Side Quest: Discovering a Hole in Your Knowledge

One of the challenges with building your own learning path is that you go in not knowing what you need to know. If you’ve taken the time to research and gather good resources, then you have a good chance of building a learning project that won’t deal you too many surprises. But as many resources aren’t created with the beginner in mind, or are created by someone who can’t remember what it was like just starting out, it’s not foolproof.

And these little surprises can manifest in a really fun way. You’ll be working on a project, confident in the knowledge you’ve gained from your gathered resources, and then you’ll come across something you haven’t thought about, haven’t read about, haven’t seen. And then you’re stuck. You may even consider quitting because things just got hard.

Don’t quit. You’re not stuck. You just have to find resources to learn how to do that one thing so you can move forward. It can feel frustrating to have to back up to the research phase, but if you reframe it as a side quest, it can make things easier. Then, you aren’t necessarily backing up. Instead, you stepping out of the main quest, the project, to unlock a new skill.

In a way, being able to take that side step is nice. On the one hand, you have this automatic frame for the side quest project because it’s part of the original project. It’s always nice to have to not make every decision from scratch when you feel like you’ve been dealt a curve ball. On the other hand, developing and creating this side quest project can create a piece of bonus material for your fans, related to the original project, but a creation all its own that can help flesh out or support the original story.

Either way, you win. Yes, you’ve had to pause the original project for this little learning project, but you can then move forward on the original project with a new skill, new content, and possibly a bit of bonus content. That’s pretty cool, and a much less scary way to look at the holes hidden in your growing knowledge of a skill.

So, always try to be as diligent as you can when you’re creating a learning project, but be open to those moments when you find gaps and make the most of those gaps. You might be truly surprised by what you learn and what you create.

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The Hindrance of “Aspiring”

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the need for new practitioners of any craft to stop calling themselves “aspiring”. In a world that only a few years ago actively tried to beat down pro-am and DIY types in various athletic and artistic fields, this change is amazing and welcome.

So, let’s start by talking about getting started in a new craft. Because everyone has to start somewhere. Maybe you saw someone else doing something and thought, How cool would it be if I could do that? Or maybe it’s on your bucket list, something you wanted to do as a child but couldn’t for whatever reason. The inspiration is there. For some people, that’s where it stops. They get inspired. Maybe they do a little research. Maybe they start telling people they want to do something. For others, that inspiration is the spark that that pushes them into looking into how to get started, how to take first steps, finding learning resources and materials. And they take that momentum and start becoming more and more involved. I’m writing this for that second group, because you’re the ones who encounter this.

Something happens when you’re developing a skill on your own or in a small community of practice. You start building momentum in your work, and you call yourself a practitioner. And then it happens. Maybe someone says you can’t call yourself a whatever because you aren’t getting paid for it, or because no one knows who you are. Maybe you get a compliment from someone who is a professional or a big deal in the field, and it kind of freaks you out as you start trying to process the thought: Maybe I really am doing all right at this. And so to soften the blow or make it less scary or because you got bullied into it, you start calling yourself “aspiring”.

Here’s the thing, though. The reason you got that attention to begin with is because you did something. You started learning about that skill you wanted to have, and you used it to make a first project. You have tangible proof that you have started on a path to learn and use that skill. You’re no longer “aspiring” because you’re doing. Aspiring practitioners don’t do. They…well, aspire. And if you start calling yourself “aspiring” when you’ve really moved beyond that, you risk sliding backwards into “aspiring” territory.

What I’m really saying here…what anyone campaigning for newer practitioners to drop the word “aspiring” from their self-definition is really saying…is that once you’ve done, once you’ve taken that first tangible, time consuming step on your journey, you’re not aspiring. You’re a new practitioner. Own that. Hold your head up high, and drop the word aspiring from your vocabulary.

Building a Training Program on the Fly

Chances are, it’s been a while since you were in school. And even if it hasn’t, it’s probably been a while since you had the chance to design your own learning project, simply because it’s not something encouraged in traditional schools. But I hope if you’re reading this, you’re working on a project that’s challenged your current skills and you’re trying to figure out how to best learn what you need to know.

