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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Styles and formatting in Scrivener 3 part 1—basic introduction

Welcome back! 😃 I hope everyone's summer is progressing well. Here in Tucson, it's hot and dry and that's just fine by me!

Today, I will briefly cover text styling in general, and point out some cool features in Scrivener version 3 that are different from version 2 (and 1).

Text Styling in general

First, what I mean by "text styling" is the option in certain applications to modify settings for the editable text in a document. In general, this is the font family (and the specific font in a family), font point size, font weight, text justification, and other information that describes what the text looks like on the page, either on screen or printed or both. Not all applications offer this ability.

The way I see it, there are basically two categories of applications for people who want to type stuff. One category shows text, as typed, in a fixed font & size or with extremely limited options for formatting text. Commonly, these are referred to as plain text applications, and text editor is probably the most common generic term for these kinds of applications and is the term I use myself. There are text editors of this kind available for every computer platform I know about, some of which are—for all intents and purposes—built into the platforms. Some examples of this are vi, emacs, TextEdit, Notepad, and there are a ton of others. Linux (in its various flavors), Unix (in its various flavors), macOS, Windows, iOS, Android, all of these have at least one, and sometimes several, basic text editors that are part of the default installation of the operating system. By and large, if a text editor can style text at all (and some really can't, or don't), they are usually limited to a very few such stylings. Sometimes the font itself is fixed (only Times, or only Helvetica, etc.) and cannot be resized or given any formatting at all. Most of the time, however, some basic styling is possible. Often, there are limited font choices, and the styling is often limited to a few point sizes, and to bold (strong, in HTML terms), italic (emphasis), or underlined text—the weight of the font. Some basic text editors also offer left/right/center aligned text, and some may also offer justification alignment, where the text is aligned to both left and right margins, with word spacing adjusted per-line so the right-most character of each line is right aligned, just like the left-most character is left aligned.

The second category I usually refer to as word processor applications. These applications nearly always offer a fairly extensive set of tools for formatting characters, words or other grammatical tokens, lines, paragraphs, pages, sections, and documents (collectively, I will refer to these as "text elements"). Most of the time, a word processing application offers the ability to fully control the font, point size, leading, kerning*, typographical weight (bold, italics, strikethrough, and others), and a slew of other settings on each element, individually and collectively. Many word processors also offer basic (or extensive!) page layout options, controlling precisely where text or other elements appear on a page.

Why does this matter?

Well, it depends on what you want to do! If you are using Notepad on a Windows PC to write your novel, and then sending the file to someone else for editing, page layout, book design and so forth, these really don't matter a whole lot. You can pick any application you want, and as long as the editor and other recipients will accept your file, no worries!

Where this really comes into play is for the author who is also an artisanal publisher (thanks to Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch for the phrase, and the outstanding advice from their book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur for this concept), using the tools of the CloudAge™ to publish independently. If you are a writer, and you will be print publishing your novel through IngramSpark, Createspace, FastPencil, KDP Print, or any of several other print publishing services, you'll want to have a keen understanding of how this text styling works, and how to make the version you send look right. Even if you decide not to publish paperbacks, but exclusively use digital services like KDP, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, and others, understanding how to get the styling right will be a big help in formatting for these platforms.

How does this relate to Scrivener?

Although Scrivener does offer extensive text element formatting options (and, as such, I consider it to be, in part, a word processing application … at least in so far as it relates to putting words in documents), it is not (and has never been) an application for final production of written works. It does offer formatting, but certainly not on the level of Adobe InDesign, Quark XPress, or even Microsoft Word. Scrivener aims to give the writer tools to organize, structure, and write their works, and then hand those works off to a more specialized layout program (like those three I listed) by compiling the work in the compile pane, and opening that compiled output in one of those other applications.

As a result, the compile pane offers a tremendous amount of power and flexibility when creating those documents for output. One part of that is support for how text elements are formatted in the compiled document.

Okay, but what does that have to do with Scrivener 3?

In earlier versions of Scrivener, text could be formatted quite extensively, and preset formatting options could be defined and applied ad hoc in a Scrivener project. One limitation of the way Scrivener implemented this formatting in versions 1 and 2 was that these formats were a one-way, one-shot deal. Once applied, the fact that text was formatted with the preset was no longer "known" by Scrivener; all the preset did was allow a set of rules to be applied to the selected text. The text maintained that formatting, but had no idea what preset—if any—had been used to assign that formatting to that text.

In many other word processing applications, these preset formatting rules actually apply a state to the text (or, I guess more accurately they can apply a state, and if no specific state is applied, then the "default" is the assumed state), and that text can report back what state was applied to them. In essence, a concept like a "style sheet" in Microsoft Word is basically just a named state of formatting options, and when a style (named state) is applied to an element, the element "remembers" that named state.

