March 27, 2010

Getting Hacked and a WordPress Back Door

Filed under: Web Design — admin @ 7:56 pm

Imagine my consternation this morning when I opened my blog page to discover I had been hacked by some group claiming to be Turkish Islamic Terrorists. My wordpress database was gone, or so I thought.

Apparently, there is a back door that WordPress admins should be aware of. In the wp-config.php file, there are four special lines of code that need to have unique data in them, or the wordpress database itself can be open to attack. I’ve no clue how this actually works, yet. But the good folks at Fatcow.com, my web hosting provider, got me back online quickly, and provided a terrific link to another blog that had the info I needed to protect myself from this permanently. That entry is at idratherbewriting.

Good luck to all you blog admins out there, and thanks to the support staff at Fatcow.

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March 18, 2010

Taxes, and Chasing the Rabbit Down the Hole

Filed under: A Writing Journal,Writing — Brian Triber @ 2:03 pm

April 15 is just about here. Once again, the better part of a week has been spent shuffling together receipts and organizing them for the tax accountant. The remarkable thing about this exercise is not just the discovery of what can’t be taken as a deduction, but what can be taken as a deduction.

First, a quick disclaimer: I am not, nor have ever been a tax consultant or attorney. The following is my experience. Any tax questions should be addressed to a tax professional. Milage may vary.

While writing may not currently be my primary source of income, it is certainly my primary occupation. I don’t get paid enough for the work I put in, and I’m working toward changing that. It is not a hobby either. I’ve invested uncounted hours at the keyboard and lost numerous hairs that might have turned gray at some point over the craft.

In this argument lies my claim for writing expenses to be used as itemized deductions. But tax code is never as clear as it should be. I’ve been confused by what the IRS and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DoR) will allow for deductions. I have learned, basically, one must err on the conservative side. As long as ongoing work for a project can be demonstrated, expenses can be itemized and deducted.

So the real question becomes, how much can I deduct in writing expenses? The basic answer is anything up to my income, as long as it can be justified as writing-related. I’m allowed to have more writing expenses than income as long as it can be shown that work is ongoing, and not just a hobby.

This comes with a caveat. Certain research materials may not be deductible, because they weren’t used in any works. If I purchased a book, say, on 19th century ice cream manufacturing, and didn’t use any of the material in my writing, it becomes very difficult to justify the expense as writing-related. Other books, however, like fiction works by other authors like Kurt Vonnegut could be argued to be legitimate expenses for keeping my skills up and being aware of the field, but it’s made easier when I write commentary and post it on my web site for all to see, since my web site is also a marketing tool for my career (which, by the way, is also entirely deductible, including the software I use to design the graphics and the web hosting fee I pay each year.) The point is to try not to purchase more material than you think you’ll use in that year. And if someone knows that trick, please tell me.

Last year I deducted a research trip to Omaha. That means I was able to take the gas expenses, hotel expenses, and museum admissions off my taxes. Theoretically I could have taken my meals as well, but only listed those that I knew I had conducted business at, such as interviewing people over coffee, etc. At the same time, I wouldn’t have been able to deduct anything from the trip if none of my experiences made it into my manuscript. To prove use of the trip as a business expense, I’ve saved a copy of a pre-trip manuscript, and a copy of the post-trip manuscript, complete with descriptions of the midwest, the perfume counter at Dillard’s at the Crossroads Mall, and the varieties of pie at the Village Inn. (This was a cinch, since I keep electronic copies of all versions of my work.)

Another example is last year’s Muse and the Marketplace conference. The cost of the conference, the parking at the train station, and the ride in on the train can all be deducted in my case, because I work from home, and therefore any travel expense is conference-related. The key is keeping the evidence that the trip is work related. I took extensive notes on the sessions I attended, saved all the handouts with markups, put contact names into my address book, and bound the whole package and filed it away. Further evidence is that the meeting I had with the agent, and her feedback, were incorporated in my manuscript, and I’ve kept all email correspondence with her, as well as a developed query letter that benefited from further markups.

Other expenses that can be taken as deductions include things like books used as research, museum admissions, office supplies, office equipment, repairs to the equipment, and postage. And my $35 copyright fee from the Library of Congress.

Things that I decided not to press my luck on, although I understand I could justify them as writing expenses, include the haircut I got right before my presentation to the agent, since I was also partly courting her to represent me; the square footage of my office, and associated utility costs, because although I use the desk, computer and space as my only space for writing, it’s in my bedroom, and I also pay bills and sleep at it; a percentage of my vehicle maintenance and gas costs, because I haven’t really calculated what percentage of its use is for research and marketing. (The exception to this was the Omaha trip, because I knew the whole trip was for writing research.)

So, for preparation during the course of the year, it’s important to retain every last receipt. Mark up copies of utility and phone bills with the percentage of cost used for the business. And keep everything filed away neatly for reference for April 15.

