How to build a fictional world

This is a great TED-Ed video by Kate Messner. And this is the important bit:

“Just like real life, fictional worlds operate consistently within a spectrum of physical and societal rules. That’s what makes these worlds believable, comprehensible and worth exploring.”

It doesn’t really matter what you write, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, erotica or good old literary fiction. The world you create can be anywhere. It can feature whoever and whatever you want, but it must be consistent. It must have its own logic. It must be true to itself.

How Ricky Gervais learned to write

There are two things I like about this clip of Ricky Gervais talking about the writing advice he received at school.

First, the larking about at the start and suggestion that no one writer’s process is any more interesting or important than any other’s. Second, that there is truth in the everyday – the boring:

“Being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary. It’s your job as a creator or director to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are. And real life does that.”

You might also want to take a look at Gervais talking about his approach to comedy.

George Saunders on the mystery of storytelling

So if I’m going to start sharing the good stuff with you here on the site, it’s going to have to be the good stuff. And it doesn’t get much better than this video of George Saunders talking about storytelling and the writing process.

This resonates with me:

“My experience is to have some idea of what the story is, and sometimes it’s just the tiniest kernel of something you enjoyed writing. Then, once you put it on the page and rewrite it and rewrite it, it’s actually your own discontent with that in some slow, mysterious way, urges it to higher ground. And often it’ll do so in ways that surprise you.”

Discontent is the word. Perfect.

As a writer, you edit and work at something until you reach a point where you are… content. Not delighted or cock-a-hoop, necessarily. But content that the words are in order. That you’ve done what you can for the story.

If you watch the video on Vimeo, you’ll find links to some extra clips that are also worth your time. Saunders talks about writing tricks and having a quality ‘needle’ and again, it rings completely true to me.

Some goals for 2017

I do tend to give myself goals at the start of each year, but I don’t often write them down and I’ve never shared then publicly before. But then this year does feel different, somehow. I don’t know why.

Work

I’ve spent the last year doing content strategy and managing some ace projects at Yoomee, a Sheffield digital agency. I’ve produced websites and apps, ran all manner of workshops and learnt an awful lot about project management along the way.

However, my contract with Yoomee is to cover maternity leave and that ends pretty soon. I’m currently on the hunt for new opportunities and have started ramping up my freelance work again, which I do via my own budding content agency, Very Meta.

It’s a strange thing to not know exactly what I’ll be doing work-wise over the coming months, but it’s exciting too.

If you or someone you know needs an experienced copywriter or content professional, feel free to send them my way. Or if you have a super interesting project you’re working on that might use my help, just email iain@verymeta.com and tell me about it.

Writing

I’m a novelist too, remember? Remember!

If you’ve followed me for any time, you probably know that having three children in four years (plus a full-time job – see above) has somewhat affected my ability to quickly pen a second novel. I’ve come to accept it and I try to reflect on this excellent quote from Jessica Hische on a daily basis. Sometimes hourly.

“I think I’d be able to forgive myself for a few years of not being the most productive designer, but I couldn’t forgive myself for a few years of not being the best parent.”

But at some point the work must be done. There has been a lot of thought and planning gone into this second novel already. Words have been written, of course. But most of all, I now have a real sense of what I want the novel to say and do. I understand its tone. I just need to write.

So what’s the goal? I will try and be realistic and say I aim to have a first draft complete, as a minimum, by December.

Internetting

We recorded the last episode of the Write for Your Life podcast at the start of 2016. Soon after, I redesigned, renamed and relaunched my newsletter: Shelflife. It was the only thing I consistently published throughout the year.

Shelflife gets consistently excellent open rates and the response to the new format has been overwhelmingly positive. That said, I do very little to try and get new people to subscribe. I plan to do something about that in 2017.

Primarily, that means I’m going to start sharing here on my website. I don’t currently have time for 2000-word think-pieces, but there is no reason why I can’t share more of what I read and watch online with you. My plan is to post regularly for the next three months and see how it goes.

So much – like, everything – depends on what I’ll be doing for a living, but a new podcast with Donna Sørensen is also on the cards. We have the idea. We have the will. We just need to create the time and make a pilot.

