Category Archives: Links

Strathmore Artist Workshops

No pictures today (I procrastinate because my scanner is a pain), but I wanted to share a free video series I’m enjoying: the Strathmore Artist Workshop Series.

You may be familiar with Strathmore sketchbooks – I know I own a few. Turns out they do more than just make paper. Every year they release a free set of workshops and this year I’m finally actually watching them. They’re very low-pressure. The first workshop is called Sketchbook Fury: The Art Ninja’s Guidebook, and it’s taught by Graham Smith who for some reason reminds me a little bit of Anthony Bourdain. Maybe it’s the voice.

I’d worried that these would be nothing more than ads for Strathmore products. They’re not. While you can’t miss the brand-name sketchbooks in the videos, the focus really is the art and the process of drawing. And while I of course can’t speak for the other workshops offered, Smith’s videos have been much more about inspiration and motivation than teaching specific techniques. And that’s fine; there are plenty of other videos out there for that.

It’s a pleasantly different style of art workshop video. Check it out.

Deluxe Unlimited

Deluxe Unlimited is one of those artists that I love and yet have difficulty describing. It’s handmade collage from vintage sources with clever and/or thought-provoking results. During a recent trip to Vermont, I happened upon some postcards from recent shows, so I made a little sorta-collage page of my own. Definitely worth checking out. For more recent works, visit Deluxe Unlimited on Facebook

Try Sketchbook Skool for Free!

I took a couple of Sketchbook Skool “Kourses” this year and found them invaluable. They were full of inspiration, instruction, and encouragement. I’ve just found out that you can take a sample klass for free. It includes bits from all the kourses, so even I, as a two-time alum, got something new out of it. I highly recommend you give it a try. What do you have to lose? It’s free!

Click here to sign up!

Authors and Reviewers: a Two-Way Street?

This recent post about the author/reviewer relationship has sparked a whole lot of discussion. The gist: the original poster says that authors owe her some form of publicity in exchange for reviews, be it through increasing her Amazon rank or retweeting her or what have you. Her argument, from what I gather, is that writing quality reviews earns her a bit of brand promotion on the part of the author. She uses the term “two-way street” a few times.

I’m not going to tell her how to run her blog. I just felt like blathering about the subject for a while. Whether or not you want to pay attention to someone who named her blog “utter randomonium” is up to you.

First off: I don’t make any money reviewing books. To me, it’s an even exchange: a book for a review. I have the luxury of not needing my blog to pay for itself, which is why I don’t bother running any ads. I don’t pay much attention to page hits or rankings or site traffic. I’ve added myself to a couple blog directories but I don’t actively advertise. I have no mailing list to join or Facebook page to like. If I wanted to get my name out there, I’d post author interviews and join blog tours/hops and exchange links and host giveaways. But I’m not interested in any of that. I just like to read.

So maybe my viewpoint is different because I am not running a business here. I am simply reading books and then admitting to it on the internet. I am fortunate that some authors and publishers have noticed me and wanted to add their titles to my library. That about sums it up.

Still, anyone who asks me to do a bunch of things to promote their stuff, regardless of our relationship, is pretty annoying. I’d be really irritated if authors did it to me, so I’m not sure why it’d be okay for me to do it to them. Our roles are pretty clear: they write a book, then put forth the manpower and production/shipping costs involved in getting the complimentary copy into my hands. My job is to read the book and then write about it. I’m not even obligated to link to anything.

See, promotion isn’t even part of the equation. Books and reviews don’t exist for each other’s sake. Their shared audience is the reader. Authors may benefit from reviews but the reviewer isn’t doing the author a favor. If anything, they’re doing the readers a favor by letting them know whether a book is worth their time.

Like I said before, it’s a trade: one book in exchange for one honest review. It’s just not that complicated.

Blogging Platforms

My sister and I were discussing blogging platforms the other day. She’d recently moved to Blogger from LiveJournal, so we were contrasting various blogging experiences.

I’ve used Blogger since 2003 (though originally with a different blog, now defunct), WordPress.org since 2009, and LiveJournal since 2001. I’ve visited a number of blogs using these and many other blogging platforms, free and otherwise. These are my thoughts.

These days, having a LiveJournal is sort of sniggered at, kind of like having a Hotmail.com email address or a MySpace account. I’ve come across people who were surprised to learn it even still exists, and roll their eyes as if it’s just one of those embarrassing things we do as stupid teenagers then grow out of.

But why is that? Is there something inherently childish about the LiveJournal format?

MySpace, with its awkward interface and preponderance of glittery GIFs, is not quite analogous, though it did attempt to be at least partly a blogging platform. People moved to FaceBook largely because it was cleaner and faster and easier to use.