Fortunately, gathering your own learning resources is a pretty easy skill to pick up, mostly because it’s something you’ve probably been doing without even realizing it.

Start by thinking about what you prefer to do. Do you prefer to read, to watch, or to listen? If you can answer that question, then you can get started. If you prefer to read, find books, websites, and blogs related to the skill you want to learn. If watching is more your speed, YouTube and Vimeo have a lot to offer. But there are also some real gems among reality and documentary-style shows, so keep an open mind as you’re considering your options. For those who prefer to listen, you can augment YouTube, Vimeo, and television with podcasts and audiobooks. You can even find blogs and websites and have your computer’s text-to-speech tool to read it to you.

Once you have your pool of resources, don’t be afraid to change things out as you go. Maybe a podcast wasn’t what you expected, so replace it with something else. Maybe you’ve learned all you can from a blog. Find another resource to take its place. Don’t feel overly committed to your resources – They’re there to help you learn what you need to know. When you’ve outgrown them, let them go.

One more thing: While you’re working on growing and using your resources, keep an eye on that tickler file you’ve been building. It’s amazing what you already have and can use while you’re focused on a certain project or skill.

All right, that’s it for now. If you have’t already, start building your learning resource library, and then start using it.

Gathering Learning Resources

It never fails. The school year ends, and adults and kids both make plans for how they’re not going to squander their summer. Some of those plans center around vacations. Others take advantage of the sunny evening hours and free weekends to plan out projects they can’t do during the school months.

As we have discussed in the PLE posts, a project begins when you say, “I want to do this.” If it’s something you could have done during other times of the year, you just sit down and start working on it, gathering supplies, laying out how you’re going to do it, and beginning. If you decided to challenge yourself with a project that’s beyond what you can currently do, then you have to seek out learning materials as well. There are two types of resources that you’ll want: resources directly related to the skill or concept you want to learn or the project you’re working on and resources from other people who have done what you’re trying to learn or do.

The first type of resource seems kind of obvious. When you decide on a skill or concept to learn, you know from countless school projects that you need to find resources to learn the skill or concept from, be it books, websites, videos, whatever. These are resources you’ve picked out because they make sense to you and they contain information you know you don’t know yet, but need to know to finish your project. If you’ve structured your project as a learning quest, think of these resources as the inventory items you get form NPCs to use when the time is right in your quest.

Sometimes, you’ll come across a resource that you can see relates to your project, but it’s clearly ahead of where you are. Make a note of the resource. Save it if you’re able to. Keep the information where you can find it when it becomes relevant to your improving skill set and your project.

The second type of resources is less obvious if you’re not used to having social media in your pocket. As you’re pulling together your learning materials for your project, you should also pick out a handful of blogs, social media, and broadcasts (podcasts or vlog) to follow. This stream of information is helpful for a number of reasons. The material is often presented by someone who has actually worked with the skill and knows what mistakes to avoid, complete with advice on how to avoid them. They may actually be able to suggest tools or approaches not covered in books or similar material, which can often be more than a few years old. Keeping up with this stream can also be helpful when you’re starting out because you don’t yet know what you don’t know, and reading or listening to a more experienced voice may unearth questions or concerns you hadn’t even thought of yet.

If you find that you’re really getting into the skill or concept, and are thinking about working on related projects, having taken the time to build this stream of information can help you stay aware of what other people who practice the same skill are doing, what tools and advances are coming into common use, and what trends are being noted, all of which can help you as you continue to pursue projects.

One thing you absolutely have to keep in mind when gathering and managing your learning resources is that it’s okay to delete resources that are no longer contributing to your growth (unless you just really enjoy the resource. Keep things around that make you smile or laugh.). There is no prize for hoarding. There is a finite space for digital artifacts (and your attention). Learn to become comfortable passing things out of your life, and keep an eye out for new learning resources.

Learning to Develop a Serial Story

I know this comes as a great shock to longtime readers, but I keep lists of things I want to learn (organized by general skillset). And periodically, when I find myself with an opportunity to start a new project, I will peruse the list to see if I can make the project a learning experience. One of the skills that’s been on the lists (because it really applies to most of my working skillsets) forever is “learn how to develop an episodic story”.

