Saturday, October 20, 2012

Megalo and Maniacal

Remember those old comic books that featured some megalomaniacal, god-wannabe, mad scientist creating his own kingdom of new life-forms? It was like a world in a bottle, except that the bottle was the size of a city. Invariably this guy, whose name was always something equally delusional, like “Giganto the Awesome”, would locate his creation in some godforsaken outpost like Antarctica or the Sahara desert. He would do that because, you know, there’s SO much infrastructure already there to support his massive project, not to mention lots of flights coming into the local airport to bring him all those high-tech components.
You remember those guys, right? My favorite was the dipshit who built his kingdom on the side of a mountain cliff. It was a wicked visual, to be sure. So wicked, in fact, that it wasn’t until many years later that the light bulb went on. A mountain cliff? Really?
Readers of my blog remember I was complaining last week about my problems with plot generation. If you consider that a plot is just a linear slice of the larger world in which it takes place, you may think that I’m also in the business of world generation. In that case, I would invite you to bow down and address me as Giganto. Then again, maybe not. I’m not going to create a whole new world for two reasons: one, I’m not George R.R. Martin, and two, see above.
Instead, I thought that I would turn the linear-slice concept on its head. Rather than string together a sequence of events, I would generate the plot with random access. In other words, I would go back to the index card method. It worked for Machines of Kali, and it’ll work for Currencies of Loki. After all, making each scene the atomic unit of the story (versus characters or events) is not that far-fetched.
Some of my favorite writer/bloggers will post pictures of their offices, in which an entire wall will be covered with pinned-up cards and post-it notes. I’m not into the whole bulletin board thing myself, but I am a big believer in the sort of flexible development that allows you to drill down to a single space. When you’ve crafted a scene that exists on its own, you can focus on just that space. There’s something oddly exhilarating about the prospect of sitting down to spew out the most extreme, lurid, and potentially devastating piece of narrative possible. A scene-centric focus liberates you to do that.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Problem with Plots

Like everyone else, I had no clue what I was doing the first time I wrote a book. I’m a fast learner, though, so I thought that I could learn from the experience. What I primarily learned is this: I write too much.
Machines of Kali finally clocked in at 139K words, but I’m positive I wrote at least twice that. Sadly, it was mostly drivel. I had to go back and hack-and-slash it mercilessly, torturing it into submission before I could take it even halfway seriously. I combined characters, deleted subplots, and eliminated backstories. Some characters’ histories I distilled into a sentence or two - in one case, just a toss-off phrase. Much later, I realized that all this preliminary copy was not only vestigial, but unnecessary. If I had just written draft seven way back instead of draft one, I could have saved myself a year or two.
Jeez, I thought, there has to be a better way. 
I know lots of writers do the chew-and-spew or, as teachers like to call it, “freestyle” writing. It’s got its place, sure, but IMHO, a novel is a tightly wound device. How can precision be served by waste? And length is not a factor; a long book can be extremely tight. No one ever said Mario Puzo’s Godfather meandered, and that covered three generations of family. I loved The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, because it was long, but never loose.
So, for the dual purposes of efficiency and efficacy, I swore that the next book I wrote would be much tighter. I would vividly compose every character, precisely isolate every telling detail, and thoroughly outline every plot point in advance. No detail would be too small to be mapped out beforehand. I wanted there to be no weak spots, no meandering mess, and no missing details.
In the process of subjugating every writing impulse to this greater purpose, I discovered something else: it’s really, really hard. I had to tweak out new characters to carry the story, research new background to fill out the world, and contort the sequencing every which way. In other words, it was a lot like the first book, except that this time, all the preliminary junk was a thought experiment.
I also discovered something else while I was creating what amounted to one big plot. There’s a problem with plots. Eventually, they end. The movie director Christopher Nolan said that when he composes a story, he often begins with the final scene and writes backwards. If I could do that, I’d be much happier, not to mention Mr. Nolan. Of course, who doesn’t want to be Mr. Nolan?
Right now, I’m stuck with a deep beginning and a thrilling middle, but a confused end. How does the hero figure out the villain’s trap? What is the villain’s fate? Who is the romantic focus? Questions like these hardly instill confidence in the rest of the outline, and are hardly the definition of a tight story.
The suffering continues.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mark Coker’s Visage

