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Catalyst characters

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive? (Picture via Videezy)

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive?
(Picture via Videezy)

I’ve seen catalyst characters crop up in a few books and stories, and I have to say, I’m not a fan.

What do I mean by ‘catalyst characters’? I mean characters around whom important things happen, but through no action or choice of their own. Their mere presence can cause things to happen or turn out differently than if they had not been there. This may or may not be recognised by others in the story, and may or may not be manipulated by others (to their benefit or detriment).

One of the most obvious examples is Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. He is called out explicitly as a catalyst in the text (I believe another character refers to him this way at one point), and he’s pretty much told that he serves no other purpose.

Similarly, Ara in Tanith Lee’s The Heroine of the World is a catalyst in the story. The prophecy states that ‘lightning is attracted’ and predicts that she will influence the events shaping the world, but at no point does she take a proactive or even particularly conscious part in it. She winds up moving through the story like a doll.

In both of these cases, the catalyst characters are our viewpoint. The protagonists and heroes of the story are other characters entirely, and we’re put in the position of watching the real struggles in the story happen to other people, from the perspective of someone who has no ability to change what’s going on (for better or worse). Also, these viewpoint characters barely seem to understand what’s going on.

It’s a strange choice for a writer to make. The point of view doesn’t have to be the hero of the story (as I mentioned in a recent CWG meeting, Sherlock Holmes would be very different if he told his own story; Watson’s viewpoint is humanising). The choice of viewpoint is important, as it frames the reader’s perspective and interpretation of the story.

Ultimately, both of the stories mentioned above felt slightly detached and out of touch with the real story that was happening around these characters. As a reader, I was increasingly frustrated, partly because I wanted to know more about what was really going on – the interesting parts of the story – and because I wanted to shake these catalysts into doing something.

I’ve come to realise that the lack of agency they employ is a big part of why I struggle to like these characters. Ara lacks even the desire for agency and floats along in the story like a doll in a bubble. Fitz is vastly out of his depth in both knowledge and skill, and doesn’t get beyond doing what he’s told (at least as far as I recall, and I’m only referring to the Farseer trilogy; I haven’t read the subsequent series revolving around the characters in the trilogy).

I kept wanting the catalysts to take an interest in what’s going around them, to at least think about it and try to do something. Even if it’s the wrong thing, even if it’s pointless: I wanted them to at least want to try. To have a goal, to strive, to fail, to care. To become involved and interesting. But they didn’t. They were just catalysts for external things, like the butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a drought.

I keep trying to think of other examples of catalysts, and I struggle to name many. I think that Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz comes close: things happen around her, but she’s not the usual kind of hero that we tend to see in stories. She defeats the first witch by being in a house caught a storm, and the second is an accident (she doesn’t know that the water will kill the Wicked Witch).

However, Dorothy is a likeable character. She’s proactive: she actively sets out to find her way home, and has her own goals and struggles. She tries to do the right thing and to help, and it matters to her what’s going on around her.

In her own story – finding her way home – she’s the hero. In the story of Oz, however, her role is more of a catalyst. She inspires the other characters to do what’s necessary to resolve the issues at hand, simply by being herself. She helps the Scarecrow to go on to become the leader of Oz; at no point does she look likely to take the throne herself.

Through her, we get to see the whole story, including the parts she probably doesn’t understand well herself (like the Wizard and his manipulations). Unlike Ara and Fitz, she’s proactive and driven, and has an interesting journey within herself as well.

By the end of the story, I don’t think Dorothy still qualifies as a catalyst. She is sent on a mission and, in the end, succeeds in defeating the Wicked Witch. But she does seem to start out as a catalyst.

That growth is perhaps what I find most lacking in Ara and Fitz: they never grew beyond being a static catalyst. Ara has almost no arc at all, and Fitz doesn’t manage to escape the bounds of his catalyst role. This is why I got the urge to shake them, and rolled my eyes as I wanted them to step out of this role and into something more active in the story. I wanted them to get involved. This is why these charaters are the reason why I won’t ever re-read these books again.

