Nick Daw's Writing Blog - Inside the writing world of Nick Daws
Receive this blog by e-mail!  Enter your e-mail address:   

Monday, July 30, 2007

Free Fax Service to US and Canada

If you ever have to send faxes to North America, you might be interested in this service I discovered the other day.

faxZERO is an Internet faxing service that lets you send a fax free of charge to anywhere in the USA or Canada. Here's a screen grab of the homepage...



As you might gather from this, faxZERO is simple and straightforward to use. You simply select the file you want to fax on your computer (either a .doc or .pdf file), or you can enter your own message in the 'text to fax' box.

Then it's just a matter of entering the relevant details in the boxes at the top of the screen. The most important of these, of course, is the number you are sending your fax to. You don't have to enter a fax number for yourself if you don't have one.

Once you've provided all the necessary info, click on 'Send Free Fax Now' at the foot of the screen and your fax will be sent almost instantly. You'll be told whether or not the message was sent successfully.

So what's the catch? Well, if you use the free service, an ad will be printed on the cover page of your fax. Also, you are limited to two faxes a day, and each fax cannot be more than three pages. There is also a premium service without these restrictions (and no ads) costing $1.99 per fax, payable by Paypal.

I'm not being paid to promote faxZERO - I just think it's a very handy service. It will work from anywhere in the world, although unfortunately you can only use it to send faxes to the US and Canada. I used it last week to confirm an order at an Internet store in the US (they wouldn't accept an email), and I'm happy to say it worked like a charm.

Labels: ,

Friday, July 27, 2007

WCCL Flash Fiction Contest

I'm pleased to announce that my publishers WCCL, in association with Ravenshead Services, are running a flash fiction contest. What we want you to do is write a short story in exactly 100 words - no more, no less - which includes the following six words: mirror, subliminal, genius, white, cliff, clepsydra. In addition, you will need to provide a title of up to 15 words (this does not count towards the 100 words for the story).

Entry is free, and the best three stories submitted will win prizes of the popular WriteItNow novel-writing software from Ravenshead Services. This is the full version, which normally sells for $39.62 (US Dollars) or 19.95 UK Pounds. The winning stories will also be published on my blog and forum.

WriteItNow is available for both PCs and Macs. Among its many features, it includes a built-in word processor to write and store a complete novel (or novels). It will also keep background details of characters, events, locations and ideas, display charts of events and relationships, generate characters, names and ideas, and much more. It's basically a complete, all-in-one tool for planning, organizing and writing your novel. If you wish, you can download a free demo version from the WriteItNow website. This can do everything the full version can, except save stories and use add-ons.

I will be judging the contest myself, with a little help from my colleague Karl Moore at WCCL. We will be looking for a complete, entertaining and beautifully written short story, in which every one of the 100 words really does count. For more advice on writing flash fiction, check out the Wikipedia article referenced above, and also this excellent short article by Jason Gurley on the Writing World website. Don't forget that you must include the six words mentioned above as well!

The competition closing date is 31 August 2007 at 12 noon GMT, so you have plenty of time to get your entry in. Please send it by email to Contest-at-nickdaws.co.uk (change the -at- for the usual @ symbol). Include the story in the body of your email (no attachments), and put the title of your story in the subject line. Please do NOT put anything else in the email apart from your story, as we will be judging the contest anonymously. Only one entry is allowed per person.

The winning entrants will be notified at the email address they used to submit the story after judging has been completed, which will be at the end of September. Please don't use an email address you know you will be changing in the next two months, therefore!

If you have any queries or comments about this contest, don't send them to the email address above, as this is for contest entries only and messages will not be read until after the contest closing date. Please post them on my forum at the following topic: http://www.mywriterscircle.com/index.php?topic=9924.0

It just remains for me to wish you the very best of luck!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Britain Under Water

If you don't live in England you may not know this, but large swathes of the country are under water right now. It's been the wettest summer in living memory, and over the last month or so it seems to have rained almost every day.

The worst affected areas right now are in the South Midlands - Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. That's about sixty miles south of where I live (Staffordshire), though we've certainly had our fair share of rain as well.

