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.

November, But Not as We NaNo It

We are fast approaching the start of November, which means that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo) is nearly upon us. This is a worldwide challenge to draft a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days, and I run the Dundee & Angus region for Scotland.

NaNo headquarters in California took the decision not to endorse nor support any meet-ups in person until they say otherwise. This has had a profound effect on our group, who have been accustomed to meeting all year round for five years. Even the pub we use is currently closed until restrictions on selling alcohol indoors are eased.

What we have in our favour is a number of student-age members who are accustomed to interacting online. We already use Discord software, and we’ve been working this week on improving its features.

Traditionally, physical goodies are part of the experience; these usually include stickers, pens and erasers. This also introduces another hurdle of either asking folks to trust us with their postal address or meet up in accordance with local regulations. As such, we’ve replaced the pens and erasers with bookmarks so they fit more snugly into an envelope.

In short, this does not and will not feel like any other NaNo. In other years, I’d even associate the colder nights with the coming of the contest, but that simply hasn’t happened.

There are a couple of factors, however, that won’t change and that we’ll keep reminding our membership:

  • Everyone is welcome in our group regardless of nationality, LGBT identity, &c, provided they follow the published codes of conduct.
  • There is no shame in not hitting the 50,000-word target.

Remote Control

Regular readers will know I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers.

Earlier this month, we not only celebrated ten years as a group, but we managed to have our last gig before all the pubs were ordered to close on Monday 23 March. This attracted a sizeable crowd under the circumstances.

We’d planned to reconvene on Monday 13 April, but that’s almost definitely off the table. I’d always half-joked that if we ever had no venue, we’d meet up in the street. It’s not something we’ve ever needed to do, and – considering the nature of the threat – wouldn’t be appropriate.

So if we want this night to continue, we need to move temporarily online, as many poets and musicians have done. Our challenge is somewhat larger: we don’t just have one or two writers, but easily 30 or 40.

While mulling over the problem, I remembered we use a GMail account and that Google gives us a YouTube profile with that. So over the next two weeks, we’ll invite members to send in videos of themselves reading their work and post it to the channel.

It won’t be a patch on the vibe that happens when we all assemble, but it’ll keep us going until this lockdown is eased.

I also run a separate writing group every Tuesday evening as part of National Novel Writing Month; this also can’t meet because of the restrictions.

In this case, we’d already set up a Discord server where members can chat via text. Last week, we set up a voice channel alongside the text, and we were able to speak to each other, almost as if we were in the same room.