Category: Art (page 1 of 7)

Seven Months in Provence: Part Seven

Mont Sainte Victoire, the view from my apartment in Aix-en-Provence (well, from Mark’s room, at least)

Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Seven:

My room in the hotel had a phone on the wall.

That evening I phoned my girlfriend Lynda back in Canada.

I felt badly because I knew that she would be wondering why I hadn’t called her yet. She would think that it was because I couldn’t be bothered. Of course, this was not the case. I picked up the phone and got the front desk. Front desk made the whole thing simple, getting the international operator for me. Seconds later I was talking to Lynda. She sounded a bit hurt, wondering why I hadn’t called days earlier. I explained the difficulty figuring out the phones in France and she told me that she understood.

The next day I set out for the Institut d’Etudes Françaises pour Etudiants Etrangers. I knew generally what direction it was in. I had this naive notion that I could find my way anywhere. Such is the case in North America where cities and towns are typically laid out in grids, but this is not necessarily so in other countries. I took streets I had not yet taken, turned onto others when I felt it was time, and somehow miraculously found my way to the school. Later I found out how the city is actually laid out and it’s a wonder I made it there at all.

I found out from the Institute’s office that I could not be issued a student card until I paid my tuition fees. However, I could not do this until my bank draft came through, which I didn’t think would happen until the following week.

Without a student card I wouldn’t be able to use the housing registry. This meant I might have to stay in hotels until I ran out of the money I had on hand. I had a credit card but I hadn’t tried to use it yet and wasn’t sure if it would work for me in France. Also I wondered how would I pay it off in France. So I didn’t want to use it.

But the school did let me write a test to see what level I would study at. Everybody had to write the same test. If you got zero you were put in Niveau I, at the bottom, in class AA. Top students who already spoke French quite fluently were placed in one class all together in Niveau III.

We had one hour to write the test. I went through it and understood very little. I didn’t even understand most of the instructions. I guessed at most of it. Frustrated, I eventually just translated a bunch of words I knew and wrote a note saying I was just doing that to prove that I did know something! Then I handed it in.

They placed me in Niveau I, but four classes from the bottom, in class D. So I wasn’t the worst who wrote the test. And it turned out that this was about the best class I could ever have been placed in, based on the quality of the other students. It was just a great collection of people, many of whom became good friends.

I made an appointment to see the housing registrar even though I knew that she probably wouldn’t see me without a student card. Someone had told me that the housing registrar could be rather difficult. The appointment was for the next day around ten. I arrived a few minutes early. I needn’t have worried about being late.

When you walked through the school’s arch, took the left up the stairs to the second level, you arrived at a common area around which were spread hallways, offices, and rooms. In this common area sat a curious woman behind a long desk. You had to deal with her before you dealt with anyone else. Somewhere in her fifties, I would guess, she always dressed like she was a lot skinnier and younger than she actually was. She spoke French fluently but with a broad accent. At first I assumed she was French and just happened to speak English well. Later I found out that she was actually British but had lived in France for a quarter century. As the year progressed I eventually was able to tell for myself that her accent was too broad to be truly French.

When I arrived for my appointment I immediately informed her of my presence. She brusquely told me to take a seat and wait. I noticed that a lot of other students were already sitting around waiting. I told her the time of my appointment, thinking that perhaps it meant something. She told me rather harshly that she didn’t give a hoot about that and would I just sit down. I decided that she was a bit of a dragon lady. Subsequent encounters proved me correct, though eventually I discovered that dragon ladies can be people too.

So I sat and waited. Forty-five minutes later I was still waiting when a young man with long black hair approached me. “You speak English,” he said, in a British accent.

I agreed that I did.

He introduced himself as Mark Thompson, from England. He was looking for a place to stay as well. It turned out that his appointment was right before mine. He finally got to go in to see the registrar. When he came out he told me that she had told him of a place where two rooms were available. He asked me if I would like to come along. The registrar popped her head out and said that this wouldn’t bother her any if I did. I immediately agreed, knowing that she probably wouldn’t have spoken to me anyway without my student card. Lucky.

Mark was twenty-one and had just finished university in Wales. His father, the CEO of an extermination company, had allowed his older brother to flake out for a year in Spain after university, so Mark insisted that he be allowed to do the same in France before having to find a job. I’m not sure Mark learned much French in Aix, but I do believe he had a good time. Mark turned out to be a good guy and a lot of fun.

The apartment was a twenty minute walk north out of town, up a huge hill. Mark, a smoker, huffed and puffed his way up. He commented a couple of times that he couldn’t believe the hill, which was quite steep in places. You would be hard pressed to bike up it, but at one point it affords a great view of the city.

A man of about sixty, Monsieur Richaud, stood by the road waiting for us. The addresses could be hard to figure out so this was a good thing. He greeted us and took us through the parking lot to the condominium. There were four bedrooms with a central kitchen. Two students were already living there, Americans. At least two of the bedrooms were actually converted living rooms. Madame and Monsieur Richaud were staying in one of the rooms not yet rented out. They barely spoke English. He was French and she was German. As neither Mark nor I spoke either French or German we had to make do with the Richaud’s English.

