More On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

Another blogger who enjoyed The Cleansing asked if she could interview me for her blog. I was only too happy to oblige. The interview appeared in February 2014.

Congratulations for The Cleansing—I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What attracted you to writing an apocalyptic tale?

Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.

I’ve held a fascination for end of world tales since I was a boy. Books, films, computer games, some of the most memorable have been based in apocalyptic worlds. Difficult to pin down quite what the attraction is. I guess it has something to do with it being this world but not as we know it. All bets are off. No laws, no society, no civilisation, no checks or balance. What morality remains has to battle to make itself felt amidst the anarchy and struggle to survive. It’s man reduced to his basest, most bestial form.

The end of world scenario provides the writer with a blank page that he or she can fill in a wide variety of ways. I think that’s the main attraction of the genre to a writer. The possibilities are endless.

I particularly enjoyed how The Cleansing was set in various different countries. How else did you try to make the novel stand out from other apocalyptic fiction?

It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it different from other apocalytpic fiction I’ve read. Of course, I was well aware of its similarities to other stories. If I’d thought, however, that I was merely rehashing tales that had been done before without bringing anything new to the party, I wouldn’t have bothered sending it to my publisher. I still would have written it as it’s the only way to dislodge a story once it’s taken up home in the rattling space within my head. And The Cleansing had well and truly settled in for the duration. It was either write it or be stuck with a nagging lodger for the rest of my life.

As to how it’s different from other tales, I’ve not read a book that tells of humankind being wiped out deliberately to make way for new inhabitants. If such a book does exist, I haven’t read it but then I’ve only read a small fraction of the end of world tales that have ever been written. So it was a new take on the genre to me. I hope it will be to some readers, too.

The novel is exciting and fun to read, while also being tragic and upsetting in places. Is it important to move your readers as well as entertain them?

Vitally important. As a reader, I better remember books that have moved me than those that have merely entertained me. As a writer, I want readers to feel some sort of emotional reaction to my work, though I’d settle for them being merely entertained over feeling indifferent. I don’t deliberately set out to provoke particular emotional responses. I think that they are a natural by-product if a story is worth telling and is told well.

The Cleansing is part of a trilogy. Do you know how the final book will end or is it still evolving?

I can see in my mind’s eye the climactic scene that occurs at or near the end of the third book, but I don’t yet know how the characters will reach that point. They may take off at tangents that will result in a different ending – characters can be untrustworthy like that – or unforeseen events could occur that push the action in a new direction. That’s part of the fun of writing without an outline; it’s also a little scary.

Do you find the structure of trilogies restrictive? Why do you think they are so popular?

This is the first series I’ve written, though I didn’t set out to write one. It quickly became obvious when I was writing The Cleansing that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. I didn’t want to write something the size of a brick because I felt that nobody would take a chance on buying a book that size by a virtual unknown. So a trilogy seemed the natural solution.

As for being restrictive, I’m actually finding it to be quite the opposite. Instead of trying to condense the plot into one novel, I have the freedom to explore the world more fully. If characters choose to deviate, that’s fine. There’s time and room for them to get it out of their system before finding their way back to the main action.

I’m not so sure that trilogies are universally popular among readers, at least not when the subsequent books have yet to be published. As a keen reader myself, I understand why. If the first book in a trilogy is captivating, the reader naturally wants to read more immediately. By the time the sequel comes out, readers will have moved on and some will have lost their sense of wonder at the first book. It may not be recaptured on reading the sequel.

However, from a writer’s point of view trilogies are attractive. For a start, writing the first book is nowhere near as daunting as writing a book three times longer. Moreover, the writer will have some idea how well the first book is being received while he pens the sequel. He will have the benefit of reader feedback that may shape the direction the sequels take. He will have the opportunity of answering questions posed by readers of the first book as he develops the sequels. Those questions may even prompt ideas that will enrich the sequels in ways the writer might not otherwise have envisaged.

When will the sequel be published and does it yet have a title?

I can’t tell you when the second novel will be published for a very good reason: I haven’t finished writing it yet. When it has been finished and edited, it will then be up to my publisher, Smithcraft Press, whether to accept it for publication and, if so, where it will fit into its schedule. I can tell you that the full title will be Earth Haven Book 2: The Beacon.

I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic novels. What are your favourites?

So am I, though I’m an avid reader of many genres so haven’t read as many apocalyptic novels as I’d have liked. Too many books, not enough time. Of those I have read, the three that instantly spring to mind that I’d have to name as my favourites are, in no particular order:

The Stand by Stephen King. Many apocalyptic tales begin after – sometimes a long time after – the apocalyptic event took place. What I love about The Stand is that the novel opens just before the event begins so we watch it unfold. I also liked the fact that it was not a traumatic event such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war so that our infrastructures remained intact. (The Cleansing is very similar in these aspects.) Certain elements of the tale didn’t appeal to me so much and I would have liked to have seen a little of what was happening outside the United States, but as a whole the book is a fantastic read.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the book has a haunting lyricism and sense of mysticism that stayed with me long after I finished it. Just writing this is making me want to read it again.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Bleak, depressing, pessimistic… I found it utterly compelling. This seems to be a Marmite book, but I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It’s not often I find a book to be truly unputdownable, but this one was. Simply superb.

