Monday, 31 October 2011

Good luck for National Novel Writing Month

The day is nearly upon us. If you're embarking on attempting National Novel Writing Month from tomorrow, then good luck, and happy writing!

Friday, 28 October 2011

eBook Covers Round 2 - Titles and Text

Last time I mentioned DAZ Studio and Vue, as tools that could help with the artwork for creating your own eBook.

This time I'm going to mention some free software to help with the text/titles that would be needed as well: -

Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a freely available piece of software for photo retouching, image creation, and has several text tools that would allow you to add text such as a book title to your cover.

There's also Picasa, from Google.

On the Mac, there's also Seashore.

There's no doubt plenty of others out there, and many are free, so putting the finishing touches to your eBook cover doesn't need to cost a lot.

Given that your eBook cover is going to be seen in a small version for most of the time, for example, when it's on display in an online store, then getting the size of your title right can be a juggling match between fitting it all on the cover and making it large enough to read when the cover is displayed at a smaller size.

These image editors can help you visualise the smaller version of your cover quite easily, so don't be daunted, have a go!

Have a great weekend all, Happy Halloween!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Judging a book by its cover

While some may think it’d be just another excuse to procrastinate and not do any writing, thinking about your book’s cover can be an excellent way to help get your creative juices flowing. While it’s bad enough trying to be creative with the written word, doing the same with graphics, composition and art as well could be asking a bit much for many authors, but there are tools out there that can help.

DAZ Studio
Straight from the DAZ website, the description of the software is this: “DAZ Studio is a feature rich 3D figure customization, posing, and animation tool that enables anyone to create stunning digital illustrations and animations.” DAZ Studio is currently free for a limited time.

Allowing you to pose and animate 3D figures and scenery, DAZ Studio’s a great tool for getting a book cover done – or how about a trailer for your story? Many novels are getting noticed due to having a trailer made and available on the internet.  Next time you’re stuck for how to approach a scene, try visualising it with a tool such as DAZ Studio rather than just writing it out.

Vue does for scenery, landscapes and worlds what DAZ Studio does for people. The Pioneer edition is free, and the product expands as your needs grow, right up to movie blockbuster quality effects. Vue does animation as well.

Create a landscape, the sky, water, trees and vegetation; if your book cover features an outdoor scene, then Vue could really help you get the image you’re looking for.

With eBooks having to have covers that work as thumbnail images as well as full size covers, having access to a digital version of the image can help you judge whether the image works when shrunk down to Kindle/iBooks shelf size. Suddenly that long title may not even be visible when shrunk down, so it could even be worth changing the title of the story.

Even with digital help from software such as DAZ and Vue, there’s no substitute for natural artistic flair and talent, but I have to hope that doing anything creative can be a catalyst for other areas of creativity – so if you’re stuck with a piece of writing, try drawing the scene instead of writing it. Make a short animation out of it – or just lay out the scene in 3D and see if what you’re planning is possible. Who knows what you’ll find. Just make sure you write the scene as well later…

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Soundtrack to your story - part 2

It’s time for this week’s batch of pieces from selected soundtracks that evoke a particular emotion and so might be useful to get you in the mood for writing a particular scene. Plus I just get to talk about some of my favourite bits of music too.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – John Williams – Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra
It’d be easy to just list The Raiders March in any soundtrack discussion involving John Williams and Indiana Jones, but The Last Crusade is very sparing with its use, saving it mostly for the end credits ride into the sunset. So instead, I’m picking Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra. It’s a terrific piece to listen to if you need some sort of chase scene, and it’s a perfect companion to the escape  of the ‘Jones Boys’ via motorbike and sidecar.

Mulan (1998) - Jerry Goldsmith – Haircut
Mulan is one of my favourite films in the modern Disney era, and a lot that comes from Jerry Goldsmith’s amazing score. It’s such a shame that the CD soundtrack release barely covers all the material in the film.  The track I’ve chosen, Haircut, is not my favourite piece, but it’s one that really evokes a sense of preparation, getting ready to take on the world. If you get a chance, listen to the full Suite from Mulan as well – it runs through all the major themes from the film and is just a wonderful composition from the late, great Mr. Goldsmith.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) – James Newton Howard – The Crystal Chamber
Atlantis is a great little film, and the soundtrack’s terrific. The Crystal Chamber is at times foreboding, other times other-worldly, mysterious and filled with wonder. Don’t investigate a lost civilisation without it…

Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country (1991) – Cliff Eidelman – Sign Off
If you ever need to say some goodbyes, with a little bit of hope for the future and the promise of stories yet to be told, then give this a listen. A fond farewell to the starship Enterprise as she heads off on one last voyage, and a literal sign-off from the original series cast.