This might seem a bit odd. I mean, I used to release stories chapter by chapter to FFNet and Fiction Press. And Dead Bunny was a long series, built piece by piece.

But neither of those was particularly “episodic”. In the case of the chaptered stories, the story was usually written all together before I started posting it (the exception being my fanfic “After Hours”, where chapters were often written just hours before they were posted because Writer’s Block and I were uncomfortably chummy at the time) and I was just posting each part. In the case of Dead Bunny, while some skills link together and build off each other, it’s not strictly speaking an episodic project.

I did take a stab at organizing an episodic project several years ago. But having a framework to play with couldn’t make up for the fact I couldn’t make up my mind over the story I wanted to tell. The project was eventually trunked, and is now in pieces all over the place. If I ever get it into my head to try that project again, it’s going to be painful.

When I decided to motivate myself to start writing again, I fell in with a group where some people shared parts from current or old works-in-progress and others create serial projects specifically for the group. As the point of this group is to help support, encourage, and critique each other, both types of project made sense. Lessons learned on one project should be applied to other projects.

I started out sharing scenes either from a work-in-progress I’m trying to reboot or from writing prompt responses written for other groups. But I quickly ran into problems. The work-in-progress isn’t rebooting smoothly for a number of reasons, and some weeks I just couldn’t get excited about the offered writing prompts. It left me with nothing to post, and that felt counterproductive to my intent to get back on a regular writing schedule.

So I took a story idea I’d had lying around forever, decided to help my work-in-progress by setting the story in the same world, and started working on a short-term plan to begin a serial story. At the time, my notes on how to build an episodic story consisted of: An episode has four parts – beginning, middle, end, and hook. I decided if I just wrote the story like a chaptered short story (Yeah, I know.) with each “chapter” being written and posted each week, it would be about the same thing.

For two arcs (as I call my “chapters”), it held up pretty well. But as I’ve been working on my digital presence, I’ve wanted to share the story more places. And that led to several conversations with myself recently about whether or not to try to catch up the newer spaces, or continue to let them lag behind. But this has become an issue because, as any writer knows, the longer you let writing lie around with the belief it’s not finished, the more you want to pick it up and give it just one more edit. It’s writer nature. And it’s not the most productive thing when you’ve got a fair number of projects on your plate.

But playing catch-up isn’t always the most efficient thing, either, and that led to my sitting down recently with a calendar and mapping out where the first set of postings are in the story versus where the second set of postings are, and what it would take to get them into a better position. That meant figuring out what the typical life cycles of an arc and the episodes within are, and what could be adjusted to make everything fit together well.

It turns out that I have to do very little to bring the two into a better schedule, so I’m going to spend February working on that. But in finally sitting down and working on these life cycles and my writing schedule and my production schedule (because part of developing these arcs is trying to sort out the cover art for some of the sites) has me now thinking about adding a production calendar dedicated solely to this project to help keep things cycling right along.

Friday Five: Sophomore Writer Edition

Monday morning, I sat down to start working through my to-do list…and discovered I was effectively starting two writing programs. Don’t get me wrong – I love learning. But to accidentally discover that my subconscious is serious about reconnecting with and rebuilding my writing practice was really kind of cool.

And as my writing groups are being overrun by new writers and fellow sophomore writers looking to push themselves, and my writing podcasts are being crashed by new writers and sophomore writers looking to push themselves, I thought I would gather some of my favorite resources of the moment and share them with you so you can come write with us.

1. I had decided a couple of months back that I wanted to give DIY MFA a try, but I had a lot going on (even without considering the holidays) and decided I would look at it again when things died down a bit. Things have died down a bit. I’m looking at my rather disorganized pile of writing stuff. And I’m starting to work through the starter kit. While you could probably learn a lot as a new writer, you should probably have some sort of writing experience under your belt before taking this one on. (Your writing doesn’t have to be finished, edited, or published.)

2. And then I woke up Monday morning and discovered my favorite writing craft podcast Writing Excuses has decided to take a Master Class approach this year. These are four published science fiction and fantasy authors who’ve written across media and age bands…offering what they know, for free. The podcast is already a fantastic resource, but the Master Class approach is just going to add to its usefulness. They’ve just started, so jump in now so you won’t be playing catch-up later on.

