Reader Alignment

I’m reading a book right now that I find incredibly frustrating as a reader.

Before I started writing I would’ve just struggled through it (because it’s good enough to finish) and not thought much more about it other than, “Not again,” when it came to reading that author.

But now that I’m writing books myself I stop and ask myself, “Why? What is it about this book that doesn’t work for me as a reader?”

And let me make this point first: There are readers who loved this book. One of the reasons I picked it up is because a few people gushed about how great it was.

So just because a book doesn’t work for me as a reader does not mean that book is not a good book with a large audience or that that author isn’t going to succeed. They absolutely are.

And I think that’s crucial to understand. Something can not work for one person (me) but work for a thousand others, because we all read for different things.

In this case I suspect this book taps into the slow-burn monster-with-a-heart romance audience and they’re willing to put aside other issues to get that.

For me, I don’t care so much about the romance. I want a main character who takes agency and acts when it’s clear they can.

The character in this book has been thrust into a new situation. One where her life is in danger and where others are doing everything they possible can to survive. There are clear indications that if the character asked the right questions she could do something about it.

And yet she does not ask those questions.

Nor does she sit herself down in the massive library and read every single book she can get her hands on in search of answers.

Nor does she take on kitchen duties while everyone else is literally bleeding themselves out to try to keep her and themselves alive.

She just…reads poetry?

My reaction to that is, “Woman, step up already. Pin that person who won’t answer your questions in a corner and grill them until you get some answers.”

And that’s a reader alignment issue.

I personally as a reader want certain choices and decisions to be made by characters when they are in certain situations. Not all readers need that. Not all readers would even see what I see when I read the story.

Other readers might have different frustrations with books they read. They might want a character who pursues relationships and be frustrated if they read a book where the main character turns away from a potential romantic interest.

Or they might want characters who pursue power and not be able to connect with a character who walks away from it or doesn’t care about money or influence.

When you get past the level of competent writing, I think this is where stories either do or don’t find their readers.

There’s a need for overall genre alignment. “Is this a fantasy novel?”, “Is this a romance?”, “Is this a thriller?” etc.

But then it’s down to reader alignment.

“Does this character make sense to me?” “Or do they frustrate me?” (In this book it’s also very clear at one point that a bad person is going to kill two people and yet a different character not only doesn’t see it coming but doesn’t even wonder if that’s what happened after the fact.)

Another one I’ve noticed more with TV than books is that I will stop watching shows that don’t mirror my own personal values enough.

As an example, there was a medical TV show I started watching that was good. I liked the characters for the most part and it had tension and all that fun stuff you want in a medical drama.

But three times in the first season or two there was a scenario where a doctor chose not to respect a patient’s wishes about their own healthcare.

Once, okay, fine, I can see that happening and I’m sure some doctors feel that way. “If we can save them we must whether they want to be saved or not and regardless of their quality of life.”

But three times? Nope. That’s a point of view on medical care that this show wants to present that I’m not here for. Done.

Another one was a TV show where the main character is a narcissistic politician who’s just evil and he keeps getting away with it over and over. His evil acts get him ahead and have no consequences.

I finally after a season or so Googled the series to see if he ever got his comeuppance. At the time it was five seasons in and the answer was, “nope”, just keeps rising through the ranks. Combine that and the image of the FU cuff links at the end of one of the episodes and I was out.

Another one was a police procedural where a young rookie discovers a murder committed by their seasoned mentor who then kills more people to cover up the initial murder. Instead of the show being about how the seasoned mentor is brought to justice it was about how the rookie loses their career trying to take them down.

Again, nope. Not what I want to reward or ingest.

But that’s me.

Each of those series were highly successful. Because it’s a matter of individual taste.

There just wasn’t alignment there. And that’s okay. For me as a reader I have no problem saying, “not an author for me.”

As authors we shouldn’t take that personally when that happens. We cannot please all readers. Some readers want exact opposite things from their stories. The key is finding enough readers who want what you write to be able to keep writing.