Superman the Movie (1978) – John Williams – Main Titles
John Williams didn’t so much score the movie, as he scored the character, with a main theme that so embodies everything that Superman was, is and should be, that it’s impossible to see a picture of the character and not immediately hear the iconic theme. If you’re dealing in any way with a superhero or a heroic effort, then listen to the Main Titles from Superman. Heroic, humble, mighty, effortlessly majestic, it’s a piece that lets you know that everything will be alright. If your characters are up against it, and there’s no way out, then give them an mp3 player with this track on, and they’ll find a way to solve their problems…

The risk with listening to all these tracks and then writing is of course that some of the film imagery rubs off on your writing, rather than the emotion. But it’s an interesting way to think about your scenes – how would you have the music be if you were responsible for scoring your story? Sometimes having no music is better – just look at the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season five episode, The Body.

What sort of music do your characters listen to? What's the soundtrack to their lives? What sort of music would you have accompanying your story - whether it's on the big screen, the small screen, or just what you hope people will listen to to remind them of your book?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Subplot is one month old today

Cue the internet's collective tumbleweeds rolling across my screen...

Actually it's been a good month and a really stressful month and an anxious month and an "oh my god what have I gone and done now" month. But it's all been good experience I guess - and certainly good practice for when I start publishing eBooks and have to deal with the inevitability of not being able to be to everyone's tastes.

So, a big thank you to everyone that's bought Subplot - I hope you've gotten some use and enjoyment from it. I'm using it for planning a few novellas in the first instance as well as keeping the Ideas Board stocked for the future.

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Subplot updated

The 1.0.2 update for Subplot should be on the various App Stores now. It fixes a couple of issues in the Scene Builder.

I've also added an introduction to the Mac's Automator tool on the Subplot FAQ page. The document explains how to create a little workflow in Automator that makes a backup copy of the Subplot datafile in another folder (e.g. a DropBox folder). The workflow then runs Subplot itself, so it's a handy tutorial if you've never used Automator before, and also a nice bit of reassurance that your Subplot data can be backed up.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Quick Update

There's another release coming for Subplot. Version 1.0.2 fixes a couple of issues with the Scene Builder, the details of which you can find here. Hopefully it will be released by Apple soon - it's currently waiting for review.

I hope those of you that have bought Subplot (thank you!) are finding it useful. I use it myself when planning my stories.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The soundtrack to your story

Do you listen to music when you write? I tend to need peace and quiet. But there are times when I'll listen to something to put myself in the right mood, the right frame of mind for writing. Now I don't have a musical bone in my body, and my iPod's playlist is routinely laughed at by my friends, but there are certain pieces of music that I turn to when I want to feel a particular way - emotional cues if you like, so with that in mind, I'm wondering if perhaps I should listen to more music while I write, and see if it influences the output. What do you think?

I'm a huge fan of movies soundtracks. I've been collecting them for most of my life, ever since I won the soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark (in a colouring competition no less!). I'd loved the music to Star Wars before that, and Superman, but it was winning that Raiders album that set me on the path to actually collecting them. With that in mind, here are some of my favourite pieces from soundtracks over the years, and the sort of emotion they may help evoke.

Batman (1989) - Danny Elfman - Finale.
Honestly, I really didn't like the Prince album that accompanied the film. But Danny Elfman's score is spot on. The finale sends you away thinking that there's someone out there, looking out for everyone, a perfect companion to the last visuals of Batman dutifully watching over his city while the Bat Signal blazes overhead.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001) - The Buffy Cast - Once More With Feeling - the whole album.
I'm an unashamed Buffy fan. And I remember being astounded when I watched the season 6 episode, Once More With Feeling. I'm not a fan of musicals that have songs in them for the sake of having songs, but Once More tells the story in song, and it manages to advance the series' arc at the same time as well as having such a varied and catchy set of songs, that I had to watch it again, straight after. The album runs through a range of emotions for the whole cast, so all I can say with this one, is just to listen to all of it.