Here's a report from an ITV early morning news programme yesterday which shows graphically how people in the affected areas are suffering. If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to visit my blog to watch this...



The damage and inconvenience caused directly by the water are only part of the story. Much of Gloucestershire is without tap water after a water treatment plant there was flooded. And many of the people affected are also without electricity, with no immediate prospect (for safety reasons) of it being restored.

Touch wood, Jayne and I haven't suffered anything worse than a waterlogged garden from the rains, but I'd like to express my sympathy to any readers of this blog who have suffered (and continue to suffer) from the floods. At least today across most of Britain the sun is shining, and though more rain is forecast for later this week, hopefully the very worst has now passed.

Labels:

Monday, July 23, 2007

Online Sitcom Seeks Writers

If you're a budding scriptwriter, here's an opportunity that might interest you.

Where are the Joneses? is made by Baby Cow, the TV and film production company founded by Steve Coogan. It's described as the world's first interactive daily online sitcom.

The show follows the adventures of Dawn Jones (pictured below), a young woman who finds out that her father was a sperm donor. She sets off on a trip around Europe to find her 27 siblings, but what happens in each episode is decided by contributions from the public.



The project uses the latest Wikidot technology, which allows online communities to add, remove and edit content. Suggestions for storylines or complete scripts can be uploaded to the Where are the Joneses? wiki. You can also suggest ideas for new characters, volunteer to appear in an episode yourself, or offer your house as a location. And, of course, you can help to develop ideas submitted by other people. As it says on the Baby Cow website, the possibilities are endless.

The best ideas are turned into scripts by the Baby Cow team and filmed as episodes of the comedy; a new episode appears online every day. Where are the Joneses? stars Emma Fryer and Neil Edmond.

Unfortunately there's no money on offer, but this is a good opportunity to get some scriptwriting credits for your CV/resumee. It's also an interesting chance to work collaboratively on a writing project using cutting-edge methods and technology.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter Day - Almost Here!

Well, I've ordered my copy from Amazon - have you ordered yours?!

The final volume in J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, goes on sale this weekend, and pundits are confidently predicting that it will be the fastest-selling book ever. The publishers announced a record-breaking 12 million copies for the first print run in the United States alone.

The massive sales, along with associated merchandising and film rights, will add to Rowling's already substantial personal fortune. In February 2004, Forbes magazine estimated this as 576 million UK pounds, making her the first person to become a billionaire (in US dollar terms) by writing books. By now, she must be well on the way to being a billionaire in UK Sterling terms as well.

When Rowling wrote her first book - only around ten years ago - she was a single mother living on welfare in a mouse-infested flat in Edinburgh. She was so poor she couldn't afford to heat her flat in the winter, so by day she sat in a local coffee shop with her baby daughter, nursing an espresso for hours as she worked on her manuscript. Rowling achieved her huge success despite these obstacles. It's one of the (many) great things about writing that there is no reason why anyone with hard work (and a little luck and talent) could not be as successful as she is.

And yes, I'm a Harry Potter fan, like most of the population. OK, she may not be the world's greatest literary stylist (though in my view she is still a very good writer). And many of the ideas in her books may not be entirely original. But her great talent is to write brilliantly constructed stories that grip the imaginations of readers of all ages. She has been widely credited with restoring the interest of children (and boys in particular) in reading, and that alone is a considerable accomplishment.

J.K. Rowling has said that she won't be writing any more Harry Potter novels, so I will be waiting with interest to see what she does next. With her great talent for storytelling, however, I'd expect to see her turn at some point to movie and TV scriptwriting. One thing is certain, whatever she does next, a little of the Harry Potter magic is certain to rub off on it!

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Makes an ASS of U and ME...

In case you haven't worked it out, the title of this post comes from a line of business advice, "Never assume. ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME." I first saw this quoted by a character in Stephen King's novel Cell, but since then I have seen it reproduced in various places.

In any event, I think it's very good advice for writers, or indeed anyone who is self-employed. Assuming that you know what your client wants without checking is fraught with peril.

