young and attracting very few readers, watching your Feedjit results will be less exciting than watching grass grow or paint dry. After it picks up speed, and this could take a lot longer than you would like, you will find Feedjit's results to be fascinating reading! Feedjit will tell you where your visitors are coming from and where they are going when they have had all they can stand of you. It will show you the cities they live in and the types of computer systems they use, and of course, it will tell you which pages they are hitting and how long they are staying there. The one flaw I have found is that when you have a link to something in the post, even a picture that blows up when you click it, the visitor might leave soon after her arrival and appear not to return. The catch is that she is probably hitting the Back Button after visiting the link you inserted, but when she returns to continue reading your post, Feedjit does not seem to respond to her use of the Back Button.

Here is the hardest question in blogging, folks. How do you attract the largest number of visitors of the type you wish to attract, and how do you keep them coming back for more? The bad news is that a huge number of people out there surfing the innertubes seem to have the interests of Wal-mart shoppers in the checkout line with the patience of four-year-olds! In other words, a lot of potential readers are going to respond only to your latest posts and the latest links to those posts from other blogs and websites. When I mentioned link lists earlier, I said they could be configured in several different ways. One of the neatest things about Blogger is that you can set up a type of link list that allows new posts from any other Blogger blog to which you link to float to the top of any link list as a new post is added to that particular blog. Of course you can set up a link list, usually in alphabetical order, of a type that is static, but everywhere your blog is listed in a floating list, this is an issue that can affect your traffic. This system is really neat in the way it brings attention to new posts for readers, but you can see how an unscrupulous blogger could easily abuse this system. Let's hope that PODBRAM readers and bloggers are of a higher caliber.

The traffic issue continues as a function of how often you choose to post. The more often you post, the more visitors will continue to come to see whatever new stuff you have added. The downside of course is that if you try to post too often, with most of your posts offering very little value to your readers, they are not going to be happy with that arrangement for very long, either. Some people, particularly established celebrity commentators and such, post at the same time once a week instead of trying to constantly keep up with The Joneses. There is usually very little need to post more often than once daily, but after a while, you will see how difficult even this repetition can get. Twice or three times a week has usually worked well for me, and when I say that, I am not referring to all four of my blogs. Most of the time at least a couple of them are being ignored for weeks or even months at a time. Assuming you are only setting up one blog, I would recommend that you shoot for regular posting no less than once a week, but rarely more than once a day. Keep in mind, too, that if you do not set up a specific link navigation system in the sidebar, as I have done with all my blogs, the regular Archive system can get really unwieldy over time, with respect to a reader seeking out a particular post or subject.

This brings us to the final issue, one that should specifically be vital to any author setting up a blog. The subject matter can vary all over the map. You can be very specific or very general in your choice of subject matter. You can cover several different subjects if you choose. You can cover all your books or only one. The big catch is that unless your name is Stephen King or Anne Rice no one gives a rat's ass about your stupid little POD book. You have to offer the readers a reason to come visit. Of course your mom will read your blog just because you are you, but attracting strangers to read your little blog of twenty ways to say buy my book because it's good can be a real challenge. When I explained to you my personal blogging history, what I was trying to show you is that you can evolve your blog as your ideas grow and develop. Some of my blogs do not appear to be as old as they actually are when you look at the dates of the posts. That is because some of the material has been shifted around and linked to other sources as the Blogger system and my knowledge of my own goals has evolved. If you have only one book or several books, all about the same subject matter, this process will be much simpler for you, but the more convoluted your subject matter or the information you wish to impart with your blog, the more complicated these traffic issues will become.

Try to envision what kind of readers you wish to attract and where they will come from to your blog. The more links you can put out there on other blogs, the more traffic you will get. Just remember, too, that the more specific these linking blogs are to the subject of your blog, the more attractive your blog will be to that potential traffic. On the other hand, the wider the span of material covered on your blog, the more blogs there are that might be appropriate to link to your blog. This system presents a particular Catch 22 for relatively unknown authors. If your material is very specific, you might attract some very voracious readers of your material, but their numbers could be very distinctly limited. On the other hand, if your material is more varied, you have more options open to you when choosing the subjects you post about, as well as the number of blogs upon which you can offer your link. Only a tiny percentage of your potential audience is going to visit your blog just to buy your book. You have to offer them whatever more than that that you can conjure up. The more diverse reasons you can offer a potential audience to visit your blog, eventually the traffic will increase and watching Feedjit scroll will become more exciting than reading ten different ways to buy my book!

