Dragon NaturallySpeaking – A First Take & Quick Review

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One of the continuing challenges I faced over the years, and particularly so over the last several weeks leading up to the new year, has been trying to find time for my personal writing when more and more of my time was being taken up by other things. Luckily for me, Santa was kind enough to bring me a Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software.

Dragon is better than something like Word’s built-in word recognition because it not only asks you for your language during setup, it also asks you to specify your accent. The downside is it still isn’t omniscient out of the box. Therefore, in order to get it to work fully, you have to take the time to train it so it can adapt to you your dialect and your particular speaking patterns.

There are a few versions of the software: Home, Premium, and a version designed for medical transcription as well as variations that differ by included equipment. Mine came with a corded headset and installation disk, though I understand there are other versions out there with Bluetooth enabled devices for people who prefer to walk and talk.

I have a PC and was somewhat concerned that it wouldn’t support my operating system as it shows only Window 7 and Windows 8 icons on the box, especially when the program took ages upon ages to install. At one point during the installation, I started to wonder if I had missed a step. Maybe in order to get the program to launch, I was supposed to hold the box and walk into a firey pyre like Dany did in Game of Thrones in order to hatch her dragons. However, the installation meter did eventually move forward before it came to that and, at the end, I saw an ‘installation success’ message appear on my screen.

I’ve been playing with mine for a couple of weeks now and it’s getting a little less awkward each day, though I now suspect Her Royal Highness is rolling her eyes behind my back at my hypocrisy considering I always am asking her to tone it down when she talks to herself during the day. In my defense, her barking monologues don’t magically transform into written text on the screen.

Thus far, I haven’t had to add too many words to my dragon’s vocabulary, though I’ve been studying up on how best to train it (there are books on the subject specifically for writers). I can’t decide if it is a compliment regarding enunciation or more praise of the software’s programming. (I’m guessing the latter) That being said, it didn’t recognize the word Megalodon and instead returned ‘medic for all,’ when I said it. You might think this isn’t exactly a word that comes up in daily conversation, however, you don’t know my youngest. It comes up in our house. It comes up a lot.

(It also hasn’t recognized any of my swear words either – not that I use too many of them. Clearly, my dragon is of a genteel nature.)

Based on that experience, I realize that it may be a while before it (and I) am ready to tackle more traditional epic fantasy writing based on character names alone. Even so, I managed to write a full day’s personal word count quota in half the time, which is super promising. That even includes all the times I’ve had to go back and add punctuation manually as remembering to say the word comma or period while dictating isn’t natural for me yet either.

As a result, I am feeling quite good about what I might be able to achieve this year. I might even finish the first draft of book three in my Project Gene Assist series before the weather warms. Who knows?!? But if nothing else, at least know I’m trying.

Now, how about you? Are you trying anything new this year?

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5 Free Alternatives to Vellum – The Ebook Conversion Edition

Vellum Alternatives for Ebook Conversion - www.alliepottswrites.com

While downloading ebooks to your reader is simple, getting them up on the cloud in the first place requires some work. I write my books using Word, however, just because you can import your manuscript’s formatted-for-print-ready Word document into Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

For example, you may want to include a table of contents in your ebook for easy navigation, but don’t want one in the print version, or you may want to include links in your ebook pointing readers directly to your other books, making purchasing faster. There are also other distributors besides Amazon that require a specific format for ebooks called epub. This leads me to the next step in the book publishing process – ebook conversion.

Vellum

Vellum offers formatting for print as well as ebook conversion. However, lacking a Mac or a bottomless checkbook, I’ve only been able to appreciate its service as a reader. I can tell it must be awesome to use though based on the number of books I’ve read featuring one of its telltale templates. Don’t get me wrong – it creates highly readable ebooks. I’ve just seen enough of the same decorative flourishes to recognize a Vellum ebook as soon as a chapter opens.

  • Pro: Super easy to use
  • Con: Costly at $199.99, it’s not available for non-Mac users (unless you go through a third-party service like MacinCloud), and your book looks like dozens of others making it more difficult for your author brand to stand out from the crowd.

