Brisbane writers and artists: our anthology wants you!
I’m working with a small group to put together an anthology of stories by local writers, to raise money for the Brisbane writing events I organise. We’ll be publishing it under a new publishing banner that I’m putting together: BST Books.
We’re looking for stories featuring super-powers and optional dinosaurs, between 5,000 and 10,000 words long.
We’re also looking for cover art.
Got an idea? Get to work! The deadline is next week (12th July), so now is the time to move on it.
I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with!
I don’t often see movies as soon as they’re released. I usually prefer to wait until the cinema is a bit less crowded, which takes a few weeks, depending on the movie. I’m fine with that! I’m seldom impatient about these things.
With Mad Max: Fury Road, however, I felt the need to see it sooner rather than later. The amount of internet chatter is was generating was both eye-roll-worthy and intriguing, and I knew I’d get spoiled if I waited too long. I hate spoilers. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, plus the trailers looked pretty kick-ass. The only solution was to go see it.
[Spoilers ahead, people. You have been warned.]
I loved it. The movie was pretty much everything it promised to be: lots of cars, huge chases, explosions, dust, dystopia, leather, and chains. It felt like a Mad Max movie on a fundamental level that is hard to describe. It was grotesque and violent, and weird, and kick-ass, and weirdly hopeful.
They had the balls to make Max more broken than usual, suffering from PTSD at inconvenient times and stumbling through the first half of the movie. He doesn’t speak much, which is something that critics* have complained about, but I don’t remember him speaking much in the first trilogy either. (It has been a while since I’ve seen the old Max movies, but I’m sure he was never a chatty character.)
His personal story is almost subsumed by what is happening around him and the situations he is thrown into; as lead characters go, he’s not one with a lot of agency. He reacts, he works to get himself out of where he is, and he helps those he feels some empathy with along the way because he can’t quite seem to help himself. This also gels with what I remember from those original movies, particularly the third one (who can forget Tina Turner and her iconic chainmail dress; not that he helped her, I just wanted to point it out).
He does have something of a personal journey, though, if you look beyond the explosions and spiky cars. He speaks more towards the end, and one of the more notable times is when he decides to take a more proactive step to help the group he is/was travelling with, by giving them advice about where to go next. He seems to make a kind of peace with his ghosts. At the end, he does something that I don’t think he has done since the first movie: he tells someone his name, and it’s important to him that that someone hears him and knows him. He feels like a less broken character than he was when we started, though he’s still a lone wolf road warrior (I don’t want to give too much away).
It seems to be something of a pattern in things I’ve watched lately: subtle character arcs that you kinda have to be paying attention to spot. Easy to miss in an action movie with a lot of other stuff going on. I love watching the little nuances in character actions and reactions, and I try to pick up on this stuff. Watch closely, people: it’s worth it.
But Max isn’t the brunt of critics’ complaints about Fury Road. He’s a feature of them (he’s the main character and he barely speaks!), as is ‘how dare they abuse a piece of American culture this way’ (which I find hilarious, because it’s an Australian film series currently featuring actors and creators from all over the world). No, the biggest complaint about the movie is what boils down to ‘omg, you got icky girl stuff on my manly action movie‘ (I’m paraphrasing all the ‘you tricked me into watching a feminist movie’ and ‘why girls why’ whining).
In the purest sense of the term, this is a feminist movie, in that women are shown driving, fighting, dying, and kicking ass right alongside the men. Women save other women, and some men. A woman saves Max (and he later saves her right back). Women fight for their own freedom from being sex slaves.
George Miller, director of the franchise, told reporters at Cannes that to rescue the five wives: “I needed a warrior. But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story. So everything grew out of that.” (Via The Mary Sue.) This explains so much.
The warrior he’s talking about is Imperator Furiosa, played by the ever-awesome Charlize Theron.
Not only does Furiosa have the gall to be a woman, she’s also handicapped (handi-capable? disabled? partially limbed? what’s the PC term these days? wait, no, I don’t care) because she’s missing half an arm. I can’t help but be reminded of Max’s damaged knee that means he has to wear a brace so he can walk properly: the brace is present in the movie but they don’t make a thing of it at all. Furiosa does quite well without a fleshy left hand, thank you very much, and she’s certainly not less capable because of it.
Despite the presence of boobies on her body, she commands respect from the men in her convoy, drives the entire movie forward, and proves herself a capable sniper, driver, and hand-to-stump fighter (she goes head-to-head with Max without her scary-looking metal prosthetic hand and holds her own). She’s a great character, fleshed out with a backstory and personality, and she’s not afraid to stand up and demand the respect she deserves. She kicks ass and gets where she’s going (which in a chase movie is something of an achievement on its own).
She’s not alone in the fierce female ranks, either. The five wives she’s rescuing (from sex-slavery to a grotesque being that it’s best not to contemplate too deeply) are all somewhat soft, but they still pick up guns and other assorted weapons to defend themselves, stand watch, and generally help in the whole endeavour. They are brave and determined, and not one of them whines about needing the protection of a man.
Then there’s the all-female clan that Furiosa is from: tough opposition for anyone in the Mad max world, even though some of them are ageing. They’re survivors, perfectly capable of holding their own, and not above using men’s weaknesses against them.
