Indiana Jim: How I do it!

General Writing Questions

1. Before you begin writing, do you script out the general outline of plot and characters, or do you let these situations evolve as you write?
It really depends on how the inspiration strikes me.  I don’t have any hard and fast rule as to how I plot out the story.  For instance, Codename: Starkeeper was one of those where I wrote it in script format from start to finish.  It was a true explorative writing experience.  With The Last Guardians, it developed over a decade of trying different things and developing my craft, and the final version is nothing like that first version, but ultimately, it follows a similar plot outline as the beginning, as far as the big picture.  I have another novel series that I plotted out as I wrote the character sketches.

2. I’ve heard repetitively that writers should deal with writing as any other job. Do you have a scheduled or structured writing routine? Please detail.
I wish I did.  It really varies depending on the day, and of course I am easily distracted.  It’s certainly sound advice, though.  I will get more done if I set aside a specific time to do it.  I’ve also discovered that now, as I’ve been writing for a while, I’m so full of different ideas that if I sit down, something will get on paper (or screen).  I have also learned that it’s not so frightening to sit down and force yourself to work on a project.  There really is no such thing as writer’s block if you’re serious about the writing.  For me, it’s simply letting stuff get in my way: my brain, my emotions, my preconceptions, my self-doubts–all of that crap–once you’re serious about the writing, all that stuff will fade away because you know you have to get it done.  It’s become a priority in your life.

3. What is your writing environment like? (cats, music, computer etc.) How has this evolved/changed?
Depends on my mood.  I used to, occasionally, get off the computer and write on a yellow legal pad, especially on lunches and breaks in a work environment.  As far as music is concerened, sometimes I want it, sometimes I want silence.  My cat’s always around, but she just lays on the bed.  I don’t take any great measures to “get in the mood” to write or anything like that.  Focus too much on music or lighting, or “finding the right environment,” and you’ll become dependent.  The less you do, the more capable you will be of writing in any environment, and I think once you’ve made writing a priority, you need to be prepared to write no matter where you are, or what’s going on around you.

4. Do you write anything, or have you, that is solely for yourself? (no intention of sharing with a large audience)
Not any more.  When I first really got the writing bug in college, a lot of it was just putting ideas on paper because they were there.  I got started online in the role play chatrooms, and it was usually all fantasy-oriented, so I put myself into the whole Aragorn persona, and plot ideas just developed out of that.  Eventually I started working on stories, and different things would inspire novel ideas, for example, the track listing of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance, believe it or not, inspired the plot of The Last Guardians way back when.  Now, when I conceive an idea, I immediately begin thinking about how it will be received, and how to make it worthy of public consumption.

5. How has social media played a role in your writing?
Not so much the writing, but certainly the promotion of it.  I’ve just simply tried to make a network of friends, rather than “contacts.”  Because a friend will invest themselves in what you do, if you invest yourself in the things they do.  Someone who only wants you as a “contact” that they can take advantage of, really has little concern with your own projects, but simply how they can leverage their support in your return of that support.  It sounds like the same thing, but if you support people without expecting something in return, people can see whether you’re sincere, or just out to get reciprocation.

I’ve made a lot of friends using Twitter, simply finding like-minded people in the podcasting community, and then having gone to Balticon just once, made so many more friends.  Once you’ve met people face to face, the friendship becomes that much stronger.  I’ve developed relationships with Tee Morris, Chris Lester, P.G. Holyfield and Christiana Ellis, just as an example, and at times we can bounce ideas off of each other, and just learn from what each other is doing.

Podcasting Questions

1. What type of OS do you prefer? Linux? Mac? Win? What are your machine’s specs?
I would *prefer* a Mac and ProTools, but that’s only in my dreams.  Finances necessitate a PC with as much free software as possible.  It’s just a Dell 3Ghz processor with 1GB of Ram and a 250GB Free Agent HDD for all my project files.

2. Would you please describe your current studio? How has this changed? (What did you start with?)
I have a cheap desk in my bedroom.  I have a down blanket hung on the wall behind the monitor, with a little bit of eggshell foam on a dresser beside the desk.  A TAPCO (by Mackie) Mix.60 mixer, an MXL 990 microphone and a pop filter.

