Thursday, April 28, 2011

Conference Report - Building a Website

And now for my final report on the Fall Conference I attended in 2010...

Don't you just love a good website?  They're good looking; they're fun to visit; and they get lots of hits.  That's what I want!

In the third and final workshop that I attended, Ashley Thomas Memory shared very useful pointers.  She demonstrated her own website: World of Crepes.  If you'd like to see all her suggestions, check out a version of her presentation in her blog.

She explains the concept of Demand vs. Supply as it pertains to websites.  For any particular topic:
Demand = how many times someone searches that topic
Supply = the number of websites on that topic
If you want to have a lot of hits on your website, all you have to do is pick a topic where there is high Demand (everyone's searching for it) and low Supply (only a few websites available).  This makes sense.  A good goal (she says) is to shoot for a Demand of over 2,000 global monthly searches, and less than 200,000 competing websites.

To determine Supply, all you do is Google the topic.  How many results do you get?  Google will tell you under the search bar.

Determining Demand is a little tougher.  Ashley mentioned that you can buy a commercial product to gather that kind of info.  There are also some free tools, like this one provided by Google AdWords.

Then Demand divided by Supply should give a good sense of how many hits you're going to get.

Let's look at some of my older post stats, and see how well this theory works.

#1) My most successful post is "The Scam - Part 1," which has so far enjoyed a whopping 163 hits (average = 40 a month).  People are finding this entry through the number I mention: 714-551-9581.

Supply (look up "714-551-9581" on Google) = 2,530 results.  Note that my blog appears at about #8 on the list.
Demand (go to the AdWords tool, and type in "714-551-9581") = 73 Global Monthly Searches.

Demand divided by Supply = .02885.  This corresponds to my 40 a month.  (Looks like I multiply by 1400.)

In English: there is very little competition on the topic "714-551-9581".  There also aren't very many searchers.  Out of 73 searchers, about half are finding my blog.

#2) One of my least successful posts is "Review - TRON: Legacy."  I'll try "Review TRON Legacy" and see what comes up.

Supply = 11,300,000 results.  (My blog entry is not in the top 10.  BTW, did you see that the Tron Guy loved the movie?)
Demand = 27,100 global monthly searches.

The formula gives me: 27,100 divided by 11,300,000 times 1,400 = about 3 hits a month.  That sounds about right.  Note that Supply is very high.  There's no way I'm going to attract people with this one blog post alone.

Let's do one more:

#3) "Fun at Tab Williams."  We'll search on "Tab Williams Senior."

Supply = 7,550,000.
Demand = 5,400 (had to go with "Tab Williams" without "Senior").

The formula: 5,400 / 7,550,000 * 1,400 = 1 hit per month.  Wow--a little low.  I'm actually getting around 5 a month.

Well, I'm going to do some more playing around.  If I find a good topic where I'm an expert, and where Demand is high, and Supply is low - then I will have my popular blog post.  I'll let you know what I come up with, and we'll see if this approach actually helps me write a viral post.

Happy website writing to you!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Conference Report - Critique Groups

This is my penultimate Fall Conference post.  I figured I should write these last two posts before I attend the Spring Conference in a few days.

In the Fall Conference, I attended three different workshops.  I've already described the "Promoting Yourself," and now I will describe the second workshop I attended on critique groups.  It was presented by a panel consisting of Michael Shinn and Chayton Chandler.

To be honest, I couldn't pay much attention during the first part, as I was about to meet with the agent Dan Lazar.  I did get the main gist that critique groups are essential for any writer's development.  It's one thing to send out samples to all your friends to critique, but those guys are probably going to be nice to you.  A critique group, on the other hand, offers people who are not your friends.  These people write stories just like you and they also want to be critiqued; so you meet, swap stories, get out a red pen, and fix each other up.

After meeting Dan Lazar and reeling for thirty minutes after, I went back in to finish out the workshop.  By that time, they had moved on to reasons why a critique group breaks up.  I think the idea is that you try to avoid these things from happening.  Michael Shinn was nice enough to catch me up on what I missed after the workshop.

I know I must next find a good critique group, but I still have no idea where to find one.  I'm having trouble finding other local sci-fi writers.  I also fear that I may experience one of those things that breaks up critique groups.  I also don't have much time to meet with a group every week.

I may look into an online critique group - which I hear sci-fi writers like to use. 

In either case, I need to find a good critique group somewhere.  When I find one, I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Weekend of Doctor Who

Series 6 of Doctor Who has officially begun.  Just like last year, BBC America launched the first episode with the mother of all Doctor Who marathons.  All day Friday and Saturday, they showed all of Series 5 and the four specials that came after Series 4.  They also showed a "Rewind" special and other goodies.

I finally got to see the "End of Time" specials, where David Tennant passes the baton to Matt Smith.  With that, I finally got caught up with every single episode released since 2005.

