Friday, November 23, 2007

Writing Blogging Heroes, Part 4 (Transcription)

Once I had the first Blogging Heroes interview in the can, it was time to face the inevitable: transcription. Transcribing someone else’s words is tedious for writers. We’re accustomed to pulling words out of our heads without routing them through our ears first. That extra step is time-consuming and often confusing. And the physical process of transcription—listen, pause, back up, listen, type, listen, back up—can be slow and maddening.

But several people told me that audio interviews could be quickly and easily turned into text files with a voice-recognition program like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Hmm…there was that “easy” thing again. I was suspicious. I figured only government outfits like the NSA had voice-recognition software that good. Still dubious, though hoping for a miracle, I sprang for a copy of NaturallySpeaking.

NaturallySpeaking is indeed an excellent program. It does everything Dragon Software promises, and does it well. But they never promised that it would recognize more than one voice at a time. It transcribes any voice that it’s been trained to recognize splendidly. But it handles only one voice at a time.

Faced with the tedium of typing and having spent $200 for the best voice-recognition software available, I still hoped for a shortcut—a way to get the words from audio to text format without pounding them into the keyboard. I asked around a bit and found it. A blogger named Dan Broadnitz suggested dictating the interviews into NaturallySpeaking as I listened to the recordings. I tried it. I donned a headset-with-microphone and played an interview with Sony’s Digital Voice Editor software (included with my Sony recorder). As I listened to the interview, I echoed back the subject’s responses into the microphone.

It worked! Trained to my voice, NaturallySpeaking faithfully transcribed the interviews. No stopping, no backing up. If the speech was too fast for me to echo, I slowed the playback. Quite often, just a few words would jog my memory of an interview enough that I could repeat entire sentences before I heard them.

Once the interview text was in place, I cleaned up the transcription errors (10 to 15 percent of the text). Then it was time to polish the text, culling out hesitations and misstatements, getting sentences into shape, and combining related sections of the text. I was careful to preserve the meaning, vocabulary, and speech pattern of each individual.
(Note: Only one of the interviews in this book was conducted by e-mail, at the interviewee’s request. See if you can figure out which one it is.)
P.O. Box 175, Oxford, OH 45056
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Writing Blogging Heroes, Part 3 (Logistics)

In Part 2 of this series, I talked about selecting and contacting the interviewees for Blogging Heroes. The interviews themselves would be conducted by telephone because the book’s schedule permitted no traveling.

Why didn’t I just ask questions via e-mail? There’s a tendency for someone replying by e-mail to keep the answers short, whereas a good interview requires lengthy and detailed responses. The same thing applies to instant messaging. But talking is easy. As easy as…well…talking. And a live conversation produces a spontaneous interplay that generates replies that would not happen in e-mail. There’s also the advantage of audio cues. Tone, speed of speech, throat-clearing, laughter, and so forth add a depth of meaning to words that e-mail can never do.

So I worked e-mail, setting up a small list of interview appointments that would quickly become self-culling. I also scored promises from others to set up an appointment “... some time next week.” Okay, I thought, these are busy people, blogging day and night. Plus, the spring trade show season had started. While I was scheduling the interviews, I worked out the rest of the logistics. I had on hand a Sony digital audio recorder, a stable landline digital phone set, and a Radio Shack 43-1237 phone coupler, plus backup equipment. A USB connector would squirt the recordings to my PC’s hard drive. Zip, zap, pow!

The system was in place. I had completed three interviews. Then my interview subjects began dropping like parity bits coming into a serial port. A couple of people cancelled, pleading lack of time. Others who had promised to set something up “next week” asked to set it up the following week, or the week after that.

For some people, it’s difficult to conceive of being too busy to take an hour, or even a half hour, to chat. But more than one of this book’s interviewees were in exactly that situation. When you have several million readers, and maybe a bunch of writers to supervise, it’s can be difficult to break away. But several who really couldn’t spare the time rescheduled something else—for which I will be eternally grateful.

