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.

Finding Poetry from Odd Sources

Poets are often characterised as agonising for hours over a single word or phrase, or even a punctuation mark. Yet sometimes, the source material arrives almost wholesale and just needs a little packaging. This is the art of found poetry.

In 2003, the journalist Hart Seely wrote a piece for the Slate website in which he took chunks of speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the US Secretary of Defense, and turned them into short verses. The phrase ‘There are known knowns,’ caught the imagination of the public for a brief time.

Sometimes the phrase is just a single line that the poet then expands into a further thought. Some years ago, Luke Wright took a quote by Boris Johnson and turned it into a piece called Once You Clear the Bodies. In this instance, a lot has been added to that one line in a satirical manner.

Away from politics, a classic source of material is the shipping forecast, issued by the Met Office. Looking at any given part of it, there are no wasted words; even a phrase like ‘gale force 8’ often has ‘force’ removed to increase its brevity. The forecast is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, always at a moderate pace, which is easily parroted and parodied.

If you’re dabbling in found poetry, always be careful not to steal someone’s work outright. The examples above use politicians’ statements and public weather reports, so they’ll generally be safe to use.

But simply adding line breaks to work that’s already creative, such as a novel or a film script, is unlikely to be considered fair use. In short: have fun but be cautious.