Live a Little before you Die a Little

Being an independent author is a tough gig. You’re looking at months, years even, of scratching out enough time from your hectic life to whip words into line just to adequately convey a story to someone you’ll never meet. It’s daunting to publish your first story, make no mistake, and there is an underlying, all consuming, inescapable fear that what you’ve written is just no good.

Not no good in the sense that it’s not going to be a best seller, no good in that your book stinks.

Fear

It’s a natural fear, and a healthy one in many respects. Really. Firstly it encourages you, by default, to check and recheck over your work to make sure it’s in a suitable condition for that person over the other side of the world. You are actually compelled, for the umpteenth time, to check over the editing, punctuation, sentence and paragraphs structure, beats, tics, cliches, metaphors and vocabulary.FearIsTheMindKiller

Secondly, and possibly more importantly, it draws you out from your authoring role and puts you into the reader’s role. “Will they get it?” you wonder, “Does it make sense to someone who isn’t me? Will they actually get it? Was that metaphor too subtle? Is the premise lost in the drama?”

Thirdly, you’re more likely to ‘look over the fence’ at other books, see how other authors deal with killing off their characters, see what language they get up to, what works, what annoys you (as a reader).

Of course these fears, left to fester, can prevent you from ever getting that manuscript out. Kind of a paranoia induced paralysis. If you’re anything like me, you’d make up excuses. You’d say that you simply don’t have enough time to do it properly. You don’t have the money to pay an editor to read over your stuff. You haven’t the ability to make a front cover or your laptop isn’t fast enough or, well, you’ll find anything.

That was me for years until I reached the ‘stuff it’ moment, the point where I had to do grow a pair and actually do something.

The time issues I worked through. The technological and artistic issues, I nutted out. But the fear remained. The fear sat on me like weight, holding me back.

Motivation

I got to thinking, in my ‘stuff it’ moment, about what it was that was driving me forward. Why was I even bothering to write? What did I hope to achieve? I was not scrounging spare minute to sit in front of a screen for my health, nor my sanity, nor because I enjoyed the feel of keys beneath my fingers.

A few beers and some heavy introspection later, I woke up with a clearer understanding: Originally, I wrote as a way to exercise my mind, to express some little ditty I had in there, to unwind from the stress of work. Then, as I got stuck into Darkness From Below, I discovered that I could write a book and all that it needed was a solid bit of grunt. It was a proof of concept (Really, Jez? A proof of concept? Hey, I’m a software engineer. Sue me) that showed me how a little bit of writing each day can culminate, eventually, in a book.

When it came to getting that book published, however, I discovered that I could not (for legal reasons) and, I confess, I let that be my excuse not to publish. “Ah, well. Such is life.” I was relieved, since I didn’t have to face up to the stomach twisting fear that someone, somewhere out there in the big, wide world, didn’t like what I wrote. Fear had won out again.

It was a failure on my part, of course, and I had no one else to blame but myself. I could have re-written it. I could have kept the premise and the story and changed the characters and scenery and it would have been my own once more, but I was deflated, depressed once more. So what, then, was the final motivator to get me going once more?

Assertiveness

I wanted to have something in my hand to point to and say, “See that? I did that.” I wanted to look back on my life and know that I didn’t spend so much time in front of the television that I could produce something that someone, somewhere out in the world, would read and like. I wanted my children to know that hard work and dedication, persistence and determination, do pay dividends.

At first I thought I was being ‘Selfish’. After all, I was doing something for myself, not for others. Aren’t I, as an author, supposed to put my audience first? Yes, I say, absolutely but this is not the right context.

When I write, I keep the Reader in my mind at all times, but why I write, well, that’s not up to the Reader, that’s up to me, the Author.

And this is what it all came down to: I write because I want to. Not because I’m forced to. Not because I’m paid to. Not for any other external motivator. I do my best to proof-read and edit. I treat the Reader with respect. I learn from other books, I listen to criticism, I do better each time. Still, I write because of the satisfaction it gives me, the enjoyment I get out of creating something from nothing, the sense of accomplishment when someone ‘gets it‘.

My biggest lamentation is that I sat on my thumbs for so long, letting fear eat at me, ignoring what it was that I wanted, dismissing my desires as selfish, delusional, unachievable. It would erode me, and feed that black beast. So many New Year’s Eves of my life I’d look back and think, “Yup. Didn’t get anything I wanted to get done in that year. Maybe, somehow, next year will be the different.”

Of course, it wasn’t going to be different until I decided, actively, that it would be.

If you are a prospective author, artist, musician, craftsman, whatever, if you’ve got that little spark in you crying to be stoked, all I can say is this: You can either look back and wonder if you ever could have done it, or you could just go ahead and do it, and phooey to those faceless fears. Figure out what it is you want, honestly, and then do something to make it happen.

Live a little, before you die a little.

