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What on earth happened here at Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot last week and in the days that followed?  There was a picture of two semi-naked, lustfully glamorous young people in bed, a caption to ‘click and begin’, and some terribly obscure tags about questions and stories and other things that might suggest a deranged mind or the over-use of banned substances, or both.  In the end it was nothing more than an experiment: to see how a story might pan out if readers were allowed a say; more precisely, I wanted to find out if a tool like SurveyMonkey could be used to create characters that readers might care about, and then see what sort of story and ending readers wanted for these characters.

Even though I’d been thinking about doing something like this for months, and had the basic story structure of someone going to the city to farewell someone very important, the survey itself was developed in half an hour (I’d not used SurveyMonkey before) with the various plot options nothing more than stream-of-conscious first thoughts.

Anyway, enough jibber-jabber from me: what are the results?

Below are the questions and a summary of the responses.  You should know that forty people filled in the survey – I’ll keep calling them readers – and all readers filled in all questions.  The survey ran for a week, from Saturday 16 June 2012 to Saturday 23 June 2012; it was cross-promoted through Facebook, where people considered the experience ‘delightful’ or ‘odd’.  A huge thank you to everyone who participated.

Question 1: choose a main character.  The options, in alphabetical order, were Bailey, Chris, Dale, Frances, and Mercer.  These were chosen from an on-line database of unisex names.  32.5% of people chose Mercer, with 22.5% choosing Bailey and the same percentage for Frances.  Only 10% of people chose Dale (sorry to all the Dales out there).  Mercer was the front-runner from the moment the survey opened – because of the link to mercy perhaps?  Or did it just seem like a good literary name?

Question 2: What is the gender of your character?  I asked this question because I wanted to see if gender mattered to readers.  52.5% said that Mercer was female.  However, for the first few days of the survey, Mercer was male, so somehow he had a sex-change during the week.  Was the gender related to the gender of the readers i.e. most were female?  I didn’t collect this information.  In any case, Mercer is our story’s main character and she’s female.  End of story.  But it’s not the end of the story at all, is it.

Question 3: Who is your main character (in other words, occupation)?  In the order of how they appeared in the survey, the options were: a writer; a gardener for a large privately owned estate; lives alone in the middle of the wilderness; a designer of light; and (just to weird things out a bit) an endangered bird.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly in the world of fiction, 35% said that Mercer was a designer of light.  Her occupation remained constant throughout the week of the survey.  It may be of interest to know that at first this question was a ‘lighting designer’, which sounded a bit too prosaic, so it was changed at the last minute.

Question 4: Your character needs to get to the city before someone leaves for good.  What is the name of that someone?  The options were: Ainsley, Casey, Drew, Kyle, and Leigh.  Ainsley got 35%, Leigh 27.5% and Kyle lucked-out with 5%.  Ainsley held this question from the outset, clever thing that he is.  So he’s the story’s significant other.  But is he really a he?

Question 5: What is the gender of this someone?  Clearly the names on offer would have had an influence on the character’s identity.  However, the subtext of this question was sexual preference – if a reader had selected male for Mercer, would the reader select female for Ainsley?  55% said Ainsley was female.  Only 2.5% believed that gender didn’t matter, but why is this less than the 10% who believed that gender didn’t matter for Mercer?  Interestingly, for the first half of the week, Ainsley was male, but she too had a sex-change.  Mercer and Ainsley: now we had a lesbian story on our hands.  Or did readers see this as a story about nothing more than friendship?

Questions 6: On the way to the city, something happens to your main character.  What is that something?  The options and results (ordered according to results, not according to how the options were listed in the survey):

– Look up into the sky and see that it has turned black: 50%
– Stop by a field and have a think about what’s happening : 17.5%
– Pick up a hitch-hiker and have a brief but wild affair: 12.5%
– Car breaks down: 10%
– Suddenly become blind: 10%

The sky-turning-black option was the favourite of readers from the outset.  Personally I thought it was too dark (so to speak) and predicted that, with this being the internet and all, most people would go for the smutty hitch-hiker option, but that probably says more about me than the readers.  So, this is what we’ve got now: a girl called Mercer travelling to the city to farewell a girl called Ainsley, but on the way Mercer looks up into the sky and sees that the sky has turned black.  Intriguing.