3. If you were able to build your dream studio, what would it include? Be as specific as you wish.
Again, a Mac with ProTools first, a compressor/limiter/gate, an EQ, a Heil PR/40 with the desk boom, a suitably insulated and soundproofed room, and most especially, a soundproofed computer.  Also an off-board recorder.

The Heil PR40 is something I’ve discovered of late, and it’s a dynamic mic as opposed to a condenser.  Basically that means it doesn’t require Phantom Power, but the other part of that is that condenser mics take in a lot more background noise.  The Heil PR40 has a tight sound field so that it almost can’t pick you up if you move your mouth six inches in one direction.  It’s an expensive mic at $325 retail, but it’s probably the absolute best microphone for recording voice.

4. Other than a computer, what piece of HARDWARE would you recommend to a new podcaster?
If you use Skype at all, I’d recommend a second sound card.  But for everyone, I’d suggest a Zoom H2 or later, or some sort of portable recorder that gives you .wav or .mp3 capability.  It’s the aforementioned off-board recorder.  What I mean by that is something that is not plugged into everything else.  This is something I’ve learned sort of by experience.  When I first started podcasting, I discovered that if my laptop were plugged in, there was a lot of noise on the recording, but on the battery, it was quiet.  So when the laptop HDD went bad and we lucked into a couple desktops, I found that there is always a latent hum.  If you can get a power conditioner, that might eliminate most of it, but a battery-powered recorder gives you a lot of versatility.  Also, if you don’t have your signal bouncing back in through your mixer into the PC, it’s a lot easier to get clean recordings.  When doing panel discussions or Skype interviews, anything requiring multiple voices, it becomes easier to manage the unity gain of your output signal.  If you’re just recording your voice, then you’ll have a clean .wav or .mp3 of your voice you can dump down into Audacity or whatever and edit away.

5. What have you had to learn for yourself that you wish someone could have warned you about?
To go with “The Adventures of Indiana Jim” as my show title when I first thought of it.  I initially thought it was pretentious so I didn’t use it at first.  Really, it’s the branding.  You have to have a plan, and you have to know who you are.  When I started out I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and over time, I have developed a groove for it I suppose.

6. What would you consider a “beginner’s mistake” you’ve either experienced or hear others making?
Oh gosh, a lot of things.

#1, a failure to have an appealing website.  It’s so cheap and so easy, especially for my generation being so tech savvy, to look at other podcast websites and find a clean, inviting format for your website.  A .net domain you can buy for like $10 a year, and hosting for about $3 a month, and WordPress is free.  I am fortunate to be hosted by Farpoint Media, but you can buy a 100MB per month Libsyn account for file storage for $5 a month.  So for $8 a month and $10 a year, you can put up a website as nice as any other you can think of.  Take the time to learn a little CSS, and you can make that puppy sing.

#2, a failure to USE RSS.  I see so many beginners, believe it or not, or people who just haven’t taken the time to care, to have an RSS feed for their products, and still expect people to download things manually.  It’s so simple to set it up, so people can subscribe in iTunes or any feed reader.  You’re simply serving your audience by doing it.  In one place, with one application, I can download my favorite stuff.  I sounds so simple.

#3, a failure to use social media.  I have friends with Twitter accounts who simply forget to announce when a new project comes out.  When I mention this, I’m met with “well it was all over my website.”  Look, if you expect your friends and colleagues to casually browse by your website every so often and “discover” that you have a new product out, you’re doing them a disservice, and ultimately yourself.  The idea is to be heard, and you, as the creator, must do the work, not demand it of your audience.  If you aren’t using every tool at your disposal, you’re not doing enough.  Now that’s not to say you need to be on every social network under the sun, but if you are on Twitter and Facebook, and you’re not doing the simple thing of just posting a link saying, “here’s my new thing,” then what’s the point?

#4, a horrible sound.  Sometimes beginners use whatever it is they have at their disposal, and I guess that’s fine when starting out, but people really need to be more conscious of how they sound.  Soundproofing is the very first thing one can do, and Nathan Lowell is a good example.  When he started podcasting his novels, he recorded them in his car.  A car interior provides quite a bit of soundproofing and isolation, and that worked wonders, despite having a cheap microphone.  Another example of using the things at your disposal is Scott Sigler.  He recorded a lot of his stuff in his closet, because he cared about his sound.

