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Ten to One. An Interesting Proposition in Collaborative Writing.

January 19, 2013

Pigeon Park Press

It was evident in the last post on Pigeon Park Press that Iain Grant and Heide Goody are no strangers to a bit of a challenge. Not satisfied with Clovenhoof , their first collaborative effort, they decided to take it one step further, and then one step further again. Pushing the boundaries of good sense has lead to the ‘Ten to One’ project, their greatest writing challenge yet.

Clovenhoof Book Cover

Let’s talk more about Clovenhoof and the fact that it is a collaborative novel.

It was Heide’s suggestion that we did it. We both belong to the same writing group and the idea came to her when we had both submitted work for anonymous criticism by the writing group. The people who know our writing best thought we’d written each others’ pieces. This is when Heide said, ‘Well, we write the same kind of stuff and in a similar way don’t we? Why don’t we try writing something together?’ I thought it was an abysmal idea. I couldn’t see how it was going to work. I thought we’d have a go at it for a few weeks and ruin our friendship completely with arguments and disagreements.

Our inspiration was four American horror authors (Joe Konrath, Blake Crouch, F Paul Wilson and Jeff Strand) who had written a collaborative horror novel. So we thought if the four of them could write a book together, so could we.

Our approach was unusual as we tackled the book as a whole collaboratively. We didn’t work on separate characters or storylines, but immersed ourselves in the whole thing together.

We would start off with, for example, chapter 3. Heide would decide what would be in chapter 3. I wrote chapter 3. Heide edited chapter 3. Then we would swap over at the next chapter. So we were effectively leapfrogging over one another.

I have to admit it does give Clovenhoof a rather episodic feel. Although I think that’s one of its appealing features and the whole thing worked very well for both of us. It was a great working partnership and one of the things we loved about collaboration was being able to work together because writing is usually a very solitary endeavour. You normally sit alone in a room with just you and the computer. Writing Clovenhoof became a very social activity and because we were both working on elements of the book at the same time, it became a competitive endeavour. We had to work to deadlines, to a quality that we both thought it was good enough, and it is the fastest piece of work I’ve ever written. The whole novel from beginning to end was written in under six months. That is very quick for me. We enjoyed it enormously and ever since we did that, we’ve looked at how we could do other collaborative projects.

In the meantime, this autumn, I ran a collaborative writing project called ‘Full Fathom Five’. It was based on Facebook and I invited five authors to start to write a story together. What we did with ‘Full Fathom Five’ was come up with the story where five characters were stranded by a shipwreck on an island and each of the five writers would control a character, writing a chapter from their perspective. The authors were given fairly free rein as to how the story developed in their chapter. But the interesting element we tried with ‘Full Fathom Five’ was that after writing a chapter each, we then handed the whole thing over to a panel of judges, saying to them, ‘One of these characters is going to die. Which one?’

Their decision as to who was going to be removed from the story was based on the quality of writing and how engaged they were with the characters. Over the course of ten weeks, we did several rotations, removing a character each time. All the time this was going on we were publishing the writing on Facebook, to get public opinion on it. It worked well and now we have the whole story, which is about ‘Ten to One’5,000 words from beginning to end. As a project, in terms getting five good writers to develop something, it was a very interesting and worthwhile experiment.

I had imagined that what would really drive it would be the competitiveness of the writers. I had expected their approach to be something like ‘I want to be the survivor to the next round’, ‘I’m going to be better than you’, or ‘I’m going to beat you’; rather like some debauched reality TV show. It wasn’t like that at all. What actually happened was all five of them said, ‘Let’s make this the best story we can and whether I’m knocked out or not, we’ll work together to generate the story’. So even those who were knocked out of the writing process got involved with the editorial process and the judging panel, because they wanted to make it the best thing possible. It went contrary to my expectations. I really like that.

‘Full Fathom Five’ will be out as an e-chapbook on Amazon by early February, just to show what a collaboration can do. So now what we want to do is go on and do a similar project, but with ten authors.

Did you meet face-to-face when you did this, or was it entirely online?

All the authors for ‘Full Fathom Five’ were writers I happen to know locally. We initially met face-to-face. To get ideas together to get the project off the ground. We’re confident that with technology like Skype, we can overcome geographical boundaries if we get participants who can’t make a face-to-face meeting. It’s very exciting to think that we have the tools now to make this kind of collaboration possible.

After the initial kick-off, although we have met each other since, the process did not involve face-to-face communication. We used email, Facebook, Twitter and file sharing software like Dropbox. You drop files in there. So if you write 500 words and save it, everyone participating in the process can see the 500 words you’ve written.

This is what Heide and I used when we were writing Clovenhoof because the other person could very quickly see what had been written and was able to make suggestions as to how it might be improved. Or often it was to congratulate the writer on how well they’ve written it, which was very encouraging. Really it’s the electronic equivalent of looking over an author’s shoulder, and it worked really well. I have to say I found this surprising because I know for a fact, if I’m sat at my computer writing, the thought of someone standing over my shoulder making comments would really annoy me.