Question 7: Despite everything, your main character makes it to the city, but…  The scenarios on offer and the results (ordered according to results):

– The someone can’t see you: 30% (this was the preferred option throughout the life of the survey)
– The someone is not to be found: 22.5%
– The someone has left already: 17.5%
– The someone says they’re not leaving: 17.5%
– The someone gives your main character the best of kisses: 12.5%

What does this mean for our story?  Mercer makes it to the city only to find that Ainsley can’t see her, probably because there’s no light to see her by.  It sounds like we’re careering head-first into apocalyptic territory here.

Question 8: In the end, this is what happens.  The scenarios on offer and the results (ordered according to results):

– Your main character and the someone are the figment of someone else’s imagination, so none of this matters: 35% (this was the preferred option throughout the life of the survey)
– Your main character and the someone swim in the ocean. Words fade. End of story: 25%
– Your main character and the someone can’t bear to be apart and live together forever: 17.5%
– Your main character and the someone decide the love didn’t exist in the first place: 12.5%
– Your main character and the someone have sex but still this farewell has to happen: 10%

So, despite Mercer having the sky turn black on her, and then Ainsley not being able to see her, our story ends in meta-fiction land (meaning: fiction that plays with conventions).  For me, this was just a little on the disappointing side – it has too much of a hint of ‘Oh well, it was all just a dream’.  So why did readers choose it?  Perhaps they didn’t want to be tricked by a survey?  Or they didn’t really believe in the characters, so were happy to have them end this way?  Or they became to believe in them very much but didn’t like any of the options available?

If we discount the meta-fiction option, readers chose an ending that’s both mysterious and filmic: Mercer and Ainsley swim in the ocean, most likely under a black sky, and we’re left wondering what happens next.  This is much more interesting, although I’ll go out on a limb and say that if this was a real short story many readers would be disappointed – they’d want to know exactly what happened.

Question 9: because I’m obsessed with odd numbers, I added a final question: Does there need to be a sequel?  This gave readers the option of being able to psychologically follow-up an unresolved ending.  Despite the endings chosen, 65.5% of readers believed that there shouldn’t be a sequel.  Is this because they were happy with their choices and how the story played out?  Or was it a comment on how many movies these days are turned into sequels and we’ve lost interest in this type of movie-making?  Or did they interpret the question to mean ‘Should there be more of this type of survey?’ and answered resoundingly in the negative?  I’ll leave that to you.

Conclusions:

What does it all mean?  Obviously, there’s not a great deal of science behind the design of the survey, and the amount of people who participated, while very pleasing, is too small to offer any kind of statistical fact.  Also, there’s a lot that’s influencing the results.  Under the counter is essentially a creative arts blog with a focus on literature and music – do these topics attract more women than men, which, in turn influenced the gender of the characters and the story structure and outcome?  Also, the blog’s developed a somewhat melancholic tone, so perhaps survey participants projected that onto the options they selected i.e. did they think that I expected the unresolved ending?

Ultimately, the real fun – in fact, the real story – was watching the statistics as they came in: seeing Mercer start out as a man and become a woman; readers choosing her occupation as ‘designer of light’; Ainsley changing sex, too;  the sky turning black on Mercer; Ainsley not being able to see her friend; and then the meta-fiction ending becoming the preferred conclusion but observing how this was chased to the finishing line by the other options, wanting – pleading – for something good to happen to our heroes.

Did you participate?  How was it for you?  Are the results what you thought they’d be?

Click on the picture to start.

You always know things aren’t quite right when a band starts sending mixed messages, and that’s the case in the Sigur Ros universe.  A couple of years ago we got the old ‘we’re on an indefinite hiatus’, which is always code for ‘we can’t stand the sight of each other’.  Then came Inni, a film of the band playing live and an accompanying sound-track album; both are excellent, but was it a way of keeping the fans onboard before they lost their patience?  Then we heard that Sigur Ros had started working on a new album, but ditched all that material because it wasn’t any good, and fair enough, quite frankly.  But now, almost completely out of the blue, or the misty green if the sleeve is anything to go by, we have Valtari – the sixth studio album.

That should lead to wild partying in the streets, especially for those of us who’ve been following the band from the beginning, but, regrettably, there’s more to worry about.  During interviews to promote this latest record the members of Sigur Ros have been saying things like ‘we were going through old songs that we’d previously discarded and found things that weren’t so bad’ and ‘we rediscovered this bit and that bit and just stuck it all together and – hey presto! – a new tune’.  Even more concerning, it appears that the band had to give the lot to Alex Somers, the partner of lead-singer and guitarist Jón ‘Jónsi’ Þór Birgisso, to make something of the whole wretched mess.

