Friday, October 30, 2009

Nine-part story starting now!

This week has seen the start of "Tommy and the Guttersnipe," an eight-chapter story with a holiday sequel, at the Weekly Storybook. Chapter Two will post Sunday, but if you don't see this until then, it's easy to go back to Chapter One and catch up. The illustrations are by Christopher Baldwin, with whom I have collaborated on a number of serials going back nearly a decade to my first, "The Legend of Perseus," which will be featured on the web site beginning in January.

"Tommy and the Guttersnipe" originally ran in papers throughout New York State two years ago as part of a statewide reading/education initiative by the NY Newspaper Publishers Association. It made such a hit that a sequel, "Anna's Story," will be running this spring. We thought it would be worthwhile to run "Tommy" on line for the benefit of anyone who wanted to read it before the sequel appeared.

The historic fiction is set in New York in 1896 and tells of Tommy McMahon, whose father has disappeared while working out West, and of Tommy's struggles to help support his mother and baby sister without the money his father had been sending home. It is very consciously modeled on the work of Horatio Alger, but involved a fair amount of historical research, including a visit to the Tenement Museum in New York.

When we ran the story in the New York papers, we asked students to write the next chapter in the story, and I was overwhelmed by the passion they put into it. Although the story was set more than a century in the past, the sense of abandonment and helplessness that Tommy and his family experienced was very present for young readers and Christopher and I were asked to produce a holiday sequel to tie up the loose ends. Then, two years later, we were commissioned to produce an entirely new serial story to let kids spend more time with Tommy and Jake.

I hope you will give it a look, and please feel free to comment. As my blogosphere friend Jean notes, that's how we know you were here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I've mentioned Esther Garvi's blog, and the Eden Foundation which her family has established in Niger. Their goal is to assist not by providing pallets of wheat and rice to refugees in hastily-erected camps, but by helping Africans maintain self-sufficiency through the foods that are native to the area and will grow and thrive in the soil and climate of the region.

Meanwhile, Esther's blog is a delightful day-to-day record of the dogs and horses, the sunrises and sunsets, the changes in weather and the lives of those who live in the area around her home. My grandkids love to see the pictures and I probably share this blog with them more often than anything else on the web.

This particular posting, however, touched more deeply on both the mission of the Foundation and on her personal commitment, and that of her late mother. And the photos are adorable.

Esther's blog is a daily reminder that life isn't so bad after all, and that all it takes to make a difference in the world is the will to do so. On this day, she's made a difference in my world too.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Two Quarks for Muster Mike
(Adventures in the Software Trade)

The past week has been fairly quiet as I spent most of it saying bad words, according to granddaughter Samantha, despite her older sister Abigail's assurance that "piece of junk" is not a bad word. Grandpa admits that what he wasn't saying out loud, and what he was saying out loud during the day while the kids were in school, certainly qualified.

The process began about two weeks ago, when I realized that my departure from the newsroom had robbed me of some layout tools I still needed.

Most of my writing is just that: Writing. I can handle it all in Word, which is really a lousy program but so much the default that you need it because it's what your clients will be using. Even those who don't like, or want, Word will have it because other people use it.

And several years ago, I purchased Photoshop Elements, the stripped-down version of Photoshop that does nearly everything I need, and what it can't do are all things that a client would be tweaking at their end anyway.

But I've been working on a serial story that will be running in New York newspapers this coming spring, and, as I started work on the accompanying curriculum guide, I very quickly realized that Word's layout capacities end at the club newsletter level.

What to do?

There are two programs to be considered: QuarkXpress, which was the industry standard for several years, and InDesign, the up-and-comer that is taking over the top position. Now, I'm assured by friends who have used both that it is easy to learn InDesign if you know Quark and that the transition is painless. However, working alone means I don't need to deal with compatibility, and my layout needs are rudimentary enough that either program is far more than I need anyway. So I needed Quark.

Which brings us to the next point: Quark costs $799, which is a pretty big investment for a fledgling freelancer.

However, I didn't need the latest version, Quark 8. What I needed was the ability to lay out text and images, then create multipage, one-piece PDF files which would be the final product. Quark 6, which I used at my last two jobs, would be adequate, and there are (relatively) legitimate Quark 6 programs available on Ebay.

Easy enough. I found a copy of Quark 6 that had never been registered and got it at a very reasonable price. I spent the next week writing the guide, so that, when the disk showed up in the mail, while I hadn't finished the writing, I was ready to do the initial layout and then fill in the other pieces of the guide as I wrote them.


Except that Quark 6 is not compatible with Vista, the operating system on my new laptop. I was able to install it, but it constantly crashed, froze up, lost my files or saved them in a format it then couldn't open. (This accounted for most of the bad words as I kept reinstalling it in hopes that it would magically begin to work properly.)

No problem: I still have my desktop, which doesn't have the power of the laptop but runs the XP operating system, consistent with Quark 6. I unpacked it, set it up and installed Quark 6.

