Making Trade-Offs to Keep an Event Running

Yesterday saw another edition of Hotchpotch Presents… on Zoom. We had a marvellous time, and with a relatively small group, so it felt more intimate.

This format is based upon the in-person writers’ open-mike night I would otherwise run, simply called Hotchpotch, with the difference that the line-up is decided in advance, rather than improvised on the night. In my own experience, our free-and-easy vibe has worked in person, but it’s proved necessary to have an established running order for our online events.

This format has evolved over the last 15 months as a result of the trade-offs we’ve had to consider.

Hotchpotch Presents… currently happens once a quarter. What’s great is that it always evokes a colloborative spirit, shown last night when audience members volunteered to perform in place of absent readers. On the other side of the coin, these events are also more difficult to arrange, and I know some members avoid chatting online outside of work as they do it so often during the day.

In the other months, we use YouTube, where – by contrast – members can submit in their own time with less pressure to perform, and it’s far easier to compile a playlist than to control a gathering. However, you also lose that community spirit.

All being well with the easing of restrictions, the plan is to hold the next Hotchpotch as a live event over the next few months. Failing that, we’ll revert to Presents… as a plan B in September.

But that easing also brings its trade-offs. Members have become accustomed to being able to view the event without having to physcially be in Dundee, which is ideal for those unable to travel or navigate the stairs down to the pub basement.

But one question is: the pub is traditionally a self-enclosed space, so will other members be willing to read if strangers are listening over the Internet? Even if we do it that way, will the technical side become needlessly complicated?

However, one factor will help in the decision-making process. I like to keep a ‘cabinet office’ of trusted members who can offer advire. We have a group chat that currently contains 18 regulars.

Since any decisions made about the group will also affect their experience, I know that if we can come to a consensus about a given issue, then it’s probably the right path to take.

Back in the Writing Saddle

The last week has proved to be quite a productive one, even if my pieces were inspired more by deadlines than by the need to express my thoughts.

For starters, my poetry circle is compiling an anthology to mark the 250th birthday of Sir Walter Scott. My original plan was to copy selected lines from the Mark Twain book Life on the Mississippi, in which he levels a number of criticisms at Scott, and create a poem from those. It wasn’t happening that way, but I was able to write a shorter verse during a bus journey.

I also have a pal who runs the writing podcast Story Circle Jerk. Unfortunately, the latest episode has been held up with technical problems, so Kai asked previous guests to submit readings of original flash fiction to appear in a future one. I actually submitted two pieces, allowing the host to choose: an old piece that was revamped for the occasion, and a new one inspired by the title of the podcast.

Finally, I’ve been working on a longer-form piece since last year. It’s not ready to be shown to the public at this stage, but the feedback I’ve received from the other website users has been encouraging. I’d posted a one-off short story, never expecting it to spawn no less than seven sequels, with another one in the pipeline. My current thoughts are to draw them together into a single 15,000-word volume.

On top of this, I’m once again starting to see writer pals getting published, being booked for events, launching pamphlets, &c. It even turns out I know someone involved in Life & Rhymes, which won a BAFTA on Sunday. I feel all this energy starting to rub off on me, and I hope I can sustain it and create something useful with it.

A Week at The Novelist’s House

I’m spending this week at a house in Newport-on-Tay in Fife. My main task is to feed the cat at regular intervals, and he otherwise comes and goes as he pleases, so I reckon I have a good deal.

The person who asked me to do this is a published novelist, so as you can imagine, there are a lot of books dotted around the place, on no particular theme. There are ancient volumes interspersed with modern publications, and fiction mixed with non-fiction. On the staircase shelves alone, I can see Gore Vidal just along from Bill Bryson, and a 1927 edition of The Forsyte Saga above the Roy Jenkins biography of Winston Churchill.

But more than that, the whole place evokes an atmosphere most conducive to writing.

The house itself seems to speak of its history: it dates from probably the 19th century, and has been altered and repaired in different ways. Most noticeable is the modern wiring in the attic and different shades of paint in each room. The walls are fitted with a combination of traditional and contemporary art.

