Crossed Wires

Last week, I made a fool of myself in front of 150 e-mail recipients. I was sending out details of the next meeting of Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers. I normally update the previous e-mail with the latest details, but I’d forgotten to change the subject line. I therefore followed it up with a correction.

The most annoying part of this affair is that I use a Gmail extension to cancel the sending of an e-mail as long as I hit Undo within 30 seconds. However, it has encouraged me to become more vigilant with future updates. Aside from this incident, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned when communicating with writing group members.

E-mail

It’s important to exercise privacy when using e-mail. The addresses of the recipients should be typed in the Bcc box, not To or Cc, so each member will only see their own address on receipt. It’s worthwhile including your own e-mail address on the distribution list to check whether it’s formatted in the same way you intended.

Recipients should also be given the option to unsubscribe from updates. Whenever a Hotchpotch e-mail is sent, there is a signature at the bottom telling people to let us know if they want to unsubscribe.

The other mailing list I maintain is for the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This is done differently, as e-mails are composed using their website and the Unsubscribe function is added automatically before the message enters members’ inboxes.

This is my NaNoWriMo phone
This is my NaNoWriMo phone

Facebook

Whenever Hotchpotch and NaNoWriMo e-mails are sent, their respective Facebook pages are updated at the same time with the same information to reach as many people as possible. The Hotchpotch page is open to the public since anyone can come along, whereas the NaNoWriMo page has its access restricted to members only.

One great advantage of the Facebook page for Hotchpotch is that we can tag and promote other events, which notifies that page owner, who can then share our event with their audience. I also share our updates on two other arts pages.

Other methods

Hotchpotch has an active Twitter account. Whenever an e-mail is sent, the date and time are given, followed by a link to the Facebook post. Our updates are occasionally shared by others, while prospective attendees can ask us questions.

Although NaNoWriMo itself has a Twitter presence, our region does not; again, this is because our bulletins are open only to members. However, I do carry a cheap phone with a budget SIM card if our members need to speak to us urgently. In practice, the only time I’ve needed it so far is when the battery on my own phone ran flat.

Frequency of updates

It’s a good idea not to fill people’s inboxes with the same message every day. In my experience, people who are overloaded will permanently unsubscribe or unfollow. It’s different, of course, if the recipient has signed up a daily writing prompt or suchlike.

For NaNoWriMo, once a week is the usual pattern, reflecting our weekly meetings. The next monthly Hotchpotch meeting is usually announced a few days after the previous one, with a reminder around two weeks later. And next time I send one, I’ll be double-checking that subject line.

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Forcing Toothpaste Back into the Tube

Tonight I’m hosting a spoken-word evening called Hotchpotch. This is an informal monthly event where writers and poets can read out their own work without judgement or criticism. In recent months, we’ve seen many new faces, a trend we would like to maintain.

To keep our events at the forefront of people’s minds, I’ve made it a priority to communicate with members regularly, also to cross-promote other literary events and the venues we use. I send a bulletin every couple of weeks on Facebook and Twitter, and by e-mail.

The last time, though, there were some problems with the reminders, and it was up to me to fix them.

Facebook

A lot of our regulars subscribe to the Hotchpotch Facebook page. This is the easiest update to make: it can be done on a PC or a phone, subscribers are notified immediately when a new post appears, and there’s a facility to tag the pages of related literary groups. The posts can also be edited, and people can ask questions in the comments.

On Facebook pages, administrators have the option to post under their own name or to post under the name of the page. The last time, I forgot to change the option and posted as myself. People could still see the message if they happened to look at the page, but they wouldn’t be individually notified.

The post had been up for a few hours before I noticed. Fortunately, all I had to do was copy it, make sure the related events were correctly tagged, and repost it in the correct mode.

English: internet Español: internet
Teh interwebz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twitter

After posting on Facebook, I send out the link on Twitter using HootSuite software. This can calculate the times of day that people are most likely to see your updates; in our case, it typically posts at 9am the following day.

