Building a Narration Booth – Part 1

I would like to share some of what I have learned in regard to the construction of a recording booth. I am no expert, but I have 3 trades and extensive experience in building many weird and wonderful contraptions, from rotational mold tooling to vehicles to construction work. Coupled with some research into the behaviour of sound, some great advice from people in the music industry as well as my own experience in studios and with this project, I might be able to save someone some time and, possibly, expense. I always limit my posts to around 1,000 words, so this may result in a mini-series, as it were. Some of this may be obvious to many, but, as any good technical writer should, I assume my reader knows nothing and work from there. Of course, should anyone find fault in the basic principles outlined here, please leave a comment, and I will edit the post if required.

Well, first of all, why bother with a treated recording space? There are a plethora of “simple” solutions out there for recording narrative. From little fabric cubes of eggshell acoustic foam, to sitting in a clothes closet covered in a blanket, possible compromises abound. However, the only way to then get your recording to a high enough standard for Audio-books is to fix it in the post-mix, and that means time. Narrators are often paid by the page, so all that time fiddling digitally is going to munch on your hourly rate something awful. Even if you’re just doing your own work, a whole book is a long task, and any reduction in that time means more time writing.

My own booth is as small as possible, and built to break down into components that can fit into a standard box trailer, because we rent. I am not sharing my own design, because it may influence others down the wrong track. It is definitely faulted, but looks like it will deliver a good, balanced sound regardless.

Bear in mind too, that many will say booths are a horrible idea in the first place, but this is about recording narrative for Audio-books, and on a tight budget at that. Recording vocals for narrative requires a ‘dead’ room. That is, just the voice, with no reverberation, ambience or any sign of the fact you are in a room at all. Ideally, this would be done in a wide open space with no outside sound – good luck with that.

SIZE MATTERS

To understand why size is important, its critical to understand how sound actually works. I suggest that, if you don’t understand the basic principles of sound, you start here. You will need a basic understanding of both soundproofing (prevention of outside noise) and acoustic treatment (improvement of a room’s acoustic properties). You must also understand that, as with everything, opinions vary. I am merely sharing what I have learned, and that is based on certain opinions. On the fundamental principles, however, the science these days is fairly solid.

Most important of all – do your research and design before you do anything else. But, as you research, don’t let all the varied and conflicting ideas get you down. At the end of the day, you’re going to have to make do with the best you can do, and accept it will not be perfect. All we are trying to do is reduce the time spent on post-mixing, not record a hit album.

Now, about size. Your booth (for the sake of brevity,  any other term to describe a designated area for recording voice will be considered a booth) should have varied dimensions and, if possible, irregular walls. If you Google “Ideal size for a recording studio”, you will find a raft of excellent sites that will explain the formulae and ratios behind a good room.

A cube is the very WORST shape for recording in. It will have resonant frequencies that make acoustic treatment almost impossible. My own booth is wider than it is deep, and much taller than it is wide. The front walls are angled as well. The best quality portable booths are often hexagonal, or even just pentagonal – it’s all about those bouncy sound waves. The ideal dimensions for a recording room for voice are much bigger than is practical for nearly everyone, and its interesting that, while vocal booths are seen as desirable in some music studios, a lot of vocals are actually recorded in the control room, rather than a booth. Opinion is divided, and, as I said before, irrelevant to the purposes of this post.

With a booth, size is the enemy. A small enclosure is a terrible place to record, so acoustic treatment is a nightmare. Check out the ratios, and make the area as close as is practical to those . Always remember, though, the smaller this thing is, the worse your problems will get.

To reduce the amount of sound, we must ‘catch’ or ‘trap’ the sound waves, to prevent them from reflecting and returning to the microphone. The slight repetition of the sound is reverberation, and undesirable. To do this requires that the energy from the vibration that is sound be converted and thus eliminated. One way to do this is to convert the sound to heat, as with Green Glue. This, and materials like it, remain in the liquid state, i.e. they don’t set or harden. The website explains this process in detail.

The most common way to trap sound, though, is with mass. The more mass a sound wave has to travel through, the more energy is lost. This is where size again becomes an issue. While acoustic panels and acoustic foam (more on that in another post) are effective at trapping high to mid-range frequencies, they cannot dissipate low-frequency waves, some of which measure multiple feet in length. Music studios often have at least one ‘bass trap’ wall, which may be more than 6 feet wide. See the problem? You may start off with a room, and end up with a telephone booth.

Again, we face a compromise between the ideal and the practical. At the end of the day, you must decide your booth’s size based on the available room, the impact the size will have on your budget (bigger = more materials) and also the time you are willing to spend building this thing. Irregular angled walls will have a heavy size cost attached, too, but you must avoid parallel walls as much as possible.

In the next post, we’ll have a look at some possible material choices for both soundproofing and acoustic treatment.

 

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A New Direction

Time flows forward only, and stops for no man. However, at any point along the way, we can draw a line in the sand and call it a starting point. Too many times, we go along in our little life, head down and focused purely on putting one foot in front of the other. In so doing, we may very well miss an opportunity as we pass it by.

Computer games ate my leisure time. I needed something to rest my mind with, as well as this wreck of a body. With the one game that captured my imagination going free to play, and thus opening the floodgates to the ganking, griefing masses, I logged off for the last time. I know me, there will be no return to that life. I don’t want to read about it, I don’t want to write about it, and I don’t want to hear about it; it’s gone.