If someone is serious about podcasting, then they need to be serious about what they’re putting into people’s ears.  It takes maybe $130 in mic and mixer to get a decent sound, maybe $35 for a cheap mic stand and a pop filter.  It’s not a ton of investment if you’re serious.  Also, paying attention to distance from the mic, clipping, and simple public speaking.  These little things make a huge difference when starting out.

7. How much time does it take, once you have all the elements, for YOU to put together a 30 minute podcast? (please describe your production technique)
I would love to record “live to tape” as it were, but I lack the equipment to do it right.  So what I do is insert my intro file, then do the requisite recording, whatever that entails.  Most of the time I’ll record 10 minutes of whatever I want to talk about at first, then I stop to add the bumper for my little news headline segment, then when that section is done, I’ll usually aim for that 13 minute mark to hit the break for the promo.  I’ll take my bump-out file and match it up with wherever I break the talking, then paste the promo, then paste the bump-in file, and record from there.  I will record to the end and stop.  Before I put in the outro, I do the editing.  I run noise reduction, then compression.  I usually record with my levels hovering around the -12 mark to leave headroom so I don’t clip.  That usually ensures I get a nice clean sound after compression.  I’ll edit certain flubs and long uhmms to make sure I don’t sound too much like an idiot.  Sometimes I leave a flub or uhmm in if it will make the audio sound chopped up and unnatural.   I’ll match the outro up with the finished voice and then export to MP3.  That whole process may take a couple hours if everything goes smoothly.  I think for the ratio of finished recording to  production time, 1:4 is probably a safe estimate.

Casting Questions (answer if you can)

1.  What is the hardest part of putting together a casted podcast?
I think the first thing is making sure the actors get their voices in on time.  It’s unavoidable, but you will always get delays from someone in your cast.  Real life always strikes in the middle of a production, and I guess the hardest part for me is having to tell a cast member you have to move on with another actor.

It’s the nature of what we do to use volunteer voice actors, and no one wants to be “that guy” who “fired” a volunteer from a project.  You have to believe strongly enough in your project and your own schedule to take that step if it’s not working out.    You have to be very nice and gracious about it, and usually the other person understands.  They are, after all, the one to whom life is happening.  It’s still difficult, especially if you know their voice would be great.

The second hardest part is the differences you have in actor audio.  They’re all using different mics in different rooms, and sometimes it’s difficult to make sure they all go together.  I usually have a particular sound I like, so I’ll EQ or do noise reduction to get each one as close to the same as possible.  Sometimes I’ll run a low pass or high pass filter to get certain frequency ranges out of a particularly bassy or hissy sound.

2. Do you provide the entire chapter to your talent, or just their lines?
I will usually leave in a paragraph or two around the part in order for the actor to get a feel for the scene, but I provide the scene only.  Enough to let them see the dialogue and work with it, but not so much they get distracted.  My belief is that even with my leads, it’s fun to keep things hidden from them.  I find that if after the recording they get to listen to it along with the general audience, it will make them that much more excited about the work.  They will get just as much into the story, and they’ll want to see how their character fits into the story.

3.  Is instruction given to your talent on how you prefer the line to be read?
In most cases, yes.  Each actor is different, though.  For instance, I did not do a very good job telling Mae Breakall how to play a certain character, and so she read it one way when I had intended it differently.  Once I was clear, she delivered some of the best audio I’ve ever received, and Chris Lester can attest to that with her work on Metamor City.  As a director, you have to make sure you are clear on exactly what you want, because you can’t expect people to read your mind.  Of course, in some cases you simply give the lines and the actor knows what you want.  I have that kind of synergy with a few people, such as Philippa Ballantine, P.G. Holyfield, Sarah Gilbertson and Joe Harrison.

4.  What do you do with all of that unused audio?
I still have all the original files from Codename: Starkeeper, and I don’t really want to delete them.  I plan on going back and pulling outtakes for a blooper reel, but that’s going to take a lot of time.  What I’ve taken to doing now is pulling the outtakes out as I go through each individual part to get the best takes.  I’ll go through each part and find the best takes, then do the noise reduction and compression then, so that all I have to do later is cut and paste into the final project file.

With Codename Starkeeper, I’m keeping the sound effects files that Joe Harrison made so I can pull from those whenever I do another Star Wars piece.  The music files I’m keeping later perhaps to show how I edited different musical pieces from different films together in certain scenes.

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