Annie On Writing

July 24, 2011

Pushing the boundaries of collaborative writing

On the whole, writers tend to be solitary creative artists. Many prefer to hole themselves up, shutting themselves away from distractions and other people to immerse themselves in their work. Whilst there has always been a contingent of writers who have pooled their skills to work collaboratively on a project, the tyranny of distance and time lags between whatever communication format they use, has meant until recently, that the number collaborations has been relatively small. However, with the progress of technology enabling inexpensive and reliable networking communication, these barriers are no longer the case, opening up opportunities to anyone with an internet connection and a desire to share characters.

In the past, most collaborative writing has involved a pair or more writers discussing a plot and characters and dividing the workload into specific chapters or scenes. There are cases of the plot growing as a chain; where a chapter is written and handed to the next writer to continue, and for it then to be handed along; each team member taking a turn in writing the next episode. Generally speaking, once the chapter has been handed over, the responsibility of the story lays with the writer undertaking the episode.

CYOA (Choose Your Online Adventures) has taken these concepts a step further – and perhaps beyond. After a genre has been chosen and a starter story written, a group of 13 writers come together for thirteen weeks, using skype video and conference calling to create the world, characters and storylines.

The story format follows the popular 80s young adult literature phenomenon – ‘choose your own adventure’; where the main character has a quest or task to complete. The character is faced with a number of options each scene, with many leading to their failure and most often a hideous death.

Writers are grouped into smaller hubs, headed by an editor – who also writes and is heavily assisted by an assigned beta reader. Each hub is assigned an option to then build upon, explore and write. Writers leave options at the end of their stories, swap and continue, taking up a different writers option. Above all of this, ‘Mystress Weaver’ – the chief editor, collates and interweaves storylines across the groups. The plot grows organically, feeding from inspiration from stories across the collaboration. Characters motivations are only discovered as the writing develops, rather than being pre-determined. Stories are retrofitted with details along the way, as writers dip into one anothers text to edit and update threads. Sound like a spiderweb? Its a complex, exciting and interactive way to create an original story, based on trust between the process, the writers and the characters on the page.

CYOA was initiated primarily as a writing project to push the boundaries of collaborative writing. It also set out to highlight the immense influence both editors and beta readers have on a product, heavily involving them throughout the process in decision making and collaboration. Although last , not least, the projects goal is to showcase the writing talents of emerging authors; offering another opportunity for their work to be appreciated and to publicise their other works.

The project also embraces the trends in readership, by publishing online. Readers pay a one time fee to gain access into a separate part of the website, clicking on hyperlinks instead of turning to a particular page. Although this doesn’t ‘stop’ the reader ‘cheating’; unless they have found the ‘winning page’, a reader must continue reading the story forwards – instead of what many of us used to do – and find the winning page and work backwards. Because of they enormous amount of links, cross links and stories, a reader can be busy following separate threads for days, offering excellent value for money in readership. Due to the separation of the writing hubs too, there is very little cross over in stories; something which the original choose your own adventures stories used to do.( and annoyed readers with)

The CYOA project has completed the writing side of two series to date. One has been described as a science fiction infused mystical feminist story. The other, a murder mystery set in the wild west. Writers applied to be part of the project and were only accepted after they had discussed and agreed to the process of collaboration and editing; which is very different to standard practice. ‘Dust and Death’ – the western series is due to launch on Friday the 29th of July.  ‘History’s Keeper’ is due to launch in early October. Applications for the next series – a zombie themed story, will open in late November, with the writing period beginning in February 2012. Interested writers, beta readers and editors are encouraged to check with the Facebook, google + or website for details.

It cannot be stressed enough that collaborative fiction writing is not for everyone. In no way does it mean that one person is a better (or worse) writer or human being than another. It is natural and normal for writers get very attached to their work and characters, and while it’s understandable, it’s not appropriate in any collaborative setting, but specifically within the project, where the stories or project needs to agree and form a cohesive whole. Stories and characters need to remain flexible to ensure the story flows – despite thirteen writers all having their hands on it at some time or another. The CYOA project particularly pushes the boundaries even further, asking writers to immerse themselves in the cobweb of editing – specific for the needs of this style of collaboration.

There is no place for ego in collaborative writing; no place for character ownership or control freaks. For a collaborative writing project to succeed, writers must strive for the good of the collective, rather than to highlight themselves or their contributions. Clear, non judgmental communication is paramount in a collaborative writing project. An enormous amount of trust is needed between those involved, not only in the skill of the written word, but for the empathic dealings with characters. Writers need to trust not only themselves and their team mates, but the characters themselves to continue telling their story.

Writing collaboratively paves a way into deeper understandings of both your writing skills and in the world you are creating as a group. It allows the story to go places your individual writing might never venture. Collaborative writing engenders a support network and a shared focus; one with has the opportunity to carry you a lot further along your journey as a writer than the end of the project.

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