What was your favourite read of 2013?

My reading highlights included catching up on some classics such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury; my first, but not last, venture into the world of John Le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl; and the moving Joyland by Stephen King. But my absolute favourite read of the year, though I did not anticipate it being so, was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction but picked this up on a whim as a holiday read. Boy, am I glad that I did! The structure is unusual: a series of interviews with key players or witnesses in the zombie war that has recently ended. The advantage of the format is that we get to see the war unfold through many different points of view. Thoughtful, intelligent, it dragged me in and kept me totally engrossed to the end. Wonderful.

Thank you so much, Sam! Roll on Book 2!

No, thank you! Giving up space on your blog for my ramblings is greatly appreciated.

Audiobooks – Part 7

To quickly recap, my three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks were:

  1. a soundproofed workspace;
  2. differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3. learning how to edit and master.

The only item I haven’t talked about is the second part of number 3: mastering. You’ll be glad to know that this will be a much shorter post than the last one on editing.

Before embarking on this enterprise, I had no idea what mastering an audio track even meant. I’m still not much the wiser, except that I know it has to do with making the recording sound as good as possible by, for example, making the sound levels consistent throughout the recording. In other words, it’s a process whereby the track is optimised so that it sounds a lot more professional than it did before it was mastered.

Am I sounding a little vague? That’s because I am. And more than a little. Anyway, the point is that you don’t need to understand the tasks involved in this process to be able to perform them and produce audio of sufficient quality to pass Audible’s quality control checks.

If you’ve been using a second track to disguise fades (see Part 6), you’ll first need to mix both tracks together into one: in my version of Audacity, select ‘Mix – Mix and Render’ from the dropdown ‘Tracks’ menu. Then you’re ready to start the mastering process.

Before we go any further, here are a couple of links you’ll need.

If you’ve already begun the process of narrating your audiobook, you should already be familiar with the first—it’s ACX’s Audio Submission Requirements. When I first read these, the techncal jargon in some of the sections made my eyes spin. But it’s okay—you don’t need to understand most of it.

This is the godsend: Audiobook Mastering. I stumbled across this page when desperately seeking a straightforward method and explanation of how to master an Audacity recording. I downloaded a couple of the plug-ins they provided, followed their instructions and—hey presto!—finished up with a mastered audio track that passed Audible’s quality control checks.

I believe this page has been updated since I first came across it—and Audacity has definitely gone through a few upgrades that I haven’t kept up with—and the plug-ins might be called something different to the ones I use. To avoid causing confusion, I’m not going to talk about what I do. Suffice it to say, follow the three simple steps set out in the instructions and you hopefully won’t go wrong. They even provide a plug-in that enables you to check the track to see if it complies with ACX/Audible’s requirements.

If you do as they suggest and your track doesn’t pass the ACX check, they go on to talk about other things you can try to get it to conform to Audible’s requirements. I’m thankful to say that I have never needed to take any of those additional steps. Here’s hoping that you won’t either.

And essentially that’s it. Before exporting your MP3 track, you’ll need to add a short clip of silence at the start (by generating a half-second clip of silence from the ‘Generate’ dropdown menu) so that your opening clip of ambient room sound (what ACX’s requirements refer to as ‘0.5 to 1 second of room tone’) is preserved during export. Otherwise, it could be lost and your track won’t then satisfy Audible’s requirements—I was going to add a link to where I found the advice to do this, but I can’t recall where it was; probably some online forum. Whatever, it was darned good advice.

 

That’s really all I can say about the process of producing an audiobook. I hope that some of it, at least, will be of use to anyone embarking on the process for the first time.

In the meantime, I’ve recently completed the audio version of The Beacon, the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy. (Here’s a link to the UK Amazon page  where you can listen to the free sample.) It took me substantially longer to narrate and, in particular, edit than it did to write in the first place. Now I need a rest from audiobook production before embarking on the third book in the trilogy, The Reckoning.

Much to my delight, The Beacon has passed both Audible’s and Findaway Voices’ quality-control checks. So the process set out in Part 6, long-winded though it is, still works.

Findaway is an audiobook distributor who will make the book available in around forty different outlets. Due to the kerfuffle with Audible and its shenanigans over returns—see Returns—I have removed my existing audiobooks from exclusivity with Audible and distributed them, too, through Findaway.

Whether this proves to be worthwhile remains to be seen. I might report back at some point in a Part 8. And maybe I can discover a way to specifically promote my audiobooks—if I do, I can feel another Marketing for Muppets post in the offing, though I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Until next time, stay safe and happy listening!

Weird Words 6

The sixth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

innovative

Thanks to an old school friend, Simon Evans, for this suggestion. Simon says he can’t pronounce this word without a long ‘o’. So, something like ‘in-ohh-vative’, with presumably the ‘a’ in ‘-ative’ being short, as in ‘superlative’.

This could be a case of the Avid Reader’s Curse.