The Bullet Animation – Music Issues

Making the music for the The Bullet Animation was definitely one of the more fun aspects. I had a general tune going, I’d made a rhythm track and mucked about with the instruments.

Playing it back, it didn’t sound right. Sure, the tune was fine and the timing was correct, but there was something definitely NQR. It wasn’t until I played it back on my phone that it twigged: The instruments sounded tinny.

Timbre

No, not what one calls when a tree is cut down. I’m talking the quality of sound, the richness. If the sound coming out was colour, it would be a pastel, muted shade, not a rich, vibrant one. The instruments used sounded very much like those I was playing with back on the ol’ 386, probably because (and please correct me if I’m wrong) they were the same ones.

The ‘instruments’ used to play the midi file were the issue. Windows comes with a set of sounds that can be used to play midi files which is, well, average. So the piano, the harpsichord, the bass guitar, all sound like they’re supposed to. Kind of. Ish. If you squint.

“OK,” I reason, “It’s just a matter of getting a better quality set of instruments.”

In a way, yes. Only the correct term is Soundfonts. You can think of it like text-fonts. You’ve got your standard set of Arial, Times New Roman, Courier, Helvetica. Throw Comic Sans into that mix. They serve a purpose, they’re a good, vanilla set, and you can make them bold, italic, underlined, yeah, but they aren’t particularly interesting. Now you can get a whole bunch of fonts, of all different shapes and themes to suit a bunch of purposes. Different fonts make things interesting.

SoundFonts

The default Windows soundfont is decidedly average. In Anvil, it was the default midi synthesizer. I looked through the help and it seemed easy enough to add other synthesizers as well, and with the free version of Anvil, I can have up to two. Hey, I’ll settle for one good one.

I went online and downloaded VirtualMIDISynth (http://coolsoft.altervista.org/en/virtualmidisynth), which acts as a virtual midi endpoint, something that can render the midi files. By itself, it’s just an empty sound studio – I needed to fill it with instruments (I needed to download a soundfont).

Back to the web I went, seeking out this new ‘soundfont’ beast. Turns out they come in all shapes and sizes (just like normal fonts) and range from a few megabytes to a few hundred. What’s the difference? Well, I started with the ‘few megabytes’ option and ended up with a single instrument, a piano. It sounded nice, a lot better than what I had, but I was after a lot of instruments, not just one.

Have a look on the VirtualMIDISynth webpage for links to soundfonts. I eventually went with the Fluid Soundfont (http://www.synthfont.com/soundfonts.html), after trying a bunch of others, and I got a tiny glimpse into the world of sampled sounds.Anvil4 If time permits (Ha!) I’d love to revisit this and play around with some of the really cool soundfont sets I downloaded.

To use it, I opened up VirtualMIDISynth and chose the Fluid GM Midi soundfont set to use. Then, inside Anvil, I went into the synthesizers tab, chose to import a new synthesizer and picked my VirtualMIDISynth. After that, it was only a matter of selecting the instrument for the track and listening to how much better it sounded.

If only I could have done the same kind of thing for my sound effects.

Other Complications

Not really a complication in a technical sense, more so that when I finished composing the main tune, I played it against the animation. Who would have guessed? It was too long. I had the choice of either upping the tempo, which made it sound ridiculous, or removing a slab of twiddly bits from the middle.

It wasn’t a complicated task, removing some notes and pushing the ones over that side to over this side, except that the twiddly interlude bit that got ripped out was a sort of bridge between two different keys. Playing the resulting set revealed a dissonance that highlighted the rift between the two parts. In the end, I highlighted the offending section and, using the power of Anvil, shuffled them down a tone or three. Job done.

Anvil3I wanted the musical piece to run from a simple tune and get incrementally built up to a crescendo. The short animation time meant I was left without a lot of run-up space, so I broke the music into parts and added the rhythm track and the accompaniments in varying stages, putting it all together at the end.

The accompaniment tracks started off sounding very boring and flat: Just a single note played for each beat. To spice it up, and to allow a bit of dissonance as it progressed, I changed them to alternate between Oom-pa-pa and (rest) Ba-da-ba.

So they go Oom-pa-pa, (rest) Ba-da-ba, Oom-pa-pa, (rest) Ba-da-ba. Then, as I like, I can adjust one pa to bring the piece up to another key, or replace an Oom-pa-pa with a Ba-da-ba to add a bit of urgency. I’m sure there’s a musical term for this, can’t tell you what it is so don’t ask.

Lastly, by the time we get to the last phrase, there wasn’t enough behind the crescendo. Sure, it hit the high notes (better than I could!) but because everything had gone up by an octave or so, there was no bass left. To round it out, I inserted some simple bass notes to keep the whole thing grounded.

Whew! How about that! Music is done. Now what? Well, in my next post, I’ll show you how I brought it all together.