Friday, January 30, 2009

Caught Between Paper and Bits: Scene Breaks

As a self-publisher who wants his stories to be spread far and wide and available in all markets, I have been spending an uncomfortable amount of time struggling with the ebook formats.  I wish I could love them as much as some of my readers do.

I think my problem is that I've fallen in love with the craft of making books.  Working seven day weeks endlessly turning my manuscripts into bound paper copies that are as good or better than my competition on the bookshelves, I've learned so much this past couple of years.  I've learned publisher lore, and that's a different thing than what a reader consciously sees.

Let's take one example; scene breaks.  Everyone knows what words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are.  But if you mention a scene break, the person across the table nods, but has a puzzled look in their eyes.  I guess it's because it isn't really taught in school.  Let me explain, at the risk of causing other writer's eyes to glaze over.

A scene can be thought of as a sub-chapter.  Something changes in the narrative; time passes, the viewpoint character has shifted; the pacing of the action has abruptly shifted.  Now, if a reader is scanning down the page, paragraph by paragraph, and there is no visual cue that the scene has shifted, then an action description of Jane's actions may be confused with Dick's, leading to the reader stumbling over the words and being knocked out of the story.  But sometimes, you don't really want a big sub-chapter heading that might in itself distract the reader.  The publisher needs a more subtile way to cue the reader that something has changed.

Now, for decades, I've been writing manuscript format, leaving such details to the publishing side of the house.  I write my paragraphs and then when I need a scene break I leave '###' centered on a line by itself between one scene and the next. Writers and editors know what that means and it serves the purpose.

Ink on paper has hundreds of years practice dealing with this problem and one very common solution is the dropped cap.  The very first letter of the new scene is enlarged and shifted down so that the paragraph is still block-shaped.  There is often additional white space between the scenes as well.  The cute thing is that this method is so common that it's invisible to readers on the conscious level, but they know something has changed, which is exactly its purpose.

Now comes the problem of converting this manuscript into ebook formats that are light on formatting options.  In fact, having the reader in control of font sizes and general formatting is one of the benefits of the electronic book media.  Tools that used to be the domain of the publisher to be used to make a smooth and elegant reading experience, are now tools the reader needs to make tiny screens readable in poor lighting situations.  And what's worse, the formatting possibilities are different from one ebook format to the next.  From the publisher's perspective, you can't make a good looking ebook.  It's not possible.  Most readers aren't even aware that there's a problem.  

So back to the scene break.  How to give that subtile cue to the reader?  Most of the automatic book converter tools I've tried end up stripping scene breaks.  Unless you care about confusing the reader, you'll have to wade through the converted text and page by page, fix up the scene break; possibly by putting back a variation of that '###' that the manuscript had in the beginning  and hope the reader doesn't stumble over it.

In fact, conversion straight from manuscript to ebook is easier than reusing the paper formatted version.  The typewriter has many of the same limitations as the ebook; no font changes for example.  I've spent time developing InDesign conversion tools that, in fact, can convert my carefully crafted print books back into a version that will convert more easily to ebook formats, but this is just a stop-gap measure.  Kindle and it's like aren't there yet, but some day, maybe soon, ebook readers will find a way to allow publishers to use the hundreds of years of refined craft on the same pocket platform that will allow users to change text size and look to their heart's content.

And then, I'll have to convert my books to work in that market as well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Podcasting: Bumps in the Road

I'm glad I got ahead of my posting schedule and have a number of chapters of Falling Bakward ready to go, because yesterday I came down with a cold and sore throat and I don't feel like reading anything out loud.  I was working out in the RV yesterday and it was cold.  While I've got a powerful heater out there, it is also much to noisy to run while recording, so the day was swinging hot to cold and back again as I worked through a number of episodes.
In addition, the new iLife software came in and I blindly loaded it up.  While the new Garageband looks and works just like the one before (it looks a little different, as you can see) the changes to iWeb were enough so that my entire site needed to be reposted to the hosting server.  I suppose they changed all their javascript and CSS libraries under the hood, because the pages still look the same.  
The combination of a marathon posting session over my erratic network, plus changes to my photos because of iPhoto changes, meant I was fussing with the tools more than I was concentrating on the content.  
It has occurred to me that this podcast is taking a lot more time than I thought it would. Reading the novel aloud just for finding errors shouldn't take nearly as long as this process of reading one chapter, fussing with the podcast format and posting it to the web, and then repeat.  At least the important task of finding awkward phrases is still being accomplished.  But I fear the combined delays will push my publication date out a week or so.
I also have one other worry.  I didn't give any real thought as to how long I'll leave the novel up as podcast chapters.  It is a pre-publication version after all, and I'm hardly a professional voice actor.  Maybe I should just leave it up for a month or so after publication, I don't know.  Any feedback would be appreciated.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Easier Than I Thought - Podcasting on My Mac

