#MondayBlogs Bringing literature back into social media zombies lives

In his fourth guest blog, James Wood discusses how we can use Social Media and digital interaction as a new platform for literacy development.

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In my last blog I talked about how interactive media might be effecting literacy skills and becoming a problem of addiction for people. Well, what if I told you that, in some ways, it could actually be very beneficial for literacy skills as well? The Dawn of the Unread series has a YouTube channel with over 50 videos that include ‘how to create a comic’, and the Nottingham essay series. The app includes games and competitions that inspire proactive reading in young people. Moreover, the social media presence of Dawn of the Unread on Facebook, Twitter, Storify, Tumblr and, most recently, on Instagram (thanks to placement student Connie Adams) aim to have a positive effect on literacy levels. In using a wide variety of formats and platforms, the project offers numerous access points to all types of readers. The instagram blogs, for example, have a small synopsis under each image, so that education operates in small incremental ways. Used constructively, social media can create gateways into reading.

Dawn of the Unread’s online comics are an example of how literature is increasingly being published online and utilises interaction to enhance learning and concentration on reading. This use of the online world to publish books and texts of all kinds is dramatically on the increase. Digital downloads are a massive part of authorship and publication now, and by encouraging this, writers can broaden their reach and develop their own audiences. The interactive world is a massive part of the future, so why shouldn’t authors use it to their advantage? It’s great for engaging people who don’t often read, to be pulled in by online publications that interest them. It’s becoming increasingly easy to share and publish online, as well as advertise.

However, as my last blog suggested, some interactive media is a hindrance for literacy development, such as those cat videos that feed us with a rush of Dopamine! So what can be done to social media so that it educates and develops literacy skills?

Well for starters, adding more educational posts to social media sites, or even creating a bespoke social media site could help better direct learning. There may be room within the market for a kind of hybrid educational tool that blends the principles of Google scholar… but on Facebook. This will give online users the chance to filter their social media experiences to make them more educationally beneficial.

Another way interactive media could be used to educate young people and develop their literacy skills, is through games. Large numbers of young people play computer games or own a gaming console. This entertainment system could be adapted online to create games that are perfect for learning yet fun, without making the player feel they are just for educational purposes. This is an idea that has already been experimented with, for example the Dawn of the Unread app originally used games to encourage reading and set readers tasks that sent them across the city. (Now this functionality has been stripped out and the app just provides information on the literary figures featured in the comic.)

Pokemon Go is a game that many young people enjoy and spend many hours on, and the reason for this is they get a sense of achievement when they catch and build up their collection of Pokemon. Well what if a game could be created that produces a sense of achievement in ticking off books that you have read, that the game or app recommends? To find out more about how gaming is beneficial for learning and literacy, follow scholar and author James Paul Mcgee’s work or read his book What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy.

Using rewards which still provide that rush of Dopamine is another way the interactive world can encourage reading. Like with games, social media websites could provide online competitions for young people, such as taking a photo of you reading a book in an interesting place, writing a 100 word short story in which the winner gets their work shared and published, or other incentives. Or how about the reward of reading itself? Social media could encourage reading by rewarding young people for finishing a book, and online software could work to match young people to their literacy skill level so that they enjoy reading and develop at the same time. I once led a year 7 reading scheme which aimed to do that same thing. After a book was read by a pupil, they did an online quiz which helped to tailor individuals to their literacy level, and I saw students more engaged in reading as they were rewarded with a sense of accomplishment when they finished a book and got to move up a grade in difficulty as well as being merited by teachers for doing so.

Another problem is books are ‘going out of fashion’. However, some books such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, have always been in fashion, why is this? Well, it appeals to young people and creates a fan base as well as a trend in itself. The more time we spend online, the more we turn to ‘trending’ topics in order to help direct our leisure and learning. By sharing pictures of yourself reading on social media sites this would help to normalise reading and potentially help to make it a more attractive option for leisure. The hashtag #Fridayreads on Twitter is one such way in which readers from around the world are able to share their favourite books.

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Dawn of the Unread editor James Walker uses #FridayReads to keep a record of books he’s reading and posts a favourite quote from the book.