Still, a number of interview subjects did cancel, and there was nothing for it but to dig in and line up more interview subjects. Fortunately there are lots of interesting bloggers who are good writers and have large followings. So I dug in and lined up more interviews. The book is actually the better for it, because I obtained interviews that I wouldn’t have thought about if everything had just fallen into place.

Chasing down the interviews I did get was often a chore. Coordinating schedules—whether across continental time zones or the International Date Line—was the least of the logistical problems. Several subjects forgot about their interview appointments and weren’t available when I called. Reschedule. On at least two occasions, I forgot a telephone appointment. Reschedule. That wasn’t the only human error. There were misaddressed e-mails and wrong numbers. Not all of the interviews recorded properly. Reschedule.

Many of the bloggers were of course using the latest telephone equipment, which of course meant that calls were dropped in new, leading-edge ways. All but one of the dropped calls—some of which had to be resumed at a later date—were in the United States. The only international call dropped was a Skype link to New Zealand. But we were able to pick up the conversation within seconds.

Once I had a few interviews in the can, so to speak, it was time for transcription and editing ...

Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Gillette Printer, Revisited

In this post I talked about the ultra-low-cost Lexmark 2500X printer/scanner/copier. It has received some bad press regards ink consumption, but I was willing to give it a try, especially as I bought it to use as a portable scanner and backup copier.

Sorry to report that the ink consumption is not very impressive. Or, perhaps I should say the quantity of ink provided in a cartridge. I get nowhere near the performance from a twenty-dollar ink cartridge for this printer that I get out of a Hewlett-Packard printer.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Quotes from Blogging Heroes

This is obviously a tease for the book, but here are a few of the more interesting quotes from the interviews in Blogging Heroes (there are lots more where these came from) ...
  • "I do my best thinking via my blogs." --Chris Anderson, The Long Tail
  • "For me the future of journalism is blogging." --Mary Jo Foley, All About Microsoft
  • "I'm too busy blogging to ... well, talk about blogging." --Owen Thomas, Valleywag
More anon,

Saturday, November 17, 2007

New Blogging Heroes Chapter and Comments

Mary Jo Foley, of All About Microsoft has posted her chapter (it's a good one!) She made some very nice comments about the book, too.

Speaking of Mary Jo, keep an eye out for her book, Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era. It's due out in May, and promises to be a book everyone will be citing.

Rock n Roll Fans: Heads Up!

If you're into rock history, you'll want to add this blog to your list: Randy McNutt's Home of the Hits ( The blog shares Randy's extensive research and experience in the recording industry, and focuses on vintage American recording studios and their productions.

Randy has some impressive credentials in this realm, and is the guy to whom I'd send The History Detectives if they needed a rock historian. Not only has Randy been in the business, but he's chronicled many aspects of the development of rock. He is, for example, the author of The Cincinnati Sound a book I reviewed here some weeks back, but that's only the beginning. His Too Hot to Handle: An Illustrated History of American Recording Studios of the 20th Century puts him at the top of the list of experts on recording studios. And these books confirm his knowledge of rock's history:
Check out the blog and Randy's home page for more.

Working Whether You Get Paid or Not ...

Being too ill to work all week, I'm forced to recall with fondness a couple of long-ago jobs where you collected sick pay if you were off work--usually a healthy percentage of your regular pay. You don't get that as a writer. Nor do writers enjoy the luxury of dodging work and coasting that many jobs offer. Rather than getting paid whether they work or not, it all too often works out that writers work without regard to getting paid.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Norman Mailer

I'm watching a rerun of a Charlie Rose interview with Norman Mailer. It looks to be fairly recent. I was struck by how much he looked like his portrayal in Mad Magazine back in the 1960s.

Among other things, Mailer was talking about being 80, and mentioned that he was working on a big novel. "I may finish it, or it may finish me," he remarked.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reliving America's Space Program

I did not read James Michener's Space when it was published in 1982. I supposed I was just too caught up in science fiction. Besides, I lived through the period, beginning as a grade-schooler getting up extra early to watch first the Mercury then the Gemini launches.

