Calling all young writers! Do you want to find avid readers, improve your craft, and change the world? There’s one way to accomplish all that: by starting a blog. Virginia Woolf was a renowned writer in the 20th century, but she is perhaps best known for her quote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. That can be said to be the same for a blog for the modern writers of the 21st century. As you may know, a blog is a web log on the internet that a blogger or a group of bloggers update frequently with entertaining posts for their followers. Successful bloggers have tons of followers, earn millions of dollars and even have gotten book deals due to their blogging.
There are several reasons why you should start a blog. The first reason is that blogging is a regular commitment to writing. Many of us find pleasure in procrastination, and crawling to our desks to write is a struggle. With blogging, you can’t slack off and you must make a frequent effort to produce hundred-word posts every week or so. The second reason is that blogging provides you with a platform to use your voice and express your opinions. It gives you the freedom to be creative and attract like-minded friends in the process. The third reason is that with blogging, you have the ability to make a difference. Whether writing a humorous story to make someone laugh or an article advocating for civil rights, you can contribute meaningfully to the community.
The first step in starting a blog is to find out what your blog is about. Blogs are often created to solve a problem you encounter in your life. Maybe you are an experienced pet owner who comes across many new dog owners needing help with taking care of their pooches. Maybe you are a budding writer who is frustrated at the lack of diverse female characters in fiction and decides to write some of your own stories. Maybe you are an activist who sees problematic views in society and want to inform people on issues such as disability rights and climate justice. When you find your blog’s mission, you can come up with a fitting name and design that aligns with your goals.
The second step is to choose a platform for your blog. Free blogging software such as Wordpress.com and Blogger are simple enough for beginners. You can also create free websites with website builders such as Wix, Weebly and Google Sites. However, these platforms can be problematic because you don’t hold the rights to your content; often, the companies that allow you to build your free blog do, and they can take the content down anytime. Besides that, you often are left with a domain containing the name of the blog service (such as cuddlykitties.wordpress.com). Wordpress.org is the top platform among professional bloggers who can afford to spend money. It allows bloggers to control all the rights to their blog, use their own domain name (cuddlykitties.com) and customize their site to their liking.
The third step is to start planning your first blog posts. It is very important to create a schedule for your blog. How often will you be posting? Every day? Every week? Every month? Look at your calendar and consider your commitments, such as school, work and other hobbies. Be careful not to overload yourself. It is also important to come up with article ideas to keep writer’s block (or blogger’s block) at bay. List down any ideas you have in a notebook and set a time to write them.
The fourth step is to write! Draw up a rough outline for your post and research your topic online. Make sure to use a lot of headings, subheadings and lists. Break up long passages into tinier, bite-sized paragraphs. If you want to attach photographs, please note that you can’t take a random picture off from the internet! Abide by copyright rules and source for photos only from royalty-free websites such as Unsplash and Pixabay. These websites do not require any permission from the creators to use their photos. However, it is basic courtesy to credit the creator in the caption of the photo.
Finally, find readers, of course! Share your work with your family, friends and other fellow writers. Just because you’re a blogger yourself, doesn’t mean you can’t support other bloggers too! Search for blogs run by writers you admire and are similar to yours and read the posts, commenting on your thoughts and feelings below. You can give them a leg up and build new connections in the process. Also, make sure your blog is accessible for everyone. Fill in the alt text of photos, provide downloadable PDF versions of blog posts and ensure your articles can be easily translated into other languages.
Sometimes, you may feel discouraged by your lack of progress. Nobody but your mum is reading your blog, and it feels that your effort is wasted. You look at the blogs of popular bloggers and you can’t understand why they can do that, but you can’t.
All bloggers know that feeling very well. When you start out, you have a steep learning curve that seems like an insurmountable mountain. But, don’t give up. Learn from successful bloggers and pick up tips from blogs about blogging. Experiment with your blog and share your posts with the people around you. You can do it!
If multiple national disability organisations, thousands of Twitter users and a whole community of disabled people condemn a film as ableist, how can it still notch two Golden Globe nominations? That’s what people are asking about Music by Australian singer-songwriter Sia.
