Balticon 47 Highlights, Part 2: Self-Publishing, Tools, & Podcasts

This is Part 2 of my two-part article discussing the sessions that I attended at Balticon 47. In these two articles, I’ve tried to distill some of the major points that I derived from my exploration of the self-publishing track at the convention. Part 1 covered Saturday and Part 2 (this article) covers Sunday.

You’ll see from my choice of sessions that I was very focused on self-publishing, but that I also branched out to learn more about podcasting, voice acting and short films. These are all areas where I think my skill set is well-suited, even if I clearly have much to learn.

So, let’s explore together what Balticon had to offer for someone like me. Also, for those who share similar interests, Balticon did record the audio for most of their sessions, which they plan to release eventually as podcasts.

Sunday, May 26

11:00 – 12:00 PM 5. Narrating Podcast Fiction
Renee Chambliss

You don’t need to have a deep, resonant, radio-announcer voice to be an excellent podcast fiction narrator. The most important quality a narrator can have is the ability to convey vocally the appropriate tone and emotion of the writing. In this session we’ll talk about what you can do before, during and after your recording session to beautifully capture the spirit and intent of a story, with your voice.

Renee Chambliss is a voice actor for podcasts. In this informal discussion, she talked about what you needed in order to podcast effectively. She was also ably assisted by Doc Coleman, another podcaster, who helped her out by augmenting her information nicely with his comments.

She talked some about preparation, voice excesses, etc. The real meat f this particular session occurred when she and Doc Coleman went over equipment recommendations. For podcasting, your computer microphone isn’t really good enough. Renee mentioned that she used a Blue Snowball microphone when she started; it had the advantage that it had a USB port so that it could plug directly into her computer.

She mentioned that GarageBand, which comes with a Mac, was a good tool for editing podcasts. There was also Audacity, a free tool for the PC world (but not as intuitive as GarageBand).

For microphones, Doc Coleman also mentioned a brand called Zoom, and specifically recommended their H1, H2 and H4 products. He liked the fact that these devices recorded to either SD or mini-SD cards.

12:00 – 1:00 PM 6. Websites for Authors
Randall B. Chertcow, Brandon Gamblin, A B Kovacs (Moderator), Betsy Riley, Scott Sigler

Taking your brand and owning your site. Panelists discuss what attracts readers, gets purchases, and increases viewer interaction on author web sites.

This was a free-ranging discussion of author web sites, or more specifically, the features that an author’s web site should have. The general consensus was that when you were starting out, you should just have a relatively simple blog. Advanced features such as forums can be added later when, or if, you have the audience to support them. Having forums without an audience could just make you look bad.

Somebody pointed out that there is no one, single audience. In reality, your audience is made up of different segments, who may be coming to your site for very different reasons. Know your audience, and make sure that your web site has something to offer each segment.

Your web site should also have a Press Kit, with short and long versions of your biography, and pictures that others can use when they discuss you and your work. You’d think this would be obvious, but maybe it’s not — your web site should include links to all of your published works, preferably with a link (such as an Amazon widget) that will help people buy your book.

An author web site should include an Appearance Calendar, so fans and professionals can discover how to meet the author in person. From Allison Gamblin, your web site should include a Terms of Use page and a Privacy Policy, primarily because Google is beginning to expect this for quality sites ‐ check out for some sample content (she’s the wife of author Brand Gamblin and a professional WordPress consultant, so this is probably good advice).

The panel also pointed out that there are also additional web-related opportunities for authors to promote themselves. For example, Amazon supports an Author page for the author and up to three pen names.

There was some agreement that authors should be careful when producing content for their blog. The Internet audience is, by nature, somewhat liberal. A conservative stance, or an overly liberal one, can cost an author fans. Orson Scott Card was specifically mentioned for his conservative stance on topics such as gay marriage, etc.

There was some discussion of shared blogging, where an author guest blogs on other blogs. One panelist described this as “borrowed credibility,” while another panelist corrected this to “borrowed audience.” Generally, they felt this was a good way to get yourself in front of other audience segments, and to hopefully add them to your overall audience.