Last week, I had never heard of Mark Coker. This week, I think he’s a god.
I’ve been on the Amazon Kindle market for several months now. In that time, I’ve been uprunning all the other operations of my little indie authorship (professional cover art, internet presence, tangential projects, etc.), Finally, I decided to expand my distribution. I’d heard of Smashwords all along, of course: in the world of e-readers, as the saying goes, there’s Amazon and, for everything else, there’s Smashwords.
But after finding the Smashwords website and printing out their how-to booklets, I had a strange epiphany. At the end of every doc, there was the same smiling face, lit from beneath by an oddly encroaching light source which gave the curve of the mouth a strange smirk it could not otherwise possess. It was a startling effect, given that it was such a tiny image at the end of an otherwise overloaded instruction booklet. How often do you plow through a formatting manual just to arrive at some guy’s smiling face?
That’s how I knew that Smashwords was completely different from Amazon. Don’t get me wrong. The Kindle opened my eyes to a brand new world, and Amazon is still my favorite tech company. But discovering Mr. Coker’s creation Smashwords has been like discovering a new friend.
These documents that I printed were clearly a labor of love, showing an artist playing to an audience of one. Mr. Coker’s instructional copy came off the page like he was talking to me directly, like we were all in on the same joke. Since he was in our position not so long ago, he’s got the exact same mindset. But the difference with this guy is that he did something about it. And he knows it.
Something else I found really impressive was the originality of his business model. Another author once said: there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Mr. Coker clearly anticipated the e-reader tide, observed the fragmentation of formatting, and concocted a simple solution: one formatter, multiple outputs. Most importantly, he saw the headaches he could avoid by NOT being a publisher. Smashwords is a distributor, plain and simple, and their throughput is driven by their formatter. 
The marketing genius behind this simple idea is so zen, so meta, that it’s hard to imagine a world where it had never existed at all. For me, that world was last week. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Components of Essay

I’ve been writing a lot of essay-length stuff recently. By “essay-length” I mean around 500 words. The funny thing is that, just like quantum physics, at that scale a certain distinct rule emerges. No matter the content – explication, review, entertainment – I’ve found that the length itself defines the requirements. 
Oddly enough, though, the method itself comes in different flavors. In fact, there are three different processes, each with three different phases, that I can delineate off the top of my head.
The first process is 1) ideas, 2) outline, and 3) write. This is the most academic of the different flavors. The first phase, ideas, is the most important. Here I would work out the general concepts, with lots of research and reflection, all the while getting them straight in my head. Eventually, this generation of ideas would inform their presentation. This is where the outline would come in. By this time, the organization should be obvious, and so this phase would be quick (it’s only 500 words, after all). Finally, I would write. If I’ve done the first two phases correctly, writing should be a stark exercise of only manifesting the ideas, and nothing more. 
The second process is 1) write, 2) organize, and 3) glue. In this flavor, I would spew out as many ideas as I could. Some may call it “freestyle” writing, but it’s not really stream-of-consciousness per se, because I have specific topics I want to discuss. Once I reached a critical mass of copy (which is easy to spot when you’re restricted to 500 words), I would go back and move it around to the point where I felt it created a coherent narrative. Since it’s a little disjointed, I would have to go back and glue it all together; that way, it reads like a full-on narrative and not a patched-up mess.
The third process is 1) spew, 2) buff, 3) and promote. This is a catch-all flavor. As a discrete course of action, it probably belongs somewhere else since it’s not an organizing sequence. However, there is a place in the creative process for embellishment as its own element. The most important part, by far, would be the buffing. In fact, only when the buffing is satisfactorily complete would I then promote this to a public venue. If it’s never complete, so be it. This process, since it is dedicated to turning internal thoughts into public discourse, is probably closest to the pure technical definition of communication.
So, those are my three different courses of action when it comes to essay-writing.
Next question is: what did I use for this essay?  Well, that’s a good question.
I’m not answering.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Here’s The Deal

