Novel November: the building of new worlds

Hello!

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you attended the World Building weekend for Novel November or you are otherwise interested in what I’m doing as part of my National Regional Arts Fellowship. Across November and into December and January, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts about the project and my Fellowship and my process within both. This is the first blog. This blog series is a way for me to invite you behind the scenes of what I do and how I do it. You are welcome to ask questions using the comment section and I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments or future blogs in the series.

If you haven’t already – go and have a look at the overall info for Novel November, my FAQ blog and the original announcement about my Fellowship. I’m going to assume anyone reading those blogs has read all of that already so that I don’t have to keep repeating background details and boring the life out of you!

So….let’s talk about where things are up to and where they’re heading and some of what I’m currently thinking about and working on.

Fellowship Process

Novel November is a month-long residency project and the vehicle for my Fellowship, so there is kind of two things happening alongside each other – one is my development through the fellowship and one is the progress of Novel November as a project/outcome. Novel November itself, is also only the first stage of a longer term project and outcome/s.

Regional Arts Australia says about the National Regional Arts Fellowship Program:

The National Regional Arts Fellowships is an investment in the development of artistic and creative practice for artists and practitioners working and living in regional, rural and remote Australia. The initiative is applicant-led, cross disciplinary and open to multiple art forms. It addresses the need for creative development, career pathways, and supports individuals in time and place to develop their work, skills and networks.

In my application, I said:

My proposed fellowship activity will enable me to spend four weeks working full-time on my practice through a meaningful, tailored and self-directed collaboration with members of my community, including targeted mentor support. The activity will be a blend of solo time learning, writing, ideating, exploring, reflecting and documenting, alongside targeted mentor check-ins, and weekends spent working with community to co-create responses to an imagined speculative fiction world inspired by the Riverland.

(….)

Each week I will be actively iterating creative responses to this learning and to my weekends engaging with community members. The entire residency will be a repeated process of learn, dream, respond creatively, share, reflect, repeat.

I will be bringing together the many threads of my creative practice – writing (especially my interest in speculative fiction as a vehicle for community connection and resilience), socially/community engaged collaboration, reflection, performance making, producing and community organising and blue sky dreaming – to explore, experiment and test my own ideas and the next forms I want my practice and projects to take. Over the past decade, my creative practice has continually taken a back seat to projects and jobs that could generate a sustainable income, and this means my independent creative projects have almost always been rushed and forced to fit into the gaps between other things, this fellowship support would enable me to spend a dedicated chunk of time immersed in a single project and deeply interrogating my own practice and the next steps I want to take. This is particularly timely as a 2021 activity, as I have been actively working this year to reduce my paid “dayjob” work to three days a week to focus on independent creative projects across 2021, 2022 and beyond. This fellowship activity would provide me with the right stepping stone at the right time on this journey.

(…)

Documenting and sharing my fellowship experience will be embedded into the residency process, and I anticipate that I would spent at least 3-5 hours per week across the month on this element alone. This will be part of my reflection process to deepen my own learning, but I am also committed to turning my own learning into useful resources for others so I will be actively documenting the processes I undertake and making them available on my blog. This will include personal reflection notes, excerpts of writing and other creative material produced at various stages of development, photos and links to materials I am reading/reflecting on.

So Novel November is a project and an outcome itself, but it is also a vehicle for my own ongoing learning and development as a creative practitioner. Every project I do (independent or otherwise) is always both for me, especially as someone who hasn’t (yet) completed any tertiary education in the arts. I also want to acknowledge up front that my “dayjob” is also in the arts and I currently work 0.6 FTE (3 days per week) for Writers SA as Statewide Regional Manager and Riverland Coordinator. I wasn’t working for Writers SA when I applied for the Fellowship but after I started working there and was awarded the Fellowship, I had a conversation with my manager (Writers SA Director Jessica Alice) to talk through how I would manage my commitment to Writers SA and to the Fellowship. Through this negotiation Writers SA is supporting me to work on the Fellowship 0.4 (two days per week), as an investment in me as a regional writer and also because Novel November itself is directly serving the vision/mission of my work at Writers SA. I am so grateful for this support of my independent work and this flexibility from Writers SA. This means I can still be fully immersed in the Fellowship process without feeling like I’m letting Writers SA down, and also means that I’ve been able to add to the resources pool (ie. money) available to support my Fellowship activities.

