Here’s a shiny new writing prompt, just for you:
If no-one ever comes back from beyond the boundary, how do we know that they’re dead?
I love how stories and myths grow and swell and change. This prompt taps into that, bringing up questions about why we explain the unknown the way we do, and why we accept simple statements.
So what is this boundary? Why do people never come back? And why is death the explanation that everyone believes?
This year, I didn’t want to only achieve the 50k goal; I wanted to get back in touch with my writing, re-settle the habits, and get back into the rhythm of writing.
After such a long break from regular writing, I knew that the choice of project would be important if I was going to do any of what I wanted to achieve. So I agonised a lot about what project I should write for this year’s NaNoWriMo.
On the one hand, I have a whole book of Starwalker to write (#5, for those keeping count). I promised to get back to it, and I will; I know I have readers waiting for it. On the other, my head is still not in the right place to write it.
I have other projects that have also been languishing. The one that has been nudging me most insistently lately has been Vampire Electric, the steampunk story that started off as a foray into the realms of paranormal romance and became… something else.
This particular story has been the main project for two previous NaNos. It’s currently in its second draft, as I got far enough through the first draft to know how I really wanted to write it and started again. What that means is that I have a solid base and a clear idea of where it’s going. The characters have been living in my head for years, and the ideas around the plot and its progression have been percolating for longer.
The second draft of VE had around 100,000 words at the start of November, and was about halfway through the story (it’s going to need some severe paring or splitting when I’m finally done with this draft). In many ways, VE is easy mode for me, because I’ve got so much to build on.
And it itches. It’s the one story that has been bugging me to write it. I’ve been neglecting it for far too long, sidelining it for other projects.
For all of those reasons, I decided that that would be my NaNo project for this year. Knock out another 50,000 words of it, get back into the groove of writing, get back into the habit of writing on the train: all of it.
I’m pleased to say that it has gone well. I’ve managed to write at least a little every day, and enough most days to get ahead. I finished the goal word count almost a week ahead of time. The story is still moving along well enough that I think I can keep it going; I’m not feeling burnt out or like I’ve been overstretching myself at all.
Part of it is that I’ve managed to be very productive on my train journeys. I have an hour’s commute, and that used to mean about a thousand words. This NaNo, I’ve been doing between 1,200 and 1,800 per trip (most often just once in a day, because I often nap on the way to work in the mornings). This story just seems to flow so well: like I said, easy mode!
This is also the first NaNo in a while where I haven’t needed to have a break in the latter half of the challenge. In the last few years, I’ve switched to a different project or written something short in the middle of NaNoWriMo, because I’ve needed to take a break from whatever the main project was. This year, that hasn’t been the case at all: it has been all VE, all the time, in one continuous flow. I haven’t even dipped into the historical flashbacks that I need to write for this story.
Right now, I’m loving it. I’m reaching the end of the material I wrote for the first draft and about to foray into the last sequence of the novel (which will not be short; I fully think that 100,000 was only half of what this draft will end up being, so I have another 50,000 words to go). I mean to keep going until I reach the end.
One of the dangers with NaNo is that once the goal is reached, it’s time to take a break. Put the project down for a while. That’s a good thing! But it can be very hard to pick it up again. This year, I got to the goal on the first day of my break from the day job. I have over a week off, some things I want to achieve, and a break of a different kind. I mean to keep writing through it all though.
The truth is that I don’t feel like I need to have a break. I’m at an awkward part of the story, in that I’m trying to coordinate a few factors in the plot, but I know exactly what’s coming just after this phase so it’s not like I’m groping in the dark. I’m looking forward to getting to scenes that I’ve had in my head for years. I’m looking forward to the pay-offs to elements I set up 100,000 words ago.
And I’m really looking forward to having a completed draft that I can start showing to people (for feedback, so I can fix it up).
I’m feeling more positive about my writing than I have for a while. Enthused. Optimistic. Hopeful.
On I write, to finish this novel and get this story out. I can’t wait to get it into a state where I can share it with you all. Don’t hold your breath, but do watch this space!