Newport is easily accessible by car or bus, yet the road outside is quiet enough that I can hear birds clearly chirping all day while looking across the water to Dundee, specifically the Law hill.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to enjoy the atmosphere to its fullest because I’m still working remotely at my day job during business hours, but I do hope to become better acquainted with the cat. He runs away – often outside – every time I go near him.

I think we might have made a breakthrough, though: for the last two mornings, he’s allowed me to stroke him as I serve his breakfast.

Using Fractals as Illustrations

Regular readers will probably have spotted that each of these blog entries has a pattern as its featured image. Specifically, these are fractals, each generated by a mathematical formula.

It’s long been known that visual content appeals more to users than plain text. However, licencing pictures can be expensive and appropriate public domain images are hard to find. My content is all about writing, which – by its nature – is often plain text.

Instead, I use a program called Xaos for generating these patterns. As I’m not mathematically-minded, I simply use the random image generator, cycling through them until an interesting one appears.

What’s more, it rarely takes more than a couple of minutes. This helps me a lot, as I commonly write or edit my entries up to the last minute.

The main cover picture is my own work, though. A few years ago, I would attend writing classes in the grounds of Barry Mill, a former watermill in Angus, and I captured this wonderful shot of a light over the doorway. I’m unlikely to replace that with a fractal any time soon.

Watching What You Wouldn’t Normally Watch

Not far from where I live is the Dundee Repertory Theatre, known locally as simply the Rep. The programme is a mixture of classic plays, contemporary works and local interest productions that appeal largely to a Scottish audience.

There was a time when I’d go there with my theatre buddy to see just about everything in the programme, but that hasn’t been possible for some time. Recently, however, the theatre has started the Rep Studios streaming service.

The first play to be streamed, Smile, is one of those local interest productions, about the football manager Jim McLean.

The tickets sold by Rep Studios are all timed like stage shows, usually for 2pm and 7pm, and that led me to think I’d be seeing a live performance transmitted from the theatre. Instead, the show is pre-recorded. I know this because I logged in early, expecting to see a countdown clock, yet it started straight away.

I’d waited until the last few days of its run because while I’d like the service to succeed, sport is not an area of interest to me. In fact, I didn’t mention it to my theatre buddy either as I knew she would feel the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I watched it, although I didn’t find it outstanding and I probably wouldn’t seek out a re-run.

The first time I encountered a streaming theatre production was not at home, but in a cinema, maybe seven or eight years ago. This was a National Theatre production – probably Shakespeare – and it was broadcast live.

Yet I felt a distinct vibe that they didn’t much like doing it this way. For a start, they could charge twice as much for an in-person performance, and the audience would have the draw of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch or Daniel Radcliffe live on stage.

The economics of this likely tell a different story. Cinemagoers were charged perhaps half as much as the theatre audience, with the trade-off that more than twice as many people could potentially see the play without any more performances being staged. I imagine the actors received extra pay for the broadcasts, although such transactions are typically kept confidential.

I’m going to keep an eye on how Rep Streaming emerges and evolves, and I look forward to the day I can next to my theatre buddy again.

Gaining Traction

When the independent film Donnie Darko was released in 2001, it recouped less than an eighth of its $4.5 million budget at the box office.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. The film centres around a jet engine falling off an aircraft, and the picture was released a month-and-a-half after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet, when it was released on DVD, it began to develop a cult following despite flopping at the cinema and despite the format still being in the early-adopter stage. To date, the film has recouped all its costs, plus about half as much again.

It should have been the case that Donnie Darko was forgotten about. Just like those comedies that never make it past series 2, or the countless Top-10 singles heard everywhere for six weeks then never played again.

But there are other examples of where entertainment has taken a while to gain traction.

A recent example is the BBC drama series Line of Duty, with the first episodes broadcast in 2012 to a reasonable 3.8 million people, but seven years later, that figure has more than tripled. The audience of Love Island also turned an audience of barely 600,000 into nearly ten times that figure between 2015 and 2019.

Of course there isn’t a formula for this, or the examples quoted above wouldn’t be such rarities, but there is good advice. A phrase often attributed to PT Barnum is, ‘Always leave the crowd wanting more.’ It’s advice that often works.

Indeed, in a case of art imitating life, The Greatest Showman – based upon his life story – never rose higher than fourth place in the chart, but had a cinema run spanning several months.