3. If you want some place to practice and you don’t mind practicing your writing in public, you should come join the Google + Saturday Scenes community. They’re a pretty friendly bunch who enjoy reading a wide variety of stories. If you aren’t on Google+. I’ve heard that Twitter has #saturdayscenes, and I’m trying to get the hashtag up and running on deviantArt.

4. Maybe you aren’t into normal linear fiction. Maybe you’re thinking about trying some of those digital storytelling techniques you’ve heard about. This TED talk on Twitter fiction isn’t recent, but I just learned about it and I loved seeing how different people have approached using Twitter to create narrative experiences. (If you weren’t thinking about exploring new media as a narrative platform, maybe this will encourage you to broaden your thinking.)

5. This one isn’t a learning tool or anything, but I think it’s a good reminder to pay attention to influences and trends in your genre, subgenre, fandom, etc.

A couple of nights ago, I was watching the first couple of episodes of Smallville, which I haven’t seen in close to a decade. Smallville was my “gateway” into fan fiction (if you ignore that one really long, really bad one I wrote in middle school). The friend I was watching with was a huge fanficcer, and she wanted me to write fan fiction, too. So I wrote these little fifty-word drabbles that mostly centered on Clark and Lex because I was so amused at the way the show writers were obeying the fans. I started reading Yu-Gi-Oh fan fiction around the time I stopped watching Smallville, and couldn’t stop laughing at how many fanficcers kept writing Kaiba as this emo piano player…because that was, at times, how Smallville‘s Lex Luthor was portrayed. Apparently, all genius self-serving jerks had to play the piano. (It was even funnier when some fanficcers decided to “rebel” by changing Kaiba into a guitar player, not realizing what they’d done. The reaction when I explained the irony to them was always just priceless.)

I still read Yu-Go-Oh fan fiction. (Who wouldn’t? Some of it is utterly hilarious.) But it hadn’t occurred to me until the other night that it’s been years since I’ve seen a Yu-Gi-Oh fanfic where Kaiba deals with his angst (and any other negative emotion) by playing the piano. If I really sat down and calculated, I’d probably find that Kaiba’s piano playing days ended right around the end of Smallville, because younger fanficcers coming into the Yu-Gi-Oh fandom aren’t familiar with Smallville, and are reading and aping slightly older younger fanficcers who don’t understand where the piano came from. It was interesting to think about…

 

So, there you go. Another five random links or thoughts that have been on my mind this week. Hopefully, the first four are useful to you. (Hopefully, you don’t think I’m completely crazy after reading #5.) Next week, I’ll have another collection of five somethings-or-other.

Vetting Learning Resources

It’s always a good idea to shake up your practice, and so that’s what I’ve been doing recently. In my free time, I’ve been looking at what I’m doing, how it’s helping, if I even still need to be learning a skill, and then finding ways to change things up. In some case, I’ve been changing the activities I do for practice. In others, I’ve been switching around the blogs and podcasts I follow.

The activities part hasn’t been too bad. For both writing and voiceover, there are plenty of experienced practitioners willing to share what they know, what works for them. Wading through all of that knowledge to find things you don’t know or haven’t heard before, or to find practice ideas you never would have thought of in a million years, can be a lot of fun. There are some crazy, generous, wonderful professionals out there.

There are also some crazy, generous, self-conscious people out there. They tend to fall into two camps: those who are stalled out because they feel like they’ve learned enough and are fine with where they are (or sometimes a bit bitter they aren’t farther along), and those who just don’t have faith in their skills.

The first group is mostly harmless. They’re passing on information that was probably valid once upon a time, but has since fallen out of style for whatever reason. As you move on from reading or listening to their advice, you quickly find that the industry has moved on from that advice…and they probably did so ten years ago. So members of this group are stuck peddling out-of-date information, simply because they didn’t get the memo the industry moved on. Not the most helpful learning resource, but they’re often who you first encounter when you’re getting into a new industry. When you encounter them later on, you usually know enough to recognize the limits of their knowledge and politely pass them by.