Which, you know, easier said than done for some of us based on what we write.

Anyway. My writer thoughts for the day.

200 pages to go in this book so I can find out that the book of poetry from her mother is going to be important and that’s the sole reason a person who thought they were going to die immediately packed an entire bag full of books that they managed to keep with them while they ran for their life through a forest, but somehow didn’t think to pack a single extra dress or pair of shoes just in case they survived.

Best get back to it.

Random Thoughts and Comments 20220923

At this point I have four non-fiction titles and four short stories that I narrated myself that are out in audio on at least one site, so I’ve added a new Audiobooks page. That also includes two of my non-fiction titles that were narrated by other narrators many years ago (Budgeting for Beginners and Writing for Beginners, both which were out under different titles for most of that time so may still show up under those other titles when you click through).

Teachable turned out to be a bust for me. There’s a pretty hefty fee to use that site per year and I just didn’t bring enough traffic there on my own to justify it. So I’ve updated the video course page to remove those links.

The Affinity courses are still up on Udemy for anyone who needs them. If you signed up through Teachable and lose access there, which I don’t think you should, reach out to me and I’ll give you a free code for Udemy so you still have access to the material. I have the list of student names so not too hard to see who was impacted.

Sorry about that. I tried. But sometimes in this business you try, fail, and cut your losses.

I’m currently waiting on feedback comments for an AML compliance book so hoping to have that one out next month. One set of comments are already in and just a few minor tweaks to make so I expect it won’t be an issue to get it out on time.

I also want to do the audio of that one so that it’s out there from close to the start, so expect that, too. It’s dry material that is more interesting when narrated. Still dry, but less so.

I’m still toying with the idea of a YouTube channel. But I have commitment issues and know to do it right I’d have to post regularly there. So I may half-ass it and just put up the short stories and an intro video. I expect that seeing videos of my middle-aged writer self who doesn’t feel inspired to look good for the camera may be a limiting factor on that one.

I am vain enough to want to look good, but too lazy to do what would be required. Story of my life. (Haha. Sigh.)

I don’t know about anyone else but August was an ugly sales month for me. Partially because of AMS.

If you aren’t checking search terms on your ads, definitely do so, especially in the UK. I don’t know if this is a change on Amazon’s end or if people have just gotten sick of seeing ads for irrelevant books, but I noticed with some newer ads I tried to start that the search terms people were clicking on for some of my ads were wildly off base.

A book on Microsoft Access that used access as a keyword was getting clicks for things like “accessibility aids”. I always try to anticipate those things with negative keyword phrases, but some just had not crossed my mind.

And unfortunately AMS does not show you search terms people use where they don’t click. (Please do that instead of all the other weirdness you keep doing developer folks? Just top 50 maybe? Or ones with more than 500 impressions?)

That means there’s no way usually to know those wildly inappropriate matches are happening.

But it seems in the UK at least last month folks were clicking on those ads, so I was able to get a lot of new negative keywords for some of my ads from looking at those search terms.

At a cost, of course. Those clicks that gave me that info were not free.

What else? I recently went from a 12 GB RAM laptop to a 32 GB RAM laptop for my work computer, and wow what a difference. With 12 GB RAM every time they want to do updates it just kills my computer. So when you think new computer next time around, I’d say think increased RAM. A lot of what drove my decision was graphics because of ads/covers, etc. but that slowdown issue was part of it, too.

Also, hugs to everyone out there. I have a friend I’ve known for over 30 years who I saw this last week and who was at the breaking point because of life.

This is a person who did their med school residency while helping run the family business and was just fine for that (other than general exhaustion), so not someone who breaks easily.

But I think the past few years have just been a lot for a lot of people.

Understaffing, illness, life stressors…

So if you’re one of those folks who just feels knocked sideways these days, you’re not alone. Even the strong ones are breaking.

I know it doesn’t solve anything to say that, whatever troubles you’re facing are still there, but know it’s not just you. Be kind to yourself.