It’s not just the characters in the movie that do it, though: there are many other ways in which Fury Road is an equalist movie (or feminist, but go with ‘equalist’ if the ‘f’ word is too loaded for you). For example, it starts off with the wives already having been freed; the women are doing their kick-ass thing and Max pretty much blunders into their flight, through no will or action of his own. If you’re interested in more of the movie’s feminist aspects, Tansy Rayner Roberts has done an interesting analysis.
So I can see why the movie is called a feminist masterpiece. I can see why the whiny man-babies are pouting. See it anyway!
From a writer’s perspective, there are many wonderful things about this movie. It turns a lot of standard writing advice on its head, but it does it well – which is the key if you’re going to break rules. Chuck Wendig gives a detailed rundown of just how this movie blows apart the rules, in his usual entertaining, profanity-laden manner.
I think there’s a lot we can all learn from this movie, particularly as writers and artists. Part of what makes it work so well is just how hellishly entertaining it is – it’s a great example of the place I try to hit with my own work, mixing up entertainment and art. Perhaps one day I’ll do a more detailed analysis of the movie from this perspective, most likely after it is released on disc.
So there you go! Like I said: see it. They’ve already announced there will be a sequel, and Tom Hardy has confirmed that he’s signed up for three more movies. Personally, I’m looking forward to them already, whether or not Furiosa is involved.
* By ‘critics’, I mean people who have criticised the movie, not ‘film critics’, who are their own breed.
But what happens if you get stuck along the way? What happens if trying to move forward with the writing feels a lot like bashing your head against a wall?
I’m a firm believer in pushing through, pushing yourself, and not letting things stand in your way. It’s important to recognise that that’s not always the best thing to do.
Sometimes, you have to recognise that forcing the writing isn’t going to be the best thing for you or your writing. Sometimes, forging ahead regardless can lead your story down the wrong path, or bog it down as your disgruntlement bleeds through, or make you hate it as much as you’re hating the process of writing it.
Sometimes, you just need a break. Step back. Take a breath. Close your eyes and let the words fall away. Rest.
The same goes for when you reach the end of a piece. You’ve finished the first draft, so now what?
The next step is to re-draft it, edit it, tidy it up. The problem is, you don’t know if it’s any good. Trust me, you don’t: you’re too close to it. So how do you see it clearly enough to know what you need to fix?
Step back. Know that getting to the end was the first stage, and that the second is to put it down. Take a break.
Let yourself rest. Let the piece rest.
Close the file and put it away. Tuck it in a drawer, file it away in a folder on your desktop. Put it where you won’t see it. Put yourself in danger of forgetting about it.
Try not to think about it for a while. How long? That’s up to you, but at least a week. If you can, a couple of months. The longer the piece and the longer you’ve been working on it, the more time you should allow yourself before going back to it.
Do something different. Clean the house. Join a gym. Paint a self-portrait. Do some spring-cleaning.
A change can be as good as a rest, so you could write something else. Occupy your brain with something different. Try not to think about the thing you’re resting.
When you come back to it, you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll see things you couldn’t before. You’ll have fresh eyes and fresh ideas. Some ideas may have cropped up during your rest, blossoming the moment you weren’t looking any more.
Then you can get to work and do wonderful things with your words. So do it! Rest, and then kick ass.
(Note: yes, these cats are all mine. From the top, it’s Jasmine, Cinnamon, and Honey.)
Just a quick heads-up for those of you lovely visitors who comment on the blog: it looks like we can’t use code tags for some reason. This includes adding links, italics, bolding, etc (a, em, and strong tags, respectively).
It looks like something funky going on with the blog, so I’m in the process of looking into it. In the meantime, I’m having to add formatting/links on the back end (to my comments); if there’s anything you want fixed in a comment, let me know.
Hopefully I’ll be able to get it all working soon!
It’s a standard trope in romance (and its raunchy cousin, erotica) that the lead female character will go all weak-kneed and silly at the mere sight of the male lead. (Quite often, it happens vice versa, too.) The character is utterly helpless and unable to think of anything but swooning into his arms, or smooching him, or both, plus nakedness. In erotica, she gets wet just at the thought of him and just about drools all over him whenever he’s present.
It doesn’t seem to matter what the situation is, whether the characters like each other, or whether it would be natural to think of something like that. Man pretty, must lick appears to be the sum of the thoughts available to her while he’s in the room, unless she exerts particular will.
I understand that it’s a pretty standard trope in romance. I understand how it’s romantic and exciting. I get it, I do, and I enjoy romance stories.
But outside of the romance genre, these tropes have quite different impacts, like when it creeps into other genres. It’s particularly noticeable when the character is otherwise not like this.
For example, in Jane Austen, it fits to have a woman be all overcome by the presence of a man and rendered speechless or stupid. When that same reaction happens to a hard-nosed detective with a gun on her hip who is quite capable of punching men in the face, it comes off somewhere between eye-roll-worthy and ridiculous.
I’m talking about ‘strong’ female characters. I put ‘strong’ in quotes because the term has come to encompass many things. I don’t just mean three-dimensional characters (any lead should have this, in my opinion). What I mean in this case is female characters who are proactive, act with agency and confidence, and don’t rely on men to fix their problems. They’re self-reliant, skilled, and capable. They’re often presented in a professional context and are good at what they do.