Recently someone gave me a copy and, in the absence of anything else to read, I jumped in. Suddenly it was all coming back: the Gemini launches, the hero astronauts, the Apollo missions, the grand plans for DynaSoar, the spinning wheel space station, and all the rest. I decided to review it because it's an interesting read, a mainstream dip into alternative history, and it's a good book for other novelists to read.

Why other novelists? Because the novel has faults, some of them detailed below. These faults can be instructive if you are the kind of writer who stops and thinks, "Okay, how would I rewrite this?" In mentally revising sentences or paragraphs, and you'll probably learn something you can take to your own work.

From the reader's perspective, Space is a solid novel that puts you there and, more importantly, takes you away from the present veil of tears. The range of characters and viewpoints is almost intimidating; as a reader, I had to stop more than once and recall a character's vita when he or she showed up after an extended absence. I think the difficulty had to do with Michener's technique, because I certainly didn't experience this problem with characters in an 11-novel series by Harry Turtledove I recently finished.

Popular though he is, Michener is not a master stylist. Nor is he a writer who handles every transition smoothly. The episodic tales he is telling here render such difficulties almost irrelevant. Plus, there are immense leaps of time and distance involved for which suitable transitions may not have been possible. Besides, such problems are almost to be expected in a novels that opens during the beginnings of rocketry in WWII Germany and winds up in the Space Shuttle era, Space, and also deals with more than a dozen major characters (including the largely offstage Werner von Braun). And some of the "problems" are probably things only another writer would notice. It's still a good read, albeit bumpy at times. Readers are willing to forgive him the rough spots to get at the story.

Backgrounding and character are Michener's greatest strengths in this novel. He gives the reader a good feel for all his locations--Coco Beach, Canaveral, Huntsville, Germany, Houston, the dark side of the Moon, etc., and now and then the spirit of the 1960s space effort washes over you. He follows history closely, and the technical aspects are not overdone, so non-technical readers won't get lost. As for the characters, from Dieter, the German engineer without credentials, and the cowardly German "General," through the homegrown American astronauts and their wives, each character has room to grow and most are carefully delineated by the author. The real people who show up, like Deke Slayton, are rendered believably enough.

I think Michener did himself and the reader a disservice by not getting more into the characters of some of the women. He gives Penny, the political aid who becomes a politician, a great deal of depth, but Debbie Dee (a redneck woman if there ever was one) and other astronauts' wives are sort of moved around and speak their parts without much liberty. Cynthia Rhee, the Korean journalist who was born in Japan comes across as the most realistic of the women, even though her role is a mixed one of groupie, reporter, manipulator, and husband-stealer. Perhaps Michener is enough of a product of his time that he can't use strong women characters.

Even though the novel was published in 1982, I'm surprised there weren't more affairs, but that side of things seems to have been dropped in the lap (so to speak) of good ol' boy astronaut Randy Claggett. Randy's wife Debbie Dee and a couple of the other wives seem to have plenty of motivations and opportunities to jump the fence. Of course, they are constantly under pressure from a media guy to live the image of faithful, All-American Wives, from which each had a lot of gain. (Judging by the characters Michener developed, though, this pressure would have given at least one woman all the more reason to stray.) As you might expect, there are several subplots.

My favorite is one involving a senator's daughter and a con man who plies first the UFO trade, then hippie stuff, and finally becomes a wealthy televangelist, the senator's daughter definately at his side. The senator and his wife are part of an interesting subplot, as well. Which reminds me that I would have written more about the cultural changes outside the space program, but I'm not Michener. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that Michener plays with alternative history here and there. He substitutes his own characters for some real-world astronauts, and includes a deadly mission to the dark side of the Moon that never happened, but could have. Fascinating stuff! Plus, Michener pays homage to science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein.