The apartment was clean and tidy. We snapped it up right away. I was quite relieved to have one major worry resolved. The Richauds wanted money right away, so Mark and I went downtown where I discovered that my credit card worked after all. Mark had already borrowed something like four thousand francs from another student he had just met who later became a good friend of mine, a Scottish girl named Tracey Coleman. We went back and signed the lease, and moved in the next day.

One of the available rooms, the smallest, had a shower. The monthly rent was the least for this room, 1850 francs. (The other rooms all cost more.) The other available room was slightly bigger, faced east, and had a fantastic view of Mount Sainte-Victoire, made famous in a painting by Paul Cézanne, whose workshop turned out to be right next door (I always intended to visit the workshop but never actually got around to it).

I took the smaller room with the shower, a decision I never regretted. The communal shower sucked. Apparently you had to crouch to use it, although I never tried it. Mark was happy with his room because it was bigger and had a little balcony. And there were lots of pieces of furniture upon which he could place his empty beer and wine bottles.

My worries seemed to be dissolving, one by one. I knew my credit card worked, so I had cash for the forseeable future. I now had a roof over my head, or at least I would the next day, after I moved in.

I was starting to feel good.

That night I had supper with Mark, a young Swedish girl still in her teens whose name I don’t recall, and an American girl named Kristin, around twenty, who also became a friend of mine. We were all attending the Institute. We sat at outside at a table on the Cours Mirabeau. I was relaxed, extraordinarily happy to be in Aix rather than working back in Canada. Although early October, it was still quite warm in Aix. We talked about who we were and what we were doing there. It was such a great atmosphere. At twenty-eight I was by far the oldest at the table, but I didn’t feel old. Or rather, I didn’t feel bad being old. I felt more experienced than the others, is all.

Although in truth I was probably the least experienced of the bunch, at least when it came to travelling.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

Aix-en-Provence — Seven Months in Provence (Part Three)

Aix-en-Provence

Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Three:

(Part One is here)

I finally got up, utterly unable to sleep. I knew I had to eat something. Unfortunately all I really felt like doing was vomiting. Nervousness and lugging too much baggage all over God’s Green Earth had left me weak and nauseous. I got dressed and visited a nearby convenience store. It was now evening and I was wearing my glasses, which I wasn’t accustomed to. That and the dark in a strange locale contributed to my feeling of dislocation. I picked up some fruit juice and an apple. The cashier, a young man, saw that I spoke English and asked me if I was an American. I said no, Canadian, and he perked right up and told about his brother who lived in Canada. He was quite friendly and again I thought how different people seemed to be here than I was led to expect.

Back in my room I got the juice and the apple down and tried to sleep again. I gave up and tried to watch some TV. It was all French, of course. There was a movie that looked interesting, a war film, but I couldn’t get into it understanding nothing of the dialogue.

I worried about making it to the train station on time in the morning. I worried about catching the right train. I worried about money again. I worried about catching the right train again. I worried about accommodation in Aix. I thought what if this just doesn’t work out at all? What if I have to go back home with my tail between my legs? What would my friends, family and colleagues think? What if I’m robbed? What if the school in Aix doesn’t let me in for some reason? What if I feel this nauseous for the rest of my life? It was the most nervous I’d ever felt in my entire life. One of the most anxious nights I’ve ever passed. Most of my fears proved to be ridiculous but boy they can be hard to control when they’re upon you.

I felt marginally better in the morning. I had gotten up quite early to make sure I didn’t miss the train. The front desk clerk was quite friendly, calling me a cab and chatting with me. He didn’t alleviate my fears about Aix, though. He told me to watch out for the people down there, that they were different in the south. Not like Canadians, he smiled. He’d been to Canada and found it so different from France. He’d loved it. Couldn’t wait to go back.

Another friendly Parisien. The stories I’d heard must have been about another city named Paris.

The cab took me straight (as near as I could tell) to the Gare de Lyon where I was to catch the TGV, those super-fast French trains. It was still dark and there were few people around. I walked inside, happy that my strength had returned a bit, enough to carry my bags. I wasn’t long finding the trains.

The Gare de Lyon is a huge, cavernous place. The trains rest side by side like giant sleeping snakes. I was there at five in the morning and they were all lined up waiting for me. I had about a two hour wait to figure out which snake was mine and how to get on it. I didn’t know if my ticket was good as is or whether it required stamping or what have you. I camped out by a set of stairs in good view of the arrivals-departures sign and nervously kept an eye on some rough looking types hanging out not far away.

Soon the place began to fill up with folks like me and I began to feel more secure in like company. I saw people stamping tickets in orange posts scattered about, found someone who spoke English and got the scoop on that. Yes, I was supposed to stamp the thing. I did so, glad I’d settled that. Later someone asked me the same thing, a fellow from India, and I felt happy to be able to instruct him.