Process wise so far, I’ve been very much in “doing” mode – we spent the weekend world building (which I’ll talk about below) and I spent a few hours Monday and yesterday just writing and thinking. Today has mostly been a bit of an admin day, though I’m hoping to tackle some writing before bed too. Tomorrow I’m planning to do some writing, and spend some time reading, reflecting, and planning for this coming weekend. Friday I have my first scheduled mentor check-in.

The mentor check-ins are 1-2 hour Zoom chats with a range of people. I reached out via email to a wide mix of practitioners from theatre, film, literature, games, community art, nerd communities, activists and many other circles to enrich my thinking and exploring. I want to talk with artists, producers, curators, ideas people, marketing folk and people outside of the arts. Some of the people I contacted I already know a little bit and others I know of but haven’t had any direct contact with. Some of the people I reached out to didn’t respond, which I completely expected – especially the “cold” emails to people I’ve never met – but most did and all in the affirmative, which is really lovely. In case you’re wondering this is the guts of what I sent people (with some additional notes at the beginning depending on if I knew the person and/or how I knew of their work):

I’ve been awarded a Regional Arts Australia Fellowship this year to tackle the first exploration of a project I’ve been dreaming about for a while. Thanks to the Fellowship, I’ll be spending every day in November exploring the idea of creating a new fantasy world inspired by my home here in the Riverland and how this fantasy world can be a container/foundation for a range of creative outcomes over the coming years. My Fellowship format is facilitating weekend workshops with my community and then writing/planning/ideating/creating independently each weekday. Some background and an overview of the schedule for November here (including a link to FAQ): https://partofthings.org/portfolio/novel-november-2021/And a bit of background on me/my work here if needed: https://alyshaherrmann.com/

Why am I emailing you? Within that month-long process of dreaming, ideating, writing, reflecting, exploring, I budgeted some time for me to access mentors as catalysts/ to bounce ideas with other brains etc and I would love to have 1-2 hours of your time in this capacity somewhere in November. I can be uber flexible about when as I know you’re a very busy person! 
I am deliberately reaching out to a wide mix of practitioners from theatre, film, literature, games, community art, nerd communities, activists and many other circles to enrich my thinking and exploring. I want to talk with artists, producers, curators, ideas people, marketing folk and people outside of the arts. 


What would this include/what do I want from you?1-2 hours of your time to chat with me over Zoom (1 or 2 sessions). I’ve budgeted $110 an hour for these chats. There is nothing to prepare and nothing to follow up afterwards, just being present for a conversation with me and wherever that conversation goes. During these chats I am hoping to:

– hear a little more about your career pathway and background and how you’ve developed big ideas and backed yourself when doubts creep in.

– chat through where the ideas for Novel November are sitting at that moment in time as a way for me to think through challenges/direction/ideas with different mentor brains.

– perhaps go away with 1-2 movies/books/theatre shows/games etc that you can recommend as further professional development aligned with my interests.

– if appropriate introducing me to other relevant networks of yours. 

Eight incredible people agreed to have one of these chats with me, including people I honestly expected wouldn’t bother replying. A ninth person also rang me the day after I emailed them to yarn on the phone for over an hour about what I was doing, and how their work might be able to help. This person asked not to be named and not to be paid for their time but I still want to acknowledge that investment and input here by mentioning it.

For me the key reasoning behind these mentor chats and budgeting for them with my Fellowshop resources is because being a regional creative means I don’t have access to casually meeting people in foyers and workshops to have those more natural conversations (and I’m also an introvert who finds those environments a barrier anyway!), so in some ways I’m just really setting up a bunch of conversations to meet people and say hello and hear a little about different creative pathways/industries from different perspectives to inform my thinking and keep opening up my networks. 

People sometimes talk about opportunities in the arts as “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and in many ways that’s true. I think perhaps less so because of nepotism (which is often the implication) and more because of access and information. When we have relationships with people (working or otherwise), those relationships are a source of information and access – come to this thing with me/ hey did you hear about / I saw this opportunity that would be great for you/ etc, etc. When we live and work in spaces with lots of other artists or creative infrastructure (things like galleries, theatres, regular events etc) we have lots of opportunity to naturally build those relationships and that’s why opportunities tend to flow a little more easily to city-based artists, they are more likely to know about the opportunities and have access to people to help understand and unlock those opportunities. I know it doesn’t always feel that way to city-based artists who feel on the outer and outside of the cliques, but that proximity alone still does make a difference (in my experience of living in Adelaide for four years, compared to the rest of my life/career in the regions). Even just being able to regularly access a gallery or see professional shows at a theatre makes a difference to people’s practice: it energises thinking, introduces new concepts and artists to follow, it inspires. Those are some of the barriers and gaps we face as regional artists.

