Monday, July 31, 2006

The Learning Curve

Or, "Where Did All My Work Go!?"

Lately, I've been working on creating what is to be a monthly newsletter for a client of mine. The launch is... any day now. August, 2006 will be the inaugural issue -- if it kills me.

The text of the newsletter is finished and ready to go. I've been familiarizing myself with the ins and outs of an online e-mail list manager and auto responder that also allows for customizeable Plain Text and HTML newsletters.

Truth be told, it's not that complicated to work with. But you have to save your work regularly. Otherwise, your log-in will time out, things will revert, and you will LOSE EVERYTHING!

Which is what happened on Friday. At 6:30, after a long but fruitful day of work learning far more about how the newsletter template worked than I thought I wanted to, I happily hit "save," planning to test and then launch the new newsletter. I thought since I was logged in, I was safe.

I was wrong.

So, today, emboldened with the information I learned on Friday, I'm once again charging into battle. I have every confidence that I will prevail. Every new skill involves a learning curve. I've manipulated the formatting, placed the images, found the links, and tweaked the margins for this thing once. I tell myself that it can't possibly take as long to do the exact same things the second time...

Exciting New Developments on the Horizon

The tweak / slight redesign of "Carol of the Horse," including two new pages of text that offer additional insight into the stories occuring around the periphery of the illustrations, is done! It should be in print by Thursday. This is great, since Sharie plans to take the project with her and make it available when she's a featured performer on a TCT network special that will be filmed next week in Tennessee.

Justin Jeffery, our book designer, is a genius. He's done a gorgeous job with the project. We're all very proud of it.

And the Great Canadian Interview that happened earlier this month seems to have gone well. We've heard from the principals that will be involved and they seem eager to move to the next phase. Very exciting. Further updates as events warrant.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Forced Perspective (Part II)

I received this in this morning's mail from Heidi Scheing, the incomparable graphic artist who takes all the worries, hassles, and frustrations out of illustrating the books I write. She's a godsend:

I was enjoying reading your blog and when I came to this paragraph

"For instance, imagine a photograph of an elephant that is reaching toward the camera lens with its trunk. Not only will the trunk seem shortened, but the end of the trunk closest to the camera will appear to be larger than the elephant's head, if viewed a certain way."
(See Forced Perspective .)

This brought to mind an illustration I completed recently for Key Professional Media where this kind of foreshortening is used to make the illustration more dramatic. This ran July 18 in a supplement loaded into the New York Times. Thought you might like to see it.

Gorgeous, isn't it? And much cooler than the elephant's trunk thing I was describing.

I also received a nice note from author Michael Teal with complementary things to say about my website. Kind words are always appreciated!

Today I hope to finish a preliminary draft / template of a monthly newsletter for a client. I also need to finish an edit on a friend's newly-written manuscript. Robert has just about finished the initial web design for the Carol of the Horse site. I'll tell you all about it on Monday.

Of course, the big news this week is the impending Hawaiian photo shoot. It's official. Charles and I will be staying with Dr. Warson while we get the final images for his book. Next month this time it will all be behind us. But for now, it's something to really look forward to (a little bit of forced perspective at work in my own life...).

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Smooth (Photo) Shooting

Last weekend I was in Dallas with the incomparable photographer Charles Hilton on the first of several photo shoots for Dr. Warson's Rider's Back Book .

Since I ranted a few weeks ago about my lack of luck with photographers in recent projects, I felt it only fair to rave about what happens when the planets align and all goes well.

Charles is a consummate professional. The fact that his truck dropped its transmission on the Dallas freeway as he was headed home after the first afternoon of shooting -- which meant that he only got about 4 hours of sleep that night, and had to find someone to tow him 90 miles back home the next day -- didn't affect his work behind the lens.

We got most of the pictures we had planned for the first day, which left plenty of time for "clean up" of the few remaining on the second day, before I had to come home.

Some thoughts about what's needed for a Smooth Shoot:

1.) Have a List I've learned this the hard way. I once thought that it should be up to the writer to write the text, and the photographer to decide how best to illustrate it. I thought the photographer would become offended if I suggested what images he should or should not shoot. This is not the case.

