October 15, 2007

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Designing Online Zines for Fun and Profit written by Melanie Fletcher Heya -- I'm Melanie Fletcher. In addition to being a science fiction writer/fencer/quilter/bellydancer/herder of cats, I'm also the webmistress for the quarterly speculative fiction zine Helix. I wish I could say that I got the job after a continent-spanning talent search by the editors for the hottest zine designer around. The truth is, the senior editor talked about starting a zine in his SFF.Net newsgroup and wondered what it should look like. Being a helpful sort, I opened Dreamweaver, slapped together a page very similar to the one you see today and said, "How about something like this?" Of such things are webmistress positions born. Despite early comments that the top graphic looked like an Asia album cover, I'm still pleased with the site design of Helix. There have been some changes, of course; the original rough draft had a two-column layout, which was changed to a three-column design so that we could put donation info and a PayPal button in the right-hand column (yes, we ask readers to donate money if and when they can -- it helps support our brilliant writers) while keeping story links in the left-hand column and actual content in the center column. Once we all agreed on the general layout, I went to work on the zine's look and feel. First and foremost, it had to be user-friendly. Even now, a fair number of people don't like to read off monitors because it gives them eyestrain; this, plus the fact that I had ergonomics drilled into me as a fledging web designer, prompted me to come up with a layout that was 1) simple to use and 2) easy to read. The "simple to use" part was a doddle. I had a fair amount of experience designing GUIs and writing user guides for online tools, so I already had a good grasp of how the average English reader worked with a computer screen -- left to right, top to bottom. So I put the Menu bar with links such as Home, Contributors, Submissions, Staff, About Us, Privacy Policy and Contact Us spang at the top of the page, right underneath the masthead graphic. These links are at the top because they 1) go to pages with basic information about the magazine and its contributors, 2) appear in every issue, and 3) don't ever change. As a result, I don't have to worry about jiggering the layout each issue to make sure that people who don't have cinema-sized monitors can read the page without horizontal scrolling. Besides, we have tracking code in the site HTML that tells us how often various pages are accessed; if you're a writer, you won't be surprised to learn that the Submissions link gets some of the highest hits in each issue. Along the left side of each page is the Contents bar; this contains links to the issue's fiction, poetry, columns and editorials. The Contents bar lets you jump around the zine without having to return to the index page (my motto is, why induce extra carpal tunnel syndrome if you don't have to?). So that's "simple to use" taken care of -- what about "easy to read"? Well, you may notice that Helix uses a very simple color palette -- black, white, grey and red. I could have gone with something more splashy, but I picked those colors for a reason -- they look the same on practically any monitor, browser and platform. So the zine's bordering columns are black with white or red text. The central column, where the meat of the zine is featured, is the oldest color scheme in the world -- white background, black text. Ergonomically speaking, black text on a white background or white text on a black background are the best color schemes for reducing eyestrain. Helix provides you with both, because, hey, we care about our readers, dammit. Helix also doesn't use Flash, ginormous graphics or obnoxious Javascript. Yup, the site looks simple, because the reader is not supposed to be oohing and aahing over the site; rather, the reader is supposed to be enjoying the incredible fiction and poetry in each issue. Rodrigeo Prieto, the cinematographer on Frida, once said, "If I do my job properly, you won't notice the lighting -- your attention is on the story, where it's supposed to be. That's what I've tried to do with Helix. If you don't even notice the layout, I've done my job. ========================================= Expatriate Chicagoan Melanie Fletcher is a woman of simple tastes — she likes to write, preferably for money. She also draws, quilts, fences, knits, bellydances, and functions on way too little sleep. During the day, she works as a technical writer and web designer, and wears the Web Goddess hat for Helix SF. At night, she turns into SF Writer Girl, and has the SFWA membership card to prove it. Her fiction can be found in anthologies from Circlet Press, Yard Dog Press and DAW Books, as well as online zines such as Quantum Muse and Helix SF; her Helix story "The Padre, the Rabbi and the Devil His Own Self" recently received Honorable Mention in the 2006 Year's Best Science Fiction anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. Her current Yard Dog Press "Double Dog" release, Sabre Dance, is best described as a swashbuckling adventure of "Musketeers meet the Arabian Nights." Melanie's web site is at: melaniefletcher.com
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It's Almost In Site Posted by Lorraine (L.L.) Bartlett I have a beautiful website. Go ahead, go visit it here. I've been working with Blue Hound Visions for four or five years. We've gone through a couple of iterations and you can see them by visiting both sides of the site. The original site is here. It was set up when I was a finalist in the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic contest and thought that cozy mysteries would be the springboard for my writing career. Well, it didn't exactly happen that way. When I sold my first novel, a psychological suspense, MURDER ON THE MIND, I realized that my cozy little site wasn't appropriate for a series with an edgy tone. Yet, I was pretty sure that cozy mysteries were still in my future. Hence, the two halves to the site. There are LOTS and LOTS of pages. You could probably stay on the site just digging deeper for several hours. Unfortunately, Extreme Tracker tells me most people visit my front page and then my Buffalo page. (Murder On The Mind is set in Buffalo.) There are links on that one page that take you deeper in the site, including to my "extras" page, where I have drawings, character sketches, a map of Jeff's Buffalo, and the (spoiler alert!) "deleted" epilogue (that didn't make it to the published version of the book). I figured I was set. Jeff was taken care of, and I was ready for my future cozies. Then I got a contract to write a series of cozy mysteries, but...under another name. My cozies will be published under the name Lorna Barrett. Method to my madness, eh? Using the same initials. And yet...I still hope to sell a cozy mystery series under my Lorraine Bartlett "brand." (Kinda makes me feel like I'm competing with Kraft foods or something.) What to do? Establish a separate website for Lorna Barrett. The problem was...I no longer have a day job. I'd been paying for my original website using my "mad money." (From my hobby as a vendor at an antique co-op.) Only my mad money has considerably dried up thanks to our sliding economy. With nothing else to take up the slack, all my promotional activities have to be paid for from my minuscule writing income. YIKES! I'm a mid-list author. We're not exactly drowning in dollars. So I decided to create Lorna's website myself. (Insert hysterical laugh here.) I bought some software, and Sheila (yes, our very own Writers Plot) Connolly walked me through setting up a site. And you know what? It looked bloody awful. (Certainly not Sheila's fault.) Instead of going back to the drawing board, I went back to Blue Hound Visions, explaining my financial situation. BHV did a fantastic job putting together a template for me, based on the first book's cover. But I was under one deadline or another and I didn't have time to devote to the site. Until this weekend.... There's a very good reason to PAY someone to do this kind of work for you, especially if you really don't have a feel for it. The frustration factor is enormous simply because A.) the software comes with no manual B.) the software is no longer supported by the manufacturer (who still sells a LOT of it), and C) don't be tempted to yank hanks of hair out of your head, because you'll be bald in an hour or two. Thankfully, BHV walked me through the process, which ain't easy over e-mail. We found a couple coding glitches (now solved) and we successfully tested the pages late yesterday afternoon. MAJOR RELIEF. (Yes, that was worth yelling about.) Of course, the current content sucks, and I haven't yet uploaded the pages to the Internet. (They're in a folder on my old website.) I figured I'd better get moving and start working on that aspect of the site before I forget how to do it. (Another reason not to work on the WIP today!) But I feel a lot more confident about the site, and I'm really proud of the job Blue Hound Visions did for me and for Lorna, and the patience it took to walk me through the process. Oh, and BTW, Blue Hound Visions IS my friend Doranna Durgin. (Yes, from right here on Writers Plot.)

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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