To Free or not to Free, that is the Question.

One of the writers that a great many in the podcast novel world look up to is J.C. Hutchins, both because of the quality of his work and because he made the dream of many into a reality- he got a book deal from his podcasted novel. He was one of the guys who literally set up the holy grail of new media novelists, and used the new media to get his work and his name out there into the general public. As a result of what was partially his work, there are now hundreds of novels being podcast out there, and a few more since have also gained book deals as he did.

However, J.C. recently hung up the microphone on the podcast novel gig when he more or less came to the conclusion that while the legions of fans would happily follow him everywhere, they would for the most part only do so while he was offering free content. When his book went to the publisher and hit the shelves, record numbers of online fans didn’t translate into record sales, and the publisher decided not to continue because of the simple reality that his previously podcast novel wasn’t selling.

Now J.C. seems to be turning slowly from the prophet of Podcast Novels into someone who is bitter and resentful about the whole experience. Not that I blame him, he put his soul into it, and was cheered on by the crowds, only to have those same crowds abandon him when he actually asked them to support him in a meaningful way. Not even to give donations, but just buy the book they’d loved and own a copy of it instead of listening for free online. That must have been really painful for him, probably akin to hitting a brick wall at 200kph, and I imagine he’s going to take a long time to recover. Not that his “fandom” is helping, for some of them are even attacking the poor guy for turning off the tap! He can’t win!

In a lot of ways, I think he’s a victim of the Tragedy of the Commons– it’s not that the people didn’t want to support him, but the motivation wasn’t strong for them to buy the end product (they had it already for free) and each of them thought the others would buy it, so they saved their money. And, I think he’s also right in blaming both the sense of entitlement for free content that many internet users seem to have these days and the fickle nature of online consumers who will happily support content creators as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

However, I do think there’s also the issue of what a creator wants to get out of these “free” productions.

Like most things, it’s all about what your goals are. If your goal is to simply entertain people and maybe gain fun and experience, then producing content for free online is fine. If, however, you’re doing it to gain an audience or reputation that will carry you into something that will make money down the line, then I think you require a very different strategy. Putting it all out there, and then expecting people to continue to turn around and pay for it is a recipe for disappointment, even in the internet age. The better strategy is to do what any good drug dealer does- give the audience a hit, get them addicted, and then make them pay if they want more. (Of course, that strategy does have it’s problems, because if your drug isn’t addictive enough, then it will likely fail.)

In J.C.’s case, he might have been better served by releasing the first third of the story, and then putting the rest up for sale on Amazon in book form. The problem is, there wasn’t a Lulu.com when he started doing this, and he was a pioneer at finding out what worked and what didn’t. The canary in the coal mine, as it were. He didn’t have that kind of choice, and was hoping to use the podcast to attract buzz from a mainstream media publisher.

Of course, something to consider is- it worked. Despite 7th Son not selling, and despite his legions of fans having failed him in his darkest hour, J.C. podcasting his book did get it published, and not only that, it made him a name. Even if all his future books will be published and sold normally, the key point is, they will be published because he’s no longer a faceless manuscript sitting in the slush pile. J.C. is now lightyears ahead of tens of thousands of other authors in a highly competitive market, and has a very good chance of being a successful (paid) author in the future.

So, while J.C. might be somewhat bitter about the whole experience, I hope he considers that despite all the hard work, there really was a payoff- a big one. One I bet a lot of other struggling writers wish they had.

Facial Reconstriction

What do Avatars, Actors and Porn Stars all have in common?

All of them are looking for the perfect facial expression.

The other week when listening to Slate’s Political Gabfest I heard reference to an article in New York Magazine about how Botox is changing the film/TV industry. Looking it up, it was a fascinating read. Simply put- when you get Botox or plastic surgery to look smoother/younger, you can lose the ability to perform certain facial expressions. Botox is the main killer, of course, since it’s literally paralyzing your skin and muscles to get that smooth, younger appearance. As a result, in the age of HD TV,  actors are literally having to choose between looking good, and being able to express emotion on camera.

And being able to express emotion is important- just look at the Computer Graphics (CGI)  industry. The above New York Magazine article cites a discussion with the Casting Director from Avatar where she was talking with the CGI people about the actors they would choose for the movie, and the key thing the CGI people said was “no Botox, they can’t express emotion.” Why should that be important? Well, in the case of Avatar the CGI people needed to be able to motion capture the faces of the actors to translate that into the movements of the CGI characters, and they needed to be expressive for the system to pick up the emotions properly. But, it goes beyond Avatar, which only uses CGI for aliens and not people, because getting the right facial expressions on CGI human characters like The Incredibles or Beowulf is literally the holy grail.