There is no professional gallery in my community and no professional theatre-makers who regularly create and present work here. We get a circuit of touring theatre work and commercial shows that parachute in, and a community workshop or two built in (with some occasional deeper engagement) and I’m really grateful for these shows. I love sitting in the audience of my local theatre to see them and saying hello to teachers, friends etc in the foyer beforehand. But it’s not the same as the organic and regular community of practice that I had access to when I lived in Adelaide (and people complain about Adelaide not having enough!). There are many creative people in my regional community but we do not have the buildings and gathering places and hubs and programs and active foyers and connection points and investment to provoke, share and inspire. It’s hard to find each other and even harder to find the ways we can collaborate and learn from each other. And harder still to find those people who are further into their careers as mentors, guides and door-openers. Most of them leave or were never here to begin with.

I love my community fiercely, but that doesn’t change that I also often feel isolated and lonely here as a creative.

So that’s why my Fellowship includes and invests in an opportunity for me to say hello to interesting people who I admire and want to know more about through the mentor chats.

It’s also why Novel November is a project with and for and in my community – I want the work I do to be a shared place for others who feel the way I do. The people who feel a little lonely and a little weird and a little lost and a little frustrated but know in their heart that the regions are where they want to make and create and strive and live and dream and be.

I want my work to be place for us to find each other, and to scheme and dream and create together.

Sorry, that was all a bit rambly and longer than I meant it to be, but I did say this was about my behind the scenes thinking, so there you go!


Novel November Progress

Over the weekend of 30th & 31st October 2021, eight Riverland folk (including my 7yo daughter and me) + one Adelaide visitor spent 12 hours creating the bare bones of the world, including some world logic, some humanoid species, some creatures and some random characters. That process of world-building will be ongoing across the month and we’ve really only skimmed the surface but I absolutely ADORED it. It was SO fun to spend the weekend coming up with wild and wonderful ideas together and talking about the Riverland and what it is to us.

The world ingredients we ended on really do have something from everyone who attended the weekend, which is probably my favourite part about it.

The two days started with an Acknowledgment of Country and then moved into some relationship building through an introduction circle and completing these little personal “character sheets” (I put everyone in pairs and asked them to draw each other’s portrait in 60seconds):

These character sheets were inspired by the tabletop role-playing games I’ve played and attendance at conferences and networking events. They were a way to get to know a little about everyone who attended the world building weekend, and gave us prompts to help start conversations across the weekend. I’ve always found small talk *really* hard so having some topics identified by other people that they love to talk about is a handy thing for me.

From introductions I then talked through the overall structure of Novel November and my longterm vision and asked everyone to complete and sign a Workshop Participation Deed. I talked through each section of the Workshop Participation Deed in detail to help everyone understand it, but also to be transparent about my expectations and the shared agreements the project is founded on. The gist is that everyone who participates in Novel November is contributing to developing this shared fantasy world and key materials that flesh out that world. That shared world material will be made available soon under a Creative Commons licence (specifically – Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)) to enable others to make and create within our shared world but to retain the potential for all of the workshop participants as shared copyright holders to potentially commercialise elements in the future. All participants, including me, also retain individual copyright to any materials they individually create during Novel November – so you can read and follow everything I write but you can’t take my stories, poems, etc and republish them anywhere without my permission. The world material on the other hand – which I am currently collating and putting into a readable format – will be made available as Creative Commons (under the specific licence mentioned above) meaning that you can adapt, remix and use that material to write and create your own things for non-commercial purposes.

Why is this important?

First and foremost because my projects are always a learning space and so it was an opportunity to teach everyone participating a bit more about copyright in general and some common licensing terms and also let them know about resources like Arts Law. The Workshop Participant Deed we are using for Novel November was purchased from Arts Law. I am not a lawyer and made it clear that my explanation of terms was not legal advice and that if anyone wanted to query anything with me, with Arts Law or with a lawyer that they should. I signed so many things early in my career that I did not understand and I know it takes lots of exposure to certain kinds of language and terms before they start to make sense. By introducing contracts and licensing agreements to others early in their creative journeys, I hope that I can help them build their literacy in this area and their confidence to ask questions in the future (where the producer/organiser may not always have their best interests in mind). Questions should always be welcome in my work.

