Friday, January 30, 2015

Before It Slips Away: Memory Tools for Authors and Organizers

A digital voice recorder on my bed stand ready to capture my brilliant thoughts.

It's inevitable that your best ideas will come when you are nowhere near a computer or your preferred writing tools. You could be barreling down the Interstate when the title for a future book, a new plot twist on a current one, or an entire awesome sentence comes to mind. And if you're like me, it will quickly fade away like the detailed nuances of a morning dream.

The solution is simple: Get a voice recorder. These have to be handiest tools for anyone who wants to capture the muse before she goes on the lam. Sure some smartphones have apps with voice recording capabilities, but in the time that it takes to fire up that app, your brain synapses could misfire and alter your original awesome thoughts. Split-second timing is essential.

I personally use two Olympus voice recorders that I purchased years ago. I keep one in the car, and one on my bed stand. Many of my ideas come while I'm driving, and I am definitely not one to take my eyes off the road with a cell phone. So I have one recorder neatly tucked into the center coin tray of my Hyundai Santa Fe. It takes less than two seconds for me to reach down, press record, and transform my brilliant ideas into ones and zeros. Other ideas come while I'm resting, so one in the house near my bed or within easy reach anywhere inside helps out.

One in my car in the center console. Easy to get to, seconds to record.

The best part about these digital note takers is that they store each recording separately. The counters show you how many notes you have so you can forward through and review them later. Some even allow you to download the recordings to your computer as separate audio files via a USB connection. But I prefer to just review them on the recorder at a later date and delete each one once the task, or idea, has been taken care of. Why make more work?

Here are some of the ways I've used these recorders:

1. Ideas for book titles ("Call the book People Who Need To Die")
2. Ideas for book concepts ("Write a book of easy-to-understand poetry")
3. Catching mistakes in draft manuscripts ("Page 138 her should be here")
4. Promotion ideas ("Post the open-mic videos on Write By The Rails")
5. Events ("Contact the bookstore to see if I can do a book signing around Christmas")

And on and on. Grocery lists, even. Taking notes at a meeting, etc. Recording your subject for an interview (with approval, of course).

I've also found these recorders handy to just record what I'm thinking. For instance, for my book In Search of Good Times, I recorded a few minutes of me talking through the plot points of the book and what the main character Joe might go through on his journey across the country. Sort of thinking out loud while recording it at the same time. Listening to it play back helped me keep the focus of the book to my original passionate idea. It was like digital therapy. And free.

And the best thing about these little buddies, no wasted paper. Batteries last for months, too. Typically they take two AAA. Here is one of the least expensive Olympus voice recorders now on Amazon with great reviews. Well worth the purchase! Vic

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Friday, January 23, 2015

1/16/2015: Open-Mic Night at Grounds Central Station

Sit back with your favorite beverage and enjoy five readings from authors at Open-Mic Night at Grounds Central Station in Manassas, Virginia.

The next open-mic night is scheduled for Friday, February 20, from 7-9 p.m. Be there!

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

'People Who Need To Die' Book Video Trailer

How fun it was to create this 30-second video trailer for my new book. Enjoy! Please share with the button below. The book is available on Amazon at

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Monday, January 12, 2015

'People Who Need To Die' Book Kills with Future Technology

(Washington, D.C.) January 12, 2015 -- The future is not bright for the annoying and obnoxious people of the world in the satirical horror-story collection 'People Who Need To Die,' authored by award-winning filmmaker Victor Rook. In fact, it's downright deadly. Bad drivers, cell phone addicts, spammers, cyberbullies, litterbugs, horrible bosses, mean neighbors, and Black Friday shoppers are just a few of the many groups who meet their bitter end in 2021, when the governments of the world decide that thirty percent of the population needs to go. Get your application approved and you're free to kill offenders of your choice within the year. Think of it as 'The Purge' with a purpose.

As well as snuffing out social misconduct, this nine-story collection also puts a spotlight on technological advances: self-driving cars, drones, advanced GPS devices, taser wristbands, superhuman drugs, and the Internet underbelly known as the DeepNet. Even Alan Turing's artificial intelligence test is referenced. "Though the stories happen just six years into the future, I wanted to predict what we may see in the world at that time," says Rook.

'Cell Phonies' short story
In the short story "Cell Phonies," Rook predicts that not only will cell phone usage be allowed on all planes inflight, but that abstaining passengers will have to pay extra to sit in a cell-phone-free section. "It's that bleak outlook that makes people want to kill the bad seeds," he adds. In that story, a former prison guard, a vigilante, and an app developer each come up with creative ways to eradicate obnoxious cell phone users. 