Take Microsoft Word. By default, Word uses a style called "Normal" which defines the formatting for font, point size, character weight (bold etc.), kerning, etc., and applies that formatting to text in the document—unless otherwise specified or overridden. When you select a line of text and then change the style of that text to "Heading 1," not only does the formatting of the text change but so does that state. If you position the cursor in the document where the "Normal" style is applied, "Normal" appears as the selected style, and the same is true of "Heading 1" when the cursor is positioned inside text with that style applied.

Scrivener, in versions 1 and 2, did not have any concept of such "remembered" formatting. Although the formatting of compiled output could be assigned in the Formatting pane, it was still just a one-shot deal.

Scrivener 3, however, now supports styles in a way much more like that of other applications: as a named state that the text "remembers." It also can include information about those styles, including their names, in the compiled document.

The upshot is …

There are really two awesome things that are possible with the new style system in Scrivener 3. Probably the most important is the part where Scrivener will include the styles and their names in the final compiled output in certain formats (when compiling to a Word format, for example). This means that when you create a style for your chapter titles, your block quotes, captions, etc., Scrivener will not only apply the formatting but when you open the Word document later, those styles will show up in the style pane of the ribbon (or in the style window under Format->Style…, at least on the Mac version of Word). This significantly simplifies some aspects of the post-compile workflow. These don't only apply to Word formats, but also to the CSS for EPUB3 as well as Kindle output (according to the pre-release blog entry, at least).

A second upshot is that you can actually have one set of styles for the editor, styles which conform to your needs while creating your work, and a different set of styles for the compilation stage. This was sort of possible before, it's just considerably easier now.

Final thoughts

The inclusion of this new styles system in Scrivener 3 is a welcome addition, and one which I will explore a bit more in part 2. It takes the best writing tool around, and makes it even more awesome. In part 2, I will take you through how to create styles for your Scrivener projects, how to use styles in the editor as well as during compilation, and some things to think about when using the new styles system in Scrivener 3.

What are your thoughts on styles in general? How extensively (or not) have you used them in your works up to now? Just based on the information here, will you be more likely to set up and use the new style system? Let me know in the comments!


*: Leading and kerning, for those who are not familiar with these terms, refer to kinds of spacing. Leading (as in the metal lead, Pb, not /LEE-ding/) comes from typesetting days, when small strips of lead metal were placed between lines of text. Increasing the leading basically means to put more space between lines (or, more accurately, between baselines of text). Kerning is a type of character spacing in proportional fonts. Specifically, it refers to the adjustment between particular character combinations. A character like "W" takes up more visual space at the top than at the bottom, and the letter "A" takes up more space at the bottom than the top. Because of this, the letter combination WA or AW will often have some negative kerning assigned to it, so that these two letters will actually be closer together than will WE or XL (for example). If you look closely at the WA, you can probably see that the bottom of the "A" is actually underneath the top of the "W", whereas the "E" does not overlap the box of the "W" at all. The exact amount of this overlap is the kerning, and is usually defined for certain character combinations (not all combinations need, or could benefit from, kerning). A related concept is that of tracking, which is the spacing between any two characters independent of the kerning. Tracking defines how closely spaced characters are overall, while kerning is basically an offset of the tracking for certain character combinations to be closer together, so as to give a more pleasing reading experience.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Universo Responsoriis 2nd draft update

So, today I sent off the 2nd draft of my SciFi novel (working title: Universo Responsoriis) for editing and review.

I am hopeful that I’ll be able to start the beta reading stage starting at the end of July.

I will post information about how to become a beta reader soon, so if you might be interested, keep an eye out on this space for details!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Brief Scrivener 3 post: Project Metadata in Scrivener 3

I know I promised an updated set of Scrivener posts for version 3 of Scrivener, and I will definitely do that sometime RealSoonNow™. I have been working pretty hard trying to get Universo Responsoriis ready for Beta readers, as well as working my actual job (transcriptions), and haven't has as much time to get to the updates as I had hoped.
I would like to take a few moments to praise the new metadata system in Scrivener 3.

For readers unfamiliar with metadata, in Scrivener at least, here's a basic rundown.

First, the concept is the same as it is for any other use of "metadata," in the sense that it's the data about the data. For example, the "Last Modified Date" of a file is metadata that tracks what date a file was last modified. It is not data inside the file per se, and updates automatically every time the file is modified, usually by the computer's operating system. For a non-computer use, the title and author of a book (say, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson) are basically metadata. They are not part of the story; rather, they identify the work and the person who authored it. Additional metadata, in that case, might be the publisher, the date of copyright, the printing number (for a paper or hardback book), stuff like that.