By using some of these methods it might be possible to re-established reading on these digital platforms. Some sites are already starting to do this. The digital world offers an infinite array of distractions, all vying for our attention. Therefore, it’s important that we find ways of scaffolding learning to help direct younger readers. Social media is full of words, people write posts, and others read those posts, it could even be argued that people are reading and writing more than ever, albeit in byte-sized chunks. But what is the nature of what they are reading? In the opinion of some, the content of social media websites is not educational. As someone who has helped mentor pupils in schools, I believe that tailoring social media experiences to become more academic, yet fun, is really important for their intellectual and emotional development. Interactive media is a major part of today’s society, and so we should explore ways to harness this engagement to help develop literacy levels. Dawn of the Unread editor James Walker is so appalled at literacy levels in the UK he described them as “a form of child abuse” in the project manifesto. If you have ideas on how we can address this together, or want to respond to this or other posts, please leave a comment. We are always listening.

Further reading:

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#MondayBlogs The Literary Art of Cracking Comics at Lowdham Book Festival

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Matt Green, Jonathan Rigby, Sally Jane Thompson and James Walker (L-R)

John ‘Brick’ Clark was the artist in our Slavomir Rawicz comic. His passion for the medium is infectious and so I was delighted when he asked me to chair a panel discussion for Nottingham Does Comics. Here’s what he had to say.

Lowdham Book Festival recently hosted an extraordinary panel session of Nottingham Does Comics, extraordinary for featuring three guests plainly steeped in comics culture and a facilitator hungry to learn more about ‘The Literary Art of Cracking Comics’, the subject for discussion. James Walker of Dawn of the Unread was armed with all the right simple questions a public warming to the medium might ask of a creator (Sally Jane Thompson), a retailer (Jonathan Rigby from Page 45) and an academic (Dr. Matt Green from the University of Nottingham).

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The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had Page 45 oozing with compliments. 

Too often comics buffs gloss over basic questions like, ‘Which should I read first, the words or pictures?’ and yet therein lie the keys to a full appreciation of a literary form that, despite producing works of manifest sophistication tackling adult themes, is invariably and wrongly dismissed as strictly for the kids. Steeped in prose literature, James readily admitted he is immediately drawn to the linear form of the text before retreating back up the page to give the images due consideration. And why not, the panel suggested, if it works for you. There are no hard and fast rules. The medium has the power to control the eye and prioritise, and if any one page or panel doesn’t, that also is intentional in the best of works.

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Is it a comic? Is it a graphic novel? Artwork taken from Chasemagnett.wordpress.com

Prompted by James, the panel went further back to basics and clarified the terms – ‘comics’ is the art form, ‘comic’ or ‘comic book’ is the frequently serialized floppy magazine format, while ‘graphic novel’ is the uncomfortable term applied by the media to the spine-backed book format, encompassing autobiography, investigative journalism, historical works and everything factual, from academic treatises to comics cook books. Finally, ‘comix’ is the underground’s way of saying ‘Children Keep Out’. It’s good to know, but I would add ‘comics strip’ (a single line sequence) and ‘comics block’ (several tiers of the same, most frequently seen as a half page in an otherwise prose magazine or newspaper).

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Jens Harder: Alpha

Peppered with references to modern masterpieces like From Hell (scripted by Alan Moore, illustrated by Eddie Campbell), the discussion explored how writers and illustrators co-operate together. Sally made the point that writers tend to be protective of their words while illustrators are ever looking to bin as many as possible, aware that images can often speak the same louder or more sensitively. In the case of skilled writer-illustrators like Jens Harder (Alpha), it is evident the creative process leans towards the visual, paring down the prose to poetry, making every word count. For an auteur like the maestro Shaun Tan, words just get in the way of his mastery of visual poetry, exemplified in his wonderful The Arrival, about the great American immigration bubble.