In my day job, I work with financial computer programs. Usually, I’m the last guy in line to answer the question, “Where did this number come from?” Being the guy who explains such hidden behavior is kind of like being the Man Behind the Curtain. You have to come out and explain, “Here’s the Deal.”
What does this have to do with fiction? Simple. Just as an artist should be equally proficient in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and digital, just as the lead guitarist should be able to play bass, piano, drums, and sing, and just as the black belt karate master should know about boxing, muy thai, judo, akido, wrestling and so on, the proficient writer should be able to handle all sorts of disciplines.
It takes a special discipline to decipher the invisible. Think of all the components of fiction: plot, character, verisimilitude, point of view, sequencing, and the rest. All these are meant to tell a story where there is nothing. A straight-up exposition of logic is much the same thing, except that nothing has been replaced by confusion. In a way, that is harder to do, because there is a pre-existing misconception of which one must dispose before even starting the explanation.
One of my favorite proverbs is the Three Blind Men and the Elephant. It goes like this:
Three blind men approach an elephant. The first grabs its trunk and says, “Ah ha! This creature is like a snake.” The second wraps his arms around a leg and says, “No, this beast is a tree.” The third feels its great flapping ears and pronounces, “You’re both wrong! It is a bird.”
All three are right. Yet, all are completely wrong. The elephant beyond their localized perceptions is something else entirely. When you attempt to explain what The Deal is, you have to address those perceptual shortcomings. It’s a skill. Being able to say “Here’s the Deal” requires you back it up, no matter how confusing.
          Here’s the Deal. You have to assume that your reader is not just totally ignorant of your back story, but that she believes something wholly antithetical to your message. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. 
And, as we know, truth rarely wins the beauty contest. That’s the Deal.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Skull Scoring System

What’s a book review without a final score? It’s easy to understand, pleasantly digestible, and forces the reviewer to put up or shut up. By those standards, the ultimate scoring system was Siskel & Ebert’s “thumbs up, thumbs down”. With a flick of their digits, they rendered a binary judgment requiring no conscious effort by their audience. 
My scoring system, however, is more nuanced. By aping the standard 5-Star system found in fine websites everywhere, I'm able to provide shades of meaning. Unlike the “star” rating system, though, (“I give Basket Case five stars!”), I like to use skulls as my cardinal symbols:

5 Skulls:  
 Awesome on top of awesome. Absolutely no qualifiers to the breathless adoration heaped upon such a masterpiece. To not shout its praises from the rooftop would be a crime against humanity; to not read it, a betrayal of one’s soul.

4 Skulls:
Really good. This is a story you must read, and soon. It will possess at least one aspect of sublime execution, if not more. Almost certainly guaranteed to inform you and stay with you.

3 Skulls:
Good enough to read, but not so good you would stay home and pass up a good party.

2 Skulls:
Mostly drivel. You won’t go on a rampage, but you will find it difficult to finish. And if you do, you’ll always wonder about what you might have been doing with all that time.  

1 Skull:
Putrid toxic waste. If you’re going to read a 1-Skuller all the way through, you might as well be sitting on a pineapple while you do.

0 Skulls:
Completely without any redeeming value whatsoever. This will scar you permanently, and, depending on your situation in life, probably scar your offspring, as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Open Letter to the Editors

Dear Editors of [your favorite writers’ magazine],

I would submit to you that there is a place in your writers’ magazine for a technology column. Moore’s law, after consuming so many other industries, is finally asserting itself in writing. From simple spell-checkers to A.I. influenced narrative generators, this trend will only accelerate in the next decade. Therefore, a technology column would serve your readership well.

