By Amy Lane
(*Note—I should admit that having just finished Melanie Tushmore’s delightful book Goblins, I was a wee bit biased when it came to choosing a supernatural creature with which to create a metaphor for writers. I hope Melanie can forgive me—her goblins were just such wonderful companions—particularly Quiller, for whom I have great affection.)
Writing is a solitary occupation—everybody knows that.
We all have our desks, our caves, our tables, our spaces, the glowing box, the scribbled on pad, archaic typewriter, and we hunch over our implements of me-hood like a particularly feral breed of goblin.
Go away, ’tis mine! All the stories within are mine! Don’t touch, don’t look, ‘TIS MINE!
But even goblins have wild revels in dark corners, where we dance unholy rites, pound mojitos and, best of all, talk to each other. And when we talk to each other, a strange thing happens. We open up, we flower, we…share.
This shouldn’t surprise us, but it does. The whole time we’re writing, the we’re dreaming of sharing what we write, dreaming of having someone else reading it and living in our little kingdom of one with us. All those pesky details—the stone castle walls or the marble? Should the kingdom grow wheat or corn? Should the shapeshifters convert by mass or do we throw physics out the window? We can have some help making those decisions, we can share a vision, we can blend two feral, night-twitching brains together and make magic!
Oh my Goddess, we can collaborate!
So yes! Collaboration! It sounds like as much fun as an evil scientist convention in a really peachy hotel in Vegas, right? All those great minds thinking alike—we can change the world!
But like all good mad scientist plans, the question is, should we?
I was in high school when the first Thieves World collection came out, and from that moment on, I was hooked. The idea of a world constructed by writers, and then randomly written into was just so… delicious! I was already an Anne McCaffrey fan, and she had introduced the word gestalt to my vocabulary—the concept that many brains working in concert produced something larger, and more powerful than each discrete part—and the idea of writers collaborating seemed like real magic—creative magic—in action.
When I became a writer myself, I hungered to be a part of such collaboration, and, lucky me, I have been. The experiences have been just as amazing as I imagined—but they’ve also had a learning curve. I had to learn a lot about the things I could and could not do as a writer in order to be successful working with someone else.
For those folks out there thinking about collaborating with someone, here are some things to keep in mind.
The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s not all Thieves World.
There are actually several ways to write collaborative fiction—and the model I fell in love with in Thieves World is probably the most elaborate, and possibly the most rare. In fact, I can think of a few basic collaborative models, and the first one often needs nothing more than authors invested in a common theme.
The theme anthology has been around forever and is simply a bunch of stories gathered around one single idea. My first experience reading a theme anthology was Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three. The anthology started with a bunch of drunk (or punch drunk—I could never figure which) sci-fi writers, one lively “filk” (fake folk) song, and an artistic free-for-all. The stories bounced all over the place—horror? Comedy? Soft-core? Oh yeah—this anthology had it. And as collaborations go, this one here was relatively stress free.
In the modern e-book age, the theme anthology may or may not be gathered into one volume. For example, the fairy tale series for which I wrote Truth in the Dark and Hammer & Air was a matter of authors choosing covers and volunteering to write the story to match the cover. The collaboration was mostly between us and our publisher, and we only really talked to each other because we all loved fairy tales and wanted to share ours. The Dreamspinner Press Advent calendar and Daily Dose anthologies are other examples of this, and really, they’re the “getting the toes wet” stage of collaborative work.
When you take this sort of idea and condense it into one volume, you tend to intensify the need for collaboration. When Andrew Gray, Mary Calmes and I all worked together on The Three Fates, we had to talk about our understanding of the myth of the Fates, and we had to decide that it would be all right if we all used different mythologies from which to springboard our stories. Still, it was a very limited collaboration—and that’s apparent by the wildly different directions our stories all took. The fact is, if you want a more uniform approach from a collection of feral book-goblins, you’re going to have to hammer out some more details to make that anthology work.