Shortly after I’d corrected the Facebook error discussed above, I saw our Twitter post had a spacing error which meant the venue wasn’t properly credited. To add to the problem, the message had already been retweeted by two followers and later a third. One of these is the Scottish Poetry Library, which has an extensive audience and is great exposure for us.

The question was how to correct this error in the least disruptive manner. I didn’t want to leave the post as it was because it looked unprofessional, yet I didn’t want to take it down because users had already engaged with us. I’ve learnt a few things from managing literary groups, and one of them is to admit when you’ve made a mistake.

I posted a corrected version with the venue properly credited. I then sent private messages to the three users explaining what had happened and asking whether they would do me a favour and retweet the correct version. And they did. This move ended up working in our favour, as more Library followers engaged with our new message than the original.

E-mail

A significant proportion of our members don’t use Facebook or Twitter, so we also maintain a mailing list.

The bulletin I’m most worried about is this one; once an e-mail has been sent, it’s not usually possible to recall or amend it. So when I send Hotchpotch updates, I’ve set up a 30-second delay so it can be cancelled if necessary before it leaves my outbox. Gmail users can find this feature in the Settings.

But despite the problems with the Facebook and Twitter pages, the e-mail was sent without any mistakes.

 

How to manage a writing group.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been organising literary events, and I’ve gathered some experience during this time. Remember that every group is different, and what worked or didn’t work for me might prove the opposite for you.

The two groups I currently run are: Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers; and the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge to pen a novel in a month. The two groups are rather different beasts, and there is little crossover between their memberships, but there are common factors in the way they’re run.

Planning

Ensure your group has a defined purpose

Hotchpotch has a definite purpose: you can take along your own work and read it for up to 10 minutes, or simply come along to listen to others. It’s a format that works for us and has done for some years.

NaNoWriMo is a franchise of sorts with a not-for-profit organisation, so you must follow their instructions and ethos. As such, we started off with purely November meetings where we would encourage each other to finish our novels. But there was such enthusiasm that we continue to meet up weekly and work on other individual projects.

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, of course, but don’t stray too far from your original intention. There is a risk that your members will be put off going as it’s not what they expected.

Be early

Think months or weeks in advance, not days, to save rushing around at the last minute. The main NaNoWriMo event happens in November, so I’ll start planning in August as I need to receive promotional material and work out where and when our meetings should be. The next Hotchpotch is usually booked on the same day as the last meeting. Always be super-early to set up for meetings.

Coordinate and cross-promote

Hotchpotch must ‘compete’ with a monthly Silent Reading Party and a monthly Literary Lock-In as these also happen on Mondays. Through having conversations with the organisers of the latter two events, we now coordinate these events so they hardly ever clash. When one of them announces a new date, I also promote it to Hotchpotch and NaNoWriMo participants.

Communication

Use suitable methods

This depends largely on the IT skills of your members. Our NaNoWriMo region has a Facebook group where most people engage with us, although NaNoWriMo HQ require us to use their own mailing system. Conversely, many Hotchpotch members don’t use Facebook and prefer to be on our mailing list.

Hotchpotch has business cards with contact details to give to new members. During NaNoWriMo months, I also have a mobile number with a budget SIM card so people can contact me with urgent enquiries. In practice, however, we’ve rarely needed to use it.

Not too little; not too often

By all means send out a message early, but remember to issue regular reminders. People forget, or accidentally delete the e-mail. Also make sure your latest message reflects any changes that have happened since the last one. For NaNoWriMo, once a week is the usual pattern, reflecting our weekly meetings. Hotchpotch reminders are usually two or three weeks apart as the meetings are monthly.

But once a day is far too often, unless you happen to be sending out daily writing prompts.

Exercise privacy with e-mail

Whenever you send out a group e-mail, use the Bcc box, not To or Cc. This means each member will only see his or her own address when it’s received. Always give people the option to unsubscribe from updates; the last thing you want is to be reported for spam. It can be as simple as typing Let us know if you want to unsubscribe at the bottom of each message.