This will all change within hours, maybe.  My iLife 09 should arrive shortly with a new version of Garageband and a new iWeb.  I just hope it's easy to shift gears, because I'm getting comfortable making my podcast episodes this way.  

What I've learned using Garageband to record the podcast:  
  • There's this Podcast Track up at the top and when you click on it, you can add chapter markers and pictures that could be synchronized with the audio, not that I have any pictures other than the cover of the novel.  That's where you enter the episode title and comments, etc.
  • When you click on the Male Voice track, you can set the audio characteristics to match your microphone; in this case "iSight Microphone Male".
  • Use the 'z' key to move your track position to zero, and click the circular record button.  Talk until you run out of words or until you have to stop because the words need to be edited, or you have a coughing fit, or because Mary Ann opens the door of the RV and greets you.  Click the play arrow to stop both the recording and the progress of the play position.
  • To trim off the bad stuff at the end by moving the play position back a little with the mouse and playing the recording until you find the pause before the wrong stuff.  With the audio track highlighted, press command-T to split it into two chunks.  Click elsewhere and then back on the bad part to highlight it, and press  the delete key.
  • Make sure your play position is at the end of the good stuff, press the record button again and wait less than a second until it begins to record again and pick up where you left off.
  • When the episode is finished, I've been stretching or compressing the Podcast Track to match the audio track.  If it's too long, you'll end up with lots of dead air after you've finished talking.
  • I save the Garageband session, and use Share/Export Podcast to Disk... to make a local copy of the actual podcast file.  At the right moment in the distribution schedule, I use Share/Send Podcast to iWeb to package up the episode and add it to the Podcast file in iWeb.  I edit the podcast episode's page lightly and then push the Publish button in iWeb.
  • When I start a new chapter/episode, I reuse the old Garageband file, but I have to make sure I delete all the audio fragments and edit the podcast details afresh.
  • In iWeb, I've set the number of episodes to keep to 50 so that I can have all of the chapters there when late-comers show up to listen to the novel.  Otherwise the earlier chapters would drop off as new ones arrived. 
And that's about it.  Really pretty simple, given that I already had a iWeb/MobilMe account with Garageband and iWeb.

And I was pessimistic when I started this.  My iLife '09 arrived as I was making this blog entry.  I'll let you know if anything has changed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Falling Bakward Podcast

My throat is sore, the result of today's mashup.  First, I admit, I've wanted to do a podcast for about two years now, but  I've never been brave enough to attempt it.  Secondly, today is the tile people's day to come replace the carpet in the flooded bathroom with tile.  I could work through the smell of the stain and the noise of the wood saws, but I couldn't bear the high pitched ceramic saws.  Third, publication day is approaching for Falling Bakward and I have to do my final read-aloud to chase out the bad bits before I commit it to paper.

So, I picked up my draft copy and my laptop and retired to the RV–a nice quiet place to work.  Quiet enough to risk recording while I read the text out loud.  My new laptop came with Photo Booth, which is a cute little photo and movie recording program.  I thought, "why not?".  

I opened the pages and started recording.  By the time I'd finished chapter 2, I realized that this just wasn't going to work.  Photo Booth is cute, but it's a toy program really.  The recording had dropped out twice, so I ended up reading the same chunk of text again to fill in the missing parts.

Time to move up to Garageband.  This was a real recording program, with filters to match the iChat microphone on my laptop and podcast support.  Luckily, I was able to move the Photo Booth recordings into Garageband as well, so I didn't have to re-read those chapters still again.  (I went Photo Booth to iPhoto, drag out of iPhoto, export audio with Quicktime Player and then drag the aiff file into Grarageband.  Probably there's a lot easier way to do it, but I wasn't after a workflow, just a one time conversion.)