"All the stories have a satirical edge to them, but some, like 'Internet Trolls,' which deals with cyberbullying, I took very seriously, " adds Rook. "People may be shocked on how I handle trolls in that piece."
'Spammers' short story
In "Spammers," a man and a woman who fall victim to online SPAM scams join together to rid the world of those cyber menaces. Another story, "Terror Garden," is about a sweet, elderly woman and how she deals with mean neighbors. "That was a fun one to write," says Rook. "I'm sure a lot of readers will relate to having awful people living in close proximity to them."

Reception to the new book has been more than positive. Pulitzer prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales lent his name to the book's cover and describes the stories as "Clever, funny, shocking, and cheerfully vindictive." "A gentleman visiting from Florida told me I was his hero at the first book signing at McKay Used Books in Manassas, Virginia." Rook laughs. "People love the title." Patricia Petitt, owner of The Man Cave in Old Town Manassas, writes in her Amazon review of the book, "I can truly say that there are many out there who have, at one time or another, had the same diabolical thoughts about the most irritating and inconsiderate people. I love that it is futuristic and that it could really happen!"

'People Who Need To Die' is available at, Barnes & Noble, and

Author Bio:

Victor Rook has produced several award-winning films, as well as written and edited several books. His nature film 'Beyond the Garden Gate' aired on PBS for four years and won two Telly awards. Other books include 'In Search of Good Times,' a story about a man who believes that the TV sitcom families from "All in the Family" and "Good Times" are real, and 'Musings of a Dysfunctional Life,' a humorous and poignant compilation of everyday mid-life musings. 

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Crop and Slop: How Facebook and other social media companies destroy image presentation

This is a pet peeve that I and probably every other graphic designer, photographer, image creator, and avid online poster share—the way graphics are handled in online posts. Facebook sucks at it, not only in posts, but even in the way they handle advertisements. They're not the only culprit, just about every online entity has its own image foibles, but for this blog post, we'll target the biggie.

Let's start with over-compression

I'm a photographer. I take sharp, detailed images. And when I share them with friends and potential clients, I'd like those images to be seen somewhat close to the quality I uploaded them at. But more often than not, they transform into these blurred, low-grade representations of the originals. The compression is often so bad that I have to upload the same image to my own web host provider and share a link to it in my post: "Click here to see it sharper." But it's not only compression.

As far as I can tell at the time of this posting, landscape images that are 362 pixels wide or wider will be stretched (or shrunk) to fit the 470-pixel-wide image box. All others will maintain their original size. Got that down to memory? 'Cause it might change tomorrow.

Oddly enough, it has been pointed out in blogs and among avid posters that loading a .png version instead of a .jpg version will result in less quality loss. It's a strange workaround because .png files are often four or more times larger in file size than .jpgs. So, apparently, this is not a storage problem.

Cropping photos into long boxes is a no-no

Whenever I enter a link to a book on Amazon, it no longer appears as a thumbnail of the full cover on the left, and the title and description on the right. Now, virtually all shares stretch the image into that oblong 470-pixel-wide box and/or crop it in the middle somewhere. Not only is this displeasing, it's misleading. And most people aren't going to spend the time to click on the link to see the image in full. What's that saying, "First impressions count"? Unfortunately, users may see it as a fault on my part. The workaround is to load the image separately and remove the link preview text. Why do we have to work so hard to share something properly?

The workaround: Paste link, remove preview image, and upload your own.

The Shared Thumbnail: Your guess is as good as mine

Left: Some random ad from the page. Right: The correct image that should have been chosen.

When sharing a link to any story, Facebook randomly chooses an image on that page that it thinks should represent the story. Sometimes, but not always, it will allow you to click through and select other images on that same page to be the thumbnail representative. The algorithm uses a strange height-to-width ratio to determine which photos should be the chosen ones. But often times it ignores the image you really want featured. And if you clear the post and try again, you may get something else. I've even seen the post preview show one image, but another image once submitted. Who programmed this thing?

Again, presentation destroyed.

A word or two on Facebook cover images

Reworking image and text on a Facebook cover to not be "covered" by title and activity buttons.

Who in the hell at Facebook decided that 851 x 315 pixels should be the image size for a profile cover? And why in the hell is the cover image for a group page different? Last we checked the proper dimensions were 748 x 250 pixels. How about you make all cover images 800 x 250 and call it a day?