It’s also important to me that I am protecting the current and future rights of collaborators, especially young people. I don’t want to exploit people and I want people to get value from any collaboration or exchange with me. I want to be clear about how I’ll use things, what people can expect from me and how they can dispute any use now or in the future. This protects them and me. It’s not perfect or watertight – anyone who has had to dispute a contract will know that even very extensive legal contracts can fail to protect people and be misinterpreted – but it does mean we have something written down reflecting a shared understanding of what we are doing, why and what will happen to any content we create together. Of course I hope that we’ll never need to revisit those pieces of paper because our communication and relationships will be strong and nurturing, but it means if something does go wrong we are not relying on memory and we have a paper trail to guide us.

It’s also a useful tool to talk about that bigger vision I have with collaborators and what the steps are to get there, and what that would mean for everyone who participates in Novel November. Everyone who attends workshops and co-creates the world and key materials is a joint-copyright holder with me. If we further develop that shared material into other things in the future, any benefit should flow to all of us, not just me! At the same time, we want the world we are creating to be something others can play in as well, hence our use of Creative Commons for shared world materials.

We did spend quite a bit of time talking through all of this on Saturday morning. It was probably terribly boring for the younger ones, but a couple of the older ones said to me afterwards that they really valued my explanation and commitment to transparency and so I think the time was well-spent.

After all of that we got into some of the fun stuff!

This is a very rough version of what we did, in approximate order:

  • sharing a Riverland story (in pairs)
  • post-it-note brainstorm of “Riverland things”
  • discussion around how/what ways the Riverland is a different place for different people (backgrounds, ages, race etc)
  • we had a look at a map of the Riverland
  • everyone (except me) completed a 10-minute observation walk in the mainstreet of Barmera, and then shared things they noticed with the wider group
  • we played “object story” with a piece of fabric
  • we then took the concept of object story and applied it to all the Riverland material we’d discussed and documented to populate a wall of post-it-notes of ridiculous ideas and imagined things (example – people noticed roses during their walk in the main-street and this became post-it-notes about rose fairies and flower magic)
  • we started a questions and names wall
  • we discussed using the Riverland as a provocation/inspiration/place to bounce off as opposed to rewriting/overwriting the Riverland and why this distinction is important (I will talk about this in next week’s blog)
  • we talked about some common fantasy tropes and ways we might subvert them
  • we talked about some of the themes, ideas and issues that matter to us (for example in my work I want to include a wide variety of queer characters, characters from diverse races/backgrounds and physical appearances)
  • we started discussing some big world ideas from everything brainstormed so far, from this common ideas emerged around exploring/representing sustainability and the idea of literal living worlds on the backs of giant creatures.
  • we had some overnight downtime to rest and reflect (rest is resistance, rest is always part fo good process and practice)
  • we gathered again and went around the circle sharing reflections on the day before and any ideas/connections we’d made overnight
  • we revisited our ridiculous ideas wall and grouped like ideas with like on a new wall
  • the world/s started to take some shape and link together some of the foundation work from day one
  • we spent some time ideating specific features of our world and talking through logic gaps and questions
  • I put up this set of post-it-notes and asked everyone to self-identify an area they would like to delve into individually or in small groups:
  • everyone went away and worked on their chosen areas individually
  • we came back and shared our work and discussed contradictions, questions and ways to adapt conflicting ideas
  • we started to refine and document the world/s using post-it-notes on a blank wall and seeing what was important enough to keep and what still needed to be developed
  • we each had some time to ideate and contribute a character that we were happy to have belong to the shared world materials and be used by others
  • we gathered to reflect on the process overall and where to next
  • we closed the circle and the world building weekend by each sharing one word that described how we were feeling. Words shared included: empowered, inspired, “ooooft”, thoughtful and others I can’t remember (I should have written them all down at the time because now I’ve forgotten!)

Monday morning I spent about two hours writing and then in the evening I sat down and wrote up some of the key world bits and sent them off to fantasy illustrator (and friend & collaborator) Sam Wannan who I have commissioned to respond to Novel November material with illustrations each week.

Yesterday I wrote for a couple of hours and shared a couple of social posts, including one of the illustrations Sam sent me at lunch time. Tomorrow I plan to spend some time on writing, reading, reflecting and planning for the weekend. Friday will be first mentor chat and some bigger picture planning/reflecting, with a half hour or so of writing.