Smashwords

Smashwords is an ebook conversion service and distribution channel. It is also one of the most difficult ebook conversion tools I’ve ever used. This is because Smashwords distributes your book to channels like Apple books, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble for you, and those channels may have slightly different requirements for an ebook’s file’s layout. Therefore, Smashwords is VERY particular about how your manuscript is formatted prior to releasing it to partner sites and works best with Word files. Fail their checks during the process they call “the Meatgrinder” and your book goes nowhere.

  • Pro: Converts to all major ebook formats including mobi, epub, and pdf for free
  • Con: I am serious when I say this service is NOT recommended for people who don’t know how to use Word styles or are unwilling to read through an entire book of “style guides” prior to attempting to convert their file. Also, once your book passes inspection, it is put up for sale without going through a secondary preview approval step. This means there is a risk your book could be published with typos or with a missing chapter as long as stylistically it fit within the Smashwords Style Guides.

Draft2Digital

Draft2Digital is like Smashwords in that it is a distributor that also offers ebook conversion. However, it is much, much simpler to use. Upload your word doc, select a template, and then add in things like your social media links, mailing list link, or author page, and Draft2Digital spits out a book file you can either take and distribute through other channels yourself or distribute through them for a portion of future book sales.

  • Pro: It is fast, simple, and lets you download mobi, epub, and sample length versions of your ebook for free – even if you don’t choose to distribute with them.
  • Con: You can’t edit your file once it has been uploaded and table of contents are created automatically which may or may not always match up with what you expected. Therefore if you do see issues such as funky chapter breaks or incorrect chapter headers, you have to correct the error on the word doc and upload again.

Kindle Create

Kindle Create is still in its infancy, in software terms, and therefore is somewhat limited in what it can do compared to some of the other ebook conversion programs out there. For example, there are only a handful of templates to choose from and it only exports a special non-mobi kindle-ready format. It also requires you to download the software rather than work online. However, it’s another free option that produces nice, clean ebook files, and unlike Draft2Digital, gives you the ability to tweak your ebook’s appearance without leaving the user interface.

  • Pro: It’s even easier to use than Draft2Digital, includes a kindle previewer tool that lets you see how your book will look on multiple device sizes, and free!
  • Con: It doesn’t export to epub or mobi file, which limits your ability to use it to create advance copies of your ebook that can be sent via email or service like Instafreebie, Bookfunnel, or via email to early reviewers.

Reedsy

When you format a book with Reedsy (affiliate link) you have the option to either have them email you a print ready file or send you an epub or mobi file you can then take to the ebook distributor of your choice. Like Kindle Create, you can edit your ebook’s appearance in the user interface, which is a great, but unlike Kindle Create or Draft2Digital you have to copy and paste each chapter individually.

  • Pro: The ability to edit your book without leaving the user interface is a big plus over Draft2Digital the fact you can download in both epub and mobi is a great benefit compared to Kindle Create
  • Con: Reedsy requires significantly more time to initially set up a book and downloads aren’t as instantaneous as the other options. Also, there are currently only three templates to choose from.

Calibre and Sigil

While you can technically use either of these programs by themselves, they really work best together. Calibre has the ability to take a Word Doc (saved as HTML) and turn it into epub or mobi file using the headers, fonts, or other decorative touches you specify. This makes layouts more flexible, and gives your books a more custom look than what you can do with the other programs.

Sigil is more of clean-up tool than a conversion program. You can import an epub file you created with Calibre or with any of the programs above (except Kindle Create as it doesn’t offer epub), then tweak it until it looks the way you want, giving you the ability to customize the files generated by other programs. It makes fixing those pesky typos that somehow managed to sneak past your edit process super fast once you get the hang of it, but until then…

To be clear, neither of these programs are for the technologically challenged, and both require some comfort with programming. Personally, I love Sigil now, but it was a hard-won love.