The tax lessons continue as time goes on. Many of them I already knew from running a theater company in Boston for 4 years. Some are new, like how to keep careful track of every receipt, catalog them, and store them in case the IRS or DoR decides to audit, for the undetermined future, because unlike the rest of the law, the revenue code has no statute of limitations, and once one year’s taxes are audited, several others are likely to follow.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to develop this web site as a marketing tool for my writing, and write reviews and comments on books for the blog, and deduct those costs as well. Now, can I deduct the cost of a massage for tax-related stress relief?

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March 8, 2010

Thomas Jefferson’s Library at the Library of Congress

Filed under: Book Discussion,Writing — Brian Triber @ 10:08 am

A note of interest. The United States Library of Congress, those clever cutting-edge librarians in Washington DC, have just made available the catalog for Thomas Jefferson’s Library online. While the books themselves are rare, and not available for online browsing, they are linked to the LoC card catalog, which gives full descriptions of each. Still, it’s interesting to thumb through the categories, and titles like “Experiments and observations on electricity, made at Philadelphia in America” by Benjamin Franklin, “The History of Chess, together with short and plain instructions any one may easily play at it without the help of a teacher” by Robert Lambe, and “Hermes or A Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Universal Grammar” by James Harris, Esq., to discover the kind of works that made our third President tick.

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March 7, 2010

WordPress Theme Modified

Filed under: Web Design — admin @ 4:31 pm

So, as you may have noticed, the blog portion of my website is starting to look more like my home pages. I’m only starting to crack the code of how WordPress uses style sheets to format the content, and I haven’t even begun to experiment with queries, but this is a pretty good first step.

One odd thing I noticed while working with the style sheet (style.css) in the theme is that while the styles for the header, body, and menu frames of the page are defined as “.style-name”, the styles for the footer are defined in the “#style-name” format, which affects the manner in which the style is called, depending on wether the style sheet is included in the header of the page, or if a call is made as a class inside a tag. As soon as I figure out more about the reasoning behind this, I’ll post a little more info.

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March 3, 2010

The Gulls’ Lament

Filed under: Writing Sample — Brian Triber @ 1:41 am

One of my first completed works, The Gulls’ Lament was written first as a poem in 1994, then expanded into a one-act that was produced as part of the 1994 Playwrights Platform Festival of New Plays.

For information on the production, click here.

For the original poem, click here.

For the script in its entirety, click here.

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March 1, 2010

The Box of Death

Filed under: Writing — Brian Triber @ 10:20 am

We’ve all seen it before: an amateur performance of Shakespeare or Neil Simon at a community or high school auditorium. The actor stands center stage, delivering Hamlet’s existential “To be or not to be…” speech, and his arms flail, he paces the stage like a caged animal, and the meaning and intensity of what should be a pivotal scene of the play is lost.

The same thing can happen to your writing. The hero is at the pivotal moment of the story, about to seize the damsel in distress from the clutches of the evil Doctor Devious when he spots his long lost knuffle-bunny on Devious’ trophy shelf. A million thoughts run through the hero’s mind, but only one runs through the reader’s — why is the writer derailing the story with all this unnecessary detail?

What am I talking about? Unnecessary descriptors. These are those marvelous turns of phrase that sprout up in the first draft and have to be weeded with a blow torch. Even though they may appear to grow into a flower of indescribable beauty, they’re really poisonous vines that trip the reader up and choke the life out of the story. Here’s an example:

There, on Doctor Devious’ shelf, caked with a fine layer of silver residue and nestled among the ample dust bunnies, sat another bunny — Jake, Dirk’s long-lost childhood knuffle-bunny, his ears ravaged by mammoth moths, droopily shielding his eyes from the imminent death of his former owner.

So, how is this problem solved? In theater, one way we solve all the wasted energy is to use a game called the “Box of Death.” In our version, a box about a foot square is chalked onto the floor, and the actor stands in the center. He or she then performs the same scene they have just flailed about, but are not allowed to leave the box or raise their arms upon penalty of death (or a good fifteen minute timeout.) The result is a more concentrated performance. Without all of the emotional energy draining away from the scene in unfocused movements, the actor’s voice becomes stronger, more intense, and the lines become more believable. Then, movement can be added back in, but only planned, intentional movement that visually echoes or amplifies the scene.

This method can be applied to writing. The Box of Death, instead of being chalked onto the floor, is inked onto the page, around the subject, noun, and object in the sentence. Only as many words as necessary are added inside the box to get the sentence across, and descriptors are eliminated except where they are needed to make the sentence work in context of the paragraph, the page, and the story. The resulting sentence has gigawatts more energy, drawing the reader through to the next sentence:

Dirk gasped. His long-lost knuffle-bunny peered at him beneath a layer of dust from Doctor Devious’s book shelf.

Cleaner? Yes. More tension? Yes. More movement? Yes.

Next time you find your story bogged down, think about what’s really necessary to tell the story, and use the Box of Death to resurrect your story’s momentum.

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