Friday, March 30, 2012

You really should buy this book

This is just an update on my last post about Ruby Standing Deer's new book, Circles. I just checked Amazon, and the price has been lowered to $0.99. I thought it was a steal at $4.99, so if you don't buy it at this new price, well then I just don't know what to say :) Hurry up and buy it. You won't regret it. I would imagine this is just a promotional pricing strategy to get it into the hands of more readers. I'm sure the price will go back up to a more reasonable level soon.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Circles


One of the greatest benefits of my membership to Writer's Village University is the chance to meet and interact with so many talented writers. I've learned so much in the short time that I've been a member and I continue to learn everyday. What makes the writer's journey particularly rewarding is to see a fellow writer succeed and publish their work. It gives hope to the rest of us who long for the day that readers will be holding a copy of our novel. So it is with much enthusiasm that I'm recommending a wonderful new book, Circles, by one of WVU's very own, Ruby StandingDeer.



I've only read the sample so far, but the story world is so magical, and the laguage is so evocative, that I will be purchasing and reading Circles as soon as I finish this post. I'll be sure to post a review here after I've finished reading, but I would encourage you to go ahead and buy it now. At the time of this writing it is only $4.99 on Amazon and available to Amazon Prime members for free.

In my opinion $4.99 is insanely cheap for that much entertainment. Think about how much you pay to go see some over-hyped movie that's over in less than two hours. You can't even get a drink at a movie theatre for $4.99 these days. Plus, books are always better than movies because you get to use your imagination :)

Monday, March 19, 2012

The marvels of the buckling spring


If you're not approaching forty years old, then you've probably spent most of your computer-using lifetime in front of a spongy feeling, lackluster keyboard with absolutely no feedback. Now don't get offended, it just happens to be more likely than not. If I'm wrong, then fantastic. That means you've heard about those days of yore and the marvelous industrial keyboards that they produced. In which case you can stop reading now, and go do something more productive. No really; I wouldn't blame you. For those of you that decided to stick around, let me tell you a little about my new favorite keyboard,
the Unicomp SpaceSaver M.






















The SpaceSaver M is actually a modern reproduction of the classic clicky keyboard known as the Model M used by IBM back in the 1980's. They're affectionately known as clicky because of the loud clicking sound that they make with each depression and release of the keys. They have a wonderful tactile feel and resonating auditory feedback. They were also built like tanks, and can still command a hefty price on eBay. The problem is that the original ones used an AT type connection and later a PS/2 connection, which as you might be aware, are no longer found on modern machines; especially ones like my Macbook. That's where Unicomp came in. They hold the rights to the design, and have modernized the keyboard while keeping all of the wonderful attributes of the original. This includes the wonderful buckling spring that gives that tactile feel and wonderful click.


Unicomp's SpaceSaver M















These are rather expensive keyboards. Mine set me back a whopping $94, but don't let that price deter you. I promise you that they're worth every penny. For one thing, like I said before, they're built like tanks. These things are designed to stand up to years and years of abuse. The thing is so heavy that it'll never slide off of your desk, but if it does, it'll be more likely to crack the floor than break. Think about how flimsy most modern keyboards are. They're usually made out of very cheap plastic, and have keys that use rubber dome switches that give little to no feedback. That's why typing on a modern keyboard is so frustrating. Half the time you can't tell whether or not you actually hit the key. That certainly isn't a problem with the SpaceSaver. You can hear it from the next room. Just tell your family to turn up the television while your typing.


Closeup





















I bought my SpaceSaver to help me with my writing, and I actually think it has made me more productive. These things are just a joy to use. Of course, I learned to type on an old IBM Selectric back in 1988, so I might just be crazy. In fact, it's probably a sure bet that I'm crazy, but I still think you'll love this keyboard. And yes, it works well with my Macbook. It has the Apple Command key as well as keys for Expose and Dashboard. It even has audio controls and playback built in, as well as a full numeric keypad. One other thing that I happen to like is that the keys are easily replaced. If you ever wear off the lettering, you can just pop the keys off and snap on a replacement. Unicomp even sells the replacement keys.

