Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Endings and New Beginnings

The truth is, I was never really cut out to be a great reviewer. Aside from the fact that I only really reviewed the stuff I liked - once I figured out there was so much good content out there in the podosphere I realised that if I didn't like something, I didn't have to listen to it - there was also the matter of consistency.

I think that people appreciate a certain level of regularity when it comes to content review, and it was not long after I started with the Podagogue reviews that I realised I was not going to be delivering up a review every week, as I had intended. It's not that I wasn't listening to good stuff, because I was, and still am, consuming great podcasts every day. It's just a time factor. Writing good reviews that are worthy of the work that has been done is time-consuming, and I would rather be spending that time writing instead.

Not only that, but the marvellous Odin1eye has been doing a bang-up job, achieving what I set out to do here, over at his View from Valhalla blog. You can rely on his reviews to be consistently reliable and reliably consistent, which mine never were.

So, from hereon in, I shall be found over at my revamped homepage, Dan.Rabarts.com. There you'll find links to all my bits and pieces, including fiction and news from the exciting world of yet another aspiring writer.

Please come on over and say 'Hi'. I'd love to meet you there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Breaking the Silence - Save the Hobbit

As some of you may know, my day job is in New Zealand's film industry. It is a dynamic and exciting area to be working in, but the events of the past few weeks surrounding The Hobbit have brought the industry as a whole into great peril, and things could not be worse.

However, this in not being seen in the media. All we have been hearing is "actor's conditions" and "Peter Jackson refuses to meet with the union." Until yesterday, we had not heard a whimper of support for the filmmaking genius that brought us LOTR and King Kong. For years we have all presumed that Sir Peter was impervious, a rock that could weather any storm and bring us all through it with him intact. The selfish and destructive actions of the Australian MEAA have proven otherwise.

Last night I joined a thousand other technicians marching through the streets of Wellington in an unscheduled demonstration in support of Peter Jackson, and in support of our local industry. It was well past time that the people who have been so supported by Peter and his tireless work in this country over the last 25 years stood up and showed him that we value and respect him. We owe him a great deal, and we will not stand silent while he fights the fight of his life. He has fought for us. We will fight for him.

These are the basic dynamics of this conflict:

- The Australian Union (the MEAA) is threatened by the dynamic and creative independent NZ film industry that is flourishing on its doorstep, taking projects and doing them better than they could.

- The MEAA has manipulated Actors' Equity into industrial action against The Hobbit specifically because of the massive impact it will have on our small industry.

- Even if The Hobbit is not shot in Australia, but in Ireland or Prague or wherever, losing it will have disastrous effects on the New Zealand film industry.

From the cynical point of view of a film technician seeing his industry being ripped out from under him, it seems pretty clear that whatever machinations are at work here at higher levels, whoever is being played by who, the outcome of all of this will not be better working conditions for actors, as the smoke and mirrors are leading us to believe.

It will be no work for actors, fullstop. Or for technicians for that matter, or the myriad of support services that prop up the industry, or the hundreds of suppliers downstream who prosper on the downstream value of a project of this size.

What many Actors' Equity members don't seem to understand is that by supporting this boycott they are, to all intents and purposes, committing career suicide. Not in a "if you support this boycott we won't hire you in the future", sort of way, but a "there will be no industry in this country anymore" sort of way. I won't argue that there are issues to be discussed, but these relate to employment law and should be taken up with the New Zealand legislature, not with a production company working within that law.

If The Hobbit goes away, the amazing creative workforce we have here, which has been nurtured by Sir Peter for almost three decades, will also go away.

It's time for more than just the puppets of the union to be heard. Last night we marched, and we tried our best to get people to understand just what is at stake here. We want to do this job. We can do this job better than any other country. Sir Peter is a highly collaborative artist, and the success of his work is not simply the result of his own genius, but the combined efforts of hundreds of people, many of whom I brushed shoulders with on the streets of Wellington last night.

Peter Jackson cannot pick up the hundreds of people who comprise this amazing community and take them overseas. These are the people who brought you The Lord of the Rings. These are the people that hand-sculpted the miniatures, who drizzled the blood, who aged the costumes, who hammered and dressed the sets, who rigged the lights. New Zealand is Middle-Earth.