For instance, this column could review the current product offerings. Already we are being pitched software like Final Draft 8 and Master Writer. These are many others have been advertising in your pages for months, if not years. Why not provide an unbiased commentary?

          This column could also monitor the current state of writing technology. For instance, there is Narrative Science, a company that generates prose from its computers, providing millions of words of sports news and financial reports from nothing more than data and algorithms. Its C.T.O. has stated that his machines will win a Pulitzer Prize within five years. An in-depth analysis of his claim would make for a compelling story.

          Already, there are automated essay-scoring engines being pushed by commercial vendors. By all accounts, these machine algorithms are more than adequate to the task. How do they work? What do they contribute to standardized testing? Most importantly, since tomorrow’s writers are today’s students, what will be their impact on the fiction of the future? These are not pie-in-the-sky questions. These are real, and they are immediate.

I once wrote software reviews for Futures Magazine. At that time, it was obvious how technology and software was to be applied to the financial markets, particularly to the individual trader. Ten years later, we’re seeing the same transformation with the individual writer. I submit that this is fallow ground for journalism. We should see more of it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

When Writing and Technology Intersect

I’ll be honest. I’m a technologist. In my day-job, I’m a software engineer. 

I’ve worked on big systems, small systems, low-level assemblies, object-oriented designs, database creations, web sites, user interfaces, server processing, performance tuning, and a whole lot of other stuff that fills my C.V.. One thing my experience has taught me is this: in the world of software, there is very little new under the sun. As a matter of fact, IMHO, software is devolving. 

As more and more lives are touched by the automation of previously manual tasks, the programming has simplified. Machine-level coding has given way to scripting, which has given way to plug-and-play frameworks, which have given way to online data entry. Of course, there are still islands of complexity in the software universe, but for the most part, those are few and far between, isolated to high-performance developers like game programmers, trading firm plumbers, and search engine servers. Otherwise, it’s the people who have made it complex. It’s always the people. 

I have a feeling that writing is going the same way.

Consider this. How many of you out there would have guessed back in the Nineties that almost everyone you knew would be employed in some type of HTML-based occupation? Whoa – you say – what do you mean? I mean that everyone is on the web, and the web, at its core, is a construct of Hypertext Markup Language. Even after all the XML, AJAX, Python, Django, and other enhancements that have sprung up over the last decade, the average website still boils down to HTML, a language that didn’t even exist until 1991. In other words, the world you live in today is completely unrecognizable from the world you lived in as recently as a decade or two ago.

One thing is constant. Writing is the universal input. While computers at their base level may operate via the mathematical logic of zeros and ones, their usage is overwhelmingly language-based. The profusion of blogging, social media, and other personal promotion has taken over the network. The engineers work like Morlocks to support the fancies of the Eloi. The serpent consumes its own tail.

Many of you have probably heard of SQL databases. They work like phonebooks, or columnar tables of data, presented row by identical row, extending for thousands upon millions upon billions of records to the last thrumming sector of available drive space. But now, there are abstract databases like MongoDB, which specialize in fuzzy formats like blogs. They eschew columns, and replace them with ad-hoc assignments. In a strange, perverse way, these data mechanisms are the anti-devices, automated machines bent to the whims of a human world. 

This trend continues. Cell phones were a Star Trek fantasy once. Now, they are ubiquitous. Today’s fantasy revolves around wearable computers. As a writer, you’re always looking for new input. Imagine a world where you have to cope with that input. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

You Will Be Replaced

The words you are reading follow an ordered structure. In fact, the language itself follows an embedded hierarchy of ordered structures. You know who they are. It’s all the usual suspects: paragraphs composed of sentences, sentences composed of clauses, clauses composed of words. At their most atomic level, the words themselves are formed by characters.