If nothing else, Space is a great way to relive the opening of the Space Era.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Saturday, November 10, 2007

More Blogging Heroes

As Joe Wikert notes at his blog, Blogging Heroes continues to pick up buzz. Here are a few of examples:

Also, here's a comment at Mediabistro:

Buzzing with Blogging Heroes

As noted in previous posts, Chris Anderson of The Long Tail, Mark Frauenfelder at, Ina Steiner at AuctionBytes, and others have posted PDF versions of their interviews from Blogging Heroes at their blogs. Moving toward the November 19 pub date, the book's buzz continues as more of the people I interviewed post their chapters.

Here are some recent Blogging Heroes posts:
More to come!
P.O. Box 175, Oxford, OH 45056

Blogging Heroes Alternate Cover

In some alternate universe, the image at the left is the cover of Blogging Heroes. I imagine it would have drawn quite a bit of attention. But women seemed to think that the yellow speedos were a bit much.

The real cover for the book, which has an official publication date of November 19 is the more sedate version shown at

Friday, November 09, 2007


Retro-computer gaming is growing more and more popular. Hundreds of thousands of people who played games such as ZORK, Lode Runner, Oil Barons, and Karateka are downloading games like these and reliving the 1980s and 1990s. (For younger gamers, it's a first-time experience.)

Old games made available for download on the Web are often referred to "abandonware." However, a lot of abandonware is not abandoned; it's just too difficult to enforce the copyright. LucasFilms works to keep its games off abandonware sites, but almost everything seems to pop up sooner or later. I even found an Atari ST version of my 1986 graphic/text adventure game at one site.

The games are largely forgotten, and many of the manufacturers, such as Sierra On-Line and Broderbund, are no more. Hence, the assumption that the games are free to all or "in the public domain." They're definitely not in the public domain; none of the copyrights have run out. A good number of games have been made available by their copyright owners, but not everything out there is in this category.

I mention this in part because there are probably readers who would enjoy some of the old games--those legitimately made available. To find them, Google "abandonware." I also mention it because I think that many of the oldies could be reintroduced and marketed successfully. In their heyday, these games had a short shelf-life because the market was constantly on the lookout for something new, and only those games that were mega-sellers were kept around. (Sounds a lot like the mass-market paperback market.)

Then there's the possibility of books becoming "abandonware." Thousands of out-of-copyright classics are now e-books (see Project Gutenberg). But I'm beginning to wonder how long it is before more contemporary books are given the reputation of being "abandoned," and start appearing at download sites. It takes some effort to scan and OCR an entire book (300 pages or more), but some people are willing to do it. And once the genie is out of the bottle--once a book's content is on the Web--you can't put it back. Pirated ebook versions of commercial bestsellers are already being sold on the Web and on eBay (The Da Vinci Code is just one example). If publishers don't try to stop this, I foresee hardcopy books going that way next. As soon as scammers are willing to put some work into intellectual property theft, we're done.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Writing Blogging Heroes, Part 2 (Questions and Contacts)

(Note: Part 1 of this series is here.)

When I knew I was going to write Blogging Heroes, the first thing that came to me was, “What questions am I going to ask? What should I discuss with bloggers?” Some questions were obvious—simple icebreakers such as, “How long have you been blogging?” and “Why did you get into blogging?” From there the conversation would work into more complex matters, such as getting traffic, ethics, maintaining quality, dealing with difficulties, and more. Gradually, a small list of questions evolved. (I could omit blog statistics; easily accessible sources like Technorati and Alexa would supply those. Why copy material that was readily available for free? Besides, I was more interested in the people behind the blogs than the numbers.)

Other questions would suggest themselves during the course of each interview. In other words, the shape of the interviews would be determined by the interviews themselves.

The next step was to find 30 people to interview. I looked around at who was doing what in the blogosphere. I consulted the Technorati lists, Digg, Alexa, and other resources to get an idea of which blogs were really popular, and which may have simply gamed the system to get on a list. Sifting through the more active and popular blogs, I came up with a list of interesting blogs in several categories. I read the blogs to get an idea of each blogger’s style and background. I also looked for buzz about other popular bloggers and their blogs. Links from some of the blogs I was reading pointed to additional candidates for interviews. Still more were suggested by my editors and the interviewees themselves. And I chose several bloggers because they were different, and not the same old faces from the Top 100 lists.

