Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Derelict: A Short Story

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined by Tyson Guttwein, better known as Bashar to his online friends,who is here today to talk to us about his short story Kickstarter: “Derelict.”  Thank you for joining us today Bashar.

Hello Jim.  Thank you for having me.

Let me start off by congratulating you on reaching your goal of $500.  Could you give us a brief description of the story?

As a writer I can do many things with the written word but I’m not sure I ever had a good handle on “brief”.  Nevertheless, I‘ll do my best!

Derelict is a science fiction adventure story set in the far future.  The protagonist, a man by the name of Jason Conrad, is the navigator on a small starship hired to perform a deep space salvage operation on a derelict vessel.  Unfortunately that term which gives the story its name turns out to be something of a misnomer as Jason and his crew realize after they’ve boarded that they’re not alone.  Then Bad Things™ happen.

That’s the synopsis without divulging the outcome.  As for what the story is about, it’s really about a man coming to grips with the choices he’s made in life and deciding whether or not they’re worth it.  Events occur in the story that put life in focus for Jason and his fellow crewmates.  Each experiences those events differently and will have their own response, voluntarily in some cases and compelled in others.  We watch this unfold through Jason’s eyes.

I should also mention that with the generous support of one of my backers, we’re in line to be adding an additional story to this campaign.  As one of my project rewards I offered to write a short story for someone who backs at the $300 level.  Even though I have been waiting for more backers before formally implementing this reward tier, I did receive one such pledge.  We’ve discussed some ideas and I think we’ve come up with a promising plot.  I will reveal more on the project page once the details are hammered out but suffice to say it looks like Derelict will be a compilation work before this campaign is through.

You mention that the setting could have been set “during the age of sail” but didn’t because you would have researched yourself to death basically to get the details right.  In a sci-fi setting though you’re planning on “fudging” it more? What are you doing to give you the “fudge factor” you’re looking for?  Especially with folks like myself who work in the space industry and hence, hold sci-fi up to more scrutiny than an age of sail book.  

Well there’s two parts to science fiction.  There’s the science and then there’s the fiction.  Anything that we have the technological capability to achieve today, or theoretical extrapolation of that technology, comprises the former.  The latter is comprised of fantastical elements drawn as a convenience to the narrative.  In the context of the Frank Herbert quote that all magic is undiscovered science, I do include “magical” technologies, such as a faster-than-light drive for relatively quick star travel, and an artificial gravity generator so that I can have characters performing terrestrial actions, such as standing or running, in what would ordinarily be a gravity free environment.

I don’t try to rationalize these magic technologies with pseudo science.  As far as the characters are concerned, they function and that’s good enough for them.  They don’t need to know the how or why of it because it’s become a mundane part of their life.  Case in point, today in the world there are estimated to be over a billion automobiles; how many drivers do you think can explain how the internal combustion engine works?  Though not difficult to learn, very few of us have reason to understand the technology that we take for granted on a daily basis.  That leaves me an opening as the author to hide magic in vaguery.

What it comes down to is maintaining the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  I believe that as long as I’m upfront about the magical aspects of my story, the reader will accept them and move on.  In those circumstances where magic doesn’t apply, though, I make a point to adhere to real world norms as an effort to provide grounding.  It’s the grounding that’s key.

I saw the movie X-Men: First Class last year.  As far as the mutant powers are concerned, I can accept this as a magical aspect of science fiction.  Telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, these things I can nominally accept as some form of science beyond my comprehension.  My suspension of disbelief was obliterated, though, when I watched an SR-71 aircraft bank like a WW2 fighter plane.  I know for a fact that SR-71s can not physically manoeuvre like that.  I know for a fact that if an SR-71 were flying at a speed slow enough to make such a manoeuvre that it would drop like a stone because its wings are incapable of providing enough lift at such a low velocity.