This week’s writing prompt is:
A friend asks you to pinch them, because they’re dreaming. You do, and they disappear.
Where will it take you? Who is dreaming? What is really real? What happens if you should pinch yourself?
So many questions. You should get to answering them!
AKA: Trigger warnings
I started noticing trigger warnings on the internet a while ago (probably two or three years now). They’re usually pretty obvious, screaming from the top of posts or articles about depictions or discussions of rape or paedophilia or specific types of violence.
Since then, they have taken root in the subconscious of the interwebs and spawned in random, haphazard ways. They’re more numerous now, popping up at the top of vague posts that touch any potentially ‘touchy’ subject. Gay relationships. Transsexual issues. Harm to animals. Radical new diets. Swearing. If someone might be offended or made uncomfortable by a subject, people are slapping a trigger warning on it.
This usage annoys me. That’s not what they were intended for. It’s the nanny-state intruding on the interweb, treating us like we’re all delicate snowflakes who can’t behave like conscious, thinking, breathing adults. I find it insulting, unnecessary, and counter-productive.
In my opinion, the meaning of a trigger warning is being watered down and made meaningless. They’re actually becoming less useful and less protective for those who might need them. I think in most cases that the over-use is well-intentioned, but please, let’s think about why we’re warning people about upcoming content.
What trigger warnings are for
This is, I suspect, the root of the problem: a lot of people (yes, I’m generalising here) don’t know why or how to use these warnings. The warnings are being used because they’re trendy, they look informed and supportive and like the thing we should be doing, but little understanding is being given towards the actual reason for them. I’m all about encouraging and enabling understanding, so this is a good place to start.
So what is a trigger warning for? How is it different to a content statement or rating? Why should we use it?
The original intent behind trigger warnings was to go above and beyond the standard content statement or rating: it was to warn survivors of trauma that the content might trigger an anxiety or panic attack.
This is (was?) primarily aimed at those who suffer PTSD, who may suffer flashbacks or anxiety/panic attacks when triggered by sensory stimuli, including visual or worded imagery. When discussing trigger warnings, I most often see survivors of rape or assault mentioned, but I think the list is broader than that: it includes war veterans and those who have witnessed or been part of something mentally scarring (including abusive relationships and situations; the list of possibilities is too long to mention here but hopefully you get the idea: trauma).
The incidents or attacks that these warnings are intended to prevent can be physical as well as psychological. They are debilitating and upsetting, and can cause real harm. Helping survivors to avoid these attacks is key to their healing process, as warnings give them a way to manage their own feelings of safety.
This is not to say that trigger warnings are flags for ‘stuff PTSD sufferers shouldn’t expose themselves to’. This is a flag that says ‘some might find this content triggers their trauma’, and gives the person the opportunity to prepare themselves for it. It’s about preparation, not avoidance. (In fact, avoidance can worsen PTSD.)
I read an article recently (I can’t find the link, sadly 🙁 ) in which a PTSD sufferer said that the warning was enough for her to prepare herself for the content ahead. It meant that she wasn’t surprised by the content, and instead was able to marshall her internal defenses to deal with the reference without being triggered.
In this way, trigger warnings can help us to open up our content to those who might otherwise be triggered by it. It isn’t an exclusion or an excuse to avoid something; it’s the opposite: an opportunity for inclusion.
What trigger warnings are not for
Trigger warnings are not intended to warn users about something that might upset or offend them. A triggered reaction is so much worse than merely ‘upset’ or ‘miffed’ or ‘that offends my sensibilities’ or ‘ew, I’d rather not look at that, thanks’.
(I have seen all of these reactions in response to content posted on the internet, paired with ‘why didn’t you put a trigger warning on it’. The short answer is that trigger warnings aren’t intended to protect delicate sensibilities: if you’re on the internet regularly, you learn fairly quickly how to filter the information you do and don’t want to see. Accept that it’s a plethora of information, that some of it is not going to be to your liking, and move the hell on.)