One author noted that non-fiction giveaways were great for drawing people to your site. Discussing new writers, Scott Sigler stated unequivocally: “Get a web site today.”

The talk concluded with the authors getting whimsical about cool, but as of yet unused, story titles, such as “Girls on Rocks in Space,” “Bear Polo,” and “Soccer Playing Elephants on the Moon.” The last two came from Brand Gamblin, with the elephants title apparently having previously starting an extended discussion on his blog.

Bottom Line: A very useful session, with excellent insights from all of the panelists.

2:00 – 3:00 PM 7. Guerilla Indie Filmmaking on a Budget
Rebecca Davis, James Durham (Moderator), Clint Gaige, Larry Reclusado

A “how-to” roundtable discussion with independent filmmakers.

I went off for a quick lunch, then got back just in time for this session with a bunch of independent filmmakers. This session didn’t provide much in the way of detailed information about indie film production, but it provided a number of excellent anecdotes about things that have happened to derail projects for these filmmakers. And these stories, quite frankly, were worth hearing.

One panelist was filming guerrilla-style, near New Orleans. Specifically, they were doing an action scene that included a vicious-looking knife fight on a levy outside the city. Naturally, the police showed up, called to the scene by an unsuspecting bystander. So the director sent the best-looking girl on his crew to talk to them, and she managed to sweet-talk them out of shutting the production down.

Another filmmaker was doing a gruesome serial killer movie. The twist was that the killer was a diabolical young girl. Again, they were filming guerrilla-style in the stairway of a hotel. In the scene, the girl has just killed someone. She’s standing there, holding a knife, covered in blood, with the body of an adult man lying in front of her. There’s blood splattered all over the wall. And then the door opens and a hotel customer wanders into the scene.

The audience laughed when they herd this story. Then somebody quipped, “Well, did you use the footage? That would have been great for the movie.”

The most serious incident actually stopped production on a film for a month. One of the filmmakers was doing another serial killer film. In one scene, the killer has captured and subdued a young woman, who is now in his cabin in the woods (where he takes all of his victims). In the scene, the woman’s shirt has been torn off, and her bra is exposed. The killer feverishly prepares to decorate her chest using the materials at hand, so to speak.

The woman was a professional actor, albeit not a terribly well-known one; the man more of an amateur. They’d been briefed on how the scene was supposed to go. The quarters where they were filming were cramped and somewhat dark, and the scene was being shot from behind the male actor. The director had no visibility of anything in front of the man.

Well, the male actor apparently decided to augment the reality of the scene by fondling the actress’s breasts, including going underneath her bra. She stayed in character until the end of the scene, and didn’t say anything immediately afterward. The first that the director knew of the issue was when she engaged lawyers to shut down the production.

It took a month to smooth things over. It was a nightmare scenario for a director, who’d been unaware that anything had happened. I’m guessing that the director will never work with the male actor again. Apparently, the director and the actress are still friends despite the incident.

Overall, the session was fun and interesting. The one down-side is that it really didn’t include any actionable information for the audience.

3:00 – 4:00 PM 8. Steps to Successful Self-Publishing
Collin Earl (Moderator), Allison Gamblin, Betsy Riley, Jennifer Zyren Smith, Cecilia Tan

The basic and necessary steps to go from unpublished to successfully self-published. What do you need to make sure to do?

The core takeaway from this session is that you have to produce quality content, first and foremost. If you haven’t got any worthwhile content, then self-publishing is a moot point.

Once you’ve got worthy content, you need to prepare it for publication. Some specific tools that were mentioned were:

  • OpenOffice – A free, open source word processor.
  • WriterToEpub – A plugin (for Microsoft Word) to produce the epub format.
  • Sigil – Improves HTML output.
  • KindleGem – From Amazon, for making Kindle-format files.
  • InDesign – For graphics. From Adobe.
  • Calibre – For tansferring content between formats.

Panelists recommend that you get book review bloggers to review your stories. Most bloggers only accept books for review in electronic form.