My Current Audiobook Process

I’m putting this here mostly for me because after recording four non-fiction titles and six short stories I’m about to go dive in on a writing project. (Also, if anyone “listens” to books on YouTube can you drop a comment and let me know. I’m thinking I’ll put the short stories up there at least, but just not sure how much to prioritize doing so. Right now it’s a backburner project because even though I expect people to just listen even though they’re videos I want the closed captions accurate and that takes a surprising amount of time.)

Anyway. In case this helps anyone else, this is not a perfect process but it’s what I’ve come up with to get a product I’m happy with but not bog down too much too early.

  1. Before each session, record a “testing, testing, testing” bit to make sure that my audio is set to the right input device, that I’ve turned on the audio interface, and that I’m hitting between -10 and -20 db. (All issues I had at one time or another.)
  2. Record audio using Audacity with no headphones on. Save file using Raw, chapter number (if applicable), and project name. (e.g., Raw 1 Introduction)
  3. In Audacity, edit file to remove long gaps, repeats, and re-dos. Do not wear headphones. Save file as First Pass, chapter number, and then file name. (e.g., First Pass 1 Introduction)
  4. Export as .wav file.
  5. Import .wav file into Reaper. Apply pre-set FX Chain which includes Waves NS1 Mono, ReaEQ, ReaComp, iZotope De-Click, JS: De-Esser, and iZotope De-Clip.
  6. Listen to audio and adjust the threshold setting for ReaComp until I’m compressing somewhere between -4 and -6 for most of the audio.
  7. Save as Reaper, chapter number, and then file name. (e.g., Reaper 1 Introduction)
  8. Render mono version of .wav file. (If there’s a way to make this the default in settings, I haven’t figured it out yet so I always have to change from stereo to mono.)
  9. Open .wav file in Audacity, select all or 20 minutes for longer clips, and run ACX Check (under Analyze). Look at RMS level and figure out amount to adjust to get to -23 and then add .5 to that amount.
  10. Go to Tools, Macros and change the value for the Limiter to that amount in the macro I have that applies a Limiter and Normalizes the clip to -3.1 peak level.
  11. Apply that macro to the whole clip.
  12. Run ACX Check again to make sure it worked.
  13. Save file as Final, chapter number, file name. (e.g., Final 1 Introduction)
  14. Export as MP3 file. Make sure file name is what I want the chapter called when loaded to Authors Republic. (e.g., 1 Introduction) (ACX will import chapter names from your ebook file, but Authors Republic uses the name of the file you provide them. Be sure to keep numbering in there so that files are listed in order on Authors Republic.)
  15. Listen to file with really good headphones on and read along in book to confirm text. Note timestamp for any issues that need fixed like sounds that need to be removed, duplicate text that wasn’t caught, or words that were wrong.
  16. Re-record if needed. Go to First Pass version in Audacity if text needs removed. If multiple cuts need to be made work from the end of the file backwards.
  17. Otherwise go to Reaper version and click on trim envelope and select Volume (Pre-FX). Find each spot where a noise was noted that needed removed and use ctrl + mouse to manually draw it down until no longer audible.
  18. Export from Reaper as .wav and reprocess with Limiter and Normalization in Audacity. Re-export as .mp3 file and listen to make sure all changes worked.
  19. For the file edits above, save over old versions as needed. With the final Audacity file, that will need to be deleted first and then a new file with the same name saved.

This is probably not the most efficient process. I could likely figure out how to do everything in Reaper, but I’m much more comfortable cutting sections in Audacity. Reaper and I have time selection with a mouse issues.

Also, I like the ACX Check in Audacity even though it is not perfect and told me I was fine a few times when I was in fact off by .3 or less.

It was taking me a lot longer to process files early on because I was getting caught up with mouth or background noises during my first pass edits. That’s why I don’t wear the headphones at that stage, because I get distracted and want to start fixing things that the software will fix for me if I just let it go.

