Everything I know about audio drama I learned from E’ville

Today I published the final episode of my eight-part audio drama, E’ville, over on the Unreliable Narrators site. What began as a group project became my own mission to write, produce and edit a radio-style serial. Strictly amateur, and an answer to many what-if scenarios rattling around in my head. Could I piece together such an ambitious project using crowd-sourced voice acting from my friends and cohorts? Could I deliver a series of episodes on a self-imposed schedule, eight episodes in eight weeks? Would it be any good?

Happily, all answers are yes. Well, that last one I leave to you, dear listener. But I’m satisfied with the results, as grand experiments go.

I did learn a ton. Some observations, in case I feel the need to undertake something like this again:

Nothing like starting out big. Maybe I should have tried a nice, single-episode short for starters. But where would be the fun in that? I wanted a challenge that combined my many creative interests, and by god, that’s what I got. Every writer knows that nagging idea that takes hold of your brain and refuses to piss off while you finish that other shiny project on your desk. This wasn’t going anywhere until I delivered, so I did. Perhaps a few too many characters, perhaps a few too-busy scenes for audio only. The important thing is, it’s out of my mind and I can reclaim headspace for a few other deserving projects.

Crowd-sourcing voice performances via the internet has its own rewards. The talent involved represents old friends, new colleagues, people I don’t know (yet). And it was fun to stitch together those elements of my life in one place. The drawback, of course, is that you sacrifice a good deal of control over audio quality when most of the actors are miles away–not nestled in your own, soundproof studio and using the same microphones. Given the size and disparate schedules of the cast, table reads were right out as well. But hey, I lucked into a great group of people who were quite talented and quite game.

Ah, copyright law. U.S. copyright law, in particular. Such an ungainly beast. I learned more about copyright law than anyone ever wanted to, in the name of keeping this legit. Did you know that no works published after 1923 can be safely considered in the public domain? How about that even if copyright has expired on a song, the actual recording of the song is still protected? And that’s just the beginning of the headache. (Even worse, there’s a ton of misinformation out there, mainly because copyright law confuses everyone. I started out using a 20s jazz collection the Internet Archive itself marked as “public domain,” but the recordings themselves technically are not free to use. Oops.)

TL;DR on that last paragraph, for those whose eyes have glazed over: screw U.S. copyright law and its war on the public domain. Ahem. Moving on.

Crowd-sourced sound effects rock. I knew early on I didn’t want to spend hours recording my own foley work, whacking a side of beef with a baseball bat during every fight scene. That’s where freesound.org comes in, a lovely and CC-licensed collection of sounds recorded by people from all over the world. Of course, I still spent lots of time blending them into soundscapes. But it was enormous fun piecing together a street in 1920s Emeryville using sounds from a Japanese market, a Polish bar crowd, beaches in Venezuela. Technology is grand sometimes.

I used to play in bands and learned audio recording the old, multitrack magnetic-tape way. E’ville also served as an excuse to finally wade waist-deep into modern DAW technology. The covers and original compositions for the series are all 100% sampled and sequenced. Perhaps not entirely period-appropriate–they drift from 40s lounge to 50s rockabilly at times–but I never claimed to know shit about Jazz Age composition. And hey, I collaborated with a singer in Istanbul on one track. Again, technology rocks.

Would I do it again? Perhaps, someday. But there’s a book that’s been fighting for gray matter real estate with this sucker, and its time has come.

