Monday, August 21, 2006

The Nature of Podcast Novels, and a Review of 7th Son: Book 1: Descent (a podcast novel by J.C. Hutchins)

The first time I felt the need to write a review of a podcast novel was for Brave Men Run by Matthew Wayne Selznick. Well, it's happened again. Here's a review of 7th Son, along with some additional comments on podcast novels and novelists in general.


J.C. Hutchins - 7th SonJ.C. Hutchins has a promo for his podcast novel that reads as follows:

Three weeks ago, the U.S. president was murdered by a four-year-old boy.

Today, seven men stare at each other in a locked conference room. Kidnapped and brought to this underground facility, the strangers are sitting in silence, thunderstruck. Despite minor physical differences, they all appear to be the same man, with the same name … and the same childhood memories.

Unwitting participants in a secret human cloning experiment, these seven “John Michael Smiths” have been gathered by their creators for one reason — to capture the mastermind behind the president’s assassination.

Their target? The man they were cloned from; the original John Michael Smith, code-named John Alpha.


Hooked yet? This description was more than enough for me, but there are descriptions and then there are stories, and how many times have we discovered that a story just didn’t meet our expectations?

Well, let me tell you (and if I’m the first I certainly won’t be the last), the story of 7th Son kicks its promo’s ass and then dates its sister for good measure. 7th Son: Book 1: Descent is a thriller that pulls the listener along at a breakneck pace. J.C. Hutchins uses the confused and shaken seven main characters (the clones mentioned in the promo above) wonderfully as a tool to keep the reader off-balance. Not since the amnesiac Jason Bourne of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity has this method been used to such perfection. What would happen if you were pulled from your life and given proof that you were a clone? After changing your pants, you’d have to learn to live by a whole different set of rules. And as the clones learn, you as the listener learn things.But even better, any knowledge gained by the reader is filtered through the seven utterly different personalities of the clones themselves.

The reading by the author is commendable as well. Each character has a clearly different ‘voice’ and personality, but even so, the voice of Mr. Hutchins enhances the character development. Because the same man is doing each voice, it makes the fact that they are all clones of the same person strike home even more (the same, but different... sort of like Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb).

Hutchins does a great job of giving the reader just enough information to understand how thoroughly the seven clones are being strung along. You realize early on that John Alpha, the original John Smith that the clones were cloned from, is using his knowledge of them and of himself to lead them to him for his own purposes. Yet the process is what makes this first installment worth listening to. The process of the seven clones getting over the shock of meeting their six ‘brothers’ (hell their six other selves, a sybil crack nightmare gone from bad to worse), the process of becoming a team, of using their individual strengths to work together to bring down this man that is not only their enemy but IS them... it allows Hutchins to build characters that we care about and believe in by the end of Book 1.

Also, like all great science fiction, Hutchins makes the reader think about ‘ideas’ without pushing some sort of political agenda (so far at least :) ). In the first book we have already been faced with the question of a clone having a soul, the question of genetics vs. environment, nature vs. nurture, and probably several others I’ve forgotten because the story is so compelling. And the nepth-charge technology introduced in 7th Son leaves a nearly infinite number of plotlines available to Mr. Hutchins over the next two books. To keep this review spoiler free, let’s just say that if I’m right, there is a certain character that isn’t who he/she says he is, and if that is the case, then there is much more to the nepth-charge technology that has yet to be revealed.

But the most important element of a thriller is the plot itself. Already from the promo you understand we have a political assassination, cloning technology, a cloning project where something horrible has gone wrong, and seven men that have to deal with the knowledge that they are not real, at least genetically. You’ve got a little dash of Boys from Brazil, a pinch of The Bourne Identity, a dash of The Manchurian Candidate, and a whole lot of brand new ideas from the mind of J.C. Hutchins—basically, you’ve got yourself a worthwhile listening experience.

Podiobooks fall somewhere between audiobooks and audio dramas. An audiobook is a reading of an author’s text, usually by a narrator other than the author. An audio drama usually has multiple actors portraying different characters from a work, has a higher production value, and the work is usually edited to fit the medium.

But a podiobook is a compeletely different aural experience. In most cases the podiobook is read by the author. This gives readers (in this case listeners) a connection to the work that previously has only been felt between singer/songwriter and listener. You can hear the words on the page exactly as the author intended them to be read. The author knows the characters better than anyone, and podiobook listeners reap the benefits of that relationship.