So I fully expect my story to be scrutinized by people with a strong scientific background and I hope that my backers will take the time to point out any errors any inconsistencies that I make while the story is still in draft form.  I welcome the criticism and look at it as a way of making the story better.

To give you an example of how I caught myself and provide some insight into my process, while writing an early draft of the first chapter I identified a nebula as a hazard to space travel.  This is a common trope in science fiction, particularly in games such as Wing Commander or Freelancer where such severely reduces your visibility.  But given our ability to observe these beautiful astronomical formations today, I suspect that any visual impairment from within the clouds of gas and particles that make up a nebula would be less like a thick fog and more like a light mist.

On a whole I think we Earthlings tend to overlook the sheer emptiness of space.  When we picture it in our imagination, there's a tendency to take its most interesting and unique features and then concentrate them to a level appreciable in context of the tangible world around us.  Once I'd decided to get rid of the nebula, the same reasoning precluded me from replacing it with an asteroid field.  The kind of thrilling chase we love in Empire Strikes Back, complete with its superlative score by John Williams, simply can't exist or, let me correct myself, only improbably exists in the real world.  Objects in space typically don't move that slowly relative to one another.

Eventually I settled on a debris field to serve as my space hazard, presumably formed as the result of two stellar bodies smashing into one another.  A cloud of small objects, perhaps no larger than golf balls, moving at supersonic speeds would constitute a very real danger to a starcraft's hull.  To put this into context here on Earth, while nobody is afraid of being crushed by a boulder (save perhaps Indiana Jones), we're deathly afraid of being hit by a bullet.  That's because a boulder, though certainly much bigger, is more obvious and we can take care to avoid the danger it poses.  Bullets, while tiny, are much more difficult to react to.  Speaking generally, the difference is similar for an asteroid field respective to a debris field.  It is not the threshold of damage that is threatening so much as our inability to deflect or avoid it.

The characters in Derelict overcome this hazard with a combination of probability mathematics and human intuition, projecting the course the debris will take and avoiding areas where the environment is too chaotic.  The characters in the role of navigator and pilot in my story have a close relationship because together they represent the projection and avoidance mechanisms respectively.  All of what I have described above, though, will probably not be made mention of in the actual narrative because this effort, this teamwork, is simply common practice for the characters  It's routine, mundane.  But it's something that I as the author take into consideration in understanding the lives of my characters, in appreciating what they do and how their lives are impacted by their job.

Even in circumstances when I am drawing on the convenience of magical technology, I may still try to ground its application in terms that are harken to real science.  For example, a common means of generating propulsion for deep space probes is to "slingshot" them around large masses like moons, planets, or even the sun.  This is a very clever bit of physics where an object is put on a course so that it will be pulled into a powerful gravitational field, the more powerful the better.  As the object falls toward the this field, it accelerates, moving faster and faster.  But as the object generates speed it is able to thrust itself out of the gravitational field's grasp, thus hurtling back into space, now at a much quicker rate than when it had started.  It's similar to how a discus thrower generates momentum by spinning his arm in an arc before releasing.

There was one point in the story where I had the navigator suggest that he could cut down their flight time by "slingshoting" their ship around a star.  Even though I don't have any idea how the ship's propulsion system works, I'm still drawing on real world science to explain how the characters are manipulating it to their advantage.  So even magic has some basis in science.  Again, this is not something that will be spelled out in the story because it is mundane to the characters involved but I still take it into consideration to give the story a realistic feel.

But in spite of all this talk about science, I’m still writing “soft” science fiction.  That is to say that I’m not writing about the interrelationship of man and technology so much as the interrelationship of man with himself and his fellow beings.  It’s a story about people, social in nature.  The point that I was trying to make in the paragraph that you quoted is that science and technology are incidental to the story, which in spite of its futuristic setting is ultimately timeless.  While I’m not drawing on any particular source, I’m engaging themes that authors have been exploring in literature and drama since ancient times.