A shot list taken directly from the pages of the manuscript text is the single greatest asset you can have on a photo shoot. The list I provided Charles is already numbered according to the suggested sequence of photos within the chapters. It includes a description of the "ideal" image, and proposed text to accompany the image in print.

Charles, Dr. Warson, and I have had a Master Photo List for some time. For the Dallas shoot, I culled the master list to narrow it down to only the shots we could get at our Texas location (Cornerstone Training Center, a Western training facility).

2.) Streamline Your Time We had some shots we needed of groundwork, and others that required riding. So we grouped all of our ground / untacked horse shots together. Some of our shots needed only people in them. We grouped all of them together and did them first -- before anyone had acquired the inevitable dirt associated with barns.

This sounds like the most basic of "duh!" advice. But I have discovered that many, many photographers don't follow it. Instead, they proceed through a shoot, setting up and taking each shot in order on the shot list -- regardless of how much extra time and work result.

3.) Look for the Point The reason I write out descriptions of both suggested images and proposed captions for them is because I want the photographer to understand the point of what the photo is to convey.

For instance, I wanted something to illustrate how a rider's back can make many compensatory movements when on a horse. I suggested a shot of a rider going up or down a steep incline. We took those. But we also took some shots of a rider leaning out from the saddle to open a gate. The "point" was captured in several images that can be used to great effect in the book.

4.) Take It and Run With It Sometimes unforeseen things will present themselves at a shoot. If you know your material, and know the purpose of the photos you are taking, you will know when to add shots that might be missing from the Master List.

For example, a section of the Rider's Back Book talks about saddle fit, and how the laws of motion and physics apply to riding. Western saddles with very forward rigged cinches can be quite ill-fitting on a horse. Even if the tree fits correctly on the horse's back, the excess, untethered weight in the seat of the saddle can yaw, or slew sideways, causing any number of balance problems and discomfort for both horse and rider.

While we were looking for a suitable double-rigged Western saddle to illustrate the concept, it became obvious that Wendy and Steve know a thing or two about saddles. Two of their saddles had dropped rigging -- my personal favorite because of how the rigging spreads the weight of the rider and saddle more evenly and more securely over the horse's back.

Not everyone has drop-down rigging on their saddle. It's nearly impossible to find on cheap saddles. But I jumped at the chance to have Charles photograph it. It really illustrates the problem caused by front-rigged saddles much better than just adding a flank cinch to strap the pommel of the saddle down on the horse.

(If you find the previous three paragraphs gibberish and jargon-filled, take heart. The point is not how to correctly fit a saddle to a horse. The point is to be open during a photo shoot to serendipitous opportunities that present themselves...)

5.) File Folders Rule Charles shoots digitally, as do most profesional photographers these days. Nothing is more daunting for the photo editor (moi) to receive 4000 files with names like "_NF6908J5."

As soon as a portion of the shoot was finished, Charles immediately transferred his images to appropriate file folders, which he named topically. The pics of riders going up and down hills went in "Hill Riding." The pics of opening and closing the gate went into "Gates."

This is SO much better than if he had placed the pictures in folders named to coincide with the current manuscript photo numbers. What is Photo 1.3 A now might be Photo 5.7 B when the final edit is done.

With the file folders named topically, I was able to do a preliminary edit of over 900 photos in less than a day, and narrow down 80 to 100 or so for further study.

So there you have them -- the keys to a great photo shoot: advance planning, time awareness, knowing your subject, and topical files. Not exactly rocket science, is it? In a few weeks, Charles and I will be in Hawaii with Dr. Warson for the second phase of the shoot. Here's hoping that it goes as smoothly as the Dallas day!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- The One and Only

I received a call yesterday from a college acquaintance who bought a horse last year for his daughter. It's a first horse, and comes complete with all the learning curves that the phrase "first horse" brings with it.

("You mean we need to get his feet trimmed every 8 weeks?! We've had him for 5 months. Probably should find a farrier, hmmm?")

I'm not trying to belittle the guy. He genuinely doesn't know this stuff. But he's willing to learn. So when he calls (inevitably at supper -- regardless of what time we eat...) I try to answer his questions.

Yesterday's question had to do with the horse's state of mind and social well-being. (I told you he was ready to learn. Many long-time horse owners aren't nearly as concerned about their animals' happiness.) The place where he board the gelding recently sold the mare that the horse was pastured with. So now he's all alone.