If Simon has mainly seen the word written down and seldom heard it spoken, it’s understandable that he might pronounce it incorrectly. I still come across words that trip me up when I try to pronounce them because I usually only encounter them in written form. A recent one was ‘lieutenant’—I had to remind myself that the correct British pronunciation is ‘leff-tenant’ and not ‘lew-tenant’ as our American friends say.

But back to innovative. It means, of course, featuring or introducing new ideas, methods or devices. And it is properly pronouced with a short ‘o’: ‘inno-vative’ where the ‘a’ in ‘-ative’ is longer, as in ‘native’.

petrichor

We’ve all smelled it, that earthy (and, to me, metallic) odour which rises from the pavement when it rains for the first time after a dry spell. It’s a distinctive smell that really deserves its own word. And wouldn’t you know…

It’s only fairly recently that I became aware that one existed, though it seems to have only gained official recognition more recently still.

See this BBC article from 2018 about the word. And here’s another article from around the same time from Merriam-Webster, which I’m including because it’s interesting. Yes, it is. When the article was written, the American dictionary compilers were watching ‘petrichor’ with a view to including it in their dictionary, but it did not then qualify. As the addendum notes, the word was accepted into the dictionary in April 2019.

There you have it. Next time you’re out and it rains for the first time in a while, sniff deeply and say to a passing stranger, “Don’t you just love the smell of petrichor?”

skedaddle

Thanks to fellow writer Mike Van Horn for this suggestion.

What a splendid word this is. It’s another of those words which sounds a lot like its meaning:
—to leave immediately, especially in the sense of to flee in a panic.

When I noticed the snake slithering towards me, I skedaddled in the opposite direction.

The folk at Merriam-Webster included the word in a list of ten common words with military origins. If you find words and their origins interesting, it’s well worth a read: civilianized military jargon.

 

That’s all for Part 6. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

In December 2013, the first book in the Earth Haven trilogy, The Cleansing, was published. A reviewer enjoyed the novel so much that she asked to interview me. Not being one to turn down free publicity, I readily agreed. The interview appeared on her blog towards the end of January 2014.

At the time, I was writing the second book in the trilogy, The Beacon, but (as is obvious from my answers) had no clear idea as to how it would all pan out.

I was with a small-press publisher at the time—seems almost quaint to say that now.

On with the interview…

Why did you write an end-of-the-world story?

I have been fascinated by end-of-the-world tales since watching the film The Omega Man as a young boy. There’s a scene where Charlton Heston wanders into a department store and starts picking out new clothes. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to go into any shop I fancied and just take anything that caught my eye. I was too young to appreciate the downside to all this—the despair, the loneliness, the absolute hopelessness of being in such a situation—but the sense of wonder has never left me.

Since then, some of my favourite books have involved end of the world scenarios: The Stand, Riddley Walker and The Road, to name a few. When I started writing in my early thirties, it seemed perfectly natural to pen an apocalyptic tale and I wrote the short story ‘The Third Coming’ around fifteen years ago. It contained the germs of the ideas that would be realised more fully in The Cleansing and its sequels. When writing that story, something in the back of my mind told me I would be returning to explore that world in more depth at some point.

It nagged at me on and off for the next fifteen years, but it was only when a review of my short story collection Pond Life mentioned that the reviewer would be interested in reading an expanded version of ‘The Third Coming’ that I decided the time was right to return to that world.

Did you find it difficult to approach the genre from a new and fresh perspective?

To be perfectly honest, not once did such considerations enter my head. Of course, I was all too aware that similar stories had been told, and amazingly well, by writers with reputations I can only hope to emulate. More than once the thought passed my mind, ‘Does the world really need yet another apocalytic novel?’ Moreover, by a writer no one’s ever heard of? But I pressed on regardless. Not through arrogance, but because I’m the sort of writer who has to write a story once it’s in my head. The only way to get shot of it is to write it. A little like lancing a boil but without the mess.

Who is your favourite character from The Cleansing?

Bishop and Simone both intrigue me. Without giving anything away, they are of the other sort yet neither display the hive mentality of their kindred.

Peter and Milandra, too, I find interesting. Torn between loyalty to their kind and sympathy for the survivors, I’m looking forward to seeing how they will act from here on in.

But my favourite character? Probably Ceri. I sense a strength of character within her that I don’t think even she’s aware of.

Do you know how the rest of the story will play out?

I know (roughly) how the third book ends, so in that sense it’s plot-driven. However, I have no idea how the characters will reach that point. And there are new characters in Book Two (The Beacon) that I’m enjoying getting to know. Quite what their roles will be is not yet clear. That’s part of the fun, and terror, of the way I write: I don’t plot in advance—I’ve tried and I can’t do it—so it’s almost as much a journey of discovery for me as it will be for the reader.

Without giving too much away, what’s next in store for the characters?

Tom was the dominant survivor in The Cleansing, but I suspect that he has already plumbed the depths of his courage when he did what he had to do in his mother’s back garden. Ceri will come more to the fore in Book Two. I know that at least one of the new characters, Bri (pronounced like brie, the cheese), will have a big part to play.

Simone will become a key figure, but possibly not revealing her full role until Book Three. Diane is still an enigma—her innermost feelings and motivations are still unclear. And Peter… hmmm. He’s hiding something. That’s all I’d better say for now.