Just don’t leave the crowd wanting too much without delivering it. Fans of the sci-fi TV show Firefly were left hanging when original run was abruptly cancelled after its debut in 2002. It took until 2005 to complete the narrative.

Still Trying and Failing to Read

Just before Christmas, I was involved in a 12-hour Yule readathon, run by a pal from one of my writing groups. The intention was to devote a day to reading, with optional mini-challenges. I did manage to read on that day, but not as extensively as I’d wanted.

Then couple of weeks ago, we re-ran the event. Rather than start any new books, I wanted to make some progress with War & Peace.

I’d left it about halfway through, and I hadn’t touched it in some time. A lot of people think it’s a hard read from the sheer size, but actually, it’s divided into four volumes with chapters no longer than any other novel. You could easily finish a couple before bedtime.

As I jumped straight back into the story and remembered what had happened, I enjoyed it as much as I did the last time I picked it up. But have I touched it again since then? I really want to say yes, but I have not.

The trouble is not finding the time per se, but alloacating it. You see, a lot of what I do in a week is time-sensitive: creating announcements for my groups, writing this blog, keeping up my exercise routine. Reading, alas, doesn’t need to be done by any particular time, so it’s often left behind.

That said, I’m going to make a concerted effort with Mort by Terry Pratchett. On Saturday, I’m again meeting up with the woman who lent it to me about a year ago, and I’d like to be able to return it fully read.

The Fight Against a Bad First Impression

Every Tuesday, our National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) group meets virtually on a Discord server. This is software that was originally designed to allow users to chat while playing computer games, but the layout and features makes its useful for writers too.

By default, servers are not open to the public, so users have to receive an invitation issued by an administrator, namely me or my assistant. These can be generated or revoked easily, and we can change how many times they can be used and their expiry dates.

As part of our NaNo affiliation, we’re required to make the official website the first port of call for members, and we have a Dundee & Angus region page to make announcements. We can, of course, can cross-post links to other places like Discord.

Unfortunately, when I last refreshed the link a week ago, I posted the wrong one. Existing members could use the server as normal, but new users wouldn’t be able to join. I found this out because a new member had twice posted on the region page saying that she had finally worked up the courage to join the group, then found the link didn’t work.

It took 25 minutes to notice this because the official website doesn’t notify organisers of any posts to our region page. I also spoke to my counterparts in other regions about this incident, and it seemed this was also a source of annoyance among them.

Because we weren’t notified, the member probably thought we were ignoring her when we simply weren’t aware of her message. That frustrates me: first impressions stick, and it wasn’t our fault. What’s more, people also talk to each other about their bad experiences – and I would do the same – making it even harder to fight back the tide.

As soon as I realised what had happened, I immediately e-mailed out a corrected link to the whole region. I was able to send the member a private message, and the other region runners said it was likely she would have been notified of that. I also asked our region members whether anyone knew her personally, so we had another way of reaching out.

Happily, she responded about 24 hours later, and I was able to apologise for the mix-up and to welcome her to the Discord server. What’s even better is that we’ve attracted two other members in the last week or so, and we remain as active as ever.

Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

Knowing My Own Limits

I’m often uncertain what to write on this blog until I actually sit down to type it out. But I’ve recently been plauged with a different problem, where I know exactly which topic I want to cover, but I can’t find an angle for it.

Some months ago, I was reminded about African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The University of Hawai’i has an excellent introduction, breaking down the usage into vocabulary, sounds and grammar. My trouble is that I’ve nothing to add beyond that as don’t know any native speakers personally, so my experience is limited to what I’ve heard in films and on TV.

If I were to pursue this topic in the future, it’s possible I could draw parallels with the Scots language.

One example from the university link above is using the word bad to mean good. It can, of course, still mean bad, but the meaning may depend on its context. Meanwhile, I grew up listening to Scots speakers talk about the morn’s morn. The first morn means tomorrow, while the second means morning. But again, it’s a matter of context, as the phrase can also be used to refer to the indefinite future, much like the Spanish mañana.

Aside from that short analysis, I feel that’s as far as I can go with discussion of AAVE, certainly for the time being.