That brings us to the next stage of collaboration, which is also a theme anthology, but it involves a slightly more uniform piece of world building. This collection is one step closer to that idea of Thieves World which enchanted me so much, and it ensures that one common thread or possibly a common character or set of characters runs through the stories. I’m currently working on a collaboration like this, and it’s a little more involved than it sounds. We’ve had to agree upon things like physical details, historical details, world building details, all of which center around a particular object. There are five people working on the project, and we’ve kept the collaborative elements to a minimum mostly to keep our e-mails down. If we’re talking about true collaboration, this is maybe getting in up to your ankles, and, yes, the water is still a little chilly.
The next stage up from this is where I started with the example, and that’s the created world.
The created world anthology—whether it’s Thieves World or Boxer Falls – is a tremendous undertaking, but it’s bigger for some of the participants than it is for others.
Now originally I was led to believe these collaborations involve a few key dedicated fanatics I mean asylum inmates I mean my kind of crazy people I mean writers who gather together, scatter the blood of an unpublished noobie sacrificed to the glow of an old tower computer, set fire to a bottle of aged scotch, dance the Batusi to old The Clash albums, and pull a character bible out of the least suitable orifice.
Or that’s what I was told told.
In truth, the crazy people I mean writers assemble a suitable contained setting (including sub-settings within the setting), cast of regular characters, set of shared experiences, and general sets of conflicts and set it down in concrete. Any of the people writing in this world must respect that Bible. So, if, say, you’ve set up a bible in an apartment building via Melrose Place, you can’t just destroy the building in your installment unless you have permission from the other writers in the world. The trick—and it’s definitely a trick—is for each writer to take that bible, to take some of the characters within, and to make that world his or her own.
It’s an exhilarating feeling. It’s looking at a microcosm like a petty god, and then playing with the world until it meets your exact specifications. I adored writing for Boxer Falls, and this week I’m starting an installment in the Riptide Press Bluewater Bay anthology, and I can’t wait. But that being said, there are myriad more considerations that go into this type of anthology, especially compared to the others mentioned so far. Even if the initial idea is fomented in alcohol and convention bars, usually there’s more to the giant world-built bible than a convocation of feral writing gnomes, gassing it up on aged Scotch and the Clash.
The original world builders must be able to assemble the world as a team. Think of an engineering team, trying to put together a building. They need to consider the materials, the place, the restrictions, the building codes, the expectations of the population--that’s what goes into the character bible. While it may be fun to play petty god, it’s also a temptation to let your ego get the best of you, and you can’t do that when you’re working with other people. There can be a project leader, but if the entire world building group doesn’t have a clear, concise vision of the world being built, the resulting mishegas will be both confusing to read and frustrating to write in. If you’re working from that end of the project, that’s a heavy-duty social skill set you’re imposing on a group of people who are used to working alone in their caves, and that can cause difficulties. If you want to be one of those petty gods, it’s best to check your ego at the door and party with your fellow goblins in the spirit of inspiration and generosity.
And if you’re not one of the original world builders, if, say, you’ve simply been invited to the party after all the booze is bought, the decorations put up, and the music chosen—well, same rules apply to you as they do to any other goblin at a party.
Be nice. Be respectful. Be inspired.
Your fellow goblins have gone to a boiling cauldron of newts’ eyes and trouble in order to create a world for you to play in. Don’t break their toys. Don’t murder their favorite characters without permission. Don’t make the good guys into villains unless it was already implied by the bible. Don’t have an earthquake destroy the vet’s office if that’s where everybody was getting laid. In short, don’t shit on their vision. Adhere to the bible and take every and all suggestions of ways to stay within those boundaries. Is it harder than staying in your own world and only answering to your own world building restrictions? Well, yes. But it can also be more fun, and way more social than simply tapping away in the cave, surrounded by impatient sub-creatures who need to be fed and fondled.
And once you’ve done that sort of collaboration, perhaps, if all went well, you may be ready for the final stage of writing as a social activity.
You may be ready for the co-write.
Now co-writing sounds really awesome. People hear of a co-written work and think, “I love those writers! I’m so happy they’re working together!” and they buy the work on the faith of the writers alone. Why not, right? Gestalt principles should apply and if one author is great then two authors should be better, right?
Well, that depends.
Co-writing can go a number of different ways, and I’ve known author teams who have tried each of these techniques:
· The authors take turns writing the book, sans outline, on a chapter by chapter basis, sending the story back and forth as each completes his or her turn.