Who is your favourite comfort author and what is your favourite comfort book?

Since my teens, Stephen King has always been my go-to author, but Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is often revisited for light-hearted escapism. So I’d have to declare a draw for my favourite comfort author. Book? No contest: The Lord of the Rings. I can return to it time after time and never grow bored.

And your favourite comfort food?

Ribeye steak (medium/well done), onion rings, fried mushrooms, peas, golden chips, all washed down with a good Merlot.

Name something you’d like to be better at doing.

Advance plotting. I’m a little envious of writers who can produce a 30,000-word outline then knock out a near-perfect novel in a few weeks because most of the hard work—resolving twists and turns, coping with characters who insist on doing their own thing, tying up loose ends—was done at the outline stage.

Oh, and I have to mention self-promotion. I’m completely inept at blowing my own trumpet. When I try, I become all coy and self-deprecating. So that’s what I wish I was good at—and so do my publishers.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 7

To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Passive voice

Discussions about active and passive voice come up from time to time in any group or forum where writers congregate. It seems to be one of those topics about which there is some confusion.

So what is the passive voice? Put simply, it’s where the subject noun of a sentence (usually the first, or only, noun in the sentence) is being acted upon. It’s not doing anything—it’s having something done to it, i.e. it’s being passive. For example:

The grass is being cut.

The subject (grass) is having something done to it (being cut). A passive construction may not even tell us who or what is performing the action, as here.

The active voice is where the subject noun of a sentence is performing an action upon an object. What would the example be if written in active voice? It would be helpful to know who’s doing the cutting—the passive voice example doesn’t tell us, though it could have been written: ‘The grass is being cut by Keith.’ The active version becomes:

Keith cuts the grass.

The subject noun is now Keith and he is performing an action (cutting) upon an object (grass).

I don’t like to go into too much detail when discussing these weighty grammatical matters—this is supposed, after all, to be not too serious—and prefer to provide a link to an authoritative voice where those interested can read further into the topic if that’s what floats their boat. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about passive and active voice: active-vs-passive-voice-difference. Or google ‘passive voice v active’ or similar—there’s oodles of stuff out there about it.

I have seen some writers state that if a sentence contains ‘was’ or ‘is’, the sentence must be written in passive voice. (This is the source of confusion I mention above.) But it ain’t necessarily so. While some form of the verb ‘to be’ usually appears in the passive construction (e.g. ‘the earth was destroyed by a meteor’), its presence isn’t conclusive. For instance, ‘Keith is/was cutting the grass’ is in active voice. There is still a subject noun (Keith) performing an action (cutting) upon an object (grass).

What the inclusion of ‘is’ or ‘was’ can do is provide an indication of whether an action has concluded or is continuing. Take these examples:

It rained. Peter stepped outside.
It was raining. Peter stepped outside.

In which example does Peter get wet? Almost certainly the second one because ‘was raining’ suggests it carried on raining and was still doing so when Peter stepped outside. In the first example, however, it’s possible that it had stopped raining by the time he stepped out.

Either way, both examples are written in active voice.

Could/should/would have v could/should/would of

Ah, social media. We’ve all seen examples of this on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere:

I could of eaten a horse
You should of kept it
She would of cried with shame

In each example, of course, the ‘of’ should be ‘have’. Yet many people (and not necessarily of lower intelligence or uneducated) use ‘of’ in this way in their everyday speech. Little surprise, perhaps, that they write it as they say it.

There is an argument that since English is a living language and that’s how people do talk and write, then it should become acceptable usage. Maybe, but we haven’t reached that point yet.

Final word on this to Merriam-Webster: whats-worse-than-coulda.

 

I’ll leave you with a thought: is ‘orange’ the most unimaginative name ever given to anything?* Till next time…

*It has been gently pointed out to me that the colour orange takes it name from the fruit, not the other way round as implied by my feeble attempt at humour. That’ll teach me to check things thoroughly beforehand.

 

On Being a Science Fiction Writer

This was part of a series of interviews a fellow writer was conducting with indie science fiction writers to feature on his blog. I completed the interview in January 2014 and it must have appeared on the blog a month or so later.

I’ve since read a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin—love everythng of hers I’ve read so far—but not yet anything by Harry Turtledove, though I have some of his works sitting on my Kindle. I haven’t yet read any longer works by Hugh Howey, but did have a story included alongside one of his in a flash fiction anthology: Stories On the Go

On with the interview…

What made you become a writer?*

First and foremost, a deep and abiding love of reading. Many of the stories I read as a child are still with me today, though I read them forty or more years ago. Books like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series, and, of course, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. In my teens I discovered Lord of the Rings and it has captivated me ever since. Then authors like James Herbert, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett came along, and I was hooked.

I started writing fiction in my early thirties for a number of reasons. Here’s a couple. At the time, I was doing a stressful job that I hated. Writing became a sort of pressure release valve, a refuge from dark introspection. It also represented a possible, if unlikely, escape route from a job I loathed to one I loved. At about the same time, I read a number of novels that left me feeling flat, wondering how they’d been published. I can’t now recall their titles (and wouldn’t name them if I could), but felt I could do better.

