Q&A on creating an app

An abridged version of this interview appeared in the July-August issue of Marian Calabro's ezine, Freewrite. Marian is president of CorporateHistory.net; she also leads creative writing workshops in northern New Jersey. Contact her here.

MC: Dianne Durante is a freelance writer on art and history whose website www.ForgottenDelights.com focuses on representational art. I interviewed her for Freewrite back in 2012 about creating Kindle books. Lately she’s tackled yet another high-tech gig: a mobile app version of her book Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. (The video preview of the app, on YouTube, is here.) Writing comes in all forms these days, so I think this inside look is quite interesting. Dianne narrates the app, and her comments on voice clarity also hold lessons for all of us who read our work at open mikes.

MC: What Is a mobile app?

DD: How odd to think that 2 years ago, I had to look that up! A mobile app is a software application for your phone or tablet that’s designed to do a very specific task – to make your phone behave like a pedometer, a flashlight, a book, or in this case, a tour guide.

MC: Can you describe this project in 100 words or less?

DD: Monuments of Manhattan is a videoguide app for phones and tablets: I like to think of it as state-of-Art technology. In a series of 4-minute videos, we introduce 54 of the most beautiful and/or intriguing sculptures that stand outdoors in Manhattan. The visuals include many views of the sculpture plus archival images, maps, and animations. Orchestral music composed just for this app sets the mood. GPS tells you which sculptures are nearby. HopStop tells you how to reach them. We conceived the app for tourists visiting the sculptures, but it’s self-contained: you can be entertained and inspired anywhere, anytime.

MC: Beautiful, Dianne - You did it in 99 words. How did you get involved in creating this app?

DD: An acquaintance who had heard my art history lectures contacted me via Facebook. He said he was starting a company, Guides Who Know (GWK), to create top-notch mobile videoguides for major cities worldwide. Since I’m based in New York, he asked if I could suggest a topic for it. My book Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide (New York University Press, 2007) seemed like a perfect fit. For marketing reasons, we eventually shortened the app’s name to “Monuments of Manhattan.”

MC: Why did you choose to take on this project?

DD: GWK offered me an attractive sum for writing on history and art history, which are my passions. Also, even at a first glance, a videoguide seemed to have a great potential for presenting history and art. NYU Press wanted Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan to sell for under $20, so they limited me to one photo of each sculpture. For 3-D artwork, that’s skimpy. In the app, adding dozens of photos, maps, and animations has little effect on the cost, and increases the appeal enormously. Really, the question is how could I resist, rather than why I chose to sign on for the project.

MC: How many words is a typical narration?

DD: The text for a 3-minute video segment might run 500 words, versus 1,000 to 1,500 words for each essay in the book. I had to cut the written text mercilessly. But as all writers know, being forced to cut is a very useful exercise.

MC: If you had been writing from scratch, do you think the narrations would be different?

DD: Definitely. Monuments of Manhattan is a great combination of stories, images, and music – there’s nothing else like it - but it was conceived as an adaptation of a printed book. For the second app, I knew from the start that I wanted to just tell stories: strong opening for every episode, strong thread to pull the listener along, strong close. Equally important, I knew that if I had no clue how to illustrate a sentence, then I had to rewrite it.

MC: You’re writing pieces that will be heard, rather than seen in print. Do you find that affects what you say?

DD: I’m learning that as I go along. Did I write a sentence that’s of daunting length or insane complexity? I can’t expect a listener to hit the Back button again and again, the way he might jump back a couple lines in a printed version. Did I write a series of sentences with the same structure? Boring. Is a passage difficult to pronounce? “Bricks shouldn’t dampen noise” – try reading that aloud.

MC: Yes, yes, yes! As an occasional speechwriter, I heartily agree: “Write for the ear, not the eye.” You yourself are narrating the app, yes? Had you done professional recording before?

DD: Being the narrator gave me extra incentive to read the text aloud and edit out problems before I entered the studio. I’ve lectured with a microphone, but that was for the sake of being heard rather than being recorded. Also, in a lecture, I can count on facial expressions and gestures to help me get my meaning across. For this project, I had to learn - mostly on the fly – techniques that make my speaking voice better: breath control, clear (but not pedantic) diction, variation in tone and pitch, variation in emotional tone, even the right amount to pause before a retake. Fortunately, I had a couple great teachers. Richard Gleaves, who puts the audio and images together (he also wrote original music for nearly every episode) has experience as an actor and professional singer. He comes to the studio occasionally and keeps my voice on track and improving. My daughter, who’s studying to be an opera singer, has given me a lot of help with breath control. I’m pleased to report that I can now read aloud in the car for an hour and not sound like a disgruntled parakeet.

MC: I sincerely wish more poets at open mikes would follow those techniques. You don’t need to be an actor, but mumbling is rarely effective. Who did the image research for the app?

DD: I did, because if I can’t find the images I have in mind, I need to rewrite. Finding historical images has been more fun than I’d ever imagined – and more challenging. I spend a lot of time prodding my brain for historical connections so I can find the pics I want. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt got his start ca. 1810 helping operate a sailboat as a ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan. Since he wasn’t famous, no one sketched a picture of his ferry. I eventually found a sailboat similar to what his must have looked like by following links in Wikipedia to the Atlantic theater of the War of 1812.

MC: Did you acquire any other new skills?

DD: Dreamweaver. Aaarrgh. Each sculpture in the app has an associated web page with images, additional information, and cross references. Writing the “More” pages wasn’t difficult, but getting them into a format that worked on mobile devices was a major headache. According to Adam Reed, our wiz of a tech guy (he’s a professor of Information Systems at Cal State LA, and also the owner of Guides Who Know), Dreamweaver’s mobile formatting is a malignant source of corruption and decay. He should know. He’s the one who finally made the pages work.

MC: What’s the business model?

DD: Monuments of Manhattan will be sold on Amazon’s Android App Store for $11.11. That’s higher than most apps, but with 3 hours of video, it’s far more substantial than most apps. The preview for Android is now available at here. After the full Android version is finished, Adam will work on an iPhone version, and then a version that can be watched on a laptop. I hope Guides Who Know makes an outrageous amount of money. I want to keep writing videoguide apps – it’s been a fun and challenging experience.