Until the male lead walks into the room. Then, abruptly, her strength flies out of the window and all she can think about is the fluttery effect he’s having on her. Insert something even remotely bone-able into the scene and she goes all weak. It’s often described with words like ‘undone’ or ‘disarmed’, or a reference to losing all conscious control of herself. Usually, this is the only time she shows this kind of character weakness.
It jars for me. It throws me out of the story. It feels like a trope from another genre that has been shoe-horned in to tick a box: romance subplot, check! It feels clumsy to me, like the author doesn’t know how else to have two people experience being attracted to each other.
It just doesn’t feel natural for these characters. I’ve read several examples of this in crime and science fiction stories, and it bewilders me every time. It sticks out like a giant, throbbing sore thumb. It undercuts the character and her characterisation.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that strong characters can only be strong or that they can’t have weaknesses. I believe quite the opposite: characters should be balanced, have a healthy dose of both, and I have a great fondness for flawed characters. But they have to be strong in ways that make sense for them, and they have to be weak in ways that make sense, too. You can’t just grab six from column A and six from column B and call it balanced. Most of the time, this particular presentation doesn’t make sense.
Why would a ‘strong’ woman have to go all weak and silly at the sight of a man she’s attracted to? Quite often she loses all consciousness of where she is and what she’s doing, completely distracted by the ‘effect he’s having on her’ and often winding up standing there like an open-mouthed guppy. Why is it never given context that might explain why she would have such an extreme and debilitating reaction? Who does this? Seriously?
Why can’t she have a more mature reaction, something that doesn’t make her seem like a silly teenager who has no idea what a relationship is like? How has she not learned how to deal with this? We’re never told; we’re expected to just accept this particular weirdness as if it fits.
Why? Because she’s female and we all react that way? Please.
This has frustrated me for some time (you can probably tell), and I still can’t figure out why it keeps happening. I feel like I’m missing something.
Part of why it annoys me is that it undercuts a woman’s independence so much. The reaction is usually completely involuntary, and many times unwanted (because she despises the man at that point in the story). She’s a victim to these feelings, helpless to do anything about them, helpless to fight them. She is, quite often, completely unable to fight them and loses.
In a time when we’re fighting to have women presented in positive, progressive ways in the media and entertainment, this is particularly worrying. That the mere sight of a particular man can completely undo a woman we’re supposed to view as ‘strong’ and ‘capable’ and maybe even ‘modern’ is not a good pattern to my eyes.
It’s also worth pointing out that the times I’ve noticed this pattern (because I’ve been thrown out of a story by it) have all been written by women. This isn’t a case of men being unable to write women (an accusation that I’ve often heard and don’t agree with as a generalisation).
There are so many ways to be attracted to another human being; going all weak-kneed and wet at their presence is just one of them. A character can notice a physical attraction without being overcome by it. A character might not be self-aware enough for that! A character can have some self-control and some connection with his or her own emotions and desires.
There are ways to write a romance into another genre without bringing the romance genre’s cheesier tropes with it. There are ways to write a romance that will allow a character to be strong, susceptible to love, and be seduced, all at the same time. There are ways to have her make mistakes and give in to urges without making her a victim to them.
It saddens me how few good examples of strong women in romantic plots I can think of. Zoe in Firefly is the first one that springs to mind: completely in love and happily seduced by her husband, without being undone or undermined by him. Anne McCaffrey’s books are often referred to as ‘romances’ (despite their scifi settings) because there’s often a romantic plot involved, and she has stories full of female characters who don’t go all weak-kneed and useless at the sight of their love interest.
In these examples, the romance is organic and natural. The attraction is sometimes there from the beginning, sometimes not. But there’s never a huge spotlight shining on the love interest whenever he swans into the scene. The females don’t feel the need to go fluttery. They can be adults with a lot of different stuff going on. And I like that.
In the interests of equality (which I fully believe in), I have to point out that male leads can be equally disarmed and distracted by their love interest. For them – particularly for alpha male characters – it is a chink in their armour, a weakness they fight against. But it is still weakness. Quite often, one they despise. I am not a fan of this depiction either: the woman doing this to him is bringing him down, making him less. Gee, thanks.
It’s not like I think that women shouldn’t – or can’t – have strong attractions to men (and vice versa). My main problem is that it feels so out-of-character. It can undercut so much about a character. And it’s so tired and overdone.
It feels like a step backwards, like a perception that we can’t quite shake. I think we can be better than that.
Can’t we try a little harder and show other ways for people to be attracted to one another? Can’t we work to make characters make sense?
Can’t we let women be strong and sexual without making them victims?
You might expect this to be a how-to guide, given the title. Consider it more of a question that I’m currently pondering. I won’t promise that this will be a useful guide for everyone. It might not even be useful for me. Let’s see!
So, the reason for taking my current hiatus was equal parts:
- Taking a break from Starwalker
- Catching up on projects that I have been delaying for a while
- Trying some new stuff
- Moving things to a new server
- Doing something with the first four Starwalker books
- Planning the next phase of the Starwalker saga.
Like with battle, plans for how to spend my free time tend to fly to the wind as soon as you engage the enemy (with ‘the enemy’ being ‘life and reality’ in this case).