The trains were quite long and I didn’t relish the thought of lugging my bags around trying to find out where I was supposed to be. I still wasn’t feeling all that well. There were carts around similar to the ones they’d had in the airport so I decided to grab one. I didn’t know how much they cost as they weren’t free like at the airport. I saw a woman about to return one so I thought perhaps she wouldn’t mind if I just grabbed hers. I did the “vous parlez anglais?” thing and lo and behold she didn’t. But she understood that I wanted her cart. I asked her how much and she waved a ten franc piece in my face. I dug out a ten franc piece and tried to give it to her but she wouldn’t take it. Instead she insisted on locking the cart back up with the others. We had a little bit of a tug of war, as I hadn’t completely understood how the system operated and feared that if she locked the thing up I’d never get it back again. But my manners soon got the better of me and I let her do it. Then, just as I was thinking, oh darn, there goes that thing, she grabbed the ten franc piece from my hand, inserted it into a little slot on the cart, and unlocked the contraption again. I was mystified why she hadn’t just taken my ten franc piece and let me have the cart to begin with, but I was grateful just the same. I suppose she just thought she’d teach me how the thing worked. (Such carts became common after I returned to Toronto, but this was the first time I’d run across them). Anyway, it was great not to have to lug my luggage around anymore.

I found my place on the TGV (which stands for train de grande vitesse, or Train of Great Speed). I was the first one on my car. By the time we left, though, the coach was packed. This bothered me as I had a window seat and I was still feeling nauseous. I could visualize some ugly things happening, worst case scenario speaking. I popped one of the gravol Ron had insisted I buy, kept an eye out for an ever-elusive Eiffel tower, and an hour into the trip managed to get to sleep.

I awoke a couple of hours later feeling much better.

We were about an hour outside Marseille. I’d probably slept about two hours and the difference in how I felt was incredible. I was able to sit back and enjoy the sights.

It was quite picturesque in this area. The landscape was quite rugged, lot of rocks and hills. The forestation was sparse and shrubby. I had my first glimpse of the Mediterranean. I don’t remember being struck by the colour of it at this time, but I saw it again on a trip to Nice and marvelled at its truly remarkable shade of blue.

The architecture of the houses was quite a bit different from what I was used to. They used uniquely shaped shingles made from what looked like baked clay in a variety of colours. I later discovered that this rounded type of shingle is unique to Provence.

We made it into Marseille around noon. The day reflected my improved mood. It was hot and sunny, just as I had expected the south of France to be (at least, when I wasn’t worrying about being stuck outside all night). I was still nervous, but now my nervousness was focussed: how to catch the train to Aix? It wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped it would be. My ticket had specified a time, but when I scanned all the platforms in the Marseille St. Charles station I could find no corresponding trains. I did find one platform with a train leaving about an hour later than the indicated time.

I found an information booth and asked the young woman there if she parlayed anglais. Brusque and businesslike, she informed me that, “Non,” she did not.

Somehow I conveyed to her what I wanted to know and together we determined what platform my train was supposed to be on. I carted by bags to the platform (on another one of those great carts) and began waiting. I kept a close eye on my bags as I figured I looked like a pretty easy mark.

Half a year later a friend from Calgary told me the story of her arrival at the St. Charles station.

Suzanne was an experienced traveller, having already spent thirteen months seeing the world from the deepest heart of India to Europe and North America. Nevertheless her mental state upon arriving in Marseille was not unlike mine. Flying from North America to Europe pretty much requires being up most of the night, and if you’re travelling again the next day you’re going to be pretty knackered. Suzanne had been smarter than me, having flown to Nice instead of Paris, so she didn’t have as far to go. Just the same she was still pretty tired when she got to Marseille. Like me, she was feeling nervous about what was going to happen in Aix.

As she was waiting for the train, she noticed a seedy looking guy checking her out. She didn’t pay much attention until she went to use the washroom and the guy followed her. He waited just outside and was there when she came out. Scared, she went back inside, waited a bit, and then checked again. He was still there, leering at her. Again Suzanne went back inside the washroom, by this time quite scared and worried.

How to handle this? As she put it, she completely forgot that she was already a battle-hardened world traveller. It had been a year since her world travels so perhaps she was a bit out of practice. Unnerved, she shed a few tears, but finally managed to pull herself together. There was a woman washroom attendant present, so Suzanne confronted her with the problem. Fortunately Suzanne already spoke enough French to make herself understood. The attendant was helpful and fetched a gendarme who told the guy to beat it. He disappeared and Suzanne was able to finish her trip uneventfully.

Another friend, Tove from Denmark, told me that she found the trip to Aix quite unnerving as well. She worried about everything just like Suzanne and me. One of Tove’s main concerns was “wondering if anyone would like me.” This might sound silly but it was true. You do wonder whether you’ll be able to get along with people.

Tove told me that when she got to Aix she went straight to the hotel she’d booked only to find that, just like my hotel in Paris, they were all booked up, despite Tove’s reservation. Frustrated, she insisted that they phone around to find her another place. They did so, but apparently not very willingly. It didn’t do any good. She was informed that every hotel around was booked solid, sorry. Alone, with more bags than she could easily carry (just like me), she became quite concerned about her possible fate. She set out on foot to try to find a place to stay. Luckily, she met some other students outside who offered to help her with her bags. As it turned out the first hotel she tried had plenty of room (suggesting that the previous hotel hadn’t tried very hard). Relieved, Tove stayed there, and the students who had helped her with her bags became her roommates for the first term.