I know what you’re thinking. If I am to write a novel, how will I do all this other stuff too? Truth is, I’ve tried giving up the other stuff and it hasn’t worked. In fact, my slow retreat from the internet has made me feel more and more disconnected from the whole idea of being an author.

It’s up to me to work better.

Reading

Finally, I thought I should talk about my reading. I’ve always been a slow and slightly picky reader, but the last couple of years have been particularly bad for me in terms of the number of books read. Can I blame having children again?

The good news is, I have already started dealing with this. In November, I started tracking my reading. I decided to read at least 25 pages a day and I’m using an app called Momentum for extra motivation.

25 pages may not seem like many, I know. But I’m finding it a very doable number. I’ve missed just a handful of days, mainly over Christmas, and that daily progress has helped me fly through a few books. As a technique, it’s working and that’s what matters.

Again, being realistic, I’d like to read around 30 books in 2017.

Anything else?

Yes, just one more thing and I touched on it when I wrote about the US election results. This year, I aim to change how much I use technology to read the news. 2016 was brutal, but it was also addictive.

I’m not going to live in a hut somewhere, but I do want to significantly reduce how much noise I let into my brain. It’s not good for me and it’s not good for you, either. So let’s switch off and make stuff instead.

Minimum viable podcast – how I showed my work and tested an idea

Have you ever spent months, maybe years, either thinking about or working on an idea that you’ve been completely unsure of? Where you frequently move between, ‘This is brilliant,’ and ‘What on Earth am I doing?’

That was me for far too long, so I decided to do something about it. I had an idea for a podcast that I liked, but I wasn’t sure if anyone else would. Inspired by the concept of building a minimum viable product, I decided to show my work and test the idea with real, actual people.

My brilliant or possibly not brilliant idea

Here is the idea in a nutshell.

Leisure Club is a fictional podcast set in a local, erm, leisure club. It’s narrated by a somewhat irritable communications officer, who reports a mixture of mundane and slightly sinister news and nonsense. Episodes last no more than 10 minutes. There are recurring characters and ongoing storylines. It features darkness, warmth and silly jokes.

Watch out Ira Glass. I’m coming to get you.

The idea came about when I tried a little free writing on my lunch break. I started with a sentence and went with the flow.

I wrote two or three paragraphs and thought that they were slightly silly in a way that I sort of liked. I wrote some more later that week then pecked at it in spare moments over the next few months.

I don’t remember why, but I ended up mentioning the idea on the Write for Your Life podcast. No details, just that I’d written something a little different and that I thought it might work as a fictional podcast.

I decided to work what I’d got into a cohesive script, record the audio quickly and find some suitable sound effects to give it some background noise. I went with a looped sound of children playing in a swimming pool.

Initial feedback

With a rough first cut, I decided to share my work with a handful of family and friends. The feedback was generally good.

Everyone said they’d laughed in the right places and most thought it could work well in the format. The consensus also said that episodes should be shorter, tighter and have more varied background sounds.

So, pretty good, right? I was certainly pleased, but with an already busy schedule and a novel to work on, I ended up putting the project on the back-burner again.

To make those kinds of changes, especially the added sounds, would take time. That was the one thing I didn’t have, especially to spend on a project that could come to nothing.

One of the most difficult things about having limited time for non-actual-job projects is knowing how to spend it. In a commitment-free world, I’d have invested my time and energy, launched Leisure Club and waited to see what happened.

However, with children to work around and a full-time job, that notion felt like a luxury.

But, but, but… what if?

My interest in the project was reignited when the Write for Your Life podcast came to an end, which also coincided with me starting a new job at Yoomee.

Was the idea of a fictional podcast set in a leisure club really such an unusual, unmarketable idea?

There are some great fictional podcasts out there that have taken a specific, narrow idea and had great success. There’s Welcome to Night Vale, of course, but also Hello From the Magic Tavern, which I love.

What if there was an audience for Leisure Club?

In fact, what if there were enough people – and there need not be many – who would not only enjoy listening, but be willing to support the project financially through Patreon?

