Saturday, September 24, 2011

DAZ for Cover Art

In my never-ending quest to write about interesting tools available to the self-published author, I'd like to spend a little time talking 3d rendering software.

Specifically, I'd like to talk about DAZ3D.  DAZ is 3D rendering software that gives people like me (who can barely draw competent stick figures) the ability to make art like this. 

Wood Elves by Maraich
Sort of.  See, here's the thing, Daz has what we shall nicely call "a steep learning curve."  Or maybe, I should say art in general has a steep learning curve.  Though both of these ideas go hand in hand.  Daz is equipped to allow you to make any little change you need to for successful art, so it's complicated software.

The premise is deeply seductive.  You see images like the one to the left, and they're beautiful.  You watch the intro video and see how Daz works. It's 3d rendering software with props.  It's like the ultimate dress up game.  You buy the dolls (characters) you like, and the clothing you want them in, and the props around them, and then arrange them however you like.  Almost everything is practically infinitely customizable.  You can take their base objects and make your characters, places, and scenes come to life.

It's brilliant.  If you're anything like me, you can barely produce legible handwriting, let alone draw anything.  But with Daz, all you need is the ability to move sliders left and right.  I can do that!  You can do that!  And if you're like me, upon seeing what was possible, and looking at your cover art, which isn't terrible, but you'd like to spiff it up, your credit card leapt out of your wallet and began entering the numbers all by itself.  (The basic software is free, the characters, props, clothing, etc, all costs money.)

So, I bought characters, I bought clothing, I messed around with sliders, and produced...

Graveyard 1 by Keryl Raist
Well, it's not precisely Revenge of the Sims, but it's not good either.  And I'm not alone in doing this.  So have a lot of other self published authors.  Complaints about atrocious CGI (computer generated image) cover art isn't precisely rare in our field. 

See, there are things you learn while you learn to draw that a lot of us who aren't artists don't know much about. Shadows for example. The software handles the shadows, but you fine tune them.  So for example, the shadows on the clothing look fine, but Sarah's (the girl character's name) hair looks off.  Likewise something weird is happening with the shadows on the ground.

If you can actually draw you probably know something about posture, poses, and facial expressions.  I've had problems with the shoulders.  Chris' (the guy character) shoulders are too stiff.  He's supposed to be relaxed and comforting.  Sarah's supposed to look like she's about to spring up and attack something that's scaring her.

As my husband said, it looks stiff and cartoonish.

But this is all fixable.  (Hence the steep learning curve comment.)    After many hours online reading more about how 3d renders work, and more hours spent adjusting sliders, I got to this.

Graveyard 2 by Keryl Raist
Better.  The ground still has some odd shadowing, but the background lighting now clearly says, "Sunset."  Chris looks a bit less stiff, but I've got the camera so you can't really see his face anymore.  His clothing looks better, but still isn't perfect.  Sarah looks like she's about to burst into tears, and that's just not right.  She's supposed to be scared, not sad.  Amazing what a 15% change in the curve of the lips will do.  Her hair no longer has those weird lines, but the reflection is a bit too sharp.

The big issue right now is posture.  Sarah's shoulders are doing a better job of conveying 'scared' but her arms are wrong, and in real life, the knife would fall to the ground if she was holding it that loosely.

Real artists use life studies.  There's a reason for this.  It wasn't until I actually held a knife that I realized how tight the fist needed to be or that the thumb was way off.  Meanwhile, if you're so scared you're about to attack, that sort of bent arm/fist just isn't happening.  On top of that (though you can't see it in the picture) I had the weight on her legs wrong, which adds to her looking 'off.'  I'm taking a picture of my husband holding a staff soon, because Chris' grip looks better from shot one to two, but I have a feeling the arm is off.

Graveyard 3 by Keryl Raist
And so the changes continue. Chris' shirt looks better, but the lighting makes it look a bit shiny.  Sarah's hair still isn't quite there.  Her facial expression is better, but not quite right yet either. The hand holding the knife is better, so is the arm with the fist, but the actual fisted hand still needs a little adjustment on the bend.  I'll probably end up messing with Chris' arm holding the staff a bit more, too.