As I stood waiting for the train, I was approached by a tall, athletic, bearded fellow. He had a small backpack and carried another small bag. I thought, boy, that’s the way to travel. He’d have no trouble getting around. I decided that the next time I’d do it that way: nice and light. Anyway, this guy was everything I felt I wasn’t just then:

Joe: Dishevelled, pasty-faced, too much luggage.

Guy: Confident, tanned, fit.

He’d seen my Canadian flag on my backpack and asked me if I spoke English. I said yeah and we talked for a bit. He was going to Aix too. He was from California (I’d never have guessed) and was on a two month trip around Europe by himself, though he was going to meet up with a female friend later.

I told him my plans and he seemed to think it was an interesting idea, studying French in Aix for the year. We talked about travelling around Europe. I asked him if he made reservations in advance at the places he visited. I was still worried about finding a place in Aix and was looking for reassurance. He laughed and said almost never. In all the travelling he’d ever done, he said—and he’d done a lot—he’d only found himself stuck once, in Bangkok. And it hadn’t been that big a deal to spend one night outside.

Eventually a train arrived but it turned out not to be the train to Aix, even though I had been informed that it would be, and the sign at the head of the platform said that it was. This prompted some scrambling around as we hastily tried to discover the correct platform. At the far side of the station we discovered the appropriate platform. I boarded the train as the Californian went off to look for a sandwich somewhere, and I didn’t see him again until Aix.

It was a forty-five minute trip to Aix. It was beautiful, sunny and warm—a good sign, I decided (as an optimist, I managed to consider both rain and sunshine auspicious). We crossed over hills and trestles that allowed me to look down into Aix as we arrived. All the buildings seemed to be white in the suburbs. I wondered what kind of people lived in them. I wondered whether I would fit in.

We arrived at the train station and suddenly there I was, in the place I would spend the next six and one half months of my life. I lugged my bags into the station and ran into the Californian, which wasn’t hard to do as the station wasn’t very large. I was kind of hoping that he’d be looking for a hotel and that I could sort of tag along, making my life easier. I didn’t want to be a leech, though, so I said nothing, except, “So, what are your plans?”

He replied that he didn’t even know if he would stay the night. He was scanning the big overhead schedule for train times back to Marseille in case he didn’t like Aix.

I said, “Oh,” and “Well, I guess I’ll go and find a place to stay.”

He wished me good luck, and I had the distinct impression that he meant it. He looked at me with a sort of pity, as though regarding a particularly scrawny stray dog, wondering if it would still be alive in a day.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

One Year Later

It’s been just over a year now since my debut novel, A Time and a Place (ATAAP for short), was published by Five Rivers Publishing.

Time to sit back and reflect a bit on the experience.

One year in and I’m not exactly in J.K. Rowling territory. Still got the day job and the bank account looks roughly the same. I did not expect anything different. I went in to this knowing that I might only sell dozens of copies, that it could have been critically ravaged; or worse, completely ignored.

I also went into it with the intention of making it as uniformly positive an experience as I could possibly manage. I’m happy to say that I’ve (mostly) succeeded on that front. And that it hasn’t been critically ravaged or ignored.

It was a year marked by at least a couple of miracles.

The experience started on an amazing note when, shortly after publication, I stumbled upon a positive review of A Time and a Place by Publishers Weekly. I hadn’t even heard of Publishers Weekly before publishing ATAAP. I had to look it up, and when I did, I was interested to learn that Publishers Weekly is considered one of the Bibles of publishing, having been published continuously since 1872. To get a positive review from them was enormous validation of all the work I’d put into the novel. It meant that the work had paid off, at least on a critical front. It also immunized me from any subsequent bad reviews. Publishers Weekly liked it! Who cared what anyone else thought? Well, I did care, but one positive PW review meant that I could easily stomach any other bad reviews.

In the Bistro of the Free Times Cafe before the launch. That’s genuine happiness you see on my face there.

The second miracle was the book launch. The Merril Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy (of the Toronto Public Library system) agreed to host the launch of the book. Having the launch at such a respected venue gave the launch some credibility, in my mind. And Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s biggest SF&F bookstore, agreed to sell the book for me at the launch. And the attendance at the launch blew my mind. Seventy-eight people confirmed their attendance beforehand and I’m pretty show we had more than that actually show, as it was an open-door event. I remember walking into the Merrill Collection the night of the launch and being gobsmacked at how many people were there. It was a packed house. One of my favourite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, and the classic line from that movie is “no man is a failure who has friends.” The book launch was my It’s a Wonderful Life moment. That night I felt like I had friends.

We sold fifty-eight copies of ATAAP that night, which made ATAAP the number one best-selling Trade Paperback for Baaka-Phoenix Books for the month of October 2017. It was a great start to the life of the book.

