Archive for the ‘ Writing ’ Category

Apple has just released a new version (v1.2) of iBooks for the iPad and the iPhone. Usually this is not something I would care much about, but Apple has added one feature in particular that stands out in my mind – hyphenation.

As an author I have constantly been surprised that none of the eBook readers in the market seems to support proper hyphenation, not even the HTML-implemented soft hyphenation.

By adding this feature, finally, Apple is putting the pressure on Amazon and other eBook readers, and deservedly so, taking the text display on those devices – the thing they are actually optimized for one would think – out of the middle ages.

Hyphenation in text is an important typographic feature, not only for justified text blocks, but also for regular left justified reading. There is a reason why hyphenation has been made an integral part of our language’s punctuation language rules. It can actually increase readability while also serving aesthetic purposes.

I could understand that Amazon and other eBook manufacturers might not have wanted to include full hyphenation in their devices because the dictionaries necessary to do so might have bloated the firmware, while the actual look-up might have slowed down the page display.

Therefore I checked at some point to see if they would at least support soft hyphenation,as it is implemented in the HTML standard. Few people know that HTML actually contains an entity character called ­ which makes a hyphenation suggestion for the renderer.

If you write a word like ten­den­cy in your HTML code, a fully implemented HTML-renderer uses these ­ characters to correctly hyphenate the word. It means these characters are invisible, unless a word wrap is in order, at which time the renderer will treat the ­ characters as guidelines to display something like tenden- cy, for example.

It is an HTML feature that is incredibly helpful but barely used. The Kindle, sadly failed my soft hyphenation tests, and my understanding is that until today so have all other eBook readers.

By including hyphenation – and with it, I expect soft-hyphenation – Apple has once again proven that they are just a bit ahead of everyone else. While this is, of course, a feature that should have been included in all eBook readers from day one, at least we can now expect the implementation of the feature to trickle down other systems as time goes on.

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Most people know me as a fan of Apple products, a real Mac-head, so to speak. The reason for that is that traditionally I can find very little flaw in the products the company offers, their approach to the user experience and the general approach to the marketplace.

That does not mean the company is beyond reproach, of course, and whenever I see flaws I will gladly point them out. And such is with the recent update of the iPad firmware, in which Apple has abandoned the orientation toggle switch. Its functionality has been instead replaced with audio mute.

I am not sure why anyone would have ever thought a mute button would be more essential in a tablet than a lock for the orientation. To me it makes no sense and why Steve Jobs would so vehemently state that the lock button will never return is beyond me.

As a writer I use Pages for the iPad a lot. I use it to edit and revise my books and even to actually write parts of my stories on occasion. The iPad’s mobility allows me to work anywhere I want to. It also means I am getting interrupted a lot and have to put the tablet down. Unfortunately this means that the tablet may change the orientation because of the movement, which wouldn’t be so bad, but it also reset the zoom factor once I rotate it back to my portrait writing position. Usually this means that my text is too small and I will have to pinch it up over and over again, which really getting tedious after the tenth time.

The orientation lock toggle solved this problem, for me. It would lock the orientation and with it my magnification setting in place.

The same is essentially true when surfing the web. So for me that toggle was a real asset.

Now as for replacing it with an audio mute instead… Off the top of my head I can’t even think of any real application for that. The iPad is not a phone that needs to be silenced quickly in various environments. So what do you need a mute switch for? Gaming, perhaps? What is there that pressing the volume down key a few times couldn’t do? I’m not sure if any mobile game is so demanding on the player that turning the volume down would destroy the experience, particularly as it something you would most likely do once when you start playing.

So, what would anyone need the audio mute for, really? Neither videos nor web browsing warrant or require a mute button, so I am truly flabbergasted at how Apple cold have come to the consensus that the orientation lock meeds to go. It is one of the few cases were usability has been sacrificed by the company that practically defines usability in the market – in the world. At the very least one would have expected to find a toggle in the system settings that let users allow what they want their toggle to do for them, but no such,luck.

You can still lock the orientation on the iPad, but it requires a bit of fiddling. First press the “Home” button twice and a menu bar will appear at the bottom of the screen. Now swipe the bar to the right and a new menu appears. In the left hand corner you will now find a soft toggle which allows you to lock and unlock the screen orientation. Why this has to be so well hidden and tedious to use, I really don’t know, when an option setting in the system preferences could have pleased everyone.

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Anatomy of a synopsis

One of the most challenging moments in the writing of a book and its preparation for publication is the creation of the synopsis or flap copy as it is often called also. The reason is easy to understand. It is a short blurb that will make all the difference whether a prospective reader will actually find the book interesting enough to continue and pay for it. Right after the cover the flap copy is easily the most important driver to turn curiosity into an a sale.

Publishing houses usually have dedicated copywriters to compose these flap copies for them. These writers are specialists in squeezing a maximum of intrigue out of a few sentences. Make no mistake: copywriting is an art upon which many millions of dollars can hinge.

Naturally, when the time comes for me to compose flap copies for my books I always try to spend some extra time on it. While creating the copy for “Terrorlord,” the latest volume in my “Jason Dark” series, I thought I’d put all of my resources to work and ask a few of my closest writer friends to chime in and help me massage the text.

Here is what I started with.

