Telling Stories at GEEK 2017

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This weekend I went to GEEK (Game Expo East Kent) which took place in Dreamland, Margate. While I was there I encountered three forms of storytelling – two that work well and one that does not.

The Story of GEEK

The first form of storytelling was the story of GEEK and Dreamland. On day two I met the storyteller in residence. His job was to record and tell the story of GEEK.

One of the ways he did that was to ask people to place stickers on boards. One board (shown), gave an impression of where people had come from. People, it turns out, have come from all parts of the country and other countries too, just to visit the game expo in Thanet. There were four stickers from people who had come from Romania to visit Thanet for GEEK.

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While every one of the many thousands of people that came to GEEK has their story to tell, GEEK itself has a story. When it comes to writing that is something worth remembering – no matter who you are telling the story for, the place the story is set has it’s own march larger story. Or, to put it another way, individual characters have a story that is just a part of a richer tapestry of story.

I am glad that GEEK are tapping into the wider story and I am looking forward to reading the story of GEEK.

The story form that does not work

I got to talk to a whole bunch of games developers at GEEK. With some of them, I spoke, at length, about story.

One of the interesting topics to come out of those discussions was how games get pitched. More and more often there are games pitches which start and stop on the story the game will tell. More than one developer has wondered if these people are frustrated film producers.

Games are fundamentally things you play with. They can have story or not. A good story can lift a good game to new heights but a great story can do nothing for a poor game.

Between us, we listed several games where we would pay good money to see a film based on the plot but the game itself was not the least bit fun to play.

At the end of the day, games are a medium with priorities that do not always include storytelling. Yet, with the right foundations of play and mechanics, a good story adds a dimension to a game that can be created no other way.

It was, we agreed, best to start with the game first and follow up with the story.

Then we found an exception that proved us wrong.

The exception

Late in the day on Saturday, I got talking to John William Evelyn, an artist, who had stripped back the mechanics of gameplay to the bare minimum in order to convert the medium of game into a medium for story telling.

I sat and played an utterly compelling demo of The Collage Atlas which is an exceptionally beautiful and novel “game”.

You know me, I love story telling. It should not be a surprise to anyone that I was somewhat captivated by this relaxing game. I anticipate that The Collage Atlas will be a must have game for me when it comes out.

The lesson for us as writers here is this: Whatever form you tell your story in, make sure the story is allowed to shine.

5 Great Sites for Writers

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When it comes to writing advice there is a lot of junk out there. There is also a lot of really good content hidden among the junk. If you are willing to search, there is truly amazing advice that will supercharge your writing with its insights. Here are five (ish) links that I think you will definitely want to bookmark.

1. Bane of Your Resistance

Bane of Your Resistance is a blog all about overcoming resistance to writing (such as writers block or being too busy to write). The tag line actually says so you can stop feeling guilty and really enjoy writing again.

Bane of Your Resistance is written by Rosanne Bane, TEDx speaker and general expert on such things. Rosanne Bane is a creativity coach, writing and creativity instructor, speaker and author. In other words, she knows what she is talking about.

If you struggle with not writing, and we all have at some point, then Rosanne Bane is the person that you need to be reading.

2. Funds for Writers

Funds for Writers is a website all about getting paid as a writer. It tells you all about grants you could apply for, competitions that pay well, and much more. While this would be of more use if you like American dollars and live in, say, the USA, it is nevertheless a great place to get inspired to think outside the box about funding your writing.

This will not be a site for everyone. Taking what you learn on Funds for Writers and the American market and applying it to the UK is going to take some personal effort and for some of us, that effort is just not worth it. For those us willing and able to put in the time, Funds for Writers can be a great source of inspiration.

3. Writers Helping Writers

Some of the best advice for writers I have read was found on Writers Helping Writers. If you are looking for advice on creating vivid characters, demonstrating motivation, dealing with difficult issues of pain in a story, or any other topic (those were just the ones on the front page when I looked just now), I assure you that you will come away feeling inspired and educated.

As the title of the website says, this is a site where writers offer advice and help to other writers. All of the articles are geared this way and the quality of advice is very high.

I have seen plenty of “me too” sites where the drive for daily content has resulted in a declining quality of articles and a general desperation that drives the editors to publish any half-baked junk they get sent. Writers Helping Writers is just the opposite. It is a website packed to the nines with high-quality advice. Advice that you could and should read.