  • Pro: This combination gives you the greatest range of customization for your ebook’s appearance and both programs are free to us
  • Con: Both programs have a rather steep learning curve and may cause a person to shake their fist in the air, sob into the phone while wondering what they ever did to deserve such agony, or be driven to drink.

I am sure there are other programs out there, but these are the ones I’ve used the most. Now, one step done, one million other little things left to go.


Rocky Row Novels - www.alliepottswrites.com

An Uncertain Confidence: Coming soon to a device near you

5 Alternatives to Vellum, or How I Spent My Weekend

5 Alternatives to Vellum - www.alliepottswrites.comVellum. It’s not just for illuminated scrolls. For those of you not in the self-publishing world, or those newer to book formatting, Vellum is also a popular software option that helps magically transform your manuscript from a document processing file into something the non-publishing world might call a book. (This post includes affiliate links)

I know plenty of authors who basically describe it as the bee’s knees when it comes to formatting your book. But what if you are allergic to bees? What do you do then? I say that as a bit of a joke, however as Vellum is limited to Mac users and isn’t cheap to use, it isn’t for everyone. Nor is the entire process of book formatting for that matter, but that is an entirely different subject.

So what is an author intent on publishing a new book to do?

I’m glad you asked as I have recently spent far too many hours getting An Uncertain Confidence ready for its upcoming publication date by experimenting with Vellum alternatives offering formatted files I could then take to a professional printer.

Microsoft Word

This has been my trusted go-to method of getting my books in shape as it allows me to tweak font sizes, add decorative flourishes, and basically customize my book’s size and content any way I see fit. However, Word has an annoying habit of inserting blank pages, “helpfully” adjusting page numbers, and text can be overly stretched with funky spaces between the words if you don’t know some of the advanced tricks.

  • Pros – High degree of control
  • Cons – Takes forever and a day if you don’t know what you’re doing, or haven’t written your entire manuscript with Word formatting in mind (i.e. you didn’t take advantage of Word ‘styles’) and may just drive an author to drink.

Adobe InDesign

InDesign offers a lot of the same customization capability of Word, which can help your book stand out from the competition (caution – this isn’t necessarily a good thing). It also does a better job handling the space between words on the page, making your book look cleaner and more professional. However, this is another option that takes time to master and InDesign isn’t cheap.

  • Pros – Improved readability compared to Word in terms of text spacing. Much easier to control pesky things like blank pages and funky page numbers
  • Cons – it’s an Adobe product, which means a steep learning curve and a high price tag though there is a free trial option.

Scrivener

Scrivener is a word processing and story organization tool specifically designed for books. You can copy and paste your manuscript from another word processor into the software, or import it depending on the file type, and export the Scrivener version as a print-ready PDF. However, it is probably far easier to write the entire project in the software from the get-go. While Scrivener is designed for print books, it also has a partnership with Vellum if you prefer their templates over Scrivener’s offerings provided you are willing to pay the price for both services.

  • Pros – Super easy to export your complete manuscript into a print-ready pdf
  • Cons – The product works best when you write your manuscript from end to end in the tool rather than try to import it from another processing program, and doesn’t offer the same level of customization in your book’s format as offered by Word or InDesign (once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing as some people can’t handle the awesome power that is font selection).

Reedsy

In addition to editing, Reedsy includes a free book formatting service. All you have to do is copy and paste your manuscript into its online user interface, designate elements of your book like chapter name or section separator, select a book size, and a theme. It also is partnered with Blurb, which is a print on demand service, making it easy to print your book once it has been formatted.

  • Pros – Easy to use with a price that’s hard to beat. It even inserts back matter pages for you like your social media links, description (with images) of your other books, and a note about how people can join your mailing list.
  • Cons – You have to copy and paste each chapter one by one, which is time-consuming, and you are limited to three themes and three book sizes. Also, you don’t get your formatted file right away, though I only had to wait for a few minutes before I received the email saying my book was ready.

Outsource it

Of course, you also have the option to outsource book formatting if, unlike me, you are a sensible person who would like to actually spend time with your family or friends on the weekends (or be working on your next book) rather than seated in front of a computer screen waiting for swirling wheels or flipping hourglasses to say your file is ready.