WordPress is great if you want complete control over your blog’s layout. There are bunches of customizable templates for various uses. My husband, for example, uses Easel (which grew out of ComicPress) for his webcomic. If your blog is specialized, WordPress is very handy.

Blogger is free. It’s easy to set up and get started. Personalization options are so-so, and it often tries to be entirely too helpful in its enthusiasm for all things Google (stop trying to make Google+ happen!), but it’s not bad. One perk is that if you can run multiple blogs from the same account without difficulty.

A lot of people have turned to Tumblr for their blogging needs. I have an account but I don’t use it. I never quite got the hang of Tumblr. As far as I can tell, it consists mainly of people reblogging pictures, with relatively little original content. There are no comments: you can heart/favorite something, or you can reblog it and add your own thoughts, or you can send a question directly to the author but no one else will see it unless they decide to answer it publicly. I think of Tumblr largely as a meme accelerator.

Twitter and Facebook are not blogging platforms. You can write “notes” in FB but that’s nothing but a lengthy status update most people don’t bother reading. I like Twitter and FB for random links, pictures, or pithy comments – stuff too short to warrant a full blog post, in other words.

One thing LiveJournal handles better than any other platform I’ve used is comment notification. You automatically get notified if someone replies directly to a comment you posted. Most other blogs only allow you to subscribe to all comments to a particular post, many of which offer minimal threading. This is problematic for a popular blog. For example, if I comment on Cake Wrecks or The Bloggess, I get the option of either checking the post repeatedly to see if anyone’s replied, or else subscribing to all the comments and watching my email fill up for the next few days. Discussions are very difficult in this format.

LJ’s nearly limitless reply levels also improves the discussion aspect, because you can clearly see who is replying to whom. I’ve never seen this depth of threading anywhere else. Blogger, for example, allows for only a single level of replies – anything beyond that is formatted like a reply to the first comment in the thread.

LJ isn’t perfect, of course. Though you can login/comment from a number of sources (my brother, for example, has commented on my LJ using his FaceBook account), full functionality really requires a LiveJournal account. It’s free to use but I have a paid account because I like the perks it offers. I like how easy it is to read and add to my “friends page” – those other LiveJournals I read regularly. I can add RSS feeds too (one of the paid account perks) but I prefer to use Feedly (since Google Reader died, anyhow) as my blog aggregator since I can use categories and read individual blogs and sort by oldest first and stuff like that. Of course, I could always just add all the LJ blogs I read to Feedly and read them that way. (Adding Tumblr blogs to Feedly doesn’t work very well for some reason.) However, since I’ve been using LJ for over 12 years now, I’m perfectly comfortable with the format of the friends page there.

LJ also doesn’t allow you to have multiple blogs from the same account. I have multiple LJ blogs (my 101 Things in 1001 Days progress blog, for example, is on LJ) but I have to log out of my regular account and into another in order to post or comment. LJ does, however, give you control over who may and may not read certain entries, or even your blog as a whole. Granted, those allowed to read must have LJ accounts themselves, but still, that sort of selective locking is something I haven’t found elsewhere.

I stay on LiveJournal partly out of habit but mostly because I haven’t come across a compelling reason to leave. It’s not like personal blogs don’t exist anywhere else, but for some reason LJ has become synonymous with whiny teenagers venting their spleens. Which is kind of hilarious, actually; I don’t read anyone under the age of 30. One of LJ’s most famous residents, Cleolinda Jones, continues to draw a huge readerships without even bothering with a personalized domain name.

So what do you think? Do you have a preferred blogging platform? Do you look down on certain URLs for particular reasons? Are personal blogs passe?

My Own Toy Story

Now that the weather is turning chilly, I am reminded of the days when Mom would get out the flannel sheets for the winter. It was cozy then, but I imagine I would roast in them now. I think my internal thermostat is busted.

Our sheets are kind of boring these days (solid colors or maybe striped if we’re feeling crazy), but I had patterned sheets as a kid. I can remember Peanuts in particular, which aside from Snoopy on his red doghouse was largely baseball-themed. One of the pictures had Charlie Brown on the pitcher’s mound yelling, “AUGH!” I can honestly say that I learned the word “augh” from bedsheets.

I also had Rainbow Brite sheets. And a puzzle, a coloring book, and a doll. My childhood was full of vaguely fantasy-themed toys, many of which were tied to cartoons I’d never seen (or, in some cases, was even aware of). I couldn’t tell you the plot of Rainbow Brite – I think the bad guys were trying to remove color from the world for some reason? – but I liked her horse and her little sprite friend and her awesome boots.