The interviews would be just the beginning of the process. I would have to do extensive background research (more than simply reading blogs) for the introduction to each blogger. This often resulted in follow-up questions and revisions.

Initial contacts were made via e-mail. I explained the book and my mission, and invited the subject to be in the book. I didn’t always get an answer the first time, even though I was careful to make it clear that I was a legitimate author looking to interview people for a new book.

Sometimes it took two or three tries to get past spam blocks or to just get someone’s attention. When the first message didn’t get a reply and I really wanted to talk to the person, I switched to a more interesting subject header than:
May I interview you for a new book?

Instead, I used the tongue-in-cheek approach and sent messages with subject headers like:
I need to interview a blogger of great skill and cunning.
So-and-so tells me you are a crafty blogger with great powers.

Those usually pulled in replies. Some were entertaining. Like one from the editor of, who replied, “I’ve been too busy blogging to ... well, talk about blogging." But gradually I built up a list of interviewees. Never mind that half of them would disappear and that making connection would be as difficult as herding cats. More on that in the next installment.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Books by the Banks and Crosley

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of signing a whole bunch of copies of Crosley at the "Books by the Banks" event at Cincinnati's Duke Energy Convention Center. 2,000 readers and over 80 other book authors were there, and mixing with so many readers and writers made for a great time. Plans are afoot for repeating it next year.

Thanks to wearing a Cincinnati Reds jersey with CROSLEY on the back, I found myself in Sunday's edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer. I also got a T-shirt with the event's logo. (Perhaps I'll have T-shirts for my other book titles made up.)

More than all that, I collected still more Crosley memories, such as the stories of decades-ago trips to Crosley Field that the lady in the Enquirer photo shared. Click the logo to learn more about the event, which wasn't named after me, but the banks of the Ohio River.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

"Inventing" Your Book?

You've probably considered the merits of self-publishing your book versus finding a publisher. Regular readers know that I lean in the direction of working with an established publisher. I've done dozens of books that way. But, though some of us cranks hate to admit it, there is a trend toward self-publishing. I don't believe that self-publishing and "author control" will make bad books succeed, but there are some writers who have been wildly successful serving niche markets through self-publishing (mostly with good books). Self-publishing is not an automatic route to success, as much as book printers and pay-to-publish operations may want you to think that. Some good books have failed at self-publishing, too.

Anyway, the current issue of Entrepreneur Magazine has an interesting article titled "How to 'Invent' Your Book." (Thanks to Joe Wikert for posting about this in his blog.) Tamara Monosoff, who wrote the article, has herself written a couple of books and explains in useful and mostly accurate detail how each process--self-publishing and conventional publishing--work, along with the relative benefits and drawbacks.

Monosoff does get one thing wrong. She says, "Very few publishers today accept unsolicited or un-agented manuscripts." This is true for outfits like Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, and Houghton-Mifflin (though some of their subsidiaries accept unsolicited manuscripts), but there are hundreds of publishers who do accept unsolicited manuscripts. And they're not all tiny shops that have poor distribution and pay thousand-dollar advances. It is true that a few editors will talk only with agents, but you can sell your book yourself. Don't take to heart Monosoff's recommendation that you find an agent rather than try to market your work on your own.

If you feel you must have an agent because you fear negotiating and dealing with contracts, pick up a copy of How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, by agent Richard Curtis. Still want an agent? Start shopping, but be aware that you will be holding up the potential publication of your book as you wait for agents to say "No." And most will say "No." Getting an agent is frustrating, time-consuming work. Just to be on the safe side, shop your manuscript(s) to publishers yourself while you're waiting for agents.

Perhaps my perspective is a bit skewed because acquired books for publishers, agented for other writers, and used an agent for only one book out of 42. But it's true that you can sell your own work to a decent publisher, and that self-publishing is not an automatic route to success, for good books or bad.