4. Better Novel Project

The Better Novel Project is a blog that deconstructs best-selling novels scene by scene to show you why and how the novel works the way it does.

Take, for example, How to Write a Fight Scene (in 11 Steps). This is not just one writer’s personal opinion but a breakdown of how such scenes work in best-selling stories.

Before I wrote this guide I had not seen the fight scene breakdown. I stopped writing this guide and read the fight scene article intently. I can honestly say I have a better idea of how to write a fight than I ever did before.

If you only read one new blog this year, read this one.

5. Stack Overflow, no seriously.

“Can you really mean that?” you might be asking. “But Matt,” you might say, “SO is a geek website all about computers.” (Which it is).

Stay with me for a moment because I am about to let you in a secret. There are subsections of SO that are just perfect for writers. The first is called Writers and the second is Worldbuilding. I get lost reading these sites sometimes and have had some great feedback on many complicated issues. For example, the conditions under which a moon could be terraformed.

For example, in World Building, I got very good scientific insight into the conditions under which a moon could be terraformed and how that process might actually work in a very specific scenario.

Before you go and get stuck in, you need to understand that this is not a forum and chit chat is not well tolerated. SO is a question and answer site. The idea is that the best questions and the best answers rise to the top and the community is very active towards that goal.

Writers and Worldbuilding can be powerful friends to help you plan and write you great novel but it is worth taking the introductory tour first.

A bonus mention

With so many great sites that I could recommend (and a few I could recommend you avoid) there were always going to be ones I had to leave out. Here is a bonus link: Writers in the Storm it is a blog, every bit as good as the others I have already shared. With a title like that, I had to include it anyway.

How to receive advice

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There is a lot of advice about how to give advice but not so much on how to receive it. This seems wrong to me. Giving advice is something we all know how to do (or we think we do); receiving advice is a skill that is not so easy to master.

Being given advice is a mixed bag and no mistake. You need to be tough enough not to let the criticism get you down and yet open enough to let the advice of others guide you.

Realise that all people will sometimes be wrong

I am pretty sure it was Stephen King who said something like, if one person says something is wrong with your work then they are mistaken but if several people say there is something wrong with the same part of your work then they are probably right.

From this, I take that you should apply a pinch of salt to any feedback you get. At least half of the advice you get is going to be wrong or at least wrong for you.

People will say you need to do this or you need to change that. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong.

It is even harder when you really respect the advice giver’s work. If King, Rowling, or Gaiman came to a Thanet Creative Writers event, (after they were done signing autographs), I would probably follow every correction and advice they offered me, without question. The chances are, though, they would be wrong (at least once).

Everyone who gives you advice is to some degree wrong. It is up to you to figure out what they are wrong about. A big clue, as King says, is if lots of people tell you a passage is broken, then it might be worth fixing that passage.

Not all advice should be followed

Another writer I admire, Neil Gaiman said something to the tune of, if someone says there is a problem with a passage you wrote then they are probably right but if they tell you how to fix it then they are certainly wrong.

Other writers will often tell you how they think you should write your work. This is because we writers often offer advice as if we were applying our own techniques to our own work. There is nothing wrong with that as such. However, it does mean that some writers will give you advice that does not fit, for your style.

Just like all advice is wrong about something, all advice does not apply to you. Learn how to silently discard advice that is wrong for you.

Don’t defend you work

Your work is your baby. It might be an ugly baby but it is your baby. I covered a similar point in the article about giving advice.

If your work was published, you would not be able to go to the home of every reader and explain it to them. Even so, the temptation can be to try and defend you work, to explain what you were doing, or to show the other fellow how they are wrong. This is rarely helpful but it eats up time that could be used for getting or giving more advice.

If the other person is wrong or does not “get” your work, thank them, make a note that you might need to help some readers “get it”, and move on to the next thing.

The best place your answer or clarification can go is in the writing itself. That need to explain your writing after the fact only goes to show that you have a bit more work to do. That inner voice is simply your internal writer getting ready to do more work. Don’t waste that muse on just one person, share it with us all via your writing.

Listen actively

Active listening is a skill. I am not sure if I have mastered it yet, if I am honest. When getting advice or feedback, the best thing I can do is shut up. The same probably goes for you too. Planning on not saying anything gives maximum chance for your brain to take on board what you are being told.

That said, if you don’t understand the advice then ask the person to clarify. Remember you are here to listen to other people talking to you so the shorter your question the sooner you can go back to getting feedback.