Then I'll probably re-light the whole thing three or four more times to just see how different combinations work.

So, do I recommend DAZ?  Yes.  Doing this is a whole lot of fun.  But it's not easy.  And it's not quick.  When it comes down to it, we see so many thousands of tiny details that we never really notice, until we run into an image where they don't look right.  Then we still don't notice them, but we do realize the image isn't right.

I'm not ready to start publishing my images as cover art yet.  But I'm pretty sure one of these days I'll get it down.  I will learn to really see the details.  In the meantime, I look at the images others have created with Daz and feel hopeful that one of these days I too will produce something worth putting on the cover of my book.  One of these days, I'll get to the point where I can do things like this:

Spirit Quest DS Version by Maraich

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Indie Short Story Review: Celebrity Space

What to say about Alain Gomez' Celebrity Space?  It's short.  I liked it.  It's creepy.  I wanted more.

That about sums it up in as few words as possible, but you aren't reading this for the teeny-tiny book review.  So, lets see about adding some meat to those descriptions.

It is short.  At about 3000 words, it's lunch or coffee break reading, depending on how fast you read.

There is an issue the short story author has that a novelist doesn't, and that's the need to pack a lot of punch into very few words.  Celebrity Space is about as long as most novel authors spend on describing the base location and the first meeting of the main character.  And in that space it has to introduce six characters, set up a plot arc, and build a climax.

And it's okay at all of those things.  Though I think they could have been done significantly better with about twice as many words (and still would have been a very short story.)  Or done just as well with the same number of words if Gomez had spent less time on the extraneous characters.

Mostly I would have liked to have seen more focus on the creep factor, on the visceral reaction of the main character, Dan, to the first hint that something unsavory is going to happen, Dr. Fleischer, an experimental geneticist with a reputation for unethical work.

Also, on the short theme, there is this: Celebrity Space doesn't feel finished.  It ends at a logical point, and a bit of a cliffhanger at that.  Now, in a novel, you can do that and leave the reader feeling like they read a whole story, and now it's time to move onto a new story.  With as short as CS is, you don't get the feeling that you've read a whole story.  It feels like you've read the first chapter of a larger story.  Since CS is now out as part of a collection of short stories, my guess is that it really is just the first chapter in a longer story.

On the "I liked it" theme: it's a solid little set up for a larger story.  There's enough going on to get you interested.  It's not terribly deep or meaningful, but it's quick and entertaining, sort of the literary equivalent of a potato chip.  Tasty, but you want more than one.

As for creepy, the write up doesn't really do the story justice.  I'd say it's much closer to the thriller end of the sci-fi spectrum than the adventure side, and from the write up it's hard to tell that.  Even more foreshadowing would have been nice, but given the length, it's a solid effort.

There are three other stories in the series.  I haven't read them, yet.  (My to be reviewed list is longer than my arm, so I'm trying to get through more of it fast.)  So, it does look like Gomez has taken care of that issue.  Right now Celebrity Space is free on Amazon, so if you're interested in a crunchy little bit of story goodness, go give it a shot.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Eternal Messiah: Jesus of K'Turia

I'd like to start this review with two related thoughts.  First off, it takes a lot of guts to write about Jesus.  Almost everyone, and all Christians, has an ideal of Jesus, a set of mindsets and actions, and any deviation by the author is likely to annoy some readers. 

Secondly, though I have a degree in Religious Studies with a focus in Christian History and Theology, I'm not actually a Christian. 

Which I guess is my way of saying, I'm well versed in the ideas this story deals with, but I have no dog in the fight.

So, what is this story about?  The title would seem to indicate a hybrid of the Gospels and Star Trek.  And I'll admit that was what I was expecting to read as I got into the book.  So, I was pleasantly surprised to find an elegant and gentle treatment of the transformative power of faith. 

The theology is clean and simple.  Anyone who possesses a faith and works mindset should be pleased.  Anyone who is a fan of Paul's criticisms of the Law will probably enjoy this as well.  If you too believe the Law is old and dead, and the heart of the Christian message is drop everything, love your fellows, and follow Jesus, then you'll probably like this book, and be sold on it's main premise: that that message can immediately change, heal a man.

