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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  1. Francisco says:

    Research shows that we perform better after eating. You may want to try having more than one meal break?

    May 16th, 2015 at 2:51 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Good point! There are 10-minute breaks between each challenge (except for the lunch break), so people can order food, but we can do more with those.

    Morning tea and afternoon tea? That could be fun, actually. Thanks! 🙂

    May 17th, 2015 at 4:26 pm