I have a need to make money. Family. Security. But also because it’s very difficult to make a living out of writing literary fiction. Stories about people and everyday life don’t tend to sell in their millions. It does happen, but not very often.

I’m not going to self-publish my novels, but perhaps I could experiment to try and make income from my other fiction without having an impact on my longer work.

Patreon is great for this. I could see scope for Leisure Club rewards, like deleted scenes, original scripts and listener-suggested characters. And there would be plenty of ways to expand the Leisure Club world via a fictional Twitter feed, Facebook page or website.

As you can probably tell, I found myself thinking about Leisure Club a lot. I’d been writing new material too, whenever an idea came to me. It was time for a second opinion.

Creating a minimum viable podcast

You might have heard of the term, minimum viable product (MVP). Here’s a pretty good definition:

Building a minimum viable product is a strategy for avoiding the development of products that customers do not want. The idea is to rapidly build a minimum set of features that is enough to deploy the product and test key assumptions about customers’ interactions with the product. 

In my day job at Yoomee, I’d been getting used to the idea of building an MVP and it had got me thinking about writing fiction.

It takes so long to plan, structure and write a short story, let alone a novel or, in this case, a script for a fictional podcast. More often than not, those projects stall or end up beneath a pile of rejection letters.

Why don’t we test our ideas earlier? Not with friends and family or even a handful of beta readers, but with real people?

Instead of dilly-dallying any further, I started thinking about what an MVP (with the P now for podcast) might sound like for Leisure Club. What was the minimum I could put together that would allow me to test the viability of the idea?

Not much, I reasoned. In just a couple of hours, I rewrote the original script into something shorter and tighter, rerecorded the narration and replaced the background noise with looped music.

After more than a year of tinkering, my minimum viable podcast was assembled in no time at all. And here it is.

You can read what people made of it below, but feel free to stop and listen now if you want to form your own opinion first.

What did I want to know?

I needed volunteer listeners, so I decided to ask my trusty newsletter subscribers. They’re a good mix of know-who-I-am and no-vested-interest. They are also the people most likely to pay for something I’ve written.

But what feedback did I want? How should they send it?

In my excitement, I almost forgot to think about these questions, but I’m very pleased that I did. Because rather than send out an MP3 and ask volunteers to email me their thoughts, I put together a very short survey using the excellent Typeform.

It meant that the feedback I received was specific and far more helpful than it might have been. It also allowed my kind participants to focus their thoughts and not worry about writing an essay. It was better for me, better for them.

And before I show you the results, it’s worth noting that 20 people signed up to take part, but only 12 actually completed the survey. The paranoid writer in me assumes that the other eight hated what they heard. But they could have just been busy. I’ll never know.

The hard stats

My first question wasn’t really a question. I simply presented a five-star rating system and asked them to be honest. Here’s how it went.

Next I asked if they would be likely to subscribe and listen to the show. A pretty impressive 83% said that they would.

I’d had that previous feedback saying the episode was too long, so I asked if this new version seemed like about the right duration. Again, a pretty encouraging 75% said yes.

Finally, I broached the thorny topic of paying cold hard cash to support the show should it become a real project. A surprising 42% of people who responded said that they would.

What people said

So with bare statistics alone, you’d think that this minimum viable podcast was a success, right? I should have rushed to my microphone to get started. But something held me back.

Although those percentages were high on the last three questions, the 3.42 overall rating bothered me. It’s not terrible, especially for something so rough around the edges, but what was stopping my very kind volunteer listeners from scoring it more highly?

Thankfully, I gave them the chance to provide more feedback, if they had any. Let me share some of that now, starting with the positives.

“I really enjoyed it. There was a very British feel to it, especially in the disparate topics that were reported and the random way they were ordered. I chuckled out loud several times.”

“Lovely calm music. Narration done really well, suits the subject. Subject is bizarre and “Night Vale”-ish which is a good point, in my opinion. Duration for it is just right.”

“Love the concept and direction of the show. Well done!”