  • Pros – You keep your weekends
  • Cons – You have to trust that your formatter knows what they are doing and, if you find that edits are required in your final proof, it can start getting costly.

But in the end, no matter which path you choose, holding that end product in your hands for the first time is always worth the hassle. Trust me.

Books by Allie Potts - www.alliepottswrites.com

and then there were four…

How to quickly add some serious credibility to your business or your brand

How to quickly add some serious credibility to your business or your brand - www.alliepottwrites.comI love quotes. I love reading them. I love using them in my posts as a way to flavor my thoughts with another voice. The trouble is it sometimes takes me ages to find the perfect complement to whatever topic I happen to be writing on at the time.

Then there are the follow-up problems.

How to determine whether a quote is legitimate or not and who really said it? Take for instance the story about the valedictorian in Kentucky who attributed a quote in his commencement speech to one US president only to change its source moments later as a joke that wasn’t viewed as funny by some members of the crowd.

Stories like that prove that no matter how meaningful, empowering, or thought-provoking a quote’s message is, the quote’s mouthpiece also matters. So I try to be careful how I use them.

“With great power, comes great responsibility” – Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben (or was it?)

Up until now, my go-to source has been sites like www.brainyquotes.com and www.tinybuddha.com for when I am need of some additional zen. Both sites have nice keyword searching functions and I’ve created more than one post based entirely on a quote of the day, but there is no way of knowing for sure that the person cited is the first person (on record) to have ever said it. Hence the follow-up homework problem.

I have since found a new way to incorporate direct quotes straight from the source into the world of my other writing jobHARO. HARO stands for Help A Reporter Out (www.helpareporter.com) and it is a free tool for journalists (bloggers, podcasters, and authors too) that helps you find potential sources for upcoming articles.

The rules for journalists, bloggers, and podcasters are pretty stringent as they require your website or media outlet have an Alexa (yes, Amazon’s Alexa – because she’s EVERYWHERE) rating of 1 million or less. This score based on your site’s traffic. However, authors can use the tool to find sources for their books without a media outlet, but it can only be a request for less than 300 words and you must have an estimated publication date as well as a publisher (though I didn’t see anything that said it couldn’t be self) to be considered.

Sadly though, there is no “student” reporter program.

However, if you do meet their guidelines all you do is submit a query outlining your question, what you are looking for in a source, and when you need a response back. You need to be as specific as possible when describing your preferred expert to ensure you get the best sort of response for your platform or outlet. Once your query is approved by HARO, it is then sent out as part of several email blasts that go out throughout the day.

Help Wanted

image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com

But guess what, you don’t have to be a rockstar journalist or multimedia darling.  To use HARO to earn some extra cred for your book, business or brand, all you have to do is sign up as a source.

“And so it became that the quote lover became that which she loved: the quoted.” – so say I, from the book of me

The downside of signing up for the service as either a journalist or a source is the number of emails. There are so many emails. Three per day, and opting out is a frowned upon. But all those emails are filled with reporters just begging for potential interviewees, which are then broken out into various categories. HARO also offers paid plans to help filter by keyword if the emails start to get to you.

While you, as a source, can’t pitch your book, blog, or business outright, you can position yourself as an expert in your field based on how you answer the reporter’s questions. Then if your answer, or pitch, is accepted, you can get featured giving you access to a much larger media outlet, and access to your potential target audience without having to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a gal who used to babysit for the local section’s current editor.

Oh, and at a maximum of 300 words, it is a lot easier (and faster) to do than guest posting.

Though, seriously if you want to write a guest post sometime, that’s cool too.

How to amaze friends and edit images for free with Sumopaint

How to amaze friends and edit images for free with Sumopaint - www.alliepottswrites.com #graphicdesignEarlier this year I featured a mock-up movie poster based on a conversation I’d had with my youngest son. The image produced more comments than anything else I’d published that day. It was a good reminder as to the importance good visuals play in getting a message across.