In the CGI industry, they’re plagued by a problem known as the Uncanny Valley effect, wherein the closer a computer generated character gets to looking like a human without being human, the more it freaks audiences out. When you produce a human-like being that’s 98% human, but still doesn’t quite move right, or have the right subtle facial expressions it doesn’t register as human, but registers (as my one friend put it) like “an undead CGI zombie”. So to them, getting the perfect facial expressions is literally life or death, because if they can’t create a perfect simulation of a human being then they’ll never be able to replace real actors as anything but stunt doubles. (A dream of a Hollywood executives from long ago.) They’ll be stuck using cartoony versions of people like Shrek and the characters from UP!, and aliens from across the galaxy like Jar Jar Binks.

The great irony here, of course, is that the real actors are making themselves more expressionless and wooden through technology, and the technology is striving to make itself LESS expressionless and wooden in its CGI actors! One has to wonder if they’re not going to end up meeting in the middle at some point!

And what does this have to do with Porn Stars? Well, the other day I was having a conversation with one of my friends about the porn industry and its recent shifts in the type of actresses who seem to be rising to the top. When did the queens of the industry stop looking like this:

Jenna Jameson

Jenna Jameson

and start looking like this…

Sasha Grey

That’s a pretty radical change. So what gives?

Well, we both have our theories, but his is the more interesting. He said that simply put, Sasha Grey and the current crop of slender brunettes rising to the top of their industry are more expressive and better actresses than their bustier blonde counterparts. Not being a particularly avid watcher of porn (I find most of it boring, actually) I haven’t seen them in action, but I’m told they’re simply much better at expressing and conveying emotion, and that’s what makes them so attractive to their audience.

Funny that. That the porn industry is now building itself on expressiveness, while mainstream Hollywood is doing the opposite! I’d laugh, but the Botox has kicked in, and all I can do is crack a vague smile, but that’s enough, right?

Blazing Across the Stars

When I was 8, a single series rocked my young world- Star Blazers. The Americanization of Space Battleship Yamato (perhaps one of the most important anime of all time) was an epic to behold, and despite the limited animation it captured our young imaginations in its romantic voyage into space. Each week when the words “Hurry Star Force! There are only XXX days left!” urged our heroes on, we couldn’t wait to see what happened next!

Of course, I wasn’t the only one to have Star Blazers make an impression on me. There’s a new Star Blazers audio drama running from Forward Momentum Productions which really recaptures the feel of the old show well, and of course there’s the new big budget live-action movie version due in December 2010.

But I think the think most people remember most about the show was the music, it was rousing and bombastic, and made you want to sign onto the Argo first chance you had! Here’s an American High School band doing an amazing instrumental version just to prove it!

Heart of a Ronin

A friend recommended an audiobook called Heart of a Ronin the other day, so I snagged the first chapter and gave it a listen during the morning walk. I couldn’t even get through the first 45 minute chapter. (And he’s released more than 30 chapters at 45 minutes a piece! My god…It’s already longer than DUNE and doesn’t seem to be done!)

The writer’s okay, but he doesn’t know his history or Japanese culture that well; he’s a typical anime/manga fan who’s slapping a Japanese veneer on top of his own Fantasy story. For example, in the first ten minutes he makes reference to his Ronin hero being lower than a Geisha, which is great, but the story is set in roughly 1240, and the Geisha didn’t exist until the 1700’s. Ooops.

Oh, and his starving Ronin who can talk to animals could be one of the richest men in Japan overnight. How? The Japanese nobles were super-crazy about horses, and a man who could talk to horses would (even if he didn’t tell them about the talking part) be so valued you can’t imagine it. Again, he’d know this if he studied the culture instead of his comics.

Moral of the story- if you’re going to set your tale in a historical period then at least bother to learn about more than the superficial aspects you think are cool.

Edit:

Looking back on this now, I can see it looks a little harsh and flippant (mostly because it is!) but I thought I should probably explain a little more about why I reacted so badly to this piece. After all, if some guy wants to write Samurai fantasy stories, then what’s the harm, right?