As far as producing print books, it was mentioned that Lulu was inordinately expensive, costing at least twice as much as CreateSpace (which is owned by Amazon). Plus, CreateSpace is a print-on-demand service, but Amazon will show a book as “in-stock” if it’s available for production from CreateSpace.

CreateSpace seemed to be the favorite for producing books. However, one panelist mentioned that LightningSource produced better hardcovers and had better distribution to bookstores.

As far as getting the word out using Feedburner, that service is apparently going the way of the dodo. It’s expected to be shut down at any time. and were also mentioned as places where writers could purchase cheap services. The web sites KindleNation and BookBud were also mentioned in passing.

A nice, informative session.

4:00 – 5:00 PM 9. Narratives in New Media
Brandon Gamblin, Bruce Press, Patrick Scaffido (Moderator), Jennifer Zyren Smith

Between blogs, flash games, podcasting, ebooks, twitter fiction, and more — stories can be experienced in strange new ways. What has worked well so far? What would we like to see for the future?

The big takeaway from this session is that sometimes your writing brings about the opportunity to make money from ancillary products, such as podcasts, games, posters, stuffed animals, etc. Writers should take advantage of these opportunities if they can, because it’s always nice to have multiple income streams.

One of the panelists mentioned that we’re still in the early stages of New Media. Mostly what we’ve seen so far are fairly traditional books in electronic form. As the capabilities of book readers advance, and standards evolve, other types of stories will become possible. Right now, for example, electronic formats don’t work well for illustrated fiction or hyper-linked media. There will be more opportunities in the future, and we should all be prepared for them.

5:00 – 6:00 PM 10. Metamor City Live Show
Mildred G. Cady, Renee Chambliss, Doc Coleman, Veronica Giguere, Christopher Lester (Moderator), Hugh J. O’Donnell, Nobilis Reed, Patrick Scaffido

“Rafak Aliri and the Book of Shadows” — A plucky detective with a nose for trouble. A mysterious woman with a hidden agenda. A book of secrets that dangerous people will kill to possess. Come hear a live radio drama of mystery, magic and mayhem in the urban fantasy world of Metamor City, starring Chris Lester, Mildred Cady and the Metamor City Players.

I attended this session sort of by accident, and it turned out to be one of the best sessions that I attended at the convention. It was 5:00 PM on Sunday, and I wasn’t interested in any of the sessions that were being held (well, except for one of airships that was two hours long, but I didn’t want to spend that much time in one extended session). From the description of this session, it sounded like they were going to record a full-cast podcast during the session.

Well, I’d never seen something like that before, so I thought I’d check it out.

Metamor City - An urban fantasy podcast seriesThe show’s script was written by Christopher Lester and Mildred Cady. Christopher also voiced the main character, Rafak Aliri (the detective), while Mildred voiced the “mysterious woman with a hidden agenda.” It turned out to be a well-written, fast-paced detective story with magic, vampires, mages, etc. The participants went straight through the script, with each voice actor coming on at the appropriate times and doing their part.

I was exceedingly impressed with the production, which was smoothly and effectively recorded in front of the audience. The entire audience, including myself, had a great time, and even burst into applause at key moments in the show. Finally, the show featured background music and limited sound effects (mostly for when magic occurred), which were incorporated into the production while it was being recorded. It was also, quite clearly, a great opportunity for all of the voice actors to show off their skills.

Kudos to Christopher Lester and the Metamor City Players for an awesome session. If you weren’t there, I highly recommend checking out this podcast when it becomes available online. It also turns out that this is the latest in a series of podcasts about Metamor City; there are many additional podcasts available at the Metamor City web site. Go check them out! You won’t be sorry you did.

6:00 – 7:00 PM 11. Dynamic Voice Acting
Veronica Giguere, Stephen Granade, Starla Huchton, Alex White (Moderator)

The popular Dynamic Voice Acting panel returns to talk about how to best show off your vocal talents.

This was a fun panel. I had no idea what to expect from it. It was held in the same room as the “Metamor City Live Show,” and I couldn’t find anything else in the program book after that show to make me want to move. So I just stayed, and I’m really glad I did.