But something drastic needs to happen if that is going to remain the case. The Hobbit made anywhere else will not be drawing on the extensive expertise of a community that have been there and back again, who spent upwards of seven years perfecting the craft that made LOTR the stunning work it is. The only way we can hope to keep this job in New Zealand where it belongs is by making our voices heard.

If you're a fan of The Lord of the Rings, and you want to see another glowing masterpiece on cinema screens in two years time, not a tawdry imitation, then you need to speak up.

Tweet this link, if you're on Twitter.

Post this page to Facebook.

Blog about it, let the world know that The Hobbit is on the precipice of falling into mediocrity, and that you won't stand for it.

Let the studios know that you don't want a cheap knock-off, but a shiny polished original.

Spread the word. Do it now.

Save The Hobbit.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Long and the Short of It

There's been a lot of talk in the podosphere lately about the relative value of short stories, both as a promotional tool and as a potential source of revenue.

I'll be honest that my knowledge of "the market" for short stories is practically non-existent. The bulk of my writing energies over the past few years have been on long-form fiction, and that is still where most of my efforts are directed. So I won't try to say anything about writing for anthologies or anything of the like, because I have no qualification in that field whatsoever.

However, I have been paying very close attention to what people in the podcast world are doing with short fiction, new avenues that they're trying to exploit, and how they're going about it. It has been a very interesting few months indeed. Some, like James Melzer and Paul E Cooley, have tried selling stories for 99c on Smashwords, with various results, none of which have bought them a private island in the Caribbean. Yet. In fact, Melzer reneged and dropped the 99c cost off all his stories altogether, feeling that the value he gained by pushing them out for free was worth more than the odd 99c sale he might make. Very interesting times indeed.

Short stories are like tiny commercials, trailers, showreels. They're a snapshot into the mind of the writer; a sampler of the writer's wit, craft and voice without requiring the commitment of reading a hundred-thousand word novel. If you've never heard of a writer, then reading one of their short stories is a reasonably safe investment when deciding if you would put more time into reading their work in the future.

This is why the trend towards releasing short fiction on the internet, particularly in a self-publishing mode without any editorial intervention, strikes me as a particularly tempting and equally dangerous strategic decision on the part of most unpublished writers.

I'm a hypocrite in this regard, as you'll see if you read on, but let me make my point very quickly, before I go on to rip it to pieces.

If I read a short story and don't like it I will be very unlikely to pick up anything else by that writer, ever again, unless it comes very highly recommended by someone whose opinion I trust. The short story is the job interview. Fail to excite or interest me and I'll be disinclined to hunt that writer down and find anything else they might've done. If they have a memorable name, I might even deliberately avoid them in future. If I'm representative of any significant portion of the market (I may not be; I might just be an aberration. It's entirely possible) then that can't be a good thing for the writer in question. There are far more important people out there with much better heads for names than me.

And most of them spend more on books than I do.

I've read a lot of free short fiction on the internet. A short story is not an easy thing to write, not by any means, which is why it's so important that if a writer makes the decision to put themselves forward and put out a story for general consumption that it be as good as it can possibly be. Anything less and the writer risks sinking into obscurity or, worse, being deliberately shunned by potential readers.

I'll be honest and say that this is something I do. There are certain writers whose work I will devour if I get the chance, all of whom I found by reading their free work on the internet and being constantly impressed. There are many more whose work I have read once but whom I do not go looking for, often on the weight of a single piece. I make no apology for this. My time is precious, and I can't spend it reading bad writing.

This raises the issue of a very powerful tool that may all too often be underutilised by a lot of writers, namely the peer review. As a form of editing, throwing your story out to other writers has become increasingly easier over the past few years as social networking brings more and more writers together without ever needing to leave the comfort of our keyboards. It has also become a potentially more valuable tool as the range of collaborators we have at our reach grows, but there are certain rules that go with this practice that all writers must remember to observe.

