20 May 2015 - 7:02 pm

How to make the best of a hiatus

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…

This. So much this.  (Picture: not mine)

This. So much this.
(Picture: not mine)

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!

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17 May 2015 - 4:14 pm

Boomflowers: sneaking up on you

Boomflowers!

Boomflowers!

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!

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15 May 2015 - 6:47 pm

Writers’ Asylum: Colonising Minds: Diagnosis

To improve, scrutiny is required. (Picture: eagle owl eye by Windwalker, via wikimedia)

To improve, scrutiny is required.
(Picture: eagle owl eye by Windwalker, via wikimedia)

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!

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13 May 2015 - 7:07 pm

Awful attitudes towards studying writing

To study or not to study?  (Picture By Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons)

To study or not to study?
(Picture By Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons)

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?

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11 May 2015 - 8:15 pm

NaNoWriMo 2014: collected experiences

MLing again!

MLing again!

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.

Another NaNo, another win

Another NaNo, another win

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.

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9 May 2015 - 5:19 pm

Updating links

The new site unfolds

The new site unfolds

Not long ago, I moved this site from the old apocalypseblog.com domain to this shiny new one at melanieedmonds.com. I also moved it to a new host. Thanks to WordPress’s handy tools, it was very easy! It took just a few hours to get everything standing up on the new server and transferred.

One thing that the tools didn’t switch over for me was the links, however. Specifically, the links internal to the blog, between posts and pages, to tags and categories, and so on.

Now, I’ve set the previous blog’s address to auto-forward to the new one, that was easy, but it only affects users going directly to the homepage of the blog. After some investigation, I found that the links to specific locations within the blog (pages, posts, etc) were going and staying on the old site (it’s still there, for now).

This isn’t exactly ideal. So, I’ve been working over the last little while to gradually update the links to all point to the new domain. However, there are over 300 posts on the blog and it would take a lot of time to go through everything, so I’ve been targetting the big stuff first. I think I’ve got all the major links sorted.

I’ll keep poking at it and trying to get it all sorted. It’s a big job and might take a while.

In the meantime, if you notice any broken links or links that take you back to the old site, please let me know! I’ll be forever grateful. Likewise, if you spot anything broken or missing on the site, I’d love it if you let me know. Leave a comment or email me: your choice.

Thanks, my friends. Hopefully it’s all seamless to you!

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8 May 2015 - 9:42 pm

Write-Review-Publish – the lowdown

As part of my recent work with Inkspired, I held an event in conjunction with the portal’s people that we called Write-Review-Publish.

It was a full-day event in which the intention was to:

  • Distribute writing sparks/ideas
  • Encouraged writers to brainstorm in groups about their story idea or spark
  • Write about 2,000 words
  • Review each others’ stories and give feedback
  • Rework and polish the piece
  • Publish it through Inkspired.
(Picture by Sandymanase)

(Picture by Sandymanase)

This was a new endeavour for me, a new kind of event, and I jumped into it enthusiastically. So did a lot of other people! We had so much interest in it that, after I posted the details up on the NaNo Brisbane Facebook group, I wound up increasing our booking because I thought we’d run out of space!

We didn’t quite get the turnout I had expected (feared?), given the interest a whole heap of people showed, but it was still pretty impressive: we had about 20 people, which is a healthy turnout. It’s a good number to wrangle, I find.

I had set up a whole schedule for the day, laying out time pockets for each stage of the process. The schedule only really existed for about an hour or so, after which I realised that the writing habits and process of the different attendees were going to make it too hard to enforce. I quietly abandoned the schedule idea; after all, these things aren’t set in stone, and the idea was to foster and encourage creativity and writing, not squash it by trying to force it into predetermined boundaries.

Instead, I opted for moving around the room and checking in on people every now and then. It gave me an opportunity and excuse to chat with people, some of whom I didn’t know very well. It gave the day a more relaxed atmosphere, too.

Overall, it went pretty well. Everyone who came wrote a bit of something new, though not all got to the point where they were ready to share it. Some worked with the Inkspired website and uploaded their pieces.

When I arrived to set up for the event, one of the Inkspired creators and developers collared me to tell me about a new feature they had just finished putting in (literally the night before): reviewing. It was a bit raw, but it worked! Writers could now save a draft of a chapter in Inkspired and nominate some reviewers. The reviewers got an email with a link, and were able to go in and mark up the draft with comments.

It was a wonderful addition to the day. There were a couple of issues we gave feedback on, which is probably why Inkspired took a couple of weeks to announce the feature to their userbase, but it worked well enough for us to get some goodness out of. It made the feedback portion of the process much easier than I had anticipated, and everyone was impressed with how it worked.