In Scrivener, a project has quite a lot of metadata, some which are not directly editable (for example, the last modified date and/or time is updated automatically when a file is modified), and some which can be edited. In Scrivener version 1, a writer could add tags for labels, keywords, and status to documents inside a Scrivener project. Among other things, a writer could use the status tags to identify which documents in a project were still to-do, or were 1st draft ready, and so on. Labels could be used to mark whether a document was a scene, a chapter, an idea, and more. Keywords could tag a document's characters, plot arc, point-of-view character or voice, and a bunch more. All three of these features were customizable, and a writer could add labels, keywords, or status entries as they wished.

In version 2 of Scrivener, Literature and Latte added custom metadata to the mix. Custom metadata—which is defined on a per-project basis—serves a similar function to the keyword, status, and label, but in a different way. Although it is possible to include a document's status or label in the compiled document (using the placeholders), only one label or status can be assigned to a document at a time (one of each). A document can have essentially any arbitrary number of keywords, but the keyword placeholder will insert all of the document's keywords. So, while all three of these tools are useful for the writer (and others working on the project, like editors and such), the custom metadata added a whole new dimension of utility.

Say you're writing an historical fiction novel which parallels Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War, written from the perspective of his subordinate Titus Labienus. You want each scene in your novel to start with the date(s) that the scene covers. You could create a bunch of keyword tags, and then apply to each document the tag that corresponds with the scene's date(s). Then you could use the placeholder tag for keywords, and then remember to strip out all of the other keywords from each document just before compiling it: huge headache. Worse, you then lose the data about what other keywords were on the scenes, and have to spend time recreating that if you edit. Not ideal. You could use a Status or Label, and that would work, but then you can't use the Status or Label for other information that really are better suited to that (such as: 1st draft, 2nd draft, to-do, in progress, completed, etc. for the status, and Scene/Chapter/Note/Character/etc. information for labels). Instead, with custom metadata, you create a custom metadata field (let's name it "Scene_Calendar_Dates") and then give that field a specific value. Each document can have its own value for that field, as a text string. When compiling, you can insert placeholders where you want the value for that field to be inserted, then compile the document and hand it to your editor.

This is not just useful for compiling documents, either. Custom metadata fields can be added to the outline view for a project, and the outline can be sorted on the values in those fields (or, just printed/compiled as an outline for review, or included as supplemental material for an editor). Keywords, labels, and statuses can also be added to the outline (which is very handy, too), but each metadata field is treated as a distinct element.

In Scrivener version 3, custom metadata is no longer restricted to being simple text strings. In a blog post (written as Scrivener 3 was being finalized for release), Literature and Latte explains that custom metadata can also hold date fields, checkboxes, or lists, in addition to text strings. A date field (such as that in our historical novel example above) could be populated with the dates that correspond to each scene in the Labienus story, and then placeholder tags put into the document (or in the compile window) for output into the compiled document. In Universo Responsoriis, for example, I have set up certain custom metadata fields as lists (which show up as pop-up menus like the label or status) for things like time of day, or ephemeris settings (since some of the novel involves astronomical information). This makes it easy for me to check which scenes are associated with certain star positions—like, say, would Mars actually be visible in the night sky in this scene?—so I can make sure I have the right information.

What I have found the most useful (so far!) about these new metadata types is that the list types can have their settings changed in multiple files simultaneously, just like the label or status. One way to do that is to shift-click several items in the cork board, then right-click on them. Under the context menu that appears (once you have list-type custom metadata fields created), there will be an "Other Metadata" entry, and each field defined as a list will appear there.

As you might imagine, the possibilities here are quite wide. For example, instead of using keywords for POV or narrative voice, you could create a custom metadata list. When defining the field, set it up as a list type, and then populate the list with each character who has a POV. When you write the scene, select that scene's POV character from the popup list. Easy-peasy! Another option might be to create a list of locations—culled perhaps from the Locations folder under Research?—and select each scene's location from a different metadata popup list.

So, to sum up: Scrivener 1 metadata fine; Scrivener 2 custom metadata finer; Scrivener 3 custom metadata even finer!

I will, at some point, post a step-by-step tutorial on some ways that metadata (of all kinds!) can be tremendously helpful for organizing projects, but I was struck today with just how useful I have found the new custom metadata, and I couldn't wait to share that!

If you've used the new Scrivener 3 metadata features, what have you found the most useful (and least, as well)? What ways are you using these tools, or if you're not using them, what are some things that you find difficult about them?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Scrivener 3 released, new tutorials coming

Today, Literature and Latte released their latest update for Scrivener, version 3.0 (for Macintosh; the Windows version will be released "soonish" and will be pretty much feature-identical with the Mac version).

The new version is a major redesign and features significant changes to compiling documents (among a host of other changes as well).