Ever After (1998) - George Fenton - Happily Ever After.
I listen to a lot of "End Credits" pieces. To me they sum up a film, usually giving a snapshot of all the themes that have gone before them. Ever After's finale evokes a sweeping, romantic vista of possibilities - and hope for the future.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) - Danny Elfman - The Grand Finale.
What an amazing film Edward Scissorhands is. Beauty and the Beast, except the beast is no beast, instead he's the gentlest one of all. The Grand Finale plays as Winona Ryder's character finishes her story, and it culminates with a memory of dancing in the snow with Edward. If ever I need to write about love, whether it's a lost love, or one that's been strong for decades, I'd say listen to this.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) - John Powell - Test Drive.
What a great surprise this film was, and the soundtrack is fantastic too - if you need something that evokes some sort of test or feat or attempt, then give Test Drive a spin. It soars.

Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - John Williams - The Rebel Fleet/End Title.
What can anyone say about John Williams that hasn't been said already; the man's a legend. The Rebel Fleet/End Title is probably, hands down, my favourite piece of music. I guess many people will have left the theatre as soon as the end credits come up, or they turn the DVD off, so this one may be a hidden gem for a lot of people. If you've never listened all the way through to the end, then next time, please do. It's wistful as preparations are made to set off and rescue Captain Solo. It's majestic with the familiar Star Wars fanfare. It's whimsical and fun as we move to Yoda's theme. And then the menace starts with The Imperial March. As it closes, it becomes quieter again, and hopeful, and ends with the most amazing, building crescendo that leaves you in no doubt that the Rebellion will fight on, and win.

There are many, many more pieces that I'd choose, so maybe I'll pick another five or so next week. What sort of music do your characters listen to? What's the soundtrack to their lives? What sort of music would you have accompanying your story - whether it's on the big screen, the small screen, or just what you hope people will listen to to remind them of your book?

Monday, 10 October 2011

Getting down to writing

It's hard being a procrastinator. I talk myself out of doing a lot of things. All too often, writing's been one of them. The internet's such a distraction, with news and tweets going on every minute of every day, as well as just 'living', eating, exercise, socialising, and of course work.

So I'm trying to be a bit more regimented. I don't have set times to write - I find that often inspiration will come at odd moments, like 5:42am yesterday morning, when I just had to get a part of a story down. But if you wait for when you're inspired, well it could be a very long time before you finish anything.

So I have my tools to hand and set up. My dining table manages to triple up between the place that I eat, write and work much of the time. There are plenty of books out there that say you should have a dedicated writing area, and in theory, yes, that'd be great. But in practice, it can be tricky for a lot of people.

Sometimes I just need to get out and about and do the writing anyway - so a dedicated 'nook' won't help there. And as long as you have something to write with/on, then maybe it doesn't really matter where you are.

In fact, when I first wrote "Eight Minutes" (which I'll hopefully be publishing early next year) I was typing the first draft on an Amstrad NC100 portable computer that I took to work with me. These days things have moved on (but I still have that NC100 somewhere).

I use Subplot to rough out a plan for the story - characters, props, locations, events and goals, as well as a rough scene plan. I tend to think of it in terms of what I would need to show if I were filming the story. So if I've got a scene in a headmaster's office at a school, then I need to 'dress' that set, and it brings up a lot of questions about the headmaster/headmistress and what their background is beyond the role that they serve in the story.

I've recently started using Apple's Pages on the Mac to hold the actual manuscript as I'm writing - but there are plenty of free alternatives out there: -

OpenOffice has several flavours: -

and there's also NeoOffice on the Mac: -

I've also got Microsoft Word on standby on my Windows PC.

None of that's of any help if I'm out and about so I've often got a couple of notebooks stuffed in my holdall that have a range of ideas for stories in them. That's actually where the inspiration behind the Subplot Ideas Board came from - I got fed up of transcribing the story ideas from one notebook to the next as I used up the pages or the notebook just got too tatty from being carried around.

I also have iA Writer for the iPad: -

which I use for distraction-free writing if I just need to lounge on the sofa, or at the afore-mentioned 5:42am writing session that I just had to get on with.

As it happens, the first application I was developing when I set out (before Subplot) was something very similar to iA Writer on the iPad. The reason was that the iPad keyboard really doesn't cope well if you're writing dialogue a lot - all the punctuation marks, commas, full-stops and quotation marks are hidden away; so my original application idea was a simple text editor that had an additional keyboard bar at the top with the relevant punctuation keys always available.

I was in the middle of developing the app when iA Writer first appeared, and so I bought it, used it, and thought "well this does everything I need, so why spend another few months developing and polishing an alternative?" It's at that point that I decided to build Subplot, the planning tool, rather than something to write with.