Alex White ran the session. His thesis was that many people didn’t understand what directors did in order to get the performance that they wanted out of actors. In fact, he added that a lot of directors don’t even understand how to tell actors what they want. In this session, he and the small team of actors assembled for the panel illustrated how the director could provide “context” to actors to subtly shade their performances.

To facilitate this, Alex provided a number of short scripts for dual-part scenes to his actors. He told the actors the context of the scene, then asked them to do a read-through. Then he’d alter the context, and ask the actors to redo the scene taking into account the altered context.

For example, in one scenario the actors acted out what seemed to be a break-up scene between a man and a woman. Alex asked the audience who was dominant in the scene, and the consensus was that it was clearly the man. Then Alex altered the context: the woman became a 007-style secret agent and the man became her handler. In the ensuing read-through, the woman was clearly in charge, and there was a sinister undercurrent that made it seem unlikely that the man had too much longer to live.

The panelists did a number of scenes like this, and even brought some audience members in to act out a couple of scenes. It was all great fun, but also surprisingly educational.

8:00 – 9:00 PM 12. Open Readings

I went off for a quick dinner, and then came back for an Open Readings session. Five authors did 10-minute readings. Since I plan to do open readings in the future, this was basically me checking out what the competition at a typical session would be like.

Frankly, three weren’t really ready for prime time. One had a a story that he wasn’t sure was any good. One had a humorous SF story that wasn’t (it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t science fiction, and it it wasn’t interesting). Another was a young girl who was having trouble figuring out POV, but had lots of imagery. However, I give them all credit for: 1) finishing a story, and 2) having the courage to read it in public and ask for advice.

The remaining two writers were reading from published works, either self-published or from a small press. Both of these writers had reasonably good content, but weren’t dynamic readers. One of them was T. J. Perkins, who was writing a YA book about a young ninja warrior.

I think my plan to do storytelling at an Open Reading would go over really well. I WILL do this in the future.

9:00 – 10:00 PM 13. Beyond Medieval Fantasy
Peter Bryant, James R. Stratton

A look at the challenges and possibilities of fantasy inspired by time periods other than medieval northwest Europe.

Most fantasy seems to use western medieval Europe as a model. Other societies that were mentioned as interesting were Japan (particularly older time periods) and the Mongols.

Some resources mentioned included:

  • Saxo Grammaticus – The writings of “Saxo the Learned.”
  • Poul Anderson’s works in general.
  • Poul Anderson’s essay, “On Thud and Blunder.”
  • Musashi and Monkey – A book about the creation of the Shogun.
  • Dab Carlin’s history podcast – A well educated amateur historian.
  • Guns, Germs and Steel – An excellent book about the rise of civilizations.

Some choice tidbits include the fact that “viking” means “trader”; that the samurai and kitana are fairly recent developments in Japanese history; and that the Mongols were not exactly the barbarians that they’ve generally been pictured as in films and books. For example, Mongols were brutal, but surprisingly sophisticated:

  • Knew the value of knowledge.
  • Killed all as examples, except scientists and scholars.
  • Allowed freedom of religion, even in conquered populations.
  • Would kill most as an example if their rules were broken, but leave some alive to carry the news to others.
  • Used curve swords to disable as many foes as possible without getting stuck; many injuries led to eventual death through infection in those days.

Overall, a pretty interesting session.

10:00 – 10:30 PM — Meeting with Joe Haldeman —

I blogged about this in another entry, but Joe Haldeman and his wife, Gay, showed up in the “Beyond Medieval Fantasy” room after being misdirected by convention staff (they were supposed to be going to a special meet-and-greet session with convention volunteers). Six of us were still discussing things, because there was no session scheduled in the room after the one we’d just attended. So we all got to have a 30-minute conversation with famed writer Joe Haldeman (but I’m the only one that got a photograph taken with him).

I had a great time at Balticon, and really benefited from the fact that on Sunday I was able to visit for the full day. I was really pleased that I was able to get a photo with Joe Haldeman, the Guest of Honor for the convention, and a great writer. I was also pleased with all of sessions I attended. I learned some new things, and achieved validation for many of the things that I want to do with regard to self-publishing.

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