I would love to say this is easy to do. Frankly, when I am excited about a topic I can talk forever about it. I know full well that shutting my mouth so my ears can listen takes effort. If you know of a way to make this super easy, please tell me.

Learn how to ignore destructive criticism

Sooner or later you will get advice from someone that is four parts spite to three parts rubbish. Worse, is the critique that simply says this sucks. This sort of advice is all about how you suck and not a lot of advice on how you can stop sucking.

My own mother, who is as sarcastic as I am, once gave me feedback on a short story which went something like it has been done before by other people and they did it better.

I laughed because normally mums say it was very good dear, but my mum was being a bit more honest. Sadly, this was also advice with just as little value in it for me. I love my mum but I also know that this was not advice I could do anything with.

Don’t let praise go to your head

Recently I have received feedback on a chapter from a draft novel. More than one person made a positive comparison to Douglas Adams’ work. This did wonders for my ego and for a few days after I felt like I had made it and was about to be very rich.

I had made the mistake of letting praise go to my head.

I have no advice on how to do it but don’t let praise go to your head. Praise is nice. It builds confidence and feels wonderful but it rarely helps you figure out how to make a good work even better.

Over to you

Do you have any tips to add? Have you been given feedback that changed everything? Have you been given criticism that crushed you? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Advice on giving advice

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Giving advice to another writer is often part of being in a writer’s group. Generally simply saying what worked for you and what you felt could be better is all that is needed. 

Here is some advice on giving advice.

Remember what you are giving feedback on

Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s first tip in her 5 Keys to Giving Constructive Writing Critiques is, read thoroughly. You are giving feedback on writing, not the person, the paper, or the font choice.

You are giving feedback on someone’s work. Sometimes this is a work that has come from deep within the writer and they are very attached to. For example, positivewriter.com describes some work as an ugly baby – no matter how hideous the baby, it is still someone’s baby, so be gentle.

For example, writingforward.com suggests you Devour the Food, Not the Hostess. In other words, focus on the writing, not the writer.

Don’t forget the positives too.

For example, writingforward.com suggests that When you are giving a critique, always start by emphasising the good and positivewriter.com suggests that you start with the positive.

Don’t insult someone’s ugly baby, especially early on in the writing process. Ask questions to help the author find their story. Sometimes they’re too close to their own words to achieve objectivity. says positivewriter.com

Seek balance in your feedback

Suzannah Windsor Freeman reminds us to Praise, but don’t sugarcoat. It is possible to be “too nice” as well as “too harsh”.

Put criticism between praise

If in doubt, there is always the feedback sandwich a shortcoming slipped between two positive points. This is something that Celes from personalexcellence.co suggests. She says, I refer to the feedback sandwich as PIP, which stands for Positive-Improvement-Positive.

Try using two pens

It might sound crazy but use two pens when giving feedback.This is a suggestion from weareteachers.com. If you have one colour for the positives you have noted and another for the things that need work, you can see instantly if you are being balanced.

Follow-up

Sometimes feedback can be a little crushing. Having handed out a dose of reality to a writer are you ready to follow up on it? This is why writingforward.com suggest that you Nurse the Hangover. In other words, contact the writer a few days later and see how they are getting on.

At Thanet Creative Writers some of our guests at Tea and Chat will bring back the same writing three or four times. While it can be a chore to read similar work over and over it also is a joy to see a story grow into something special. However, not everyone will do that so think about following up with people whose work you have given feedback on. After all, I am sure you would feel better if others did the same or you. I know I do.

Over to you

Do you have any tips to add? Have you given feedback that really helped? Have you had truly great or very bad feedback? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Setting up your author platform

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Nothing else will sell your book to an agent or publisher like the idea that you have already set up the marketing and they simply need to cash in on it.

When we talked about getting a good agent and took a look at the advice out there, one of the top points was building a platform. That means gathering prospective enthusiastic readers who would buy your book if it came out today.

A strong platform is like catnip to agents and publishers. It means ready success and, more importantly for everyone, profits.

Creating an author platform is no small task. However, long before your book is ready, there are some foundations you could be putting into place.

In a single post, I could not possibly cover even half of the basics so this is going to be a very broad strokes picture. I will go into more detail on specifics in the future and the chances are that sooner or later I will run a seminar or two on the subject.

So you do not miss out I suggest that you follow or bookmark this blog and like the Thanet Creative Writers page so that you get those updates as soon as they come out.