I also at one point was manually fixing clipping in my audio track by bringing the pre-processed sound down at those points but finally add the de-clipping tool in there to do that for me. It was fine when I clipped once or twice, but I then had one with 55 clips in it and that was not going to be fun to fix.

(Also, as I get better at not hitting first words in chapters or sections too hard that becomes less of an issue.)

I also think I could have for new recordings adjusted my settings for the microphone input to get rid of any clipping, but I think that would’ve also meant a higher adjustment when I used the Limiter. (I think, don’t quote me on that.) So I’ve struck a balance there.

As you can see above, I did decide to go with paid software and paid tools after trying the free route first. I was able to get the de-clip and de-click software a few versions back from the current one off their website at a decent discount so it seemed worth it. All told I think it was about $150 for all the software I’m using.

Also, doing a good recording is essential. It saves so much time if you get that right up front.

I’ve been lucky to catch a lot of issues as I record, so I just re-do a line right then rather than have to catch it at the end of the whole process. I am not, however, comfortable enough to not listen through during that first pass stage. I do know of experienced folks who will just make some sort of loud noise at any point where they re-do a line so they don’t have to listen through the entire thing in the first pass stage. I’m just not there yet. But I can see maybe getting there when I try to do the cozies which are 9x as long as each of the short stories I’ve done so far.

As for prep, my current process involves taking a decongestant before I start, chewing some gum, and then having water with apple cider vinegar that I drink while recording. (My dog freaks out and needs to go sit outside in the grass for half an hour before she’ll let me record, so it works out.)

As I record I also really try to pay attention to any gumminess in my mouth or any spit bubbles (gross, I know) I notice so I can just re-do that line immediately.

I also have to be careful that there isn’t something really loud that suddenly starts up in the background. I have a pretty good little space set up right now and a very forgiving microphone that doesn’t pick up everything around me, but I had to redo about five minutes of one recording that sounded like static in the background. I think because someone was mowing right outside and I didn’t catch it. I wasted a ton of time trying to get rid of that with processing when it ultimately was easier to just go re-record the clip.

Alright. Off to do some writing before I circle back to audio again in a week or so.

Another Audio Update

First, for the non-fiction readers out there, Regulatory Compliance Fundamentals and How To Gather and Use Data For Business Analysis are now live in audio. The links above are to the Books2Read page where I added four audio storefronts for each one, but if you have a favorite place where you like to listen to audio it should make it’s way there eventually or may already be there.

Surprisingly, I actually have some listens already according to the ACX dashboard. We’ll see if they last since ACX takes back sales sometimes. (If you listen to a title and liked it and are one of those people who return your audiobooks, please wait a week on Audible before doing so.)

But, regardless, that was a nice surprise that people had found the books and were listening to them already without any promotion by me.

Especially the data one that I’ve always thought had good information in it but just never found its audience.

I also recorded Data Analysis for Self-Publishers and Sell That Book on the non-fiction side but haven’t submitted those yet. Probably today.

This week I started to work on some fiction titles and that was interesting. Because I had a bit of an epiphany.

A long time ago I took a craft course and the instructor said that the power of writing is that it lets you be inside the character’s head. TV and movies are external. You hear the character and you see them, but you don’t get that internal thought process. (Usually. Some shows are set up to provide that, but mostly we watch from the outside when we watch movies or TV shows.)

But with writing, you can see what someone really thinks or feels, not just what they show the world. (Now, I could argue that what you’re actually getting is the narrator’s or character’s spin on things, but let’s not go there.)

The problem with writing is that the reader has to be the one that layers on the emotions and interprets the words.

Each reader brings their own world view to the page. So something I as a writer might think is sad or angry or tragic or ironic may not land that way with the reader if their life experience doesn’t mirror mine.

This week I’ve been doing short stories I wrote almost a decade ago. The first one I tackled was called The Price We Pay.

This story was very personal to me. It was born out of my dad’s struggles with having a terminal illness and how uncaring the world is about people like him. And about struggling financially. And how hard it is to be there for your family when you’re barely making it through each day. And about having a complicated marriage with someone you desperately love but who might leave you given the chance.