If you delve further into this meta-reality, you will find that these characters have numerical values assigned by the Lords of Convention; within our shores, we have the American National Standards Institute, and beyond, the International Standards Organization. These ANSI and ISO defined values are stored as electronic impulses, to be retrieved and formatted by a vast array of programmable devices.

It’s no surprise that they’ve managed to program beyond the ETL phase. Transcending the base operations of Extract-Transform-Load, they’re programming the structure itself now. That’s right. There are companies which create software to generate writing. These aren’t pipe dreamers. These are serious people, engineering serious machines, and they have serious funding.

Maybe the most well-known of these would be Narrative Science in Chicago. It’s operated by several professors from places like Northwestern and Yale, with advanced degrees in subjects like Journalism and Computer Sciences. They have multiple backers, customer cashflow, and most importantly, a compelling dream.

What they do is this: their computers fit data into a template, apply a few angles based on rules, and churn out a sequence which is appropriate to the client. For instance, the play-by-play stats coming out of a game could be plugged into a template of winners and losers, rules applied to determine if it was a “rout”, and a story fashioned to report on those events. Besides sports, many other venues are ripe with data – corporate reports, financial analyses, and educational books, to name a few. Considering we live in the dawn of Big Data, the sky’s the limit.

An endeavor like this raises questions. For example, how good is the writing? If you wish, you can run a simple Google search, and judge for yourself the quality of their prose. To me the central question, for which there is no readily available Google answer, is this: Can you be replaced?

Of course you can. That’s why you need to deal with this and take control. Computer aided writing is no different than computer aided design. Computer aided anything is a good thing. The bottom line is that it’s going to happen. The question beyond the question, in turn, is this: How will you exploit new technology to augment your own writing experience?

This is simply the next step beyond a spell checker or an online thesaurus. You can write, “See Jane run,” or you can write, “Observe with your born-anew eyes the passing form of Jane.” They both say the same thing. A software program following basic formulae of grammar, and backed by a dictionary database could spew out hundreds, if not thousands of such variations, one of which would certainly be the above. Writing Is Rewriting. If the measure of quality is found in the quantity of expression, you won’t be able to beat a computer.

And this is just the beginning. If you think the program can’t improve itself on the fly with machine learning, then you, my friend, are sorely mistaken. All it takes is a clear-headed programmer. In this brave new world, nothing more is required. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Synthetic, But Consistent

I’ve talked before about the concept of synthetic-but-consistent. At its root level, it is the source of verisimilitude. Although it’s a phrase commonly bandied about by several disciplines to the point of meaninglessness, I prefer to raise it to its own categorical status. In other words, how does any given piece of writing, in addition to its clarity and substance, adhere to this mandate of synthetic-but-consistent?

Any work of imagination is fashioned out of whole cloth, synthetically, with its own enhancements and limitations. A writer can expound only on what is already there, but at the same time, such expansion is obligated to be enhanced. And that’s the problem. When the writer starts throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, it becomes, in the popular terms, “over-done”, “over-the-top”, and “just plain messy”. The extreme depth of expression is not the issue; the issue is the haphazard, ad-hoc mishmash of different elements.

These elements, a character, a prop, a plot device, or a stylistic manner, have to be consistent. For example, a character known for his gentle soul can’t start cursing a blue streak. A machine gun introduced at the beginning needs to get fired by the end. A character’s double-cross should have some foundation in prior events. A staccato dialogue marked by its rapid-fire rhythm cannot suddenly drop into a ponderous monologue. And so on.

This concept is fungible in creative endeavors. You will note that most fine art you see in museums is consistent in its internal rearrangement of external reality. For instance, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, while seemingly nonsensical in its carving-up of time and space, is completely consistent nonetheless.

Most popular music acts have distinctive sounds. For example, you could probably listen to five seconds of U2 on the radio, and regardless of whether you had heard the song before, you would immediately know who it is. Most likely, that consistency of vision is why Bono and his boys play to sold-out stadiums, while you and I troll blogs.