This leaves me with some questions:

  • Can catalyst characters be effective, engaging viewpoints?
  • Can a story about a catalyst ever be interesting, if they never grow beyond being a catalyst?
  • What other other examples of catalysts are there? Are any of them likeable?
  • Is it just me who feels this way?

I’d love to here what you all think about this!

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My Samaritan

It was like this, but dirtier. (Picture by Counselling via pixabay)

It was like this, but dirtier.
(Picture by Counselling via pixabay)

I had an interesting experience recently. As I was driving to the movies with my dad and a friend, the car was pulling towards the left slightly. It was subtle, enough that I put it down to being a bit tired and not quite paying attention. It was easily corrected.

There was a strange noise a few minutes later. It was quiet, almost drowned out by our talking, but enough that I shushed my passengers to check that it was, in fact, being made by the car. Then I pulled over.

Yup, flat tyre. Bollocks.

Now, I like to think I’m fairly capable. I can check a certain amount of basic engine things: oil, water, washer fluid. I can change out a distributor cap (a car I had a few years ago needed a new cap about once a year). And I’ve changed a tyre before. It’s a pain in the ass, but I can do it.

So while we had the light and space to do it, I didn’t bother to call my roadside assistance service (I have one, thank goodness).

My dad was quick to grab the jack and get down beside the car to start the process. We had fun attempting to get the hub cap off, but it turns out that it goes under the wheel nuts (never seen that before), so my friend and I stood back out of the way while the jack was set up.

Next thing we knew, there was a car pulling up behind mine and a guy hopped out. He was a big, burly fella with a shaven head, of Maori descent, and with Maori-style tribal tattoos down both arms. The sort of guy who wouldn’t look out of place in a bikie gang, a dimly-lit bar, or a BBQ on the beach. The sort of guy that people warn you about. The sort of guy that people would make a lot of assumptions about, most of them not terribly complementary or reassuring.

It’s worth pointing out that the road we were on is a main road between two suburbs. There was a steady flow of traffic going in both directions. He came over to us with an offer of help with whatever was wrong, and I smiled and thanked him, because people don’t often do that.

It took me a moment to realise that this fella had seen two girls on the side of the road, standing by a car with its hazard lights on, and he had immediately turned around and come to help out. He hadn’t seen my dad because the car was in the way. He had assumed we were stuck and reacted without hesitation.

This kind Samaritan – whose name I never got, he was so quick to head off when it was all done – was pleasant and happy to help out, even though we probably didn’t need it. He wasn’t creepy or unsettling in any way; he was just a nice guy who took time out of his day to help out complete strangers that he thought needed it. Even after realising we had someone working on it already and probably weren’t quite what he had assumed, he insisted on jumping in to help and crouched down next to the wheel.

No-one else driving along that road stopped. (To be fair, they may have seen his car there and assumed we had enough help.)

I’m grateful for his appearance, even though we would have been okay on our own. It got me thinking about assumptions and how we react in these cases. I thought about whether I would stop if I saw the same thing (I’d like to think so, but it hasn’t come up yet). Mostly, I thought about how people might react to someone of his appearance approaching them in a time of need.

I was simply grateful to him, then and now. I was so touched by the fact that he stopped to help us that I didn’t have time to be anything but thankful and a bit embarrassed towards him.

But there was a part of my brain that wondered if he always got that reaction. I can imagine that people would judge him unfairly because of the way he looks: some might be guarded with him, or outright refuse his aid, or assume he had stopped for some other, less sympathetic purpose. I can imagine that stereotypes would get in the way, whether related to race or class or ink.