I haven't had a chance to get into the weeds with it yet, but I will be publishing a new blog series on the compilation in 3. First will be a single blog for upgrading users, pointing out the differences and how to make the new compilation system work for old curmudgeons like myself. After that, I'll put together a logical series for new users.

One thing that promises to be true of version 3: it will be significantly easier for new users to work with, particularly with respect to compiling projects for publication or submissions to editors & agents.

I'm looking forward to figuring it all out, and getting new tutorials posted!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Editing updates July 2017

Just a quick update on the status of the revision of Universo Responsoriis, the Sci-Fi novel with which I originally "won" NaNoWriMo 2015.

I am in the process of rewrites and have the first 42k or so words—the first 11 chapters, of about 18 planned—revised and waiting for me to finish the last few chapters.

Once I finally get these last seven-ish chapters done, I'll do the 3rd draft revisions, which I am hopeful will mostly involve timeline and overall continuity revisions, rather than major structural problems or rewrites. (HA!)

I am very excited about this story! I think it will resonate with fans of Sci-Fi in general, and in particular with fans of Asimov, Herbert, and Clarke. Not that I'm claiming to be in their rarified air, but rather that there are some familiar themes that fans of their writing might enjoy.

Stay tuned for further updates and breaking news. ;-)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Teaser blurb for The Shrine of Broken Worlds, the (still a ways off) upcoming Book 2 in the Adventures Across Noflantia series

A religion once permeated the ground, trees, air, even the water around the area known as The Shine of Broken Worlds. An ancient religion of selfish strength, of uprisings and enslaving the weak, practiced by the orc and the ogre, the hobgoblin and the wood gnoll, as well as their nastier kin. Led by a strict order of non-combatant priests who communed with the avatars of Penem, the God of Nightmares, and Sariel, the Goddess of Fire and Pity, they ruled all of the land and waters for fifty leagues around the Shrine in every direction. They attracted uncounted legions of evil creatures, from the waters of Llandy Bay to the Llandy Vale, Caerphy Woods, and as far East as Diford Castle.

Fifteen centuries have passed since the lords and ladies of Wyham—the City of Castles—pressed their military forces Eastward to sack the Shrine. Dozens of thousands of bodies from both sides, who long ago perished in that massive war, stank their fetid rot into the mists and marshes, slowly melting into the ground and waters for fifty leagues in every direction around that foul altar for years afterward.

Even yet, it is said that a diabolical evil lurks there, unabatingly biding for a new manifestation to rise and wreak vengeance on those who desecrated these unholy sites. An evil that may have found its vessel, and could be teaching it how to reanimate the armies lost so long ago …

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Old poem "The Vices", found while cleaning up my office

I was in my office a couple of days ago, letting my mind chew on some ideas I'm working on as I edit Universo Responsoriis. While cleaning, I decided it was time to go through a pile of old CD-R and CD-RW discs that were cluttering up several shelves in the closet, and in so doing came across a few poems that I wrote in the late 90s. During this time, I was suffering from an as-yet undiagnosed dysthymic disorder (a form of depression), and some of that emanates through the themes of many of them, this one included. It was my first (and as yet, only) attempt at something resembling a beat poem.

This poem is not in my chapbook Hooray for Pain!, but it will be in an upcoming second book of poetry.

The Vices

Walls dripping with memory, the places we inhabit breathe
an air of sureness, remembering the things we fight to forget
and flee from for fortune knows no nose can safely smell
sense: seize the carpe diem day from the past of ashes and dust
and diamonds and rust reminders all the visible wall is only a memory
stained by the past.

Roofs radiating reality, the shingles that cover us heave
chortling at the profundity of promises we make to those who abet
us in our white oval altar worship—exhortations we know will impel
our hell of reflexively cramping muscle cell movements which must
cover our besotted pleas for some signal of acceptable expiatory
offering better than the last.

Linens crumpled and cursed, curled into the chasm we cleave
with our long-forgotten oaths to keep forever apart the sweat
and stains of heated exchange from the sight of those who foretell
doom—a devoutly wished consummation dripping from lips we trust
to tease the tortured twistings of youth and history we know a prioriwill not deliver rings of brass.

Rings of steel, fire and stone surround our thoughts as we leave
worlds of dropped calls and mirrored walls straining to hear yet
always near to the heart of our lives where sirens scream and partners yell
and mothers cry and fortunes fall to pieces in gathering gloom just
beyond the thinly veiled veil of stoppage where gathered friends sing glory
to our day, now in granite cast.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Another new snippet from The Ruins of Lawic

“Rodire, my daughter, come and talk with me.” Ennad Malgolihod stood in the entrance to their home, a towering figure as he gestured for her to come inside for a discussion.

Arles patted her on the shoulder as he and his friend stood up. “I’ll be down by the canteen, seeing what they have available for a late dinner.” He gave her a good, long look, knowing she’d understand he was biding time for them to head off on their grand adventure.