Of course all of this technology is useless if you don't actually use it to write. So I'm resolved to writing something every day. I have my own targets, and I'm hopefully going to stick to them - but I'm not going to get hung up on them. I write because I enjoy it - if you're not enjoying it, why bother?

Friday, 7 October 2011

Update time

The maintenance release for Subplot is now available in the Mac App Store. Version 1.0.1 fixes a few data related issues, as well as a couple of cosmetic fixes. As ever when updating software, we recommend you take a backup of your datafile before performing the update. If you need help finding the datafile, then some information is available here.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Remembering those that are no longer here

As I'm sure everyone knows now, Steve Jobs died yesterday after a lengthy battle with illness. It's a shock, even though I never knew the man. There's plenty of ways that he touched the lives of many millions of people though, and I think that's where the shock is coming from.

The internet has made it easy to rave about or scorn people that we've never met. The anonymity allows us to be bolder, over-confident, sometimes abusive and sometimes mean. But no matter what anyone says about Mr. Jobs or Apple in the coming days and weeks, hopefully all the armchair commentators out there remember that a family's lost a father, a husband, a son, a brother.

I remember reading years ago that John Candy had died. I had pretty much the same shocked reaction; it was out of the blue. Then Christopher Reeve had his accident, and a lot of people round the world held their breath and uttered a silent prayer - even though they'd never met him. So what is it about certain people that causes this reaction in complete strangers?

I enjoyed many of John Candy's films. One of the last ones I saw was "Only the Lonely", and it really struck home with me, dealing with shyness and that awkward reaching out to someone you care about. Those people that know me know that "Superman the Movie" is one of my favourite films. There's a bright light of hope and innocence in that film that's inspiring. And the sadness I felt on hearing that Christopher Reeve had died came from knowing that he wouldn't achieve his dream of walking again; that someone doing something so inspiring out of a personal tragedy was just gone.

It’s because they’re not strangers. You may not have touched them or spoken to them in person, but they’ve touched our lives. We’ve lived moments through their actions. I never thought I’d sell software around the world, but the vision of Steve Jobs has allowed me to do that. I’ve never flown around like a superhero, but I’ve soared with Christopher Reeve.

I guess it’s not so much that they’re gone, or what they did while they were here; it’s the loss of potential, the possibilities of what they might have done in the future. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Events and goals that shape your characters and stories

The latest video demonstration for Subplot is available now for viewing. This one covers events and goals (as well as a larger look at some of the reports behind the system).

This got me thinking about the nature of events and goals in story-telling. The events that Subplot is designed to track are more the sort of historical reference points for your characters. For example, you may have had a character lose their father at a young age, so you could create an event to capture that date and detail. When you add that event to Subplot’s scene builder, it’s not necessarily so that you’ll be describing that event as it takes place – more that you’re referencing it in the scene as something that’s affecting the character. 

The events can of course be plot triggers, so it may be worth setting up a couple of events that remind you of the act breaks and mid-points (particularly for screenplay projects), but it really is up to you and how you like to plan.

With goals, they’re really another name for plot strands, whether main plot or subplot for the relevant characters, but they’re also rolled up with the motivation behind the goal itself – the “Why”. What really helps I think when using them, is that they can highlight when your characters are just there in the story for no reason. If you have a character that doesn’t have a goal, then why are they there at all?  It may be okay if they’re supporting cast with only a couple of scenes, or just have a walk-on part in the screenplay, but if you have a sidekick that doesn’t have any goals of their own, then they’re not really serving any purpose. Once they have a goal, will they succeed in it?

Events and Goals come together to form the When and Why in a story, and they both add up to some of the most important parts of why your story is unfolding the way it is, and to me, “why” something happens is often much more important than “what” actually happens.

I can’t finish a topic of events and goals without outlining some of the events and goals ahead for Subplot.

For events: There’s a new version of Subplot on the way: 1.0.1 includes a couple of cosmetic fixes as well as a few data-centric fixes that should put a stop to a couple of quirky bugs that occur under certain circumstances. The new version is waiting for review at Apple, so should hopefully be available in about a week.

As for goals, well I’d like to think that I can start putting together a feature update for Subplot, including (all of which are subject to change, and there’s no timescale yet of course): -

  • Support for creating plans for Stage Plays
  • Easy management of the Subplot datafile, to help the people that want to work with Subplot on multiple computers.
  • Copying characters etc. between projects, to allow more easily planning a series.
It won’t be a rushed feature release; I’d rather let people get to know the program first before adding to it; but if there’s a feature you’d like for Subplot to support then by all means let me know.