Building an author platform

This is perhaps the most important single nugget of advice that I can give you – start with something that you completely control.

Facebook, Twitter and all that are great but at the end of the day they are owned by someone else. If you spend all your effort building a platform in someone else’s sandbox and, one day, they close up shop then you have nothing.

There are two things you can control. One on-line and one off-line. Both have legal and security considerations and can carry a small cost but they are worth doing and doing right.

Building an online platform

An online platform should be founded on a website. From here you are going to build a presence as an author. I suggest a setup that allows people to subscribe and allows you to make regular updates.

Those updates are very important. Without them, your site will appear dead and your support will become stale and useless in a matter of months. A great example to follow is Neil Gaiman a popular author who maintains a very open dialogue with his fans.

As part of this site, you are going to need a unique domain name. such as, for example, amazingauthorbob.com (or whatever). I can help with that.

This website should be on hosting that you can directly control. Even if you don’t really understand the ins and outs of it all you, personally, should have access to the files and the database that make up the website.

Hosting is going to set you back a few quid a month. Best value comes from a Linux based hosting deal which offers FTP access, PHP and some sort of database (MySQL for preference). These technologies are likely to cost your host nothing at all so the price of your package will be low. Furthermore, you will be able to run a CMS (content management system) or blog platform (such as WordPress, Joomla, or WebGUI).

Before picking a platform, decide what you want to do with it and then select a platform that does those things really well. You can take a huge number of open source (free) solutions) for a spin at opensourcecms.com. Best of all most of these packages are entirely free if you host them yourself.

If you are not a technical person and find the thought of setting up your own website horrific, it may pay to hire a local geek to do that for you. The chances are, these days, that the average teenager could set that up for you with their eyes closed. Alternatively, some hosting packages come with the option to press a button and have the setup done for you.

The reason for suggesting a CMS or blogging system is that the interface for putting up content is a whole lot friendlier than doing it with raw HTML and CSS files. What’s more, you are in control of the content. Being in control of your own content means that you are free to work on things whenever you have time, rather than waiting for some busy designer to get back to you.

Using an online platform

Now that you have a website with a domain name of your own, you have something that you can put on business cards. Not only that but if you set things up right you also have a custom email address with that domain name in it. Custom email addresses look more professional and inspire trust.

I am sorry to say but from the moment that you launch this platform you are committing to putting out something fresh at least once a week.

Make friends a with a cheap digital camera as photos bring content to life.

If you are part of a local writer’s group, you might consider promoting them. This shows that you are active as a writer and also is reasonably pretty likely to result in reciprocal promotion down the line.

There is one more thing that you need to set up and promote on your site – a contact form. With this you will make connections with possible fans and, assuming you get permission, you will start to build your list.

Building an offline platform

Offline, your best platform is your author’s address book. In marketing terms, we call this your “list”. It is a list of people that you have permission to contact. Ideally, people that will be pleased to hear from you.

As a safety measure do not store this list only in your web hosting. If anything goes wrong with the hosting, you want to keep hold of the list.

I could write from now up to the end of the year about list building, about ways to get people to subscribe to your mailing list, of getting people to sign up for newsletters. Of all that. What it boils down to is networking your behind off.

When you have a book signing, after you are published. Being able to email local fans and get them there will impress the publisher (and your agent) and also get you a lot of credit with local bookshop owners who will be very pleased to have you back next time.

Extending your platform into social media

Now you have the foundations in place, it is time to look at social media. A well established social media outpost represents you, as an author, in the social space but also serves to point people back to your site (home).

Social media users are not at all tolerant of spam – spam in this instance is posting the same thing more than once and also posting very similar things. Mix it up and keep it interesting. Share pictures (use that camera I suggested) as well as links to your new content on-site.

Each site has different amounts of effort required to make it work. Twitter, for example, is somewhat over-posting tolerant and is highly forgiving if you take random days off. Facebook (pages), on the other hand, are extremely intolerant of over posting and goes stale if more than 24 hours are left between updates. Choose what works for you.

Ideally, you are looking to start, not with big numbers, but quality fans or followers. Quality here means: Reacts to and interacts with you.

Try to connect with communities that are interested in the type of book you are finishing.

Conclusion

I could easily write a book about each area that I just covered. There is just so much that could be said. The most important is that building a good platform will make your work easier to get published.