The question was: How quickly should they worry about finding another horse to share the pasture with the gelding?

I told him that, while it's true that horses are social creatures and tend to do best in a herd situation, he didn't need to hurry up and go buy a companion animal. As long as the horse wasn't pacing nervously, running around whinnying, or off his feed, he'd be just fine by himself for a time.

I told him that some people get companion animals like goats or donkeys to keep lonely horses company. I also told him that I was proud of him for considering his horse's psyche and happiness. For now, he said that the gelding was perfectly happy by himself -- evidently the now-missing mare was a fairly aggressive and dominant one. It seems that the gelding is not at all upset at being the one and only...

I have a gelding like that. Two of my boys like the social interaction of hanging out together. But Nehi prefers to be a Herd of One. Others infringe on the available food, and that never bodes well in his mind.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Making it All Worthwhile

I just got a call from a good friend of mine. Sharie Conard is an award-winning vocalist and a dynamic speaker. She recorded the song "Carol of the Horse" that is featured in our upcoming children's book by the same name.

For some time now, I've been telling Sharie that she needed to put out a book or two on the sorts of things she teaches in her workshops and seminars. I told her how to go through the process. I told her how to avoid being afraid of actually "writing." I showed her how to narrow down a worthwhile topic, how to get started, and how to proceed.

She was skeptical and a little overwhelmed, but she jumped in. And she did it! She called to say that she'd just written the end of the book. She doesn't want to shop it around to a publisher. We're going to work it up as a downloadable .pdf document, enabling her to make an affordable, timely printed project available almost immediately.

I am so proud of her! And I'm happy that I had some small part in the project.

Don't get me wrong -- the book is all hers. But I'll happily take credit for piloting her through the project so she could get it done quickly (less -- MUCH less -- than a month from start to finish).

I love helping people get their words out. It's something I can't help doing. If I'm in an airport or restaurant (two places I've been spending a lot of time, lately), I often find myself in conversation with someone and offering them advice on how to get their book done faster, easier, and with far less blood, sweat or tears than they ever dreamed possible.

Phone calls from friends like Sharie, riding high because they just finished writing their first book, and have ideas in their heads for several more, make it all worthwhile!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Waiting For the Dust to Settle

My friend, Stacey, used to travel extensively for her job. She developed an intimate knowledge of most major metropolitan airports. She can talk about them as if they were cars she owned or people she knew.

Lately, I've begun to sound a lot like her. In the past three weeks I've been in Vermont, Quebec, Orlando, and Dallas. Because of connecting flights, I've also spent some time in Detroit and Cincinnati. Thank heavens I didn't go through O'Hare (we have bad history together...). All for business. All necessary trips. All fun, in their own way. But they add up to a lot of time spent away from my husband, my little girl, my home, and my routine.

Though I would be the first to admit that my life rarely, if ever, follows any sort of identifyable schedule, there is a definite sort of rhythm that I fall into whenever I'm' at home. That rhythm is easily disrupted when I'm displaced.

For instance, when at home, I try to spend a couple of hours each day working on book marketing ideas and leads for Trafalgar Square. I spend the bulk of my day on one or two of the most pressing and most current projects. I spend a significant amount of time online doing research and answering e-mail. And I generally write the blog late at night or early in the morning.

Travelling anywhere -- even if at a place with easy internet access -- inevitably puts a kink in the routine. If an interview is involved, it's necessary to be prepared, to be well-rested, and to be focused. Conferences are all about networking: meeting people and talking to them as much as possible. Photo shoots center around the Project At Hand. They're on a tight deadline, so all available time for work must be dedicated to the shoot, or to reviewing the results of the shoot.

The past three trips have involved either an interview, a conference, or a photo shoot. A great deal of work has been done in the past three weeks. But that necessitated pushing some things (like daily blog updates) aside.

Now that I'm home from Dallas, I'm hoping the dust will settle. There is much to do.

"Carol of the Horse" is in print, complete with an audio CD featuring the song and a narration of the text. We can't keep up with demand, so more print runs are necessary. Sharie, the gospel vocalist who recorded the song is going to be a featured performer at the International Gospel Music FanFest at Columbia State Community College August 9 & 10. We want to make sure that we've got all necessary materials for the book available for her to take when she goes.