I am grateful for the people I met, though. With everything going on at the moment, I will be a stranger for a while, I’m on a deadline, work wise. I’ll catch up with the gang when I can, though, although many are going their separate ways, now. One thing’s for sure, I’m done with games.

Having turned my back on that particular avenue of entertainment, I find myself with no actual recreational activity. I don’t watch the depressing horror show that is TV and I don’t consider social media entertainment. Honestly, I don’t want a Russian bride, I already know Donald Trump says stupid things, and I don’t care which party you vote for or which God you either hate or worship. It’s a sad place now, and that’s no fun.

Now, some might argue that music is a pastime, but that isn’t true for me. Physically unable to gig, music for me is now a workout that keeps me fit (although it hurts like hell), and a technical challenge that can never be completed. I’m out in the shed most afternoons, and I love it nonetheless. It’s the evenings, though, that see me twiddling the thumbs.

Nearly thirty years ago, I put down a paintbrush for the last time. I loved painting landscapes in oils. I attended art college when I left school – it’s sort of the same as unemployment, but with classes. People said I had talent, and just needed to focus more. What many did not know was that I only painted while heavily under the influence of what today is amusingly called “Recreational” drugs.

That delusional term should be removed from the English language, in my humble opinion. There is nothing recreational about a substance that can rob a person of the will to live. I was fortunate enough to have one true friend, whom I’ve known since early childhood, and he got me out of that situation with all the subtlety of a brick through a window. What can I say? He’s an Aussie, and I’m his mate. However it was done, I owe that friend my life, and the fact that I was able to reciprocate at a later date has cemented that bond forever.

I have subconsciously suppressed the desire to paint ever since; a fact I only realized recently. It first surfaced when my initial novel, The Road Out, required a cover. After the purchase of Corel Painter and a Wacom tablet, a cover was produced. The two science fiction novels that followed got a cover each, as well. Straight away, though, I put the artist back in the tin. I enjoyed it, so there was no reason to stop. However, I did, and without hesitation.

My two daughters soon realized their good fortune and purloined said tablet and stylus, and, along with the purchase of an anime art program, put it to good use. I watched with envious eyes as their skills grew, and their work improved. My youngest is a natural. Her work is now, from my viewpoint, indistinguishable from that of an adult, as evidenced by the sample (totally original with no reference material whatsoever) below:

hiromi

Watching all this develop drove me to reflect; was 28 years long enough to remove the mental stigma? I decided to have a look on YouTube, as my daughters both assured me there are plenty of artists out there who film themselves working. It took some searching to find someone of a like mind; plenty of people talking the talk, but few who walk the walk. I am not someone who wishes to view the inside of a turgid mind as it is thrown onto a canvas. I’ve had my years of that lifestyle, thanks all the same. I prefer someone who paints what he sees in a way that conveys due reverence for the work of art that is our planet.

And I found someone. Not only a fine artist, but a man who has a knack for entertaining in a relaxed fashion, while imparting priceless instruction. His taste in music is none too shabby, either. It was all the impetus I needed.

Now, I already sense several who know me rolling their eyes. But no, I am not changing direction yet again, not really. Painting will be my hobby; a way to relax and possibly put a little gift into the hands of the so many to whom I owe so much. Unless the results would prove to be an insult, that is. Only time will tell on that one. However, many were happy to accept the products of my drug soaked youth, so I can hardly do worse now I’m 28 years straight, can I?

Writing continues to be my work, although the addition of narration to my growing list of endeavors has taken a fearsome toll on my time for writing, to be honest. I have been designing and building a vocal booth to both turn my eBooks into audio books, and possibly get some work doing the same for others. A post with photos will come as soon as the wretched thing is finished. If anyone ever tells you building a vocal booth is cheap and easy, kick them – hard.

Yes, 28 years is time enough with my eyes on my feet. Music kept my ears busy, writing kept my mind busy (as has this accursed booth), and narration will occupy my voice, no doubt. But, I feel it’s time to lift my head and use my eyes again. Here on the Sunshine Coast, I am surrounded by natural beauty, and I long to capture some.

I will wrest the tablet and stylus away from my girls every now and then (it is mine, after all. Besides, I say when it’s bedtime), and punch out half a dozen or so to get my hand back in, as best as can be done digitally, at least.

But I can already feel the bend of the bristle, already smell the linseed oil, already see the wet paint glisten. It’s been too long.

 

Pleasantly Unexpected

There is one huge advantage to having had a lot of failure in your life. It’s not for want of trying, of course. But, as the old song says, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

Not that I believe in luck, to be honest. Decisions, happenstance, and circumstances, I believe, dictate what we get from life. We need to own our mistakes, not in a negative way, but at least in an honest fashion. If we are the guy who uses up his mental faculties in working out why a result was not his fault, rather than in analyzing what went wrong, we learn nothing.

When you have tried and failed as many times as I have, though, you get a little cynical. When The Road Out sold very poorly, I naturally felt some disappointment. Two years of careful application of everything I was taught resulted in a book that went to 96 sales and stopped. Those sales were generated by the people I know and love.

When I started on The Sixteen Galaxies, I was determined to do better. I realized The Road Out was a difficult book to slot into a genre. At the time, I saw this as a good thing; something different should sell well, shouldn’t it?

If I was an established writer on top of my game, then yes, it should. As a first book, though? No. So, that was the first thing. I aimed the second book solidly at a specific genre. I am a science fiction aficionado, so it felt natural to go that way.