The second group is harmful, and it’s not unusual for its members to be unaware that they’re being harmful. It’s also not unusual for its members to be completely aware they are being harmful. In this group, the problem lies with the character of the person. They often suffer from low self-esteem or little faith in what they can do, no matter how well they’ve proven to themselves and others that they have the skills at a level they want or need. So, they start sabotaging others by giving them bad information. The more aware ones become discerning, identifying those who are good enough to “threaten” their career  and focusing their sabotaging efforts on them. The less aware ones usually lose credibility and then spiral into out-and-out crazy. It’s occasionally fun to watch. (Just when you thought this behavior was reserved for villains of bad YA stories, right?)

What makes that second group especially problematic is that you really can’t know you’ve fallen in with one of them unless someone experienced with that person warns you or you fall victim to their misery.

I guess what I’m really wanting you to take away as you’re working on building your training path is to be mindful and diligent about who you’re adding to your collection of resources. Don’t be afraid to sample a wide variety of learning resources. Don’t be afraid to listen to other people’s tales of their experience, good or bad, with a learning resource. And don’t be afraid to cut ties gracefully when it’s time to move on from that learning resource.

Dead Bunny Guides: When a Blog Became a YouTube Channel

Since we’re talking this month about creating and iterating and experimenting, I thought I’d share some stories out of my own work, starting with what is easily my most successful adventure – Dead Bunny Guides.

Several years ago, I was tutoring a lot of high school students struggling with integrated math (or with the transition back into the separate math threads), and middle school students struggling with the radical change in how math class was presented to them. They were frustrated by not being able to understand what was going on in class, and I was frustrated by what was going on in the curricula these kids were facing.

Being an experienced blogger, I decided to launch one dedicated to explaining math, which I called Dead Bunny Educational after an incident with a writing student I was tutoring at the time. I planned out a series of posts and started writing them. Most of them were fairly easy at first, and the blog was gaining attention from adult learners who had gone back to school as part of a career change. I had hoped to eventually expand the blog into a book.

But the skills became harder to cover in textual explanations, and I started realizing that skills I was trying to explain required students to be comfortable using other skills. It derailed my work for a while as I tried to decide what was missing and how best to address everything and put it all back together. I finally just sat down and wrote out on index cards every single pre-algebra and algebra skill (plus a few geometry skills) I could think of. On each card, I wrote the skill in math symbols, and the skills a student would need to be comfortable with before attempting the skill.

I ended up with 73 cards, and I spread them out across my tiny room. Then, I used those prerequisite skill lists to try to pull the skills into some sort of order that made sense. But I realized I had all of these skills that needed to be conveyed in some way, that weren’t being well served by a blog. About that time, I happened across Beyond Bullet Points, and got quite the crash course in creating presentations. (I didn’t have a whole lot of Power Point experience at the time.)

So I got ambitious and decided I wanted to figure out how to make videos to teach the skills, and Dead Bunny’s Guide to Algebra was born. It took me forever to get the hang out writing a script that could be turned into a storyboard, and then creating the storyboard. I borrowed file management ideas from game writing books I was reading at the time to keep up with everything.  I was learning audio editing software and movie maker software. Using the book as a guide, I taught myself how to create slide shows, narrate them, and then put everything together.

It was slow at first. In the first four years I was working on the videos, I made a total of fifteen videos. If you look at Dead Bunny’s YouTube channel, you’ll notice there are right around 85 videos. In the last two years I was working on the series, I made seventy videos (it does help to get a production routine down), migrated the videos from my channel to their own channel, named Dead Bunny Guides because not all of the skills covered are algebra-specific, got accepted into YouTubeEDU, and learned how to create metadata, a link structure, and playlists for the skills. I’ve even figured out how to add captions. (It’s easier now than it was two years ago.)

So, that’s Personal Project #1. When I finished the last video, I told myself I might think about going back and adding in more geometry and Algebra 2 lessons, but for now, the series is complete.

Cool Down

Autodidactic practice is lonely.

How’s that for an opening?

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I have long had to fight for my research and practice time. Friends and family have this image of me cooped up in a dark, closed-off room, no connection to humanity, doing who knows what. So, in an effort to save me from myself, these well-meaning folk try to drag me off to do things. Somehow, I have always managed to get things done anyway.