The text for the Rider's Back Book needs editing with a fine-toothed comb. Photos from the Dallas shoot also need placed, as do the illustrations we've had done by the incomparable graphic artist Heidi Scheing.

And another trip needs to be planned to finish up the photo requirements. For awhile, we were considering having Charles Hilton (our wonderful photographer) and Dr. Warson come to Michigan. But now it's looking more and more like it makes sense for Charles and me to go to Hawaii. Really. Probably within the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I'm waiting to hear the results of the Quebec interview. And I'm trying to make up for lost time on other, daily commitments.

While I'm home, regaining my schedule, rhythm, and work momentum, I'll resume daily posts. If I end up in Canada or Hawaii in the near future, however, posts will probably pause again -- until I return home and the dust settles.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Just Shoot Me

On and off, over the course of the past year, I've been involved in editing a book on Equine Photography. It's a fascinating subject, and one that is none too easy to master.

Often, when editing a work, it helps me to tell myself, "I am an idiot. I know nothing about this." This approach can help illuminate areas that are too dense, too involved, too technical, or otherwise unclear. It's actually surprisingly difficult to do when I really do have some knowledge of the subject matter. In the case of this particular topic, however, it was true.

I learned a lot about taking pictures of horses. I learned about things like focal length, foreshortening, f-stops, and forced perspective. I learned about proportion, panning, printing, and posing.

I learned why it is easier to take a bad picture of a horse than to take a good one. And I learned how to try to tip the scales in the photographer's favor. For instance:

* Horses are not naturally balanced. They carry two-thirds to three-fourths of their weight in the front half of their bodies. So a horse that is standing "normally" will often appear front-heavy. To combat this, the handler can encourage the horse to rock back briefly onto his hindquarters before the photographer snaps the picture. The result will be an image of a horse standing evenly balanced on all 4 feet.

* All body parts should show up in the shot. It's easy to stand off to the side and take a picture of a horse standing squarely -- only to end up with a picture of a "two-legged" horse, because the legs farthest from the camera are directly behind those closest to the lens.

* If you don't clean your horse and your tack thoroughly, don't bother taking the picture. Dirt screams for attention in a photograph.

* Bright noon-day sun tends to make pictures go "flat." Early morning and early afternoon light is most flattering.

* Nearly all helmets and hats (required for most riding) have brims that cast unflattering shadows on riders' faces. A fill-flash is almost a must for any sort of useable portrait.

* If the horse's ears aren't up, don't waste your time taking the shot.

* The horse's legs closest to the camera should frame the legs furthest from the lens. This means that the legs are staggered a bit, in order to avoid the afore-mentioned "two-legged" beastie.

* Web halters are hideous on film.

* The same can be said for chains over the horse's nose, dirty hooves, capped hocks, tight tee-shirts, dark sunglasses, chunky saddle pads, and untucked-in leather ends of cavessons and throatlatches.

* Don't take the picture if the horse is landing on, or pushing off, of his front feet.

* The lower the lens, the heavier the horse's legs seem and the leggier he appears. The higher the photographer's viewpoint, the lighter the horse's legs seem and the heavier his body looks.

All in all, I learned that I NEVER want to be responsible for taking a good picture of a horse.

That's why Dr. Warson has hired the wonderful Charles Hilton to take the photographs for "The Rider's Back Book." I worked with Charles on Clinton's book and can't wait to do another project with him. I fly to Dallas at the end of next week to oversee the first phase of shooting for the Back Book project. Just finalized my tickets yesterday.

As the adage warns, "A litle knowledge is a dangerous thing." An awful lot goes into getting a great shot. In the last few months I've learned a lot about the subject -- just enough to be dangerous.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Forced Perspective

I spent yesterday editing photos to illustrate a book project I've been involved with for some time that will soon be headed to press. The process was hardly painless or profitable. For reasons that are unclear to me, the last few book projects I've worked on bogged down at this phase.

The underlying reasons are always different:

* In one instance, the photographs were technically perfect, but the job of photo editor landed in my lap. There were so many photos that choosing the right ones was a woefully tedious process that easily took as long as writing the manuscript.