The most important is the key word in this discussion: Short. It takes about half an hour to read 5000 words, which is fine first time around but starts to get long when reading the same thing over and over again. Give your story the words it needs, but remember that when you ask others to read it over, possibly multiple times, that's their time you're asking for. I recently did just this, and when my story swelled from 2000 to 5000 words I knew that I was asking ever more of those readers to keep coming back to newer drafts. After that initial reading, the focus a reader can apply to a story drops dramatically. I know this from the beta reading I've done of short stories for friends; I can give feedback on first drafts, but often second readings become a skim over, from which I can offer very little of help. There's an art to cycling different drafts of a story around different readers to get constantly fresh, useful feedback. I haven't yet mastered this, but I really should.

As usual, I've digressed. I'll come back to the other rules another day, if I remember. I promised to tell you how I was just a dirty old hyprocrite, didn't I? Yes I did. Let's get back to that.

I recently accepted the challenge to write a story for the Every Photo Tells podcast.

Writers are invited to submit stories inspired by a new photo every month. I decided that partaking of this competition would be a bit of something different, and I hacked out a rather awful piece of tripe with a terrible punchline that wasn't worth the silicone it was stored on. I then ignored it for two weeks before sending it out to some beta readers for opinion, at which point I was told, on no uncertain terms, that this was a piece of tripe not worth the silicone it was stored on. Much frantic re-writing ensued. As usual, I pushed the narrative past the other side of ridiculous before finally reining it back into something halfway passable. For this, I heap praises upon my awesome writer friends, who have officially earned the qualifier "long-suffering".

Then I agonised and polished and carpal tunneled and anguished and strained my eyes until I could no longer see the words on the screen. Normally I'd then put such a story in a file and never do anything more with it, but alas, I had a deadline to meet.

The producers at Every Photo reserve the right to reject any story with no explanation given. That sounds to me like an editorial benchmark to meet. No tripe here, thank you very much. Duly, I submitted Pick Your Battles, and waited with bated breath until I heard that it had been accepted.

Now, let me be clear here. I do not take this as a "publication" credit. It was written and submitted for free, released under a CC license, and I'll never see a penny for it. It was not a professional achievement, but I did choose to use the platform Every Photo offered to, yes, build my brand as a writer. I took a chance that this story might increase, not decrease, the opinions that people out there paying attention to what I'm doing might have of my work. To be fair, it's my only piece of fiction to be found on the internet, unless you're following Akmenos and the Saga of Vondal's Vandals, but I'm fine with that. We all start somewhere.

Pick Your Battles has been described as "gruesome but compelling", "explosive," and "excellent". How much more encouragement do you need? Head over to Every Photo Tells and have a listen, or go and subscribe at iTunes and check out some of the other great offerings that have made their way into the feed. You might find something you like, maybe another writer you ought to be keeping an eye out for. Mick and Katharina do a great job of narrating and producing the stories they accept, and deserve a nod for all their hard work, so drop a comment at their page while you're there.

Did I have a point, or was I just gratuitously dipping into a hot topic in order to promote my own material? A bit of both really.

The point is that in order to succeed as writers, we need the people out there to A) know who we are, and B) like what we've written. Take this as me putting my money where my my mouth is (figuratively speaking - there is no actual money involved), and throwing out a story that was as good as I could make it in the timeframe I had (listening back to it now, I would make a few more edits, but that chance has passed, darn it), with much thanks to my writing community for pushing me in the right direction. I hope people will like it, and maybe come looking for more of what I've written, or at the very least not avoid everything else I ever write.

On that note, if you haven't got your free download of Urban Driftwood yet, just head over to my site and hit the link. It's not all mud and blood like Pick Your Battles, but there might be something in there that strikes a chord.

And it's all pretty short.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The SJV and What it Means for You.

Or, more to the point, what it means for me.

But let's back up a little. What, you ask, is an SJV when it's at home?

SJV stands for Sir Julius Vogel, this particular SJV refers to the awards presented by the SFFANZ (Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand) and is this country's pre-eminent recognition of outstanding achievement within or services to the Speculative Fiction genre.I have two fantastic pieces of news regarding the SJV nominations this year. Firstly, nearest and dearest to my heart, the nomination that I put together (after being gently prodded by all-round good chap Grant Stone) for Hugh Cook has been accepted onto the ballot in the category of Services to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. I've written about Hugh and his life and work a great deal over the last couple of years, so it's fantastic to see him being recognised at last.