Why do you write science fiction?

Although I refer to mainly fantasy and horror books and authors above, I have also enjoyed reading science fiction over the years. Works by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, to name but a few. Pratchett’s Discworld series is generally regarded as fantasy, but contains many elements of science fiction.

The title story of my short story collection, Pond Life, is probably the first science fiction story I wrote. It concerns a space ship crashing into a pond outside a sleepy Welsh village and sinking to the bottom. Though the occupants of the craft are slowly dying, they work certain changes in the village’s inhabitants.

I didn’t set out to be a science fiction writer, merely a writer, but it was inevitable that science fiction would form part of my writing output. Many writers, myself included, write the sort of books that they like to read. Since science fiction forms a large portion of my reading pleasure, I was bound to write it. Put another way, we write what we write because we read what we read.

Do your stories contain some hidden, deeper meaning?

My intention in writing a story is purely and simply to entertain. Let’s face it, for all its wonders life can be pretty shit at times. I have often found escape and solace in losing myself in other worlds found between the pages of a book and enriched by my imagination. If I can provide the means to do the same for others, I’ll be happy. If readers can find some message or deeper meaning in my work, then that’s a bonus, but wasn’t what I set out to do.

Talk about one of your published works.

My short story collection contains another science fiction story, an apocalyptic tale: The Third Coming. It was written more than ten years ago, probably closer to fifteen, but I remember thinking at the time that it touched on ideas that might reward further exploration at some later date. Ideas concerning the origins of humankind and a method of faster-than-light travel and the purpose of Stonehenge, amongst others.

I revisited those ideas last year and sat down to write a novel based on them. I do a regular job full time and have to fit writing into evenings and weekends, but I completed the first draft in just under nine weeks, a record time for me. The novel is called The Cleansing and was published in December.

Who are your favourite science fiction authors?

I’ve mentioned some already. I can add Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks. There are many authors whose works I haven’t yet read, but fully intend to, such as Ursula Le Guin, Harry Turtledove and, sacrilege I know, Hugh Howey. Too many books, not enough time…

As for why I like these authors? For the depth of their imaginations and their sheer story-telling abilities.

What reactions do you hope to provoke in your readers?

As I say above, I want to entertain and help provide an avenue to forget about the humdrum for a while. If readers take something more from my work, something that makes them think or view the world differently, then all to the good. But if I only manage to entertain them, that will do.

Tell us about your work-in-progress.

A week or two into writing The Cleansing, it became apparent that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. As an unknown, I didn’t want to write a doorstop that nobody would take a chance on buying, so decided to write a trilogy. I ended The Cleansing at about 90,000 words at a point that I felt was a natural place to pause. Not every reviewer agrees and I completely see where they’re coming from, but I hope they understand that I had to end it somewhere (or write a doorstop).

Now I’m working on the sequel: The Beacon. It picks up almost immediately where The Cleansing left off. I’m enjoying meeting the characters again (I haven’t seen them since July) and introducing some new characters that I’m slowly getting to know. Although I shall do everything I can to end this one at another natural pausing point, it will still leave the main story arc unresolved. That will happen at the conclusion of the third novel. I have an ending in mind but have little idea how I’ll get there. I’m relishing the journey.

 

* A note on copyright. Although the answers to the questions in this interview (and others I’ll be reproducing here) are mine and I am the sole copyright holder, I did not write the questions and do not hold the copyright in them. While the questions are fairly generic—you will see them, or ones just like them, asked in hundreds of blogs and other media—I have reworded them (and will reword them in other interviews I post) to avoid any suggestion of copyright infringement.

Audiobooks – Part 6

In Part 5, I said I’d run through my audio-editing process. This is purely for the benefit of anyone who’s thinking of producing their own audiobooks, but who doesn’t have the first clue about editing.

I am not claiming this to be the only or best way to edit audio using Audacity. On the contrary, it is not even an advisable method because it is massively time-consuming. 

As I write this, I’m picturing experienced audiobook producers rolling their eyes. What a ludicrously time-intensive way of doing things, I imagine them thinking. I completely agree with them. There must be quicker, more efficient ways of achieving the same outcome.

What this method has going for it is that it works—i.e. it results in audiobooks that meet Audible’s production standards—and works for narrators, like me, who don’t have a professional recording space and who aren’t professional narrators. I was extremely doubtful that my efforts would pass Audible’s quality control checks—why would they with the limitations on my recording studio and narration capabilities (see Part 5)? To have had both short story collections accepted first time without the need to make any changes was a huge boost. It also makes me reluctant to depart from the method that I know works, no matter how painstaking it is.

Painstaking is right. I have speeded up a little, but my editing time probably exceeds half an hour per completed minute of recording time. When you consider that the novel I’m currently producing in audio—The Beacon —is coming in at over thirty minutes per chapter, and there are twenty-three chapters altogether, that’s a significant time commitment.

Seriously, I’m not recommending you use my editing process. If you look around, you should be able to find a far more efficient method—if you do, please let me know. I’m setting out what I do for those who can’t find another way of doing it to a standard that meets Audible’s requirements.