The reason I reacted badly is because as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more and more a fan of historical fiction, and as a result of that I’ve become less and less tolerant of people who try to write historical fiction and then write off their own laziness by saying the inaccurate parts don’t matter. While there’s always going to be inaccuracies in any history-based work, the point is that I expect to get a sense than the author at least tried to understand his setting. The Geisha thing might seem small to you, but it’s basic common knowledge to someone who knows their Japanese cultural history. (A bit like writing a Civil War story, but not knowing who the major generals were, for example.)

As a fan of historical fiction, I find I love good historically based stories for 3 reasons:

1) It lets me learn at the same time I’m being entertained.

2) It gives me a chance to have history come alive before my eyes. (Especially in the hands of a good writer, like Forrester, or Yoshikawa)

3) It gives me a new view on history that perhaps I hadn’t thought of.

Within ten minutes, I knew Heart of the Ronin was going to give me none of these, and nothing I couldn’t see done better (with more or less accuracy) by real Japanese writers.

They should just ask some kids to do it.

The city of Detroit is starting to follow other cities like Flint and has plans to tear down the massive swaths of empty run-down homes that cover much of it’s city and replace them with parkland and fields. They’re going to spend millions tearing down the homes and replanting trees- to which I say “what took you so long?”

I lived in Windsor (aka “South Detroit”) for about four and a half years, and during that time made many trips to Detroit during the 90’s. It was a mess then, and is apparently even a bigger mess now that it’s lost more than half its former population. Something had to be done, and I agree with this choice both because the city simply needed to shrink, and it’s great to see desolated urban blight becoming living fields again. Sure, they’re going to have a big problem with hidden pockets of toxic waste and lord knows what else they’ll uncover during the restoration, but in the end it’s a worthwhile project that will see humanity treating the earth as it should.

I grew up next to a woodland park, and spent most of my childhood there, and I’m hoping that future generation of Detroiters will get to have the same experience.

Auditions for Twin Stars 209

Auditions are up for Twin Stars Book 2, Episode 9 over on Audio Drama Talk. Two male roles and Two female roles are up, and the auditions closing date is March 14th.

This is the the finale for Book 2, and what a finale it will be!

The Affidavit of Isaac Woodward

In an extremely powerful piece of radio history, Orson Welles lets loose with both barrels against Southern Racism after a young black man named Isaac Woodward is blinded by police brutality for daring to speak back to a white bus driver who swore at him first. I have rarely heard Welles so angry, and the power of his voice and presence so directed as in this short piece. A highly recommended piece of listening for all.

On September 28 1946, Orson Welles, in an ABC Radio broadcast, said:

What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his eyes. What does it cost to wear over your skeleton the pinkish tint officially described as white? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his soul… Your eyes, Officer X, your eyes, remember, were not gouged away, only the lids are closed. You might raise the lids, you might just try the wild adventure of looking, you might see something. It might be a simple truth, one of those truths held to be self-evident by our founding fathers and by most of us. If we should ever find you bravely blinking at the sun, we will know then that the world is young after all, that chaos is behind us and not ahead. Then there will be shouting of trumpets to rouse the dead at Gettysburg, a thunder of cannon will declare the tidings of peace, and all the bells of liberty will laugh out loud in the streets to celebrate goodwill towards all men.

(With thanks to Paul Mannering for spotting it.)

New Audio Drama Review Blog (Updated)

The other day I stumbled across a new blog called simply “Audio Drama Review”, done by an anonymous blogger whose stated intent is to provide the “raw unvarnished truth” in an effort to encourage people producing audio drama to improve their work.  The writing is sharp and well thought out overall, and for the most part it’s constructive criticism, which I feel is something our little medium has lacked.

One of the problems with being an audio drama producer is that we generally don’t get a lot of feedback for our work (on average, 1 piece of feedback per 100 listeners) and when we do get feedback it tends to be supportive rather than critical. Now, when I say critical I mean critical in the proper sense of the word- ” an effort to see a thing clearly and truly in order to judge it fairly”. Not just attacking, but breaking down, and making suggestions on how things need to be improved via constructive criticism. I myself had to feel around for a long time, improving based on experience and comparing myself with other’s works, because nobody was there to tell me what I was doing right or wrong when I started. So in my opinion one of the things the AD community has needed for a long time is a Simon Cowell or Kevin O’Leary, a skilled observer who throws pity into the wind and gives their honest opinions, good or bad. This may finally be that person.