Because the simple fact is: autodidactic practice is only as lonely as you choose to let it be.

These days, communities of like-minded people to work and create with, to practice with, to share with, can be found just about anywhere. Offline. Online. Some combination of the two. We’re very lucky.

I think that’s one of the reasons I like hitRECord. It’s a space to share your own work in relation to a given theme or topic, but you can also interact and collaborate with others with complementary skills. You can be at the same level. You can be on entirely different levels. It doesn’t matter. Anyone who wants to help explore a topic through a creative means is welcome, and in my experience the community has been welcoming and encouraging. It’s a safe place to learn and develop skills, both for yourself and from others.

And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of finding practical outlets to serve as practice spaces.

But remember that all projects go through a cycle, the last of which is a period of reflection, a time to review your work, to figure out what you did that worked and what you did that you would do differently next time. This is what makes practice a key part of the learning process – learning from mistakes helps you become stronger in a skill. You can do this in a private journal (I actually have a section of my digital journal dedicated to this. I call it my sketchbook.), or you can be really brave and let others learn from your experience by sharing it in a blog or social media space.

However you choose to wrap up your projects, always make sure you’ve learned from the experience and that you’re moving forward with an eye on your development in your next steps.

So, this is it for our month-long look at the awesomeness known as practice. Next month, we put what we’ve learned this month to use as we explore the Reviewing phase of the personal learning environment. (Don’t worry. The name is a total misnomer.)

Personal Projects as Practice

Depending on your chosen industry, trade, or craft, there might be a number of strong communities of practice to collaborate and practice with. Or you might be forging new trails, mixing up trades and crafts to better fit your creative vision.

Whatever your situation, you do yourself a world of good by developing your own projects to drive your learning and give you a meaningful practice space that will likely help you gain feedback. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned, just by deciding I wanted to try to do something I’d never done before.

For example, when I wanted to learn how to create educational videos, I was just starting to fumble my way through creating Dead Bunny.  Because I knew how to blog and to write, the original plan was to blog about all the skills I wanted to cover, and then turn that blog into a textbook of sorts. But I love a challenge, and as I was reading about video production and educational videos, I realized I could attempt to turn Dead Bunny into a series of educational videos.

It was definitely a learning experience. I decided to go the route of narrated slide shows because I had no video camera. I had to learn Impress (the OpenOffice/LibreOffice version of PowerPoint), Audacity, and different video production tools as I moved between computers (I was blowing up computers every six months at that point). I had to learn how to script, to storyboard, to manage both my image and my audio components. With every video, I learned a lot about production and asset management and kept fine-tuning my process. It took me six years, but I finally completed all of the videos I intended to create.

Knowledge that I gained while learning how to produce Dead Bunny has ended up serving me well in my voiceover work, although it is completely fair to say that Dead Bunny did not adequately prepare me for the production challenges that come along with creating audiobooks. I’m far more competent on a wide range of tasks on Audacity now than I was two years ago, but my asset management skills have proven invaluable. (I have yet to produce a personal voiceover project. I haven’t found the right project to attempt yet, so I stick to learning from working with others.)

Recently, I started posting to Archive of Our Own a fan fiction project I’ve referred to in reference to using fan fiction to learn how to write. At the time I started writing those pieces, I had fallen out of fan fiction and, to an extent, out of writing and I was afraid of losing my skills. So I started using a dubbed anime series as writing prompts. It gave me an excuse to write when I couldn’t motivate myself to write anything else. But more than that, it got me thinking about plot and character development. I kept them to myself for a long time, despite having shared the rest of my fan fiction with the fanfic community, but even privately they had a positive impact on my writing skills.

You really do learn a lot from designing and working through your own projects, and they can inspire you to investigate skills, industries, trades, and crafts you might otherwise have never considered trying out yourself. It’s a good way to get your feet wet in skills you’ve been thinking about learning, and to create opportunities for feedback. So get out there. Find a skill you’ve been meaning to try, create a project that will force you to start learning that skill, and then do it! And then go really crazy, and build the project that will help you level up in that skill. Let me know how it goes.