Also, the serial nature of a podcasted novel (chapters of 7th Son: Descent were released once a week for download) lends itself to certain genres. Thrillers, horror, fantasy and science fiction—any story that can build on visceral emotion over time can succeed in grabbing a reader/listener by the ... neck and not letting go.

The connection between podcast author and listener is enhanced further through the feedback loop that is inherent to podcasting. Listeners are welcomed to provide feedback to the author, feedback that is incorporated into the listening experience by wily podcasters, with the novelist answering questions before or after his/her readings, or through the playing of phone messages left by listeners. Again, this serves to create an emotional attachment between author/listener that traditional authors and publishers would normally spend four or five novels to create. J.C. Hutchins has done an admirable job of creating a community of listeners and supporting their needs just as much as they are supporting him.

There are rock stars and there are Rock Stars. Scott Sigler has established himself as the early Rock Star of podcasted novels, and rightfully so. “Earthcore” set a standard that most podcast novelists have yet to meet; and then he surpassed that standard himself with “Ancestor” and most recently “Infection” (my favorite). But where Scott Sigler succeeds because he is a freakin’ force of nature, dragging you kicking and screaming down the rabbit hole to meet the devil, J.C. Hutchins succeeds because he understands even better how to create emotional attachments to characters while building a tense plot that keeps you off-balance from the very start. And once J.C. has you, he doesn’t let go.

Which leads me back to the podcast novel 7th Son. 7th Son: Book 1: Descent is the first third of a “The Stand” sized novel J.C. Hutchins wrote but has not yet published. Like Scott Sigler who embraced releasing his work through podcasts, J.C. opted to release 7th Son as three podcast novels. The first of the three novels does a wonderful job of setting up the story arc that will be continued through the second and third books. One of the only quibbles I have is that a couple of the clones were given short shrift in Descent. I’m sure this will be rectified in the next two books. I mean, it was originally one humongous novel. I’m sure if there hadn’t been a break between “Descent” and “Deceit,” I wouldn’t have noticed at all.

Even though it is obvious that Mr. Hutchins simply chose a particular event around a third of the way through his written manuscript and said “This looks like a good place to end book one,” it works. You get a confrontation between good and evil, you get revelations that contradict much of the information that the ‘seven sons’ have learned over the course of Descent, and you get your first look into the evil that is John Alpha... and now we have to wait until Book 2: Deceit.

J.C., you glorious bastard you.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

The final sentence...

has been written.

I wrote it a while back, but haven't posted much lately about the novel (been busy yapping about podcasting). It took me a while to find a good ending scene. I was reading Terry Brooks's Sometimes the Magic Works and in it he wrote:

Don't settle for a beginning that doesn't feel strong and compelling or an ending that doesn't completely satisfy. Make your story arc the rainbow it deserves to be.

Frankly it took me two months longer to reach the end of my first draft because I wasn't satisfied with anything I was coming up with for the end of the book. Finally I thought back to one of the firt comments I got from my friend Scott. He asked me why the main character allows his companion, a young man he seems to be protecting, to be placed in constant danger. Finally it hit me. I found a way to explain why this happened throughout the story, enhanced a story arc that will appear in future novels... and got me an ending that made me happy.

Now I've got a hard copy with 300 pages of edits to go through... and 4 scenes to add. And oh yeah, I'm around 30,000 words over where I wanted to be.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Preparing for Dragon*Con

I am looking forward to Dragon*Con in Atlanta at the end of the month. I bought a couple of t-shirts (one for Four Ugly Monsters and one for the book), my wife created and ordered business cards for me (tied to the novel; you can see the business card here. I am really looking forward to attending the podcasting track and meeting a lot of the podcast authors I've been listening to for the last six months.

I also hope to attend some of the panels on Battlestar Galactica, and if there is anything dealing with the the Joss Whedon universe I'll be checking in.

I have continued work on the book. I am on the last few paragraphs of the first draft, which I will finish tomorrow.

Current word count: 144,221

Last update... I recently recorded a short character backstory for a play-by-post campaign I'm going to take part in starting in September. It may be played on the Misfit Brew podcast at some point; I will post a link here if this happens.

Actually, here's the last update. As I might have stated before, I plan on doing an audio version of Murder at Avedon Hill. A group of podcasters have started a support group for new podiobook creators and I'm getting great feedback on my first test recording. I hope to start doing more with this over the next couple of months.

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