* In one case, the photographer (a very gifted artist) simply dropped off the face of the planet, refusing to return phone calls or e-mails, and forcing the publisher to communicate via certified mail.

* In one, the photographer provided adequate illustrations for one-third of the book and never pursued plans to finish the project.

* And in one case, the photographer just wasn't up to snuff.

Perhaps in a former life, I unknowingly, irreparably insulted a photographer, and I'm still paying for it.

Right now, I have six CD's full of images to illustrate a project that's already written. One of the CD's contains files that are named to coincide with the project. The other CD's contain files of random (to me) numbers. In some cases, the files on more than one disc share the exact same name. After 5 hours of searching, I'd come up with 10 useable, placeable images. Imagine my joy.

One of the things photographers (and graphic artists) have to learn about is the concept of "forced perspective." In essence, this means depicting an object from such an angle as to make portions of it seem larger, longer, smaller, or shorter than normal. Forced perspective intentionally distorts the viewer's vision.

For instance, imagine a photograph of an elephant that is reaching toward the camera lens with its trunk. Not only will the trunk seem shortened, but the end of the trunk closest to the camera will appear to be larger than the elephant's head, if viewed a certain way.

While fuming about the slow progress I was making, I received a call from one of my best friends. A lump in her breast is growing fast enough to cause the doctors concern, so she's having it biopsied later this month. She's scheduled for unrelated surgery later next month. And her husband has significant health issues of his own.

She didn't call to dump on me, or to whine. She just called to catch up and make plans to get together. But suddenly, the vagaries of choosing illustrations paled in comparison to real problems, real issues, and real concerns. Forced perspective all over the place. I hate it when that happens...

Monday, July 10, 2006

For What it's Worth

My parents left early Sunday morning after spending last week with us, keeping a watchful eye on Cassandra and Robert, and helping out around the place while I was out of the country. Cassandra loves getting up early in the morning and running down the hall to snuggle with Grandma and Grandpa. She was a little disappointed Sunday, I think, to have to "settle" for her daddy and me.

While Mom and Dad were here, they very kindly agreed to babysit Saturday night while Robert and I enjoyed a rare evening out alone. We went to Pizza Hut and then tried to see the second installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Alas, we were not alone in our plans for the evening.

"Pirates" is showing here in Coloma, a few miles away in South Haven, and a few miles away in a different direction in Benton Harbor. We drove all three places -- only to learn that the shows were all sold out.

So we came home.

We finally saw the flick Sunday afternoon, while our friend and houseguest Karen watched over Cassandra.

The movie was ok. Good, even. But not worth driving all over creation and beyond in order to glimpse it. And it certainly merited the PG-13 rating it's been given, though there was no shortage of small, underage children inappropriately attending the flick.

Who's to say what something's worth? We paid $4 apiece to see the film, because it was an afternoon showing. That included free popcorn and pop. I believe we got our money's worth. I'm happy we didn't have to shell out $7 or $8 each, and another $5 for popcorn and drinks, however. I'm not sure it's worth a $20 date.

But just because I feel that way doesn't mean that many, many others will disagree with me.

What got me thinking about such things is the process I'm going through launching a new website offering a variety of educational services to writers. The website will feature everything from free audio files and articles to in-depth, targeted training tools, coaching, editing, critiquing, consulting, and more.

When letting others know of your services, however, it is necessary to examine your fee structure. The most important thing is providing something of value to your clients. The second most important thing is making good use of your time and theirs.

At the end of June, I met with a freelance editor who is currently wrestling with this very subject. He is quite a talented, capable editor. He is comfortable with the demands of academic, scholarly writing. He edits everything from book manuscripts to doctoral disserations. And he is woefully cheap.

He had himself convinced that he needed to price himself at essentially the same hourly rate as a mediocre waitperson at a steakhouse because students are notoriously short of funds. While I certainly understand the realities of the "poor student," I can also appreciate the reality of the a "living wage."

I pointed out to my friend that if he was able to get enough editing jobs to work full-time, according to his current fee structure, he would not make enough in a year to support his family. Therefore, there was no real incentive for him to aggressively seek out new work.