Monday, July 26, 2010

No Good Like It Is


No Good Like It Is
by McKendree R. Long III

(CreateSpace / 1-450-58078-5 / 978-1-450-58078-6 / April 2010 / 332 pages / $15.00 / B&N $10.80 / Kindle $4.99)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

No Good Like It Is is one of those narratives usually described as episodic, rambling and picaresque. The plot is the journey – and the point of the journey sometimes seems like an afterthought. If it were a motion picture, it would be that kind of Western wherein a pair of oddly assorted pals wanders through adventures involving the usual genre Western characters: Indians, bad-men, renegades, an assortment of women of rather elastic virtue, drunks, crooked sheriffs and former slaves.

The story of West Point officer Thomas “Dobey” Walls and his sidekick, enlisted soldier Jimmy Melton really seems to fall into three separate parts. The first is a prologue of how they meet and become acquainted during the late 1850s, when both are in the US Army, stationed on the wilds of the far frontier. It takes about ten chapters and seventy pages to establish their friendship and their characters – and since the whole meat of their adventure is their Civil War experience as part of the fabled cavalry unit, Terry’s Texas Rangers, and their journey home from the war, those first chapters seem a little like marking time, waiting for the real adventure to begin. Conversely, the Civil War portion of the book seems also a little rushed. Surely Terry’s Rangers had a great deal more going on during 1861-65, which would have given enough scope for a full set of wartime adventures and derring-do for the two of them?

Anyway, the real adventure begins when the two of them head home again, across the war-blasted South, with the eventual goal of finding Dobey Walls’ surviving family, who may or may not be still at an isolated trading post in the present-day Panhandle. Who knows if they are still alive, for what with the war and all, he hasn’t been in touch with them for years?

The historical research regarding things like military gear and uniforms is impeccable, if sometimes a little overly detailed, and including elements like the Confederate Cherokee characters is an excellent touch. The Civil War was extremely complicated – even in Indian Territory. I would wish for a little more of a sense of place, and landscape, since the journey of Walls and Melton takes place over a wide swath of the South and West. And what seems like an irrelevant development regarding a stolen payroll is a lead-in to a sequel – so, the rambling journey will continue, for sure.


See also: Celia's BNN Review
McKendree R. Long's Website

Friday, July 09, 2010

Kidnapped


Kidnapped by Maria Hammarblad
(CreateSpace / 1-451-59470-4 / 978-1-451-59470-6 / May 2010 / 268 pages / $12.95 / B&N $11.65 / Kindle $2.99)
Reviewed by Donna Aviles for PODBRAM

Tricia Risdon is a young woman, driving home on a winter’s night, when she is suddenly and frighteningly taken aboard a spaceship after nearly colliding with a man who appeared from nowhere in the middle of the road. Confused and unaware of the dire circumstances she now finds herself in, Tricia is confronted by the only occupant of the spaceship – Alliance Commander Travis 152 – an intimidating man with a disfigured face who speaks an indecipherable language. After the Commander places a machine around Tricia’s head, she is able to comprehend his words as if translated into her own native English.

Travis soon learns that he has taken Tricia prisoner in error – that she is not working in partnership with William, the rebel who had appeared in front of her car on the lonely Colorado road. He is now faced with the dilemma of what to do with her and decides that she is not a threat to him or his ship and lets her roam freely.

Travis and Tricia find themselves attracted to one another and they soon become lovers, with Travis replacing his lifelong programmed allegiance to The Alliance with a newfound allegiance to Tricia. The remainder of Kidnapped, by Maria Hammarblad, is the adventure-packed and sometimes harrowing journey of the unlikely couple’s quest to break free from the ruthless control of The Alliance and make their way safely back to Earth.

I would have liked to have had more of a background on Tricia since the story takes place over the course of a year’s time and we never learn anything about her life or family on Earth. Additionally, there are many characters in the book that were not fully developed that would have given the story more depth.

I found this to be an interesting storyline that began a bit slowly but picked up the pace as it went along. Two thirds of the way through, it became harder to put down as the action heightened. Technically, there were some spelling errors but not enough to cause serious distraction. If you’re looking for a science fiction novel with a romantic twist, Kidnapped is worth a look.

