Monday, July 16, 2012

DIY Art and the New God

Yesterday saw the issue of traditional vs. self-publishing yet again debated and discussed, and in considerable depth. If you write, edit, or find yourself in any way connected to the world of publishing, then you'll be doing yourself a huge favor by reading Porter Anderson's "Will DIY Pay for R&D", which responds with analysis and commentary to Eugenia Williamson's somewhat incendiary post of July 3rd. Anderson's question at the bottom (Can DIY help new artists/writers gain exposure?) resulted in over 45 comments, each nearly a full screen length in size. People were talking. I'd like to keep the conversation going.

I threw my two cents into the comment thread, focusing on the apparatus that I see serving the role of research and discovery/development for new artists (I'll stop differentiating between artists and writers here). Simply put, the future for artists resides in outlets like Kickstarter. In his reply to my comment, Porter Anderson raised a concern that, at the time, I let stand as valid for the purpose of discussion. I'd applauded Kickstarter, and those who support projects through it, as the new paradigm for artists and arts consumers (readers included). Anderson rejoined with some clear and careful points that are not to be dismissed.

"Can that community of readers you so rightly and generously hail today stick this out?" 


"How many crowdfunding enthusiasts really know what it will feel like when the book they put some money into doesn't go anywhere? -- through nobody's fault, mind you, I'm not even saying "bad books," I'm just saying millions upon millions of books."

The first question implies that as consumers we might tire of the process. And I'll grant that as an inevitability for some. There's bound to be a person or two, or 10,000, who find their interests and passions not reflected very well in the Kickstarter community. Any projects they do pledge to fund may well end up not meeting a funding goal, and thus the particular type or style of those projects gets selected out and goes extinct in the world of Kickstarter. Does that mean that we'll never see microfunding for that type or style of art? Of course not. Kickstarter is just one player in the game, and there's no stopping people from banding together and engineering a new microfunding platform for projects that don't work in the KS model. It's probably happening as I write this anyway.

She was a celebrity before this, sure. But that doesn't take away from her success here.

As to the issue of "sticking it out" in general, for all concerned parties...I don't think we have a choice. There's been a tectonic shift in how creative projects are advanced and shared with the world at large, and while the dust is still very much in a settling pattern, we're starting to see the eventual landscape take shape amidst the rubble.

On the second point Porter Anderson made, that people might grow disillusioned after seeing even successfully funded projects fail to reach global proportions of winning, let's consider the real question, which is summed up in Porter's subsequent comment:

"War and Peace might never be spotted today. How many times can Tolstoy go back to his Kickstarter buddies and say, "This time, I've really got a perfect book, trust me on this"? -- know what I mean?"

Yes. I do know what you mean, and it is hard to think about what we KNOW to be great literature completely failing to take root. The community of readers now operates and bases decisions in the self-determining model that Kickstarter provides. How do we guarantee that great literature will ever be heard from again? We can't guarantee it will, but I don't think we need to worry.

Jordan Stratford's Wollstonecraft project made me believe in Kickstarter
Would the world be a poorer place had Tolstoy's epic tale never reached the typesetter's table? Possibly. Or maybe he would have written it differently, broken it up into smaller chunks if that's what the feedback he'd received told him to do. We know that's what every high school English student wishes he had done. In today's world, where artists seek microfunding BEFORE starting their work, the Tolstoy of today would have had that direct feedback and he'd be able to make those crucial in-game decisions. And the really great thing is that with that feedback, today's Tolstoys are able to produce even better literature, because they KNOW in advance which ideas and which parts of their ideas their audience finds most exciting and inspiring! And the artists can and are responding to their fans.

A tertiary point, raised in Williamson's post, is that quantity is outpacing quality so much that we're bound to drown under a deluge of drek. To this, I say "Meh." Kickstarter and other microfunding sources have built in quality controls called "the people pledging their hard earned cash to fund these crazy ideas that all these artists have." If we get burned by trash, we don't fund that artist again. Eventually, the chaff gets chased off because word gets around on the Internet. What we're left with is the heart, the kernal of art.

