Here Be Dragons, Dictating

October is National Disability Awareness Month, so I’m a little early with this article. But I wanted to share a bit about how I was able to use an assistive technology to fix a decade-old plot problem.

A little known bit of trivia: the disabled community is the one minority most affected by technology. We’ve made huge strides in assistive technology. But what we don’t realize is how that assistive technology helps each of us. Fully one-sixth of our population has a “qualifying disability” under Federal Law. As I type this, I use glasses, which is a low-tech assistive technology.

In my three-year plan (2012–2014), I wanted to finish four novels of the Postal Marine Series. Bellicose and Scintilla are published, Luctation is ready for second draft. I only lack Imbroglio, which is the novel that started it all. Over the past month, I’ve picked through the debris of the plot and tried to make it work. The problem is that Imbroglio had a huge plot hole in Act 3 that I could not get beyond. I needed help getting past the hole.

Enter the Dragon…Dictate.

Dragon Dictate is the Mac speech-to-text (STT) offering by Nuance. Speech-to-Text technology is now a major offering in moble technology. It’s a feature of hands-free capabilities, which we use to drive more safely (since cell-phone driving is as distracted/incapacitating as alcohol). We think of it as enabling technology, forgetting that Dragon was originally developed to help those with disabilities. There are a lot of technologies whose original market was the disabled community, but found a stronger secondary community.

I bought Dragon Dictate more as a toy, thinking perhaps I could use it in novel writing. Since I use LaTeX, that turned out to be a little more difficult than I thought. I was not terribly pleased with the accuracy, either. I’m an ambivert, which means I’m an introvert. But sometimes I need to think my thoughts out loud to somebody else.

When Dragon Dictate let me do, is think aloud. It let me talk my way through the plot of the story. By doing that, I was able to talk my way through the plot hole. In the end, I was able to come up with a viable story that fixed the problem, tied in with the rest of the series, and is still engaging. More of who Bophendze is came out as a result.

One of things I noticed, is how the accuracy improved. Part of it was my use of a better microphone. I start off with a gamer’s headset. Eventually, I went to Nuance’s website, and found an inexpensive headset that was well rated by Nuance to work with Dragon.

With a hardware problem resolved, then became a matter of dealing with the user. I became more comfortable using the commands. This helped me to fix the errors when the default choice by Dragon wasn’t the best one. I also had to do with the fact that a lot of my character names are spelled poorly and intentionally hard to pronounce. For example a Bophendze was either spelled “boffins” or “puffins.” so I had removed them from the dictionary so that Dragon would stop using the wrong word. In some cases such as Litovio, I had to add the word to the dictionary and teach it how to say it. I haven’t yet figured out how to do latex commands, so I may still use it for part of my drafting but not for the formatting. The other part of it is to just learned to speak normally and let the tool learn how to understand your voice. Most people try to find a way to speak differently so that the tool can understand them, which actually makes it harder to use it properly.

I last tried Dragon in the late 1990s. The accuracy is light years ahead of what was then. I’m very pleased with how it works. I’m even using it today to dictate this blog post.

A Tool for Writers?

So the question is, whether Dragon is a tool for writers. Could you use it for NaNoWriMo? I think the answer is it depends but probably. For example, in writing this post I use the word “NaNoWriMo.” It originally thought it stood for “nano rhino.” But I was able to teach it in one pass to spell it correctly. You may not build do all the formatting, but if you try to get your thoughts on paper it’s a good way to go. At least it’s a way to start.

One of the things that bothers me as a writer, is whether or not the language flows. If your narrating or speaking your book, it’ll be a lot harder to screw that up then if you’re typing.

Another possible use of this is if you can find some way to record your voice while you’re writing. I don’t think this works necessarily as well, because there’s a lot of pauses. You speak your punctuation, and you don’t want that in your audiobook. Perhaps if you dictated without using punctuation, and then added in later, it would work. Why would you want to record your book? Well one is so that you can have an audiobook, which also helps those with visual disabilities or who need to focus on their driving instead of reading.

I really like the thought of the Amazon creative exchange (ACX). The problem is, they expect high-quality voices. Otherwise, I would suggest perhaps looking at another nuance tool: Loquendo. This is a text-to-speech synthesizer. If you could use Loquendo to narrate your books, then it might be actually easier to get your book into the hands of those with disabilities. Perhaps, if you did something like this you can make it available on your website or through a non-Amazon venue. But you’d have to make sure that someone first bought a copy of your book. But that’s a problem for another post.