Currently, I am successfully taking a break from Starwalker. Tick!
Let’s see about the rest…
Catching up on delayed projects
I’m not sure if this blog counts as a ‘delayed project’ (it’s probably more of a ‘neglected outlet’ for me), but you’ve probably noticed that I’m posting more often again. My goal is to build up some momentum here, along with a nice, healthy backlog of stuff scheduled up, and to knock over some of the posts that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I’ve got over a dozen draft posts here on the site, capturing thoughts that were relevant when I had them: it’s time to go through them, sort them out or throw them away. Expect more posts to come! For at least the next little while.
As for actual fiction-writing projects, the VVSG is going well, and looking good to keep going that way. I haven’t looked at any other existing projects yet. Boomflowers kinda snuck up on me, so that could count as a bit of ‘new stuff’, but is also something that has been percolating for a little while. Half-and-half, really.
The other projects that I am hoping to work on soon include the Apocalypse Blog. The ebooks need a fresh go-through, edit, and new covers applied. I’ve been talking about doing this for ages. It’s about time I just did it! Now that I’m in a good place with the new short-serials (VVSG and Boomflowers), I’m hoping to dedicate some time to this over the next couple of weeks.
I’d also like to get back into the Starwalker shorts. I have a whole list I’d like to do, and a couple of tickling ideas here and there. It would be nice to post something on the Starwalker site for the readers to enjoy while I’m taking this break from the main story! However, that’ll be once I’ve had a stretch of a break from that world. I want to knock over some of the big stuff before I delve back into that universe, and I’ve got to be careful of not starting too many things at once.
Trying new stuff
This is something I chase on a semi-regular basis. Most often, it applies to the events and things that I do locally, rather than with my writing itself (keep an eye out for some NaNoWriMo-related posts coming up soon, for this year’s fun in the works). Overall, I guess I’m pretty happy with my writing itself (though I always look to improve my skills): it’s the periphery that I tend to experiment with. For example, how I publish, or my editing work, or events.
What does this mean for the hiatus? Well, I guess the first new thing I’m trying is Inkspired, and seeing how that works as a serial outlet. I’m spamming them with feedback and suggestions, so I guess we’ll watch that space.
I’m also in the process of setting up an editing and ebooking service. I’ve got skills in those areas and a good friend who’s building it with me. I think we can make a good go at it, and are in a good position to do well with it.
Linked with that but not entirely under that banner is an anthology idea or two that I have. I’m putting together a project to create an anthology with some local writer friends, capitalising on some research I did a while ago with a publishing/editing contact of mine. I’m confident we can put together something pretty awesome. After a suggestion from a local writer, we’re going to make the first one with a view to raising money for our NaNo community writing events.
This is going to be a bit of work, but it’s not going to be just me working on it, and it’s something I really want to have a go at. Ideas abound, and I’m hoping to get the bulk of it off and running pretty soon, so I can make the most of my hiatus time (that is, so it doesn’t wind up sucking up too much time once I’ve restarted Starwalker!).
There’s also some movement in the serial writing circles about setting up an endeavour to expand and promote quality serial fiction. I’m involved in a few conversations there, and I’m really keen to see where that goes. I think I’ve got useful experience to lend to the cause there (mostly in editing, layout, ebooking, and so on). This could explode somewhat, which would both be exciting and potentially derailing.
I’m going to have to be careful what I commit to! For now, I’m enjoying all the opportunities that are spreading out before me, and generally trying not to get too distracted by all the shiny things.
The server move
I started the process of moving all my websites over to a new web host recently. This blog was one of the first things I moved, and is the only one that is also changing its domain name. For the rest, I have a whole slew of domains that need to be shifted (most of which are reserved for projects that I plan to serialise or otherwise put online someday), a couple of websites that I host for family, and lastly the rest of my websites with content.
I’m planning to use the hiatus to shift the Starwalker site over to the new host. There’ll be a short downtime while things get moved across, but it should be quieter on the activity front, so there’s less chance of losing data (comments, etc). It’ll be nice to move to a fresh WordPress install, because the Starwalker one has been a little broken ever since it got hacked. This has been something I’ve been wanted to do for a long time; it’s nice to have the opportunity to do it!
After Starwalker and the Apocalypse Blog sites are moved over (the last big websites to shift), I should be able to close down the old hosting account. Then dust off hands, all done there.
Starwalker so far
I have four whole books of Starwalker shenanigans. What to do with them!
This is something I’m planning to sit down and figure out. I would really like to get them published but I’m still tossing up what kind of publishing I should go for. I could self-publish ebooks again. I could try the traditional publishing world. I could run a Kickstarter and do an actual physical print run.
This particular story is positioned in a way that would make it a good candidate to sell to a traditional publisher. Hybrid authors tend to be the most successful: traditionally-published books bring in the exposure and breadth; self-published books bring in greater revenue. All the stats from the past few years tell us this. And I still have that lingering dream to see my books on bookstore shelves.
However. Starwalker is already sprawling into a fifth book. There are shorts and spin-offs planned. I’m a little bit leery of selling all of that to a publisher.
Pros and cons are yet to be fully weighed. We shall see!
In the meantime, I am aiming to get the first four books collated, edited, and cleaned up, ready to be published. That’s going to be a huge chunk of work on its own, and I may or may not get it done before the end of the hiatus. Let’s start with getting the first book done and go from there, shall we?