With writing, traditional publishers used to decide what was worth putting onto the shelves. They vetted the work, and we voted on their decisions by purchasing or not purchasing what they offered us. They compiled sales data and made different (or the same) decision next time.

Now artists and arts consumers share the vetting role. We're the deciders now. If you, as an artist, believe in your work, you can petition the world at large to support you. And if enough of the world at large responds in the affirmative, then you've received their vetting, too. If there's anything in this process that resembles the traditional model, it's Kickstarter employees who initially review your project and approve or deny your campaign before it goes live. Drek might sneak through now and then, but it won't stay around long enough to leave a stain.

 "We are the media." - Amanda Fucking Palmer

I'm curious now, what you think. If you are an artist, what's your medium/media, and how do you see the future shaping up for you? Does the interdependent model of microfunding and co-vetting with your consumers appeal to you? Is there room for a traditional approach, with a "house" behind you, handling the logistics and business end of things, freeing you to focus on your creative efforts? Shall the twain e'er or ne'er meet?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

How do you tell a story?

I met an employee of Pixar, yes that Pixar, at a Memorial Day picnic. Purely out of self-serving interest, I asked how stories could get pitched to the studios (I'd like to make a movie someday and figured why not ask). The answer:

You don't.

Pixar is strictly in-house. Anyone can come up with an idea, and then send it to the folks who work in 'Story'. If it passes muster there, it'll advance up the chain until it gets killed or gets a green light. And thus Nemo is born, along with all the others. They've even got this nifty piece of paper that you have to sign if you happen to mention a story idea within earshot of a Pixar employee (and are cognizant of that person's status as such). If you do mention a story idea to them, you have to sign the paper, which states that they, the Pixar employee, did not hear you say what you said. Ah, America. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, and Cesspool of the Frivolously Litigious. Well, it's good to know that Pixar takes steps to protect itself. I like their movies, for the most part.

The whole process got me thinking about storytelling in a big way though. I was also led down this path by a book review I've done as a favor, and for a book that contains zero elements of good storytelling.

How do you tell a story? What goes into it?

Ta-da! Pixar to the rescue:

#4 stood out to me, as I've been struggling with leading my various plot threads to a unified point as I approach the final act of my novel. Somehow all of the people and events have to come together and make sense. And while I would like to invoke the ghost of Nero Wolfe and gather them all into a room together for the grand revelation, that just won't work with my story. It's got gods in it, it does, and they take up a lot of space. Far too much to accommodate other people in a room with them all.

So I went back and looked at my WIP and then I looked at that list of storytelling rules Pixar was so kind to share. I came up with this:

Once upon a time there was a hardboiled newshawk named Mitchell Brand. Everyday he broadcast live reports and special bulletins about crime in Chicago, all from his desk and radio set aboard the Airship Vigilance (yes, name change. Everquest the MMORPG has an airship Vigilant, need to fix the blog title, I know).

One day, Mitchell Brand got the scoop on the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. Because of that, the mob came after him, his boss told him to cool it, and the Mayor was assassinated. Because of that, the real powers that be came to Chicago to set things right, which sent the mob running for cover and left Mitchell Brand with his hands full of nothing, until finally he learns the truth about who runs the show in Chicago and risks his life to get the news out to the people.

So how do you tell a story? What's your story about?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Story A Day - 15

Prompt from Thinking Ten: Take it Away Tuesday: "The letter lay unopened on the table..."

The letter lay unopened on the table. Crane knew what was in it so he let it sit and dialed up the Ministry of Safety and Security. The radiophone squawked in his ear as Minister Mayes came on the line.

"Crane. I understand you've had some containment issues. You don't need me to tell you..."