See also: Maria's Amazon Page
Maria's second book, Undercover

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Knoxville 1863


Knoxville 1863 by Dick Stanley
(Lulu/CS / 0-557-29707-9 / 978-0-557-29707-8 / February 2010 / 228 pages / $14.50 / B&N $13.05 / CreateSpace $7.98 / Kindle $1.99)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

The American Civil War began nearly a hundred and fifty years ago and ended after four years of savage fighting. There is no one left alive today with first-hand memories of that paroxysm of incredible violence that shattered the United States and then roughly stitched it together again. And the memories, especially in the South are barely diluted, even after all this time – for it was the bitterest kind of war, happening among kin and one-time friends, as it did. Fighting took place along the Washington DC/Richmond axis as the opposing armies menaced each others’ capitals, slashed across the South from Atlanta to the sea, all down the trans-Appalachian waterways and the Mississippi River, in Kansas and Missouri, which bled and bled again – and even as far west as Texas and New Mexico. Even places far removed from battlefields were not left unscathed, for the armies in blue and grey were recruited and marched away from everywhere, to the cheers of the hometown folks. But after three years of fighting, the cheers are muted, the war seems to have lasted forever, and blasted the ordinary pre-war lives of its characters into a thousand fragments. But still they carry on; and this story touches on some of the reasons why and how.

Knoxville 1863 is a worms-level view of a shatteringly unsuccessful Confederate assault on a heavily fortified earthwork bastion, a key part of the Union Army lines defending Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville was a strategic nexus, in an area of East Tennessee which had not favored secession, but where many local citizens had familial connections to the Confederacy. This is made plain in the opening chapter, where Leila Ellis, the young widow of a Confederate officer brings a special meal to the young Union officer commanding the Sanders redoubt. The Union was besieged at Chattanooga; and a force under General Longstreet was supposed to prevent the Union Army of Ohio from coming to reinforce. Longstreet threw elements of three brigades at Ft. Sanders in a bungled surprise attack, thinking that his infantrymen would be easily able to climb the sides of a ditch before the redoubt and overwhelm the relatively untried Union garrison. Instead, the ditch below Ft. Sanders turned into a kill-zone, with one of the most lopsided casualty rates of the whole war: more than 800 Confederate to a dozen Union.

This reconstruction of the event, the days leading to it, and the existence of those involved, and the aftermath, conveys the fluid mix of 19th century stoicism and elaborately observed social custom. Knoxville 1863 and A Civil General are two of the best recent novels that I can think of which bring out a sense of this. These are not modern Americans, dressed up in period clothes. The author weaves an intricate web of characters, of soldiers and artillerymen on both sides, men and boys – the relatively untried Union troops on reduced rations, the battle-worn Confederates starving and shoeless, all of them feeling the cold of a bitter winter in east Tennessee. The various characters are expertly drawn; the details of their lives, their friends and their various sympathies are conveyed in spare and workmanlike language. Each chapter and each character is almost a period steel engraving, full of vivid and authentic detail. The only criticism that can be made of this structure is that readers expecting a single straight-line narrative, featuring an unmistakably central character may be a little disappointed at having their attention and sympathetic interest split among that handful that carry the story more or less equally.


See also: The Author's Website
Dick Stanley's Amazon Page
The PODBRAM Review of A Civil General
Celia's Review at The Deepening
Celia's BNN Review of Knoxville 1863

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Still a Bitch


Rachel Cord, P.I., Still a Bitch:
A Confidential Investigations Mystery

By R. E. Conary
(Outskirts Press / 1-432-75879-9 / 978-1-432-75879-0 / May 2010 / 270 pages / $16.95 / Amazon and B&N $12.20)
Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

Rachel Cord is a private detective, who wants to save enough money to have a breast reduction from double H to a C-cup or at least a B. She is also a lesbian who picks up beautiful women easier than cutting ice cream with a red-hot knife. Most men would envy how fortunate Cord is. I did.

When Cord is handed a missing person's case, she cannot turn it down since she needs the money to make her house payment. However, there are plenty of challenges. Rachel has a PI license to practice in Philadelphia, PA, but not across the river in New Jersey. She also has beautiful lovers on both sides of the river, and she's in danger of losing Wendy when her kinky tryst with Danny (the missing man's sister) is discovered.

Cord's problems get worse when most of the clues turn up in New Jersey, and there's a New Jersey cop who hates her and wants to throw her in jail. If she doesn't have enough challenges working on the wrong side of the river, the Philadelphia police want to know where Cord's former lover Karen is hiding. It seems that Karen is a serial killer who has been leaving a trail of dead bodies across the country, and she may be back in town.

Although I ran into a "few" missing commas and a typo or two, I read Conary's book in three days. I do not read books that fast unless the story hooks me. In fact, my favorite mystery authors are James Lee Burke, Dick Frances and Tony Hillerman. Conary brews a plot to compete with these three.


See also: R. E. Conary's Website
Review of the first book in the Rachel Cord, P.I., Series