I came away from that stop by the side of the road with a good memory of something that was otherwise a pain in my ass (and was worse when I got the bill for fixing the tyre). I felt a little bit better about myself, because I try to take people as I find them and give them a fair go, despite all the scare-mongering that goes on in the public consciousness these days. I want to be the person that smiles and is pleasant, regardless, and I’m glad that I lived up to it that day. And I had some of my faith in humanity justified by this person who stopped to lend us a hand.

So, thank you, mystery man. Thank you for taking time out of your day to help us out. Thank you for being unexpected and awesome. I’m sorry that I didn’t get your name.

In a world that is suffering under the weight of people judging each other harshly, when the media is full of the bullshit caused by people turning stereotypes into reasons for hate, thank you for reminding me that we can be free of that if we choose. We can just be people going about our business, reaching out and interacting with each other without that crap in the way, and we can brighten each other’s day in the process.

I hope you have some idea of the difference you made to us, beyond changing a tyre and helping us make our movie.

Thank you.

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The problem of representation

As an artist, representation is a problematic minefield.

Not all artists care about diversity and representation. I’m going to say up front that that’s fine: it’s completely up to the artist what elements they put into their work and what issues they want to tackle.

However, ignoring issues like representation and diversity opens an artist up to criticism. But trying to tackle them has the same effect.

To be clear: I think that representation and diversity is a problem in mainstream media. Western media is heavily biased towards straight white males. Women are not proportionally represented, people of differing races are not well represented, the presentation of religions is skewed, people of differing abilities aren’t well represented, and the LGBT+ groups struggle to be seen as well. You don’t even have to be a minority to be poorly represented in fictional media.

(For the purposes of this post, I’ll be talking about media in terms of fiction – TV shows, movies, books, etc – rather than journalism and news reporting, which is also very problematic but less about art.)

There is increasing pressure from all kinds of different groups to improve diversity in our media. There are calls for more lead characters that are female, or POCs, or not-straight, or not-cis, or non-binary, or not-Christian. And rightly so! Some mainstream media outlets are listening and responding. Some indie outlets have always been doing it.

At the same time, there’s a lot of criticism and resistance to who is writing and representing these characters (lead or otherwise).

‘Appropriation’ is the word that I keep seeing crop up in these arguments (and such sentiments usually devolve into arguments, though I personally try to stay out of it). A particular group is represented but not quite right or not by someone ‘authorised’ to do it, and so it’s vilified by the group that is being represented.

Cultural appropriation is something that I’ve seen crop up a lot in articles and posts over the last couple of years. (It has most likely been around a lot longer; that’s just when I started to notice the volume of it.) Those outside of the cultural group in question are not allowed to play with their toys, not welcome to join in. Just recently, a free yoga class was banned from an American university because someone complained about it being cultural appropriation. (Honestly, I can see what these objectors are saying, but I think it’s all gone a little far.)

Then, when it comes to fiction, there are those minorities who don’t believe that anyone outside of their group can properly write their situation. I’ve been personally told that I couldn’t possibly understand a particular person’s situation or journey because I haven’t walked it myself (this particular instance was in relation to trans issues, but it’s not the only time I’ve heard that sentiment and not the only group I’ve heard voice it).

This is particularly rankling for me. In one instance, we’ve got a group of people crying out for more understanding, acknowledgement, and inclusion, and in the next breath, they’re pushing people away because we couldn’t possibly understand and are not part of their group. You can’t ask for inclusion with one hand and demand exclusivity with the other. You can’t ask for understanding and then tell people it’s impossible for them to gain it. And stating that your personal experience is so special that no-one outside it could possibly understand is the height of arrogance, to me.

Most human being are empathic creatures. A lot of us make an effort to understand other people, and are even interested in the things that make us different. Artists, in particular, are very involved in this. Writers make their stories out of getting into other people’s heads, in understanding what makes a particular type of person tick, in understanding how their past has built them up to the point in their lives that we are writing about. These people are not all us. If we could only write the journeys we have personally walked, then I would not be able to write male characters, or gay characters, or black characters, or those of different creeds to me. I’ve done all of these things, and writers all over the world do it all the time.