Music is a musical drama film directed and written by Sia, starring Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr and Maddie Ziegler. It tells the story of Zu (Hudson), a newly sober woman who becomes the guardian of her non-speaking autistic half-sister (Ziegler) literally called, well, Music. Said to explore the theme of “family”, the movie has been criticised by countless cinema-goers. How badly? Since its release in February 2021, Music has been given a rating of 3.1 on IMDb and a Rotten Tomatoes critic rating of 8%, even worse than Cats. Among other things, top movie critics from The Financial Times, The Times and The Independent have slammed Music for being a “doomed fiasco”, “baffling inspirational drama” and “completely misguided mess”.
You may be shocked at how enormous the backlash is, but the autistic community has been voicing out its anger for months, ever since last November.
On November 19 2020, Sia released a teaser trailer of MUSIC on Twitter and many users were quick to express their shock. In the trailer, white neurotypical (non-autistic) Ziegler is shown as a girl always wearing headphones and with a silly, exaggerated grin that verges on mockery. She uses an Alternative and Augmented Communication method to express her thoughts with her tablet, but unlike almost all real-life AACs, her tablet can only communicate the simple sentences of “I’m happy” or “I’m sad”. The portrayal of autism in the film is childish and whimsical, far from what many autism rights activists and autistic people experience in their daily lives.
Many Twitter users were distraught and expressed their opinions on social media. Sia, however, was quick to hound everyone with opposing viewpoints by cursing, swearing and illogical reasoning. When one stage professional expressed her displeasure at an autistic actress not being cast, Sia replied that she did try working with an autistic actress but felt that casting someone at the character’s “level of functioning” was “cruel, not kind”. When an autistic actress stated she actually went to one of Sia’s casting calls and that no effort had been made to find an autistic lead, Sia said, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” And when Sia was tired of talking to the one marginalised community she was trying to represent, she exploded vulgarly:
“Grrrrrrrrrr. F*ckity f*ck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”
(I fully quoted every one of Sia’s responses. Also, “f*ckity” is not an actual word in the dictionary.)
Why is Music so offensive and discriminatory to the autistic and disabled community?
It’s vitally important that any character that is disabled should be played by a disabled actor. Disabled people are the largest minority group in society, but only 2.5% of speaking roles in Hollywood are disabled, and 80% of them are played by non-disabled actors. Disabled actors are in abundance but are disadvantaged when finding roles, only because of their disabilities. Also, people who live with disabilities are much better at giving authentic portrayals of disabled people on screen — simply because they are disabled people themselves! When non-disabled Ziegler prepared for the role of Music, she learned how to “act autistic” by watching YouTube videos of autistic children facing meltdowns recorded and uploaded by their parents without their consent. You can see the quality of her preparation in her stereotypical and insensitive portrayal of Music as a one-dimensional, innocent saint whose only purpose is to move the plot forward.
Autistic children and adults face real dangers in their daily lives. Physical restraint is a harmful and outdated method used in schools, hospitals and many other places to control disabled people when they face meltdowns. Countless disabled people have sustained injuries or even died because of these methods. Imagine the horror of cinemagoers when Music featured at least two scenes showing physical restraint. In one scene, Ebo (Odom) hurls himself on top of Music to calm her down. “I’m going to crush you now and make you feel safe,” he says. “You’re not hurting her?” says Zu. “No, I am crushing her with my love!” The fact that global superstars (and many others behind the scenes) find this event acceptable is unsettling. Not only that, the inclusion of restraint will undoubtedly bring trauma to previous victims. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, CommunicationFIRST and the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint released a joint press statement condemning the film.
Of course, Sia tried to explain that she did include the autistic community while making the movie… except that the one group of people that she turned for help was none other than Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks is a hostile organisation that claims to look out for autistic people’s welfare but has been slammed as a “hate” group by activists and the community at large. Even its first autistic board member left after being frustrated by its ignorance of autistic voices. Sia did seek feedback from CommunicationFIRST, a disability-led nonprofit that aims to empower non-speaking people, but after its team of non-speaking autistic people gave negative feedback on the film in January 2021, they were not contacted again. That speaks volumes about Sia’s actual commitment to accurate disability representation in her work.
Considering that it’s a film focusing on an autistic girl, Music is vastly inaccessible to the autistic community. The various peppy beats that are littered throughout the film feature strobing lights, colours, loud sounds and quick camera movements. These are often harmful to hypersensitive people. One in four autistic people also have epilepsy, so the movie may trigger seizures. Even if you don’t have epilepsy, the sensations may be overwhelming.