“As it got into a flow there is a nice comedic rhythm to some of the announcements. What I liked about your narration was the ‘deadpan’ delivery style of some of the funniest moments. I’m sat listening to it on the bus thinking I know a few people that would enjoy this.”

“I really liked the content and your voice. Overall it was funny and I’d like to listen to more.”

And I have to say, a couple of volunteers were not shy with their criticism either. As with all negative feedback, it was tough to hear and occasionally rather brutal. However, it was also very important for me to know that perhaps this project wouldn’t be for everyone.

Here are some choice words:

“I didn’t find the material funny. Delivery rather dry and uninspired. Sadly, this didn’t work for me. But keep at it.”

“I didn’t find it funny and got the feeling that it was supposed to be. I’m not sure that any part of the project had saleable qualities to be honest.”

In between all this, my volunteers made a number of suggestions about how the show could be better. They were really fascinating to read and a couple of things kept coming up that, deep down, I think I already knew. Here is a selection of those comments.

“Oh, one thought I did have was whether the background music could be replaced with the subtle sounds of a leisure centre.”

“It’s almost worth thinking about recording a whole load in one go after say 8–10 episodes, and offering that in advance for a modest charge, giving you time to see if it’s worth recording a load more again.”

“I would try to more clearly mark different segments or news items with some sort of tune. I might also consider making it sound more ‘amateur’, as if in-script-Iain is really improvising.”

“What I would have thought is that we would be following someone or have something to look forward to the next episode, a hint or a mystery…”

“Production quality is great. I expected to hear more atmosphere/background. (Splashing, sports, showers etc?) Maybe fade some sound effects in briefly before some of the sections to break things up and add some extra depth?”

“For it to feel more real for the Leisure Club would your character be older and perhaps need an older voice?”

“I think that you could switch the delivery up a bit. Maybe have the music change in certain points (not too much) to indicate different sections of the report.”

The upshot is that many people said that they would support it, listen to it and that’s great. But also, no one gave it five stars. Most people said that it needed changes that I knew would make it more complex and time consuming to produce.

So what next?

It’s a few months since I created and collected feedback on my minimum viable podcast. It was an incredibly useful exercise and I’m glad I exposed my work to a potential audience at an early stage. As an interesting learning experience, I recommend it to any writer.

What do I do with Leisure Club now? At first, I thought the answer was nothing at all. And that still may be the case, but I am also tempted to follow my volunteers’ advice and record a season, put it out into the world and see what happens.

In reality, I think that creating a minimum viable podcast taught me two things. First, that as with all writing projects, I wouldn’t be able to wing it and get away with it. To make Leisure Club worth doing, I would have to invest time in its production that I don’t necessarily have.

The second thing I’ve perhaps learned is that people do like my writing and are willing to support me.

I was pretty surprised and delighted that so many of my volunteers said they would consider giving me their cold hard cash. That’s an amazing thing to find out, even if Leisure Club might not be the right project for that at the moment.

For now, Leisure Club is returned to the back burner and that feels right. I could have just gone for it. I could have stopped working on my novel and focused on this to try and turn it into a part-time living.

But I didn’t. I showed my work, learnt a lot and I think I’ve saved myself a lot of time and energy.

Empathise

A few days before the EU referendum vote, someone close to me said that they were probably going to vote Leave. I was flabbergasted.

First, I could see no logical reason for it. They were intelligent, comfortably middle class, apparently liberal-minded and entirely unaffected by immigration. There was no protest to be had. When pressed, they spoke of ‘tradition’ and ‘British values’. I was lost for words.

That person changed their mind at the last minute and voted Remain. But my eyes had been opened. It made me realise that far more people (and types of people) than I thought possible simply did not think like me. As the reality of Brexit emerged, I saw that England specifically was and is at least half full of people who lack empathy.

I’m being generous when I say that the Brexit vote had undertones of racism and xenophobia. The US election and Trump in particular has taken those things to the next level, made them very public and thrown in a deeply repulsive dose of misogyny and homophobia too.

It has been and will always be disgusting. Truly deplorable.