That same day my wife and I were invited to meet the Mayor of Whitby, Ontario. We had a great chat with Mayor Don Mitchell and he graciously purchased a signed copy of A Time and a Place.

Shortly after the launch, I was approached by a film/TV rights database called Rightscenter inquiring about the dramatic rights for ATAAP. I thought this sounded promising but apparently it’s actually just standard practice. Around the same time I was approached by someone about translating the book into Italian. These two events, along with the great launch and the Publishers Weekly review, made me think, holy cow, who knows what’s going to come of this book? But nothing came of either the film/TV rights or the Italian translation.

It was fun tracking ATAAP on Amazon.ca over the year, where it sat on Amazon’s bestseller list for Hot New Releases in Time Travel fiction for a while. I’ve conducted a few interviews about the book over the year, including one on CBC Radio Charlottetown (approved by the CBC ethics commissioner, a requirement because I work there), another for an online radio station in the states (Jessie’s Coffee Shop), and another just recently on Hunter’s Bay Radio in Muskoka (Storylines with Christina Cowley).

I spent one day in Chapters attempting to sell ATAAP (sold nine copies that day) and several days at various other events attempting to do the same (Bookapalooza, Ad Astra, etc). I’ve read from ATAAP at several events, including Words of the Season for the Writer’s Community of Durham Region, and twice at the Parliament Street branch of the Toronto Public Library. And I participated on a panel for Indie Author’s Day in Ajax.

I was roundly ignored by the organizers of Toronto’s Word of the Street, which stung a bit, especially after sending them (at their request) two copies of ATAAP, but apparently they’re run by a small team of volunteers, so maybe I just slipped through the cracks.

I had hoped that ATAAP might get shortlisted for an award or two (the Sunburst or the Aurora Award) but it didn’t even come close. My publisher had warned me that this would likely be the case but one must have one’s illusions.

Over time ATAAP continued to garner excellent reviews, mostly four and five stars, on Goodreads, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Chapters, Library Thing, Audible, and even one five star review on Amazon.co.uk. There is one two star review on LibraryThing and one three star review on Goodreads. Some of the reviews are by people I know and some are not. Without a doubt, ATAAP has received at least one or two extra stars from some of the people I know. For this reason, it’s hard to know where ATAAP actually sits critically. There is that positive Publishers Weekly review though, and several four and five star reviews from people I don’t know, so I think I can safely conclude that at least some people like the book.

Gradually the interviews, events and so on began to taper off. Sales, too, began to dwindle. To combat this, and at the behest of my publisher, I created an audiobook version of ATAAP, which was released a couple of weeks before the anniversary of its initial publication. As I type this, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon Audible Bestseller list (in the niche category of Science Fiction/Time Travel), fallen off that list, and climbed back up gain, where it currently sits at #2 on the Hot New Releases in Time Travel list.

That sounds impressive, but to tell you the truth I have no idea what it actually means. It could represent two hundred sales or two. The ways of Amazon and Audible are largely unfathomable. I won’t know until I get my Royalty statement from Five Rivers.

So, one year later I can report that although A Time and a Place has not made me rich or famous, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It has taken me to a few new places, made me a few new friends, and introduced me to a couple of new opportunities.

The thing about books, as someone told me recently, is that they have long lives.

A Time and a Place may have more to offer yet.

 

 

Further Thoughts on Audio Book Production

Cover Art by Jeff Minkevics
A Time and a Place

I thought I had finished the production of the audio book of A Time and a Place.

I had submitted the files to my publisher, who had forwarded them to Audible (ACX), only to have them rejected because they were less than 192 kbps. This didn’t make any sense to me as I was sure that I’d exported them from Audacity properly. When I checked the files out, though, I discovered that I’d actually accidentally exported a couple of files at 32 bit sample rate. It’s weird this only happened to a couple of files; why would the settings change for just a couple of files?

Anyway, I figured this was the problem, so I corrected those files and resubmitted them.

Audible still rejected the files.

Embarrassing.

So I went back and had another look. I thought I had the settings in Audible correct, but my mistake (well, one of my mistakes) was that I hadn’t actually checked the files themselves. This was really sloppy on my part. The reason I hadn’t checked the files themselves was because, well, I had checked the files, but I’d done so on a Mac, which doesn’t tell you the bit rate. It tells you a lot of other stuff, but not the bit rate, unless you jump through a few hoops, which I hadn’t done. I’d simply assumed that Audacity was doing what it said it was doing:

It says it’s exporting 220-280 kbps. So isn’t it? Nope!

Turns out I should have selected “Constant” Bit Rate Mode, which would have resulted in a guaranteed Bit Rate of 192 kbps.

Live and learn.

Because of this mistake, I had to re-export all my files at the correct bit rate of 192 kbps.

This meant finding the original sessions of each chapter. Doing so, I discovered another bit of sloppiness on my part: poor file management. I’d carefully saved each session using a specific naming convention, but I hadn’t paid much attention to where I saved the files, other than ensuring they were saved on a hard drive somewhere in, say, my house.