My mom was (and is) the queen of the garage sale, so I honestly don’t know how many of my toys were bought new. I like to think most of them were secondhand, if only because I had a rather alarming quantity. I had no idea until sometime in college when my interest in Jem led me to assorted other doll lines from the 1980s and I discovered that, for instance, I had owned just about every single She-Ra doll ever made, and a fair number of Strawberry Shortcake dolls as well. I think Mom still has a bucketful of my old Charmkins, and there are definitely some My Little Ponies in a box somewhere.

This “research” led to reminders of dolls I’d forgotten even existed, much less that I owned, like Rose Petal Place (I had two or three of them), Lady Lovely Locks (apparently the one I had was Maiden CurlyCrown, but I very creatively referred to her as “Lady Lovely Locks Doll”), and Herself the Elf (I definitely had three, and may have owned all five). I had the green Fluppy Dog plushie, but we also watched the movie several times and would sometimes pretend to be Fluppy Dogs while riding our bikes. Having not seen the movie in a couple of decades, I could no longer tell you what bike-riding had to do with Fluppy Dogs (which Wikipedia tells me is about time-traveling dog-like aliens). (…yeah.)

With the exception of a single Cabbage Patch Kid (named Kara – why do I remember that?), I wasn’t too interested in baby dolls. My toys had adventures. When they weren’t fairy princesses or similar, they were anthropomorphic animals, like Sylvanian Families or random plushies. Honestly, if the animals didn’t talk, I wasn’t all that interested.

Not all my toys were girly, of course – I played with Star Wars figures and LEGO and Matchbox cars – but man, what I would have given to be a magical little pixie, flitting about the forest and befriending woodland creatures.

What kinds of toys did you play with growing up?

Beyond Words: A Fantasy Author Charity Calendar Project

Lauren Zurchin, professional photographer and managing editor of the SF/F blog Lytherus, contacted me the other day about a new project. Basically, she wants to dress up fantasy authors in custom-made costumes and photograph them for a calendar. She has a decent roster of authors lined up, several of whom I’ve read or at least heard of: Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, Christopher Paolini, Gregory Maguire, Tad Williams, Patrick Rothfuss, Cassandra Clare, Holly Black, Lauren Kate, Lauren Oliver, Maggie Stiefvater, Gail Carriger, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff.

Ms. Zurchin explains further:

This project is huge, and with the support of these authors I’ve taken to Kickstarter to raise the bare-minimum funds needed to make this project a reality. Every author involved in the project has offered limited edition exclusive items up for grabs — prizes that are only offered this one time and never again. Kickstarter contributors can find limited edition prints of their fantasy calendar photo (signed), wall posters (signed), “personalized packs” (containing prints, autographed calendar, and more — personalized and signed by the author), and calendars signed by all fourteen of the project’s participants. There are several high-end prizes up for grabs, including Skype chats with a few of the participating authors. […] The Kickstarter runs through the end of February and aims to raise $15,000.

Enough to pique your interest? Visit the Kickstarter page.

And here’s where things get interesting (aka, the “why you should care” bit): proceeds from the calendar are going to support the charities First Book (which donates books to schools and children’s programs) and WorldBuilders (which raises donations for Heifer International through auctions of author-donated goodies). Worthy causes both. Ms. Zurchin goes into more detail on her website.

I contributed. I don’t have any particular attachment to any one of the authors but I like fantasy photography and the fact that it’s of fantasy authors is a cute idea. And raising funds to make a product that will ultimately be sold for charity sits well with me.

P.S. – For those of you with an interest in seeing authors being awesome, I still have a few of these left.

P.P.S. – I have absolutely no idea how Ms. Zurchin found me. I’m just pleased she did, because otherwise this never would have appeared on my radar.

“Katherine needs to be stopped.”

Esther Inglis-Arkell on overused character names in fiction:

Katherine, or one of its derivatives, is what you call your main female character when you realize you can’t call her Main Female Character. It has turned, hydra-like, from a name into a multi-headed monster, with Kate, Kay, Kathleen, Caitlin, Cathy, or Cat as its alternatives. I’ve had it pointed out to me that Meg Ryan has played a Katherine-ish name six different times – once she played three Katherines in a row. I’d have to argue that few actresses will have no Katherines on their resume, especially if they play the main character. It’s ubiquitous, and therefore meaningless.

My real first name is Kate, and it is rather refreshing to hear that someone else (especially someone with as refreshingly uncommon a name as Esther) has noticed how often it’s used as a generic everywoman name. If it’s not the main character, it’s the main character’s wife or romantic interest. I mean, I know it’s a common name – one of my best friends is also named Kate, which leads most of our mutual friends to call me Melydia just to differentiate us. (Which is fine by me; I’ve been using that as my primary netname since about 1993.) Still, it’s a touch troubling to find one’s own name to have become a sign of generic, lazy name-choosing. Pick something else, kids. Please.