Editing – Part 2

Always back up first—you really don’t want to have to make a new recording if something goes wrong during editing and you lose the original. I usually export the raw clip from Audacity as a WAV file and then save that file to the cloud.

Step 1
Listen to the entire recording, deleting the mistakes. By ‘mistakes’ I mean the sections that I mucked up during recording or an external noise intruded or whatever and I noticed and so was able to re-record the mucked-up section immediately. There’s something quite satisfying about deleting the duff bit, leaving only a popping or clicking noise where that bit was. (That click will be eradicated later—don’t worry about it, or any other unwanted sounds, now.)

Raw recordings of each chapter of The Beacon might be as long as fifty minutes—I told you I make a lot of mistakes during narration. By the time I’ve completed Step 1, the recording will typically be reduced to around forty minutes.

Step 1 is easy since it is simply a case of deleting, without being concerned about removing clicks, etc. There’s no finesse required here and it might take me around an hour or two, depending on the length of the raw recording.

Step 2
I now need to create my ‘good silence’. I usually record around thirty seconds of silence after speaking the final word. This gives me plenty of ambient room noise to play with.

Although I’m only looking for around two seconds of good silence for the editing process, Audible requires around four seconds of room noise at the end of each chapter so I make sure I have at least four seconds at this stage.

What do I mean by ‘good’silence’? It’s ambient room sound (a distant background hum) without any external noises like traffic or breathing or rustling. It will show on Audacity as a flat line, unbroken by the spikes that represents sounds.

Although I sit as still as a statue to record the thirty seconds of silence, you can guarantee my stomach will rumble or a noisy vehicle will go past or the house will creak for no apparent reason. (You notice sounds like that when you’re trying to be especially quiet.) So I need to remove those extraneous noises, leaving only the ambient sound, using the effect ‘Crossfade Clips’ (see below).

Step 3
This is the time consumer. This is where the attention to detail comes in.

First things first—I add a second track (from the dropdown menu ‘Tracks’) and then copy around two seconds of the good silence I created in Step 2 to the clipboard*. You can paste that clip as many times as you want during each session, but it won’t remain in the clipboard after you close Audacity down. I therefore begin each editing session by going to the end and copying the two-second clip of good silence before resuming where I left off.

It’s then a case of working my way through every second of the recording to:
– shorten pauses between sentences and paragraphs to make them roughly the same length,
– insert a two-second pause between scenes, and
– remove unwanted noises: breathing, creaks, rustling, clicks, slappy mouth sounds (no matter how careful I am, I will inevitably make a few per recording that the microphone gleefully picks up), banging doors, passing vehicles, whatever.

There are two main methods I use—which one will depend on the type of change I’m trying to make. You can only work this out through trial and error initially, but it gets much easier the more accustomed to it you become. Don’t be afraid to experiment—one of the big pluses of Audacity is that it allows you to undo any number of steps (within that session), so if you make a mistake, simply undo it and try again.

Crossfade Clips:
I use this mainly to decrease spaces between sentences, to shorten mid-sentence pauses and to get rid of clicks left over from Step 1. It can also be used to eliminate clicking noises mid-word, though this can be tricky to achieve without losing part of the word and thus making it noticeable to a listener. You might need to use fade instead—you’ll have to experiment.

Here’s an example:

In A1, the space between two sentences, at over two seconds, is too long. I want to reduce it to about a second. Simply deleting a chunk of gap will introduce popping noises. To avoid this, use the Effect ‘Crossfade Clips’.

As shown in A2, highlight the area to reduce and apply ‘Crossfade Clips’ from the dropdown menu.

A3 shows the result. The gap has been reduced to just over a second. If I want to reduce it further, I can repeat the process, highlighting a smaller area if I only want to reduce the gap slightly. The larger the area highlighted, the greater the reduction. Only trial and error will give you a feel for it, but it will come with practice.

Fade Out/Fade In:
In the above example, I’ve reduced the gap between sentences, but I haven’t addressed the sounds (the clicks, pops, creaks and sighs) picked up by the microphone during recording and represented by the thicker dots and dashes. If I use Crossfade Clips again, the gap will become shorter, whch I may not want. Here’s how to eliminate unwanted sounds in the gaps between words and sentences without shortening the gap.

As shown in A4, apply Fade Out from roughly the end of the preceding sentence to around the midpoint of the gap. This will eliminate any unwanted noises, especially towards the end of the highlighted area. To get rid of noise from the start of the gap without shortening it, you can start/end a fade in a different place (but you’ll have to be careful not to introduce extra clicks or pops—generally speaking, so long as you perform a corresponding Fade In/Out that slightly overlaps the first one, you shouldn’t introduce any new clicks). Again, it’s a matter of trial and error—practice and you’ll become proficient.

As shown in A5, you then highlight from the centre of the gap to the first word of the next sentence and apply ‘Fade In’. You must ensure that the highlighted area begins just before the point where the previously highlighted area ended—the overlap I mention above—as otherwise you’ll create a new clicking/popping sound. Again, if this doesn’t eliminate sounds towards the end of the gap, you might need to do a Fade Out, but practice will make perfect.