I've been in this writing business for a long time now, but I still fall into this trap myself from time to time. Most recently, I was commissioned by my regular publishers WCCL to write some articles to help promote their range of self-help software. The articles, as you might expect, were to include links to the products and services in question. These tend to follow a similar pattern - so, for example, the website for WCCL's Subliminal Studio software, which enables users to create their own subliminal CDs, is at http://www.subliminal-studio.com/.

I was actually writing about another WCCL self-development product. I won't say which one it was, as it's not relevant to this story. But I assumed the website URL would follow the usual pattern, so I entered the product name separated by hyphens and with a .com suffix into my browser to check. Sure enough, the familiar WCCL product web page appeared, so I assumed the URL must be correct without further checking and entered it into my article.

It was only when I heard back from my client that I realised I'd got it wrong. The domain in question actually belonged to an affiliate of WCCL, who had set it up so that visitors were automatically forwarded to the correct WCCL site with his affiliate link (thus generating sales commission for himself). Of course, the affiliate hadn't done anything wrong, but if my article had been published as it stood, all sales arising from it would have generated 40% commission for that affiliate (and cost WCCL a good deal of money).

Anyway, my client was very good about it, but it was an embarrassing slip to make. Not least, I was afraid it might appear that I had been trying to boost my fee by sneaking my own (or an associate's) affiliate links into the article! As it happens, because I've done a lot of work with WCCL over the years, they understood that it was a genuine mistake. But if it had been a new client, it could have been an expensive slip-up for me. And all because I assumed that a URL was correct without checking properly with my client.

The 'never assume' principle is a very important one. I regularly get emails from new and new-ish writers who have been given a commission and aren't sure about some aspect of it. The instructions they've received from their client aren't clear, and they want my advice on how they ought to approach the job.

My answer is always the same - get back to your client and ask them to clarify. No client should be offended by this (if they are, you don't want to be working for them, trust me). On the contrary, they will be impressed by your professionalism in ensuring that every aspect of the job meets their needs.

The worst thing you can do is ASSUME you know what your client wants and go ahead on that basis. The chances are your assumptions will be wrong. You will then have wasted your time and effort, and the client will be annoyed because he hasn't got what he required. In the best case, you will have to revisit the job, making it less profitable for you. In the worst case, the client will go elsewhere, and your chances of getting paid for the work done (or getting any more work from that source in future) will be minuscule.

Never assume, then. If in any doubt, ASK. And never, ever believe that just because a particular URL leads to your client's website, it is automatically the correct one!

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 13, 2007

Using Trademarked Terms in Fiction

A question that arises quite regularly on my forum is whether it's OK for writers to use trademarked terms in novels and short stories. In this topic posted the other day a member wanted to know if it would be OK to use the term Frisbee in her novel.

Meaning no disrespect to forum members, I have to say it's absurd to suggest that writers can never use trademarked terms. If that was the case, spies could never drive Aston Martins - they would have to use sports convertibles. And you could never have your hero popping into his local Macdonalds - it would have to be the Happy Burger Emporium, or some other made-up name.

Of course, I'm no lawyer. But if you look at some publishers' guidelines, you can gauge their views on the matter. To begin, here's a quote from the guidelines of Pearson Education:

"Use of a trademark in the text of a book that discusses or describes the product sold under the mark is considered a form of fair use and permission is not required."
Source: http://tinyurl.com/25794v

And here's a quote from the University of Colorado Style Guide:

"Many words and names are legally trademarked and should appear with initial capitals to acknowledge that fact. Also owners of such trademarks have a legal right to restrict the use of those trademarked terms to their specific product. As a result, avoid using trademarked names, like Kleenex and Xerox, as generic terms. Instead, use facial tissue and photocopier, unless you intend to refer to the trademarked brand name. A good dictionary will tell you whether commonly used words are trademarked and will also indicate if a trademarked term should be capitalized."
Source: http://tinyurl.com/2dd5pw

As these quotes indicate, there is generally no objection to using a trademarked term to describe an item in your book. You would need to give it an initial capital, and not use the term generically (e.g. in the case of Frisbee, mentioned earlier, as though it describes any flying plastic disk). As the first of the quotes above states, simply using a trademarked term descriptively in this way is regarded legally as "fair use".