Conjured up from the bowels of the abyss by ancient spells, the Terrorlord has only one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash upon mankind a terror beyond imagination. He will do what it takes and kill anyone in his path remorselessly.
To save mankind from the horrors they don’t even know is upon them, the Geisterjäger Jason Dark and Siu Lin have to confront the evil darkness themselves and stop the Terrorlord before his reach is growing too far and his powers become unfathomable.

I thought it was pretty good but I would soon learn that I clearly made some cardinal mistakes.

The first comment was that there was clearly too much hyperbole in the description to the point that it became detrimental. Someone else also suggested that it was lacking depth. What is a Terrorlord, the question arose, and the consent that the description lacked a true emotional hook.

I could see all these points and reworked the text to this.

Conjured from the bowels of the abyss by ancient magic, the Terrorlord has one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash the horrors of the undead upon mankind and devour our world in his evil blackness.
Reliving the nightmares of his youth where an encounter with the Terrorlord left him scarred for life, Jason Dark must once again confront the powerful gatekeeper from Hell before his reach and power spiral out of control.

I did not elaborate further on the explanation of the name “Terrorlord” because I really felt that the name was enough to paint a picture, particularly if you take into consideration the cover artwork that would accompany the book. Take a look at the image to the left and judge for yourself. Apart from that, however, I definitely tried to make the synopsis stronger than before and to relay a bit more information – too much information, perhaps.

The comments on this one were that the first sentence in particular was too convoluted, running on with too many verbs – opening, unleashing and devouring. Yes, I could see that. It was a bit clumsy, indeed.

Complemented with the standard boilerplate second paragraph that provides information regarding the time period and setting of the story, I finally decided to go with the following text.

Conjured from the bowels of the abyss by ancient magic, the Terrorlord has one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash the horrors of the undead upon mankind.
Reliving the nightmares of his youth where an encounter with the Terrorlord left him scarred for life, Jason Dark must once again confront the powerful gatekeeper from Hell before his reach and power spiral out of control. With the help of Siu Lin, the ghost hunter will have to put an end to the Terrorlord’s dark reign before he can devour our world in his evil blackness.

This is the ninth volume in a series of gothic horror adventures where Jason Dark, a fearless and resourceful ghost hunter, follows in the mold of a Sherlock Holmes combined with Randall Garrett’s Lord D’Arcy. Written by Guido Henkel, the designer who brought Germany’s famed “Das Schwarze Auge” series to computer screens, this series is filled with enough mystery, drama and suspenseful action to transport you to the sinister, fogshrouded streets of Victorian England. Your encounter with the extraordinary awaits.

As you can see, I hope, creating a powerful flap copy is not as trivial as it may appear at first. Even though I may have ended up with a decent enough synopsis through this process, part of me truly wonders what a professional copywriter would be able to come up with.

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What’s your reading speed?

The other day I read a review of one of my “Jason Dark” books on a blog and it struck me that the reviewer remarked upon the length of these dime novels. He mentioned in his review that it was a short read that took him about an hour to complete. At first I did not think much of it but it stuck with me and a little later I thought about this passing remark a little more.

What bothered me was the fact that it takes me considerably longer to read the books as well as the fact that I would consider a book that offers a mere single hour of entertainment too short. Since I decide upon the price of my dime novels based on the entertainment value I attach to them, the $2.99 sticker price of a “Jason Dark” volume could be considered too high… or maybe not.

The stories in the series are usually around 23,000 words long. If someone reads such a story in an hour it means he has an average reading speed of almost 400 words per minute. If this means nothing to you let me just say that that is pretty fast. I wager that few people can actually read at a speed remotely close to that, especially if you take into consideration all the factors that play into this. In addition, it means that the reviewer read either with full concentration for the entire hour, or that his actual reading speed is even higher but sprinkled with moments of distraction that bring down the average speed. Be that as it may – it remains impressive.

Reading consists of three factors – the speed at which you read the words off a page, the comprehension of the material read and finally, the retention of it, which gets overlooked all too often. This means that even though someone might be able to read the words really fast, he may not be able to pick up the entire meaning of the text – skimming it rather than taking it in really – and in addition, the text that has been read might be forgotten in no time at all.

Sometimes I wish I could read faster – I am a fairly average speed reader – and I’ve been thinking about checking out some of the programs on the web to learn that, but I am honestly afraid that it might affect my comprehension and retention, which I do not wish to sacrifice. In addition, I simply don’t know where to start and how to go about it, but it is something on my mind.

If you want to find out what your own reading speed is, check out this website for a short test. I think it is not really representative, as the sample might be too small and generic, but it will nonetheless give you an idea where you are.

http://www.readingsoft.com

I just took the test a minute ago and my result was a reading speed of 247 words per minute at 100% accuracy, which means it would have taken me at about 2 hours to read the “Jason Dark” story – though I know from real life that even that is not correct, as it typically takes me 3 to 4 hours to read one of the volumes, if not more, given all the real life distractions surrounding us.

In regards to the reviewer mentioned in opening, it is unfortunate that the impression might have been created here that the stories might be excessively short – more like short stories, which they are not. For a casual reader of the review on that blog who might not be familiar with the fact that this reviewer is an incredibly fast reader the impression is undoubtedly one that the books are a whole lot shorter than they really are. A dime novel with 64 pages in print, it will typically offer the casual reader a few hours of enjoyment and with that in mind $2.99 might be the proper price point for them after all.

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