The sounds you can see in the highlighted section in A3 have disappeared; the line in that section is now perfectly flat. However, if you do nothing further, you’ll be able to hear where the fades start or end, so you need to cover them up. This is where the clip of ‘good silence’ comes in. Simply paste it over the gap onto the second track, making sure the start and end of the clip corresponds with speaking on the main track (adjusting the length of the clip as necessary using ‘Delete’ from the ‘Edit’ dropdown menu) as otherwise the start/end of the clip will be heard as a clicking noise.

 

Okay, so that’s how I do it. If you’ve been struggling to find a way to edit that satisfies Audible’s requirements, feel free to copy what I do. It’s worth repeating the warning, though: it’s hugely time-consuming and there must be a better way to do it.

Next time, in a much briefer post, I’ll talk a little about mixing and mastering. (That makes it sound as though I know a lot about them—I don’t, I really don’t, but I know what to do to get it approved by Audible.) Till then…

 

* Since drafting this post, a way to reduce the editing time occurred to me. I recorded a lengthy section of ambient room noise. Then I used Crossfade Clips to remove any extraneous sounds, leaving only good silence. I spliced the clip together a few times (and used Crossfade Clips to conceal the joins) to leave me with a track of thirty-six minutes consisting entirely of good silence. It’s saved as a WAV file and labelled ‘Ambience’. When I embark on Step 3, the first thing I do is import ‘Ambience’ as the second track. This avoids having to paste a clip of silence over each edit and is saving me a fair amount of time overall. Wish I’d thought of it sooner. Here’s a screenshot of the current Beacon chapter I’m working on showing the Ambience track beneath the main track.

Reviewing: An Unknown Writer’s Perspective

[Browsing through the murky depths of my hard drive the other day, I came across a handful of articles and interviews—some from quite a few years back—most of which were published on blogs or websites of fellow writers. So that I have everything I’ve had published collected in one place, I’ll reproduce them on my blog from time to time, with a brief note of when they were written and, where I can remember, why. There is often overlap between interviews and articles, and so inevitably the later pieces will repeat, sometimes verbatim, some of the earlier material.

Let’s kick off with this article, written in 2002 and first published in the long-defunct Cambrensis magazine*. To the fifty-six-year-old me, this piece displays a fairly high level of naivety on the part of thirty-eight-year-old me—it is evident that the possibility of a self-publishing revolution, which was around five years away when I wrote this, was not on my radar. Hardly surprising, given that I didn’t notice the revolution until around five years after it had started.

On with the article…]

 

How should an unknown writer approach the preparation of a review of another writer’s work? With extreme caution, I would suggest.

To state the obvious, though it’s surprising how often it seems to be overlooked, a review is a showcase of your own writing talent. Don’t make it dull and uninspiring, even if the book you’re reviewing is. Use it to demonstrate that you, too, are a writer, but without losing sight of the work under consideration. It’s a question of balance: providing a fair appraisal of the book, while revealing a glimpse of your own writing ability.

Books are like any other entertainment medium or artform – films, music, comics, photographs, paintings, theatre, etc. Beauty is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Take the film The Blair Witch Project, a perfect example. People who have seen it seem to fall within two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I come within the former category. I thought the film was brilliantly conceived and executed, one of the scariest films made, yet without showing a single supernatural image or gory scene. That’s probably why many people felt it a waste of time.

The point, of course, is that art is completely subjective. This can best be expressed in relation to books by mutilating a well-known proverb: one man’s ripping yarn is another man’s sleep-inducer. And that’s a sentiment that we should always keep in mind when reviewing another’s work.

The best sort of reviewer is he (or she) who tells us enough about a book to give us a flavour – no more – of its plot and characters, tells us why he likes or dislikes it, then, regardless of personal taste, encourages us to go and read it. Such a reviewer appreciates that simply because he hated a book it doesn’t mean that we will, and recognises that his role is not to read a book in our place, but to draw our attention to it so that we may read it and judge for ourselves.

That, I believe, is the ideal we should all, as writers, particularly of the unknown variety, aim for when reviewing. The key word is objectivity. Let’s not dismiss other people’s work out of hand. We know, or can give a shrewd estimate of, the time and effort that goes into writing a book. Who are we to be contemptuous of the result of those labours? Moreover, do we want to run the risk of the first reviewer of our debut novel or collection being the same author whose work we so callously dismissed? Nor should we talk up good writing so much that it can never meet a reader’s inflated expectations. Remember: we have all had work that we feel is good summarily rejected, showing that we are not the best judges of our own work. Why should we be of others’?

And there’s a sound practical reason why a reviewer of, say, a novel, who is himself an aspiring novelist, should encourage people to read the book for themselves, even if he considers it the worst piece of writing he’s ever encountered. The more books people buy, the more money publishers make and the more should be available to filter downwards, making the publishers more willing to take risks on unknown writers. That’s you and me.

But wait, you’re saying. I have to review a novel that’s badly written, has a hackneyed plot, stereotypical characters and clichéd conflicts. It has no redeeming features and I can’t conceive of it being anyone’s ripping yarn. How can I encourage anybody to read such drivel without being completely dishonest?