Doing it well requires research and a whole heap of understanding. But it seems that even if people do their research and try to include diverse characters, they are criticised by various groups because they’re not ‘authorised’ to do it.

Or they’re criticised because they’ve included group X, but not group Y, and haven’t been inclusive enough. Sure, it’s nice that the lead character is a female, but is she a blind black transgender lesbian? Then you probably haven’t been representative enough and at least one group will complain. (This is reflective of some of the discussions I’ve seen about popular fiction (mostly movies and TV) on equalist websites.)

I get that there’s always going to be someone who is not going to be represented, and that’s not fair. It sucks to be left out. On the other hand, it’s not always possible to represent everyone; particularly, it’s hard to do that without gymnastics worthy of the olympics, and usually winds up with such a caricature that it fails to represent anyone.

Also, fiction shouldn’t be a checklist of ‘have I included every permutation of human experience’. That’s seldom good for the story. There are times it can work and times it doesn’t. But there are people who seem to think that every story should, and those that don’t, have failed in some fundamental way.

Again, I feel the need to point out: I don’t think that those who feel excluded should ‘shut up’, or ‘be happy with what they get’, or pat creators on the head for ticking some of the representation boxes. I don’t think this is an easy problem to solve. But demanding (or whining, as so often happens) that your particular group should be included and whatever doesn’t manage it is shit? That’s unfair, too.

So is the fact that whatever an artist does, it’s wrong. Ignore representation, and you’re vilified. Try to include it, and you’re criticised, because you’re not inclusive enough or because you don’t have the right to write that particular group. Do it badly, and wow, watch out, because how dare you. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is!

I strive to do my characters justice and present them fairly, whatever aspects may make up their history and personality. I try to mix up the elements of those characters, because I believe that a diverse cast is fairer and more interesting. I try to break down the barriers and include as many different kinds of people as I reasonably can. I’ve studied psychology and I do research when I delve into an area I’m less personally familiar with.

At the same time, I don’t write about the issues of any particular group. I’m not writing about a trans journey, or gay rights, or racial issues, or religious controversy. These might be elements that influence a story (because they might be part of a character’s journey), but that’s not what my work is about on the macro level.

Instead, one of the things I try to do is normalise diversity. To have gay and bi and racially different characters alongside each other and for it not to be the focus of events or discussions. To have them working together or butting heads for reasons other than those aspects of who they are. This is more reflective of how I would like the world to end up, not how it is right now. I’m more interested in exploring people with these as facets of who they are, not as the major thing they are.

In many ways, writing scifi frees me from some of the real-world restrictions and gives me the scope to normalise some of the diversity. Starwalker, in particular, gives me a lot of room for this. I still try to do the various elements justice, and it has allowed me to venture into some new areas. (For example, I find writing cultures I’m less familiar with challenging, because I don’t want to be accidentally insensitive, but I’m actively trying to stretch into some of these areas in Starwalker.)

In The Apocalypse Blog, I had a great opportunity to throw lots of different people together and took advantage of that. At the same time, I was writing a story set in a contemporary Western city, so I wasn’t as free to be as broad as I am in Starwalker. I was able to mix in gay and bi characters (some as main characters), though, and that made for a better story without taking it over, I think.

So I guess you’re probably wondering: what’s the point of all this? I think my point is mostly: if you want the stories in the media to be more diverse, support will get you much further than vilification and hatred. I’m not alone in trying to present diverse worlds, and while I’ve never been personally attacked about it, I’ve seen it happen to so many that it makes me sad.

For many creators, there’s no way to get it ‘right’ for everyone. We need to find a way for people to accept that a work of fiction doesn’t have to be perfect, or represent every group, or acknowledge every type of struggle in human experience, because that’s impossible.

Don’t ask the impossible. Find a way to make the possible great.

