Greg McQueen on 100 Stories for Haiti
It is Saturday night, just shy of 7:30pm, I’m sitting at Annie’s writing table looking over the questions I’ve put together for the interview I’m about to do with Greg McQueen and wishing I hadn’t drunk a Black Russian with dinner – my indigestion and nerves are fermenting in a volatile mix not conducive to conducting an interview.
Greg McQueen and his 100 Stories for Haiti project hit my radar back in February. Friend and writing colleague Dan Powell (who also takes up the slack for me here on the odd Monday) was my first point of contact with the project, when Dan listed his story “Impact” on his publishing credits when compiling his Chinese Whisperings’ author page. “Impact” was one of the stories included in 100 Stories for Haiti. A couple of weeks ago Greg and I ‘bumped’ into each other leaving Facebook comments on Dan’s page and I finally got the chance to say how much I loved the project.
In six weeks and three days a spontaneous idea to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake went from a social media shout out for writers to submit stories to a paperback book of 100 short stories, with profits going to the Red Cross. In the first of the 100 Stories for Haiti podcasts Greg says, “There was no plan, just a need to help. We took it one day at a time and ended up publishing a book.” Anyone who knows anything about publishing knows 100 Stories for Haiti is a publishing feat and testament not just to a brilliant idea and weeks of hard work by Greg McQueen, but to the power of the internet and social media.
When the Skype line opens, Greg tells me he’s sitting on his porch in the warmth of a Danish summer morning, the sky is clear and the moon is still out. I can hear the birds twittering in the background and it seems the perfect backdrop. Because, as Greg points out in our interview, and in the various articles he’s written and in the podcast which goes live today… without social media platforms such as twitter, there would be no 100 Stories for Haiti.
JODI: It was a week between you launching the appeal for stories for the 100 Stories for Haiti anthology and the actual earthquake. You say in the video you first posted on YouTube, “I can’t keep watching this disaster on the news and trending on twitter without doing something.” Was it a flash of inspiration to do the book or was it more like a slow burn idea which took shape across that week?
GREG: It was completely a spontaneous idea. I literally did just wake up that Tuesday morning and think, “right – I want to do something.” I didn’t sit down and come up with a great scheme of how it would come together.
I knew a lot of writers on Facebook and twitter and thought, at the very least, a few of us could get together, pull together 100 stories for an ebook, publish on Smashwords and donate the money.
When I think back on it now – it is a bit overwhelming how it all turned out.
JODI: The call to arms video you posted to YouTube received the following comment:
“You are just simply exploiting the situation. You do not need to make an ebook. If you were Stephen king or someone like Dan Brown, then I would see some merit in the idea. You, however, are an unknown author, exploiting the situation to raise yourself. This takes the piss out of the aid workers and volunteers out there. If you want to do something, then donate by all means to one of the many charities out there.”
How did it feel to receive that comment?
GREG: The comment came up within half an hour of posting the clip. I read it and thought – is this person right? Because it was such a spontaneous idea and because I hadn’t thought it through, to be perfectly honest, it made me question my motives for doing it. He suggested I was doing it more for myself, rather than to raise money for charity. That’s going to make you stop and think.
My wife came home from dropping our daughter at daycare and I told her about it. I think a lot of husbands and wives of writers act as sounding boards. When you tell them an idea, they are a good gauge of whether your idea is a good idea or not.
My wife smiled straight away and said, “That’s a great idea” and immediately offered to help, saying “If you’re going to do a book, you’re going to need a cover.” She’s a graphic designer. It made me think maybe I’m not crazy… this is a good idea.
Then Sarah Lewis-Hammond, an award winning environmental journalist got in contact and said “How can I help.” She flexed her journo muscles and got a press release put out by the end of the first day. She helped to set up the website and all the while I was getting messages on twitter and Facebook, not just from the writers I knew, but from people they knew and it completely took off from there.
If you ever want to feel the power of social media – this is a case in point. The idea took on a life of its own because of Facebook and twitter – people just wanted to get involved
By the following morning I was arranging phone calls with Bridge House publishing and another publisher wanted to publish the book as a paperback.
Within 24 hours it was more than an ebook I was going to cobbled together with a few friends. It was going to be something more.
JODI: How did that feel for you to be caught up in this creative storm? I’m sure when you sat down that Tuesday morning to put the call out, you has no idea 24 hours later your idea would have morphed into what it had become.
GREG: No. I had no idea. My initial thought was the few writers I knew on twitter and Facebook and online forums would pitch in and we’d scrap together 100 stories. I just had no idea that it was going to go beyond that, way beyond that.
To go from waking up one Tuesday morning with thoughts of an ebook, to 10 days later knowing you’re going to have a paperback… it took over my life for at least a month after that. Really until the book was published.
My initial idea was to be heavily involved in the editorial process of the book. I did have a hand in it, of course, and I did vet and read as many stories as I could. But it did get to a point where I realised I was having to spend a lot of time emailing and arranging things, rather than spending time reading stories and being more involved in the creative stuff. I had so many volunteer readers and editors coming on board to help. Then with everything, I had to ask some of the readers and editors to help out a bit more. And they didn’t hesitate at all.