With respect to why I'm not setting this story in the Age of Sail or a contemporary or period setting, that actually has more to do with world building than anything else.  For example, if I were to have a character meet the governor of Port Royale in 1792 then I would want to know everything I could about that man so that I presented his character as authentic to the actual person as possible.  Or if, for the sake of the story, I chose to invent my own governor, I'd want to be aware of the dress and customs of the period to ensure that the archetype was being correctly portrayed.  When I set a story in a futuristic or fantasy setting, I can make up people, places, names, all on the spot, inventing new material as its needed.  If I want to make the eskimo kiss to be the traditional greeting of the dolphin worshippers of planet Eggnog, nobody can pull out an encyclopedia and tell me otherwise.

The main character is described as a bit of a “Han Solo” type, was that for ease in story creation by using a universally recognized character archetype?  

Quite the opposite, actually.  I conceptualized the character of Jason Conrad in my head, gradually developing him as he integrated with the growing narrative until a full fledged human being was formed.  It was only afterward, for the sake of the Kickstarter, that I identified his archetype.

In respect to Han Solo, though, he and Jason are strikingly dissimilar, specifically in personality.  While Han is the swashbuckling type, relying on his swagger to tempt lady luck to his side, Jason is a much more deliberate person who believes in planning ahead.  This is in large part a reflection in the difference between the worlds of Star Wars and Derelict.  As I described before, while I’m writing a tale of science fiction I’m still trying to keep the science aspect as grounded to real life as possible.  In the vacuum of space, mistakes kill in an instant.  If you depend on luck for your survival then you probably won’t survive long.

Yet both fit into the same role in that their primary motivation is largely material, at least at the story’s onset.  Both are looking out for number one yet are willing to put themselves at risk for people they feel attached to.  Both are fiercely independent yet live off of the work they perform for more powerful entities.  Both are willing to engage in criminal activity yet neither are villainous.

Of course, not all space mercenaries have a warm and fuzzy inside but most of the memorable ones display this kind of character depth.  That’s why I also made mention of Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly and the protagonist from the game Wing Commander: Privateer.  While all these characters have their own personality quirks and their own way of approaching situations, each fits into the same general archetype.  With Jason Conrad, I’m not so much drawing inspiration from a source as I am adding my own contribution to the theme.

I think the popular attraction to space mercenaries is the variety in their character.  Sometimes they’re petty and selfish, other times they have a heart of gold.  I believe this resonates with people.  We all have instances in our lives where we act on selfish desires yet in different circumstances we might give the shirt off our back to someone in need.  Neither heroes nor villains, the space mercenary is remarkably familiar as person.

What are your plans for this story after you’ve fulfilled the Kickstarter rewards?   Do you plan on selling it through Amazon or  Barnes and Noble?  

I probably will sell the eBook through an online retailer but I haven’t really thought that far ahead.  My primary concern is ensuring that my backers get the best value for their pledges.  These people are taking a chance on me and I believe that deserves to be rewarded.

The design of this campaign is to publish a limited run of special edition copies my of story, in physical, audio, and eBook form.  This particular edition will then never be reprinted.  Though the story will remain the same, I plan to add some additional, incidental content as well as special cover art to commemorate my debut as an author.

In short, I’m pulling out all the stops.  At least all the stops that I can afford.  Now that the initial funding goal has been met, the backers have informed me that they’d like me to bring a professional editor on board for quality control.  Once I’ve researched the cost of that, I will be implementing it as a stretch goal.

Fact of the matter is I wouldn’t be here talking to you, Jim, if it weren’t for the support of my backers.  They deserve the very best in return.  I’m committed to ensuring that the people who entrust their hard earned money in me receive the very best value that I can provide.

What would you tell someone who was “on the fence” about the idea of backing your project?  What is so special about your story that we should give you our money?  

That is a difficult question to answer because the truth of the matter is that I don’t really look at my project as special.  I’m not out to bring profound change to the world.  I’m not claiming to be the next Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan.