Kindle Paperwhite

So I pulled the trigger on a new e-reader. The prompt for this was a cramped return flight that didn’t allow carry-on bags to actually be carried on.  (Don’t get me started!) I wound up on the plane without my tablet, and read about 90% of an e-book on my Android phone by the time we arrived.  Surprisingly workable, but not ideal. I’d been hearing good things about the latest Paperwhite update and decided to give it a shot.

kindle1kindle2

I am not a proponent of convergence, the whole “One Device to Rule Them All” mentality.  Every few years someone opens a fresh refrain of how specialization is dead and we must all use a single device to do everything.  Don’t know about you, but my phone barely lasts an entire day without a charge as is– and on vacation, I’m often falling back on those portable battery chargers to make it to an outlet.  The idea of a small, flat device that supports my favorite hobby and lasts for weeks on a single charge has a lot of appeal. E-ink still trumps the highest res screen, and the backlighting on the Paperwhite is subtle after staring into a tablet screen for hours on end. This device does the best job I’ve seen of emulating actual book pages, with just enough illumination to keep it viable in less than ideal conditions. So far so good.

(That first screen is from my own work-in-progress, bee-tee-dubs. I highly recommend converting your own drafts and uploading them for review. Helps divorce your brain from your own work.)

One new feature I find interesting is the X-Ray, which provides useful context around characters, setting and historical details (as shown in second shot above, from Stephen King’s 11/22/63). The downside is that it’s not available on all books; presumably someone must aggregate all that metadata in the background. It’s something to keep in mind for my own releases, especially alternate histories!  Ahem.

Another surprise is the readability of graphic novels on the Paperwhite. Well, some graphic novels. Kindle Panel View makes this the perfect device for reading an old-school, black-and-white, panel-by-panel joint like Alan Moore’s From Hell (below).  Seems obvious that more modern comics with elaborate color palettes and unconventional layouts will suffer, but I have yet to experiment. We’ll see.

kindle3

It’s been years since my first-generation Kindle became… uh, kindling. Since then I’ve muddled through with Kindle apps for PC and Android, as well as free readers for EPUB format. They get the job done, but are less than ideal.  Paperwhite isn’t perfect by any stretch; you’re still stuck within Amazon’s ecosystem and the occasional DRM annoyances. But, for me at least, it manages to restore the feel of reading vs. browsing files on a computer. Given my reading habits, that justifies its existence.

Freedom!

Happy birthday, America!  In the spirit of independence, I was pleased to learn that Image Comics unveiled a new, DRM-free comics store at Image Expo.  Official, legit CBR/CBZ archives?  Sign me up!  It’s terrific to see a major distributor following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Thrillbent and Panel Syndicate in ditching draconian crippleware.  In case anyone fails to see how momentous this is, Ars Technica does a good job of summing things up.  Okay, DC and Marvel, you’re up! Are you ready to treat us all as paying customers rather than potential thieves?

 

Back to Word

Plates have been spinning here over the past week, so I’ve been neglecting my little blog. Sorry to that handful of sitecrawlers and Viagra peddlers that frequent this front page! I’ve had a lot of deadlines lately, of many varieties. But enough excuses!  Procrastination is its own reward.

I posted earlier about how I’d decided to try and use Google Docs to write all my manuscripts and store them on Google Drive. (Them clouds are all the rage with the teenyboppers!)  While I will continue using Drive, which has proven invaluable, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and return to that old, abusive relationship with Word. Hey, it’s easy to cap on both Microsoft and Word itself. It’s a favored target of hip writer types in particular, and I’m no exception. I have to admit, however, that Word 2013 is a vast improvement over its predecessors. While certainly not perfect, M$ has addressed many of the things that made the program a chore to use in previous versions: the dreaded ribbon can be turned off or reconfigured, the spelling and grammar tools are much improved and there’s nary a spunky animated paperclip in sight.  And the switch from editing to reading mode is downright spiffy.

So, adios for now, Google Docs. It’s still a perfectly acceptable tool for composing a resume or dashing off a letter to your landlord. Improvements have been made, but it’s still not quite up to the task of revising and editing a full manuscript. It’s fine for getting words down and committed, but outright chokes on the finer points of tuning a doc to Arcane Publisher Specification #617 (“We only accept documents in Lucida Console 11-point font, 1.5-linespaced with your name and SSN on every third page header.”) Beyond that, I’ve been a bit spooked by the recent canning of Google Reader, a reminder that Google remains quite capricious with its free software.