The social media aspect was very important for ‘Full Fathom Five’ because of the amount of ideas being bounced around as the thing was being written. It’s only the last 10 years or so we’ve been able to do this sort of thing electronically. So with ‘Full Fathom Five’ we’re talking about a short story written by five people in two months. Although you could write a short story faster yourself, I think that was quite speedy for a collaborative effort. Speed is likely to be one of the challenges we face with ‘Ten to One’.

Tell me about ‘Ten to One’.

All I want to lay down at the moment is the model, the plan. The general plan is to get together 10 writers. Some of them may be local, but I would like to get an international feel to the project as well. I want 10 authors to write a novel together. They will generate an outline of the story together. Although behind-the-scenes, myself and Heide, as well as editors, will construct a back story. The writers will create a storyline and characters together. Each of them will write a chapter apiece from the perspective of a character.

They will need to decide what will happen to their character in their chapter and after it has been written we will go to a public vote and the judging panel to find out which characters should stay in the story. One character will be ejected from the story. Then after the next series of chapters another character is removed from the story and so on all the way down to one character.

Whether these characters are bumped off in a murder mystery sense I don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like the Agatha Christie story Then There Were None. In Christie’s story 10 strangers turn up on an island and are all systematically bumped off one by one, by some mysterious evil doer. ‘Ten to One’ does not have to go down that line. How each character is removed from the story is entirely up to the kind of story we want to write. A lot of people have asked me what the plot of ‘Ten to One’ is about. I have to tell them ‘I don’t know. The storyline could be about anything’.

So we could be writing a serial killer horror story or a modern urban fantasy, but again we could actually just be writing a story in a contemporary setting. It could be non-genre, romance, science-fiction, I just don’t know yet. Whatever the genre, the characters should leave the story for a legitimate reason, because we’re not interested in following them anymore. Then there are the story models we can take. We could say ‘Well here are 10 characters, unified by a single event’. There have been films and TV series where people are being brought together by, for example, a car crash. The book The Slap brought people together with a barbecue. So the characters might know each other or they might be strangers who were brought together. This will be down to the authors.

Because the writers are all going to write 10 chapters at the same time, there has to be quite a rigid structure initially. This is because we need continuity. The whole thing has to work as one unified piece. Also we will need to get them to treat each other’s characters in the way that the original author wants them to be treated. We need the world to be treated in the way it was intended to be viewed. There has to be a unified theme and the characters can’t come across as strange schizophrenic personalities who do something one moment and then something else another. This is the real trick to getting this right.

We’re beginning the selection process right now. Part of the process is finding out from the authors what they write, what do they want to write, what kind of stories do they want to get involved in. We’re looking at samples of their work as well to do this. I’m pleased to say that everybody who’s been in touch so far has proven that they can write to a high standard, and we’ve had some interesting people saying they want to do it. These are writers like published novelists, playwrights and a couple of children’s authors. So there are quite a few different backgrounds of writing. It’s a bit like a dating agency where we’re trying to match everybody up. At the end of the day we may well be turning way some very good authors purely because they don’t fit the rest of the group. The really challenging part of the process will be at that point where we say ‘Right here you all are. What we going to do?’ Although there will be a lot of work in terms of editing and promotion, once we’re into the writing of it, the story will hopefully almost be writing itself. The most difficult bit is getting all the pieces together and making sure that they will all work.

One of the things I want to get into the selection process is to find out how good an author is at keeping to deadlines and completing projects. If some people drop out or disappear, this will really cause a problem for the project. One of the advantages of having local people, is that you can meet them face to face and sit down with them and work through any problems. If we are engaging any overseas writers this is obviously not so easy. So it would be a matter of finding out whether they do answer their e-mails efficiently, and approach things in a professional manner. If they don’t, then we probably wouldn’t involve them in the project.

The writing process will take us from about May 2013 to around Feb/March 2014. So that’s ten months of people’s lives. It’s not that they are going to be required to write a great deal. If you have 10 people, breaking the work down into a reasonable sized novel comes to about 1200 words per chapter per person. The person who stays in the longest will write 15,000 words at the most. So it’s not going to take huge amounts of these people’s time.

We are taking submissions between now and the end of March. We’ll also be promoting the project at some local events and also electronically. I would like to be able to pick from a large field of authors and hopefully we’ll be able to pull in some writers from overseas as well.

As we’ve already done a dry run and had that experience I’m very excited about this project and can’t wait for it to start.

The workshop you’re running at the Nottingham Festival of words is about collaborative writing, isn’t it?

Yes. Heide and I are going there as collaborative writers, to share our ideas through workshop activities. We’ll share our experiences of collaborative writing with other writers, and equip participants with tools and methods to help them write collaboratively. Some of the methods can also be used to develop ideas in solo writing, but we want to demonstrate that writing with other people can be lots of fun. Our workshops are driven by games and fun creative activities.

Heide and I recently wrote an e-book on how to write the collaborative novel and it’s going to come out around February. A lot of the ideas we’ve gained from delivering workshops and developing collaborative writing methods appear in the book.

The event at the Nottingham Festival of Words is in the Newton Building It’s called ‘Weaving Words With Others’.

Weaving Words With Others. Saturday 16 Feb 2:45pm to 4.45pm. Newton Building. Nottingham Trent University

You can follow the Nottingham Festival of Words on Twitter @Nottwords or #Nottwords.


From → Event, Publishing

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