In full disclosure, I created that image using the Adobe Creative Suite of products, which are powerful, professional grade tools, however, I wanted to find out if I could create similar images with easier to use (and less expensive) applications. Because – why not?

My selection criteria

  • Must be able to use masks and layers – This eliminated Microsoft Paint (to be fair, Paint was never really in consideration)
  • Must be able to edit photos (meaning change colors, erase bits, etc. not just add filters) – This eliminated Canva
  • Must be able to upload as well as download edited images without a subscription – This eliminated PicMonkey

For those of you unfamiliar with the terms above, layers allow you to move and edit isolated elements of a design while masking aids with an element’s transparency and shape.

The experiment

I found Sumopaint and clicked on it’s “Try Online” option. (Note – Sumopaint does require Flash so may not be available on all devices)

SumoPaint Screen ShotI expected another window to open, but instead, a screen similar in appearance to Microsoft Paint appeared at the bottom of my browser window.

For the purpose of this trial, I planned to add and edit multiple image layers, adjust transparency (opacity), add text, and alter an image’s size and shape (free transform tool).

Now, I had to upload the first image to edit.

I found a nice background photo from www.pixabay.com showing a number of posters hanging in a row. I then used the File>Import To Layer Command to import my mock movie poster for Poisonous Zombie Tsnumani Sharks. SumoPaint automatically created a new layer.

My poster was originally larger than the background. I resized it using CTRL+T which is the shortcut for the Free Transform Tool.

I recommend you resize your image immediately upon import as SumoPaint has a tendency to crop out anything exceeding your window otherwise.

How to amaze friends and edit images for free with Sumopaint - www.alliepottswrites.com #graphicdesign

I wanted my poster to go where the map was in the original image, but I also wanted it to look like it was behind the frame.

I moved the layer with the Poisonous Zombie Tsunami sharks to the back so as not to mess it up as I worked on the map.

I selected the layer with sidewalk frames and used the eraser tool. Unfortunately, rather than creating a transparent area as I expected, this resulted in a white area.

Ultimately, I was able to find a workaround by selecting everything in the background image except the white area where the map had been and copying and pasting it as a third layer.

A little decrease in brightness here, a little blur there, and a little more adjustment using the Free Transform>Distort tool and voila.

The results

How to amaze friends and edit images for free with Sumopaint - www.alliepottswrites.com #graphicdesign

Having passed my initial test, I decided to try out some of SumoPaint’s additional features such as its filters, color, and text adjustments as well as layer effects resulting in some other mock-ups.

How to amaze friends and edit images for free with Sumopaint - www.alliepottswrites.com #graphicdesign

The planet was created with gradients and 3D filters

How to amaze friends and edit images for free with Sumopaint - www.alliepottswrites.com #graphicdesign

The scales were made using a rock texture which I then recolored

How to amaze friends and edit images for free with Sumopaint - www.alliepottswrites.com #graphicdesign

The font for the title is Impact which I then stretched for well… um… greater impact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, now I want to write the books to go along with all these covers, but that is a problem for another day.

Final Review

Things I like:

  • Can’t beat the price
  • The learning curve is relatively short (compared to Adobe Creative suite)
  • The User Interface was relatively straightforward and easy to navigate
  • The built-in filters can be customized for a unique look
  • Colors and gradient maps can be added and adjusted with a click of a button
  • Text can be stretched, warped, or otherwise transformed, giving it an edge over most other online editing tools

Things I didn’t like:

  • Text can’t be edited once you have released a text box
  • I couldn’t find a way to make the background transparent once an image was loaded short of adding a new layer and deleting the old
  • Layers would only allow for a handful of text boxes before the program became buggy.
  • When transforming an object, the object automatically reverts to 100% opacity until the transform is completed which is problematic if you are trying to distort an object so it matches the shape of something behind it
  • There are no rulers or align tools so object placement requires some guesswork (Canva has a clear advantage here)

While Adobe still remains the gold standard in my mind, it is good to know I have another option when I need to perform quick and easy edits on the fly, and now I hope, so do you.