So, while no-one actually hit ‘publish’ on the day, a whole bunch of people signed up and got involved. A couple of us have since published our pieces and released them into the wild. (More on mine in another post soon!)

The Inkspired people seem keen to do more events like this one. I am, too! (I’m being cautious with not overloading myself, but I do hope to do another one before too long.)

I think the day could be improved, though. 

Now, before I go on, I want to be clear: the attendees were wonderful. You were all wiling, receptive, and brave enough to dive in to what we asked you to do. This is in no way a comment on anyone who was there (or not there); this was a new thing I was trying, and it needs some tuning. So let’s look under the hood and see what we can do.

The event felt a little too loose to me, like it was missing something. I’m not entirely sure what that something was. I think people got to very different places with their pieces, though I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. I don’t know if there was not enough structure in the end, or too much driving too fast. I’m not even sure if anyone shares my feelings! What I am sure about is: it could be better.

Here’s where I need some help. I’m really curious about what others think, so I can try to make the right changes, should we try this again. So for those who attended, I would love it if you could answer the questions below. For those who couldn’t make it, what do you think about an event like this?

Like with the Writers’ Asylum, I really do take your preferences and suggestions into account when putting this sort of thing together. 

Some questions I’d love to hear from you about:

  1. Have you published on Inkspired yet? If not, do you intend to? Why?
  2. What was the best thing about the event?
  3. What didn’t work for you about the event? If possible, can you say why it didn’t work?
  4. What did you think of the prompts? Did you use one?
  5. Was the feedback you got on your piece useful?
  6. Any feedback for us on the structure of the day? Did you think you had enough time for everything you needed to do? Was anything missing?
  7. Would a more guided writing event be something you would like? For example, a more directed writing challenge rather than open, free writing?
  8. Any suggestions not already covered?

Feel free to comment here, or email me if you prefer.

I think that’s everything. Obviously, if there’s anything I haven’t covered, please feel free to fill in the gap and tell me all about it.

Thanks to everyone who got involved or showed an interest. I couldn’t do any of this stuff without you guys. Here’s to next time, and more great writing being done!

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6 May 2015 - 6:43 pm

VVSG: cover and coverage

The brand new awesome cover!

The brand new awesome cover!

The Vampire Victim Support Group is one of those projects that kinda snuck up on me, tempted me down an alleyway, then ran off with my keys.

I hadn’t intended to dedicate any real time to it. It was supposed to be one of those background things that I poked at when I needed a mental break from whatever I was really working on. It lurked at the bottom of my to-do list and seemed quite happy slumbering there.

Then I got to playing with Inkspired and decided to toss the first vignette up there (Jaime’s story). I had another couple of pieces in the series in various stages of completion, and it didn’t take much more work to get a second one ready to post for everyone to see (Niamh’s story).

Then I got a little excited, chatted with the lovely artist Svenja Gosen*, and commissioned a cover for it. Doesn’t it look awesome? I know I love it.

I planned out the VVSG members and their stories sometime in the last year (I’m not sure when, but it was after I bought my current laptop). I knew I wanted each one to be very distinct, each person very different. As much as it might be reasonable to have multiple survivors of the same vampire attack, I really wanted a diverse set of stories to play with.

Diversity is a theme that I took into the scheming part of this story pretty heavily. It wasn’t just different vampire attacks: I wanted different ages, genders, and backgrounds. Different voices. Different reasons for encountering a vampire, and different reactions to the situation.

Because people are fascinating and there’s nothing more boring than having a group of people sit and nod and agree with each other on every point. Even if they all agree that vampires are nasty, vicious beasts (and I’m not saying they will), they’ll each agree for their own reasons. That’s what interests me, as a writer.

I also love writing about people on the periphery of the big stuff. Those who are touched by something as big and life-changing as the existence of vampires, but who would be side-characters or throwaway cutouts in the story of good vs evil, heroes vs villains. These victims don’t throw punches. They don’t saddle up and go vampire-hunting, armed with all the pop culture lore they can make into hopeful weapons. These are the ones who are hurt and traumatised and bewildered; the people who the heroes step over on their way to punching the Big Bad in the fangy face.

These people are just trying to figure out how to deal with this new element to their lives. These are the ones trying to fit this awful thing into their otherwise normal lives. These are the sorts of people who would start and attend a Support Group as a way to figure out how to get past it.

I’m interested in seeing if I can write all these different voices. Most of them I haven’t tried before, not in a viewpoint character. Part of my reason for building this project was to stretch myself as a writer, and as I get into the pieces, wow, is it doing that.