My purpose in writing and publishing this story is mainly to entertain.  The change I want to bring is on a personal level.  I look at the individual reader and seek to brighten their day, just a little.  I aim to give them a few minutes respite from their lives so that they may experience the lives of others, to see a unique world through strange.  If I am very fortunate, perhaps the reader will take something from this experience, some new perspective that they can apply to their own world.

I can’t really tell your readers why they should support my work because, as with any work of art, I don’t know just how or why it may resonate with the observer.  I know only why it appeals to me, what motivates me to reach completion.  So to those people on the fence I would ask that they go to my project page and peruse my samples.  If they like what they see, it only requires a dollar pledge to receive the eBook edition of the story.  If not, well, no hard feelings.  We’ll tip our hats and see one another at the next crossroads.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

I was googling a game designer that I admire to see if there was any news pertaining to her or her work.  As it happened she had initiated a crowd funding effort on Kickstarter to help fund her own, independent development studio.  That was my first Kickstarter pledge and I’ve never looked back.  According to my profile I’ve since pledged to eight more projects.  This is a great enterprise and I’m proud to be a part of it, as backer and now again as developer.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

For me the most important thing has been to keep my backers engaged.  I routinely post on the comments board.  I am fortunate to have a close knit group of supporters with whom I am acquainted through internet forums and I’ve maintained conversations with these people on those forums even after the project launched.

I’m the sort of person who likes to receive feedback so it’s natural for me to want to be inclusive when making decisions.  I often present ideas to my backers and then act on their input.  It really helps foster a sense of community between us.  I may be the author and I maintain full creative sovereignty over my work, but this endeavour has proved to be a group collabouration.  I would not be here speaking with you, Jim, without the support of my backers.  They’re the ones who gave me the confidence to launch my kickstarter and they’re the driving force behind the word-of-mouth campaign that is bringing in new backers.

We’re a team.  We each have specialized roles and our own array of skills and strengths.  Together we’re making this project work and will achieve something greater than I could have merited on my own.

As the campaign progresses and as the writing itself comes to fruition, I plan to make a few videos explaining my creative process.  Some backers also have access to a restricted message board on my forum where I discuss details of the story and will offer drafts as they’re being written for critique.  I want to give backers the sense that they’re watching the story develop.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

Mainly through word of mouth via Facebook and Twitter.  I personally don’t have an account with either service so I really depend on my friends and the community of backers for that kind of social networking.  It came as a surprise to me when I learned that Derelict was listed on Kicktraq so one of my backers much have registered the project there on my behalf.  I’ll likely be listing this interview there once it’s published.

To be honest, promotion has my weak point and it’s been a struggle to overcome it.  It’s difficult to generate exposure and that’s the first and foremost responsibility for someone launching a crowd funding campaign.  Thankfully I have some adept backers who have been instrumental in getting the word out about Derelict, one of whom has even incorporated the project in their Kickstarter screen name.

The project also received a mention from the Twitter account of a crowd funded effort that I had supported in the past.  One of the nice things I find about the kickstarter community is how open many projects are to promoting one another, even in cases when the two might conflict if they were sharing retail shelf space.  For the most part it seems that developers really want their campaigns to succeed on merit and aren’t afraid of competition.  There’s a certain honesty to the environment that is refreshing.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Borrowing from Sun Tzu, crowd funding campaigns succeed or fail before they’re even launched.  Its success is determined often as much by preparation as the project’s merit.  There’s more to it than hitting the launch button and watching the numbers rise.  Like a plant, you have to tend to your campaign in order to enable it to grow; you need to water it regularly and ensure it has adequate sunlight and soil nutrients.  Without the right preparations and care, your campaign is liable to wither and die.

