Into the (relatively) unknown by Dennis Hamley

It's lovely now and again to have a completely new experience. At my age, such occasions are fewer and fewer and when they do arrive there's less of the 'this could change my whole life' feeling and more  the 'everyone else was doing this years ago. Why am I always catching up?' resignation.

I'd often heard of speech-to-text programs. I remember, several years ago, Jan Needle singing their praises on this blogspot and how they had significantly changed his writing life. I read it with some awe but, IT trainwreck that I am, thought, 'that's not for the likes of me.' Yet it was closer and easier than I thought.

Back in 2012 I bought my first laptop, mainly for when we went to New Zealand. It was a smart HP Pavilion and it was ideal for its immediate purpose because it was preloaded with Word Office. So I was set up for life when  travelling. Or so I thought.  I got through some work while away, assessing entries to the annual writing  competition for the Frankfurt International School, one of the odd tasks that can sometimes come the writer's way, and writing a whole new story in the 'Shades' series for Ransom, who took the series over when Evans went belly-up, as well as having a good time, as always, in Kiwiland, so I was well pleased about that.

The book wot I rote on holiday. 
I've since done a shortened version in the Sharp Shades series for less-able readers.

Sadly though, I had not realised that Word was preloaded on the laptop for just one year and, by the time I tried to use it in NZ the following year it was on the point of expiring. I tried to pay for another year, but the system wouldn't let me because I was so far away from home. Despair. Then a kindly mentor suggested I try Google Docs. I've since realised just what a boon it is. All my Word-deprived woes were gone. He also suggested buying a good tablet, which would make me fully equipped for foreign parts and have lighter luggage as well. So I did. I also found myself, thanks to the same kindly mentor, supplied with Bluetooth, 3G wi-fi no matter where I was and a proper little keyboard tailor-made for my Samsung Galaxy S. This meant that some stories for the anthology I talked about last week (then called Danny's Last Duchess, now called Yan Tan Tethera because that story can provide a more likely cover-image), could be typed on it, because they were first written long before I had either Word or the internet.

Typing, though, seemed a rather annoying and time-consuming task. But my kindly mentor had yet another surprise. I could do speech-to-text, which I had thought was something far out and on the edges of credulity, let alone possibility, on this amazing little tablet. So there we were. Sorted. Simples.

Well, yes, it was sorted - and much nicer than laboriously typing out 4,500 words with two fingers. One of the greatest mistakes of my life was not to learn to touch-type when I had the chance. Readers of my ebooks have kindly pointed out some of the deficiencies this has led to. My reply is that these same two fingers have served me well for typing for sixty years and when I had professional proofreaders and copy editors it didn't matter. But as a process, speech-to-text offered many, many surprises. As an experience, it may turn out to be unforgettable. I've always prided myself on being pretty good at reading aloud. I used to do a lot of acting, got asked to do readings at weddings and funerals and had a lifetime's experience of reading aloud to kids both when teaching and, later, hiking around schools on author visits. 'Oh, the tablet will understand me,' I told myself. 'It will, it will.'

Well, to some extent it did. But there were many strange encounters on the way.  Only five lines in, it told me that Alan's sheep gave:

...good will wit woo Goodwill.

Somehow, this had metamorphosed from  ''gave good wool'.  I have no idea where 'will wit woo' comes from.  

...why not like Stalin 

is supposed to be simply, 'Why not?' asked Alan.  Three lines later, 'Alan Sugar' appears instead of 'Alan shivered.'  I could go on like this for ages but I'll content myself with one in the middle and two near the end

The villain in all this is an evil shepherd called Seth. He has a bad time at the hands of speech-to-text and serve him right. 'And he crept home dejected ' becomes, obscurely:

...Auntie Cryptome...

When for a brief second it looks like he might triumph after all, speech-to-text snatches away victory with:
...sooner gas buddy finished...

which started out  as '...soon,' he gasped as he  finished.' 

FinallySeth's last indignity arrives when instead of 'Master Seth', he magnificently becomes 'Masterchef'.

When it was all finished and I had a viable text, I realised it had been a great experience which gave me a good laugh.  I wish I'd had the nous to try it years ago.

I do love a good segue. How could I merge unobtrusively into the next part of this blog without actually changing the subject? Well, the occasion inevitably arrived when I realised I could have really done with my little android and its capacity to understand about 70% of what I said. But I didn't have it with me. 

In last month's blog I talked about the book I'm helping the Bulgarian family in New Zealand write, about their escape from the Communists in 1975. The Ganev family. First is Dora, ninety-four years old and a fine painter. But this is her first attempt at writing. The book is hers. But a large part of it is to do with the daring and dangerous escape of her two sons, Kamen and Stojan. I wrote last month about their riveting account of it which held us spellbound. A real privilege to hear. But now comes the difficulty of writing it up. If only I'd brought the tablet I might have had  the text of that amazing evening in front of me now. However, I didn't so I may as well forget about it.