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Ghost World

While everybody acknowledged similarities between comics and film (or maybe storyboarding is a closer comparison), the panel believed cross-fertilisation rarely worked in either’s favour. If Hollywood is presently filling off-shore accounts on the back of Marvel and DC, their industry is not doing our industry a great service. Jonathan considered Ghost World (based on Daniel Clowes’ sensitive account of adolescent angst) the best of the bunch, though Matt mentioned the excellent American Splendour, acknowledging the movie is more about its curmudgeon author, Harvey Pekar, than an adaption of Pekar’s actual memoire.

brides storyAway from the silver screen, Sally enthused about A Bride’s Story, a sumptuous historical romance by Japanese manga artist, Kaoru Mori. (Manga just means comics, only from Japan, just as bande dessinee are Franco-Belgian comics and manhua are Chinese comics. Manga and manhua are properly read right to left from back of the book, but many have now been flipped for the English-reading public, not always successfully.) Of Mori’s work, Sally said, “It is masterfully drawn and an absolute pleasure to read, but also beautifully composed, with an eye for smooth reading and clarity, despite her lavish attention to everyday details. She is willing to take time out of a larger story to dwell on a moment, so we experience it fully rather than hurrying from plot point to plot point. It’s soothing and uplifting, and an absolute comics masterclass.’ Plus, of course, Mori’s work gives the lie to suggestions that comics are a man-and-boy-thing.

makingFor some in the audience, the creative potential of specialist colourists and letterers to enhance a work maybe came as some surprise. Letters might just be code, but the look of the words can go way beyond standard fonts to imbue the text with significance and meaning. Jonathan referenced Brecht Evens’ hand lettering in his blindingly colourful The Making Of, and I would single out the mastery of the anarchic font employed in Wilfrid Lupano and Jeremie Moreau’s stinging anti-racist take on The Hartlepool Monkey. As to colourists and what they can achieve, our man from Page 45 positively oozed over the work of Elizabeth Breitweiser, specifically in the L.A. movie satire The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Sumptuous, flowing and precise for a 1940’s homage, there are pages where Elizabeth suddenly throws us a curve ball and renders a sequence in the block colours of a demented Mondrian.

Right now comics are such a rapidly evolving medium that an hour’s slot was never going to do justice to all the questions the audience needed answering. Though the turnout was small, it was evident the audience was excited and stimulated by what they heard. One couple cornered me with notebooks in hand and asked for the above recommendations again. Another member’s departing words were, “If I wasn’t already into comics, I’d be hammering down the door of Page 45 with an open cheque book!,” an appreciation that belied their age and escalating passion.

Nottingham Does Comics was at Lowdham Book Festival on Saturday 25 June (3.30-4.30pm) The panel was chaired by James Walker with Sally Jane Thompson, Jonathan Rigby and Matt Green. 

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#Mondayblogs: Shakespeare Off the Map

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This guest post is from Abigail Parry, the National Videogame Arcade’s writer-in-residence. Here she discusses an innovative poetry challenge that involves Shakespeare and Twine for the Off the Map Interactive Text competition.

Alrighty. What is it?

Off the Map is a yearly competition run between the British Library and the National Videogame Arcade, which invites participants to respond to a text by ‘gamifying’ it, or making it in some way interactive.  There are three categories in the competition: 2D games, 3D games, and Interactive Text.  It’s the last of these I want to talk about.

The 2D and 3D categories demand some affinity with game design software – but the Interactive Text category does not.  We really want to encourage Humanities students to participate in the Interactive Text category of the competition this year.  We’ll be looking for entries that respond innovatively and creatively to the resources available – and if your flair is for storytelling, or intertextuality, or wordplay, or any other form of textual manipulation, then we want to see something from you.

Hmmm.  Do I smell an agenda?

Quite right.  I’m a sucker for cross-disciplinary collaboration, and literature and games are two mediums with a lot to say to one another. The NVA, my hosts, are committed to bridging the divide between tech and the Humanities, and I mean to do my damnedest to help.  I want to see everyone getting into in bed with everyone else.  Creatively speaking.

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This is how a Twine story looks.  Don’t be scared!

Fair dos.  As you were.

If you’ve never used an interactive text tool before – well, chances are you’ve read a Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook.  It’s the same thing – a means of presenting a branching narrative – but with a computer programme doing most of the work.  I’d recommend getting started with Twine, which is free to download and easy to use.  We’ve put together a guide to getting started, which can be found here.  Alternatively, you may prefer Inklewriter, which has its own excellent tutorials on the website.

(Confession time: I wish I could say the tech bit of my brain was all sleek chrome and orderly banks of purring consoles.  It really isn’t.  It’s staffed by a wheezing nonagenarian on unpaid overtime who blinks myopically at me when I come knocking.  My background’s in the dusty end of academia, not in sexy STEM stuff – so I don’t use a word like ‘easy’ carelessly.)

