Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Kitted Out - Author Tools That Rock: Inkscape

Often times, Indie authors find themselves doing absolutely everything when it comes to building their book(s).  Especially at first.  It's a learn-as-you-go process, and it takes a lot of time and effort.  Sometimes, the results are less than desirable.  Let's face it, some of this stuff is foreign territory, and just because you're an excellent writer, it doesn't mean you can build a book cover to save your life.  That's why having the right mix of tools is soooooo important.  Today, I'm taking a quick look at Inkscape, a free, open source vector graphics program that ROCKS.

So why do you want Inkscape?

You want a great cover, right?  Sure, we've all heard that "Don't judge a book by it's cover" thing, but seriously, that doesn't happen.  When we look at the cover of a book, we expect it to tell us something about the flavor of the book.  It needs to be professional, and stunning.  An awesome cover tells your reader "This book rocks". 
My book cover: made using Inkscape

Aside from book covers, there is the author blog or website.  These things require all kinds of visual elements.  Banners, and buttons, and cute little ratings icons.  If you run a website, Inkscape can help you make cool stuff for it.  No geekdom required.  (Well, maybe a little.)

The kind of cool stuff you can whip up in a flash

But why Inkscape?  Aren't there a ton of free graphics programs out there?  Don't you need professional software to get good results?

I don't claim to be a graphic design expert.  I'm an author, like you.  However, I do have a background in art, and I have used my fair share of graphic design software.  I have not been very impressed with most of the free stuff.  You may have heard about the awesome powers of the Adobe suite of products, but what starving author has the bucks to shell out for that?  Are you really going to invest several hundred dollars in a program that you may or may not be able to build a decent book cover with?  Logical answer: hell no.  The alternative is Inkscape, which is absolutely free, and gives Adobe a pretty good run for their money.  (Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Inkscape.  I'm just someone who uses and loves it.  Also, not bashing Adobe.  It's pretty awesome, if you have the money to invest in it.)

So let's rock this tool!

OK, so step one is obviously to click on the link to Inkscape, download their free program, and install it.

Now what?

I'm going to be honest with you.  It's going to take some time and effort to learn to use this program.  Will it pay off in the end?  Oh yeah.

It helps if you have some general experience using graphic design programs.  If not, you're going to take a little longer.  When I first downloaded Inkscape, I ran through this Coffee Cup Tutorial.  It took me probably two and a half hours to get it, partly because this isn't the most beginner-friendly of tutorials.  I had to hunt around a bit to figure out where things were.  But at the end I had a beautiful, convincing little cup of steaming java, and a pretty good idea of some of the capabilities of the program.  If you try this tutorial, and it seems too difficult, try going to Youtube.  There are 87,400 Inkscape tutorial videos on Youtube.  Whenever I want to do something and I don't know how, this is where I go.  A lot of times I don't immediately find what I'm looking for, but I learn something new that I can use.  You might even just watch some of these vids and decide to try out their techniques.

So, at this point, you might be screaming at me, something like "I'm not an artist!" or "Graphics design program??? Really???"  Yeah.  Really.  So you're not an artist.  That's OK.  Can you take a picture?  Can you trace something?  Can you fiddle with effects?  I bet you can.  And some of the best covers are simple combinations of text, beautifully rendered.  Inkscape does a LOT of the artwork for you.  That's the whole point.

Some of you who are  artists, but who have tried the low-budget programs before might be thinking that it is like... impossible to draw something decent with a computer mouse.  We've all used Paint, right?  Well, it doesn't really work that way, so don't worry.  If you want to get an idea of the tool you can use to draw a shape or select something specific, check out this tutorial on cutting out an image from a photo.  Getting the lines where you want them is easier than you think, because you can basically move parts of them around once they're on the page.