She nodded meekly and stood. “Thanks. I’ll see you shortly” she replied, as her father disappeared inside the hearth.

She followed and found him seated in the communal room, cross-legged atop his stool near the fire. Gently crackling embers of the dying blaze alternately glowed bright and dark red, as the draft blew across them, somewhat mesmerizing Rodire as they caught her eye while she sat on the bare ground next to her father.

“Rodire, you have become a fine druid. Do not worry yourself about what Finwe has said; his aim is to protect the Grove from all threats, and he is still hot-blooded in this matter. He will learn.” His soft voice carried a weight of sadness, a realization perhaps that his only progeny was truly grown, and about to set away from his protection for the first time. “He has a good point about the dangers, here. You and Arles must both keep each other’s back, and be on your guards always.”

At this, he stood and gently stroked her hair, looking at her fair face and taking in the vision of his daughter. After a moment, he turned away and started walking toward the small chest that always sat at the base of the family banner on the south wall of the common room, saying “I have a couple of things for you to take with you. They should prove very helpful, especially while it is only you and Arles. With just two, it can be quite difficult to manage to stay safe in the open wilds.” He whispered something unintelligible, and then unlocked and opened the chest.

From it, he pulled two items and handed the first to her. “This rod will allow you to create a small safe space, impenetrable by most normal and many magical creatures. There is a phrase you must utter to activate it, but first, we must attune it to you. Right now, it will only obey my voice.”

She accepted it meekly, unsure what to say.

“Before we do that, however, here is the second item.” He reached around her neck and placed a chain and amulet on it, fastening it in the back. “This amulet is a protective ward caster. It will emblazon an invisible magic ward onto any items you touch with it while speaking a magical phrase three times. You must touch it to the items you wish to protect directly, it is not enough to merely be near them or wave it.” He took her hand in his and wrapped it around the amulet. “You must speak the phrase three times, within a few seconds. Speaking it once or twice will do nothing, and if you take too long between utterances it will not take effect.

“The phrase is ‘schroder astrotin signetiat’.” He waited for a few pregnant seconds, then said “repeat that for me, one time. ‘schroder astrotin signetiat’.”

She took a moment, and then repeated her father. “schroder astrotin signetiat,” very carefully. A few moments later, she repeated it. “schroder astrotin signetiat.”

“Good. Excellent diction.” His praise was soft, though effective. He looked into her eyes, his love for his daughter practically beaming from his light golden irises. “You have become a fine druid indeed, my daughter. I know you will do well.”

He took a moment, then released his hand from hers to lift the rod in her other hand.

Rodire’s attention shifted to the other magical item and took in its physical characteristics for the first time. From the feel of it, it seemed to her to be sourwood. At that realization, she realized the hefty weight of the gift, both physically and spiritually.

“What, my daughter?” Ennad asked gently.

“Its … well, this is a magical sourwood by the feel. Very heavy and dense for its size.”

“You have good instincts. Why does that change how you react to it?”

“Well, father, the sourwood is one of the final stages of forest development before the Holy Noble Roble tree starts to sprout. She grows a canopy that alternately shades in the summer, and then fertilizes the ground in the winter. It is through her loving guidance that the first of the Roble sends up shoots after the Red Parrot deposits the acorn in the fertile ground. She protects the young, vulnerable tree until it can protect itself, then remains a protective guide for the animals and smaller heath that continue to feed the ground, the air, the flora and fauna all. She is considered the Protective Goddess, the last bulwark of the Holy Pair against those who would harm.”

“You were paying attention in your Circles training.” Ennad’s face burned brightly, proud of his daughter’s progress and knowledge. “What can you infer about the object, knowing that information?”

“That it has a protection nature. That unlocking its magic will have some effect to protect something?” she asked, almost uncertain of herself.

“Yes. Don’t read too much into it. Remember, the magical ability of any such item—whether it be a rod, staff, wand, amulet, ring, anything—will have some of its nature determined by the materials from which it is constructed. Rarely will there be any such item you encounter that will be completely opposite, and uncommonly you will run into items which have magical natures that are unrelated to the material at hand. When you do, these will usually be simple enchantments designed to make a weapon, or piece of armor, easier to use or grant extra protection or sharpness, things such as this.” At that, he reached around behind his back and retrieved a simple, flax sling, and handed it to her. “This has been our family’s hunting and defense weapon for more lifetimes than anyone in this Grove can track. It was magically endowed with an uncanny ability to find its target, an enchantment to the fiber itself. You can use just about anything with any heft as a projectile, but these …” he reached around with his other hand, to pull a small hemp bag out from off his belt “are the preferred projectiles.” He placed both the sling and the bag in her other hand.