Anyway, would it have worked? The book itself  is nearly complete. Three chapters remain to be done and one of them is Kamen's and Stojan's escape.  However, speech-to-text couldn't always cope with my English-as-a-first language voice, so what sort of pig's ear would it have made of two East European accents?  I think it will have to be an 'As told to...' chapter and I can only hope that I manage to relay some of the excitement and nervous energy of that unforgettable evening.

A postscript about yet another new experience. Despite the general truth of the first paragraph, they suddenly seem to be coming thick and fast. I've just started a job I could never have expected. A maker of hand-made jewellery of our acquaintance, Margaret Quon, was telling us that she was having difficulty with providing good copy for the ETSY website she sells through. Someone had suggested that she ask me for help. 'I know NOTHING about jewellery,' I answered. 'But you know about words,' Margaret replied.

An example of Margaret's work

So I agreed to have a go, though I felt very unsure about it. For some days afterwards I had an unsettling feeling that it would end badly. But then came the first assignments - and I loved doing them. This advertising copywriting lark is fascinating. You don't have to be an expert on jewellery: the specifications of each piece and finding out what sort of qualities particular stones are said to possess (thank God for Wikipedia) are basic raw materials to let the imagination work and the few words you have to express it in are great disciplines to sharpen up the writing, almost like poetry or children's picture book texts. In the two weeks that I've been doing this I've had a great time and learnt a lot as well. I wish I'd done it years ago because I think it would have made quite a big difference to my writing - for the better. Besides, I might have made more money than I ever did from writing books. 

You can find more about Margaret and her jewellery on Then go to Seller's profile. Though you won't find my efforts there yet.  Her own website will soon be ready. 

Joslin Books  is the imprint under which Dennis Hamley publishes compilations 
of new and previously published stories 
and new work not intended for other publishers.

Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick: 
four slightly weird stories

'Dennis Hamley is a specially talented yarnspinner'  (TES)

Out of the Deep: stories of the supernatural

Dennis Hamley's stories of the supernatural are substantial 
and formidably argued. The purpose of these stories is not to
 shrivel the blood but to use the  supernatural as a way of imaging
 some of the deepest and most enigmatic processes of
the human heart and will (Margery Fisher: Growing Point)

Bright Sea, Dark Graves 1:
The Guns of St Therese.

The first book in a new trilogy set  in Nelson's Navy: 
the adventures of Midshipman Edward Trefusis RN. 
Conceived as a sort of Patrick O'Brian 
and Captain John Aubrey for kids. 
Definitely not just Hornblower.

Coming Soon:

Yan Tan Tethera: five stories and a very tiny novel

Bright Sea, Dark Graves 2: 
The Nightmares of Invasion

Available on Kindle and in paperback


Wendy H. Jones said…
Speech to text does throw up some strange anomalies. I also found that when I converted the file to create space formatting errors crept in. It is fast though. Thanks for sharing
Jan Needle said…
Deer Masterchef, Tee rubble wiv my Christ! Mouse pudding Mick's. Should eye use a Kentwould or beat it Man Julie?

Oh knee arse kin.

xx a frend
Susan Price said…
'...good will wit woo Goodwill.'
Sheer poetry!
Dennis, I wish everyone, of whatever age, had your zest for life and new experiences. I wish I did.
Best of luck in all your new ventures.
Ann Evans said…
Enjoyed reading this, Dennis. But speech to text has its problems away from technology too sometimes. Once, I asked an author to sign his book for me and I said: Would you sign it to Ann without an 'e'.

He signed it to: Anthony!
Lydia Bennet said…
Do admit you are no longer Techie McTrainwreck, Dennis! You have some new stuff to tell us every month, and good on yer. I've never looked at google docs for a start! I've not tried speech to text yet, whether it will cope with my north east pronunciation I don't know. I've not used tablets as I find them very heavy to carry, but perhaps they are lighter than laptops. All very thought-provoking!
glitter noir said…
Great post, Dennis. And I did love that Ovidian segue.
Dennis Hamley said…
Lovely stuff, Jan. I gather you've suffered too. Trust me, Val, there's no comparison between a tablet in a backpack and a laptop in a separate case which you are (no, I mean 'I am') always liable to absent-mindedly leave behind on a plane. And as for Techie McTrainwreck (I love that and will repeat it), do remember that all these great advances were made for me by the Kindly Mentor. There is no chance that I would be able to replicate them by myself. My Kindly Mentor lives 13000 miles away so if I ever have to I'm - no, I won't use either of the two words which spring to mind here as this is a family blog, so I'm told.
Dennis Hamley said…
And Ann, that's a lovely story!
Chris Longmuir said…
I've used Dragon for speech to text and it's quite good, although I'm rather regretting it's so good because it doesn't throw up the anomalies to give me a good laugh. I bought it when my optician said I had the beginnings of a cataract so I was looking to the future when I couldn't see the keyboard any longer. I don't use it all the time, but I have used it for emails and some blog posts, and it's great if you want to transfer text into the computer, far better than scanning and using OCR software.

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