People

Be welcoming

This is a big one for me. Unless your group is really only for you and your mates, everyone who comes along needs to feel welcome. I’ve been put off going to groups in the past when it became clear the existing members were only interested in their own company. Whenever new folk turn up to NaNoWriMo or Hotchpotch, I make a point of introducing myself and chatting to them.

Consult, don’t dictate

Keep a list of a few trusted regulars you can talk to when the going gets tough. In the case of Hotchpotch, we had to make a difficult decision about a venue. We made a collective decision that I now agree with, but if I’d dictated, I would have gone the opposite way and might have lost their cooperation. NaNoWriMo is largely stable now, but I know the core membership are there should any problems arise.

Deal with troublemakers appropriately

Literary meetings are generally safe spaces. I can think of only one serious incident. I was a member of a group where we felt the standard of leadership fell far below what was expected. The incident was resolved, but not before pages of online words had been exchanged. If you need to keep someone in line, it’s rarely appropriate to do it over the Internet or in front of other members.

Most often, someone will say he or she didn’t like the group. I find it’s best to fix the problem, where possible, or to acknowledge his or her point of view and accept you’ll be one member down next time. It’s not worth turning a complaint into an argument, but to learn from it and concentrate on attracting new members.

 

If you have any tips you’d like to add, leave them below. I’ve no doubt I’ll think of one or two more myself when this has posted.

The Blooper Reel.

I promised in my last entry that if I had the opportunity, I would memorise one of my poems and perform it the following Friday. Speakerbox is a new event for writers and poets at Dundee University union. During a chat with the organiser, she told me she hopes to hold it every month. She has also been to the existing Hotchpotch meetings to share her material.

I was asked to read first, and I have some footage of how it went. The purple mood lighting made this stage look fabulous in person, although not so much through a camcorder.

 

That’s right, I fluffed my lines. However, I managed without any further cock-ups in, “Take two,” along with another piece from memory, and two others from notes. I like to use an e-reader to save paper. I was followed by several other acts, mainly poetry but interspersed with prose and music. There were innovations I hadn’t seen before: one man walked between two microphones while delivering a monologue, another gave out chocolate bars to whomever he dubbed, “awesome.”

I hope this event continues, as I plan to be back next month. During the week, I also had a much rarer opportunity to be in the audience at a recording of a Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas episode. Although the story is set in Ireland, it’s filmed in Glasgow.

English: BBC Scotland New office buildings and...
BBC Scotland broadcasting centre in Glasgow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many respects, it’s a standard sitcom, except that many of their bloopers and ad-libs make it into the final programme. There were a number of these during the three hours we were in our seats. Many scenes were recorded twice in succession. I found I was watching the monitors rather than the action on the set, so I deliberately tried to keep my eyes away from them to catch the full experience.

Agnes Brown is played by Brendan O’Carroll who also writes much of the material, but it’s accessible scripting that doesn’t require the audience to understand any particularly Irish references, so it plays very well to a BBC1 viewership. It’s less well-known that he is also a novelist. In 1999, his book The Mammy was made into film called Agnes Browne, starring Anjelica Huston as the eponymous character. Unlike the sitcom, these take a sombre tone.

Also worth a look is What We Did On Our Holiday, starring David Tennant and Billy Connolly. It’s written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins, the force behind Outnumbered, although I’ll always remember them primarily for satirical comedy Drop The Dead Donkey. The duo have found a particular niche in giving the child characters all the best lines, often relentlessly, while the adults fumble for an answer.


The coming week is a busy one for me. Not only is the aforementioned Hotchpotch happening tonight, the Dundee Literary Festival also begins on Wednesday and runs to Sunday. At the same time, I’m organising the first meeting of the local National Novel Writing Month group, finishing my library books, and still taking time out to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the cinema.

The Other 75%.