So, is it a mess or not?  On first listen, yes it is – the songs do indeed feel like scraps.  Some of the songs sound like not-up-to-scratch intros to songs from previous albums; one, ‘Eganda’, the opener, sounds like a whole bunch of said intros stuck together with masking tape and without much care.  Apparently for a while there somewhere the band was working on a choral record and elements of that remain on Valtari – the most obvious is ‘Dauoalogn’, which is Sigur Ros at its most ethereal, although the title translates as ‘calm death’.  Yes, on this record, the title of which means ‘steam-roller’, we’ve heard it all before.  There’s the ground-swelling, at times ground-breaking prettiness, Jónsi’s pixie-esque falsetto and cello-bowed guitar, and, all in all, the big Icelandic landscape atmospherics.  ‘Varuo’ is a case in point, which, it has to be said, is a Sigur Ros promised fulfilled.

After a few listens, however, half a dozen say, especially if you’ve got a fire going, you’re a bit pissed, and you have a feeling that the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket, Valtari as an album starts to make sense – glorious sense.  What Somers has managed to do is craft from off-cuts an extraordinary suite of songs, which, as a whole, is closer to the magical Riceboy Sleeps album he made with his partner than anything in the Sigur Ros back catalogue.  Although, of course, this is still Sigur Ros.  And that does pose a problem for the band: what on earth do they do now?  I can’t help hoping that this is it, and I can’t help thinking that this is meant to be it; it certainly does sound like the credits are rolling.  Even look at the pic above: they’re walking away from us.

I used the word extraordinary before.  Is that really appropriate, considering the mind-blowing music that Sigur Ros has made over its twelve-year career?  Yes, it’s necessary.  In the end, this is an elegant record: it’s graceful, it’s refined, and – here’s another word that has to be used – beautiful.  However, Somers knows that there’s dark in the light, gravity in the uplift, danger in the sugar-sweetness.  He’s allowed the band to take their sweeping, majestic post-rock sound to its conclusion.  And there I go again, don’t I, using words of endings, because I can’t get away from that feeling that on Valtari we’re hearing the sound of an ending.  If you’re not convinced, or have never been convinced by Sigur Ros, search out the title song from the album – it’s hard to imagine an ending more exquisite than this.  And Jónsi doesn’t even sing on the bloody thing.

In her recently published autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes, “Where you are born – what you are born into, the place, the history of that place, how that history mates with your own – stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation say.”  For Winterson, it’s Manchester, the rawness of the world’s first industrial city.  For me, it’s Sydney, that sprawling urban tart just up the road.

But what is it, this city where I came into being?  What is the history that, as Winterson says, mates with me?

I was born and raised on Sydney’s North Shore, amongst towering gums and argyle apples, the screech of rainbow lorikeets never far away, and possums in the roof – one time a pint-sized sugar-glider landed on the handlebars of the mower.  Summer weekends at Freshwater Beach, boogie-boarding with my older brothers, on the return home Midnight Oil’s first album screaming out of the car stereo.  Going into the city to meet friends, hooking up in Oxford Street, which back then I figured was just another inner-city through-way.  Regular family holidays up into the Blue Mountains, where I imagined that dinosaurs lurked just around the corner.  Trips down to Bowral in the Southern Highlands to visit my mother’s parents; the house was barely furnished, which wouldn’t do these days, would it.

So, the way I think about it, I was – we were – always leaving, always getting out.  And who could blame us?  Despite the gloss and glam and glitter, Sydney has the darkest of hearts, a twisted soul.  It’s a city formed on the hardship of convicts, the majority male, many professional criminals.  Famine caused by frequently failed agriculture.  Disease: small pox, chicken pox, venereal disease, measles; one of these wiped out 90 percent of the local Aboriginal people so that their bodies could be seen floating in the harbour.

It’s said that Sydney was to be called New Albion.  Albion: that poetic nickname for Britain.  It’s a name that may have been inspired by a story about the 50 daughters of Syria’s king, who all got married on the same day and murdered their husbands on their wedding night; as punishment, they were set adrift in a ship before landing at Britain where they shacked up with the locals.

Sydney: she sure does stamp me out.

And there are days when I wish she wouldn’t.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 June 2012.)

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