One of those articles also earned me a place on the ballot, for Fan Writing, which fills me with a lovely warm glow way down deep inside. Hopefully I didn't swallow a dragon, because that would be uncomfortable in the morning.

There are a raft of other great names in there as well, including my friends Grant Stone, Tim Jones, Philippa Ballantine, Debbie & Matt Cowens, Jenni Dowsett, and Anna Caro. The list is all but bubbling over the rim with talent.

So, in the name of shameless self-promotion, it would be wrong of me not to ask you to cast a vote for Hugh, or for me, or for both of us, or for any of the marvelous folk that have put in t he hard yards and made it onto the ballot, if you were able. Of course, I'd prefer votes to be cast my way, but do what you feel you must. Members of SFFANZ or anyone who attends the Au Contraire Science Fiction Convention in Wellington in August 2010 can vote.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Does it Work?

I started writing this post last year, but never got around to finishing it. I intended to make a big song and dance about how successful the Podcast-To-Print model was, and how it was all so Very Good For Writers.

Now I'm not quite so sure.

As you'll all be aware by now, it was with both quiet resignation and fierce determination that JC Hutchins recently bowed out of doing any more podcast fiction for free. I read this news with a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, as I'm sure many other people did. The question that kept racing through my head was "If Hutch can't make it work, who can?"

St Martin's Press won't be publishing the remaining books in the 7th Son Trilogy, the podcast of which I reviewed and recommended as absolutely essential listening. I'm in no position to speculate on why Hutchins' publishers have decided not to proceed with the series, but I fully respect JC's reasons for pulling the pin on what has been many years and no doubt thousands of hours of work.

People have had the gall to criticise Hutchins for this decision, but as Mur Lafferty was at pains to point out, "Content creators are not your bitch."

I've also heard some fans say that they refuse to pay for content from the writers they like. That, to me, is just plain parasitism. But more on that later.

I've been a big fan of the podcast novel form since I found it way back in '08 with the awesomeness that is Hoad's Grim. I have soaked up more hours of podcast fiction in the last two years than I've read books in the past ten years, and it has also opened me up to a vast and amazing community of writers, editors, publishers and fans.

What are they all trying to do? What was Hutch trying to do? Make a living, preferably by writing and selling that work. JD Sawyer sums it up tremendously well over at his blog, so I won't try to repeat his interpretation of the role of the free model to the writer. But I think I can speak with at least a modicum of authority on what the rise and fall of the free model means to the fan, and to the writer who had been considering the podcast as a possible option.

For all that I've consumed hours and hours of podcast fiction, I've bought very little of the published material that has come out from authors I've enjoyed in the past year. In fact, that copy of Jack Wakes Up was given to me by Seth Harwood, signed, for the price of postage. Seth is just awesome like that. No, I didn't buy a copy of 7th Son (I know, I'm hanging my head in shame), simply because I don't like having incomplete sets on the bookshelf. That doesn't help Hutch any, and I apologise.

The simple truth is that living way out here, books are ridiculously expensive. The price of a book which is $7.99 USD from Amazon will not qualify for free shipping to New Zealand, and depending on the exchange rate will end up costing upwards of $45.00 NZD to get here. So I have to really love a book to want to buy it, if I've already heard it.

Part of this is that the audio experience and the experience of reading a book are very different ones, but that's a topic for another day.

Had I not gotten hooked on Crescent, I would not have bought the book. Had I not thoroughly enjoyed 7th Son, I would not have bought Personal Effects: Dark Art. When Dragon Moon Press publish Toothless later this year, I will howl at the moon for a copy, because Moore's writing is just that good. Even if Phillipa Ballantine doesn't podcast Geist when it comes out this year, I trust her writing talent so much that I'll be buying a copy regardless of whether or not I've heard in audio form first.Which is, of course, the key word: trust.