Second thing to address was the price. I felt justified in putting a $5.00 price tag on the first book. Two years work, the input of a respected best-selling author, why would it not be worth that? Unfortunately, that kind of hubris hurt sales badly.

So, let’s look at this as honestly as possible. Who am I in the literary world? To be frank – a nobody. What matters when no name or reputation precedes you? What matters is that people read your work, and that the quality of that work is worthy of some credit. As you progress, one would hope that the writer is justly rewarded. If, that is, they persevere, and continue to learn and apply.

So, I put The Sixteen Galaxies out for 0.99c, and put a 5 day free promotional on it straight away.

Many rail against people selling books cheap or for free. It makes it harder for everyone else. That is true, completely true. However, the reality is that the e-book has yielded the world this industry we now have. Adapt, or die, it’s that simple.

I’ve seen all this before; experienced it first-hand, in fact. After I had been playing drum-kit for a couple of years, it started getting harder to get gigs. The clubs around Brisbane had discovered something they thought was fantastic; the backing track. Now, they could provide “Live Entertainment” at a fraction of the cost, by hiring a duo or solo “Artist” who stood scraping an acoustic guitar and crooning out the classics, with an orchestra in a tin behind him.

Many, many bass players and drummers quit. Bands found themselves paying clubs to appear, in the hope they could garner enough of a following to at least earn some fuel money. The backing track drove a truck through the local music scene and many a second-rate guitarist discovered that tinned musicians didn’t complain about their awful timing and bum notes, and they actually got work for the first time in their lives.

Things hit rock bottom when the mime artists surfaced. These guys were the worst of the worst; recording all their sets (sometimes even paying session guys to do it) and then miming to them on stage.

However, karma kicked in. Clubs found that nobody would pay a cover charge for some scraper with a jukebox, and only poker machines saved their necks financially. Most people simply stopped going to clubs for live music.

Dark days, and the scene lost many good musicians. It never really recovered here. Except for a few guys. They were the ones who kept playing anyway, because they loved doing it, and they were subsequently good at it. I was one of those guys. My health prevents me gigging now, but I would have no trouble getting a chair with a good band these days.

I think writing needs the same approach. Becoming an author is no more of a good career choice than it was before Amazon came along. It’s just that instead of spending years sending out manuscripts in the hope of being one of the fortunate few, we are now publishing books with the same hope. If you’re only in it to make money, then churn out books at a ferocious rate, and sheer volume may bring in enough dollars to make it worth it.

I personally choose the other road, the same one I went down with my music. I have accepted the low return as the path that needs to be trodden to net a greater reward; satisfaction. My track record with music is one of tenacity and a dedication to doing better next time. Writing shall be no different, I promise you that.

Job Done

Well, I finally have time to get a new post up here. The last six months has seen my time eroded more and more, which meant some activities had to be curtailed until I could spare the time for them again. I needed to ensure my latest project hit the virtual shelf before Christmas, and that has been achieved.

I would like to direct your attention to the new link on the right, showcasing my second novel; The Sixteen Galaxies. As of the 12th December, it shall be free, at the moment it is available for .99c.

A complete step away from The Road Out, The Sixteen Galaxies is science fiction – my favorite genre. As the work progressed, and the story-line presented itself, I realized that this book underlines an interesting fact about human society. Our creative and inventive abilities are completely out of sync with our social structure.

We are witnessing an incredible exponential growth in technological development, to the point that items rarely get time to hit the shelf before they have been outmoded by the next model.

Our social progress, however, now that’s a different story. Humans cannot stop drawing lines, borders, boundaries and so on. We just keep pigeon-holing and alienating one group after another, and the dissonance continues to mount. Groups with a vested interest keep the momentum up, for their own gain, but the side-effect is that our world is now drowning in hatred and fear.

I felt there was a story in there somewhere, hidden in the pile of dross my musings left on the floor. I needed to establish a start point, so I did that by asking myself a simple question; what would happen if an advanced alien race were to step in right now and offer to help us correct our present course? Not in a hostile ‘this lot has to go’ manner, as per The Day The Earth Stood Still, but motivated instead by concern and kindness. What if this help also came at no cost, and replaced our current infrastructure completely?

From there, I let the story and the characters develop each other, as seems to be the best approach for me. What emerged is far more complex than anything I could envision at the start; exactly the same as The Road Out.

I find that writing is also having a long-term effect on me personally. Creative writing is a discipline that expands our minds; as we write, we must research, ponder, imagine, refine, edit and adjust. Statistics come to light that sometimes fascinate, sometimes horrify, but always enlighten. From our research, we extrapolate possible outcomes, and thus we learn to consider consequences before acting. Our speech improves, as choosing words becomes more familiar to us than ever before.

Some take a completely practical view of their work, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. They make sure a book fits neatly into an established genre, follows certain plot templates, and gives the reader a satisfactory experience that brings them back for more.

I’m sure my family would love to see me do this, and get myself back to the point of being the breadwinner. I wish I could do that, too. But, for the life of me, I can’t. The method of symbiotic character and story development does not follow a predetermined course; stuff happens and that dictates that other stuff happens and characters react and change things around even more.

I’ve always been like this, though. My music, my art (yes, the cover artwork is me again), even my engineering work when I did it, have all followed the same path. I start off with a fairly standard course, but in no time at all I’m pushing boundaries. Dissatisfied with adherence to a known direction, I want to see how far I can push the limits. This has brought trial after trial upon my family, and for that I feel a measure of shame.