Then at 9PM Saturday evening, it happened--"The Impossible Astronaut."  As expected, it was a great episode.  It opened with a shocker--something that may not be resolved until the end of this season.  We'll have to wait and see.

A couple of items reemerged from Series 5, including Dr. River Song.  What exactly is the story between her and the Doctor?  I won't say what else appears in this episode--"Spoilers!"

My only complaint is this: the commercial breaks!  Just before this episode aired, it said, "Brought to you with limited commercial interruption by XXX."  Well, someone forgot to tell BBC what "limited commercial interruption" means.  Every break cut off the show in weird places--especially the ending.  It gives we Americans the impression that we are missing part of the show.

That's bad.

It also felt like we got more commercials during this episode than in any of the other episodes shown earlier during the marathon.  If that was "limited interruption," I'm not looking forward to "normal interruption."

Just saying.

Anyway, my family and I look forward to the rest of Series 6.  May there be lots of fun monsters, and lots of good time twists, and more of those "human" stories like the Van Gogh one.

What happens next?  My kids joke that the next episode will be called, "The Satan Astronaut."  Here are my questions and predictions:
  • Who is the Astronaut?  My kids say: River Song.  (BTW, does the Astronaut remind you of Babylon 5?)
  • Who blew up the Tardis in Series 5?  My prediction: the Dream Master.  Or perhaps it was the Chinese government.
  • Who was the woman Time Lord in the "End of Time" specials?  Are they coming back to this story line?  My wife predicts that it is the Doctor's mother.
  • Did the Time Lords create the Weeping Angels (alluded to in the "End of Time")?
Let's see what Series 6 brings us!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Review - Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

Who is John Galt?  Watch Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 and you'll hear that very question umpteen times, but you'll get no answer, yet.  Perhaps we'll find out in Part 2 or Part 3.

Atlas Shrugged is the ultimate Tea Party story.  Big government is bad.  Corporations are run by good people who want to make profits, which in turn gets the economy moving, creating jobs, etc.  You get the idea?  And wouldn't you know it?  Right when the movie started, this large group of red, white, and blue-wearing seniors came in and filled the theater.  They were Tea Party advocates from surrounding counties that came to see the movie in one of the few theaters showing it.

The movie centers around Dagny Taggart, head of operations of Taggart Transcontinental.  Due to major oil shortages and other depleted resources, trains have returned to being the prominent mode of transportation.  Taggart Transcontinental is the largest train company in the US.  If they fall, then the world will stop moving.

Dagny's brother, Jim, runs the whole company.  He supposedly has a good heart and wants to help people and honor friend's agreements, but this leads to him making decisions to hurt the company.  Dagny tries to save Taggart and make the right decisions for the company rather than for the people. 

To make matters worse, the government steps in to try to stop an unfair monopoly.  The result: corporate sabotage and other fireworks.

As you may guess, this movie is highly politically charged.  Dagny would be a Republican - or more precisely a Tea Party member.  Jim would be a Democrat.  With Dagny as the main star, you can see where the bias lies.  If you happen to be a Tea Party member, this could be the worst movie ever made, and you may still love it.  Likewise, if you're a Democrat, you may hate this movie just on the principles it espouses.

With political leanings aside, was I entertained?  On the most part, yes.  I knew this was an indie film before going in, so the not-so-great acting and the low budget feel didn't phase me that much.  For example, when they introduce the Taggart Transcontinental building, they show some random large buildings (I don't know which one of them we were supposed think was their building), but we never see anything to prove Taggart Transcontinental was really in there -- such as someone walking into the building.  Who cares? -- low budget -- get on with the story.

I enjoyed the movie because I've already read Part 1 of the book.  I enjoyed seeing some of my favorite scenes being played out.  Some were well done, while others missed the mark.

Well done: Dagny buys the bracelet from Rearden's wife.

Well done: Dagny tells that one man to leave her office when he says she can't run trains on the John Galt line.

Not well done: When the reporter asks Dagny, "Who is John Galt?" and she gives her answer, it's a little confusing.  The famous question is asked at the end of a media frenzy, so when Dagny gives her answer, the viewer has to think back as to which question she was answering.  (Oh, I was supposed to pay attention to what the reporters were asking?)

If I had not read the book, I don't know if I would have enjoyed the movie that much.  There's a lot of material to cover, and they tried to do it in less than 2 hours.  Some parts are confusing and feel rushed.  There are at least 20 important characters that we see for only a few minutes without any kind of introduction and minimal explanation, and then they're gone.  The overall story arc isn't very satisfying - partly because a lot of conflict won't get resolved until Parts 2 and 3.  The only two characters that are developed to any degree are Dagny and Rearden.

At least there were no boring parts.  I think the producers could have added more time to the movie and have made it a more satisfying production.