"No, Mayes, I don't," Crane said and then continued before the other g-man could pick up where he was cut off. "The rogue elements are my problem and I've got the solution. You don't need to send any more of your gunships to shoot up my building. Or kill my officers. That was the Underminister you took out, you know."

"Sorry to hear that, Crane. Just doing our job, and don't bother crying me another river about all the extra work I'm making for you." When Crane paused, his counterpart took the opening to get a few shots in. "Yeah, that's right. I already heard from someone else in your organization that you've been talking up a storm about how hard it is to keep the news clean when, how did it go again? 'Minister Mayes and his triggermen keep shooting up the joint.'

"Triggermen, huh? You make it sound like you think we're a bunch of mobsters. Look, Crane, I know why you called. I'm going to make it easy on you. You get Brand under wraps and keep him there, or the Ministry for Public Information will be subsumed under the leadership of my office. And you and I both know what that means."

Mayes cut the line then. Crane let the radiophone buzz until it started chirping at him, reminding him to cradle the device to close the line. He didn't. Reaching into his coat pocket, Minister Crane pulled out his flask and threw back two swallows of pure grade firewater. Even though Capone's Outfit had left town, their distilling operations were still running in and around the city. Sometimes it paid to be a member of the government team that ran Chicago. And sometimes it didn't.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Story A Day - 14

Prompt from Thinking Ten: On location Monday: In the meadow


Emma dropped the hammer and sank down into the grass of the meadow. She leaned against the rough wood of the fence rails. The smell of freshly hewn timber mingled with the early spring air, and the sounds of the men in the village were carried to her on the breeze. They were hoisting felled trees onto wagons pulled by draft horses, and Emma could almost taste the humid air around the animals.

This life in the countryside had changed her in ways that nights spent in Eddie's neighborhood never could. But that didn't mean she longed for him any less. It had been five months since she'd last seen his golden eyes and rich coffee skin, felt his tender palms caressing her shoulders. Let herself tumble heart first into his soothing basso.

What hadn't they tried back in the village? Eddie'd promised to play tunes for her on the show he put out from the South Side station he and his band set up. It was a pirate radio station, and she was living with the pirates now, right? So why couldn't anybody bring up Eddie's station out here? Hell, even Mr. Tesla came out here sometimes to help the villagers stay connected and informed about what was happening in the cities.

She'd have gotten up to go have a talk with the old wizard, but sitting down against the fence was all she could muster. Her back sang to her like a youth choir in the throes of adolescence. Every muscle felt ready to break like a schoolboy's voice.

"A little change of pace from your society digs, eh, sister?" Brand said from where he sat a few feet farther down the fence line. His hammer was on the ground beside him, dropped after he'd finished pounding in the last pin that would hold the rails to the posts they'd sunk the day before.

"You know it, buster. What I wouldn't give for a hot bath and some of that grub they dish up at the speakeasies."

"You and me both, sister. You and me both." Brand said and then leaned back and looked at the sky. His eyes opened wide then. "Hey," he said to Emma, straining like a tramp full of hooch as he got upright again. "Looks like our time's up out here in Camp Belly Acres. Government ships."

Emma looked in the direction Brand was pointing and then staggered to her feet in her own drunkard's dance. He was right. Two silver-gray cigars floated steadily towards them in the Eastern sky. That meant they had to pass over Chicago's airspace, and since they were still in the air, that meant they were full of government men.

Brand had his hammer and was slipping through the fence rails. Emma followed and they moved off together towards the treeline. Their gait had them limping and hopping around the uneven ground of the meadow. At this rate, they'd make the trees, but their motion was so exaggerated, it was one chance in a thousand that they'd make it there unseen.

"I hope that wizard isn't just talking hokum, Brand. That aether veil business made my skin crawl, but it just sounds like a fairytale now that we're on the lam again."

"Trust me, sister, I'd be saying the same thing if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. We just need to get back to the campsite. Larson's still there, unless he got called off for a delivery. We can use his gear to get behind the curtain. No way the government men can spot us."