He was thinking so much about keeping his fees low in order to attract new clients, that he had never stopped to do the math and realize that he simply couldn't afford to have many clients.

Undercutting your fees too much has more undesirable aspects to it than positive ones.

* It diminishes your knowledge, advice, and service in your clients' eyes.

* It causes a significant amount of grumbling when you find yourself working very hard with very little to show for it.

* It forces you into a holding pattern where you are spending so much time working on projects that don't pay, that you can't focus any attention on developing projects that do.

* It makes you start to doubt your own abilities and contribution.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that you allow greed to rule your head when determining your fee structure. What I am suggesting, however, is to apply at least as much business sense when deciding what to charge for your services as you do when choosing who to pay for theirs.

Project Update

The first edition of Carol of the Horse is finished. The narration is done. The song is done. The CDs are burned. And we are ready to go.

It's so exciting to see this project near completion. Everyone involved with it is so supportive and enthusiastic about it. Cassandra loves the book and has appropriated one for her own, personal use. I, for one, cannot wait to be able to show it to publishers and get them interested in it. Further bulletins as events warrant.

A long-running editing project for Trafalgar Square is nearing completion. They want me to have it done before I go to Orlando on Thursday. This means wading through some 1000+ photos and choosing appropriate ones to illustrate key text points. This, then, is the only thing on today's agenda.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Headed for Home

It's been a whirlwind of travel and work for the past two days, but today I'm headed home. In Canada, among other things, we went to see the spectacularly amazing Cavalia. That alone would have made the whole trip worthwhile. Why work when you can play, hm?

I finally got to meet the principal people of Trafalgar Square Publishing, and am so glad I did. It's goood to be able to put faces with names, and connect with people I've been working with long distance.

Of course, the trip was for work, not for play. And plenty of work has gotten done. There's more (always more!) to do. Today we're going to go over a project that is nearing completion, hoping to tie up some loose ends and close the book on it. And then, this afternoon, it's "Goodbye, Vermont. Hello, Michigan... and Robert... and Cassandra... and horses..."

As my mom always said when we went on vacation: It's good to go away, but when you're gone, it's good to go back." There's no place like home. (How very "Dorothy" of me.)

Much to do in the few days I'll be at home before I head out again -- this time to Florida. The next few weeks I'll be focusing on marketing work, promotion ideas, newsletter creation, and other "informational" things. It's amazing how necessary such knowledge is, in order to get the word out on what one has to offer.

Further updates as events warrant. Now, it's off to work before I can head for home.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Now You're Cooking With Cellular

Or: This is Your Brain on Phone

In the spirit of the holiday, which means taking time off from one's normal work, and continuing yesterday's precedent of not writing about anything remotely to do with writing, today's post has to do with a recent story that's making its way around online about two Russian reporters for Pravda who cooked an egg with the energy given off from two cellular phones.

According to the story, the egg became warm after 25 minutes of exposure.

The white was cooked after 40 minutes.

It took just over a hour to cook the chicken fruit clear through.

What do you know?

And here I'd been thinking Ring Tones were the bane of civilization...

Happy 4th, everyone!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Scotland's Seer

My friend, Karen, discovered today's link online, and we've been enjoying a rousing discussion of it ever since.

I was unfamiliar with the tale of Thomas the Rhymer, the 13th century Scottish seer who disappeared for seven years and came back with the gift of Future Sight. Even cynics who disregard the romance, mythology, and mystery of the story (what sad souls, those people must be) can surely find something of interest in the facts of the story.

In a nutshell, Thomas was a normal guy who vanished for a lengthy time -- and then reappeared, claiming he hadn't been gone long at all (smacks of time travel, n'est ce pas?). He'd been abducted, he said, by the Queen of the Fairies, but had been charged never to tell what he'd seen in his absence.

In exchange for his silence, he was gifted with prophetic abilities. The accuracy of his visions of the future is amazing. Check out the story for yourself. It's a fascinating read.

The 4th of July holiday, a house full of visiting family members, and much to do before I leave for the New England / Canadian whirlwind tour have conspired against a post today that directly addresses the writing life. But there's something to be said for taking a trip 800 years back in time and doing a little exploring.

After all:

There is more in heaven and earth...
Than is dreamt of in your philosophy.