Starwalker Book 5
The last big bit of work that I want to get done while I’m on hiatus is to plan out the next phase of Starwalker. Currently, I’m calling this Book 5. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the story creeps out beyond a fifth book: not only is this me we’re talking about – I’m good at sprawling stories – but also I have some suspicions that there are enough questions left to answer to take our favourite little ship on a few loooong journeys.)
I’m not quite sure what it’ll take to do this planning. Hopefully just a couple of days dedicated to laying out the pieces I’ve got to play with.
After that, I need to figure out the timing of the writing. With all the stuff that’ll be in progress over this hiatus, I need to work out when I can responsibly restart the serial. Too soon, and I’ll be too overloaded to do it well. Too long, and I’ll lose a chunk of my readership. It’s a balancing act.
One option might be that I start Book 5 as this year’s NaNo project. That would mean sacrificing the next scheduled chunk of progress on Vampire Electric (which is still halfway through the second draft). I’d have to weight up the pros and cons of that.
This would be a departure in how I write the serials. I tend to write and post as I go, literally week to week. Over the last year and a half, I’ve had mixed success with this, and been far more unreliable than I like. Spending a month writing nothing else, powering through a huge chunk of it: this is pretty attractive. I could have a buffer again!
There’s 6 months between now and NaNo, so I’ve got some time to figure it out. Let’s see what happens.
So there you go: that’s what I have planned for this ‘break’ I’m taking. Ambitious? Maybe. I’m enthused and happy to be able to delve into all these things. There’s a lot to get through and I’m trying not to take my time too much. Wish me luck!
I wrote recently about the Write-Review-Publish event and how it went. What I didn’t talk about there is what I wrote during that day.
Quite often at the more intensive, structured, or organised events, I don’t really get much opportunity to write. Regular write-ins are fine, but something i’m actively running throughout the day usually means that I don’t get my head down into my own fiction. And that’s fine! I’m completely down with that.
Write-Review-Publish was different. Despite actively running it through the whole day, I actually managed to settle enough for a few stretches to get a piece not only started, but drafted right to the end, redrafted, and edited. It’s not the whole story, but it’s the first whole scene of it.
I had an idea that was niggling at me, and I figured it might be a good candidate for a day like that one. It came from an article I saw about a guy who had turned shotgun ammunition into seed distribution shells, for easy, shotgun-toting gardening. (They’re called Flower Shells.)
This is the best mix for a writer: weapons and violence with a green, environmental bent, and a healthy dollop of the faintly ridiculous. Because gardening with a shotgun is equal parts ridiculous and awesome.
Of course, my writer brain started turning it over like a curious rock. The ‘what ifs’ began: what if these shells became common munitions? What if they were used as ‘organic markers’, to tag suspects in shoot-outs and identify them later? What if someone took them to the extreme and tried to make them into bombs? What if the seeds were adapted to use the heat from the blast to promote fast growth? What if… it all went horribly wrong?
Welcome to Boomflowers. The worst has happened, an entire city (at least) has been taken over by rampant giant flowers, and people have been entirely driven out.
This is where I started at the event. The first piece of the story fell out of my story with surprising steadiness; I won’t say it was easy, because it was a struggle in some ways, but I didn’t get stuck on it, either. It’s heavy on the description in a way that I don’t often write (Starwalker is more internal chatter than pure description). It felt like stretching old muscles in new, fresh scenery.
The goal for the day was 2,000 words and the first piece of Boomflowers is only around 1,500, but I didn’t want to fill it out: I think it’s about right as it is. I really like how it came out, came together, this story that was pretty much just a concept when I walked in that day. I hadn’t expected to get to the end of it! It’s nice to know that I can surprise myself.
Right now, I’m trying not to plan it too deeply. I’ve got an idea about where I want it to go, the ground I want it to cover, and the shape it’ll take to get there. I’m predicting that it will come out around 10,000 words when it’s complete. For me, that’s shockingly short. I’m not looking to overcook this or stretch it out, though I’m determined to let it take the time and space it needs to be the story it should be. So, well… it might wind up longer than that.
I’m enjoying writing it. I’ve got the second piece ready to go, and I’m hoping to get the rest of it written up over the next few weeks, so it’s all done and good to go by the time I get back to Starwalker.
It has been a while since I wrote something with this little prep, and right now, I’m loving it. I should go do some more weird stuff with creeping flowers! Enjoy!
This year’s Asylum went well. I think it’s pretty safe to say that. All the feedback I’ve had so far has been overwhelmingly possible. When we got to the end of the day, we had happy chatter, and people excitedly telling each other about their colonies and stories.
It makes me deliriously happy when that happens.
Now, a little time has passed and the dust has settled. I’m keen to capture what went so right – and anything that wasn’t so right – to make sure this is a repeatable experience. I’m a firm believer that valuable feedback includes what we’re doing right, as well as what we’re doing wrong. So let’s make sure next year’s Asylum continues the awesome trend.
First, it might be useful to consider the evolution of the Asylum, and how feedback has shaped it thus far.
In the first Asylum, we did 6 challenges over the day, an hour each, no stopping. That also meant no pauses, no food, no comfort-breaks: anything the writers needed came out of their writing time. It ran straight through from 11am to 5pm.