Need to know list:

  • Selecting objects.  Play around with the Selection Tool.
  • Using the Nodes Tool.  It's the second one down on the sidebar.  After you draw something, select it and click on this tool.  All kinds of dots will pop up on your drawing.  That's how you move the lines around and fix mistakes.  So if you mess up what you're drawing halfway through, it's not a big deal.
  • How to crop- Is there really no "crop" feature?  This is one of the weirdest things about the program.  Instead, you make a shape, put it on top of the image, select both of them by using SHIFT + click, and then go to Object> Clip>Set.  The shape on top will disappear, leaving the object underneath trimmed to the dimensions of the shape that was on top.  This takes a little getting used to, but once you've got the process down, easy-peasy.
  • The Object>Fill and Stroke box.  This is where you change colors, outlines(stroke), and select fill or gradient.  There are a couple of different gradient functions, so you can do a lot of cool stuff with that, especially when you start combining it with filters.
  • Text - Yeah, you can use different fonts.  You always want to be careful that you use a free or common domain font for book covers because you can run into font copyright issues, believe it or not!  If you're stuck, check out FontSquirrel to download some free fonts.  Just make sure you check the "license" tab under each font and be sure that it is indeed, free for commercial use.  Not all of them are.  Some have stipulations about crediting the artist, etc.  Anyway, find a font, make your text, select it.  Then go to Path>Object to Path.  This makes your letters into pictures.  That means you can do cool stuff to them to change them.  The possibilities are now endless, but some suggestions are:
    • moving letters closer together to join them
    • putting text on a path via Text>Put on Path (think text in a circle, or a wave, or whatever)
    • adding colors and gradients
    • filters!!!  Oh, the filters in this program!
      An example of text in which I moved the letters together, joined them as one object, then superimposed that over a photo of some gadgets and cropped the image.  I added a background underneath, some shadow, and voila.  I didn't end up using this because it didn't look good with my website theme.  Darnit!

    OMG, I'm an alien!
    Feeling a little film noir?
  •  The Filters menu.  Make something.  Anything.  A box, whatever.  Then select it, go to Filter> and take your pick.  I can spend hours playing with this.  It does cool stuff.  Trust me.  Note: Sometimes a filter doesn't seem to do anything.  I have realized over time that it depends on your object.  Some things, like text objects, react very differently than say, photos.  And even within photos, one photo might react very differently than another photo.  I'm not sure why this is, but like I said, I'm not a professional designer.  Filters change when you use them in combination with each other, and also have different effects depending on what order you apply them in.  So you want to make something look like stained glass, or change a photo into a line drawing.  Have at it.  The fun never ends.  Think of it as a changing room for graphics.

  • CTRL +Z = your friend.  This is the keyboard shortcut for "undo".  How many times do I use this each time I use Inkscape?  Hundreds?  It comes in really handy when you are trying on different filters.
  • CTRL +G:  Use this combo to group things.  So... when you put together some different things to make one thing, and then you want it all to be one thing... select everything using SHIFT+click, and then hit CTRL+G.  It all turns into one thing.  If you want to ungroup things, use SHIFT+CTRL +U.   (Or you can go through the menus.)
  • Last one (promise).  File>Export Bitmap.  Because, unfortunately, svg (scalable vector graphics) files are usually not accepted where authors want to go.  So after you save the svg (which is your working file with all its many bits and pieces), you export the bitmap.  A little box will pop up.  Hit "Browse" to select where you want the file to be saved, and note that the end of the list of files is the auto-generated name Inkscape will give your bitmap, unless you change it right there.  (You can just delete this last bit and name your file there.)  So then Inkscape will give you a little thinking bar and seem to have done nothing, but when you go into your folder, there is your bitmap.  This is much more usable for the web, and is accepted in a lot more places, kind of like a Discover card.  


Just to finish it all off, there is one more thing that comes in super-handy, and that is the free-to-download photo software program Gimp.  This program has it's own filters and cool stuff, but honestly I mostly use it for file conversion.  So, if you need that Inkscape image to be a jpeg, open the image in Gimp, go to File> Export.  A big box will pop up.  Down in the lower left, it says "Select file type (by extension)".  Click on the little '+'.  Select jpeg (or whatever file type you want), give the file a name at the top.  Check right below the name to make sure Gimp is saving it in the location you want....  And hit "Export".  There you go.  It's a jpeg.  Or whatever.  I find that between Inkscape and Gimp, I have been able to get every file type I need.

Four score and seven years ago our forefathers started this blog post... 

Yeah, I know.  It's a lot.  And as you can see, you're going to have to play with it for a while.  But you won't be sorry.  Aside from all the author/blogger stuff, you'll probably be making collages where you cut and paste your granny onto the Starship Enterprise.  So go do those downloads, and start having fun!  Rock on!

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