I’ve found myself increasingly fascinated by the US election over the last couple of months. I’ve watched a lot of Youtube. I’ve read a lot of think pieces. Even before the result, I thought about how happy I was that my children are not yet old enough to understand what’s happened. I don’t know how I’d be able to explain.

Trump is terrifying, no doubt. Even more scary for me, as we saw in the UK only a few months ago, is how many people seem to care so little about other human beings. How completely unable they are to even try to understand or put themselves in the shoes of people who are not like them.

So, what now? I’m not sure. Some people in the US will be heavily affected and rightfully afraid. I’d say we’re more than a little anxious over here too. If you feel politicised and ready to speak up and campaign, that’s a constructive use of any anger or energy you currently feel. I have friends who’ve been inspired to take similar action.

I’m trying to do two things. First, to vastly reduce the amount of rolling news I allow into my life. I’d like to find a way to stay well-informed, but without letting the relentless bullshit impact my mind and mood. I need to let less in and put more out.

Which leads me to point two. Writing, music and all forms of art are built on the idea that it is good and right to explore the other. To try and see then show the world through other people’s eyes. I’m not really sure what else to do right now but hold on tight to that notion. And to do the following.

Read, listen, watch, create, share. Empathise.

Everything Burned

The EU referendum and the absolute carnage it has created in the UK has been on everyone’s minds. It’s impossible to escape.

I’ve wanted to write about the situation, but found it very difficult to articulate how I feel. I’m just so angry, dumbfounded that a group of incompetent politicians, born into wealth and blinded by ego, have waltzed our country into so much economic uncertainty. It’s truly unforgivable.

There are so many blog posts and opinion pieces on what has happened. So instead I’ve written a story.

I published it in the latest issue of Shelflife – my weekly newsletter.

You can read it here too.

You can find out more about Shelflife right here.

Every fortnight, I send a collection of interesting links from around the web, some thoughts of my own and short, original fiction. It’s completely free and you can unsubscribe at any time. 

Shelflife – a newsletter

Newsletters have been all the rage for a couple of years. I’m not saying I’m some sort of pioneer (I am), but I’ve had my own newsletter for quite some time. In the last few months, I’ve been taking it a bit more seriously.

What’s in a name?

Last October, I moved the newsletter to Goodbits, which is great for compiling and annotating links. But I recently switched back to Mailchimp because, frankly, I couldn’t justify the $19 monthly fee.

I took the opportunity to do a little rebranding too. For a long time, I called my newsletter The Broome Cupboard, which was kind of silly, even though it helped remind people who was sending the emails. It was time to call the newsletter something that better reflects what it actually contains.

And that is:

  • original microstories and my own experiences of being an author
  • images of other authors’ writing spaces
  • links to articles about writing, reading and creativity.

My newsletter is for authors and readers and anyone interested in writing, publishing and putting their work out there. And now it is called Shelflife, which sums things up nicely and gives a gentle nod to the practical challenges of being a writer.

Ask the audience

The switch to Shelflife was more than just a name change. I took the chance to invite subscribers to answer a survey that would help me find out exactly what they wanted from the newsletter.

People had signed up over several years and I really wasn’t clear about what people were looking for from me. It turned out I was on the right track in terms of content and very little has changed in that regard.

However, I had been finding it tough to keep up with the weekly schedule, so I also asked my subscribers how often they wanted to receive the emails. Turned out that most people also found it difficult to open, read and explore what I was sending on a weekly basis.

That’s why I now send Shelflife out every two weeks instead. It’s been much better for me and I think the overall quality of the emails has improved. Certainly, I’ve seen no negative impact on the newsletter’s open and click rates.

Subscribe for free

I’ve sent out four issues of Shelflife so far and I’d love you to subscribe for free and give it a shot. If you’ve been following me online for a while, it’s definitely the best place for you to keep up with what I’m doing.

You can sign up and read previous issues on my special Shelflife page.

The end of the Write for Your Life podcast

I have currently recorded 157 episodes of the Write for Your Life podcast, the first in 2009 and the most recent, just before Christmas last year. Me and Donna, my co-host for the last couple of years, have made a difficult and slightly sad decision. We will record two more shows and then, well, that will be that.