But I'm not sold on that message, so I would have liked to seen a bit more emotional depth of transformation.  The main characters find Jesus, literally, and are changed.  They see Him in action, feel the healing balm of His presence, and in less than two days, are ready to completely change their lives.  Now, perhaps that's the point, interaction with the real Jesus is so powerful, it immediately changes you.  But it didn't feel real to me.

There is a phenomena with hard core Star Trek fans.  If you ask them what happened in any given episode, they can tell you not only what happened on the screen, but they also fill in extra bits of story that weren't really there.  Parts that are emotionally meaningful to them are amplified, more detail added, occasionally entire extra scenes or bits of dialog take place.  The result is a much rounder, more fulfilling story than the actual TV show on the screen.

I have a feeling actual Christians will have a similar response to The Eternal Messiah.  People who already believe the message, who already have felt the power of Jesus in their own lives will likely have no problem connecting the dots of this story and adding in the extra bits of depth necessary to make it great.  People like me, on the outside looking in, will likely find the transformation a bit shallow.

Which is not to say it's badly written.  It's a solid B effort.  But it's not the sort of change where you slide effortlessly into the characters and accept what is going on.  This isn't Michael Corleone joining the dark side. 

I would have liked to have seen a more defined climax to the story.  I know when the plot is character change that a major, well-defined climax is problematic, but this story ended almost tentatively.  Yes, it wraps at a logical point, but it feels like the first book in a series.  

All in all,  I liked The Eternal Messiah.  I enjoyed reading it, and wanted to know what came next.  There are shades of Dune as well as Star Trek in this story, and I appreciate a bit of sci-fi in my theology. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Indie Book Review: McCarty Griffin

In thinking about this review, I've got the music from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in my head.  Before anyone thinks I'm calling any of these books bad or ugly, let me say what I mean.

The Good:  The Tribe is a sweet story about a group of feral cats and the humans who move onto their farm. 

The Bad: Monster Story is a "Good Lord! By all that's good and holy, DON'T GO INTO THE WOODS!" sort of tale.

The Ugly: Half Inch is a story of a battered woman planning to and murdering her ex-husband.

So, it's on the level of choice of topics is where these terms fit.

The Tribe brings us into the minds of a collection of feral cats left to their own devices on a farm, and their adventures with the humans who decide to move there.  It's cute.  It's sweet.  It's begging to be made into a live action movie for the 5-10 year old crowd.

I think The Tribe is technically a book for adults, (none of the characters are children) but I'd highly suggest it for reading with your kids.  Especially if they're old enough to be begging for pets.  This would be a great start to conversations about what it means to take care of an animal, about how they aren't just furry toys, and how to respect the small, fuzzy lives around us. 

I'll have to admit that I didn't finish Monster Story, but not because it was low quality.  For personal reasons I've been in a place where horror just isn't settling well with me.   The set up was strong.  The creepy factor was ramping up.  Horribly dead people were being found, well, pieces of them, and I hit the point where Monster Story was just too much.

I'm not usually a wuss when it comes to horror, so I'll probably take a stab at it again later.  But for the third of it I read, I was impressed, so impressed I didn't want to know what happened next.

And then comes Half-Inch, which was one of the most wonderfully ugly stories I've read in a long time.

I've always felt the true horror of Silence of the Lambs comes from the fact that Hannibal Lecter seems so reasonable.  You read the books, hear him speak, and suddenly you're thinking murder as art doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

Pammy (Half-Inch's main character) might not have the same motivations as Lecter, but as you steep in the story the reasonableness of her actions grows and grows.  Toward the end you're sitting there, nodding along, more or less thinking, 'Yep, he had it coming.' and that's when you pull back and realize exactly how ugly this story is.

All in all, I'm quite impressed by the range McCarty Griffin was able to pull off.  Besides basic setting, these three stories have very little in common, yet they are all very believable.  She understands the mechanisms of thriller, horror, and non-genre fiction.  Stephen King is the only other author I can think of who's managed to pull off all three convincingly, and he's not bad company for an author to keep.