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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Finishing Captain's Log #49

Steve Cole writes:
It was last Wednesday evening, and Chuck Strong (head of the F&E Department) called to make sure I had everything I needed from him to finish Captain's Log #49. He remarked that it was the first time he had made his final check-in call that I was in good spirits. Usually, he said (and correctly) that I was pretty strung out, frantic, and more than a little combat-stressed at that point, but that instead I was positively buoyant, even bubbly.

There was a reason for that: we had finished Captain's Log #49 about 10 minutes earlier, and it was (in so far as how many problems there were) the best work experience on an issue of Captain's Log we had ever experienced. Every page of Captain's Log #49 was in a stack on the table, lacking only six small graphics I would create the next morning. A few pages had the page number corrected in ballpoint pen, and we had not yet checked the table of contents and the art credits list, but it was done. We still had the final "turn through the book, fix the alibis, fix anything wrong, and tweak things to make them better" which was scheduled to take all day Thursday.

The Supplemental File will tell the story of each feature of the issue and how it came to be, so I won't repeat that here. What I will mention is that we had a plan and it worked, producing the most stress-free "final three weeks of Captain's Log" we had ever experienced. Things did not go perfectly; most of the department heads got their stuff in a week later than they should have, but we were able to work past those issues without any strain because we knew what they would send and how easily it would fit in.

The stress over Captain's Log is not just getting all of the stuff done, but figuring out the page count. It is impossible to predict the page count of many articles and features and departments, leaving us wondering if we have enough pages or too many for the whole issue. It's a dynamic balance, but one we have seen before and work around. We have "the salami sections" in which we just slice off as many pages out of the "on file and ready" material as it takes to fit the space. If one article comes in a page long or a page short, we just adjust the number of pages in the scenario sections or in Ask Admiral Vanaxilth. Battle groups might be anywhere from 10 to 20 pages, and that one creates tension (which is why we set a deadline for it). Victory articles (there isn't one in this issue) also come in whatever size they are and cannot be stretched or shrunk, and until those pages are received, edited, and printed out for proofreading, we have no idea how big that article is.

In the case of the department heads, it just wasn't that big a crisis if they were late. Paul Franz (SFBOL, FCOL, Warlord) always takes 1.5 pages, Frank Brooks (PBEM) takes a page, Howard Bampton (GC) always takes a page (and he got that page to us very early this time), so we don't care if they are later or earlier in the process. Daniel Kast does the Starmada section and was late because the box of source material he needed sat on a shelf for two weeks before somebody asked when I wanted it shipped, but I knew he would take one or two rules pages and four ship pages, and I could adjust Vanaxilth by one page either way (plenty of his article on file). For that matter, Andy Vancil (who does Vanaxilth) was late because his computer died, but because of the way his stuff is done (salami) it didn't really matter.

The department heads do small critical parts of the book, but the lion's share of the work is done by Steven Petrick. He does the SSDs, the SFB scenarios, Battle groups (for Federation Commander and Star Fleet Battles), tactical papers, the monster article, the update section, and the ship descriptions. All of that adds up to 72 pages -- literally half of the book! More to the point, it's almost all fairly big chunks which not only run up the page count, but their size cannot be easily predicted. Reliably, Steve does his stuff ahead of time, and when we start "the three week tour" that brings a Captain's Log to print, most of his work is already done and ready to hand over to me for layout.
Jean Sexton writes a page here and there (input guide, commo officer, Ranger update, battle group update, the occasional tactical paper, and this time a scenario) but most of her work is proofreading. She has to sit down and carefully read the entire book (some of it twice). The key word is "carefully" as she has to stop and mark changes (and read slowly enough that she sees every mistake). Once she reads a page and marks it up, Steven Petrick reads it and adds his marks. Then Jean checks his marks (modifying a few) and hands the pages to me. I make the fixes, but then Jean has to go check the changes to make sure I did them all, did them right, and didn't create any new ones when I fiddled with something I happened to see. Any of that, she marks and sends back to me for a second round of changes, which she also has to check (sometimes creating at third round of changes and in one case a fourth round). Sometimes Jean and I have competing priorities over what she should do first: read a page she has never read or check changes in a page I just fixed. By and large, I prefer the latter since it puts green squares on the workbook and reduces the number of pieces of paper on her desk. She, on the other hand, prefers to read whatever looks fun and interesting (can't blame her there) no matter how long it is. We sort of compromised in the theory that once a day I take over her priorities for an hour (or less) and make her do all of the "easy points on the board" stuff.

Thursday went smoothly. I did the last graphics (I hate doing scenario graphics but shucks it only took an hour to do all six), Steven Petrick brought me a list of pages I had to reprint (because they had ball point pen marks on them), and Jean was valiantly resisting the urge to read all 144 pages again in the desperate hope of finding five or six more typos. What Jean did do was compare the facing pages and move some art around. (She finally discovered that I just put every piece of art on the bottom corner of the final page of the article and decided that it would be better if some of them moved to other corners.) In two cases, she had me swap pages because one two-page spread had tons of art and the next one had no art at all. That took only an extra hour and make a better, prettier, book for the customers. This step went so well that she went back through again, having me create tiny little graphics to go into tiny little holes.

I think one of the coolest parts of the issue was one particular piece of art. Jean had written a starship combat scenario about two young lovers, and I asked an artist to create a picture of them in some tender romantic moment. The art proved to be incredibly romantic and made us all sigh.