Just before I begin, a couple of an announcements for people in and around Dundee. Hotchpotch, the writers’ open-mike, is next Monday, 4 August between 7pm and 9pm at The Burgh in Commercial Street. I’m afraid I can’t make that meeting, but there’s a similar event for poets between 12pm and 4pm in Baxter Park on Sunday 10 August, to which I plan to go.

In an interview with the BBC, literary agent Johnny Geller stated that in a survey of self-published authors, 75% of those asked said it was a hobby and that he was interested in the other 25%. I think that’s a fair comment from an agent, as he needs his authors to make a full-time commitment. But I wonder how many of the other 75% would be willing to turn that hobby into a career if they were offered the right publishing deal? It can be a big step to give up the fabled day-job.

For me, it’s a trade-off between a permanent office job with a regular income versus handing in my notice and freeing up those 37 hours per week to write. There would need to be a compelling offer to give it up because if a book deal didn’t materialise, the organisation isn’t replacing lost workers so I would need to look elsewhere for another regular income.

The other consideration is how long to continue trying before finding another regular income. Six months? Two years? Until I feel as though I’m suffering for my art?

It is possible to combine the two. Oscar Wilde and Philip Larkin both worked other jobs throughout their writing careers, and I know an author who is currently employed by a major bookstore chain. The next time I have the opportunity, I’ll ask him whether he considers it a help or hindrance.

Hey hey, I wanna be a rock, er, film star

Finally, I took part in a low-budget film on Saturday as an extra. It’s called Shooting Clerks, about the making of the 1994 Kevin Smith movie Clerks. We were asked to dress in fashions of the period, so I wore a T-shirt, jeans, and a backwards baseball cap. By good fortune, I was meant to attend an open-air Grease singalong later that day. It was cancelled due to the weather, but I could have become John Travolta simply by removing my headgear.

There was no script available to have a nosy through so I don’t know too many specifics. We were simply given instructions when to laugh and applaud as if we were at a film premiere. But keep an eye out around its scheduled release date of 13 April 2015.

Performances and Housekeeping.

On Monday of last week, I debuted a new poem at Hotchpotch. This is a local open-mike night for writers. While I’m far more of a prose writer than a poet, I thought this particular piece would go down well.

I’ve been to enough live events to know the standard housekeeping message that’s given before the performance. This poem was a version of the announcement that made it sound as though the speaker was having a mental breakdown. It did indeed attract a positive response, while a second poem and a short story were also well-received.

At last month’s Hotchpotch, I had a picture taken of me. I didn’t particularly like it because my neck was too far forward reading the piece. This time I was sure to stand up straighter and look up at the audience from time to time. I’m not saying my pieces came across better because of it, but I certainly felt better by paying attention to these factors.

I’m an advocate of people reading out their work in public, and of course in private while proofreading. If you know of a nearby group, go along and support it. There are actually two such groups around here, but I didn’t take to the other one since the focus there is mainly on folk tales, whereas Hotchpotch has a more literary flavour. Some groups even allow you simply to listen without contributing for the first meeting.

But what if there isn’t a group, or it’s not the right style for you? Have you ever thought about starting your own? There’s no reason why you should wait for someone else to do it, as it probably won’t happen.

The meeting place doesn’t have to be anywhere with a stage. We meet on the upper floor of a café, and we create an informal Poets’ Corner near the top of the stairs. Some pubs and coffee shops are happy to donate their space provided the participants are putting money in the till, so we hold at least one break during each evening. Just bear in mind that the venue could back out or change their terms at any time. A pub we used to use free of charge suddenly wanted £50 a session, even though we probably spent double that in drinks alone.

The other element you need to decide is the ethos. Should the audience offer constructive criticism to the readers, or is it solely for writers to try out new material? At Hotchpotch, the latter approach is taken, although there’s nothing to stop people giving feedback to each other privately afterwards.

But above all, it’s for writers to meet and talk to each other. Every time we meet up, I usually hear about an upcoming event or two that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. The actual writing process is generally a solitary pursuit, but we all still need that connection.