JODI: How many people ended up being involved behind the scenes, in terms of volunteer readers, editors and other people who stood up to lend a hand where they could?
GREG: Initially I had about fifty offers just on email from writers, editors and copy editors. Out of that fifty we ended up with a core group of 20 editors and readers.
JODI: As an editor and publisher I’m in awe of how you got through the huge number of stories in such a short period of time. How did you get through so many stories so quickly?
GREG: If you add it up – each story was a minimum of 1000 words – so we had half a million words to get through really quickly. Making it social was the key. And giving people permission to make decisions was how it happened so quickly. It wasn’t planned that way – it just happened.
I set everything up in a private forum at Base Camp and was posting stories into the forum as they came. It turned out to be the most efficient way to do it. The readers and editors would come into the forum and read and vote on the stories as and when they had the time. It became a very collaborative process.
I made sure everyone knew the ground rules and what sort of stories we were looking for. And then let the readers and editors decide. We had a very simple system where if a story had two yes votes – it stayed in the forum. If it had two nos we put it aside. If it had two maybes it stayed in the system for further discussion.
That way we got through the submissions quite quickly – if a reader or editor came in and saw something already had two yes votes or two no votes they moved on to read the next story. If it had maybes they would read it.
JODI: The proceeds for 100 Stories for Haiti go to the Red Cross effort in Haiti. How did the Red Cross become involved?
GREG: I decided quite early on I wanted to support the Red Cross and initially it was going to be the Danish Red Cross. I got in contact with them and they were all for the project and were very helpful in the early stages.
Later we realised the book was going to be published more in the UK than in Denmark so my contact at the Danish Red Cross, suggested I contact the Red Cross in the UK. They jumped on it immediately and were so helpful straight away, advising how to word things on the website and at the point of sale. They’ve blogged about it and I’m in regular contact with their social media team. I’m actually going to be interviewing someone from the Red Cross for one of my podcasts.
JODI: You mention in numerous places the power of social media and how 100 Stories for Haiti would not exist without it. Social media really is a way to create and form communities well beyond your own geographical boundaries. And the reach of it is perfectly illustrated with 100 Stories for Haiti – when you can put a call out from your laptop in Denmark and get a story from Botswana.
GREG: To be able to put out a message and it pretty much goes everywhere – is what social media is about. I’m certainly finding people either get social media or they don’t. The people who get it, they don’t just look at it as a marketing opportunity, they look at it as an opportunity to connect with people. For me that’s what social media is all about – being connected with people. That’s what happened with 100 stories for Haiti. Suddenly I was connected with writers from all over the world. It really was quite phenomenal.
I did an interview with Lorraine Mace who was one of the editors and is the co-author of The Writers ABC Checklist, for the first podcast and she said, which I thought summed it up perfectly, 100 Stories for Haiti offered an opportunity for ordinary writers ‘like us’ to band together and do something to help.
JODI: Any project I’ve been involved with begins with a core idea of what it is about, but that idea often evolves across the life of the project to be something quite different, but just as pertinent. Did 100 Stories for Haiti change in any way for you over the course of those intense six weeks?
The book started as a way to raise money but very quickly became a vehicle of raising awareness, not just of the earthquake, but of the fact Haiti is a very poor country… and is kind of forgotten. We go for holidays to the Caribbean and not far away there is a country with people who are starving to death.
One of the biggest killers in Haiti before the earthquake was malnutrition and I only found that out after I started the project and began to do some research. For an earthquake to strike in a place like that is completely terrible.
Recently I saw some photos, months on from the earthquake, there were containers floating in a harbour, roads that are completely cracked down the middle, buildings lying in rubble, because they just don’t have the resources to fix these things themselves because they are such a poor country.
Now we’ve become aware of the situation there but it is such a shame it took a natural disaster to put Haiti on people’s radar – through their newsfeed, or twitterfeeds or in their inbox.
JODI: The other thing I like about 100 Stories for Haiti is it has longevity. There is a potential for money to keep being channelled to the people of Haiti after what I imagine is an initial deluge of donations. This book has the capacity to continue to send money there.
GREG: That kind of thought came to me later on in the project. I was speaking to my wife about it recently – because I came up with the idea of producing podcasts.
She questioned me about the podcasts, because the book was out and the podcasts were going to take up a lot of time and energy – was I just trying to stretch the project out?
The book is out, yes… and it is out forever, but there is the potential, if we continue to promote it as much as we can, and make people aware of it, that we can keep the support going.
The first of twelve 100 Stories for Haiti podcasts premiers today, featuring an interview with Lorraine Mace and information about the Internet for Peace campaign. You can buy 100 Stories for Haiti as a paperback, an eBook or audio book with all profits going to support the Red Cross effort in Haiti. For purchasing options see 100storiesforhaiti.org. Watch the Greg’s original call to action on YouTube.
Greg McQueen is a novelist, film maker, script writer, podcaster, husband and Dad based in Denmark. He’s currently working on his debut novel Roadkill. You can connect with Greg via Facebook , Twitter, Myspace , or his website I Really Should Be Writing.