· The authors take turns writing the book, sans outline, on a paragraph by paragraph basis in the same way as above.
· Both authors sit down together and hammer out an outline, and then take turns writing to the outline, each one writing to their strengths. (So, for example, one author takes the love scenes and dialog, and the other takes the action scenes and world building.)
· The authors get together and hammer out an outline, then each author chooses an MC and they take turns writing when their particular MC’s viewpoint is coming into play.
· The authors get together and hammer out an outline and then alternate chapter by chapter or paragraph by paragraph as above.
· The authors simply sit down to an open Google Doc on the computer and write, watching the cursor move in front of them and jumping in when one author pauses and the other has something to say. This is facilitated by a dialog box next to the actual document, so one author can be writing suggestions/ outlines/ considerations while the other author is writing.
Now for each of these co-writing techniques, there are plusses and minuses, but what it all comes down to in order to be successful is vision, trust, and ego.
In order to write a book with another human being, you need to trust that writer’s vision, be comfortable enough to write intimately with them, and be able to subsume your own ego to the vision you both established.
Sounds simple. Isn’t.
If, say, you are a pantser—an author who simply sits down and goes—and your co-writer is a plotter, this could be a great pair up if the pantser is willing to follow an outline and the plotter is willing to give the pantser room to fly. But if the plotter can’t trust the pantser, can’t let go of his or her own ego long enough to see what the other person can do, well, the collaboration loses its magic. That’s only one person’s vision in the mix, and that might as well be a one person work. On the other hand, if the pantser ignores the plotter’s need for an over-arcing framework and simply takes the work from one event to the next and doesn’t trust the final vision, then the plotter’s strengths are completely ignored, and, again, the final vision is one person’s, and that might as well not be a collaboration at all.
What if you write in great chunks of frenetic activity—so, you produce 10,000 words in a day, and then sleep for two days to come back and do it again? What if you hook up with someone who produces a steady 3K a day—how’s that going to work? If the person who works in spurts can’t regulate their writing schedule, and the person who puts in a consistent amount of work a day can’t trust the person working in spurts and give them some direction, again, the unified vision is going to be lost.
If one of the parties refuses to bend to the other, refuses to follow an outline or refuses to cast the outline to the winds, refuses to stick to the character or refuses to let the character grow, in short, refuses to sustain the initial vision that intrigued both parties, this attempt at coming out of your writing caves to be together is going to end badly—very very badly—and I have seen some truly disastrous goblin melees when trust, ego, and vision implode.
But I’ve also experienced some amazing things when they’ve worked. The Country Mouse/City Mouse books with Aleksandr Voinov stand proud in my memory. I think part of our magic was that we’d heard good things about the other, but we hadn’t read the other’s work. We had no ego walking into our collaboration, and only happy introductions as we worked through our vision. We used the last writing technique on the list, and I’ll never forget watching that pink cursor move, guided by a person 3,000 miles away that I had never met in person but whom I adore to this day. That was exhilarating. That was a rush—and an experience I’m so glad I had, and that hopefully people have loved to read.
But I’ve also picked up the pieces of my fellow writers when their attempts at collaboration haven’t gone as well, and the injury not just to egos but to hearts as well has been truly painful, and truly hard to heal. Writing in such an intimate circumstance makes writers as vulnerable professionally as taking a lover makes them personally, and that is nothing to take lightly. I have, in fact, turned down offers of collaboration because I loved the other writer far too much as a friend and didn’t want to disturb that delicate alchemy of personality and presence by involving trust, ego, and vision into the mix.
I’ve seen the results when it goes wrong.
But I’ve also seen the results when it goes right—and lordie, does it go so right.
So, fellow goblins, how are you going to spend your day? Hunched over your computer hissing Tis mine! Tis mine and it’s good! Or involved in goblin parlance in which you dance around writing desks in manic glee and create worlds for other goblins to inhabit?
Trust me—as a goblin myself, I can tell you that both forms of livelihood make us the feral, fey creatures of imagination that we love to be. There is no right way to be a goblin, and any way you can fathom to create a world to rule over like a petty god is going to be the right way. Just take care of your vulnerable goblin hearts and try not to tear other’s hearts out with your sharp goblin claws—that’s all the rest of us fey creatures can ask.