Abigail poet

Is there anything else I need to know?

Yes!  Actually, one very important thing: the theme of this year’s competition is Shakespeare.  You’re free to approach this in any way you like, as long as it speaks to the British Library’s resources in some way.  You can work with the text itself, or rework a story, or focus on a bit-part character, or on a single line or stage direction.  One of the reasons for Shakespeare’s enduring popularity is the facility with which his work can be picked up and played with.  Go nuts.  Entries are invited on one of three themes: ‘Castles’, ‘Forests’ and ‘The Tempest’ – but these may be interpreted broadly.

The British Library have made a load of Shakespeare-related images and sound files available through their digitised archives, and if you’re feeling adventurous, these can be incorporated into an Interactive Text submission (this may require a degree of tech nous – but the internet is there to help).  This certainly isn’t expected, however, and it won’t count against you if you don’t.  The judges will be looking for inventiveness, and that doesn’t have to mean digital wizardry.  Your entry must respond to these resources in some way, however.

The competition will be judged by a panel of industry professionals and academics, and the winning entries will be exhibited at GameCity Festival in October.  There’s also a big goody bag of books involved.

Anything else?  Oh yes – the deadline for entries is the 1st of July 2016.  Also, you must be a full-time student to enter the competition.

Further details, together with resources and submission guidelines, can be found on the National Videogame Arcade’s website, here.  At the time of writing, we’re in the process of updating these guidelines, so it might be best to check back in a week or so.

If you have any questions, you can email me at abigail.parry@gmail.com.  Please do.  I still get disproportionately excited when someone sends me an email.

If you’re after additional inspiration, the BBC has made hundreds of TV and radio programmes from its Shakespeare archive freely available HE students, and they can be found here.

Also, Ryan North has reworked Hamlet as an adventure gamebook, To be or Not to Be, which is available as both a physical book and a playable game.

I think that’s all.  As the man himself says – bid the players make haste.

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#MondayBlogs Should writers turn to software?

 

15POSTER copyIn this guest blog Crime writer John Baird explores some of the software packages available to writers. John is appearing at this year’s Gedling Book Festival, now in its third year. Highlights of this year’s festival include talks from the novelists Stephen Booth, Alison Moore and Eve Makis, plus former rock ‘n’ roll star Vince Eager. The festival also aims to engage and develop younger writers, with a variety of workshops and storytelling activities for children.

As part of this year’s festival I will be giving a talk on some of the best software and websites for writers. Most authors persist with Microsoft Word, first released over thirty years ago, and ignore the plethora of new writers’ tools out there. There seems to be virtual assistance for every stage of the process, from developing ideas to generating sales, so let’s look at some.

First, let me say, writing is art, not science, there’s no shortcut key for the hours an author needs to invest in reading, writing and developing their craft. But technology, or the right technology, can certainly improve efficiency. Take the word count increasers: there’s a program that teaches ways of using a keyboard to increase writing speed (rapidtyping.com), one that allows writers to set word targets, with rewards and punishments if they’re met/missed (WriteorDie.com) and another that disables distractions such as Facebook and Twitter (anti-social.cc). They sound a bit gimmicky, I almost hear you say, and, productivity is one thing, what about quality?

Authors will tell you that first drafts are often rubbish, and that writing is rewriting. Software can help, allowing passages to be scanned and checked for the overuse of certain words or phrases, or the use of adverbs, even clichés (smart-edit.com). Or perhaps you are working on a story thread and want to call up all the chapters featuring a specific character, or all those with a certain setting. This can be done, easily, and you can view the chapters exclusively (Scrivner).

There is so much choice the difficulty comes in separating the useful programs from the pricy promises of success. The best way to do this is to ignore the imagination substitutes; the idea generators and formulaic structure templates that often produce uninspired results, recognised or standardised plots that fall flat. Creative writing software can sharpen your thoughts which in turn can help develop conflict, plot, characters and setting (yWriter) but often the best creative writing programs focus on recording your ideas through brainstorming tools (Freemind) or storyboarding applications (WriteItNow). Just remember, technology should support creativity, not supply it.