Of course, if you are speaking disparagingly about a particular product or service, you may need to take care that you do not fall foul of the libel laws. However, in most instances that is unlikely, and if you do need to describe a badly designed product (say) in your novel, it might be prudent to give it an imaginary name or keep the manufacturer vague. Even so, a novel is quite different from a non-fiction book. If it is essential to your artistic vision for your hero to suffer a bout of food poisoning after visiting his local Macdonalds, you should not be afraid of writing it this way.

This matter of trademarks seems to worry many new authors, but in my view it's really not such a big deal. I can't think of a single actual case where an author has been prosecuted just for using a trademarked term. Bear in mind, too, that publishers have editors and legal departments whose job it is to worry about these matters. If they think there is a serious concern with what you have written, they will tell you (and ask for changes). And in the highly unlikely event that the company in question decides to sue, they will target the publisher rather than the author (they know most authors don't have any money!).

As writers, I believe it's important that we portray the world as realistically as possible. Part of that involves giving sharp, precise descriptions, and using trademarked terms is sometimes necessary to achieve this. As long as it is done in that spirit and the basic guidelines I have mentioned above are followed, I think it is highly unlikely you will encounter any problems.

Finally, if you want an example of a novel where the author uses trademarked terms with total abandon, take a look at Jennifer Government by the Australian author Max Barry. In this satirical, dystopian science fiction novel, the world is in the control of large corporations such as Adidas, and workers take on the surnames of the company that employs them. One of the key characters in the book, Hack Nike, is told by his employer that as part of his job he must shoot a number of teenagers, to generate hysterical news coverage about the company's new line of trainers.

OK, I am still faintly amazed that Barry and his publishers got away with this, but he has a nice disclaimer at the start of the book which concludes, "Any resemblance to actual people is coincidental and the use of real company and product names is for literary effect only and definitely without permission." So that's all right then!

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Review: EarnMyDegree.com

The following is a sponsored review for which I am receiving a fee.

The Internet has many uses, but one that is becoming increasingly important is as an educational tool. In particular, there is a growing range of degree courses run wholly or partly via the net.

Earnmydegree.com is a website aimed at anyone who wants to study for a degree-level qualification in this way. It aims to provide a quick and easy way of searching among degree-course providers for the one that best meets your needs. You can search by degree subject, degree level, or university. The site features hundreds of degree programs across numerous accredited online and traditional schools. Best of all, most of the degrees are designed for working professionals, so you can continue in your current career while you attend.

I should perhaps emphasise that the courses listed on Earnmydegree.com are all run by fully accredited institutions. You won't find here any so-called "diploma mills" offering worthless certificates for a few dollars. You will need to work hard to complete these courses - as hard and perhaps harder than students following more traditional routes - but because you can work at any time to suit yourself, you may be able to complete your degree in less time than it normally takes. Prior learning and work experience can also sometimes be taken into account.

Courses are available across a wide range of subjects, including Business, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts, Design, Education/Teaching, Engineering, Healthcare, Hospitality Management, Human Services, Legal/Paralegal, Liberal Arts, Nursing, Religious Studies, Science & Math, and Technology. Most of the institutions offering these courses are in the US, but students from other parts of the world are generally welcome to apply for the fully online courses.

One other thing I liked about Earnmydegree.com is that, at the foot of the screen, there are links to an extensive collection of articles about studying for an online degree. These are well-written and authoritative. They should answer most questions you may have, from how to enroll to whether your online degree will have the same value in employers' eyes as one earned in the traditional way.

If you are thinking of studying for an online degree, whether to boost your career prospects or just for the interest and satisfaction, in my view Earnmydegree.com is a great starting point for exploring what is available.

Labels:

Monday, July 09, 2007

Tense in Fiction

One thing all fiction writers try to achieve is a sense in the reader that the events described are taking place as he or she reads about them.