Well, try to remember that somebody thought the book had something going for it – they’ve published it, haven’t they? Assuming the author isn’t the daughter of the publisher’s managing director, the book must have some good points. Take another look. Then another. If you still can’t find anything positive to say, then I suppose you’ll have to let rip.

Just don’t forget that in doing so you may be harming more than the reviewed author’s prospects.

 

*if you were a writer of short fiction or book reviews in South Wales at the turn of the Millennium, you will almost certainly have heard of Cambrensis

Weird Words 5

The fifth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Raccoon

Thanks to Vijaya for suggesting this word—it’s one of her favourites.

Raccoon… hmm, makes me think of Guardians of the Galaxy and, unlike Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, a non-irritating CGI anthropormorphic animal named Rocket.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a raccoon is a small nocturnal carnivore native to North America. According to Merriam-Webster, the word derives from the native American language Virginia Algonquian, also known as Powhatan. According to Wikipedia, that language became extinct around the 1790s when its speakers were forced to switch to English.

That makes me feel sad.

Noisome

Meaning highly obnoxious or objectionable; often used to describe a disgusting smell.

It’s one of those words ripe for being misused by the careless writer who chucks it into a sentence without double-checking its meaning.

The noisome explosions surrounded me while I cowered in the foxhole.

Nope. Unless, perhaps, you’re describing the rapid expulsion of air from someone’s backside, or a hand grenade lobbed into a cesspit, explosions are rarely likely to be noisome.

Kerfuffle

Another of those words I love because they sound so much like their meaning. Does a disturbance or commotion sound like a kerfuffle to you? Of course it does.

It apparently comes from a combination of ancient Scots and Gaelic. Probably. It typically refers to a commotion caused by an argument, though can apply to most disturbances.

Since I’m claiming it to be one of my favourite words, I checked to see whether I’d used it in any of my published fiction. Lo and behold, it appears in my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls.

Although the rear wall blocked out the Dead Lights at ground level, they were bright enough to light up the garden like a flare and I was vaguely aware of a kerfuffle coming from the disturbed animals and poultry as I sprinted past them.

See—told you I loved it.

 

That’s all for Part 5. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 6

To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Punctuation for Effect

Most writers know there are rules of punctuation to which they should generally adhere. It is possible to depart from these rules—for example, by not enclosing dialogue in quotation marks à la Cormac McCarthy—but do so at your peril because you can bet your bottom dollar that it will irritate the heck out of some readers. And some of them won’t hesitate to post a scathing review. (If you don’t believe me, check out the low-star reviews on some of McCarthy’s works.)

Most writers also know that sometimes the rules can be broken deliberately and to good, if subtle, effect. There might be other instances, but I’m thinking particularly of punctuation in dialogue. Consider these examples:

“No, we don’t.”

“No. We don’t.”

“No we don’t.”

It’s all about nuance—each example conveys a slightly different tone on the part of the speaker. The first is punctuated as you’d expect, suggesting the speaker is calm and talking in a normal tone. The second has the full stop (period) after ‘No’, implying that the speaker is being deliberate and more emphatic—maybe they are involved in a minor argument with someone. The third has no punctuation between the words. That’s not breaking the rules to be contrary, but for a particular purpose: it requires the reader not to pause between the words, implying that the speaker is a little flustered—a hurried rebuttal, perhaps.

Here are some more examples:

“No. We. Don’t.”

“No we don’t!”

“No, we don’t…”

“No, we don’t—”

It depends largely on the surrounding text, but each example might suggest something slightly different on the part of the speaker: over-emphasis, excitement, uncertainty, interruption.

Not all of these examples break the rules of punctuation and sentence structure, but even those that do are effective at conveying the desired impression about the speaker. In dialogue, especially, it is possible to imply a host of different moods simply by altering the punctuation.

It’s probably a good idea to depart from the norms only sparingly, since even the most forgiving readers will grow irritated at what they consider cavalier disregard for rules that have been long established for good reason.

‘Try and’ v ‘Try to’

Many of us will have used the expression ‘try and’ in everyday speech.

“When will it be ready?”

“I’ll try and get it done by tomorrow.”

The reply could have been, “I’ll try to get it done by tomorrow.” Either way, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Yet, ‘try and’ is a weird expression when you think about it. Change the reply in the above example just a smidgeon and only the ‘try to’ construction works:

“I’m trying to get it done by tomorrow.”

If we said, “I’m trying and get it done by tomorrow,” the listener would think we’ve gone barmy.

In my writing, I have always changed ‘try and’ to ‘try to’ whenever I notice I’ve used it (except I’ll allow it to stay occasionally in dialogue). This comes from a nagging sense that ‘try and’ is somehow ungrammatical. But is it?

The short answer is no. If you want to use ‘try and’ in your writing—not just in dialogue but in narrative, too—have at it.

For a longer answer, take a look at what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject: try-and-v-try-to

 

I’ll leave you with another thought about collective nouns. If there’s a prickle of porcupines and a paddling of ducks, why isn’t there a poppycock of politicians? Till next time…