October 12, 2007

Panning for Gold posted by Jeanne I probably should have been a travel agent. I spend a lot of time planning our trips. I had Alaska guidebooks, maps, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and website printouts scattered all over the house for many months. Of course we couldn't experience all of Alaska in three weeks, but we could sure take a good big bite out of it. Which is why we were up one morning at 5:15 to make a 6:30 departure for a van trip up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle. Most of our events luckily involved more civilized hours. The paddleboat ride on the Tanana River in Fairbanks, the Alaska ferry trip to Seldovia, the afternoon catamaran rush up Prince William Sound to see a lot of glaciers and a few critters (sea otters, mostly)--all were scheduled at civilized times of the day. So was our El Dorado Gold Mine Tour. I called this our 'trains, planes and automobiles' trip (plus boats), and the mine trip was our railroad portion. One chilly mid-morning we boarded an open narrow-gauge railroad car to learn about gold in Alaska. Early miners used steam to melt the pemafrost, allowing access to gold-bearing paydirt. They also built sluice boxes to channel stream water over gravel, and then they panned the resulting slurry until the heavy gold flakes (or sometimes nuggets) fell to the bottom. It was a tough life, and for the most part the miners' suppliers (butchers, bakers, candlestickmakers, boardinghouse keepers, shovel sellers) were the only ones who hit the mother lode and retired rich. Some hardy folks still pan for gold on Alaska's creeks and rivers, and the process hasn't been modernized much (although they do use astroturf to catch the gravel that falls out of the sluiceboxes.) After a demonstration of the miner's art, the whole trainload of us was turned loose to try our luck. No backbreaking labor for us, though; we were handed canvas bags of paydirt guaranteed to contain gold flecks. No icy Alaska stream, either (the piped in water was heated to nearly lukewarm), no rain running down our necks (tourist panning takes place in a covered pavillion), no squatting on a river rock (benches are provided). We sloshed and sluiced and swirled and separated the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. OOH! Is that a big nugget? Nope, iron pyrites (fool's gold). A flake? (alas, mica). Our efforts were, as guaranteed, rewarded. My husband and I panned quite a few flakes of gold, and it really is bright in the bottom of the pan. The mine folks obligingly weigh each person's gold, based on that day's stock market price. Ours added up to $18; never mind that it cost us more than twice that, apiece, for the privilege. We were cleverly trooped through the gift shop, where successful panners are able to have their gold flakes turned into earrings, necklaces, tie pins, etc. There is little doubt who has the gold mine here. Still, it was more fun that I expected and I have the earrings to prove it. What does this have to do with writing? Plenty. I realized how the process of panning gold is similar to writing, but without wading in frigid streams or sitting on muddy boulders. First, an idea (strike and claim). Sift through the paydirt (first draft). Check the pan for color (critique group). Swirl more water (later drafts). Check again for gold flakes (critique group again or maybe your agent). Slosh and swirl and sift some more, until all that remains in the pan is bright, yellow gold (finished manuscript). May all your writing efforts be golden.
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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