My only reservation is that so far in an effort to be “honest” the writer of ADR has so far been a little bit polar, with the reviews tending towards the very good and the very bad, and not so much in between. I know some of this is the writer finding their style and position they’re going to take, but the one for Lightningbolt Theatre of the Mind was far more extreme than it needed to be. I hope that their reviews in the future are no less honest, but a bit more constructive.

Update: I’ve had it pointed out to me by Audio Drama Review’s blogger J. Snowe that while  his reviews do run the gambit from very favorable to poor, they aren’t as polar as I first believed. I hadn’t read all of his reviews, and it appears I managed to read most of the more extreme cases and missed the more moderate ones. (My own fault for making judgments without reading his complete body of work.) Fair enough. Well, then I guess I have no reservations at all on recommending people to read his blog! ^_^

How to Write a Book in 3 Days, by Michael Moorcock

I stumbled across this article today, it’s a collection of advice from Michael Moorcock about how one would write a book in 3 days if one had to do it. Even for those with more time, it’s probably worth the read. And, speaking of Fantasy authors, Poul Anderson wrote a good piece about keeping your Fantasy story from being…well…stupid in the essay “On Thud and Blunder” which is also worth a read when you have the time.


How to Write a Book in 3 Days

by Michael Moorcock

* First of all, it’s vital to have everything prepared. Whilst you will be actually writing the thing in three days, you’ll need a day or two of set-up first. If it’s not all set up, you’ll fail.

* Model the basic plot on the Maltese Falcon (or the Holy Grail — the Quest theme, basically). In the Falcon, a lot of people are after the same thing, the Black Bird. In the Mort D’Arthur, again a lot of people are after the same thing, the Holy Grail. It’s the same formula for westerns, too. Everyone’s after the same thing. The gold of El Dorado. Whatever.

* The formula depends on the sense of a human being up against superhuman force — politics, Big Business, supernatural evil, &c. The hero is fallible, and doesn’t want to be mixed up with the forces. He’s always about to walk out when something grabs him and involves him on a personal level.

* You’ll need to make lists of things you’ll use.

* Prepare an event for every four pages.

* Do a list of coherent images. So you think, right, Stormbringer: swords, shields, horns, and so on.

* Prepare a complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. Know what narrative problems you have to solve at every point. Write solutions at white heat, through inspiration: really, it can just be looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects, and turning them into what you need. A mirror can become a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned.

* Prepare a list of images that are purely fantastic, deliberate paradoxes say, that fit within the sort of thing you’re writing. The City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you’ve got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.

* The imagery comes before the action, because the action’s actually unimportant. An object to be obtained — limited time to obtain it. It’s easily developed, once you work the structure out.

* Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It’s a classic formula: “We’ve only got six days to save the world!” Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?

* The whole reason you plan everything beforehand is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you’ve actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do.

* Once you’ve started, you keep it rolling. You can’t afford to have anything stop it. Unplug the phone and the internet, lock everyone
out of the house.

* You start off with a mystery. Every time you reveal a bit of it, you have to do something else to increase it. A good detective story will have the same thing. “My God, so that’s why Lady Carruthers’s butler Jenkins was peering at the keyhole that evening. But where
was Mrs. Jenkins?”

* In your lists, in the imagery and so on, there will be mysteries that you haven’t explained to yourself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn’t matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you’re going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I’ll put this in here because I might need it later. You can’t put in loads of boring exposition about something you have no idea of yourself.

* Divide your total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece. Divide each into six chapters. You can scale this up or down as you like, of course, but you’ll need more days — and stamina — for longer books, and keep chapters at 2.5k max. In section one the hero will say, “There’s no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by…” Getting the first object of power, or reaching the mystic place, or finding the right sidekick, or whatever. That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time demand. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal.

* Very often a chapter is something like: attack of the bandits —defeat of the bandits. Nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you’re dealing with incoherence, with chaos — ie with speed — the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.

* So you don’t have any encounter without at least information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it’s a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function.

* Use the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula. You must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first part. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first part, developed in the second and third, and resolved in the last part.

* There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on. The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.

* When in doubt, descend into a minor character. So when you reach an impasse, and you can’t move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character ‘s viewpoint, which will allow you to keep the narrative moving, and give you time to brew something.