Archive for 30 June 2010

The Non-Universal RTF File Format

Over the past year or so, I have switched from submitting my short stories via snail mail to email. That decision was driven by both economics and practicality. Being without a full-time non-writing job for 16 months had forced me to reduce expenses to live on my unemployment benefits. Fewer snail mail submissions means buying fewer reams of paper, envelopes and stamps. Since I’ve been on a speculative fiction writing bender for the last nine months, many of those markets accept submissions only by email. The manuscript is submitted either in the body of the email, or attached as a Word (.doc) or RTF (.rtf) file. Of the two file formats, RTF (Rich Text Format) is the universal format that should open in any word processor on any system.

Several editors had recently informed me that wasn’t true. They could view the contents of the RTF file on the screen without problem. When they try to format and/or print out the text, strange symbols appear on the end of each line. Two things became quite obvious: I’m using a Mac and the editors are using Microsoft Word 95 or another older word processor.

My primary word processor is Pages (Mac) for creating and maintaining my manuscript files. I also use Microsoft Word 2004 to double-check my manuscripts against the grammar checker (expect a rejection slip if you don’t do this) and ensure that the Word file exported from Pages work without problem. The only reason why I don’t use Word by default is that it runs slower than molasses on my MacBook, which uses Rosetta to emulate PPC CPU software on the Intel CPU. I might switch to Microsoft Word 2011 when it comes out later this year. I’m overdue to upgrade my writing tools.

Why are some editors still using Word 95 that came out for 15 years ago? Beats me.

I can’t imagine an editor being more cash-strapped than a writer when it comes to writing tools. Perhaps these editors are working for bootstrap publishers that haven’t let go of the bootstraps yet. The full version of Microsoft Office is always expensive, but the student version is quite affordable.

Some academic editors still use WordPerfect because their colleges upgrade software at a glacial pace. I very much doubt I’ll ever run into a hard-core WordStar fanatic who lives and die by the 1980’s word processor. An instructor warned me that I might encounter such a person when I took a technical writing course San Jose State University in 1994. These older word processors have problems reading the newer RTF files that have unsupported features such as character encoding and password protection, and don’t recognize that files created on the Mac have the end of line encoded differently than Windows.

What’s the solution for this problem?

Export the file from Pages as an RTF file, open the file in Word, and re-save the file as a Word 95-compatible RTF file (you will need to select this option from the pull-down menu). You could also use TextEdit to re-save the file, but that would be a Word 97-compatible RTF file and I’m not sure if that would be compatible with Word 95.

If I submit a manuscript to a market that requires an RTF file attachment, I’ll send it out as Word 95-compatible RTF file to avoid having problems. Some editors are willing to work with you on a file compatibility issue. Most editors will find it easier to reject a submission for having a “corrupt” file attachment.

A Dead Tree Traditionalist Among E-Readers

The big story this week is the price war among the various e-readers. Barnes & Noble cut the price on their current Nook 3G + WiFi e-reader to $199 from $259 USD, and introducing a new WiFi-only version for $149 USD. Then Amazon followed with a similar price reduction for the Kindle, dropping the price to $189 USD. That leaves Apple iPad at the high-end price range. Will I go out and get one? Nope. I’m a dead tree traditionalist still sitting on the fence when it comes to e-readers.

My reluctance to jump on the e-reader bandwagon has nothing to do with the technology.

I was a contractor at Sony in 2005 when I led a group of ten QA testers to test what eventually became the Sony Reader in the United States. The hardware was Japanese with Kanji characters on the buttons, the Linux-based software was in English, and the English-language book files converted to HTML were on memory sticks. We glanced at three books a day for three weeks, looking for formatting issues with the conversion process and the display hardware. The e-ink display technology was fantastic. I very much wanted one. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford the price when released the following year.

I’m still price sensitive today. The new Nook is tempting at $149 USD. However, I’m not yet sold that I need a dedicated e-reader. I have the Kindle app on my iPod Touch (a first generation that doesn’t support Apple’s iBooks) for reading ancient texts—”The Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire (six volumes)” by Edward Gibbon—and out of print books—”Shakespeare (PBS Companion Book)” by Michael Woods—that are hard to find elsewhere. E-readers are excellent for these kinds of books.

But for brand new books, I prefer holding the dead tree edition in my hand. Especially if the author does something stupid that makes me mad enough to throw the book against the wall. I did that with the paperback copy of “Cell” by Stephen King when my favorite character got killed off. The book stayed on the floor for a whole week before I picked it up again to finish reading. A good book can provoke powerful emotions in the reader. E-readers aren’t built for hurling across the room against the wall.

I’m a dead tree traditionalist who hasn’t converted over to the paperless office. My short story manuscripts often start off as handwritten with ink or on the typewriter before being entered into the computer. Revisions are done with multiple printouts and red ink spilling everywhere. Every draft is kept in the filing cabinet or storage boxes. I have numerous shelves of dead tree books in my personal library.

If the price was right and I have a good enough reason, I’ll get a dedicated e-reader. Until then, I’ll keep flipping my dead tree pages.

Adding A Blog to The Author Website

When I set up my author website two years ago, I kept it very simple by not adding a blog. At the time, I had only one publication credit and didn’t have enough experience to make a writer-centric blog a worthwhile effort. That was then. Now that I have a growing credit list and enough experience to blog once a week about being a fiction writer, it was time to add a blog to the author website.

Except I still had the same problem from two years ago: no money.

As fiction writers know too well, rejection slips don’t pay the bills and what does come in doesn’t amount to anything. My first published short story earned me $3.02 USD in cash—or 1/4 cent per word USD—that came in an envelope without a return address. These days I’m lucky to get $20 USD here and there. My monthly writing expenses come to $100 USD per month. Despite my best effort to break even, I’m still falling short every month. If I was going to add a blog to the website, the blogging software must be free (as in beer).

I used Joomla! CMS to manage the content of my family of websites, which doesn’t include a blog/comment component. When I set up my personal blog with Joomla in January 2008, I paid for the My Blog and JomComment components to get the blog functionality I needed. After looking through all the available free blog/comment components for Joomla this week, I remembered why I paid for those components in the first place. All the free stuff for Joomla wasn’t that good. If I had the money, I would have to get new licenses for my existing author website.

After looking around at blogging alternatives, WordPress became an obvious choice.

I created a new subdomain to install the blogging software on my author website. In effect, I’m running two websites side by side. If you ever set up a Joomla website before, setting up a WordPress website is relatively painless in comparison. The hardest part was picking a good theme. I went with the Minimalism theme after playing around with a half-dozen similar themes. That took only a few tweaks to get the colors and layout done. As I familiarize myself with all the available WordPress features and plugins, I’ll be making additional tweaks as needed.

My author website now has a writer-centric blog. For writing and putting up a blog, WordPress is really nice and in some ways better than what is available for a Joomla website. The only thing that hasn’t really changed is the fact that it still takes me about 90 minutes to pull together a blog post.

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