Collaborative writing – my experience so far

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Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people
Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m currently working pretty much full time on a work-for-hire fiction project, ghost writing science fiction. The process involved is an interesting one, and having got permission from the guy running the show I’m going to share a little about it here, and about why I think it’s so good.

How it works

There are five people working on this project – there’s me as the writer and the last addition to the team. B is the mastermind behind the process, the guy who brought us all together, he manages the virtual team, works out schedules and marketing and all that business side of things. C seems to mostly do developmental editing work, helping work out story, setting, etc. D wrote the plot for the books, and as part of that did a lot of work developing the characters and setting, together with B, C and E. E mostly does line editing.

From my point of view, I’ve been given a plot and extensive briefings on characters and setting. I’m the one turning this into prose, adding my own ideas and flourishes to fill gaps and flesh things out. For example I took some characters from book two and brought them into book one, to save me inventing extras and set them up for later.

C’s provided a few editorial comments on my work, but most of that comes from E. Once she’s read through my work I go back and accept or respond to her changes. I have the most contact with B, who’s doing a good job of dealing with any practical issues I stumble across and keeping me in the loop.

What I like so far

I love working with a team in this way, especially because they seem like a nice, lively, creative bunch. While I like writing my own stories, collaborating with others makes creativity even more fun, and I’m enjoying taking D’s plot and fleshing it out. Getting to work with editors is also good.

What I particularly like about the process, which B has developed and is continuing to adapt, is that it seems less wasteful than the traditional publishing approach. Instead of a writer providing a completed story, only to have to re-write large chunks when a developmental editor points out problems with character and plot, those problems have mostly been smoothed out beforehand. To put it in terms of my old process improvement job, we are avoiding the waste of re-work.

The end-to-end story production process is also being speeded up by working together via Google docs.  So even before I finished writing book one, E was reading and making editorial comments on the early chapters. It’s a good thing I naturally write in chronological order, or this could get messy.

Having other people literally leaning over my shoulder as I write freaks me out and stops me working – Laura can attest to this. But having collaborators perusing my work in a virtual environment, providing both critique and enthusiastic positive feedback as we go along, is really helpful. It’s sharpening the writing and keeping my spirits up, if occasionally stressing me out too – let’s face it, being edited always has its stresses, whether from disagreeing with the editor or agreeing and seeing what was wrong with your own beautiful words. Of course the reality is that I’m facing both.

This kind of collaboration is akin to what I imagine modern TV writers’ rooms to be like, allowing people to share and refine ideas, then go away and specialise in what they do best.

And because of this efficient, collaborative process, together with the joys of digital publishing, the first book will have been through editors, beta readers, refinement and publication, all within maybe four months of them developing the plot, and maybe two months after I started writing book one. That is staggeringly efficient. I approve.

Letting go of the artistic ego

I know that there are people who will view this as somehow detracting from the art of writing, from the purity of the author working away at their own ideas and craft. But I don’t agree with that view. Writing is already a collaborative process, involving editors and publishers. This is making that collaboration more effective and enjoyable. It’s not what we expect, and that will create a negative reaction in some people, but I like it.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you guys have on this, or similar experiences you’ve been through. You know where the comments go, please feel free to leave one.

NaNoWriMo update

I’m only writing this a few hours after yesterday’s post, and I’ve been busy with the freelance work so nothing’s changed. I think I’ll get around to NaNo this evening. Fingers crossed. Just blogging a day ahead now will relieve some pressure and make it easier to juggle tasks tomorrow.

I notice that JH Mae and Everwalker are tearing ahead at 21k and 15k respectively, while I haven’t quite reached 12k. And I also have to mention Russell Phillips, who’s normally a non-fiction writer and went into this knowing he didn’t have time to manage 50k, but is still getting plenty of words down.

How are you guys doing?

15 thoughts on “Collaborative writing – my experience so far”

  1. As you know, I set myself a target of 15K, since that’s actually achievable, but not so easy that it’s not a challenge. I was away for a couple of days with work, and got about a day behind, but on the train home today I managed to partly catch up, so that I’m now about half a day behind.

    1. Good work dude. I’m just shy of two days behind where I want to be, and now mulling over whether to spend this evening getting ahead on the freelance work or catching up on NaNo.

      Or possibly catching up on Doctor Who. That is also an option.

  2. I’m also working on a Collaborative Writing Project. I’ve talked about it on my page, but it’s called Caladria. It’s a living fantasy world that’s history is altered by the stories we write.

    So, there’s a dozen or so writers working on various short stories/novellas, all following a brief outline and word count requirement. We turn them in by the due date, they get edited, and they go into an E-Zine called Fab Fables. It’ll be available for purchase on Amazon.

    So far there hasn’t been too much collaboration. We have discussion boards to bounce ideas around, but most of the world info is available via the website. I’ve been emailing back and forth with my assigned editor, but other than that, the writing process was the same.

    Since you’re ghost writing, will you be able to let us know when the books are out?

    1. That Caladria project sounds like a lot of fun. What are you doing as a group to make sure the world stays consistent? I imagine with a lot of writers on board that could be quite a challenge.

      I’m not sure yet whether I’ll ever be able to point at these books I’m ghost writing and say ‘I did that!’. Certainly not at first. The guy running the show sees the benefits of the process the same way I do, and I think all things being equal he’d be open about it. But there’s a certain conservatism in some quarters about this sort of thing, a view that this isn’t how books are usually written, and it certainly doesn’t fit with the usual way they’re branded and sold. So initially at least he’s playing it safe, putting it out under one name and keeping quiet about the process. If it sells well and we do more projects as a team, which is a real possibility, maybe further down the line I’ll be able to point at that ‘author’ brand and say ‘I’m part of that’. And I’m pretty proud of this, so given a chance you can be sure that I will!

      1. So the world is represented in the website. There are maps and region profiles, as well as culture profiles and notes. All of it can be filtered through a specific moment in the world’s history.

        So the story brief comes with a date, the characters, and where on the world they live. There’s also a suggestions page on the project that links to things like related culture, deities, and events in time.

        We’re in our first round of stories, so it’ll be interesting to see how they all turn out, and see what tweaks need to be made.

  3. The process you describe, Andy, is very like writing as part of a team on Ars Magica books, except that the planning, plotting and writing are shared – authors take responsibility for specific chapters and constantly share work through a mailing list to make sure it all fits together. It has been a long time since only one author did the whole book. Of course, we have to deal with comments from play testers, which is, I think, more stressful than just handling feedback from the line editor.

    1. It’s interesting that that sort of thing can be an accepted norm for roleplay source books, but is seen as odd in other areas of writing. But given the rigour with which Ars Magica is put together I feel happy to be working along similar lines.

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