I’ve currently got three different members’ stories in various stages of drafting. One wandered off on a tangent that is both exciting but not really what I intended it to be, and needs to be pulled back on track. One is from a very different POV than I normally write and is proving to be a bit of a challenge. I think I’m struggling to find his voice. The third is going well and almost done, I think! But again, it’s a different voice and I’m not sure how well I’m pulling it off. I’ve sought a second opinion on that one, but I’m still nervous about it.

It’s fun and I’m enjoying the exercise it’s giving me. There are nine characters in all, and I think each one will have two phases to their story, so it’s going to be fun to get through it all!

In one way, I think I started posting it a little early. I was originally going to frame the vignettes with glimpses of the support group meeting itself, and I’d still like to do that, but I don’t want to write that until I have all the characters fully fleshed-out in my head and I had all the pieces I wanted to put together. The frame of the support group was supposed to tie the stories together.

Now, I’m thinking that I’ll save that part for the ebook version. The plan is to keep posting this story up on Inkspired, build up the full complement of group members, their stories, and a picture of a city’s undead underbelly from the perspective of those who skate close to it but don’t quite fall. After all, they weren’t killed outright, right?

The fun continues. I’m looking forward to getting this next piece finished and posted (it’s due up very soon!). I’ve signed up to post one a month – I think I can stick to that. Fingers crossed!

* Svenja is also responsible for my Starwalker art, and the soon-to-be released new covers for The Apocalypse Blog books.

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4 May 2015 - 5:19 pm

Invisible serials

It feels a lot like this. (Picture by Lisa Brewster)

It feels a lot like this.
(Picture by Lisa Brewster)

An article recently came to my attention that made me want to facepalm so hard that it could be heard reverberating across the internet. According to the Washington Post, it would be great if serialised novels were brought back.

Brought back. From where, precisely? I wasn’t aware that it had gone away.

The premise of the article appears to be that serials died with the 19th Century, harking back to the glory-days of serials in newspapers and magazines by authors like Dickens, Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins. Now, it’s true that newspapers don’t host this sort of material any more (as far as I’m aware), but I believe there are still magazines around that serialise stories across several issues, including novels.

Publishing has shifted since those long-ago days of the illiterate being read to from master’s newspaper, and it is shifting even more rapidly now. Serials are, if anything, experiencing a blossoming in material and readership.

Just check out the amount of options out there already, right now, waiting to be read (the Web Fiction Guide listings are a good place to start!). There are entire services dedicated to discovering and delivering serials right to you (like the recently-mentioned Inkspired, Wattpad, Jukepop Serials, or Tuesday Serials, to name but a few). Whatever device you prefer to read from, serials are available and abundant.

The motive behind the aforementioned article seems to be that publishing is in the doldrums and traditional publishers are completely missing this potential marketing windfall. Serialisation is a great way to build audience, gain exposure, and build up chatter and excitement for a novel’s release.

I completely agree with all of that. Serialisation achieves all of those things, and could be a great marketing tool if used that way. Traditional publishers don’t tend to use this, spending their marketing time and money elsewhere.

However, it’s not completely unknown. Stephen King serialised the Green Mile, and Max Barry initially wrote Machine Man as a serial as well. As far as I’m aware, neither of these authors did it to bulk up their book sales; the serials served different purposes.

But so did the serials of old. Dickens didn’t cleverly serialise his work so he could sell more novels; he was paid to write a serial (by the word!), and the novel versions came along much later. The novel was not the original goal. So twining these things together is misleading, at best.

What about the people who have used a serial to gain interest, audience, and exposure? Indie writers. Me. Many others. It’s another place where traditional publishers are missing a trick in the e-publishing world, and another place where indie authors get to shine. Many of us go on to publish our serials as e-books, and do well a a result.

Should more novelists serialise their work? Maybe. Having more completed works serialised would be good for serials as a whole, because of the reputation it has of being unreliable; many serials are simply abandoned, leaving the reader frustrated. More good stuff in the market is good for everyone.

It’s worth recognising that the serial and novel audiences are not synonymous, however. Many readers despise serials and don’t like having to wait. Others love it. It’s not a solve-all, by any means!

“Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works.”

I had to call this particular part of the article out, because of how completely ignorant these critics are. Sure, sometimes serials can be heavy on cliffhangers, but I know from personal experience that overuse of them annoys serial readers. Serials work just fine without them. Just like TV shows don’t need to have cliffhangers on the end of each episode to pull the audience back every week, text serials don’t need it either. There are so many different ways to be compelling and immersive.