The biggest (loudest) feedback I got that year was that it was too much. Too hectic, too crammed, not enough breathing space. Writers were noticeably flagging by the end of the day, and engagement with the last challenge was strained at best. The feedback included preferences for fewer or shorter challenges.
In response to that, the schedule for the day was changed. We chopped out one of the challenges and spread the remaining 5 across the day, with 10-minute breaks and a 40-minute lunch in between them. The goal of writing 1,000 words in an hour per challenge was retained.
The reactions to this were really positive. It was a more doable workload and writers were more able to have a go at all of the challenges.
However, there was still a bit of flagging energy by the end of the day. It’s hard to know whether to be too concerned about this: it is, after all, a day of challenges intended to stretch people and their writing. Again, I asked for feedback (received in-person, this time), and there were some interesting comments.
What I managed to piece together from the comments was: it was good and everyone enjoyed it, but it was hard work to get into each challenge because they had to start from scratch each time. As the day went on, it got harder to shift gears for each new challenge.
The focus of the challenges also changed between the first and second Asylums. The first was intended to be as broad as possible, the challenges touching on different genres, themes, elements, and perspectives. The second was more focussed, with all the challenges around different kinds of viewpoint characters (hence the name: Altered Perspectives). This was a reaction to positive feedback about the idea when it was suggested and something we wanted to try.
Related challenges seemed like a good idea, but it hadn’t quite gone far enough. One of the attendees to Altered Perspectives suggested that the challenges could all be around a central story. This sounded like a good idea to try to me, so that’s what we did!
So for this year, I crafted a set of challenges that were all built around the same core element: telling the progressive tale of a single colony project. This gave it the name: Colonising Minds.
It had exactly the effect that I had hoped it would. There was much less flagging by the end of the day, still some pauses for thought to get hold of each new challenge, and more excited chatter in between each challenge as everyone’s colonies developed. (There were also a lot of questions about when they could kill off everyone in the colony… we’re a bloodthirsty group!)
I don’t know if it was more or less challenging than before, but it felt like a more energised event. I’m more interested in making sure that it’s fun and something people want to do than a truly ‘challenging’ endeavour, so I’m hoping that it’s hitting the right points!
I’m really happy with how it turned out. Now, of course, I need to make sure we can at least do that well again, if not better, next time. I already have a couple of ideas for next year’s Asylum theme, and will cogitate on that for a while before I commit anything to words. (It’s also not as much fun if everyone is warned up-front about the theme! The surprise is part of the challenge.)
So I guess what I need to know now is: what did everyone think of the day? And the challenges? What could we do or change to make it even better?
Tell me, my brain is hungry!
This is a subject that raises its head on my radar every now and then, so I thought I’d finally write something about it. You know the kind of article I mean: studying writing is a waste of time; you can’t teach writing; writing degrees and qualifications are worthless.
Recently, a university professor (Ryan Boudinot) wrote a post about MFA programs, stating all the things he couldn’t say while he was teaching one. If you are an aspiring writer, I advise you don’t waste your time on that article. If you can’t resist clicking, then please, go read Chuck Wendig’s wonderful response to it as well.
Chuck says pretty much everything I was going to in response to that article, so I’m not going to go over the whole thing again here. I am, however, going to add a little more to the discourse.
I think it’s important to remember that university professors sometimes teach because they have to, not because they want to. It’s a part of their tenure. There are many reasons why a person might choose to become a professor at a university, and teaching is only one of a long list (money, research opportunities, paid writing time, resources, and legitimacy are among the other reasons). Sure, some of them love it and are great at it, but in my experience, they’re the minority. Most of them are okay. Some of them are terrible.
So when a professor starts to go on about how important ‘talent’ is, I get suspicious. Reading between the lines of the recent article, I get the impression that Boudinot found those with ‘talent’ the easiest to teach. He didn’t seem to know what to do with those without said ‘talent’. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty much what his role is to these students: someone who is supposed to teach and mentor them to become better writers. From the tone of his article, it sounds like he would simply throw his hands up at those students and write them off.
Talent is defined in many different ways. I put it in quotes above because I don’t know that I fully agree with Boudinot’s usage of it. He seems to think that those with talent have an innate connection to the written word and are able to produce exactly what he wants. Perhaps that’s so, but it’s also a very narrow view. An illiterate kid might have the same kind of talent but lack the skill to write it down because she hasn’t ever been taught how to. Another student may be following bad advice from a previous teacher. Yet another may not yet have found that one thing that makes him connect with the words on the page in that particular way that speaks to him. This is why they need a mentor.
Also, they produced what he was looking for. Different professors will want different things, so this is a particularly subjective assessment. I know of university professors teaching poetry who despise rhyming and would mark down students who used it. So who is Boudinot to define talent and what says he’s a good teacher?
One of Boudinot’s students came out and wrote an interesting piece in response to his former teacher’s article. In it, he sums up the issue with Boudinot’s teaching methods nicely:
“This is one school of thought on teaching: tough love. I’ve had experience with it in my life. Sometimes it pushes people. Sometimes it pushes them over the edge.”
“Tough love isn’t necessarily a fundamentally flawed pedagogy. The problem arises when a teacher with an inability to determine which students can handle it and which can’t applies the method indiscriminately.”