On a side note, you are already doing a lot of free work “for the exposure” so don’t let anyone take advantage of the fact that you are just starting out. Big operations and small will often try to get you to work for nothing more than a link home. You are a professional writer – or will be once published – professionals get paid or at least make an even trade.

Finally, do not let all this distract you from actually writing but try to make a little time to build a valuable platform. You will be glad that you did.

What tips would you add?

Do you have an author website – tell us about it?

Do you promote on social media? Which sites worked best for you?

What this version of Careless Whisper can teach about telling stories

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This is Careless Whisper on an acoustic guitar and it sounds amazing.

What has this got to do with writing? More than you might think.

It is often tempting to think that in order to “make it” as a writer we have to come up with entirely original stories, fresh settings, new and different characters and do something that no one has ever thought of before.

However, as demonstrated by the video above, taking a classic and putting it into a new setting can make something entirely great and unique to you.

  • Take Firefly as an example. The old done-to-death cowboy story but set on a spaceship. One of the greatest TV series that ended too soon (in my opinion).
  • What about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence? A.I. is pretty much an update of The Adventures of Pinocchio but set in a post-apocalyptic North America.
  • Edward Scissorhands is just Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set in 1960s suburbia.
  • The Lion King, songs aside, is more or less William Shakespeare’s Hamlet told in the form of an animal fable.
  • The 1996 film, Independence Day is near enough a reworking of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with a more modern setting. In both cases, a virus saves the day.

This is something you can do too. Take a classic, strip it down to the themes and narrative mechanics and rebuild it in a new setting.

Don’t copy; reinvent.

For example, what if you took Cinderella’s story – just the core elements – and set the whole thing aboard a pirate ship? Or recycled it in space? Or made it a young boy’s coming of age story set in the 1960s?

For example, what if you took the biblical parable of The Good Samaritan and respun it to tell the story of a white supremacist saved by a Caribbean man and the friendship that followed? You would have the platform to explore what it means to be a good neighbour as well as tell a very compelling story.

Reframing a classic is a time honoured tradition. Here is a list of reframed classics. Here is another list.

Why not try it for yourself? Find a much loved old classic and let it inspire you to tell a whole new story.

Here’s a geeky TV show theme tune on an acoustic guitar to show you anything can be reinterpreted into any setting and, with a little (or a lot) of skill, be amazing.

If you want to hear more amazing acoustic covers the guy in both these videos has a channel full of great tracks like this. Check it out.

Getting a good literary agent

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Getting published is not easy. Getting a literary agent helps but getting an agent is no small task.

For example, 5 Easy Ways to Keep Your Work from Ending Up in an Agent’s Trash” by Bethany Cadman (author of Doctor Vanilla’s Sunflowers) lists not following the submission guidelines, poor spelling, and bad query letters among the reasons writers get rejected.

Assuming that you avoid the common mistakes here is a selection of advice from writers about getting a good literary agent.

Forbes contributor Nick Morgan, writes Here’s How To Catch The Eye Of A Literary Agent. One of the key points here is that it pays to build your platform. We are going to look at building a platform another time because it is a truly huge topic. I have spent my entire life learning methods you can use and even I feel like I am still something of a novice sometimes.

When it comes to platform, the basic advice is this – build a collection of followers who will be delighted to hear from you and would very likely buy your book when then do. As I said, more on that another time.

A sad but true fact is that Science fiction, a genre close to my heart, has suffered from more than its fair share of fraudulent scammers (pretending to be agents) over the years. Science Fiction Writers of America has a solid article helping you to find a real agent and identify scammers (hint: a real agent does not ask for upfront fees). Read it here even if your genre is something else entirely.

Jane Friedman has compiled a fantastic in-depth look at how to get published and specifically what you need to do to get a good literary agent. How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book looks at how to assess your work’s commercial potential, how to decide if you even need an agent, and how to research agents. There is so much more in there, just go read it.

Writers & Artists have a huge selection of articles about getting an agent including advice for first-time writers, getting your foot in the door, and why you should beware of vanity publishers.

Piers Blofeld, a literary agent, tells you how to get an agent in the video below.

One of the most important things that Piers Blofeld says that you need is a cover letter. You’d know this if you had not skipped the video (in which case you are missing out scroll back up and watch it now). Below, agents talk about the best, or at least most striking, cover letters that they ever got.

I hope that when you are ready to seek out a literary agent for your new masterpiece that this guide will help you find success.