"And if Larson did get called off? What then?"

"Then we hope Tesla's got a lightning cannon in his back pocket."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Story A Day - 13

I started this StoryADayMay one day ahead of things, but fell behind last weekend by missing Saturday, making me just on track. Now I've missed another Saturday, so today's story is an actual break in the chain of daily pieces. Alas.

Today was the last day of the 43rd Whole Earth Festival, held annually in Davis, CA since it started as an art class project in 1969. I've been involved off and on, in and out, since 1996 and am continually amazed by the power generated by conducting work in an environment of play. I dedicate today's story to this year's staff and all those before them.

Prompt from Thinking Ten: Sunday Times, open today's paper and write for ten minutes about the first thing that comes to mind.

Today, a dozen people protested in Moscow. They risked a lot more than lawsuits. If you're unfamiliar with what's been happening to protesters of Putin's government, just spend some time on Google.

Here's today's article on the protest:


So a gang of miscreants known as The Davis Dozen have done something awful. They really should have known better, you know. It isn't everyday that a bank takes interest in furthering education for the masses. Or maybe it is, I really don't keep up with these things the way I should. The story as I've heard it is that twelve people, 11 students and one professor, have been named in a lawsuit brought by the California Attorney General's office (I may have that wrong, but somebody with an official title is on the warpath against this egg carton of troublemakers who really should have known better.

I mean, c'mon people, let's get with the program. You know what they do to kids who sit down and refuse to move in Davis, California. November 18th, anyone? Ring a bell? Two words, rhymes with Leper Fray.

Yes, that is the point. Always was. But that doesn't make the lawsuit any more sensible. So since the Lt. Pike debacle, the university got gun shy (pun intended, very much) about calling out their police units to do anything about peaceful civil disobedience. Instead, they provided verbal and written warnings to a group of people who were blockading access (ingress and egress) at a bank location inside the Memorial Union, a public facility on the university campus.

And despite those verbal and written warnings, in which the consequences of their protest action were repeatedly made clear to them, the Davis Dozen kept on keeping on.


If you ask me, it's because they saw, in US Bank's occupation of a former meeting space, not a boon for the student community, but a lock on its access to the very principles of education. Free exploration, study, and expression of ideas cannot prosper in an environment with corporate labels blocking up the landscape. When your Student Identification card comes complete with the logo of a major bank, and you are encouraged to open an account with that bank when you arrive, and you see that bank has a presence front and center in the primary student union building on campus, where almost every student is guaranteed to spend at least a few hours each week...

Well, it's rather similar to how AT&T and Verizon wanted to shut down the Internet except to sites and providers who were willing to pony up for access. Sure, we are technically using "their cables". But when access to the buying (or surfing) public only goes to the highest bidders, or, in the case of US Bank, the solitary winning bidder, then what kind of access are we really talking about?

The Davis Dozen is on trial for protesting US Bank's occupation of the former East Conference Room (an affordable meeting space that had been used by student clubs for inductions, awards events, dinners, and outreach activities). They did so because putting public space in the hands of private dollars, on a university campus, doesn't help the university's mission of educating the state's youth and those who come to California because of the reputation this state has as being among the best for post-secondary and post-doctoral study.

Learn. Discover. Engage. That's the UC Davis mission statement.

The Davis Dozen learned in their classes and in their life experience that peaceful protest and refusal to accept harmful situations is a practiced and powerful method of encouraging positive change. They discovered that it is better and nobler to bear the slings and arrows of ridicule and prosecution than to sit idly by and allow the powerful UC leaders to continue advancing their agendas without input from the students, staff, and faculty whom they serve. The Davis Dozen engaged, and methinks they would have done Jean Luc Picard proud (had to, I'm a sci-fi geek).