I’ve said before that the most important aspect of fiction is attitude. Attitude, as “a mental position or feeling with regard to a fact or state”, ensures a consistency beyond color and sound and temperature. It describes a world-view. In that world, no matter how deconstructed and rebuilt, all aspects, as long as they adhere to the recognized, expressed attitude, will remain consistent.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Good Book Review

Most book reviews are not entertaining. They grind axes that should best be left in the woodshed. They get really snarky. Sometimes they don’t review the book at all, instead reporting only on the reviewer’s place in life and his/her attitude toward the author.

At a minimum, a good book review should include a brief synopsis, follow the plot, address the characters, riff the dialogue, and comment on the pacing. Also, it should cover the story mechanics, flow with the language, and convey the message of the story. In short, a good book review should make its point with focus, clarity, and substance.

A good book review should have both positive and negative points, with a balance. Sometimes you write a review with the intention of giving a new writer a leg up; in that case, you may take it a little easier on him/her than you would on, say, the Larssons of the world. Sometimes, though, your true, toxic feelings toward the story are so powerful that you have to just let rip; in that case, it’s a lot easier if the author has already bought his yacht with the massive profits. Always, you need balance, because, as a reviewer, your integrity is on the line.

A good book review should also include an excerpt or two. Not only do you want to give a potential reader an opportunity to sample the stuff, but you also want to remain true to the material. An excerpt keeps you honest.

A good book review should address the two most important aspects of the reading experience: the reader’s enjoyment and the story’s consistency. Enjoyment is a subjective thing, of course, but in the end, you have to pass judgment. That may be why the rating system is so popular; it’s just so easy. 

Consistency, on the other hand, should be totally objective. We’ll cover that in the next installment: Synthetic, but Consistent.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Focus, Clarity, Substance

When I was in high school, my English teacher told me three words that I have never forgotten: focus, clarity, substance. If you fulfill the promise made by these three, she advised, you will be a long way toward effective writing.

Wow. How obvious, I thought. Of course, those ideas which are most obvious are often the most brilliant. What a different world we would inhabit if only decisions were made based on the obvious, rather than the implied, or worse yet, the rationalized.

Focus requires discipline – discipline to avoid tangents, discipline to stick to the subject matter, discipline to stay the course. There is no substitute. The only alternative would be a stream-of-consciousness, and that’s no alternative at all. Unless you’re a Buddhist monk staring at a cave wall for forty years and training your mind with laser focus, then your consciousness probably streams like an explosion of confetti. You’ve got all kinds of thoughts roiling around up there, moving in a thousand different directions at a million miles an hour.

Especially these days. Our generation was raised on television, and we’ve spawned a new generation raised on Internet. Let’s be honest: neither of those encourage patient, sober, critical thought. With insidious infiltration, television and the Internet have infected our collective minds with a strange, voyeuristic suspension of disbelief. People are just plain credulous. They are.

Which brings us to clarity. Clarity is a harsh mistress, whose raw, bright light generally reveals all the ugly little imperfections you would rather cover up. You can believe what you see, or you can see what you believe, but there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. With respect to my old English teacher, clarity was the ability to express that rawness. There is a fundamental disconnect between your thoughts and their expression, and bridging that divide determines the level of clarity in your message.

All of which culminates in substance. Here is where the rubber meets the road. After all, who doesn’t want a little detail in their otherwise skeletal plot? Without such supporting material, any message would devolve into empty shouting. In fact, the most effective messages are those which go unspoken, because the reader already knows them to be true. By creating an entirely consistent, synthetic world via the printed word, you can let the idea communicate itself.

I’m not sure if that is what my English teacher was getting at, but hey – it was high school, alright?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tournament Profession

The famous Freakonomics professor, Steven Levitt, in his famous analysis of drug dealers, used the term “tournament profession” to describe any line of work in which only a very small number of people actually succeed, while an infinitely larger number of people underneath them toil for little or no reward. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about “self-publishing” being such a profession. That’s hard to dispute. 