So if you miss the old days of the buckling spring keyboards, do yourself a favor and splurge on one of these beauties. I promise you they're worth every penny. If you'd like to know anything about the SpaceSaver that I haven't covered, feel free to drop me an email. Of course, the folks over at Unicomp could probably answer your questions better than I can, but I'll still give it my best shot, and I'll even use my SpaceSaver to do it.

P.S. - Before you write me, and tell me that I'm an insensitive jerk for taunting you with such a wonderful keyboard that is only available for the Mac, have no fear. They make these things for just about any kind of configuration you can imagine.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Make your own novel cover


I've been having a lot of fun lately creating mock novel covers, and sharing them with my writing group. I received such a positive response, and so many questions about how I created them, that I decided to create a tutorial. First of all, let me preface this tutorial by saying that I am certainly no expert, and that I am sharing this for my fellow future novelists that want to take a stab at making their own cover art. After all, who knows the material better? Besides, we all know that struggling writers are broke and can't afford to hire a cover designer.

The first thing you are going to need in order to make your cover is some sort of illustration or image editing software. A program like Photoshop would be ideal, however, since we are struggling writers, we probably don't have the budget for that kind of horsepower. Besides, in my opinion, Photoshop is overkill for a project like this, especially for a beginner. For this demonstration I'm going to be using my favorite lightweight but powerful image editing program, Pixelmator. You could just as easily use GIMP or even Paint.net on Windows. I'm using Pixelmator because it runs on my Macbook and it only set me back about thirty dollars. Keep in mind that all of the techniques and effects that I'll be using are available in one form or another in most graphics programs.

One more thing you're going to need before we can get started is some photography. Of course you can also use your own artwork, but my intention here is to help people out that can't really afford to pay an artist, and don't have the level of skill themselves. You can make some pretty impressive stuff with a little bit of creativity and some free stock photography. There are numerous sites where you can acquire free photos of people and places for your cover. The ones I'm using happen to be not only free (both in regards to cost and royalty free), but in the public domain. In other words, I didn't have to pay for them and I didn't need a model release. If all of this sounds overwhelming, or you don't want to browse the internet for hours looking for free photos, why not dress up some friends or relatives and take some of your own snaps?

So once you decide on your weapon of choice and you have your photos, you'll need to open up your graphics software and select an image size. Again, I'm no expert, but I've read that for eBooks a good size to go with is 600 pixels wide by 800 pixels high. Also, you want to choose 300 dpi (dots per inch) in order to get the best quality without creating an astronomical file size. There are many great resources on the internet about the correct layouts and resolution, such as Amazon's own Kindle Direct Publishing site, so I won't go into it any further here.

Pixelmator with a new project started


For this demo I'm going to be mocking up a cover for a thriller. Basically I'm going to have a woman in the foreground with a shadowy figure behind her. I've already downloaded my photos and opened up the first one.

Stock Photo

We don't need the entire picture of her, so we're going to first crop it, and then resize it after we've pasted it into our project.

Crop it down to size

Now that the picture is in our project, we can scale it and move it around by selecting it and manipulating the grips (this is common practice in most graphics programs). I want to keep this image centered vertically because the top and bottom are going to be reserved for the title and the author's name respectively.

Image pasted
Positioned
Once we have her right where we want (sorry, I didn't mean for that to sound so creepy), we can start to get rid of the parts of the image we don't want, namely the background. We're going to be utilizing the power of layers to make our cover look professional. So we want to use the eraser tools to get rid of the background in order to see our own background that we'll be creating. Notice that we zoom in really tight to erase around the edges of the area that we want to keep. This is where the undo command will become your best friend. Some graphics programs have pretty good selection tools that allow you to select larger areas to cut out, so just play around with your software until you find the method that works best. Pixelmator has an eraser option that allows you to click on an area and drag outward thereby removing pixels that match the area selected. This takes a little practice, but can save you a lot of time in the long run.