For those of us who heeded those peculiar dimensions and painstakingly formatted our artwork to fit it, we all got a big surprise in early 2014. Facebook decided that the page titles (your name or designation) and edit buttons should overlay on top of that image instead of appearing below it as in the past. Billions of users watched their covers get messy overnight. Text overlayed on top of graphic text. Sometimes the cold white font of the page title disappeared into a light background. Or the buttons to the right covered up important features of said Facebook cover.

Once again, presentation destroyed. Back to recreating the cover image for billions of people.

Sorry, Facebook, your advertising box sucks

Facebook really likes that oblong box, don't they? So much so that they designated the dimension size for user-submitted ads to be 1200 x 628, which would be resized to fit placement. Cropping is determined by what platform it is viewed on: Desktop News, Right Column, or Mobile Feed.

Well, I thought I'd advertise my new book, People Who Need To Die. This is quite the challenge: how to fit a tall box—a book cover—into a long box. I certainly don't want the cover cropped to the middle as in posts. The obvious choice was to place the book cover on the left, and some text on the right. But Facebook has a rule: no more than 20% of the image can include text. My ad was declined.

Ad rejected because of more than twenty percent text.

So I had to go with the above photo of me holding the book, albeit, with much of the book title cropped out. We're not all trying to sell food recipes, Mr. Zuckerberg.

Presentation destroyed. Possible revenue lost.

My suggestions:

I don't believe in complaining about something unless I can offer a solution. So here we go.

1. Choose a better jpeg compression algorithm, or compress less. It's all about presentation.

2. Don't crop images. It's that simple. Make the best possible width for landscape images 500 pixels (easy to remember) and 500-pixels high for portrait, and be done with it. Those who care about image quality will heed those dimensions.

3. Allow any image on a shared page to be the thumbnail representative. Let the user make the decision, since it is the user's post or share.

4. Make the dimensions for all Facebook covers 800 x 250 pixels. Put the page title text and edit buttons back where they were pre-2014: below the image.

5. Allow ad images to fit into a box size where text can be placed anywhere, and/or allow the submitted text to wrap around the image within that box. And have it look exactly the same regardless of what platform or device it is viewed on.

It always surprises me when users have to post secret tips and workarounds for poorly designed products. Share this blog post and, hopefully, Mark Zuckerberg and his twentysomething Bohemian coders will work a little more common sense into their programs.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Do You Fondle Your Book?

Let's face it. You've been intimate with your book since the day you put pen to pad, or typed the first keystroke. So why not get intimate with another way?

Seriously, I have a confession to make. And I'm fairly certain I'm not alone. I sometimes grab one of the printed copies of my published books and give it a little smooch. I nuzzle up to it like a new lover. I lick its spine, caress the pages, and sniff the printed ink. What I mean, actually, is I flip through it and take pride in the accomplishment.

Writing a book is no easy task. You wade through outlines, research notes, Google searches, and days of mindless desperation.  With a lot of gumption and loads of personal sacrifice, you come up with a first draft...if you're lucky. Then you let it sit for a bit—marinate, I like to call it—then tackle it again in round two. You make edits, change plot lines, tie up loose ends, rewrite entire sections, add, subtract, and batter through it until you think it's almost perfect. But, it never is.

You rinse and repeat this process several times until you just can't stand the sight of it anymore. That means you're almost done. A couple more passes for typos, reviews from colleagues, and if all is good, you format it for printing...or give it to someone else to do it for you. Then you send it off to the printers and wait for that first box of copies to arrive.

I always take a picture of the first shipment of books.

Finally, you release that little sucker out into the cold, lovely world. You do book signings, if that's your thing, send copies to family members (who you've guilted into buying it), and sometimes you get so caught up in getting it out there that you don't even keep a copy around for yourself. I usually grope the proof copy, since I don't want to damage the merchandise. And I can get pretty rough.

I encourage every writer to find a space in his or her home to proudly display your published books. It's not an ego thing—never think of it that way—but more of a visual sign that you did, indeed, persevere through the process. Plus, it's a nice reminder while writing your next book that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

And get intimate with it, whenever you can. Because good books and good stories always love you back.

Order People Who Need To Die and In Search of Good Times here.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Snow Day" music video by Victor Rook

We had our first snow here in Virginia today, and it got me in the mood to post this video I put together a few years ago. The music is by composer Kevin MacLeod. Enjoy!

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