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Exciting calendar stuff

In an attempt to organise myself and make it easier for everyone to know when events are being held, I’ve added all of next year’s writing events to a handy calendar. This is the same calendar that we (Brisbane’s MLs*) use to schedule the NaNoWriMo events, and shows up on the Brisbane NaNoWriMo forum.

Having one calendar to coordinate all this stuff makes my life easier. So, it is now embedded into this website on the handy events page.

I’ve also added in some of the writing festivals that are happening next year. This helps me to arrange things so they don’t clash, which helps local writers be able to attend as much as possible.

So far, the list of writers festivals in/near Brisbane includes the Rock & Roll Writers Festival and Contact 2016. Geeky cons have been added as well because a lot of our writers attend those, and they can be really good for books. I’ll add in the Brisbane Writers Festival as soon as dates are announced (I couldn’t find the 2016 dates up anywhere yet).

Does anyone know of any other writing-related festivals in or near Brisbane (Australia)? Let me know in the comments!

* MLs = Municipal Liaisons; those who organise local events for NaNoWriMo, encourage others on the forum, and act as resource and moderator when required.

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Bookseller’s holiday

The Open Book (Picture from shelf-awareness.com)

The Open Book
(Picture from shelf-awareness.com)

I came across a curious idea recently: a bookshop holiday. You spend a week or two staying in the flat over The Open Book bookshop, and part of the package is running the shop while you’re there. It’s located in rural Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town.

Crazy idea, huh? For me, it would be something of a busman’s holiday: not only do I adore books, write books, analyse books, discuss books, and write about books, I worked in a bookstore for a couple of years. And yet, it sounds tempting to me! (Maybe because I love books.)

There are many things that I love about this idea.

Showcasing the book love

This is the sort of holiday that appeals to people who love books. And let me tell you, as someone who is frequently a customer and who has worked in a chain bookstore, there’s nothing that customers appreciate more than when those working in the store clearly enjoy the subject matter.

For those customers who don’t care so much about books, we help them get what they need with the minimum of fuss (because we actually know the book with the blue cover they’re looking for). For those customers who adore books, we’re a kindred spirit and they can geek out a bit without feeling self-conscious. It’s more personal; it’s more friendly. And as the worker, it’s way more fun.

So the fact that they’re opening up working the store to those who love books? That’s a winner right there.

Support an indie bookstore

The more jaded among us (and yes, I include me in this) will be thinking ‘they’re getting people to pay to work! It should be the other way around!’. It seems like a veiled way to expoit people. But let me tell you why I think that it’s okay anyway.

First, see the section above. Are they really slaves if they adore what they’re asked to do? It’s not like it’s a hardship.

Secondly, it’s really cheap, as accommodation goes.

Also, you get to hang out with books all day. Or all evening, if you like. The hours are all up to you.

And, in an industry that is moving away from paper and bookstores, an industry in which indie bookstores are struggling, this is a really, really smart thing to do. You’re not only working at the bookstore; you’re supporting it and helping it and other stores like it stay open. (I try to buy my books from indie stores

It’s also showcasing indie bookstores as an entity. I’ve seen the link to this holiday opportunity in a couple of places online, and reactions to it not unlike mine (roughly: omg squee!). People are wondering what it would be like to run their own bookstore, and what cool places they might be to hang out in. Encouraging all of this is supporting a part of the industry that is under pressure (threat?) at the moment.

Do books your way

In running the bookshop, you’re given complete autonomy (within a very reasonable set of requirements). All they ask is that it’s open for 40 hours a week; which hours it’s open is up to you, and what you do during that time is also your choice.

You’re encouraged to be creative. Design displays, hold events, do readings. In one case, a couple play book-related music live in the store. They also encourage you to blog about it (like I said: smart!).

There are ten (!) bookshops in this particular little town (that’s why it’s Scotland’s National Book Town), and the booksellers in other stores give guests help and support with practical guidance. Newbies don’t need to worry that they won’t know what they’re doing.