I have friends who wouldn’t connect to any of that. They’ve never been seriously ill or known anyone who was. They’ve never struggled financially. They’ve never loved someone in that complicated, messy, painful way.

So for that person reading that story, there’s no emotion to the words. There’s no resonance to the experience of the character for them to draw on.

(Interestingly, I think now with COVID it’s probably a story far more readers can connect to than before.)

The other story I did this week was Death Answered My Call about a woman who is essentially using prayer to keep her husband alive even as it becomes more and more clear that she needs to let go. (In the story it’s a magical red leather bag and a repeated mantra, but basically it’s prayer.)

I still remember with that story having a beta reader who didn’t understand the story at all. That beta reader was religious and fully believed that we go on to somewhere better than this so didn’t understand not wanting to lose someone and trying to keep them here.

Whereas for me, I wrote that story because even though I am not a religious person I prayed for my dad every single time he was hospitalized when I was growing up. He was religious and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask his god to help him out. I prayed for him right up until that last time…

(I also had a friend who thought the character got what he deserved because he was a skydiver so had no sympathy for either character. Sometimes having people beta for you reveals really interesting things.)

Getting back to the point.

For me, reading that story, all the emotion is there. I know what it’s like to want to keep someone and to finally have to let them go because they’re suffering too much.

Which is what made narrating those stories such a great experience. Because I was in control of the emotion behind the words, not the reader. I could deliver not just the words, but the emotions that go with them.

The Price We Pay was perfect for audio for that reason. It has a lot of internal thoughts and feelings–the story is probably half just thoughts– so it wouldn’t make a good television episode, for example, but being able to narrate it also let me give the story all the emotion that you can get from acting that maybe readers wouldn’t be able to bring with them.

I don’t think I realized until recording that story for the second time (I cried during the first recording–I hadn’t read that story in probably five years) that this unique combination of written word and performance makes audiobooks their own unique performance medium.

I had always up until that moment viewed audiobooks as just a spoken version of a story that was convenient for people to listen to while driving around or doing the dishes or whatever.

And who knows, maybe that’s what people actually want in their audiobooks and they’ll hate these recordings. Maybe they just want that straight delivery and not actual acting.

Plus, I could suck as an actor. I mean, really, my acting experience is a middle school radio skit, a drama class I dropped in high school, and a freshman play in college, so it’s possible they’re horrible and overacted.

(If so, I’ll figure that out about two years from now when my mind finally finishes processing whatever it’s always processing in the background and makes me circle back to these and cringe. That’s life as I know it.)

But I also think my own personal writing style lends itself to audio.

I tend to write short, choppy sentences and paragraphs. Because everything I write I’m reading out loud in my head. And line breaks for me are a longer pause than a period. I see a long paragraph and I think, “Didn’t you take a breath in there, man? Geez.”

So maybe audio is just my natural medium but wouldn’t work for others?

I will say though that it is a level of difficulty or ten beyond just writing a story.

There’s the recording environment. The proper equipment. The sound processing. The actual vocal performance which can be impacted by energy levels and what you ate for breakfast and whether it’s allergy season and whether your stupid stompy neighbor is home and whether your dog is going to be okay with you disappearing behind a moving blanket to make weird noises.

And that all on top of having good words to work from in the first place.

A ton of things need to come together for a good audiobook recording.

I have no idea if I’ve brought those together. I think what I’ve done sounds good. But, you don’t know what you don’t know.

(As an aside. The audio I recorded for my course videos in the past, the issue there was that I didn’t notice there was a “distance” to the vocals. It’s like I’m across the room, not right there. They’re still workable for delivering that knowledge, they’re just not “polished.” Then again, that’s kind of the story of my life. So, what’s new?)

Alright. Anyway. Time to wrap this up and do some covers and then submit some audio files. I’d like to do all of the short stories in my M.H. Lee short story collection, but I don’t know if I can actually pull off narrating all of them. It’s going to be interesting to try.