As for convincing Democrats to see the Tea Party way, both the book and the movie would have a long way to go.  All the "Democrats" in the story are weak men who resort to secret meetings.  They are dishonest cowards who want to hurt successful people.  On the other hand, all the "Tea Partians" are noble and trying to save the world.  They are the only ones who see reason.  They also tend to be women (more so in the book than in the movie).

I believe Ayn Rand's story would have been more convincing if she had built well-intentioned characters on both side of the debate.

After the movie ended, I quickly interviewed one of the Tea Party seniors.  I asked what he thought of the movie, and he said he loved it.  He especially loved the communism jabs.  Then he started talking about trains where he used to live and how they use different metal these days, etc.  I ended by asking if he's read the book.  He answered, "Yes."

My verdict: not the best movie made, but it's worth watching if you've read the book or you're a Tea Party member.  I think this movie and the two sequels (set to be released Tax Day 2012 and 2013) will enjoy a sizable following.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My First Writing Class

Orson Scott Card says you learn more from writing a 100,000-word novel than you do taking all the classes in the world.  Of course, when I first read this, I took that to mean that I didn't need to take any writing classes.  In fact, I came this close (I'm pinching my thumb and index finger together here) to signing up for Uncle Orson's Boot Camp.  I decided that the time wasn't right, the budget was tight, and I went back to working on my 100,000-word novel.

Then a couple of weeks ago, an opportunity arose to attend a local, cheaper writing class.  Now, almost a year after rejecting the Orson Boot Camp, and after receiving several rejection letters, I decided it was time to learn what I was doing wrong.

Tonight was that first night.  I had sent in the first 20 pages of my upcoming "Depths of Inner Space" short story, and tonight we went over the first two pages.  We talked about everything that wasn't quite working and how we could fix it.

And let me tell you -- IT HURT!  When the class was over, I had to go get some comfort food (a Big Mac).  There's just something about seeing one of your babies torn up like that...

Well, after about an hour, it didn't hurt so much.  I realized that the essence of my story was not what was being attacked, but the techniques I was applying (or misapplying).  The instructor gave very useful information and suggestions on how to fix the story.  Now that I've been educated, I can begin to understand why some of my stories come out better than others, and I can know better how to fix this one story.  IT CAN BE SALVAGED!

This class goes for on for six weeks.  When it's done, I'm going to feel a lot better, and I'll have a great new "fixed" story to show for it.

My advice to all you fellow aspiring writers: please take at least one writing class in your life before you hurt someone!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Restaurant Reviews: Bonsai and Old Europe

Tonight I'll try my hand at reviewing local restaurants.  Orson Scott Card does it, and so can I!  I'd like to write about two new restaurants that I've really enjoyed.

Bonsai: Japanese/Sushi
4613 Yadkinville Rd
Pfafftown, NC 27040

This place opened up a few months ago and I've already been there four or five times.  The weird thing is, the food is not getting old.  I don't know what they're doing, but I've tried different Japanese places around town, and Bonsai keeps calling me back.

Every time I go, I order the same thing: steak hibachi with mixed veggies, a side order of harumaki (spring rolls) and the shrimp sauce.  The steak bites are good seasoned cuts.  The shrimp sauce is mayonnaise mixed with paprika and other secret ingredients (it doesn't actually have any shrimp in it).  It's either the steak or the sauce that I like so much - can't tell which - maybe it's both!

If I feel like splurging, I'll get the cheesecake.  That's something I can't seem to resist!

The price is right for a good portion of food.  I also hear the sushi is good.  Give it a try, and be prepared to return.

Old Europe Restaurant: German
1540 South Stratford Rd.
Winston-Salem, NC 27103

This is authentic German food - or at least as authentic as you can get in North Carolina.  It's a little pricey, but still affordable.  For the price, they offer large portions of good quality food.  At lunch, the prices are a little cheaper.

For an appetizer, I split an order of the Potato Pancakes with Applesauce.  Then I got the Reuben Sandwich.  At this point, I was already full, but I had to try some dessert.  I ordered the apple struedel, which was a good finish.

I hear the wiener schnitzel is pretty good as well.

We went on a busy Friday during the first week they were open when they were down a waitress.  So, service was a little slow.  It's my only complaint for an otherwise fun experience. 

The patronage seemed to consist mainly of older people with German lineage, which my wife and I found cute.  These older people can be quite friendly.

Would I go back?  Jawohl!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Blog Renovations

It's time to revamp the blog.  Those nameless books in the background were starting to get a little old.  Here's the before picture:

I decided to move to something that looks more sci-fi-ish.  Also, I'm removing the "Club of Aspiring Writers" - at least for now.  Instead of "Mel-o-rama," I'm going to use my real name, as that's what other writers use.  Here's the after picture:

Chances are, I'm going to change the layout several times until I find the optimal setup.  Let me know what you think.  Are the words easier or harder to read?  Is the background too much over the top?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Batchin' Movie Reviews: Schmucks, Land of the Lost, Devil

Last week was spring break, and my wife took the kids to go see the in-laws.  So for a few days, I was batchin' it.  Sometimes when this happens, I'll go rent movies I know my wife will hate, which means they are usually either really bad movies or some kind of horror flick.  The movies I saw this time were Dinner for Schmucks (yuck), Land of the Lost (okay), and Devil (fun).