Have you been published? Did you self-publish, go directly to the publisher, or did you use an agent? What advice would you add?

The muse is strong with this one

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Sometimes a simple conversation can spark a the most profound ideas. As writers, when the muse comes calling it is a rare and beautiful thing. However when we are already working hard on something it is easy to ignore our muse.

I have always held that when inspiration strikes – when Lady Muse graces us – we writers should run with it while we have the chance.

For me, this happened just recently. I was talking with Sam, one of the writers that comes to the creative writer’s group that I host and I said something like:

When the muse is with you, make the most of her.

To which Sam replied that I should put that on a t-shirt. The muse was strong with us in that moment and I did just that.

May the muse be with you

I also put it on a mug along with:

May the muse be with you

Mainly because I am a total geek, like that.

In fact there is a whole shop being set up with these designs.

Now you can buy a t-shirt with that advice on it. Profits will go to the Thanet Creative Writers Charity to help fund things for writers in Thanet.

When the muse is with you...

Perfect or good enough

Who is this guy?

We’ve talked before about imposter syndrome. It’s one of the things that can hold you back as a writer – the feeling that you are faking it somehow. Similar, but not quite the same, is the drive to be perfect. There’s probably a fair amount of overlap.

One of the things I have been wrestling with lately is the balance between driving towards perfection and realising that “good enough” is a far better start than no start at all.

It is quite unlikely that anyone will create a perfect first draft and I know I would benefit from reminding myself that just getting a first draft written – even if it is terrible – is a huge achievement.

I’ve blogged about that just recently.

Read: What’s so great about perfection, anyway?

Do you let perfection stand in the way of getting started? I know I do sometimes. Tell us about it in the comments below.

Creating a safe space for writers

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Establishing a safe place to share work is one of the most important things a host must do.

As hosts, we have a responsibility to look after the writers that we receive into our gatherings. Some writers, perhaps many writers, are vulnerable people. For some, writing is a way to deal with a great deal of emotional or physical pain. Sharing what we have written is not so different to being totally naked.

It is very easy to feel exposed or at least a little nervous when sharing this very intimate expression of our inner self with total strangers. As hosts of events, our job is to make our guests feel safe enough to share.

Creating a safe space for writers should be the objective of all hosts and organisers. I don’t know how it is in all writers groups, but I would like to think that most try to do just that.

Encouragement and support

While members are finding their feet within a group, one of the best things we as hosts can do is try to build up their confidence.

This can mean different things in each situation. It may mean encouraging members to give criticism which includes enthusiastic praise for what was done right, rather than focusing on what needs fixing. It may mean simply thanking a member when they share for the first time and acknowledging that the first time is always hard.

Sometimes all we really need to do is remember what it was like when we were starting out and remembering that we are not all on the same level (and that is perfectly fine).

As hosts, we often set the tone for an event and should be setting an example of exactly what we would like from other members. That’s not always as easy as it sounds.

for example, there have been times when I have been utterly shattered and a budding writer puts some work in my hand that is, frankly, hard to read. When I am tired I find it harder to concentrate on roughly written work and I find it even more tiring to maintain an even tone with my response.

For me, it is a cop-out to hand it back and simple claim “that was very good”. That’s what mums are supposed to do but writers come to a group for more than that.

No matter how tired I am, or how little interest I have in the manuscript in my hands, I know, as host, that I must keep reading until I can give a mix of praise and a candid yet kind appraisal. I need to give something that the writer can use to further their craft.

Giving everyone a fair share of the time

A fair share of the time is not always the same thing as an equal share of the group’s time but the two are fairly similar. Sometimes it can be helpful to allow one member to occupy more time than any other – so long as it is not the same person each week.

On the other hand, it pays to watch out for “the talker”. I am a person that loves to talk – it’s what helps me overcome my own dyslexia and write anyway – but just as I have had to teach myself to shut up and let others speak there are times when the host needs to call time on a person.

I will be the first to admit that when I am excited about a subject I can talk about it for a very long time. I mean seriously, have you seen how long this article is?

I have become acutely aware of just how much time I can take up talking about my work, about my thoughts on other people’s work, or my reaction to the latest Star Wars film (don’t get me started unless you love Star Wars too). This is why I write blog posts – so I can talk about topics I love and people who find those topics interesting can read them, we both win. But in a group setting, where time is finite we hosts must be a bit more careful.