I’ll still be using Drive to store docs in that magical rainbow cloud, because it’s too damned convenient.  My usage, though,  tends to be quite the opposite of the advertised method: I use docs from Drive for ease of daily use and then also store them on my own portable drive as a backup. You never know when Internet Corp. du Jour will experience a catastrophic failure or suddenly change their Terms of Use to your detriment. It happens, folks, even with Google.

So that’s what I’m using this week. We’ll see about next.

Google pulls the plug

This afternoon my Twitter feed exploded following news that Google is shelving Reader on July 1st.  From my perspective, this sucks pretty voraciously. Judging by the vociferous reaction online, I’d say I’m not alone in that assessment.  This seems downright clueless on Google’s part; then, they’ve had their share of clueless moments lately.

The Chronicle went so far as to state that “…if Google couldn’t popularize it or turn it into a business, it’s probably time to call an end to RSS as a consumer phenomenon.” But I don’t think that’s a valid statement. Google has proven themselves strangely unable to popularize and/or monetize their own versions of popular internet services lots of times already: Orkut, Wave, Buzz, Answers, Google+, Google TV… all of which emulate apps and technologies that other companies have turned into successful products. So this certainly doesn’t signal the death of RSS (though certain pundits have been pronouncing it dead for years in epic-fail fashion.) There are already a number of decent alternatives: Feedly, Bloglines and Pinboard to name a few.

Personally, I think the “sunsetting” (w00t! corporate-speak ftw!) of Reader says more about Google than it does about RSS. They spent money acquiring technology, released their app for free, then decided to close it down when it didn’t make money. I’m still an avid user of both Chrome and Android, but the slashing and burning of Google apps does make me wary about depending on their software in the future. As comments on the #GoogleReader hashtag pointed out, the real message here is to beware of future reliance on free Google software.

 

Anti-social

Fair warning: this is one of those posts. I’m about to rant and rave about social media like a septuagenarian exhorting those youngsters to get off my virtual lawn. If this doesn’t interest you, feel free to close the window and go back to your streams and timelines.

I don’t hate social media. Hell, I run this blog, I tweet, I’m on Facebook (although I check in about once every other month, to the chagrin of my “friends.”)  What I loathe is this idea that every activity throughout the day needs to become part of this single, unwieldy meta-narrative about myself that gets disseminated throughout the world. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything; I just don’t see the benefit — to me — of dumping every possible scrap of data about myself into someone else’s virtual landfill. (This is not about privacy concerns, though as it turns out, they are legion.)

Oh, I see the benefit to Google and Apple and Facebook readily enough. Targeted advertising alone is worth more than most countries’ GNPs combined, and that merely scratches the surface. What I take issue with is that these companies are insisting that it’s all for my benefit, not theirs. Look how fulfilling my life will be once everything I say or do is connected online!  And the latest of the latest? Now all the social networks insist that things will be so much better if you use your real name for everything.  Follow on, Interweb lemmings!

I scan through image search on Google a fair amount while doing research for my work. Recently they’ve taken to popping up these annoying modal windows at random, framing their marketing chores as questions.  Do I know that I can share what I’ve found with my online pals? Do I want to?  No?  Well, how about converting all my accounts to use my real name? No? Am I sure?  Here, they’ll  show me what my real name would look like in print. Still not convinced?  (All with no close button, of course. If I’m lucky a condescending button that amounts to: “No thanks, I’m a wet blanket. Give me a few sessions before you hound me again.”)

Sony’s recent PS4 presser insisted that we should all get excited about how their next console will scrape all your social networks and connect all your gaming experiences to everyone you know. Even better, it uses your real name rather than all those pesky, outdated internet handles.  Am I pumped yet?  Yeah, not so much.