Diving into Garageband with no instruction, I made a couple of errors before I learned how to slice and dice the audio tracks, and I made still more errors in exporting the podcast episodes into iWeb.  But before too long I had recorded an intro and the first three chapters, posted them to the web and felt confident that I could keep it up until the novel was finished.

Of course, my throat is sore, and it will take a number of days to get everything recorded.  And yes, my printout has lots of ink marks where this name gets changed to that, and this awkward description is re-worked.  We'll see just how this experiment works out.  I just hope the quality is good enough.  I'll also have to decide how long to leave it up.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Interesting Flare?

I was idly playing with Google Maps a moment ago and zoomed into the Gregerson's house at Namwianga Mission in Zambia (just south of Kalomo) and was surprised to see that their house had been removed as if by a knife scrape on a film emulsion. I'm sure that's the place. I recognize their yard and their garden across the road. It's just another quirk of the global mapping database. I suppose it could be a sunflare from their metal roof or even some kind of crude security mask, but I suspect it's just an accidental injury to an aerial photo or something like that.

Update: The more I look at it the more it does look like a sun flare.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Will the Mike Gonzo Books Still be Available?

I was reading the Publisher's Weekly article on the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and thinking about the ramifications. Just how likely is it that all children's books have been banned as a side affect of a well-meaning product safety law? My own titles have been targeted to "Ages 12 and up" so I might be affected as well. Will all the books I have sitting on bookstore shelves be trashed come February to protect the store owner from ruinous law suits? Probably I should start the process of changing that little marketing blurb to "Ages 13 and up" just to be sure.

But what about real children's books? How many lawyers out there are advising their clients to play it safe and get rid of all those un-certified books?

This could be a bigger impact on book selling than the Thor ruling, unless something happens soon.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

My Secret Christmas Wish

As Christmas came and went, a selfish thought came to me several times, although I resisted the urge to twitter it.

"All I want for Christmas is a good book review."

Well, silent and unexpressed as it was, my wish came true today with a lovely, lovely review of Emperor Dad on the TeleRead site. The theme of the site appears to be ebooks, and Chris Meadows has commented several times on this blog and has been a spur getting me to extend the range of formats I'm publishing.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Scent of Stupidity

When dusk made it too hard to see the water birds, Mary Ann came back up from where she'd parked the Trailblazer and reported that she'd run the battery low and the car wouldn't start.  A little later I drove the Jeep down to the pond and rummaged in the back seat for some jumper cables I thought I'd left back there from the last time we'd needed them.  Sure enough, I saw a tangle of black and red thick cables and teased the bundle free from the towing strap and the control cable for the winch and began hooking up the clamps.  

I'd jump started cars too many times to count and I thought I knew all the tricks.  Experience and a healthy respect for my own intelligence led me quickly though the steps.  I hooked up the stranded car's battery first.  Headlights and my iPhone's screen gave me enough light to be confident that I was connecting red to red on the battery and black to black. Then I went over to the Jeep and connected the cables there, seeing a spark and a dimming of the headlights.  Boy, the Trailblazer's battery must be really dead.

I got in and tried to start it.  Just a flicker of lights and solenoid clatter.  It was as if I weren't connected at all.  I got out to check, and saw immediately that something was wrong.  Smoke shouldn't be billowing off the cables like that.  Nope.  That didn't look right.  In fact the cables were glowing red and insulation was dripping off them.  The scent of burning insulation was strong.

Not quite stupid enough to grab the cable clamps to disconnect them with my bare hands, I snatched the clamps from the Trailblazer and used them like pliers to tug the connection free from the Jeep.  Luckily the glowing wires didn't start the dry grass on fire.

I quick investigation in the dark showed me my problem.  There had been two sets of jumper cables, both with the same red and black color scheme, tangled together.  I had connected one set to the Trailblazer and the other to the Jeep.  Unfortunately, the Jeep side unused connectors had been connected together, so I'd just put a dead short across that battery.

Sure that I'd avoided a fire, I got the Trailblazer started the right way just in time to avoid looking like a total idiot when my son-in-law came over to see what I was doing.

What should I have done better?  I should have untangled the jumper cables, at least enough to notice that I was dealing with two sets there in the dark.  And I should have listened to that slight nag that happened when I connected the Jeep side and noticed that the clamps on that end weren't exactly the same as those on the Trailblazer side.

But I'll take being lucky.  All I lost was a set of jumper cables.  And I gained another story to tell.