P.S. – Male names starting with J should be reduced as well. Once I tried reading a book where the first five characters I met were named Johnny, Jack, Jackie, Jerry, and Jimmy. No, I’m not making that up. I had a terrible time keeping track of them.

101 Things in 1001 Days

A little less than three years ago, a friend of mine convinced me to join her in the Day Zero Project, also known as 101 Things in 1001 Days. The concept is simple: write a list of 101 things you want to do over the next 1001 days, then do them. The amazing thing is how well this works at forcing me to actually do a bunch of things I’ve been meaning to do but just never seem to get around to. Like visiting a lighthouse or installing a bird feeder. The goals can be as simple or complex as you want, though I’ve found that the most important thing is to make them measurable. Just like New Year’s Resolutions, vague things like “exercise more” tend to be forgotten.

Today is my 1001st day. It has been quite the lesson in priorities. I only completed 62 things, but I also discovered a number of things I didn’t actually want to do as much as I thought I did. A new 1001 days starts tomorrow, and yes, I already have my list. Care to join me on this crazy journey? Follow along on my 101/1001 blog.

For a complete run-down and wrap-up of my first 101 Things, click here.  There will be a shiny new list up tomorrow!

Unpopular Opinions

As with any group of like-minded people, prolific readers disagree on a number of very specific issues. I decided to weigh in on some of the more common threads:

  • E-books: I do not own an e-reader, and I have no plans to get one. My issue isn’t with needing to feel the texture of the pages or inhale the distinctive smell of paper books, but rather a couple things that are a bit more practical. First, I am extremely hard on things, and an e-reader would probably not last long in my hands. If you have a paperback book in your backpack, it’s no big deal if you accidentally step on it. An e-reader would not fare so well unless you’d purchased an expensive case for it (as I did with my iPhone). Also, as it is an electrical device, I would surely forget to charge it (or replace the battery; I don’t know what’s required). Most of them have wi-fi, meaning I would not be able to take them to work (and I do so enjoy reading during lunch). And most importantly, I wouldn’t read as great a variety of books because I would no longer be able to swap with friends so easily.
  • Audiobooks: I am a huge fan of audiobooks (obviously, if you read this blog at all), and I find them absolutely essential to my daily commute. I also consider them the same as having read a book, as long as they’re not abridged.
  • Read by the author: This notice on any audiobook makes me leery. It’s often used as a selling point, under the assumption that authors know best what their characters are supposed to sound like and what inflection was meant in their sentences. This is certainly true, but very few authors are any good at voice-acting. Writers who can also read well are a rarity, and in fact Neil Gaiman is the only one that comes to mind. (Stephen King and Amy Tan, for example, are talented writers but poor readers.) Give me a talented narrator over a well-intentioned but monotone author any day.
  • Adults reading children’s books: I honestly have been surprised at the often vehemently espoused opinion that adults should not be reading children’s books and that this practice is irritating to other adults. There are plenty of books marketed to children that are quite worth reading as an adult, particularly those geared toward teenagers. With fiction, I’ve noticed that the age of the main character usually dictates its audience, but I’m not sure how being older than a character makes that character’s story somehow unsuitable. Likewise with the assumption that all adult books are somehow inherently superior. Should I be reading some crappy romance novel instead of The Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies just because one is marketed to adults and the others are not? This, of course, is ignoring how utterly ridiculous it is to become emotionally involved in other people’s reading preferences in the first place. It’s not like I can have the volume turned up too high when I’m reading silently to myself.
  • Fan-fiction: Most of the authors I have encountered who oppose fan-fiction are simply fiercely protective of their inventions. And I can understand that. Those who claim fan-fiction writers are costing them sales simply baffle me. Perhaps someone else can explain it better, but my view on fan-fiction is that the only people reading and writing it are those folks who simply cannot get enough of the source material – which implies they’ve already purchased it. I freely admit that I neither write nor read fan-fiction as a general rule, not because I have any moral issues against it, but rather because there’s so much else out there I want to read. That, and there aren’t any fictional worlds I feel a need to have more of than there already is. If I did, I’d probably just write it myself, for my own enjoyment. If I were a novelist I expect I would be flattered by fan-fiction, though for legal reasons I wouldn’t read any of it. I wouldn’t want anyone accusing me of stealing their ideas about my own characters.

Admittedly, I pulled these topics out of the air because I didn’t have a post scheduled for today.  But maybe we can start a conversation.

What do you think?

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