Talking Tuesday: Tools of the Trade

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
“And—every—single—one—of—them—is—right!”
— Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

In my last Talking Tuesday, I laid out my simple dictation plan:

  1. While driving down the road at an average speed of 60 m.p.h., or 1 mile per minute.
  2. Dictate science fiction at an average rate of 50 words per minute.
  3. Transcribe that dictation at a cost of 1.25 cents per word.
  4. Sell that fiction at a professional rate (i.e., 6 or more cents per word).

In this installment, I’ll discuss my process and my tools in more detail. But as per Kipling, these are my process and my tools. There are other authors who dictate their work, and their processes and tools may be different. What works for me may not work for them, or for you, and vice versa. In future installments, I’ll look at alternatives and why you might choose them.

But first, there are two questions you must answer before you can decide if dictation will even work for you…

What do you expect to get out of dictation?

This is the most important question, and it’s made up of multiple parts.

  • Do you expect perfect text? Can you deal with some level of imperfection? Or can you handle more imperfection, as long as you capture your thoughts so you can clean them up later?
  • Do you expect to work faster? How do you measure faster: more words per hour, or more pages per week?
  • Do you expect to make use of otherwise lost time?

In my case, the text doesn’t have to be perfect, but I expect it to be pretty close. No more than a clean-up edit to finish it up. And I do expect to work faster, not in words per hour maybe, but definitely in terms of pages per week. And the reason why is that last question: lost time. I have 10 hours per week I spend commuting, sometimes more. That’s 10 hours that I can’t spend writing – but I can spend dictating. If I can then convert that dictation to text with minimal additional time, I end up way ahead of where I would otherwise be.

Where and when do you dictate?

This is going to have a big impact on your dictation process. If you’re dictating at your computer, you have options you won’t have if you dictate behind the wheel like I do.

My process, my tools

So first, let me get the biggest question out of the way: No, I do not use Dragon Naturally Speaking, nor Siri, nor Microsoft’s voice recognition in Windows, nor any other transcription tool. I rely on manual transcription.

There are two reasons for this choice, the big reason and the bigger reason:

  • The big reason: many (but not all) of these tools transcribe in real time. You have to be at your computer. I’m not, I’m at the wheel. Yes, there is a more expensive version of Dragon that will let you dictate now and transcribe later; but…
  • The bigger reason: the automobile environment is just too noisy. It’s largely white noise: wind whipping by, the fan, etc. And then it’s punctuated by bumps, wiper noise, etc. All of these ruin the accuracy of transcription tools.

So I rely on manual transcription, but not my manual transcription. It takes me about three hours to transcribe one hour of text; and remember, I’m trying to save time.

So instead, I have found http://iDictate.com, a paid transcription service. There are others out there, but so far I’m pleased with iDictate. If you’re planning to sell your work, the price is pretty good: 1.25 cents per word. My plan is to sell at 6-10 cents per word, so that’s not a bad investment if it turns into a lot more words sold. Their web site is easy to use; and they have Android and iPhone apps to directly dictate and upload from your phone

The other half of the equation is my recording tool – which sadly is not an iDictate app. I use a Windows Phone, and they don’t support that. Of course, free or low-cost recorders are pretty easy to find – and almost universally useless for my purposes. Why? Because almost every one I’ve found requires you to type in a file name, either before or after recording, and I’m driving down the road when I record! I need hands-free recording, and most of these app don’t understand that. Typing a file name is a deal-breaker.

The one exception I’ve found is Rapid Recorder: it names the file with the date and time. It has other nice features, such as integration with OneDrive and DropBox; but it’s the automatic file naming that makes it indispensable. And it’s only 99 cents! Best 99 cents I’ve ever spent. In fact, if you divide that cost by the number of hours of use I’ve gotten, it’s fair less than a penny per hour.