Erasing the background
Zooming in for the detail work

Now we're going to add a new layer for our background. Most programs have a layer tool box that allows you to add and rearrange layers. The one shown here in Pixelmator is very similar to Photoshop, GIMP and Paint.net. Notice also that they have check boxes next to them. This will come in handy when we have several layers in our project. That way we can turn off everything except what we are working on. One more thing about layers, make sure that you have the layer that you want to work on selected. Otherwise you may perform an action on a layer that you didn't intend to. Again, the undo command is your friend.

Now that we have the image cleaned up, we're going to apply an effect. This is where the fun comes in, and I would encourage you to play around and see which one looks best for your desired result. Also, your software may not have the particular effects that I'm using. Just know that the process is still very similar in any case. I'm going to use a stylize filter called "gloom" to give the photo a graphic novel kind of look.

Applying an effect

Settings

Now let's add some color to our background. I'm going to be using tangerine, but you can use whatever you like. Keep in mind that we will be applying a gradient effect later so that the background will have a deeper look. Just select the color swatch and choose a color. Next select the paint bucket tool and click on the background. Remember that we need to have the background layer selected.



Add some color

Next select a foreground and background color using the color swatches on your toolbar. We need two colors to create a gradient. Now we select the gradient tool and select our desired options in the "Tool Options" box that appears. I'm using "Linear Burn" for the blending option, but I encourage you to try them all out. Once you have the one you want, just click and drag from somewhere near the upper right-hand corner to the middle of the screen. Now you should have a deep, rich background.

Gradient
Now we're going to add another layer that will be used for a couple of "bands." These are the areas that we will use to place our title and our author name.

Make this newly created layer active, then click on the rectangular selection tool. We will left click and drag a rectangle across the top as shown. Next we'll choose black for our foreground color then we'll select the paint bucket tool again and fill the selected area by clicking inside the rectangle. Notice how the color stays inside the area we've defined. Once that is done, repeat the process to create the bottom area. I've also added a couple of thinner rectangles between the black areas and the photo to give it some contrast. Again, just choose the colors that work best for your project.


Adding some "bands"
Top and bottom filled in

Now we need to add that shadowy figure that we discussed earlier. This is where it gets really fun. We are going to use a stock photo of a man stepping forward. You'll notice that he is smiling which is not the tone we're going for, but don't worry because we're going to turn him into a menacing shadow. First we'll need to crop out the portion of this photo and paste it into our project just like we did with the first photo. Notice when you do that, the photo is on top of everything else. Don't worry, we'll just click on the layer in the layer dialog box and drag it beneath the layer of our woman. Also note that you may need to resize the image of the man as we did with the woman.

Our soon to be shadowy figure

Once you've placed the man where you want him, you'll need to erase everything around him just as we did earlier. This is when it might be a good idea to turn off all of the other layers except the background. That way you can see any areas that still need to be erased as you go, but you won't be bothered by everything else. Keep in mind that it doesn't have to be 100 percent perfect since we are going to be turning him into a shadow anyway.


All ready for an effect

Now I'm going to apply a false color effect using black as the background color and gray for the foreground color. You should end up with something that looks like an X-ray. Now to finalize the shadow effect, I'm going to apply another "Gloom" filter. Just play around with the settings until it looks the way you want it to. Don't be afraid, you can always undo.

Shadowy figure

Now that our shadowy figure is finished, we can turn all of our layers back on and think about adding some text. Again, we will create a new layer and select the text tool. Note that some programs automatically create a new layer when you select this tool and click on the image. We have to be careful in Pixelmator because once we create text it can't be edited. Of course we can always undo, but as soon as we place it, it becomes an image and is no longer editable text. You can move it around, you just can't fix typos without deleting the layer and starting again.