Teaching isn’t an easy profession. I think it’s undervalued in most Western countries (which is another post for another time), and I don’t think it’s as easy as people assume. Being very good at something and being able to explain that something in a way that another brain can absorb and understand are not at all connected. Being able to explain it so a group of brains can understand is harder still. It’s an exercise in communication, translation, empathy, psychology, and raw knowledge. Sometimes these skills coincide in the same body but often they do not. Training can overcome the gap (and I believe that training in teaching is essential, because it comes naturally to only a few of us).
Teaching art, in particular, is a tricky business. Facts are a case of learning and memorising. Theories can be learned and understood (usually on a logical level). Critical thought as a mode of examining things that can be taught. Art, on the other hand… You can’t have a multiple-choice test for art the way you can for science or maths. There often aren’t straightforward right or wrong answers to art questions, and far too often, I’ve seen students being forced to learn how the ‘right’ answer in art is whichever one suits a particular teacher’s tastes.
You can teach someone to appreciate art, but you can’t teach them how to feel it. You can teach them the techniques and technical aspects of the art, but you can’t teach them how to put them together into something meaningful. You can teach them how to write, but you can’t teach them what to say. You can’t teach them how to be a writer.
So what does that mean in terms of writing courses and qualifications? In my opinion, they should be arming artists with the tools they need to ply whatever artistic trade speaks to them. Critical examination, good practice, bad practice, grammar, spelling, how to punctuate, formatting, layout: all of these things are important and useful for a writer to know. Techniques like metaphor, allegory, and the different forms of writing are also useful.
Some of the technical knowledge will fall by the wayside of an artist’s journey as superfluous, similar to how you might teach a painter to use sixteen different types of paint but only one will suit that painter’s personal style of expression. Sometimes, knowing what you don’t want to use is as important as knowing what you do want to put in your piece. Knowing how and when a particular tool is effective is useful even if you don’t use it, because what if you can apply that principle in a new and different way? It’s all about understanding your options and making informed choices.
I’m a firm believer that an artist should know the rules before they can be broken effectively, too. Subverting rules can be very effective, but it’s hard to do it successfully by accident. Being well-armed with the technical skills and tools gives you an arsenal to draw on, but how you use them is always your choice. Part of what I try to do with this blog is to help writers to find and understand those tools; I share them so others might use them. I don’t call myself a teacher but I hope my efforts and experiences have some value.
I studied English Literature and Creative Writing at university, and have a Bachelor of Arts degree. It’s a pretty useless degree, as far as careers go, beyond being ‘a degree’ (often, that’s all jobs will ask for, not really caring what subject the degree is in). But I chose it because I love books, reading, and writing, and I wanted to study it.
I don’t regret spending three years at university, or the other writing courses I did before and after that degree, or the money I spent on the studying and books. Sometimes I feel that I would have got more from it if I had waited a few years, because I wrote pretty much what they asked me to write. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, and I didn’t know that I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I’ve always had stories I wanted to tell, but it took me years to find the voice that really fit me. The tools I learned during that studying weren’t a waste of time, though, and I got a lot of goodness from the critical reading and essays side of the courses.
I’m sure others find it much sooner than I did. Others might take longer. Right now, I’m in a good place where I’m writing the things that I want to share with other people; I think I’ve found my voice. I firmly believe that it’s not something you can teach someone. Help them find it: maybe.
I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences with being taught writing, particularly creative writing. What do you all think?
This a few months late, but here it is anyway! The story of my eighth National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It was a crazy time. Some things went well; some did not. Enough spoilers! Let’s get to it.
Just before the beginning of November, I had a big change at work. I won’t go into details, but there was a situation and I got moved into a different team to help clear it up. The timing was not ideal, to say the least. It was a lot of work, a heap of stress, and a drain on my mental space and energy (which I have talked about elsewhere).
My day job pays the bills and I actually really enjoy it (most of the time). More and more, I’m grateful to have it. And I enjoy the challenges that it throws at me. I just wish it wouldn’t do it at an already crazy time of year for me!
NaNo means a lot of ML (Municipal Liaison) work for me every year. We (my co-ML and I) try to do something new and different every year, to keep things fun and fresh. Part of what we organise is a huge Kick-off Party, which we decided to change up this year to be indoors, at night, and extend past midnight to include a midnight writing start when November 1st ticked over on our clocks. Another part is a Writer’s Retreat in which we take 20-ish people to a tropical island for a weekend, and feed them at least once (the rest they do for themselves!).
So when I say that I was struggling with the weight of organisation, coordination, stress, work, play, and writing, you have an idea of what I mean. It’s a bit like juggling cats sometimes. It’s probably no surprise that I got sick in the first week of November (thank goodness, it was just a cold, but still).
The Kick-Off Party
On the plus side, the new-style KoP went down really well. We had a turnout that exceeded our expectations (and the KoPs from recent years) when over 70 people turned up, and we had about 35 people stick around for the midnight writing start (we had expected maybe 20!). We ran out of the goodies we give away, which never happens, and we were utterly delighted with it. The feedback we got was all pretty positive.
We’ve got some ideas about how to improve it in 2015, and we’re looking forward to that. Gotta love the big turnout! This year will be our last chance to have a weekend midnight start for a while, so we’re going to make the most of it.