So a typical dictation day goes like this…

  • In the morning before I leave for work, I get into my Jeep (the Aldrin Express). I open the audio file with yesterday’s dictation session, and I jump to the last five minutes so I can remember where I left off.
  • I start the Aldrin, and I start driving.
  • When yesterday’s audio finishes and I know where I’m going, I tap my earpiece and say “Open Rapid Recorder”.
  • When I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, I know that Rapid Recorder is listening, and I start talking.
  • As I drive, I dictate. Sometimes it’s in linear order, but sometimes I bounce around. Sometimes I record the same bit multiple times to see which way I like better.
  • When I get to work, I park the Aldrin. Then I take my phone out and tap the Stop button. Rapid Recorder automatically names and saves the file.
  • On the way home, I repeat the process.
  • When I get home, I upload the files from Rapid Recorder to DropBox.
  • When the DropBox files arrive on my laptop, I upload them to iDictate.
  • Whenever iDictate sends me transcription files, I save them to my working folder. Then I copy the contents into my main document, and I edit the results, making notes for the transcriptionists so they’ll do even better next time.

Pretty simple. Oh, except I forgot one thing…

  • iDictate periodically bills my credit card. TANSTAAFL. But the results are worth it!

I can’t keep this pace up every day, of course. For example, right now I’m planning some scenes set in Belize, and I don’t know enough about Belize yet. So I’m reading and watching videos at night. I want to get comfortable with this new research so that it fits in naturally as I dictate.

So often I get asked: “But how do you dictate, Martin? How does it work?” And there you have it, my answer for how it works.

For me. At this time. But you might find other ways that work better for you. There are nine and sixty ways… and in later installments, we’ll look at some of them.

Talking Tuesday: How to Make $2.38 per Mile

  1. While driving down the road at an average speed of 60 m.p.h., or 1 mile per minute.
  2. Dictate science fiction at an average rate of 50 words per minute.
  3. Transcribe that dictation at a cost of 1.25 cents per word.
  4. Sell that fiction at a professional rate (i.e., 6 or more cents per word).

Bingo! $2.375 per mile!

Of course, these are all averages. Some days, the weather and traffic conditions won’t let me average 60 m.p.h. (That might actually mean more minutes, more words, and more money per mile.) Some days I’m more talkative than others. 50 words per minute is about my minimum, and I often manage 100.

And of course, step 4 is the trickiest part: actually selling the words. If I can’t sell them, then I’m actually losing 63 cents per mile.

But selling is, in large part, a matter of craft, practice, and persistence. And belief: if I didn’t believe it were possible, I never would’ve made it this far in the business. Not that I’m claiming any sort of expertise. I’m very much still a new writer. But I’m a new writer with a lot of sales and a couple of awards; and almost all of those stories were dictated.

Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch (among others) talk of the importance of writing from your story brain, not your analytical brain. Your story brain has been absorbing stories – listening, watching, reading, playing – for decades. It knows what makes a decent story, if you can just get out of its way and let it work. I know this sounds like a load of pop psychology; but when I started listening to them, I started selling stories. And I haven’t stopped.

But “getting out of your brain’s way” is different for each of us. It means finding a place and building a habit where storytelling comes natural to you. For some, it’s their office, with their favorite music, and no distractions. For others, it’s their favorite coffee shop, with their favorite beverage and no distractions. For Kevin J. Anderson (who has dictated his work for years now, maybe decades), it’s his favorite hiking trails, with the Great Outdoors and no distractions. (You notice a theme here?)

For me, it’s my Jeep:

Not exactly no distractions, but minimal. Dictating is about the same as talking to a passenger. When traffic or weather is bad, I ignore the microphone. When conditions are favorable, I talk. At 50-100 words per minute.

It’s about habit. Once I’m in the habit (it’s easy to fall out), every day is the same. I listen to the last five minutes of yesterday’s recording, to remind myself where I was. Then I start my Jeep, start driving, and start talking. On a good day, I dictate 50 minutes, and wrap up as I pull into the parking lot at work. Then when I leave work, I repeat. So on a very good day, that’s 100 minutes at 100 words per minute. 10,000 words. Two weeks to a first draft of a novel.

Do I maintain that pace all the time? Heck, no! Weather and traffic and errands and moods all interfere. But if I stick with it, I can do at least half that. I’m pretty happy with it. And I’m ecstatic about the really good weeks.

In future installments of Talking Tuesday, I’ll discuss my process, as well as other approaches you might take.