Now the Davis Dozen are facing a serious threat to their futures. Jail time. Up to a US$1M in fines. US Bank broke their contract, citing an inability to operate in the conditions present at the Memorial Union location. The UC and US Bank both tossed "breach of contract" lawsuits at each other.

Ultimately, it isn't a question of who broke a promise between the UC and US Bank. It's a question of when the UC decided it was okay to stop making promises to students and start promising things to corporations instead.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Story A Day - 11

Prompt from Thinking Ten: Include a fermented beverage in your post, or just drink one
and make it a Free-for-all Friday instead.

I'll go you one better ;-) *cracks open a Boont Amber*


"That's some fine sauce, Mr. Brand. Some fine sauce, indeed."

Larson sat back in the chair and sipped on the jug Brand had given him. It wasn't just a jug though. It was an honest to goodness bottle of wine, the kind you get in them restaurants, Larson had said when he accepted it from Brand. 

He took another swallow and looked across the cabin at Chicago's most famous newsman and, he also knew, its most famous fugitive. Emma Farnsworth, sitting up in the pilot's chair, ran a close second, but only because she wasn't rumored to have killed a copper. Even though Brand hadn't done any such thing, the good people of Chicago had been told he had. And in the world of today, just being told somebody'd done something was as good as them doing it. Larson held in a laugh as Brand told him of their escape from the scrap yard and how he'd argued against shooting that copper, instead leaving him unconscious in the dirt.

"I looked at the crabs," Brand was saying. "There's plenty of blood on one of 'em. I must have ripped Wynes but good when I took that swing."

"Yeah, well, I wouldn't be too tore up about that now, Mr. Brand. Way you tell it, he was fixing it up nice for you and the lady there. Probably should have let her plug him a few times."

"You think so? And what good would that have done? I'd be no better off with Chicago and a damn sight worse with myself. I've never killed a man, and the only reason I ever let it happen is because I couldn't stop it."

"And when was that, Mr. Brand? Always thought you were the kind to stay away from gunplay."

"The Great War. But don't think I just sat there while those boys jumped over the trench wall and ran willy-nilly into a hailstorm made of lead. I begged and pleaded with the lieutenants and then the sergeants and then the corporals. Don't blow the whistle. I yelled at 'em. Don't blow it. Don't blow the damn thing. Give it to me and I'll throw it over the wall, out there into the mud and the puddles of red. It didn't make a lick of difference what I said though. They just put the thing between their lips, and then, when the last of those boys had gone, they put the barrel of their pistols where the whistle had been."

"What'd you say to 'em then? More begging and pleading?"

"No. I didn't say anything. I knew just like them that they'd earned that easy ticket. Half of me wished I could have taken the same ride, but they don't issue weapons to the Observation Corps."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Story A Day - 10

Prompt from Thinking Ten: The plot thickens: Missing an important date...


Emma sat on her bunk, watching the guard roam the hallway. His baton clanged against the bars of the neighboring cells in a steady rhythm.

"Eight o'clock and all are in their cells, eh ladies?" he said and then laughed himself silly.

The female wing of the county lockup had four inmates, including Emma. She'd been the last one brought in, but the others had all had their trial dates set. Two of them, she'd heard, were hauled in for petty theft. Somehow Emma doubted the charge would hold water if the jury got the real story. Both women had taken their wedding rings back from their ex-husbands, so they'd have something to pawn. So they'd have something to eat.

The jury would hear a different tale though. The problem with society marriages that fail is that when the woman isn't from a society family, she gets put back where she came from. And for the two girls who called themselves Emma's neighbors, that meant getting a ticket to Skid Row.

But they'd also been given tickets to see the judge and get a court date set for their trials. Emma hadn't. Her case was big news, so it was backwards to get second billing to a divorced woman making off with a half-carat stone. Even two gold-digging dames, if that was the real story, couldn't push a murderess off the front page and into the lockup for two months with no word from the courthouse.

What the hell was taking so damn long?