Here is a partial list of the things which I’ve done to promote myself and my book, Machines of Kali. I’m having fun, but it’s a little appalling. Without even trying too hard, I’ve already established four separate Internet presences.

I have a website which is hosted by my domain name provider. This website is itself pointed to by several other domain names which I own, and I have at least one email account associated with it. This website consists of a splash page, an illustrative cover page, a plot synopsis, a chapter sample, an artist bio, and a link to my book’s Amazon page. I concocted the entire website myself, but only because I’ve had so much experience doing this in the real world, it would have been silly to outsource it. 

I’m already on my book’s 2nd book cover, both of which I conceived and executed. I could have paid someone else to do this. Many authors do just that. With all due modesty, though, I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who was better at art direction. Doing a cover, however, required some basic leg/grunt work. I bought a font collection from my local computer store, asked my printer to scan some pictures for me, learned GIMP from scratch, acquired several images from IStockPhoto, and so on.

I opened a Blogspot account, which you are reading. I actually enjoy writing this stuff. It’s not heavy lifting or anything. The only cumbersome aspect is dealing with a 3rd party, but I know that I don’t want to host my own blogging site.

I opened a Twitter account. This was especially weird for me, because I don’t yet grok Twitter. However, I’m starting to see its charm. It’s like any other strange new application – difficult to grasp at first, but indispensable over time. It was the same way with Lotus 1-2-3 back in the 80s, just as it was with Mosaic in the 90s. (FYI: those were, respectively, the first popular spreadsheet and the first proper Internet browser.) 

Naturally, I had to update my Amazon author page with everything listed here, including my email, website, Twitter handle, etc.. There are so many other little bullet items, but I’m only scratching the surface. It’s just a lot of stuff, and that's the tournament profession.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

GIMP Uber Alles, Part 3

Computer graphics apps are bursting at the seams with cool features to tweak and manipulate your images. If you’re at all familiar with visual arts concepts like color spectrums, contrast fades, and like, you know how prevalent these are in even the most simple programs. The sophistication only rises the further you go, starting with MS Paint on your Windows Accessory Menu and moving up the scale to monumentally expensive, custom installations like the Avatar suites. For most of us in the middle, of course, there is PhotoShop, and its open-source counterpart, GIMP.

I made my first book cover with MS Paint, and it showed. For my next attempt, I used GIMP. What a revelation. If I hadn’t had the experience of using Paint, I would never have appreciated the magnitude of the upgrade.

Here’s the deal. The most critical difference between a serious image processing program like GIMP and a simple graphics app like MS Paint is its ability to maintain multiple, separate layers of the same image. For instance, take a simple logo on top of a photograph. Think print ad. In a graphics app like Paint, you would have to write your logo text directly onto a JPEG image. If you needed to move the logo, then you had to undo the text and start over. With GIMP, you would load the JPEG image into one layer, then create a wholly separate layer for your logo. This you could color, distort, and manipulate any way you want. You could see how it would interact with the image underneath it, then move it, resize it, or do anything else that the occasion fancied. 

For my new book cover, I decided I needed multiple elements. The first thing I did was troll for appropriate imagery. My book featured 1) a beautiful woman, 2) a full moon, 3) a satellite, 4) a city at night, 5) guns, 6) cars, and 7) circuitry. For each of these, I copied a dozen different thumbnails. By loading these into separate layers in GIMP, I was able to recombine them endlessly, trying new combinations at will.

 Eventually satisfied that my mock-up was as good as it could be, I procured the images themselves. When I replaced the blurry thumbnails with these high-resolution files, it was like - Bam! The effect was immediate. With these real layers in place, I spent the next week rotating, moving, scaling, distorting, shading, colorizing, cropping, and doing everything else I wanted within GIMP. 