So it's a bit of a paradox that most novels and short stories are written in the past rather than the present tense. And yet, for reasons that go back to the origins of storytelling, past tense sounds more natural to us when reading or listening to a story. We don't notice the tense and - with a well-written tale - simply become immersed in the events unfolding.

You can, of course, write a story in the present tense. Because this is less familiar to readers, however, they may feel less comfortable with it, and there is a risk they will notice the unusual style rather than becoming engrossed in your story. Stories written in the present tense can also look mannered and self-conscious.

Of course, good writers can and do write short stories, and even novels, in the present tense. The US writer Alison Lurie's novel Foreign Affairs begins as follows:
On a cold, blowy February morning a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman's name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain and unmarried - the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature.
And the whole novel continues in the present tense. It's an unusual approach, yet as a reader you quickly get used to it (it helps that Ms Lurie is a highly accomplished author, of course). I'd be hard put to say exactly why the author chose to write the book in the present tense or whether it would be any the worse if written more conventionally in the past. It does certainly give the novel a distinctive "voice", however.

Even so, I'd always advise a new writer, and especially a new novelist, to write in the past tense. Apart from anything else it's what publishers are accustomed to, and if you write in the present tense you are giving yourself an additional obstacle to overcome to get your work accepted.

Another problem with writing in the present tense is that it's fatally easy to stray into the past tense by accident. As I mentioned above, we're all so used to past tense narration, it's easy to fall into it without even noticing. A story that switches to past tense in the middle (unless for a very good reason) then switches back to the present again is likely to be returned to the author in short order.

And finally, if you write in the present tense, you need to be very careful when referring to events that occurred in the characters' past. In ordinary, past-tense narration, we use the pluperfect tense to introduce such "flashbacks":
Mary smiled and sipped her tea, remembering when they first met. It had been a cold November morning...
If using the present tense, however, you need to use the simple past tense instead:
Mary sighs and sips her tea, remembering when they first met. It was a cold November morning...
It would be perilously easy to write "It had been" in the second example as well, yet this would be incorrect, or at least very poor style. If you are writing in the present tense, when referring to events in your characters' past, you should use the simple past tense rather than the pluperfect (past participle with "had").

To sum up, then, I highly recommend sticking to the past tense in your fiction. But if you want to experiment with writing in the present tense, be very careful you don't switch to the wrong tense at some point in the narrative. It's possible to make this mistake when writing in the past tense, of course, but it's much, much easier to get your tenses in a twist when writing in the present!

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, July 07, 2007

My Contact Station - One Answer to the Spam Problem?

One problem facing anyone with a website, writer or otherwise, is how to provide a method for people to contact you.

Of course, you can publish your email address on your site. The trouble is that as soon as you do this you become prey to spammers, who use special software to trawl the net and automatically find and save any email addresses they come across. You will then find yourself getting torrents of spam messages pushing everything from share tips to cut-price pharmaceuticals.

One possible solution - which I have used for a while - is to get a disposable email address from a service such as Sneakemail. Any emails sent here are then automatically forwarded to your actual email address. Of course, if you publish this address on your website it will soon start getting spammed as well, but once this gets too bad you can simply "retire" the disposable address you've been using and get a new one.

That's one solution, but it's not a perfect one. For one thing, every time you change your disposable email address, you have to go through all the web pages where you used the old address and substitute your new one. And second - as has been pointed out to me - quoting your address as drfgtly142k@sneakemail.com or whatever on your website doesn't look very professional.

I recently discovered a much better solution to this problem. It's a program called My Contact Station. Once it's installed, if someone clicks on your Contact Me link (or whatever you choose to call it) a snazzy-looking box opens in which your visitor is invited to enter his or her message. The message is then forwarded to your normal email address, without your visitor (or anyone else on the web) ever seeing this.

I'm now using My Contact Station on my homepage at http://www.nickdaws.co.uk/, so if you go there and click on Contact Me (directly under Site Last Updated...) you can try it out for yourself. Or here's a screengrab of the MCS dialog box, if you just want to see what one looks like...