Becoming angry or upset over the mention or advocacy of gay marriage (just one example I have seen) is not the same as suffering traumatic flashbacks because of a vivid depiction of a rape. Pretending that these things are the same makes me angry. It cheapens the struggle that PTSD and trauma sufferers have to go through, and it blurs understanding of an issue that deserves our empathy and consideration.
I don’t expect those who disagree with me to put trigger warnings on their opinions. Ultimately, I expect people to be mature when they encounter content of different kinds, even if it’s not for them.
However, I do believe that people should be able to make an informed decision about what they’re reading. I’m a big believer in setting appropriate reader/audience expectations (there’s likely to be a separate post about setting expectations; this subject is only one part of that).
Content statements, ratings, or warnings are intended to help the audience decide if the content is something that they want to expose themselves to. If something might upset or offend (like swearing, sexual content, violence, religious content, etc), then it deserves mention in a content statement.
(Content statements have existed for far longer than trigger warnings: they’re just less obtrusive and less trendy than the latter. We already had a system that was working, people!)
This is why I put content statements on all my fictional work, usually stating that I write about adult subjects (violence, sex, swearing, etc) and that readers should proceed under their own recognisance. I expect readers to decide for themselves if they are likely to enjoy that kind of content.
(TL:DR: stop whining and put your adults panties on.)
Why trigger warnings are tricky
Knowing the line between ‘discomfort’, ‘offense’, and ‘triggering an attack’ is not an easy thing for creators, particularly those of us who haven’t gone through a trauma on the scale of those we seek to help and support. (I suspect this is one of the main factors behind the blurring of trigger warnings and their use: people err on the side of caution.)
The thing with triggers is that they’re not always obvious. Yes, a vivid depiction of a rape scene might be an easy one to pick as needing a trigger warning, but there are other, subtler triggers as well.
It could be a single detail in the scene that does it: a particular scent, or the shade of orange that a streetlight makes through rain, or a specific turn of phrase. Any little detail that the brain might latch onto could throw someone back to that moment of trauma, because brains are weird like that and a traumatic event stamps itself on us in unexpected ways.
The really tricky part is that these details may not be part of an easy-to-spot triggering scene at all. They might crop up anywhere in a piece and catch a reader unawares.
These, sadly, are the ones that are difficult – impossible? – to predict and warn against. They are entirely circumstantial and unique to each person, and the person themselves may find it difficult to predict or understand their own triggers.
I do believe that trigger warnings have value, though, and we should try to make them useful. Sadly, we have to put aside the stray detail triggers as too unpredictable to try to account for, but the big, obvious stuff can be warned about appropriately. I think there is another danger here of making the trigger warnings too common or too vague to be useful.
I haven’t yet put trigger warnings on my work because I don’t believe that any of it is particularly triggering. Any rape that occurred in The Apocalypse Blog happened off-screen, and I can only think of one particular torture scene in Starwalker that came close to getting a trigger warning.
(If anyone has found any of my work triggering, please let me know!)
I imagine that, one day, I’ll write something visceral enough to warrant a trigger warning, and I’ll do my best to spot and tag it appropriately. Until then – or until I get notification of someone being triggered by my work – the content statements that expect readers to be mature enough to deal with my content or turn away, will have to be enough.
In recent months, there has been some discussion about ‘coddling students’ with trigger warnings, because some universities started to put trigger warnings all over their syllabus material. The anti-trigger-warning campaigners think that it is scrubbing the colleges of uncomfortable subjects and giving students permission to avoid ideas that make them uncomfortable. Mental health supporters counter that it’s important to support the students’ mental health by warning them about potentially upsetting content.
This is an interesting area, particularly because this is a time in a students’ life where they are exposed to adult/mature ideas and subjects, but are still learning how to handle them. Hiding them away is not helpful and not teaching the students how to deal with them at all, but at the same time, students need to be brought to these subjects and ideas in a way that’s accessible and not damaging to them.
I can see both sides of this coin, but from the reports I’ve seen, this is another case of trigger warnings being applied to content that might upset people (’cause a strong emotional response’), rather than something that might trigger a traumatic flashback or anxiety attack. Again, the scale of the negative response to the content is quite different.