Why stop now?

It’s really straightforward and if you’ve listened to any of our shows over the last 18 months, you’ll know exactly why.

We both have young families. We both work full-time. And we both really, really want to write our second books.

We took a break last year and though we still love recording together, it’s proved more and more difficult to get back into the routine. The shows are an hour long, but (believe it or not) there’s a lot of work that goes into pre-show prep and editing too.

When time is limited anyway, several hours every week is a lot to give up.

We’ll no doubt talk about this a lot more on the two final shows that we are yet to record and publish. I’ll post them both here on my site as well as on 5by5 when they’re out.

So is that it? Like, forever ever?

For the Write for Your Life podcast, yes. These shows will absolutely be our last, which means that after eight years, I will no longer be working on anything that has the Write for Your Life name in it. Sniff. Blub.

But it doesn’t mean that I’ll be leaving the airwaves forever or that me and Donna won’t work together again. I’m not sure what shape it will take, but the plan is to start a new, independent podcast at some point later this year.

I love podcasting and I have so many ideas, including recording short, solo show as a behind-the-scenes take on my novel writing process. I don’t think I’m going to do that though. Because what I really need to do is write. Write, write, write.

Whatever happens next for us podcast-wise, the best way to find out about it is to follow me on Twitter or, even better, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.

Some thank yous

It wouldn’t be a farewell without saying thank you to a few people.

First of all, Joanne Mateer, my real-life pal and a fine writer to boot. Joanne was my first regular co-host and recorded some of those early shows that I think still stand up today. She was a guest on later shows too and has always been a great friend and source of support and encouragement.

Next, Myke Hurley. It was when Myke asked me to join his fledgling 70Decibels network that Write for Your Life really found its feet.

We recorded around 30 shows together. That period happened to track my progress from unpublished author to getting a deal and seeing my book hit the shelves. Myke went on to co-found the marvellous Relay.fm, but without his expertise and input, the Write for Your Life podcast wouldn’t have reached 50 shows, never mind 150.

Finally, my trusty co-host for the last couple of years, Donna Sørensen.

Donna’s wit, wisdom and penchant for nonsense has made this final phase of the show’s life by far the best. We’ve recorded roughly 70 episodes together and she is unarguably the greatest amateur xylophone player to ever grace the podcasting airwaves.

I should also point out that, when you blow away the fog of self-deprecation that we both shroud ourselves in on the show, you see that Donna is a fine poet with a long literary career ahead of her. If you haven’t already, buy Dream Country. You’ll get what I mean.

Aren’t you missing someone?

Ah, yes. Of course. You there. Our wonderful listeners.

Once the final two episodes are out in the world, the show will have had around 300,000 total downloads. Far more important than the numbers though are all of the emails, tweets and conversations that you have sent us over the years.

I have and continue to appreciate every single one and hope that the writing chit-chat continues in the future. I’m always on (or near) Twitter if you need me.

Thank you so much for listening.

Speak to you soon.

A new job at Yoomee

 Image:  Yoomee on Flickr
Image: Yoomee on Flickr

I’m very pleased to write that next month, I will start a new job at Sheffield digital agency, Yoomee. I’ll be a Senior Producer with a focus on creating, organising and managing content.

It’s a big deal for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve heard great things about Yoomee and I’m excited about working with the team. They seem like such a great bunch and I feel like the role is going to be both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. I’m really, really looking forward to it.

Second, Yoomee is based in my home city, Sheffield, which means I’ll be able to play a much fuller part in childcare duties. I’ve been driving 12+ hours to work a week for the last 18 months, so doing the school run on a regular basis is going to be ace! We’re expecting another baby in the Summer too. That’s another announcement.

I’d like to say a quick thank you to the lovely people at Cornerstones, the company I’ll be leaving. We’ve achieved a great deal together and they’ve played a huge part in my life. I’ve learnt so much in my time there. I’ve also eaten a lot of cake.

So, it’s all go in 2016. I have more news to come, but I’ll save that for another post. In the meantime, you can learn more about Yoomee via their website or even follow them/us on Twitter.