As you'll see from this, before anyone can send you a message, they have to provide the answer to a mathematical formula or copy a series of 'CAPTCHA' characters (your choice, though not all hosts support the CAPTCHA option). This should help to ensure that only human beings, not spam programs, can use the form to send you messages. The software also provides visitors with the option to submit anonymous feedback, if you choose to enable this feature.

My Contact Station is provided as a compressed zip file. The way it works is that you edit a couple of the files contained in the zip using a program such as Notepad (provided free with Windows), following the step-by-step instructions provided. You then upload the whole MCS folder to your website using your favourite FTP program. Finally, you enter a line of code on your web page anywhere you want the "contact me" facility to appear. I'm no techie, but I managed to get it set up in an hour or so without any major problems (and no need to contact the helpdesk!).

My Contact Station works on most websites. Technically speaking, your host will need to have PHP and SENDMAIL enabled (all but the very cheapest hosting solutions offer this). To use the CAPTCHA feature, you will need GD Support with Freetype enabled. To see if you have these features or not, the README file provided with the software includes a link to a test file you can upload to your domain. If you view it in your browser, it should then tell you whether these features are enabled for your domain.

The best thing about My Contact Station, however, is the price. It's just $7, or around 3.50 UK Pounds. There is a more expensive premium version with more bells and whistles, but I didn't see any need to buy this, and unless you run dozens of websites you probably won't either. And finally, as you may have guessed, it's another of those Seven Dollar Secrets products where, once you've bought it, you can sell copies yourself as an affiliate and keep 100% of the profits!

OK, this product is only going to be of interest to you if you have a website, but if you do, and you need a better method for allowing people to contact you, it's well worth looking into. If you've ever edited a web page and used an FTP program, you should be able to manage the technical aspects, but there is also an optional installation service (costing $25) which will take care of this for you if required.

And incidentally, you only have to install the script once to one site. You can then use it from any web page and website that you like.

All in all, My Contact Station is a neat little product, and one I am very happy to recommend to others.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Help With Apostrophes

The apostrophe - whether and where to use it - is a topic that seems to cause endless confusion. I've even had publishers phoning me up for advice about it!

I did write a while ago in this blog about a rule taught to me by my old English teacher Mr Sanders, which is great for checking where you should put the apostrophe in possessive expressions such as the children's ward and the boys' bedroom. However, I admit it doesn't cover every possible use of apostrophes.

So I was pleased to discover the other day a very useful Squidoo website (or lens, to use the Squidoo jargon) on this subject. It's called The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes, and it covers the correct use of apostrophes in (1) contractions, (2) possessive nouns, and (3) nested quotations (i.e. quotes within quotes). Personally I wouldn't really regard the latter as apostrophes - in my view they are single inverted commas or quotation marks - but I suppose they do look the same as apostrophes!

The site also discusses two common scenarios where apostrophes are NOT required but often get used incorrectly. These are plural nouns (e.g. potato's and banana's) and possessive pronouns such as its (which when used in the possessive sense does NOT take an apostrophe). Even experienced writers sometimes slip up here.

One thing I particularly like about The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes is the use of illustrations to support the points made. There are also some entertaining "What's wrong with this picture?" quizzes. These depict shop signs or menus where an apostrophe has been incorrectly used or omitted. You can check the answer by hovering your cursor over the photo or scrolling down to the foot of the page. Some of the mistakes are actually a bit hard to see, but that's just a problem with reproducing the photos and not really the site creator's fault.

There is also a gallery where you can submit your own photograph of incorrectly used apostrophes, and links to an interactive quiz about apostrophes on the website of Lynne Truss (the author of the best-selling guide to punctuation Eats, Shoots and Leaves ).

Overall, The Care and Feeding of Apostrophes is an informative and entertaining site, and a useful resource if you are ever in any doubt about this punctuation mark. It's also a good example of how anyone can create their own attractive website on Squidoo without necessarily knowing anything about HTML. See my recent post about Squidoo for more information about this, including links to a couple of Squidoo sites (not as good as the one described in this post) that I've created myself!

Labels: , ,