Also, I think the base misunderstanding about the purpose of a trigger warning is at work here. Complainants are assuming that students will use these warnings as an excuse to avoid content, when, as stated above, they’re intended to allow those who might be triggered to take part safely.
Worse, some parties seem to equate trigger warnings to censorship. This is ridiculous, but only if one understands (and accepts) that they’re intended to do the opposite.
Some colleges have made clear statements about the type of content in their courses to allow students to prepare themselves accordingly, and these seem to work well. These are content statements; they don’t feel the need to staple ‘TRIGGER WARNING’ on the front. I appreciate this approach, though even these content statements seem to be clumped under ‘trigger warnings’ in some reports, despite them not being actually labelled that way and having a different purpose.
Here’s hoping that more people and institutions embrace the simpler and less evocative content statement, rather than overusing the trendier trigger warning.
Are trigger warnings still useful?
After some recent conversations with friends, I found myself asking the question. Sadly, I suspect they’re not – at least, not to those who were originally supposed to benefit from them (for those paying attention, by that I mean trauma survivors / PTSD sufferers).
Unfortunately, the compassionate intent of trigger warnings has been latched onto by the whinier SJW types, applied everywhere, and pretty much ruined. By expanding their use to elements that might cause any kind of offence to anyone, their purpose and usefulness has been watered down so much that I can’t see how they would be much use to anyone who actually needs them.
I’ve seen trigger warnings put on posts that discuss gay marriage. I’ve seen trigger warnings on posts that contain some swearing. I wish I was kidding. A simple tactic here is to start your post with ‘hey, I have a question/thing about gay marriage I want to share with you all’ or ‘excuse the language, but fuck me sideways’.
(On the flip side, I’ve seen requests for trigger warnings on things that discuss suicide when suicide is mentioned in the first sentence and can safely be assumed to be the topic of the post. Have people lost the ability to comprehend anything but their own twitchy ‘I have been offended!’ sense?)
I’ve seen so many trigger warnings on so many inconsequential things that they make me roll my eyes now. Seeing them misused so ubiquitously is essentially devaluing them. I’m offended by how many types of content that they’re inappropriately put onto, because it associates those topics with trauma and that is bad for many, many reasons. (See some of the examples above.)
How do we make trigger warnings useful again? Is it possible to pull them back to where they’re supposed to be? Are trauma survivors supposed to come up with a new way to identify the type of content they need to prepare themselves for?
I don’t know the answers to those; I ask these questions in the hopes of prompting thought and consideration, because I think those are valuable things. I’d love to hear from anyone who uses or needs trigger warnings, and their thoughts on the subject. I’d also love to know if there’s anything that I, as a creator, can do to improve the situation, on my own work if nowhere else!
This week’s spark is:
You come across the details of a brutal murder. The photos of the victim look exactly like you.
Who is the victim? How did they die? And, most curiously, why do they look like you?
Here’s your next writing spark:
You sold your soul to the devil some years ago. Today, he gives it back and says, “I need a favour.”
What story will you tell? What might prompt the devil to ask for help?
Here’s another spark for you:
You develop the ability to always know when someone is lying. You meet up with your best friend and realise that everything they tell you is a lie, including their name.
What would you do with such an ability? What would you do with the knowledge it gave and the mysteries it reveals?
This year, as part of my usual ‘let’s do something new for this year’s NaNoWriMo’ campaign, I decided to create a Digital Goodie Bag.
I came across the idea on another region’s forum on the NaNoWriMo site when I happened to be in the middle of creating the sheets for the Pre-NaNoWriMo Planning Day. It resonated with me because I’m often thinking about how to help those who can’t make it to our in-person events, and how the resources can be shared for maximum awesome (this is why the Writers’ Asylum challenges always go up on this blog).
It’s a great idea and way to share resources, and so simple: create a folder in a shared location like Google Drive, fill it with goodies, and share the link to that folder with everyone. People can then download whichever documents they want, or grab the zip file to get the whole lot at once.
Once I’d latched onto that idea, I began thinking about all the handy things that could go in such a ‘goodie bag’.