Wow. It was such a better experience. But don’t take my word for it. Here are my two book covers, side by side. See for yourself.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

GIMP Uber Alles, Part 2

Last week I wrote about my experience making a book cover with MS Paint. This week I talk about GIMP. For those who don’t know, GIMP, or the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an open-source program that does approximately the same thing as PhotoShop. There are other such programs, of course, but I’m using GIMP here as an example of a “real” image processor.

First, a little history about graphics tools. A long time ago, I was an art school student. It was so long ago, in fact, that I remember when cut-n-paste meant that you literally cut out a section from the physical paper and pasted it with glue to another location. I’m not joking. I had a weapons cache of X-Acto blades, and I was damned good with them. I was so steady, I coulda been a brain surgeon.

Then, in the mid-80s, computers came along and blew up the graphic design industry. At first, Apple's Macintoshes ruled with their flag ship application, Quark XPress, otherwise known as the Biggest Thing Ever. Eventually, though, a computer science professor from the University of Utah founded a little firm called Adobe Systems, several other products came onto the market, and Apple’s market hegemony crumbled. (We all know how that turned out.) During this digital flood, the old-fashioned practice of physical art production, under the relentless onslaught of these virtual simulations, faded into the sunset. Forever.

And thank God for that. Doing this stuff on computers is soooo much better. Going from X-Acto blades to mouse clicks is like going from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, and going from MS Paint to GIMP is like going from an old-model P.O.S. to a shiny new Porsche. There is no substitute. Simply put, GIMP is freakin’ AWESOME.

The trade-off (and there’s always a trade-off) is the learning curve, which is apparently modeled after the north face of K-9. Since I didn’t know anything about graphics programs, ramping up on GIMP was a brutally daunting undertaking.

In the first place, the “documentation” is typical of open-source: nominal, minimal, execrable – not a single example to be found, and no pictures at all. To augment my education, I bought a hard-copy manual. It topped out at a thousand pages, but it was only marginally better than the online documentation. Were it not for the example files to be downloaded from its companion website, it, too, would have been a disaster.

In frustration, I turned to the Internet. I searched on focused queries like, “How do I make chrome text in GIMP?” or “Why doesn’t my airbrush work in GIMP?” Of the top ten results returned by Google or Bing, at least one would get me halfway there. Also, interspersed with the dross, there were some pleasant surprises, like the useful GIMPTricks videos posted on YouTube.

In the fullness of time, I noodled together a functional understanding of GIMP. There were many harsh moments in my learning, but with lots of iterations, and lots of back-ups, I eventually got the hang of it.

And you want to know something? It was totally worth it.

Next week: Using GIMP to create a book cover.

Monday, May 21, 2012

GIMP Uber Alles, Part 1

When I put together my first cover, I had a few ground rules. I wasn’t going to violate copyright. I’ve been there. Copyright is sacrosanct. Remember Napster and Metallica? I was in the Metallica camp all the way. Artists get ripped off and exploited enough. Geometrically scaling that destruction via your home computer is beyond the pale. It’s a crime against humanity.

Problem was, I didn't have much of a seed pot. I scanned a few copyright-safe images, bought myself a fresh set of fonts, and went to work on my crappy little MS Paint project. By the time I had finished torturing the image, I thought, “Well, there’s a fine example of cover art.” 

Honestly, it wasn’t so awful. It had a big problem, though. It didn’t sell the book. Ignorant of the context, I had modeled it after some of my favorite covers. Naturally, these covers graced books by my favorite authors. These guys required no selling. In fact, they were the selling points. Their covers generally put their names right at the top, in big bold letters. So guess what mine looked like?

Flash forward a few weeks. After reading a few books and trolling a few websites, I realized that I was going to have to do a better job. So I sucked it up and went back to my old Linux box. I returned to something that I had been noodling for years: GIMP.

I read that GIMP is an open-source knock-off of PhotoShop. I don’t know anything about that. I could never afford the big price tag of PhotoShop. I was aware of one thing, though. You got to have the right tools. So I went to work on GIMP.
Next week: the GIMP Experience.