That aside, do read Ms. Monosoff's article.

Obnoxious Self-Promotion Revisited

I was reading the comments on posts at a certain blog recently and noticed one commenter whose signature line read, "Author of the xxxx series, http://blah,blah/." At the beginning of the post, the name carried similar credits.

This struck me as being in poor taste, particularly because the xxxx series had absolutely nothing to do with the subject under discussion. In fact, I found it obnoxious, akin to going around wearing a sign that says, "I am the author of xxxx." Or maybe interrupting a serious conversation about nuclear weapons with, "Hey--I wrote these novels! Have a look!"

If the post on which this writer was commenting had something in common with the xxxx series, I could maybe see citing the novels in support of a comment. But here it was as if the largely unknown author of a series of western novels was commenting on a post about the market for microprocessors and presenting proficiency in westerns as credentials.

Yes, I know the author is trying to get noticed. But how many books does she sell with a signature line? None. How many people does she put off by bragging about something totally unrelated to the subject at hand? More than a few, if she comments on blog posts very often.

I would like to say to this writer, "At this point in your career, your series title means little, so there's no reason to append it to your name. By the time it comes to mean something, people will know your name and there'll be no need to mention it." But I won't, because it would only result in hurt feelings. But--really--did Patricia Cornwell or Stephen King or Tom Clancy or Janet Evanovich ever append "Author of xxxx" to their names--or carry around a sign listing their book titles?

Let your name and your comments stand on their own. Leave a URL after your name so if people want to know more about you they can. If you need to establish credentials in a discussion, cite your relevant book or other credits. Waving your titles around every time you speak says that you lack confidence in yourself and your comments. Leave promotion for other venues.

Friday, November 02, 2007

An Unconventional Resource for Writers

The next time you're researching, take some time to explore this unconventional resource: people who know nothing about your subject. In among visits to the library, Googling until you have cartoon eyes, interviewing experts, and visiting relevant Web sites, just chat with anyone willing to talk about the subject.

If you're writing a biography of Amelia Earhart, for example, mention it to your neighbor. It's likely that she will have something to say about Earhart. It might be as simple as, "I wonder if she was really lost?" or "I wonder if she married Putnam because he would finance her career?" Get enough such responses from the uninformed and you'll begin to build a profile of your reader in dimensions you may not have explored. And some people will surprise you by knowing something about your subject. When I was working on the Crosley biography, I mentioned it to quite a few people who were able to tell me things that I wouldn't have known otherwise (like the fact that Lewis Crosley had a mistress). Try it: I think you'll find that it opens new doors.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Scattered Consciousness ...

"A Scattered Consciousness ..." I don't know whether that reads like the title of a biography or a novel. But as I'm using it here, it describes the state of mind I get into not long after I sign a book contract. My attention starts wandering, and I begin thinking about new projects.

This usually happens early in the writing process, as opposed to near the end, when I've reached the point of subject-overload and just want to be done with the manuscript at hand. I believe part of what's behind the wandering thoughts is this: I've put a lot into getting the contract, and there is some part of me that regards it as a major goal, on a par with completing a book. So I get a signal to go on to the next project--that's what one does when a goal is achieved, after all.

Some part of my mind is saying, "Okay, you were working for a goal, and you've made it! Let's move on to the next thing." And I start looking for the next thing.

I've watched myself get into and out of this state of mind before, and I've learned that what really is distracting me is the sense of triumph one gets from achieving a goal. Along with that sense of triumph comes a feeling of not having to work on anything connected with goal, because the goal has been achieved. But I must reorient myself so that the goal I've just reached is not the goal. What works for me is to wait a week or two and not really force myself to work on the new book. Gradually the feeling of triumph wears off, and I'm able feel emotionally that what I've achieved is but a step toward the final goal--the completed manuscript.

If you find yourself stuck after you get a book contract or magazine assignment, take a look at your attitudes. Emotionally, you may be mistaking steps on your journey as the destination.