Discrimination isn’t just found in the form of ableism. Racism is also apparent. For example, Ebo is portrayed as a Black supporting character who helps the white main characters while spouting “African wisdom”. There was also the stereotyping of Asians with scenes featuring rickshaws and characters making facial expressions to squint their eyes.
Last but not least, Sia’s conduct was far from honourable throughout the controversy. While it was understandable that she felt defensive of her debut, her personal attacks of many in the very community she was trying to represent showed that her commitment to diversity was only lip service.
How can you lend your support as an ally of the autistic community? Even though the Golden Globes may be over, it is important to send a strong message that ableism in the entertainment industry should never be tolerated:
After all the insensitivity and discrimination, it’s time for Sia to face the music.
Denika Mead lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She is 16 and has an unrelenting passion for fantasy and dystopian writing. She published her debut novel Royal Orchid, The Death-Hunters, in October 2019 when she was 15. The prequel to Royal Orchid, Into the Flames and the next book in the series The Ghost Warriors, have both been released in 2020. Over the past few years, she has won and been a finalist in several youth writing competitions, including being a two-time finalist in the New Zealand Youth Laureate award 2018. Denika was a finalist in the Best New Talent category for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards in 2020. When she is not writing, imagining dragon adventures, or immersed in her latest reading escapade, you may find her occasionally contemplating NCEA school assessments. She can be found at her website: http://www.denikameadauthor.com. Staff writer Thee Sim Ling interviewed Denika about her books and experience as a teen writer.
What first inspired you to create the fictional world of Ghost Orchid?
The story came to me when I was looking at my penguin bookmark. I began to imagine what kind of world could be inside and the people and creatures who would live in this land. The story evolved from there.
In the Royal Orchid series, there are many intriguing and unique characters. Do you have a personal favourite? If so, who and why?
It’s really hard to choose, but I always like villains in stories so one of my favourites would have to be the magician, Felix. I also like Leor. He’s very caring but has some buried secrets.
What is life like for an author during COVID-19? What has changed, and what has stayed the same?
Because of Covid-19, I have had a lot more time to write which I have enjoyed. However, many of the local markets that I regularly attend to sell my books have been cancelled which has changed the way I have been promoting the series. The Royal Orchid prequel, Into the Flames, was released in April 2020 which coincided with our national lockdown. This meant the book launch needed to be online. The options for buying my books online have also increased.
What is your writing process for your books like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I plot the majority of the novel and once I have an overall idea of the direction of the story, I start writing. If I get stuck, I go back to plotting and work through that particular point.
Being an author of three books and a 16-year-old secondary school student “occasionally contemplating NCEA school assessments”, you must have an incredibly busy life. How do you find time on a typical day to write, and how do you strike a balance between school and writing?
I mostly write first thing in the morning when I wake up. This is when I am the most productive. There are logical times when it makes sense to take a break from writing and fit in some more school work. For example, when I send my manuscript to the editor or proof-reader, it makes sense to put it down for a bit. I wouldn’t say it’s very balanced; I try to make sure the writing outweighs the school work.
What authors or books have the greatest influence on your writing? What are you currently reading right now?
I love fantasy and dystopian novels. Like a lot of people, growing up, I loved Harry Potter. I also adored the Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland.
More recently, I’ve been immersed in several book series, including His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games, The Inheritance Cycle, The Way of Kings and the Children of the Furnace series, by New Zealand author, Brin Murray.
What can readers expect from this book? No spoilers!
They are coming of age stories with strong female characters, dragons, an undead
army and a lurking magician. Readers can expect plenty of action and suspense. They are fast paced stories with a focus on finding where you belong.
If you were to describe your novel in three words, which words would you use?
Exciting, action, and adventure.
What are you working on next? Could you share any details with readers?
I just published the third book in the Royal Orchid series in November and am currently working on a new fantasy novel, The Good King and planning the final Royal Orchid novel. I plan to release The Good King first, which will likely be a standalone book, followed by the final Royal Orchid.
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring young writers like you?
Some advice I would give is to read and share your work with friends and family. Asking for feedback from others is a really good way to improve your writing. Look out for writing competitions you can submit to. Different competitions can challenge your writing and it is also helpful having a deadline to work towards. But most importantly, don’t give up. Believe in yourself and the story you are writing.