I would suggest you use a clean and simple font with a nice contrasting color. This sample uses Trebuchet MS, but there are plenty of good ones to choose from. I would also make the title slightly larger than the author name, at least until you hit the big time. Remember, the cleaner the text is, the better it will show up in a thumbnail or preview on Amazon (or any other bookseller of your choice).

Completed cover ready for export

The only thing left to do now is export your work to a jpeg. I say export because we want to keep the original in the native format of your graphics program so that we can edit it later. When we export to a format like jpeg, all of the layers are merged and won't be individually editable. This is great for uploading, but not so great if you want to make changes. So always save the original.

One last step, and this is very important…sit back and bask in the glory of your handiwork :)

Congratulations! You just made your very own novel cover. I hope that you found this tutorial informative and that it inspired you to try out some ideas of your own. Best of luck!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Quick sample cover

Here's a quick sample cover that I threw together using a couple of stock photos and some filters in Pixelmator. It's not quite formatted right for an eBook, but you get the idea.

A sample cover for one of my writer friends in Hemingway Hall

Monday, March 5, 2012

Distraction free writing


If you're anything at all like me, you have a tendency to browse the web doing “research” when you should be working on that novel. Oh sure, I always start with the best intentions; I even open up Scrivener and bash out a few dozen words before I decide to go look something up on Google that just can’t wait. The worst part is that I’ve usually been running through scenes and plot points in my head during my commute, and all day at work. I’m even pretty enthusiastic about turning all of these great ideas into scenes when I get in front of my computer. So how do distractions overpower that desire to write? For me, it’s usually a matter of just popping over to the internet for a second, or checking my email, or posting to my writing group. Most of these actions only take a minute or two, but the problem is that those minutes add up, and the disruption to my workflow is often detrimental. I basically said all of that to tell you that the one device that has done more for my writing productivity than any other, is my Alphasmart NEO. The NEO, and other devices like it, offer simple distraction free writing. No email, no social media, no apps, just an old school portable word processor.

The NEO2 at work


The NEO is the perfect marriage of form and function. It has an impeccable keyboard with smooth and responsive action, and a screen just big enough to see the last few lines. I realize that writers generally like to be able to at least see the entire page they’re working on, but for roughing out that first draft, there is really no better way to go. The NEO’s screen forces you to keep writing, and punch that inner editor in the face. Well, maybe not in the face, we’ll need him during the revision process. We just don’t need him now. Now we need to get all of those wonderful ideas out of your head, and onto “paper.” That’s what I love about the NEO; it lets me focus on writing. I don’t do any editing at all on it. When I’m done, I just connect it to my laptop with a usb cable and hit send.

Another nice thing about the NEO is its portability and extraordinary battery life. It weighs in at under two pounds and can go over 700 hours on three AAA batteries. I know mine has been using the same batteries for six months, and the battery meter has hardly moved off of the full mark. The device is also instant on and off. It fires right up, and always remembers where you were. It even saves as you go, so you never lose your work. Of course, I’m very paranoid about that sort of thing, so I download my files every night, but I’ve never actually experienced any data loss.

The NEO is also very rugged; you can toss it in a backpack and go. I’ve even dropped mine on a tile floor before. I wouldn’t recommend doing it on purpose, but mine only suffered a minor scuff on the body. It still works like a charm. I bought mine brand new (and it is actually a NEO2) directly from RenLearn for $169, but you can often find older models for a fraction of that price on eBay. I also have the sister model, the Dana, which you can still find for around $40 on eBay. It has a Palm operating system and some Palm apps, so the battery life isn’t as good, but it does have a rechargeable battery that gets around 25 hours between charges.

Alphasmart Dana


Well, that’s enough gushing about the NEO from me, but if you want to know more about these wonderful machines, just click on my link to “Alphasmart Writing Tools.” It really comes down to whatever works for you, and hey, this works for me. Happy writing!