Well, at least I knew all the sessions were saved on a hard drive attached to my MacBook Pro. Fortunately, my searches usually managed to locate the required sessions. Unfortunately, they didn’t  always do so. I could not find the final sessions for about four chapters. The good news was that I was able to find and re-open at least the penultimate session for each chapter. This resulted in a bit more work than I would have liked. And I became paranoid that I wasn’t re-exporting the absolute final version of each chapter. Because of this paranoia, I decided I needed to re-listen to every second of every chapter to ensure that they were in fact the absolute final, pristine product.

This cut into the writing time of my second novel, which I usually worked on during my commute, and so was a bit of a drag, but it had to be done. Fortunately, I was able to download the files from Dropbox onto my Smartphone, which meant that I could listen just about anywhere I went. Unfortunately, this usually wound up being in rather noisy environments, which meant that I could confirm the proper pacing of the sound files, and that there were no missed edits, and what the chapters would sound like in the real world, but I couldn’t really tell if there were any little clicks or pops or mouth noise etc.

So I listened to all twenty-seven chapters this way, and during the course of this exercise discovered several chapters that weren’t quite up to snuff. In the case of some chapters, it was because I hadn’t been able to find and export the absolute final version, but in the case of other chapters it was because the absolute final versions themselves just weren’t quite up to snuff.

By “up to snuff” I mean mostly that the pacing was off. The way I had read and edited them had resulted in readings that were way too fast. My brain couldn’t keep up listening to them. They threatened to ruin the entire product. Even if listeners couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong, what was irritating about the product, I was pretty sure that it would still bother them. All of these chapters needed to be re-edited. There were a few other minor issues too that I took the opportunity to correct, mostly sloppy enunciation, and some minor issues with the levels.

If I hadn’t exported the files at the wrong bit rate to begin with, I probably wouldn’t have discovered these other issues until it was too late, so I was glad about that.

Looking back, the single biggest hurdles I encountered during the production of this audiobook was the fact that I performed it myself, and did the whole thing all alone. There was nobody to tell me I was reading too fast, and I was too close to the product to realize myself where I was going wrong. I didn’t actually even clue in that there was a problem until after I’d finished recording the entire novel and completed the initial edit of the first chapter. Listening back to that initial edit, I was horrified at the pace of my read. So I re-edited the entire chapter and it was STILL too fast. It wasn’t actually until a few weeks went by and I listened to the chapter again with completely fresh ears that I was able to tell what the proper pace should be. So I edited it AGAIN and finally got it in the ballpark (I hope!).

I made the same mistake with several other chapters, thinking as I was going along that I was getting the pacing right, but again I didn’t have sufficient distance to be able to tell for sure. It was several chapters before I acquired enough experience to know to insert far more space than I thought I needed. Doing so made it  far easier on subsequent passes to edit the material correctly, tightening it up a bit.

Had I been a seasoned performer, I would have been able to get the pacing right in the performance, which would have resulted in one heck of a lot less editing.

At least one chapter (Chapter Four) was so bad that I was forced to re-record the entire chapter. But by then I had a much better idea what I was doing, resulting in a performance  that was much closer to the mark, and that required only a light edit.

Bottom line: it’s mostly about the performance. If you get the performance right, post-production becomes infinitely easier.

I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t read and record their own novels. But I am saying that if you do, have a second set of ears present—preferably, somebody who knows what they’re doing—so that they can set you straight during the recording, which will result in a whole lot less post-production time.

If you can’t have someone else present, maybe just do one section or chapter at a time. This should reduce the learning curve, and maybe by the end of the book your performance which be much closer to what it needs to be.

Still, despite having created a whole lot extra work for myself on this audiobook production, I’m fairly happy with the final product. I did not release it into the wild until I was satisfied with it. I’m also really happy to have this one under my belt. With what I know now, if I ever have to do this again, it should (theoretically!) go one heck of a lot faster.

But then, I have always been an optimist.

A Time and a Place, published by Five Rivers Publishing, is now available on Audible.

The Audiobook

One day my publisher (Lorina Stephens of Five Rivers Publishing) suggested that I produce an audio book version of my debut novel, A Time and a Place.

This made a lot of sense. Audio books are a booming business these days, and it just makes sense to have your book available in as many formats as possible. Also, I’ve been an audio guy since the age of sixteen when I got my first job announce-operating at CJRW in Summerside, PEI, later making my living as an audio technician/recording engineer for CBC Radio for nineteen years.

Doing sound effects in Studio 212 back in my radio drama days at CBC Radio

For an entire ten of those nineteen years at CBC Radio I made radio plays and recorded and edited tons of short fiction re-purposed for the medium of radio. I remember recording a radio-friendly version of Brad Smith’s novel All Hat over the course of a week or two.

So you would think that I would know what is involved in such a recording. Unfortunately, all my experience did was give me a wildly over-inflated sense of my own abilities. Yes, I did (more or less) possess all the skills required to produce an audio book. But somehow I completely failed to appreciate just how much work was involved in doing it all myself, and how demanding some of that work was.