This weekend will be a short story workshop and graphic narrative + branching narrative workshop. The structure of the workshop weekends for the rest of the month is a morning workshop facilitated by me focused on some skills sharing within a particular writing form, and then an afternoon of writing hangout. People can either work on their own projects in the afternoon or join me in writing within the Novel November world in that particular form. My reason for this is to enable opportunity for like-minded people to come together, invest in skills sharing/development, keep opening up the invitation to write and create in our shared fantasy world and make sure that I have some dedicated writing time focused on different forms.

I’m one of those greedy people that doesn’t want to specialise in just one writing/creative form – this is both a strength and a weakness, because the many strands of my practice inform and improve each other, but I’ll never quite achieve the kind of mastery and skill of specialising. I am 100% okay with this but it’s just something worth noting. Many people will tell you that you have to pick one thing (I’ve been told this many times) but the truth is you don’t have to. You do have to accept the trade-off and challenge of playing in many spaces though. All choices have pros and cons, but knowing ourselves and what brings us joy and challenge is the place to build from. I love writing short stories just as much as I love writing poems and just as much as I love writing plays and just as much as I love longform writing (etc).

If you want to follow along with my Novel November writing progress, a reminder that I am writing in this live google-doc so you can see every key stroke, deletion and word written as it occurs. This is because I personally love seeing process, so I feel it’s only fair that mine is open to you. We so often just see the hard-won, polished and finished versions of things and it can give us a skewed view of how much shit has to be written/created/developed/tried first! This first week I’m deliberately just writing little snapshots that keep exploring and unpacking the world a bit more. Next week will probably be more of the same, though I might start to revisit and further flesh out some ideas from this week. I expect (though could be wrong) that in weeks three and four, I will hone in on some pieces to start refining. By the end of the month I plan to have 1-2 pieces of writing that can be launching off points to further develop in 2022.

I’m hoping to have some of the world material and notes up by Sunday night for anyone who can’t attend workshops but would like to play in the world we are creating. In the meantime, here is a small detail from one of Sam’s illustrations:

You can see that our creature worlds are based on animals that live in Australia and I’ll probably talk to this in a bit more depth in a future blog, but please note that we will be deliberately stretching the features/aesthetic/logic of all the creature worlds to be more fantastical for a whole bunch of reasons but some key reasons being:

  • because we do not want to accidentally (or otherwise) suggest a connection to, or appropriate from, any First Nations Song Spirals (Dreaming, Tjukurpa, Creation Stories etc). That would be completely inappropriate and not at all in line with my values and the purpose/vision of this project. Of course everyone is influenced and inspired by many things, so if anyone following the project *does* notice content that has crept in without us realising and shouldn’t be there please let me know so that we can remove/adapt/address it and do our best to make sure the world we create is enriching, and not harmful, for our community. Not directly related but an important sidenote – this project is not a First Nations project and is not telling First Nations stories but I am always committed to including representation and ideas that help educate, inspire and break down negative stereotypes about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are less than 5% of the population in contemporary Australia. That means everyone has a role to play in ensuring more representation, however any story that deals with First Nations history, cultural knowledge or specific experiences should be led and told by First Nations people. Even the best intentioned people fuck up telling stories that don’t belong to them (true also of queer stories, disabled stories etc). My personal family history it not “fully white” (for lack of a better term) but I am white in appearance and have been raised culturally white, so it is not, and will never be, my place to tell/lead First Nations stories, irrespective of my lost/hidden ancestry.
  • because fantasy audiences want and expect fantastical creatures and we do want the world and stories we create to interest a broader audience than just those involved in the workshops/project/Riverland. Though we would love to weave in some nods to special Riverland things that help encourage people to take better care of our places, creatures and people.
  • we want to be informed and inspired and pay homage to the place we call home in the Riverland here and now, but without being constrained to what the Riverland is or isn’t. This project isn’t about rewriting the Riverland. It’s about imagining something entirely new, together.


#novelnovember #myriverland #riverlandSA #riverlandstories #riverlandvoices #riverlandideas #bepartofthings #creativeriverland

Alysha Herrmann’s Novel November Residency in 2021 is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund, through the National Regional Arts Fellowship Program, with additional support from Writers SA through Alysha’s role as Writers SA Riverland Coordinator.

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