However, I am old enough to know I am better off being true to myself. after all, it was my quest for excellence that saw my engineering business go from security grille production to rotational mold tool development for companies around the world.

I neither expect nor do I want any miraculous breakthrough with this new book. That it sells more than the first one did; that’s it. Then, that the next one sell more than this one, and so on.

It may take many more books, over many more years, but it would be nice to see steady progress. I have been a drummer for 26 years now, and all I’ve ever aimed for is to be better today than I was yesterday. I still achieve that goal, every time I play. Some note, some passage, some fill goes just that little bit smoother, and I am happy.

Anyone that knows me will tell you I’m like that; mule stubborn and tenacious beyond sane reason. My sanity is up for debate, if I’m to be honest. Others find me unusual, I know. However, I can’t say that I care very much what others think, it’s just me, being me.

Being Happy With Where We Are

Writers are, by nature, people with goals. We are always working towards a new publish date, of course. But, we also have longer term goals; ambitions.

Our biggest enemies, therefore, are the three D’s: discouragement, doubt, and  disillusionment. To a degree, self-publishing has more opportunities for these enemies to do their thing to us than to those going the old road. Under the mainstream publishing system, we have solid peer control at work; publishers must accept a manuscript before we go any further, editorial staff put us through the long re-write process, and the book itself goes nowhere without the approval of these and many other people.

Self-publishing removes these barriers, true. But, it also removes a level of protection from the three D’s mentioned above. At no point in the self-publishing process are we answerable to anyone but ourselves, unless we want to be.

On the flip-side, that results in our work being tried and tested by a narrow band of people (and possibly only one) who may, or may not, be qualified and experienced. This is an important point, because my own experience was less than stellar in this regard.

I had written what I considered to be a book, which was, in the real world, a manuscript. I obtained feedback from some wonderful beta readers, which caused a raft of changes. Then, I thought I had a book.

It was at this point that something both unexpected and rare happened; I was approached by Rob, an international best-selling author who wanted to read my work. I have mentioned this many times before, as is to be expected. It was, after all, an amazing thing to have happen.

However, reflecting on the subject of the three D’s, I asked myself; what if the Rob thing never happened? Well, I would have published the manuscript as it was. Minus nearly a years worth of editing and changes.

I would have pressed the publish button, and…

Discouragement, doubt, and  disillusionment – without any argument at all, that would have been the outcome. The funny thing is, even though that catastrophe was averted, things will still take time, and that time will be measured in years.

So, the three D’s are still there and ready to pounce at any opportune time. How, then, do we avoid becoming yet another victim on a road that is littered with the remains of others who have fallen victim to these three monsters?

We need to be happy with where we are. Contentment is a powerful weapon against the three D’s. Being content with our progress puts up a large wall against them and hurls missiles at them every time they approach.

So, where are we? Well, everyone is different, of course. But, all it requires is an honest heart and a set of open eyes to establish our location. Perhaps we are working on our first book. Maybe we’ve only recently started, with a framework and a lot of research ahead of us.

How do we look at that mountain in front of us? First, take stock of what we have already achieved. We made that great decision; “I am going to write a book!” Past that point, we need to remind ourselves that we made that decision, and relatively few people ever do.

If we are a little further along, and we are actually laying down the content, a creative dry spell can be a problem. Yes, the old writer’s block. This requires a careful analysis. First off, are we being balanced about the time spent on writing our book? Are we getting enough sleep? Enough time with others? Enough exercise? Those things may seem unrelated at first glance, but don’t be fooled; they are vital to good long-term creativity. Alcohol, drugs, and other synthetic substitutes are not an alternative. They are a one-way trip down the wrong path that leads to serious consequences.

Another problem can be proper time management. Set a time for writing. Get a quiet and secluded place to call your work-space. Keep it tidy and organized. Keep your files on your computer well-organized. Losing files is an open door to the three D’s, they love that sort of thing. On that note, back up your work every day! Please, I beg you, do this. Losing an entire manuscript is not an open door to the three D’s, it’s the equivalent of removing the side of the building, laying on free food and drinks and sending them personal invitations.

Another counter to writer’s block is research. Whole swathes of the story in The Road Out were a direct result of research and wandering around in the back story of a character. What can come from research? Well, take the character of Sigmund ‘Ziggy” Schwarz. I had an approximate age, and the fact that he was German. He was an engineer and I had decided he did his apprenticeship with Mercedes. That was pretty much it.

I started digging around for information on Mercedes in the ’30s. From this, much of Ziggy’s back story was written. His tenure with the racing team, his reason for fleeing and arriving in Australia, his cars, and even how he teaches Arthur about life, all came from that research. The car race at the end of the book and the rival from the neighboring town both came from the same place. So, if you hit a flat spot, perhaps research is the key to a whole raft of new ideas.

Another source of the three D’s is other people. It happens often enough; someone asks you what you’re up to these days and the following ensues:

“I’m writing a book.” You respond.

“Oh, umm…okay. So do you have a publisher?”

“No, I’m going to self publish.”

“Oh, right. (insert pregnant pause here) Hasn’t it been cold these last few days?”

Trust me, if you haven’t had a similar experience, you will. To avoid the three D’s giving the other person a hearty slap on the back to thank them for their help, we must immediately remind ourselves of the many, many writers who are earning a living from self-publishing. The problem with that conversation is not that we are doing something which is the real-world equivalent of trying to make a career out of paper plane racing, but that the other person is not cognizant of the changing world around them.