Here’s the thing. I have a large family. I have many friends and acquaintances worldwide, some of whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. I have a day job. And I’m also cultivating a presence as a neo-professional writer. Do I really benefit by sending my tech co-workers updates on my niece’s drunken bachelorette party? (Theoretical, mind you!)  Do people who enjoy my writing and want to find out about my recent projects need to weed out vacation photos and company milestones?   And whose life is enriched by seeing that I just watched an episode of Jersey Shore online? (I didn’t!  Honest!)  Again, this is not about hiding anything. No doubt it’s all out there if someone truly wants to find any of it. But why would I connect all those dots for them, just to ease their algorithm crunching? And at what benefit to myself?

I have many lives. We all do. And the idea that only one of them is the true me is BS.  I don’t begrudge the latest social start-up their revenue stream; what irks me is the dishonesty of the claim that this is all for the benefit of the individual. These companies are building valuable, marketable databases of information. And more power to them. All the same, I’d like to manage my own presence online. But thanks.

 

Don’t count on it

Last night I wound up shaving some words off a chunky short story in order to meet the 5k word limit for submission to a magazine. Obviously, when you’re operating with a tiny margin of error, precision becomes more important than when you simply need a ballpark figure for your own edification.  While checking the manuscript in several programs and webapps, I discovered something curious that led me to conduct a little experiment. As a test, I copied and pasted the same manuscript into a half dozen applications that determine word count, among other statistics.

Here’s the word count total as determined by Microsoft Word 2010: wordcount_word

Here are the same words pasted into Google Docs:wordcount_docs

OK, not exactly the same but close. How about a few webapps?

The word count from javascriptkit.com:wordcount_jskit

And from wordcounttool.net:wordcount_tool

And  wordcounttool.com:wordcount_toolcom

And, finally, from wordcount.co:wordcount_co

So, we’re talking about a variation of 224 words across six different tools.  This file was in standard manuscript format, with no diacritical marks or other funky special characters. One explanation I can think of is that, because a few italicized passages are underlined, some parsers do not consider an underline as a word break.  However, this is the standard manuscript specification, so you’d think a word count tool would take that into account.  And I still find it curious that no two applications returned the same word count.  Clearly not all parsers are created equal; in fact, it would appear that none of them are!

Caveat scriptorus!  Especially if you’re skating on the edge of a word count limit.

Just the facts

Recently ran across this handy-dandy Pro Writing Aid, a web app that provides as much analytical data as one can handle on a cut-and-pasted writing sample.  Aside from the expected writing analysis info (word count, word cloud, adverb infestation) there are a few other tidbits that range from amusing to fascinating:  alliteration analysis (I see what you did there), pacing, consistency and sentiment.  I suppose the trick is to keep this as a useful tool and not another method to enable the waxing of feline companions.

According to the tool, this post has an overall positive sentiment, but could use more variation in sentence length.  I’ll get right on that.

Google Docs revisited

In my continued quest for the perfect setup, I’ve tried just about every writing program available.  I tend to try them out for a while, discover some deal breaking feature (or lack thereof) and eventually return to using Word.  It gets the job done, and spits out everything in all the industry standard formats without complaint.  But it often feels like the UI can’t get out of its own way.  I’ve never liked the whole “ribbon” concept.  Why does the ribbon always seem to display every icon except for the one I need at any given time?

This time my software wanderlust has led me to give Google Docs a shot again.  I’d tried it a couple of years back, and found it to be a competent letter writer but way too basic for any serious manuscript editing.  Suffice it to say that Google has improved the hell out of their whole suite of productivity apps.  The biggest change for the better is that it’s now merged with Drive, Google’s {buzzword} cloud {/buzzword} storage system.  This is terrific, as I can now read and edit manuscripts in one location, from any available computer.  This includes my phone and Android tablet.  The word processor is still about as spartan as they come, but it’s no longer missing any major features that are needed when working in standard manuscript format.  Google continues to err on the side of business users while not providing much customization for formatting novels and short stories (such as the dreaded “no page number on the first page” conundrum).  Still, the whole “write once, edit anywhere” setup trumps the other concerns.

For now.  We’ll see in a few weeks.