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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How Simple Can It Get?

I’ve been reading a lot of e-books recently. I don’t mean books that have been ported to the electronic format. I mean books that were never in hardcopy to being with. These are written by a new class of writers. I’m talking about the self-published, the quick-to-embrace-new-technology, the guys who write and upload and repeat. 

What’s remarkable is how simple these stories are. We’re restricted to a handful of characters, only the barest of descriptions, context-setting as an afterthought, and just enough dialogue to get the ball rolling. These writers have a style, and it’s very pure. They’re like those guitar-bass-drum power trios that really crank it out. You listen to them, and you think – it’s not that hard. It rocks. 

One such hallmark of this story telling style is its immediacy. The authors jump right into their tale. There’s no boring exposition. There’s no obligatory family-scene-before-the-massacre. They just go right to the massacre. I found it a little jarring, at first, but then, I found myself appreciating it. 

At this point, aren’t we all a little jaded? Even in today’s age of cross-genres and combo-pack stories, pretty much every reader beyond grade school knows what to expect. A thriller starts with a sensitive, heart-warming portrait of that person most close to the hero’s heart. Your first thought: that person’s doomed. Then you have to keep reading until the inevitable moment. It’s painful for the character, but worse, it’s boring for you. These e-books, like they’re excising a sore, simply cut that out.

And the plot lines are so simple. I’ve read a few e-books recently that had almost no plot at all, other than the hero-villain conflict. I suppose Hollywood has done that to all of us. Their compressed story format has dramatically shortened both our attention span and their linear range. Depending on who you talk to, this plot simplification either distills the story to its purest essential elements, or dumbs it down to its lowest common denominators.

          I’m also surprised at the characters. They’re so familiar. Regular guys working regular jobs, they’re thrown into extraordinary situations. They’re fighting space aliens, taking on the Mob, romancing the beauties, and saving the day. But they're just normal people! It used to be that the Everyman was unusual. Now, everyone’s an Everyman. Are there no more exceptional characters, or have they simply returned to their neverland of make-believe?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Character Development. Really?

They’re lying to you. Every book you’ve ever read, every teacher you’ve ever had, every workshop you’ve ever attended – they all tell you the same thing. Character Development Is Critical.
They tell you that a character can’t occupy the same space at the end of the story that they did at the beginning. The character has to undergo some type of ordeal or feel some kind of experience. They have to adjust, to see the world in a new way, to appreciate their new place in it. What’s more, the entire story must be subservient to this personal odyssey.
They call it Character Arc – and it is SO IMPORTANT.
Oh, please. If a character’s development is so critical, then why do so many great characters never develop at all?
Dirty Harry and his .44 Magnum blasted their way through five movies spanning seventeen years, and it’s debatable which one developed more.
James Bond, Jack Bauer, Batman – the same thing over and over and over. Even their names are similar.
Those crazy women on Desperate Housewives are still crazy, even after eight seasons. But we love them, because in their own soap-operatic way, they seem real to us. In fact, the more they resist learning from their mistakes, the more real they seem.
No villain, in the whole long history of story telling, has ever changed their stripes. And the villain is the most interesting character!
Character development is overrated. You know whose character I’m most concerned with? Mine. I want it to be in a different space when the story’s over. That’s it. If I can relate to a character and track my development with theirs, all the better. But it’s not an end in itself; it’s just a means to an end.