Are they a self-published author? If they respond in such a fashion, that is hardly likely, is it? So always measure up a response by weighing it against the character of the respondent. Discouragement doesn’t usually come from those who matter.

Next week, we’ll consider the threat of the three D’s toward those who have already published their first book.

The Road Out – Free for 5 Days

Yes, I’ve decided to run a five-day free book promotion on The Road Out.

From August 28th through to September 1st, you can grab a free copy of my first novel. The book has done surprisingly well, with good reviews and copies sold in many different countries. Feedback has been very good, with the most common compliment being how easy to read it is.

Alongside work on the first in my science fiction series, The Originals, coming out next month, work has already begun on book 2 of the Highfields series. With that slated for publication July 1st 2016, I am eager to get more opinions and feedback on the first volume. Highfields is a lot of hard work, with much research time required to maintain the feel and authenticity. Therefore, the more critical feedback I get, the more encouragement I feel to keep slogging away at number 2.

I’m only going to do this the once, so don’t miss out!

Getting Dialogue to Flow

Listen to a conversation. It might be a chat you have with someone, or you might sit in a cafe and overhear a nearby discussion. While you’re listening to the conversation flow, ask yourself; is this how I write my dialogue?

Nothing in a written passage adds to a story as much as dialogue. Our characters can be defined, emotions built, arguments won and lost, hopes dashed or dreams fulfilled, all through a single conversation between two characters. But, what makes dialogue work? What do we need to keep in mind when building a scene in dialogue? And how do we measure the appropriate length of a passage of dialogue?

I thought the best way to analyze this was to dissect a dialogue from The Road Out. This particular conversation sets the scene for the decision that changes the family’s life. In one conversation, much is brought to light. This is a pivotal scene, so it had quite some time spent on it.

Arthur and Therese are on the front steps of their house, on the evening of their return from their week’s stay at Highfields.

——————————————————

Therese leaned back in his arms, “What are we doing here Artie?”
“Well, I’m thinking about how empty my beer is.” He held up his drained bottle.
She giggled and gave him a playful punch on the arm. “No, you big dolt, I mean what are we doing here.”
He sighed as he watched Mrs Thompson from number twenty-nine walk past with her dogs. Funny old stick always walked her dogs after dark, they had no idea why. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “But I’m doing what I’m told, I guess.” He couldn’t believe he’d said it, but it was true.
Therese replied, “Arthur, you’re a thirty year old man with a wife and two kids, what right has your father got to tell you how to live your life?”
Arthur grimaced. There was the heart of the problem. The one person he avoided mentioning for as long as possible. “You need to ask him that, love.” Even as he said it, he chided himself, you idiot.
Therese sat upright, drawing away from him. “You idiot! Why would I ask him? I didn’t marry him, I married you!”
He put the bottle down. “Easy, love.”
She shook her head. “Artie, how can you just accept such a…a ludicrous situation?”
He held up his hands. “Okay, okay, you’re right, I should be doing what you want, not what he wants.” He mentally kicked himself. Nice one Reagan, you half-wit, that’s torn it.
Therese rounded on him. “I don’t want you to do what I want, you fool, I want you to do what you want!”
He bowed his head. “You’re right; I know…I know you’re right.” He kicked his feet and wished they weren’t having this conversation at all. He looked back up at his beautiful, but now very angry, wife. I don’t deserve her, he thought, I know I don’t. He couldn’t meet her gaze. He put his eyes back on his feet.
“I’m a coward. I’ve always been a coward.” He whispered.
His wife grabbed him by the shoulders. “Arthur, look at me.”
It took him some effort to meet her gaze.
“You are not a coward, Arthur Reagan, not really. Your father is the coward. He’s a bully, and all bullies are cowards. He brought you up to fear him. The ranting, the beatings, he’s even hit your Mum.”
The mention of those times brought the whole thing washing over him: the blazing eyes, the savage voice, the feel of spittle on his face… the screaming, the neighbors at the door, and that one time, even the police. It was the fear of his dad’s rage that kept him silent, the terror of raising that ire. Arthur learned to comply, to go along with what was directed from above. Disagreement was rebellion and, in the Reagan house, rebellions were mercilessly crushed.
He felt Therese watching him as he sat there staring at his feet. He knew the fear in his eyes was making her angry. Not at him, but at his fool of a father.
She took hold of his hands. “What Tom has offered us is unbelievable, Artie, but it’s true. It’s way bigger than anything we ever dreamed of, but it’s there. It’s ours for the taking. Are you honestly telling me you’re going to let this slip away?”
He shook his head, “No babe, of course not, it’s way more than I ever hoped for.”
She held out her hands. “Then what’s the problem? What are we debating?”
Arthur shivered, “I know we should go, darl, really I do. But it’s gonna cost me big time. Dad hates Tom, we both know that. He’s going to lose it over this, you know that, right?”
Therese folded her arms and scowled, “Your dad will do what he always does, Artie. He’ll throw a tantrum, and then he’ll sulk.”
He nodded and looked away. She’s right, he thought. I can’t argue with that. “I…I need some time, Therese, please. I have to sort this out and get it right in my head.”
She nodded, but said nothing. He was dead tired, he’d almost forgotten he did a six hour drive this morning. He took her hand, “Come on, let’s get the dishes done and get to bed. I’m whacked and I have to go to work tomorrow.”

—————————————————————————

In the original draft, that conversation contained a much larger percentage of narrative and thought than actual speech. Along with that, as Rob pointed out when he first read it, the qualities of both Arthur and Therese were lacking in depth. It was only much later in the original manuscript that Arthur’s abusive father came to light. Only then could I build his insecurity, lack of confidence and fear.