Rodire could feel a considerable weight in the bag. She laid the rod down on the chair next to her, then opened the bag with a quizzical look on her face. Inside, she saw about forty or fifty polished rocks, each of which not only shone with an internal glow but almost seemed to pulse with energy. She looked up at her father, with an inquiring eye.

Her father smirked and said “these are special. Here, let me show you.” He took both the sling, and the bag, back for a moment, and then reached into the bag. He pulled out all of the stones and put one back into the bag. “Watch carefully,” he said, pulling the one remaining stone out and putting it into the sling’s pouch. He opened the bag, showing Rodire that it was empty. He then fired the stone with the sling directly at the banner hanging loosely on the south wall, where it bounced harmlessly to the floor.

A moment or two after it came to rest, Rodire watched incredulously as the stone seemed to jump from the floor, into the top of the bag, and disappear.

“Look,” he encouraged her and showed the inside of the bag: the stone he just flung at the tapestry was sitting there, faintly pulsing with light.

She could feel her eyes pop open, and could scarcely believe what she’d just seen. “So, they jump back into the bag on their own?” she asked, suspiciously.

“For the most part, yes. If you are close enough to it, say within a couple furlongs, it will magically make its way back to the bag from which you originally pulled it. It does not have to be this bag.”

“So there are a couple dozen there because sometimes it will be thrown so far that it can’t find its way back.”

“Yes, exactly. And this demonstrates what I mean. The magic of the sling has nothing to do with the flax. It is just an enchantment that makes it much more likely that you will hit your target. The stones, however, are hackmanite, which you will remember can change colors under changing light. The enchantment of these stones takes advantage of that, which is why they glow but also takes advantage of the salt that is inside the stone. The connection between the magic and the salt means that it remembers how to attach itself to the inside of the container if left in the container for more than a few minutes. So always remember to let the stones rest in a new bag for a bit before using them.”

Rodire paused for a moment to take in this new information, then gathered up the remaining stones and replaced them in the small bag. “I … I don’t know what to say, father,” she said apologetically, glancing around at the magnificent gifts he'd bestowed upon her. "Thank you."

He pulled her to him and embraced her with a warm hug. “Don’t worry, my daughter. I simply want you to be as safe as you can be. Now, let’s have that rod again.” He pulled up her hand, with the forearm-length rod still tight in her grip. “As you properly assessed, this rod will cast a spell of protection in a small area around you, when you—and only you, after we attune it to your voice—speak the magical phrase.

“Keep in mind that both this rod and the amulet around your neck have only a limited number of times you can use them. You should be able to use each one at least thirty, or forty times, as they have been fully imbued with energy. When we attune you to the rod, I will show you how to charge both of them should you need to do so. Keep in mind that these are potent energies. There is always a risk that you will destroy it, each time you try to re-energize them. So don’t rely only on these items as your sole protection. Keep your wits, keep your guard, and keep Arles near—and you stay near to him, as he will need you as much as you need him. Going into the wild alone can be extremely dangerous, so do not let yourselves become separated out when in the wildernesses.

“Come, let us start attuning you to the rod. It is easier outside,” he said, gesturing for her to lead the way out of their home.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Audiobook creation lessons learned: Small things that can make a big difference

Welcome to the final step in this "lessons that Donovan learned while exploring the magnificent and confusing world of author-recorded audiobook narration"! In this episode, I'm going to cover a couple of things that can make a big impact in the final recording, but that don't really cost much (maybe a little time, but not a lot of money).

So after talking about the lessons I've learned about the direct input of sound (mic & preamp), and its capture and eventual manipulation (DAW software), today I will cover the lessons I've learned about optimizing the environment.

Creating a home-based location for recording is one place where you can really spend only a little bit of money and significantly improve your recordings. In my particular case, I decided to switch up the orientation of the recording area; instead of recording right in front of the computer, my office has what amounts to a small vestibule coming off the main hallway (see image to the right). It occurred to me that by closing the door (which I would need to do anyway) and putting acoustic foam and other noise-deadening materials up, I might be able to turn it into a very small recording studio. It happens that before my father passed away he had intended to turn one room (now, a bedroom) into a recording space but was never able to finish it, so there was acoustic foam tiling already in place in there (but, as I noted, it's a bedroom now and not suitable for recording space). So I started removing some of the tiles from the walls in that room and putting them up on the back of the door, and the wall to the right in the image. I wanted to try to avoid having to re-glue the panels, so I opted to use large binder clips; since the foam is very compressible, I could use the clip to hold the tile, and then place a pushpin on the wall or door from which to hang the clip. It works quite well and has significantly improved the quality of my recordings. Here are some images of the current setup:


As you can see, I've got two of the 12x12" panels on each of the two directly-facing walls. What you can't see in these photos is the underside of the shelf above, which I lined with the bottoms of foam and cardboard egg cartons, which I was able to wedge in and didn't even need to pin or glue them down, and cover them with a soft scrap piece of upholstery sample from years ago (long story, don't ask LOL) which I pinned up with some thumbtacks. Nothing in this particular set up cost me anything directly, they were all recycled from something else (even the pillow, visible on the left side of one of the above images … something that will eventually be replaced with cut-to-fit pieces of the remaining foam from the other room). To replicate this yourself, you could spend less than $25, really. One set of 12 panels of 12" x 12" acoustic foam on Amazon ( ) can be had for about $15, and of course the egg cartons you would just get when you finished a dozen eggs (just, of course, make sure to only use ones that didn't have any eggy spills in them!). Larger bundles of the same size panels can be had for about the same per-tile cost (roughly $1.25/tile). If you need to replicate the same kind of thing I did with the egg cartons but don't want to use actual egg cartons, of course, there are similarly-shaped foams available, and you could cut them to fit.

Logistically, there are still a couple of other challenges. While this does help, I still need to be able to read the book I'm narrating (no, I don't have my books all memorized, and none of the other authors I know have their books memorized either). So right now I'm holding my iPad, which is less than ideal. I'm working on creating a small lectern I can have off to the side (since I want to speak off-axis to the mic anyway, to help reduce the pop & sibilance noises), which can hold my iPad and my wireless keyboard (to control the recording software on my computer). The XLR cable from the mic is quite long, and easily reaches the amp connected to the USB port on my computer, so there are no problems there.

The other issue is the side where the camera is, in the above photos. I have been using a couple of small blankets clipped together with binder clips and pinned to the wall on the left and right, but they sag in the middle and are a pain to get up and down. Next, I plan to put up a curtain rod (which I don't have yet) and a blackout curtain (which I do have, but no way to mount it yet), and slide the curtain back and forth. This will greatly simplify the process of closing off that area and also add to the dampening of the sound (especially from the windows which are behind the camera in the photos). I do still have those windows covered with polystyrene foam (which has been there for years) and a double layer of thick towels pinned & clipped to the wall around the windows.

So, as you can see there are steps you can take to create a more recording-friendly environment. These are steps that with some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking you can not only save some money but drastically improve the quality of the recorded sound. I have done a couple of test runs, and the sound is so much better that it was not only easier to work with, in Audition, but I was easily able to get it to meet the technical requirements of ACX (something I was struggling with before!) and sound excellent. I am sure that you can have similar, and even better, success! I look forward to hearing your feedback and your own experiences if you have any to share then comment below!
I plan to do a revision of my youtube videos covering the audiobook creation process, so look for those coming in the next few weeks (I'll probably wait until I get the curtain up to start that process). As always, if you have questions or ideas post below! Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Audiobook creation lessons learned: Software matters? (Not really)

Welcome back to my review of my "lessons learned" about creating your own audiobook narrations. Today, I'll be covering some things I've learned about the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software used to capture and manipulate your narration.

One of the biggest revelations was that they all basically do the same thing, and they basically all do it pretty well! Truly, the major differences between Logic Pro, Garageband, Pro Tools, Audition, Audacity, SoundStudio, and most others comes down to two things for the most part:
  • Interface, and
  • Price.
There are some other differences between them, but in my experience, most novice users will not see too much of a difference between them in terms of their features.

So, with that in mind, let's start with the first point, the interface differences.

Some of these DAWs are really rough for a novice just starting out (I'm looking at you, Logic Pro), and didn't make any sense to me. Others of you might get it right out of the gate, which is awesome!

Without belaboring the point too much, let me break down a little bit what you need to be able to do with a DAW:
  • Record audio;
  • Edit audio (removing mistakes, accidental sounds, excessive pauses, etc);
  • Manipulate the sound (filters, compression, noise reduction, etc), also known as engineering the sound; and,
  • Output properly formatted sound files for ACX.
All of these software packages (and many others) will do all of these things more or less reasonably well. They will all record through multiple interface types (usually, you tell the Operating System which input to use, though some do come with their own interface for deciding which interface), will all allow you to cut (or, if needed, insert) audio out of the file before processing it, have the ability to compress, normalize, amplify, and perform noise reduction as well as other engineering feats (such as reverb, limiting, gates, and so forth), and then create a sound file that is suitable for submission to ACX.

There are definitely some differences when you get to the price levels. Free or inexpensive apps (GarageBand, Pro Tools | First, Sound Studio, Audacity) generally tend toward having limited tools, whereas more expensive options have more complete tools and even multiple options for each tool.