The talkers in the group can, without meaning to, deny the shyer members of the group a chance to contribute. In an open mic session this is less of a problem as you probably have set time limits but in a group discussion setting, we hosts need to be mindful of how much time any given member is using up.

The talker is usually someone who seems to love the sound of their own voice, or it can be someone like me who just gets very excited about stuff. As hosts, it can be helpful to have a clock or watch handy. It will not be long before it is clear who the most talkative members are. The trick is in figuring out how to gently bring them to a stop and draw out the other members so everyone can contribute.

We also have another responsibility – dealing with keen contributors that do not know what they are talking about. As hosts, we need to be aware of when bad advice is being offered and be ready to offer alternative views.

I can’t tell you how many group gathers I have found myself saying the words “playing devil’s advocate for a moment…” It is a lot, I know that much.

Of course, this also requires that we ourselves know what we are talking about.

Knowing our craft

When people come to events we host, either as writers and poets, or just as interested on-lookers, there is an expectation that we, the host, know what we are talking about.

I am not about to suggest that only experts can be hosts, far from it. Yet we must, I feel, do two very important things in this regard.

  1. Do our best to learn the theory of our craft
  2. Be very honest about our own limits

In fact, of the two tasks, honesty is perhaps the most vital and least easy. Let’s be honest, it takes a certain amount of ego to write things down in the expectation that others will find it worth reading. That same ego can often blind us to our own faults and shortcomings.

It is very easy to think that we know everything, or at least most of everything, even when we are barely more than rank amateurs ourselves.

Keeping egos in check

Just as we must make the effort to keep our ego in check, we may also be called upon to keep other egos from overwhelming the group too. That’s not always easy.

There have been times when that rare combination of strong self-confidence, an admitted talent, and many years of writing arrives along with a prima donna attitude. More often the prima donna attitude is less well deserved but in both cases, it is off-putting and intimidating.

I don’t envy the host who finds themselves faced with the task of keeping a huge ego sufficiently contained that the other members still have space to grow. I am not sure that I even have any particularly helpful advice to offer.

Fortunately, I have found that huge egos are not so common. Unfortunately a huge ego can come with another problem – the potential to overwhelm and bully.

Protection from bullies

Back in 2013 when I started hosting writers workshops in my home, I had very little idea what I was doing. I was simply looking to engage with other writers on a topic that I loved. Surprisingly to me, this was a popular idea. But it was that very popularity that brought with it a harsh lesson.

It turns out that just because I am a person who wants nothing more than to share a love of writing and to engage in reciprocal kindness and support not everyone is like that. There are those who, if I am honest, are best described as toxic people.

Sometimes toxic people are just people with more than their fair share of needs and good support can help them become better human beings and a great asset to a group. Others, well, with others the best you can do is wish them well and send them on their way.

If you are unlucky enough to have a covert bully among the people at events you host, they can do a lot of damage both to the group dynamics and the well-being of your writers before you are even aware there is a bully. Even once you have realised that there is a toxic person in the group it can be hard, especially if you are somewhat sensitive, to bring yourself to remove them.

Being the sort of person who is unwilling to give up on anyone, no matter how hopeless the cause, this was not an easy lesson to learn. I can’t say that I have fully learned it yet but I am trying.

Yet, learn this skill I must. It is a vital skill that must be coaxed into existence, in much the same way a difficult scene must me, for the good of all the members who attend.

Setting some ground rules

Most of these responsibilities (and others that I have not covered), can be summed up in a  set of simple group rules. Setting some simple ground rules helps you, as host, be consistent with the way you treat the people who attend and focus your attention on the areas that need it.

It is not always necessary to express the rules, or even draw any attention to them at all. As long as you are consistent with your application of the rules, they will soon become part of the culture of the group.

I have been surprised on a few occasions to listening to members telling newcomers about the way we do things and hearing the rules I’ve used but never told anyone about. I did not need to explain the rules because I was demonstrating them in the way I was acting.

Rules are there to be broken but the group culture is something people generally try and fit in with.

Over to you

Those of us that host events for writers are doing something truly special – we are giving the community something very valuable. It is not always easy but I think it is always worthwhile.

I am sure there are many other things that we hosts can and maybe should be doing to create a safe space for all writers. What one would you add?

Have you been to an event with a particularly great host? What was it about the host that impressed you the most?

Do you host an event? What challenges have you faced and how did you tackle them? Have you had to deal with any of these issues? How did you approach them and what was the outcome?