When Lorina suggested I do the audio book, I truly thought I would be able to knock it off in a couple of weeks. Because I could read, I could record, and I could edit. Thinking back, I was pretty sure we’d done All Hat in a week or two.

It’s laughable, really.

Because thinking back on it a little more carefully, I’m pretty sure that the version of All Hat we produced was an abridged version, and it took four of us to do it: a recording engineer, a producer, an actor, and somebody to adapt it.  Five people, if you include the casting director. And all I did was record it (I may have edited it, but I don’t really remember). I certainly didn’t read it.

Anyway, turning my novel into an audio book was a great excuse to gear up, so I went out and bought a mic, a mixer, and some other peripherals. I had a week of vacation time coming up and figured I could squeeze all the recording in then, and edit at my leisure afterwards, on evenings and weekends.

After one week of recording though, I only managed to record ten chapters. My wife attributed this to my propensity to get up late, linger over breakfast reading the Toronto Star, casually walk the dog, and then get started recording around 11am. All of this was true. Add to that trains going by, planes flying overhead, neighbours noisily draining pools, and mysterious noises with no obvious provenance interfering with the recording when I finally did get around to it, and you can see why the process took a bit longer than expected. Worst of all, though, was my inability to read more than half a sentence without making a mistake.

Turning a novel into an audio book was a much bigger deal than I’d realized.

In fact, what I originally thought would take me two or three weeks to accomplish wound up taking over two hundred hours spread out over eleven months.

Here are a few thoughts on the process while it’s reasonably fresh in my mind, in case anybody else out there is thinking of doing the same thing.

The Gear

To record my audio book, I settled on a Shure SM7B microphone. I chose this microphone because I had chosen it back in 2007 to be the main microphone for the radio show Q. I’d tested a lot of microphones and it had sounded the best with the host of that show, and it sounded pretty good on me (if I do say so myself). I would have preferred a Neumann U-87 but I couldn’t afford that (it’s about three grand). But the SM7B (at about $500 Canadian) is a fine microphone with an excellent pedigree. Michael Jackson famously used it to record his album Thriller. Its only limitation that I could see is that it’s a dynamic microphone and you need to give it a boost to get decent levels. But this is easily fixed by placing a Cloudlifter in the chain, providing an extra 25dB of gain.

My weapon of choice, the SM7B

An advantage of the SM7B is that it pretty much records what you point it at and rejects most everything else. This was really helpful recording in my basement. When I turned off the air conditioning,  made sure no other appliances in the house were running, and closed the door to the basement, the noise floor was almost non-existent, but there could still be some extraneous noise, so it was helpful to have a very directional microphone.

You do have to work the SM7B pretty closely to get a nice, plummy sound. The host I used to work with on Q worked it so closely that I wound up sticking two pop filters between him and the mic to avoid popping. In my case, I used the A7WS windscreen that comes with the mic out of the box plus one pop filter.  I still popped a bit, but I had ways of dealing with that, which I’ll come to later.

My fairly straight-forward home studio in my basement.

The rest of my setup was pretty simple. You can see it pictured here. Basically the SM7B plugged into the Cloudlifter, the Cloudlifter plugged into a Steinberg mixer, which in turn is connected to a MacBook Pro via USB. And a pair of decent Sennheiser headphones and a mic stand. I read the script (just a PDF version of the novel) right off the MacBook, flipping back and forth between Adobe Reader and my audio software as required.

I recorded almost everything in Cubase, which came with the Steinberg mixer, but I never really got to like it. I’ve used a lot of audio editing software in my time (D-Cart, Dalet, DaletPlus, Sonic Solutions, ProTools, Audacity) and Cubase just didn’t compare in terms of immediate usability.  Probably if I’d taken the time I would have gotten used to it, but when it came time to editing the audio book, I switched to Audacity, which can be downloaded free and is much simpler.

The Recording

Earlier I mentioned that I couldn’t seem to record half a sentence without making a mistake. This was true in the beginning, and it surprised me. One of the reasons that I thought recording an audio book wouldn’t take too long was because I figured I’d just sit down and read it and do some light editing and that would be it. I’ve had some experience acting and I’ve worked professionally as an announcer/operator at two radio stations (CJRW in Summerside and CFCY/Q-93 in Charlottetown). I thought I could read. Heck, I even thought I could perform. But I couldn’t. Not in the beginning.

The problem was I would read a little bit and then, convinced it sounded horrible, I’d stop and start again. I thought, well, not a big deal, I can edit it all later. But the more mistakes you make, the more editing is required, and eventually all that extra editing adds up to one big editing nightmare.

I got much better with practice and experience, but even at my best I couldn’t get through a chapter without a fair amount of mistakes.

Typically, I recorded each chapter twice. I would get to know the chapter on the first read, and read it better the second time around.  If I made a mistake, I’d stop, go back, and correct it right away. This made the editing process much easier later (making up somewhat for the amount of mistakes).