Note: all of the following were created by me, unless otherwise noted.
This all started because I wanted a way to provide the planning resources to those who couldn’t make it to the in-person meetup. So, naturally, I included all of the sheets I put together.
There are sheets for:
- Characters. For building major characters, as it’s very detailed. This is based on old RP sheets I used to use, adapted and developed over many years and different applications to fiction writing.
- Plotting. For the overall plot of your novel.
- Scenes. For outlining specific scenes.
- Scene settings. For designing specific locations where scenes might be set.
- World setting. For building your story’s world.
- The Snowflake Method. I paraphrased the original method (mostly to boil it down so it would fit on just one page).
To make them easy to access, I prefixed all of the filenames with ‘Planning’, and provided both RTF and Word versions of the files intended to be filled in.
Initially, I only put up the RTF versions, but apparently they are not as universal as I had hoped. So, I added the Word versions in the hopes that everyone could get a version they can use.
The sheets are pretty detailed, with guidance about what each section is intended for. The guidance is designed to ask questions and prompt consideration, potentially of elements that the writer might not have considered. Even if some questions may be irrelevant due to the setting or story, hopefully they help by making it a conscious choice to exclude them. They are not intended to be prescriptive, and they are not checklists. It’s all about thinking through different elements and angles of whatever it is you’re planning.
For myself, I seldom use formal versions of these sheets. I don’t do this type of detailed, written-down planning any more. These sheets do reflect the thought processes I go through when I consider something like plot, setting, or character, however; the principles hold true whether you’re a pantser or not.
I hope they inspire good and useful things!
Some things are very specific to NaNoWriMo use, and only really applicable in that context, while some are of most use within November but can be helpful at other times as well. I hope they’re helpful nonetheless.
To start us off, we’ve got:
- Calendar of events. Because it might be handy to have something to print out.
- Tips for increasing your wordcount.* It’s not that we encourage cheating; we facilitate winners.
- Tips for how to get unstuck.* This is useful anytime, really, though it’s focussed on those working to a very tight timeframe like NaNoWriMo. Great if you hit a wall or any other kind of writer’s block-like barrier.
- Plot bunny storage. Plot bunnies are those ideas that pop up while you’re working on a project, but don’t fit with what you’re currently doing. You can’t use it, but you don’t want it to escape, so put it into storage (write it down) for future use. Can also be handy outside of NaNo.
Other Handy Stuff
Things that don’t fit into either of those categories include:
- A quiz for your characters.* This is handy when considering minor characters or simply those you don’t know so well.
- A scene list This can be used to plan the story, if you’re that kind of planner, or to analyse it afterwards when you’re looking at structure, flow, and pace. (Many writers use this sort of tool when they have a complete novel draft, to help them decide what needs to be done in the next draft to improve the story; that’s why it’s not in the planning section.) Includes some automated aspects to tag scenes for things like POV and importance, because I was having fun in Excel and had to stop myself before I got all carried away. It’s entirely possible that I didn’t stop myself soon enough.
* (Gleaned from other tips sheets that my co-MLs and I have put together over the years.)
That’s what we’ve got in there so far. I’ve had comments that people have found it useful, and I hope you do too, even if you’re not part of NaNoWriMo. Always happy to share.
So click on through to the Goodie Bag and take a look! Any feedback happily received, along with suggestions about other handy things that might be useful. Want to see something in there? Let me know.
Every year, I try to do at least one new thing for NaNoWriMo. It’d get boring if we did the exact same thing year after year, right? I strive to keep what works and what people like, and throw in new stuff just to see what happens.
This year, we (my co-MLs and I) have a few things we’re trying out. The first of these was the Planning Day. Held two weeks before the kick-off, the idea was that it’s an opportunity for Wrimos to get together and prepare for this year’s NaNo adventure.
Now, the challenge with doing something like a ‘planning day’ is that not everyone plans. Many writers prefer to be pantsers: write by the seat of their pants with no formal plan at all. Others plan out in great, painstaking detail. The most, I venture to guess, lie somewhere in the middle (that’s where I live, closer to the pantsing end of the scale these days).