Due to input from my female beta readers, I knew that Therese required a stronger personality, a touch of determination and a frustration with Arthur’s subjugation to his Dad. After working with this passage, her personality emerged much stronger, and she proves instrumental in making the move happen.

Looking back at that section now, a couple of things stick out to me. For one, there are too many action beats; too much nodding, folding of arms, etc. It starts to get annoying to the reader, and the problem with actions is that they occur at the same time as speech, but we can’t properly portray that. I would lose some of those beats now. I think it would improve the rhythm and flow of the conversation.

I do like the way the small pieces of narrative and thought have folded themselves into the dialogue, the transition doesn’t jar too much. It helps to set the scene to see the old lady walking her dogs in the dark, the bottle, and, a bit later on, Arthur’s memories of his father’s temper.

One thing to make dialogue work is to capture how emotions dictate the direction. Emotional exchanges like this one involve a complex array of feelings. For example; Therese gets angry to begin with, but Arthur’s acknowledgement of his fear spins her heart 180 degrees and she sees his fear, which softens her approach. She’s still angry, but her anger is deflected to the source of Arthur’s fear; his Dad. This is often how heated exchanges go, as both characters realize things and adjust their feelings and words accordingly.

To get dialogue really working, remember that we are all imperfect people, and we go through an exchange like this discovering our own faults as much as getting the other person to see theirs. We then react, either automatically correcting our erroneous thoughts or allowing our temper to push on regardless, thus dictating the direction and intensity of the debate. So keep in mind the character’s personality. A hot tempered person is not going to change course much; once they’re fired up, they aren’t backing down. If we want the conversation to go that way, our character needs to be a hot-head.

Measuring the length of a scene in dialogue is also very important. As writers, our character’s conversations have a target to get to, in as little time as possible. We have a plot outline we want to follow, and every conversational exchange is assisting us to reach that goal. Forcefully steering a conversation, however, can result in problems. We must imagine our characters as real people; complex, faulted, holding certain fears and prejudices in their hearts. In reworking the passage above, I tried to let Arthur and Therese speak as if they were real people; Arthur the son of an abusive father, Therese a strong-willed and determined woman frustrated by an ultra-conservative and prejudiced society.

I tried to get them to reach the point where they’d run out of steam in the right time frame. It was the evening, they were tired, and they wound it up in a timely manner. Their fatigue was important, too; tired people will often open up simply because they lack both the energy and focus to remain guarded.

Originally, that conversation took place in the car on the way home, but the fact that they were in the car meant a conclusion was hard to reach; I couldn’t get them to conclude as they arrived home because they would surely talk about it earlier. It would have been much too long. In the end I started a brief conversation in the car, but kept it vague.

Keep in mind that we are trying to portray real people. Their conversations are a vital piece in the puzzle of who they really are. Let them speak for themselves, in keeping with their background, their situation, and their age. Our readers then become emotionally involved, wanting to see the hero win the day for more reasons than just to conclude a story in a satisfactory fashion.

My favorite trick is to wait until I’m around a group of people talking and then pick the most interesting person out. Try to listen to them in conversation, either talking to them directly, or eavesdropping, if it’s acceptable to do so. Then try to build a character from them. How old? Married, single or divorced? Ethnicity? Religion? Political leanings? Occupation? Build a background story. Then a continuing story that could feature them. As you keep listening, see how often they break your fictional character’s mold.

Obviously, time and place are important, otherwise you could end up getting your face slapped, or worse. It is interesting to see how long you can keep a person in character, though. Doing this, along with observing how real conversation works, can help us to build dialogue that both entertains and progresses the plot. Doing both at once is essential, after all.

 

 

Writing From The Outside

How do we see things we can’t see? How do we feel things we can’t feel? How do we touch things we can’t reach?

By using our imagination. How good is our imagination? We all have those moments where we picture something in our minds as we would like it, don’t we? As writers, our imagination is the most important tool in the box. Think about it; we can literally create anything we want. We start with an empty page and work from there. The first decision we make is the genre. What, when, where, how and who. That first decision determines what part our imagination will play in our work.

My first book was set back in time, and research was the primary factor, or so I thought. I was anxious to get the right feel, the right tone, for The Road Out. I wanted the reader to experience Queensland in the late Sixties; what it felt like, what it looked like and what it sounded like. Capturing the culture of a time period is all about the mind-set above all else. If the characters don’t think correctly, the atmosphere of the time period is lost.

This mistake is often made with period fiction. A good writer may highlight the cultural contrasts between then and now, but as soon as a character thinks like someone from the modern-day, the ambiance is gone.

Thus, it is down to our imagination to feel the period of time in which our work is set. Backed up by extensive research, an imaginative writer can portray a scene to perfection, building the scenery with precision and creating a place so real that the reader is lost in the story; which is exactly where we want our readers to be.

So, imagination proved to be of primary importance, even though I thought research would be.

I must confess, in this regard my new project is a tough nut to crack. Science fiction is a field where the imagination is the only tool we have to set the scene. The Originals is a story that starts in our modern-day, and some research was needed for the initial scene, but the story is skewed away from reality within a paragraph or two.

At that point, imagination was all that was left.

From the outset, I am examining our society through the eyes of a civilization hundreds of thousands of years in advance of our own. How would an advanced people like that see us, as we struggle to survive? What would our political structures look like to them? In turn, what would they be like? What societal factors would dictate progress? It’s pretty clear at this point in time that those factors would be markedly different from our own.