Because I didn’t have a producer, someone standing over my shoulder correcting me, I needed to be careful. If I thought I made a mistake during a passage, I always stopped and re-did it (sometimes the first time was perfectly fine, but better safe than sorry, although it did make for more work).  Whenever I hit a word I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce, I looked it up online. Most online dictionaries allow you to listen to the word you’re looking up.  Interestingly, I included words in A Time and a Place that, although I know perfectly well what they mean, I either didn’t know how to pronounce, or have been pronouncing incorrectly. They are correct in the audio book version, though. I made sure of that.

Sometimes I mangled words or sentences but didn’t discover this until the editing process, which was a pain in the butt, but far from insurmountable. One of the advantages of recording an audio book yourself is that afterwards the actor’s still hanging around if you need him or her.

A typical waveform, this one from Chapter 22 of A Time and a Place.

One of the fun parts of recording this novel myself has been doing the voices. I didn’t have unique voices for all of the characters, but some characters cried out for special treatment. One of the characters, Gordon Rainer, is supposed to speak with a British accent. He was by far the most difficult to get right. I’d once done a play for which I’d been trained to speak with a British accent, but I have no illusions about how accurate I’m able to do it (my British brother-in-law is only too happy to provide reality checks on that point).

I’d always thought of another character, Doctor Humphrey, as having a gruff voice, so I played him that way.  And so on.  I tried not to overdo it, as it could easily get silly, but I enjoyed the performance aspect of it all.

Post-Production

Like just about every other part of this project, the editing took a lot longer than I expected.

I edited one chapter at a time.  It took me on average three to four hours to edit the first pass of each chapter. My chapters average twenty pages. The shortest is seven pages, the longest thirty. Transformed into audio, my chapters run anywhere from eleven minutes to thirty minutes long, averaging about twenty minutes. (Unedited, the raw files for each chapter run anywhere between one hour to two hours long.)

As mentioned earlier, I did all my editing in the free version of Audacity, which worked just fine. It’s easy to learn and I found that I could edit quite quickly and effectively with it. It’s also got a nice little suite of tools for mastering, EQ and so on.

Before editing each chapter, I would do a little processing. A little noise reduction, a little limiting or amplification as required to ensure that I was peaking at -3dB with a maximum -60dB noise floor as required by Audible. I did this at the beginning because if doing any of that introduced any problems, I wanted to catch those problems as I was doing the edit. I didn’t want to complete an edit, then do processing, and have it accidentally introduce issues such as clicks or pops or digital distortion that I might have less chance of catching near the end of the process.

Every chapter required multiple passes to edit. The first edit was mainly to get all the right takes in the right order and clean it up as much as I could. To help speed things up, I created a special template in Audacity’s EQ plug-in to eliminate popped Ps as I encountered them (I found the default EQ template for this too aggressive in Audacity).

Sometimes I encountered mangled words or sentences for which no good takes existed, that I had not noticed during the recording process. These I re-recorded right on the spot. Sometimes it was a bit tricky getting these re-takes to match, but it got easier with practice. It was a matter of getting the inflection and level right. I would tweak the level in Audacity using the Amplify plug-in (always careful not to peak at higher than -3dB), and try to use as little of the re-take as necessary, often cutting halfway through a sentence, or a word, even.

After the initial edit, I would go through the chapter again to clean up weird, extraneous noises such as bits of mouth noise, the cat knocking into the mic stand, or other weird noises such as bumps occurring elsewhere in the house that I hadn’t noticed during recording.

I popped the odd P or two, so I created a specific EQ that I called Subtle Bass Cut to deal with that (and a few popped Bs too)

I took a lot of time to address issues with pacing. I tend to read fast. Left unedited, few would be able to keep up with my reading. I worked hard to address this in the edit. I know that some audio book listeners want their audio books read fast. In fact, they will listen to their audio books at enhanced speeds to get through them quicker.  I tailored my pacing for people who listen at normal speeds. If I ever record another one, I’ll try to get it right during the recording. A lot easier than having to fix pacing in the editing process.

Once reasonably certain that I’d addressed all issues in the edit, I would play the entire chapter from beginning to end to make sure that I hadn’t missed any edits, and to ensure that there were no other problems. Only when I felt that the edit was perfect would I consider it done, and share it with my publisher via Drop Box (who will subsequently submit it to Audible).  One of my mottos is “If it only exists once in the digital domain, it may as well not exist at all,” so I always sent a safety version to myself via Gmail.

I didn’t keep a really accurate record of how long this project took me, but I estimate each chapter took on average two hours to record, and six hours to edit, master, and double check. That’s 8 hours a chapter times 27 chapters, plus little bits like intros, acknowledgements, and so on. I figure the entire project took about 220 hours. That’s 27 eight hour days. The book itself is ten hours, sixteen minutes and fifty-five seconds long, all told. I took three entire weeks off work and devoted several evenings and weekends to this project. Probably much longer than it should have taken. I read in this quite informative blog post that “your narrator will put in six times more production hours than the final length of the book.” Yeah… took me a bit longer than that.

But I think it was worth every second.

For further thoughts on audio book production, check out this post.

A Time and a Place, published by Five Rivers Publishing, is now available on Audible.

Cover Art for A Time and a Place, by Jeff Minkevics
A Time and a Place

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