The Writer’s Retreat
The other big feature of last year’s NaNo was our Writer’s Retreat. It was our third one and we’re getting better at it every time. Surprisingly, though, our attendance is dropping off every year. I say ‘surprisingly’ because we get nothing but overwhelmingly good feedback about it. People come and enjoy themselves, and they tell everyone about it. There are always niggles and edge cases, of course, but I think it’s safe to say that our Retreat is a jewel in our NaNo crown.
Some parts of the Retreat highlighted an interesting phenomena between the MLs and the writers. As MLs, we make a point of being friendly and welcoming to everyone, and we like to keep our events as casual, comfortable, and open as possible. Most of our people are pretty relaxed around us. Some have become friends that I see outside of our writing events.
However, when organising and running something as intense and involved as a Retreat, we can’t be as easy and casual with our people. We have to be responsible for the group in a way we aren’t usually, and as organisers, we have a lot more to deal with. We have to juggle the venue’s requirements, potential legal issues, catering, the schedule of events for the whole weekend, health and safety, any special requirements and situations that our attendees bring with them, and the time and effort it takes to get ~20 people where we need them to be at any given time. We set things up in a way we know will work and provide the best experience for everyone. With so many moving parts, even a small spanner in the works is annoying, though we do our best to paper over the cracks and not let it show. We want to make sure that people have a good time and don’t go home remembering that one thing that went wrong.
We have very few rules and requirements on the Retreat, but the few things we ask our attendees to do, we try to make clear. Most people get it. Some decide that it’s optional and do whatever they feel like. In a few cases, people did explicitly what we asked them not to. I won’t go into details, but I will say that this caused us a few problems, and my co-ML and I ended up with a heap of extra work over the weekend.
For the most part, this behaviour was inconvenient and disrespectful, and we dealt with it quickly and quietly. In one case, we had to cover up a particularly bad stretch of behaviour and were only partially successful.
I think what’s most frustrating is that most of it was completely avoidable. Coming to talk to us is always the easiest solution, and we make a point of being approachable and willing to help. Had we known about the issues, we could have sorted them out, but by the time we knew about it, all we had left to us was damage control. For the most part, simple consideration would have prevented it all.
We dealt with it all as best we could, and on balance, it was a pretty wonderful weekend. Most of it went well, and I love my awesome group of people. We had a roleplaying session one evening, and I hadn’t laughed so much for so long in ages.
What does all this mean for the future of our Retreats? Hard to say at this point. I learned a few things over this Retreat and I would hate for these things to happen again, but I see it as a learning opportunity to take forward. We will need to change a few things to make sure the ripples and disruptions don’t happen again, and that’s fine; we’re constantly refining what we do to make sure everyone has the best time possible. The rest – the negative stuff – can sit in the past and stay there.
Future Retreats are going to be determined more by interest, cost, and attendance than anything else. We had so few people in 2014 (19, including me and my fellow ML/organiser) that we actually lost money on it. Luckily, we managed to mitigate it so we weren’t out of pocket (and didn’t have to ask people for more money), but it’s not a good sign.
We did a quick poll on why people didn’t come, and money was pretty much the top reason. We keep the Retreat as cheap as we possibly can, having attendees share rooms and so on, and our venue gives us a great deal. Times are tight for everyone, though, and the demographic of our NaNo peeps isn’t one with a lot of disposable cash. As cheap as it is, most of our people simply can’t afford a weekend away.
This led us to start thinking about alternatives, because as much as everyone loves the Retreat, there’s no point running it if we can’t make it viable. We’re looking at options and have a couple of ideas. It might be time to try something different.
My Novel Writing
My own writing for NaNoWriMo didn’t start very smoothly. Starwalker was troublesome and I headached about that for a few days. After a friend’s advice, I did the thing I had tried so hard not to: I put the web serial on hiatus and took a break from it.
In hindsight, it was the right decision. In short: it was exactly what I needed at that particular time and place in my writing. During NaNo, I wrote 50,000 words of something else instead!
Once I got focussed and moving on Vampire Electric, my steampunk paranormal mystery adventure romance novel (no, I don’t know exactly where to classify it yet, but it’s definitely all of those things), my writing picked up. I’m currently working on the second draft, so it was a pretty easy write: the first draft let me know what I wanted the second one to be.
I’m really pleased with how that redrafting went. I hit my wordcount target with a few days to go, and I’ve reached the approximate mid-point of the book. (Looking at the full wordcount of the novel – as I did a chunk of it last NaNo too – it’s currently sitting at just over 100,000 words. It’s only about halfway done. I’m a little nervous of how long it’s going to be when it’s finished, but it’s gonna be a hell of a ride!) I hope to get back to writing it at some point, though that might be next NaNo’s job. Who knows?
That’s the rundown! I can’t believe it has taken me so long to pull all of this together. It’s about time to turn my attention to the planning of the 2015 NaNoWriMo fun, so it’s handy to look back now.
I do love my writing peeps. They’re a wonderful group of people who help and encourage each other, with ease and laughter. The cast changes slightly every year – sometimes it grows, sometimes it changes – but it’s always a great thing to be a part of.
I’m lucky and looking forward to the next one.