I believe the most important thing is to appreciate the nature of the beast.  A lot of us come in to crowd funding as creators, as developers.  When we launch our campaign, we often expect to keep working in that capacity.  Really, though, from the day of launch to the day the fundraising concludes, it’s important that you take off the developer hat and put on the promoter one.  Crowd funding is all about marketing.  Development comes after.  I’ve watched some very good, very interesting projects fail or achieve only minimal success because their creators did not appreciate the importance of exposure.  They focused on what they knew best and overlooked their weaknesses.  Producing the finest content in the world isn’t going to help you unless people, potential backers, have the opportunity to hear about it.

The moment you press the Launch button you need to put away your pen, put away your paint brush, your dance shoes, your slide rule or whatever instrument your craft utilizes and pick up a big megaphone.  Then you need to keep hold of that megaphone and keep speaking into it about your project until you’re satisfied with your funding level.  Then, and only then, can you go back to being a developer.  If you find that you need to develop prior to that point then you went in to the campaign unprepared.  Whatever you need to prove your concept, whether its a demo or a sample or an artist’s rendering, get all of that done before you launch and then put your focus on marketing and promotion.  That’s not to say you can’t do both, but as long as you’re under funded, development should be a secondary consideration.

Another thing worth having prior to launch is a cohesive base of supporters, or a community of fans.  Your building it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will come.  Active supporters don’t materialize out of a corn field, you need to find and rally them.  If you’re an established developer then the job is probably easier since you likely have a group of fans that you can reach out to.  If you’re a small fry like me, though, then it’s going to take more effort.

Where you find your supporters doesn’t matter so long as you find them  I found mine in online forums pertaining to other crowd funding projects that I backed.  When I decided to pursue my own such campaign, these people were familiar enough with both myself and the process to be willing and able to provide substantial help.  I know of another author who drummed up support by rallying her friends at a local bar and holding party to introduce the project to them.  In both instances, success probably would not have been achievable if these efforts had not been made.

Once you’ve established your support base, make sure to keep them engaged.  Interact often and make certain that being part of your community is an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.

Finally you should appreciate price elasticity when determining your reward tiers.  In general there are two kinds of backers, those who pledge with their hearts and those who pledge with their minds.  The difference between the two isn’t in how much they’re willing to pledge but what they’re willing to pledge for.  You’re going to want tiers to accommodate both.

The backer of the mind is very simple to understand.  The most important thing for them is price point.  They’re looking for value for their money.  They want reasonable prices and tangible rewards.  As a general rule of thumb when pricing a tier, determine what the MSRP of the cumulative rewards and cut that in half.  Then determine the cost you will undertake to fulfill those rewards (don’t forget shipping costs) and add a markup of 20-50%.  Whichever of the two values is higher is probably the price you should go with.

For the backer of the heart, the most important thing for them is to support a cause.  They’re backing not so much for the anticipation of future rewards as the sense of being a philanthropist in the now.  That’s not to say that you can’t buy their support with rewards, but they’re more likely to respond to rewards of a sentimental rather than practical value.  Handwritten letters, artwork related but not intrinsic to your project, mentions of thanks, and personal signatures are all good examples.

Backers of the heart are typically willing to pledge much more than the monetary value of the rewards offered; however, you should never make the mistake of considering them saps.  If you attempt to manipulate your backers, they’ll sense this and turn on you in a flash.  The important thing is to let no good deed go unrewarded.  Conversely, this type of backer may also respond to a minimally priced tier, a few bucks, for no tangible reward but as a “thumbs up” pledge.

Of course, few people fit neatly into one category or the other and the perspective and priorities of people can change drastically based on the individual project they’re assessing.  The important thing is to keep all your bases covered.  Identify how you think you would respond to your project, as a heart or a mind backer.  Are you seeking to get the best value for your money or is your motivation to support the cause?  Create some reward tiers that would appeal to you.  Then turn around and create some reward tiers you think would appeal to the alternate type of backer.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Yes.  Plenty.  But I think I’ve taken enough of their time so all that’s left to say now is bonjour, mes amies.

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

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