Would I go?

This is a hard question. Money and opportunity are big restrictions for me at this point in my life. Energy is also an issue, and the notion of working through a break from work is pretty crazy for me.

There’s only one bed in the flat above the store, which is great for a couple, but I’m not currently part of one. I don’t know if I’d want to take this on alone (it would be so much more fun with a co-conspirator).

But, all concerns aside, I’d love to. I think it would be wonderful fun, and Scotland is pretty to explore. I’m clearly not the only one: it’s fairly well booked right through next year.

The real question is: would you?

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This says it all, really. (Picture: not mine)

This says it all, really.
(Picture: not mine)

R U OK? day is one of those things that gets me thinking. It’s the sort of thing I want to respond to, but I don’t always know how, or if I should. It so often seems like just another bandwagon, lip service to salve conscience about dealing with a real problem, without really dealing with it.

I balk at lip service. I don’t share chain letters, or their meme equivalents, to prove how much I support something or to save small fluffy animals or whatever click-bait they’re trying to get us to spread today. It’s bullshit and I don’t want to get any on me. These days, I only have energy to do the things I truly believe in.

I believe in what’s behind R U OK? day. It’s about reaching out. It’s about checking in with someone who might be having a hard time and letting them know you’re there. It’s about being there and hoping it helps, at least a little bit. It’s about opening doors and trying to shed a little light.

There are several people in my life who struggle with depression or other similar conditions. I’m familiar with their struggles, through proximity, research, giving a crap, talking with them, and generally making an effort to understand. I care deeply about these people, even if we haven’t talked in a while, even if they don’t feel like they deserve it. They do.

So this is me, reaching out. This is me, asking: how are you doing today? There’s no right or wrong answer; just what is. It’s okay if you’re not okay. It’s okay if you are. It’s okay to admit you’re having a bad day and share a bit of that load.

We’re trained not to, and I hate that. We’re trained to be liars. It’s a rare day that I say ‘I’m good, thanks’ and don’t feel like I’ve just worn a part of myself away with another lie and another fake smile. I seldom feel ‘good’. My problem isn’t depression (it’s fatigue and a number of other physical complaints), but that part, facing that question, smiling and lying because we don’t want to cause ripples, or trip up the person asking us, or hog the spotlight for that moment: that part is the same.

The older I get, the more worn down I am by the reality of how I feel day to day, and the less patience I have for lying. More often than not, I’ll say how I’m really feeling (to friends and family; strangers and those being polite get strange and polite answers). Or I’ll be evasive and say ‘yeah, same as always’ or ‘getting along’, because I don’t want to think about it that deeply.

Today’s not about me, but I wanted to show that I understand why we don’t tell the truth. Why we hide our feelings. It’s easier. It stops conversations from starting. It lets us carry on as if everything’s all right, in case that makes it so. It helps us not to think about the crappy stuff so much.

And I want you to know: it’s okay. It’s okay to be honest, to share how you’re really feeling. It’s okay to lean on me; we all have our problems but you’re no burden at all. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, and it’s okay if you do. Either way, I’m here, and I’ll listen. You’re worth my time.

I care about how you’re doing. I ask how you are because I honestly want to know. And I mean that every time I ask, not just today. (Today is just an excuse for a blog post.) I don’t always know the right things to say or do (I’m always learning!) – I need your help with that – but I’m trying.

I’ll help, if I can. Even if it’s just being an ear, someone you can talk to and not have to pretend. Or to talk about nothing, about movies and comics and books, or that stupid thing you saw earlier, or whatever plughole the world is circling today. If you need a sounding board, or help to make a change, or someone to go with you to that appointment you’re reluctant to go to, I’m here. Or maybe just a hug and a cookie.

The door is open. I am here. This is me, reaching out.

How are you doing today?

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Fancy comment stuff

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!

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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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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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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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