So, I have a group of people of an unknown size, with different levels of planning to cater for, who are all at different stages of their preparation for NaNo.
One of my main goals with my events is to be as inclusive as possible (across a whole range of criteria!), and that’s always one of the hardest elements to balance. So I had to think about how to get pantsers to come along (or at least feel welcome if they did), how to make it useful no matter where people were in their process, and how to make it feel like a fun, group activity.
Luckily, I like a challenge.
I considered a bunch of approaches, including doing workshops or brainstorming sessions on things like character creation, scene settings, etc. Ultimately, that sort of thing isn’t going to appeal – or be useful – to everyone. Every time I thought of something structured we could do, it all seemed too narrow.
In the end, I went for a looser, more casual approach, opting for breadth rather than a narrow focus. It was up to the writers, then, to choose how best to use the time.
So we put together a bunch of handouts, and gave each attendee a copy when they arrived. (We talked a bit about how and when to do this: do we hand out sheet A at a specific point, and talk about it? Stagger things? In the end, we decided that the attendance was likely to be so uneven across the day that people would miss out on stuff if we timeboxed it, so we just provided the whole pack on arrival to get people started.)
The pack included sheets for characters, plots, settings, etc, among other tidbits. These are now all available in our Digital Goodie Bag (more on this soon!).
That was our approach. Because we’d never done this before, and I’m never sure how these things will go, I was incredibly nervous in the lead-up to the event. We’d made 30 copies of the handout packs, thinking that would be plenty.
We were wrong. The event started at 11am; I got to the restaurant where we hold these things at 10am to set up; people started arriving around 10:20am. By 12:30pm, we had run out of handouts and were scrounging copies off our regulars to give to new arrivals. An hour or so later, I released the Digital Goodie Bag, so people could at least get to digital copies of the sheets! (Always part of the plan, but I hadn’t planned on releasing it that day. Luckily it was all in place and ready to go!)
We were floored by the response to the event. We lost count due to people’s various comings and goings, but there was at least 40 people at one point. We took over the entire back section of the restaurant and stole tables from other sections to have enough space for everyone to sit down with their laptops/writing implements of choice. (The Coffee Club at Milton is very accommodating to us, and larger than any other one I’ve been into. They made heaps off us that day!)
On top of all that, many of the faces were new to us, so we got to meet loads of new writers as well. We wound up with a bunch of tables, and conversations happened about stories (and other stuff), with people swapping ideas and suggestions and so forth.
We ran a bunch of little, fun exercises across the day, for those who wished to join in, and those were well-received. Small things to spark ideas and get us thinking in different ways about our stories.
On the day and since, I’ve had a lot of positive comments on the handouts and sheets, which also made me happy. Not just because I created the sheets, but because I like to know that what we’re doing for our writers works, that they’re useful, that we can inspire and support writers.
I don’t think I could have asked for a better day. It makes me hope that this year’s NaNo is going to continue to be so chock-full of people, and I can’t wait to find out if it is.
Our NaNo got off to a roaring starting this year, even before 1st November. This is definitely something I’ll do again!
As part of my prep for the Pre-NaNoWriMo Planning Day, I put together a bunch of writing sparks. Some were scavenged from the depths of the internet, some were gleaned from previous lists I put together with co-MLs, others I made up myself (I won’t claim they’re all totally unique or belong to me).
It seems a shame to create these things and not share them widely. So! I shall be posting regular updates with writing sparks for a while – at least until I run out of my current list! It’s quite a long list, and at one per week, it’ll take a while to get to the end.
These are here for you to do with as you wish. See what ideas they inspire, what questions they raise. Perhaps they’ll fit into another project or perhaps they’ll start a new one.
You made two deals in exchange for your first born child. Both dealers come to collect at the same time.
Note: many prompts use ‘you’. Feel free to use whatever pronoun you wish in your story, from whatever point of view you like. The ‘you’ in the prompt is simply a character of your (the author’s) choosing.
Watch this space for more sparks!
(Cross-posted on my Inkspired blog.)