Writers who podcast their fiction do so, in the first instance, to build up a relationship with an audience. They set out to show listeners that they know how to tell a story, and they're willing to release that story into the wild in order to prove it. They want to give the audience a chance, for free, to learn to trust them. Several have succeeded (Scott Sigler, Seth Harwood, Tee Morris, Phil Rossi, Mur Lafferty, Philippa Ballantine, Nathan Lowell, Mark Jeffery, JP Moore, James Melzer and JC Hutchins are just a few of the authors who have gone from podiobook releases to publishing deals), and several more have not.

An interesting contrast to these writers is Jeremy Robinson, author of Pulse and Antarktos Rising. Unlike Scott Sigler, who releases practically every word he writes as a podcast, Robinson has released only two of his novels as podcast fiction. The first, Kronos, is the only reason I know of Robinson at all, but he has several books in print, which I know of now because I found him via his podcasts. His books sound fascinating and I'd certainly consider buying them if I saw them. This is because I can trust him to tell a good story. The podcast novels serve as loss leaders, in a way, to draw the reader to his dead-tree books. This is a technique that seems to work for him, probably in no small part thanks to the talents of his narrator, Jeffrey Kafer. Robinson's podcasts are a highly polished professional investment.

However, I seem to be rambling, so let me get back to the matter at hand. If the free model was to change significantly, based on the evidence that all those hours of work do not in fact translate into dollars in writers' pockets when it's given away for free, then what would I, as a fan, be willing to pay for new content? There has been a lot of debate about this.

Some say nothing; why bother paying when there's so much more free stuff out there to sample? To this I say I've wasted a lot of time listening to bad free stuff, and sometimes I want to know that what I've got lined up on my ipod is going to be good quality.

Some say nothing; the writer can get sponsorship or run advertising. This is an 'easier-said-than-done' sort of thing, requiring a proven audience base, and comes with the inherent risk that such advertising can just be skipped over. Few writers will have a client base they can draw on that will pay them a decent wage in advertising fees for this form of media.

Some say they wouldn't be happy to pay a monthly fee when there's no guarantee that the author will meet prepaid deadlines, and that's a fair call.

There has been debate high and low about what people would or would not pay for, and lots of discussion about how writers have even a ghost of chance of making a living off their work, but here's what I think, as a fan, and what I think would work for me as a writer. Feel free to shoot me down if you so choose, since I haven't actually been there myself. Not yet.

I wouldn't pay to listen to the first episodes of a podcast novel by an author I'd never heard of. If I listened and really liked the quality of the writing then I might consider it, but as I haven't come to trust that the writer can deliver a full package with a good ending, I would be very hesitant. This is analogous to the reading of a second-hand book which someone lends you. You're happy to read that book, but I wouldn't be likely to pay for it off the shelf if I knew nothing about it or the writer.

I wouldn't pay to listen to a podcast that was being released week by week or month by month, since I have seen so many such podcasts fade, slump, or disappear. I hate being left hanging, particularly if I know that the material is only being produced sporadically. Again, if I trusted the writer and their ability to deliver then I might be tempted, but life is fickle thing. What seems certain one day can be an impossibility the next.

I would, however, pay to listen to a podcast by an author I knew and trusted, if that podcast was complete and I could pay to download the whole thing and know it wouldn't be chewed up by some nasty DRM or other invasive software. How much would I pay for that? Well, less than I would for a book, since it's not a physical thing that I can put on the shelf and it will, eventually, be rendered obsolete by technology in ways that books cannot be, but if it cost around the price of a paperback (without the exorbitant shipping costs out here to NZ) then that would seem quite fair to me.

What that means for writers, if this attitude was to be even in the least bit commonplace, would be that they would need to earn their audience's trust by releasing good, solid, well-written storytelling into the wild, and have a body of work to back it up if things turned out well.

So, back to my original question: Does It Work? Yes and no. Rather than having to convince an agent or an editor that you can write, you take it upon yourself to convince thousands of people to consume your work, for free, and then to turn around and show you their love by paying for it. And, if you're good enough, many do. But sometimes that many isn't enough. If I was to put it on the line, I'd say that publishers possibly overrate the value of the free model and blame the writer when the fans under-deliver at the checkout. But I'm sure it's more complex than that. I'd say that Hutchins' experience tells us that you can give away too much, but you need only look at Scott Sigler to see that that's not the case.