As far as research is concerned, search engines are the new libraries. Keeping this research accessible and organised is not so easy. Software can help the storing of files, images, notes and useful webpages; logging them in a virtual scrapbook that saves work to the cloud, making research and writing available in one place, and, if online, accessible through any computer or device you’re working on (Evernote.com). Not all research is electronic but it soon can be. Paper data, either a printout or handwritten, can be converted to information that you can edit at your leisure (SimpleOCR).

Backing up all this work, form a variety of sources, is important. Synchronising it all and automatically uploading everything to the internet can save time. Software that enables this, whilst also saving old versions, is crucial (Dropbox.com).

A final pointer on writing: there are many websites and groups where finished manuscripts can receive free critiques from communities of authors, editors, publishers and readers. This can provide vital feedback from peers, help grow an audience or even lead to a publishing contract (Authonomy.com).

Finding a publisher is often the next stage. Once a manuscript is ready, having been copy-edited and proofread properly (Preditors and Editors) more software becomes relevant.

Many of the well-known publishers’ commissioning editors accept new submissions via agents they trust. Authors must find the respectable genre specific agents and, if they’re accepting new work, follow their submission requirements exactly. One place to look is the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and bear in mind that good agents don’t ask authors for reading fees or any money up-front.

Agents are now tougher to land than publishers but it’s a good time to be an author. Software has made self publishing affordable and potentially profitable. Ebooks are a great place to start as they can be produced, marketed and distributed so cheaply. They can be uploaded with software that allows for a table of contents, embed audio files or video, and makes books available on multiple platforms (Sigil). Big hitters like Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing offer free set up and take a percentage of royalties per sale. Others (BookBaby) can provide 100% royalties in exchange for an upfront fee.

Then there’s software to monitor sales across several stores (Trackerbox) and websites where agents sell a book’s foreign rights (pubmatch). You can even turn your book into an audiobook. Readers of Kindle books can now switch from reading to hearing a story, and this can be done mid-flow, flipping seamlessly between the two (Whispersync). The advancement of Apps has meant that many phones now play audiobooks. People are getting their content on the move and listening to stories is proving increasingly popular.

Print-on-demand is the most common method of publishing hard copies, and it avoids a garage full of unsold books. Amazon’s POD company (Createspace) has a wizard to guide authors through the process. There are other services that offer distribution to bookstores and libraries (Ingram). In addition to the manuscript assistance and editing help mentioned above, software can be used to create the covers. There are template-generated covers with the art and titling provided but it’s easy to create your own, technically speaking at least. If you can’t afford Photoshop then there are free alternatives (GIMP).

Having written and published a book, the other difficult part of an author’s triathlon is letting people know about it. One mistake many authors make is relying on others to do the marketing for them. Even if you have a publisher, or pay a marketing company, there’s no better person to sell your books than you. Another mistake is leaving the marketing until the book is available on Amazon. An online presence is important from the off and the right software can be effective in making sales.

Image from www.adweek.com

Image from www.adweek.com

Social media can help reach readers but it can also be time sapping. Thankfully there are useful tools for managing social media accounts. For example, you can schedule tweets to work for you while you’re offline (hootsuite.com) and link various social media networks together so that one message can be shared everywhere through a mobile App (Postcard).

Email marketing and list management is another key tactic and there’s free software that lets you compile email lists, track them and create professional looking emails that won’t appear as spam (AWeber).

Many writers now create and manage their own websites and have the advantage being able to update the content themselves (Wix.com). Communicating with readers is important and some authors are now producing Podcasts (Audacity) and YouTube videos (Pamela for Skype).

The more copies an author sells the more chance a new reader has of finding the book on the web. Racking up the 5 star reviews on amazon or Goodreads doesn’t affect their algorithms as much as sales. For reviews it’s better to focus on popular blogs and respected websites such as, for crime novels, crimefictionlover. Blog tours can also be of benefit and there are sites that manage these for you (Xpresso).

The software linked to above is a fraction of the help available. Some of it is free, some isn’t. It’s a case of finding what works for you. In my opinion the best of the programs for novelists is Scrivner. You can get a free trial here and learn the basics in the video above. For scriptwriters, try Final Draft where scripts can be translated into industry standard formats for film, TV or stage; scripts that can then be used to create multimedia productions (Celtx.com). While poets can access different structures and find rhymes at Poetreat.

It’s time to let technology work for you.

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