Quark is kind of a memory hog, but if I stripped everything but Photoshop Elements and a couple of browsers, there was enough to run Quark, as long as I was willing to switch it on and then go make coffee or something while it mounted and then go make another cup of coffee any time I asked it to do something complex.


Except it turns out that Quark 6 can't export PDFs unless you have a particular type of printer installed. A particularly expensive kind, common in newsrooms but not so common in home offices. Not that you even want to print the PDFs, but ... well, that's the way they set it up. And, while you can lie to Quark 7 and pretend you have such a printer, you can't lie to Quark 6.

In other words, it would allow me to lay out the guide, but then I couldn't turn it into something my clients could use.

What to do?

Well, now that I had Quark 6, I could register it and then buy an upgrade to Quark 8. Which I did, and which I was able to install on my laptop, where it runs smoothly and swiftly on Vista.

Somehow, I still managed to emerge some $300 ahead of having bought it straight out in the first place. Yesterday, I sailed through a large portion of the layout and am nearly to the point where I have to start writing again.

And next week, when Windows 7 is available for free to all of us who bought computers with Vista in the last six months or so, I will pass, thank you. We do not plan to fix that which is not broke.

Here's a 10-minute video extolling the virtues of QuarkXpress 8. I feel like I bought a Maserati to take to the grocery store. Those who understand this stuff will be able to see how wonderful Quark 8 is. Those who don't will really enjoy the pretty pictures.

For my part, I liked the pretty pictures and didn't understand more than about 20% of what she was saying. It was kind of like watching a film in a language you studied in high school -- every few minutes, a familiar phrase flies by and gives me the impression that I can understand it, but I really couldn't.

What I did know is that it will do what I need done and that, while I've just lost a week or two of productivity wrestling with it, I certainly won't feel like I should have bought something with more horsepower down the road sometime.

And I like owning a Maserati, even if I keep putting the key inside the wrong little hole. (See below)

Friday, October 09, 2009

Amid all the exploding heads, wisecracks and misinformed commentary, let's at least listen to what the man has to say about it.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Grand au Pere

Above are Charlie Ruggles and Debbie Reynolds in "The Pleasure of His Company," one of my favorite movies, in which they play grandfather and granddaughter. To appreciate my current situation, there should be two more granddaughters sliding down that bannister.

The last time I provided a career update, I had found work with a fellow who had obtained funding to begin an on-line project. Well, he hadn't entirely obtained it, and, when it came time to put the name on the old parchmentoroonie, the venture capitalists were hard to find. Something may yet come of it -- he got enough funding to go into business. But my part of it didn't happen, at least yet. And I'm old enough that I place promises in the drawer marked "nonessentials."

Meanwhile, I've sold a few serials to newspapers here and there (the marketer in me says "from the Rio Grande Valley to Newfoundland!"). It's not a lot of money, but it's money and we like money. And I have a project going on with the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, and the possibility of another and the potential for a third. And I've got a few other possibilities out there.

Somehow, as all of this was coming down, I ended up crashing at my son Jed's house, with his wife and three daughters (12, 8 and 5). They -- the parents -- recently moved down here to begin work as nurses at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, which is a very good place to work. And the kids are in good schools.

But there are some disconnects involved in the oddball schedules of nurses and the unmoveable schedules of school, soccer, horseback riding, piano lessons and suchlike.

Enter Grand au Pere.

I moved in here with a great deal of trepidation. The kids (that is, my kids) deserve to have autonomy at this stage in their lives. In fact, they deserve autonomy at any stage in their lives after they turn 18, because that's how we've set up this family. But certainly, they deserve to run their own lives after they have children and careers.

But somehow, it's working. As grandpere, I'm here to listen to eldest daughter, Elizabeth, and to tickle the younger two, Abbie and Sammie. As au pair, I walk them to the bus in the morning, meet them in the afternoon, help them with their homework and generally fill in when Mom and Dad are working or sleeping after a night shift, including doing some of the cooking and the dishes and just generally filling in the missing pieces.

It is a blast. The girls are learning that Grandpa isn't a pushover, but he does listen. And Jed and Courtney are well aware that free childcare is a bargain, and that free childcare that adapts to their insane, ever-shifting schedules is a real bargain. And getting to walk the girls to the bus, go to their soccer games and generally hang around being the cool guy is a bargain for me, too.

Not to mention the free rent. I chip in for groceries and it's my gas on all the pickups and dropoffs that are involved, but that's chickenfeed. I couldn't afford to rebuild a freelance career without this little cut in expenses.

Did I mention that it's a blast?

So the other night, Abigail said, "I like having you here, Grandpa. How long are you staying? I hope you stay a long time!"

And I said, "Well, I think I'll probably stay here at least through the cold weather."

And Jed said, "You have to stay here through the cold weather."

Apparently, Grand Au Pere has succeeded in making himself indispensable.

Good. Whatever is going on in the economy at large, I can't think of a better organization in which to be indispensable.