Like more talented people before me have said, the free podcast is a tool in the hands of a craftsperson, and for all that we can bend our energies to work the tool, we cannot control the swirling chaos that lies outside our walls, that place we call Other People. All we can do is throw a hook into that writhing mass and hope that we get a bite, and that it's a big one.

We can try, or we can do nothing. You know the rest.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Making an Appearance or Three

Back in August I mentioned a little podcast novel called The Dreamer's Thread, and said that I would be "following this one with interest."

As it turns out I did more than just follow Aura's fantastic journey. I joined her on it, very briefly.
By the power of Twitter I ended up reading the part of the gruff General Cross, recording a few lines and sending them to Starla to be edited into the podcast. Very cool indeed.

It's one thing to listen to a story but quite another to be able to step into that world and take part in it. However small a part I may have played, it says something about the dynamism of the podcast world that fans can actually become players in the stories that they're enjoying. Can't do that with TV now, can you?

Starla and her audio producer Jamie Jordan did a marvelous job juggling the many voice actors who took part in The Dreamer's Thread, including podcasters Philippa Ballantyne, Mur Lafferty, Paul Ellard Cooley, and many more. All that, and it was a great story to listen to. Not as dark and brutal as the stuff I usually enjoy, but it was fun and touching on many levels. If you haven't already, go on and subscribe.

That's not the only podcast I've been on lately, though.

On the Everyworld News last month I made an appearance as a French(ish) pirate. That was fun. Go have a listen to the news from Jim Ryan's bizarre alternate realities if you want a laugh.

That's all for now. I've been ridiculously busy so far this year so I'm rather a long way behind on my reviews, but not to worry. I'll catch up.

Congratulations must also go out to Seth Harwood and the announcement that his novel Young Junius has been picked up for publishing by Tyrus Books. I had just finished listening to YJ when the news came out, and I think that it's Harwood's most solid and important book yet.I'll be posting a more complete review of YJ shortly, but it's worth saying that I had been hoping Seth was going to deliver a 5-Star product in this book, and he did just that. Nice work, Mister Harwood.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Moment for Tee

It's been far too long since I stopped in here, but I made my excuses a while ago and I won't be making them again.

After taking a couple of weeks off, which I spent relaxing in the Marlborough Sounds with friends and family, and which included the positively invigorating adventure of sailing a 36-foot yacht across the Cook Strait in seven hours, I returned to hear the news that one of my Podcasting heroes had suffered a most tragic loss.

The outpouring of support that Tee Morris has received in the days since his wife Natalie's death has completely blown me away. I first met Tee on Twitter, I shook his hand when he came to New Zealand, and I have only ever known him to be a most giving person. There's certainly nothing I can say that can make sense of the universe taking such a precious person away from someone who has given so much to so many, but I have been left in awe of how much so many people have been willing to give back to Tee in his time of need.
It reminds me that I have found myself as a part of a truly wonderful community of people, and Tee is one of that community's foundation blocks. Yet in this past week, it has been that very community that has turned around and taken the load, and helped carry him. I just want to say that you all rock.

The ever wonderful Phillipa Ballantine went ahead and set up a Chipin Fund to help Tee cover his sudden unexpected costs, and within 24 hours over $10,000USD had been donated. That is amazing. Now, a week later, that fund has swelled to over $17,000USD, and continues to grow. The purpose of the donations now is to provide a trust fund for Tee's daughter, known to the community as Sonic Boom. Tee has a huge task ahead of him, raising his gorgeous little girl as a busy solo Dad, and it's only fair that we give him all the help that we, as his friends, can.

If you haven't had a chance to donate, please consider taking a moment to do so now. You can use the widget above or go and have a look here.

Andrew Jack has thrown in a prize draw for anyone who chips in - just leave a comment on his blog post to enter.

Also, a charity auction has been set up, where items or services can be donated, and these will be auctioned online on February 27th. If you can think of something you can donate, contact details are on the page. If something in the auction takes your fancy, then place a bid.

Tee, if you get a chance to read this, know that you're in my thoughts, you have my deepest condolences, and I wish you all the best for the future.

Kia kaha.