Without going into too much detail (this is a lessons learned article, not complete coverage of each software package), there is good value in GarageBand (macOS and iOS only, $4.99 for either, though I am under the impression that you can get GarageBand for free from the Mac App Store if you've recently bought a Mac) and Audacity (macOS, Windows, and Linux, free). Either tool could be your only tool. Sound Studio (macOS, $30) has a pretty basic set of features, as well; I had problems with the input volume being way too soft despite the gain settings on my preamp so I no longer use SoundStudio for my audio capture.

One free tool that I absolutely cannot recommend at all is Avid's Pro Tools | First. There are several reasons for this:
  • Projects are limited to cloud storage on Avid's servers (that is, no local storage on your own computer), and you can only have 3 of them (total).
  • Pro Tools | First projects cannot be opened in any of the paid Pro Tools software (nor can First open other version's projects), meaning that you can't use the free "| First" to start out, testing the Avid software to see if it works for you, then upgrade to the paid tools and use your existing recordings. Period. (I know, right? DUMB).
  • Pro Tools | First will not export to MP3. So even if you wanted to record just one project as a test, knowing you wouldn't import later (because you'd complete the process end-to-end and start the next one from scratch), you still couldn't send it to ACX because there's no option to get MP3 out of the software.
  • Although Pro Tools | First is listed as supporting AAX (and only AAX plugins), it only supports certain AAX plugins that are purchased from their in-app Store.
Basically, Pro Tools | First seems designed to anger users enough to pony up for the full Pro Tools when they realize how useless the | First software is. Incidentally, I'm not the only person who feels this way. My advice is to steer clear of Pro Tools | First, period.

On the paid side, I was not able to afford any of Avid's offerings (the cheapest was $600 for a single license, though it could be cheaper for monthly subscriptions), and even their "free trial" requires purchasing a $50 USB key (!! Yes, really!). Also, their free trial is of an older version of the software (11, the current is 12). So, basically, Avid is a company whose only function seems to be to separate people from their money, and not really giving them any benefit for it or reason to trust them (while assuming that their customers will all steal their software), and Homie don't play that.*

So, I ruled out all of the Avid offerings (I did download Pro Tools | First and tried to get it to work, but its limitations meant that I had no reason to consider their other offerings). You might have a different experience, so, by all means, consider checking it out. Just be aware that it has significant limitations. One thing I do like about Avid's offering, for all of the other flaws that are present, is that you can buy the software outright (see later).

The same is also true of Logic Pro X (macOS only, $200), that once you've bought it it's yours. Also, significantly, Logic Pro X will import your existing GarageBand projects. So you can work in GarageBand for as long as it suits your needs, then upgrade to Logic Pro after your first audiobook sells enough copies to bring in the $200 cost for the higher-end product.

Along with that cost, however, comes a pretty steep learning curve. I was able to set aside enough to buy a copy of Logic Pro, and I'm still learning how to use it.

The other tool I put my hands on was Adobe's Audition (CC 2017, macOS or Windows, price options below). This tool was much simpler for me to get into, and I had no problems making sense of the interface and the included tools. The effects rack is awesome—it allows most of the filters, compressors, and other tools to be stacked into a sequence, and actively ... well, "sampled" is the best way I can describe it. You can select most (but not all) of the filters available, and they are put together—in sequence—and will modify the sound you hear on playback. They won't permanently affect the sound file until you "apply" the rack so you can experiment with the sound quite a lot.

Anyway, I found Audition to be the most usable of the tools overall. A major drawback is the fact that you can't buy the software outright. Unlike Pro Tools or Logic Pro, the only option for Audition (and, indeed, all Adobe products anymore) is to pay a monthly fee for a whole year (there is an option to, in essence, rent Audition by itself for one year for $240 or all Adobe apps for $600 for one year, but that does not give you the right to keep the software after the one year period is up). It is cheaper for a one-year subscription than Pro Tools is outright, but Logic Pro is cheaper even than that and you have a perpetual license for either Logic Pro or Pro Tools. I am not a fan of this forced subscription model (if you don't want to renew next year, you lose all rights to use the software, which I think is absolutely insane … especially considering how expensive it is).

So, what I'm doing right now is paying month-to-month to use Audition (monthly $30, or $20 if you commit to paying every month for a year) while also learning Logic Pro's interface. Also, keep in mind that you can use Audition for a month as a free trial.

I have to say that I really, really dig the Effects Rack in Audition (and the interface overall). I just don't like the pricing model. I'd really love it if we could rise up with a loud voice and tell Adobe that software subscriptions as the only model is totally disrespectful, and get them to offer the software that you can actually own. That's a rant for another day, however.

In my next blog post, I'll go over my lessons learned about the recording environment. This is a place where you can get a lot of bang for very little buck.

*: As if to pour lemon juice on a paper cut, Avid's website crashes Chrome tabs every time I visit their site. It's almost as if they're begging me to dislike their products!