Corrupt ‘serious’ work? Be light on subtlety? These critics are reading the wrong serials. You can be subtle, clever, obtuse, and literate, and if you write a good story, readers will come. Do it well, and you’ll be fine.

Dickens wrote popular, ‘pulp’ stories (which we now call ‘literature’), designed to string the story out and keep his readers scrabbling for more, but Dickens does not define serialisation. He is a model for a specific kind of serialisation that happened at a specific time. Things have changed. Reading habits and audience have changed. Move with it, people!

““Since the loss of compelling plot is one of the things that readers most often complain of in the modern novel,” the critic Adam Kirsch says, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.””

Dickens? James? What about modern versions? What about something written in this century? What about just reading a good story? I’ve read many a good, compelling story that was written within the last century. What is this ‘modern novel’ that they speak of? If they’re talking about literary novels, then perhaps they need to realise that literary novels tend to view plot and characterisation as secondary to their purpose, and so intentionally throw their best tools to the wind when it comes to creating something ‘compelling’.

My exasperation with this article only continues. It seems to have a very narrow view of the publishing world, how writers publish these days, the works that are out there, and what’s actually going on in the wild.

The article has identified three different places that are serialising fiction: Mousehold Words (which apparently serialises public domain works like Dickens), Kindle Serials (one of the worst serial services around, and one that is currently not accepting submissions), and DailyLit (an email distribution of fiction).

These are bad examples of the wide range of serial services out there, never mind all the self-hosted or single-hosted serials (like mine). Even Hillary Kelly, the article’s author, says how inadequate they are, but without recognising that they are only a very small and unrepresentative part of the serial world.

No, according to Kelly, a great serial route would be to stick them in publications like Time, or the New Yorker. Are those kinds of publications likely to welcome fiction in their non-fiction? Is that at all the right kind of audience?

You’re writing for the Washington Post, Ms Kelly. Why don’t you get THEM to start doing this, then come back and tell us how awesome it is? I would love to see some real stats, rather than blind and badly-informed speculation.

Then again, the author also states that reading novels is “a slowly fading pastime.” The fact that more books are being sold than ever has apparently completely missed this author’s attention; novels are not in danger of dying out any time soon. Quite the opposite. But I suppose that’s true only if you count ebooks and indie sales in the figures; if all you’re looking at is the traditional publishers’ numbers, you’re likely to get a dire view of the situation.

The author doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between a serial and a series, either.

“Young-adult literature has already embraced the spirit of serialization. With the first Harry Potter novel came a guarantee of six more….”

There are so many things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start. A series of novels isn’t the same as serialising a novel. The readers who eschew reading serials may thrive happily on a series, because they’re delivered in complete stories, not bite-sized parts, and they know there’s a finished story there. Lumping the two approaches together this way confuses the issue and won’t help writers to make the right choices about their work.

Harry Potter did not start a trend by being a series with many books; series have long been popular with traditional publishers, and they have been staples of the speculative fiction and children’s genres for over a century. That books that are both speculative fiction and for young audiences are in series isn’t attributable to Pottermania (there were many around when I was growing up, well before Potter was stuffed in the cupboard under the stairs). There isn’t a change in reading habits here; Harry Potter simply helped to draw in more readers and bulk out a particular part of the market. Traditional publishers knew long ago that building a series is a great way to build sales and retain audience.

So what’s the tl:dr version of this post?

Traditional publishers have long known that publishing series of books is a good sales tactic. They have yet to cash in on the current serial boom, however.

And there is one. Serials are live and thriving. Indie and self-publishing authors are using this tactic. Traditionally-published authors have been doing this on and off for years. There are many ways to get your work out there to readers, one post at a time, and people are using them.

Thank you, Hillary Kelly, for completely disregarding a whole section of the literary community and industry. Thank you for making us feel invisible and unimportant. As the comments on your article show, all you’ve done here is show the breadth of your ignorance of what’s really going on in the market.

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2 May 2015 - 5:20 pm

Writers’ Asylum: Colonising Minds: Epilogue

We have reached the end of the Asylum once more.

Congratulations, you have created an entire world today. You gave it purpose and people, you tested it, and you decided its fate. I hope that you had fun, and that maybe you’ve got a world you want to write more about. It’s yours: take it home and do what you will with it.

Thank you for taking part in the 2015 Writers’ Asylum! As always, feedback is welcome; you can email me or leave comments here.

Turn your padded coats in at the door and don’t let anything hit you on the backside as you leave. Stay crazy!

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