To capture all this, I am standing back and regarding our world from the outside. Trying to take an honest look at the only thing one has ever known, from somewhere that doesn’t exist, is a lot harder than I first thought it would be. I honestly thought relying on imagination rather than research would be easier, but I have discovered that nothing could be further from the truth.

Hard science fiction, as it is called, is all about the science itself. This form might require a more balanced draw on both imagination and research. But, mine is not a hard science fiction book. It is more about the people, than the technology. In many of his books, Arthur C Clarke portrayed the impact of scientific developments on society as a whole. His interest seems to me to lay more with the people than the technology. I find him a fascinating writer, and I realize that the reason for that is his focus on social impact.

As we progress through time, it is becoming painfully obvious that humanity’s direction and, indeed, survival, will lay more with the people than the technology. How we think, act and feel is what guides us through life. While all manner of advances are changing our lives, we remain the same within ourselves. Thus, all the technology in the world, and beyond, is of little use to us, without the will to implement the changes needed to assist in our survival.

Indeed, many of the stories being told today have taken a turn toward mankind’s eventual extinction, almost promoting acceptance of such. So, I thought it might be good to examine all this, through the lens of someone standing at a remove from our society.

As was the case with The Road Out, both the story and the characters are forming themselves, with constant re-writes necessary to incorporate more twists and turns. As things move along, the story is resolving into something I am very pleased with.

Hopefully, when the day arrives to publish, I won’t be the only one who thinks that.

Living With Fibromyalgia

Do you suffer from fibromyalgia? Do you have a loved one, or a friend, who has this chronic illness? With an occurrence rate of 2-5% of the population in developed countries, it’s no surprise if you do. I write this in the interest of awareness, as we can never be too aware of the debilitating illnesses so many suffer today.

Twenty-six years ago, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. For the first few years, we tried every treatment we came across and could afford. In the end, I was told that I was one of the lucky ten percent who suffer the illness for the rest of their lives.

Lately, the pain has become increasingly difficult to deal with, so I decided twenty-odd years was a long time in the medical research industry and tried to find some up-to-date information on my condition. Things have changed. There’s still no confirmed cure, but understanding has come a long way in the intervening period between now and then.

As it turns out, what I suffer from is called fibromyalgia, which carries with it the symptoms of chronic fatigue. However, the widespread musculoskeletal pain is not considered a part of chronic fatigue these days; it is attributed to fibromyalgia.

So, what do sufferers experience? Some or all of the following:

  • chronic musculoskeletal pain
  • sleep problems
  • cognitive problems
  • depression or anxiety
  • sensitivity to chemicals
  • irritable bowel
  • restless legs

To help supporters understand what their loved one is going through, the simplest analogy is to imagine the aching muscles and fuzzy head one gets when one has the flu. Not a head cold, but a proper dose of influenza. You know how you feel really listless, your muscles ache, and you just want it to stop? Well, that’s how fibromyalgia sufferers feel every day, I kid you not.

The illness is apparently initially caused by changes in the patient’s central nervous system. It actually alters the processing of sensory input to the central nervous system. What this does is intensify the sensation of usually non painful feelings, such as the feeling of your backside on a chair you are sitting on. This becomes painful, instead of just an awareness-level sensation. If one is lying in bed with a quilt on, the weight of the quilt is amplified to the point of being painful.

The cause of the actual changes to the central nervous system are often set off by long-term psychological or physical stress. For myself, it was working six to seven days a week for 12 hours a day doing intensely physical activity (installing commercial flooring). On top of that I was dealing with building contractors who tend to prefer to avoid paying invoices for as long as humanly possible. So, for me, it was both physical and psychological.

Now, one of the biggest issues, outside of the pain itself, is the lack of sleep. Sufferers don’t get the much-needed stage IV non-REM sleep. Sleep deprivation is an old torture method of long-standing, so I’ll leave you to think about what getting through an average day is like.

While there is no outright cure for fibromyalgia, there are many things that can be done to assist the sufferer to manage the pain and psychological impact this illness brings.

The most important one is understanding. The last thing a sufferer needs is some klutz telling them, “Yeah, I get tired sometimes, too.” Whatever you do, don’t be that guy. If you don’t have this illness, you have no idea what a sufferer is going through.

One dear friend of ours studied Bowen therapy, and invited me to let her try treating me. It is the closest I have ever come to hitting a woman. She later related the experience to her instructor. He informed her, in a horrified voice, that treating a person in my condition needed the utmost delicacy and a very mild touch. It’s okay, I still love her to bits, she’s a very dear friend.

The one thing that stuck out to me about what I have learned, is that the easiest way to cause an onset is to induce any kind of stress on the sufferer. My lovely wife and my two beautiful daughters have struggled to comprehend for years what makes me really sick. I had no idea myself. But, that’s the elephant in the room, as it were. Stress.

If we are kept away from stressful situations, we can actually carry out a fair amount of work in a day, painful though it may be. But, the idea of a stress-free workplace is kind of quaint these days, isn’t it? Even the home is likely to be a stressful place. Noise from kids, pets, neighbors, sound systems, you name it, reverberate through every home to some degree.

The funny thing is, when someone is putting pressure on me, it actually physically hurts, and I get aggressive in return. I used to blame this on a bad temper, but that is not the case. In reality, it’s a self-defense mechanism. As much as possible supporters should endeavor to keep the pressure off. We are more useful to you left alone than in bed unable to move, no?