Dinner for Schmucks did have a few funny moments, most of which were in the previews.  But overall, this movie tries to take What About Bob? and stretch it to its furthest reaches.  That is, it attempts to make the most annoying characters ever created.

This is also yet another one of those movies where the "stupid" people really aren't stupid, and the "normal" people are plain jerks.  Despite Carell's usual funny performance, the writing was plain awkward.  In some moments, Carell's character is oblivious to what's going on around him, and in other moments, he's insightful and even considerate.  How confusing!

I totally despised Lucy Punch's character.  She was so painfully annoying, it wasn't even funny.  Then again, since they were going for annoying, I'd have to say that Lucy did an excellent job.

I did find the Obi Wan Kenobi character (Zach Galifianakis) to be funny.  "I release you."

Paul Rudd was also funny as the main "I can't help my hopeless situation" character.

There were also some particularly disturbing scenes that I think were meant to be funny, but I couldn't seem to get over the "that's horrible - I wouldn't wish that on anyone" feeling to laugh.  And I'm actually a fan of dark humor.  If you want to see dark humor done well, watch the French movie Delicatessen.  If you want to see it done poorly, watch Dinner for Schmucks.

I had more fun with Land of the Lost, because:
  • I was a fan of the original series; 
  • I love Saturday Night Live humor;
  • I love potty humor (which I suppose fits in with the SNL thing);
  • and I like Will Ferrell (again SNL).
This is certainly a terrible movie.  I'd add this to my "guilty pleasures" list.  That is, I know it's bad, but I'll watch it when nobody's looking.  This includes the Bill and Ted movies, Dude Where's My Car, and most any Mel Brooks movie (some of which also happen to be very good).

The movie had plenty of jokes referring to the original series.  Some jokes were done once too many times - example: they worked in the original theme song twice when once would have been sufficient.  There were also a couple of scenes that made me think, "Am I still watching a movie?"

Nevertheless, it had plenty of funny stuff to keep me laughing.

I can't believe they got Matt Lauer on there.  That was pretty funny.

What confused me the most is that this movie is NOT for kids.  You don't believe me?  For example, in an early scene, Holly introduces herself to a primate by placing her hands on her breasts and saying her name.  You can imagine what happens next.  Funny old joke - but not for kids.  Which begs the question:


The original show was for kids.  This movie could have also worked well for kids, if only the producers toned down the potty humor.  Older people wouldn't be interested in this movie.  That only leaves middle-aged people who caught the original when they were kids and who grew up with Saturday Night Live and like Will Ferrell.

Hmmm - I guess that's me.  Yes - guilty pleasure!

I'm still a little disappointed that Sid and Marty didn't reach out to a new generation of kids.  It also makes me wonder if H.R. Pufnstuf really did mean what we thought it meant!  Plus, should I even ask about The Far Out Space Nuts and Doctor Shrinker?

Finally, saving the best for last.  I thoroughly enjoyed Devil.  It's the first M Night Shyamalan-produced movie that wasn't actually directed by him.  Yet, the directing style is so similar.  The opening credits reveal the awesome cinematography that persists throughout the movie.  In particular, the viewer gets a wonderful sense of how tall the building is (I'm still trying to figure out exactly how they managed that).

The story feeds off of the South American legend of the "Devil's Meeting," in which the devil brings together some bad people and tortures them prior to taking their souls.  If you've seen the preview, you know it all happens in an elevator.  And if you're concerned that this movie is Waiting for Godot staged in an elevator, do not fear.  There is plenty of action happening outside of the elevator.

Some effects were a little cheesy.  And as for acting, there is plenty of the M Night trademark deadpan stare that Wahlberg made famous in The Happening:

But nevertheless, the movie had good dialogue, and good cinematography.  The people were believable.  The sounds when the lights go out are very disturbing.  The end result: the movie actually scared me briefly.  I can't wait to see the next two movies.

Movie #2 is supposed to be about a jury considering a supernatural case.
Movie #3 may be a sequel to Unbreakable.

Lastly, when I was done watching this movie, I turned the TV off.  I went into the other room, and came back five minutes later.  My TV screen was still on!  It was blue.  I reached up to turn it off again, and it wouldn't turn off!  I tried it one last time, and then it finally turned off.


And double lastly: when I got on the elevator at work the next day, and the door shut, I had one second of irrational fear, and then it was gone.

Cool, again!