There are things we can do to help ourselves, too. Some exercise, believe it or not, is very good. Some muscle condition actually assists pain management. To this end, I practice on my drum-kit every day. Anyone who thinks that’s not a workout has never played a drum-kit. I come in from the shed soaking wet, even in the middle of winter. Yes, it hurts to play. Quite a bit, too. But, when I have neglected to exercise in the past, the pain has become more of a master than otherwise.

To finish up, I’ll pop a couple of the most useful links I found. I hope someone somewhere might find this post useful.

Article from 2013 on the website of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (dictionary required) – http://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2013/october/fibromylagia/

Wikipedia, of course – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibromyalgia

The excellent fibromyalgia Network – http://www.fmnetnews.com/

The Importance of Good Structure

One of the most important parts of being a good storyteller is the ability to get our reader’s rapt attention, and keep it. The opening few lines get their interest and set the scene, but it is the subsequent sentences, paragraphs and chapters that determine whether they’re coming along for the ride.

What throws readers off? There are several things that can remove the immersion. A wandering storyline, a plot twist that doesn’t ring true, word repeats, even poor editing and typos can break the spell. Perhaps the biggest problem I have with reading a book is when there are structural problems. As soon as the reader has to stop, back up, and work out who said what, or why they said it, or connect what they just read with what they read before, the moment is lost.

Perhaps we can illustrate it this way: You’re sitting at the dining table with your children, telling them a story. You’re leaning forward, intense gaze moving from one set of wide eyes to the next, and you are delighted to see their little mouths open in anticipation of the next bit. You know, the good bit, where the baddies get their comeuppance or the captive princess makes her bid for freedom. You put both hands down on the table. “And then…” you say dramatically. They all lean in a little bit more… And the phone rings. Or the dog starts barking. Or the cat sends a piece of china crashing to the floor. Everyone jumps in alarm, and you just know that even if you finish the story after attending to the interruption, you’ll never get those kids back to the thrilling place they were before.

Structural problems do the same thing; they ruin the moment. It may not happen at a dramatic place. Indeed, they can happen anywhere. Filling in some background, moving the plot along with some dialogue, it doesn’t matter. What counts is the breakage of immersion that happens when we’re interrupted in our reading.

A good way to deal with structure is to re-read what you’ve written. But, do it at a remove from the writing phase. Put aside some time each working day to sit down with a cup or glass of something you enjoy, and read through your work from the day before. I personally do this at the start of my working time. Forget about what you plan to write today, just relax and read through your previous day’s work.

What you’re looking for is a snag, a little delay in the flow. It’s almost like a safe-cracker feeling for that little click that tells him there’s a tumbler point there. As soon as you feel that little bump, just highlight the word and read on. Don’t get caught up with what the problem might be. Every time you feel your attention being nudged, highlight that sucker.

Once you’ve gone through it all, it’s time to go back and root out the issues. So, what are we looking for? One thing I am a shocker at is sentence structure. The following is a Drayman classic:

The race was due to start at noon. John was feeling confident and ready to run, but Frank was still having issues with his knee. Mary worried that Frank might end up with a permanent injury, if he was foolish enough to run. Frank pretended he was fine, and was hoping Mary didn’t notice.

This kind of thing drove Rob mad, but I guess everyone has their foibles. There’s nothing actually harming the story there, but it’s a bumpy ride, isn’t it? It’s all about the order of events. It’s how we show our readers what’s going on. We can either take them smoothly from frame to frame, or jerk them about all over the shop, showing them rapid fire bits and pieces of the story like a modern music video.

Have a look at the structure issues involved in that sample. First we’re looking third-person at the time for the race. Then we’re looking at John, then we find out Frank has a knee injury. Then, we’re Mary, having two thoughts the wrong way round. Finally, we’re Frank, pretending and thinking in two different tenses. We’re also seeing the whole shebang as narrative summary. There’s so much there that could be entertaining, if we weren’t being jarred and shoved around. In reality, it’s more of a scene outline than a passage.

Let’s have another go. I’ve chosen Mary as the focus, because women are more emotionally focused than men, thus making the viewpoint logical:

Mary checked her watch: 11:50. Only ten minutes before the race started. She looked across to where Frank was tying up his shoes. She saw him wince as he lifted up his left leg. “Your knee is still bad, Frank.” she said. Why don’t you just forfeit? It’s not worth getting a permanent injury just to beat John.”

Frank smiled weakly at her. “It’s not a problem, love.”

John tapped on the change room door. “You ready Frank? Is that knee going to be okay?”

Mary tried to keep her heart steady as Frank’s face darkened. “I’m fine. I’ll be there in a second.”

By changing the narrative to a scene with dialogue, we’ve actually forced ourselves to put events in the right order. We’ve also prompted the reader’s imagination by alluding to the knee injury rather than just baldly spelling it out. We’ve constructed some scenery; a change room, simply by getting John to tap on the door. We’ve also set up the enmity between Frank and John with Frank’s last comment. Now the reader is wondering about Mary’s involvement here. Is there a love triangle?

I’ve written before about letting a story write itself, and this helps to illustrate that point, too. It could be that, up to the moment where we re-wrote that passage, we hadn’t considered putting Mary in between those two men. Now, it’s almost as if the story is begging for it to happen.

I hope someone finds this as helpful as so much of the advice I find in other people’s blog posts.

Happy writing!