Friday, November 15, 2013

Writing With Others - Probably Part 1

In 1978, ancient history I know, Robert Asprin began a series of books known as the Thieves’ World Series.  No, they were not about Washington D.C.  Rather, each book was a collection of short stories by different writers sharing a fantasy setting wherein the writers could utilize the characters the other writers created.  If memory serves, the only caveat to using another writer’s character was that the ‘borrowing’ writer couldn’t kill a character he or she hadn’t created.

Along similar lines is the duo of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (think end of the world, Lucifer’s Hammer, and elephant-faced space aliens, Footfall).  Neil Gaiman also comes to mind as someone who has worked with many other writers on lots and lots of projects.

In my less spectacularly-successful world, I drive students to the group writing project.  I save this towards the end of the semester when the chaff has drifted from the classroom.  Nothing is worse than the ‘superhero’ saving the group project while the knobs receive the shared grade.  Students know this.  They have a history of group-work slurry that has left a bad taste in their mouths.  This is mostly because they are thrown into the group project arena and no one offers to share, exactly, how do conduct a group project, let alone how to write a document with one or more human beings.  Nor have they been given the liberty to hold one another accountable.

A small, good thing about writing with others is this accountability.  There are deadlines and non-classroom bound writers tend to feel at least a teency bit guilty at letting their partner down; would that I could say the same for the students.  Plus, people who want to write also appreciate a good deadline.  It’s a goal, like writing 50,000 words in the month of November is a goal.  Deadlines are goodness.

Nor is this an academic exercise.  Meaning, it’s not just something for the classroom.  The world collaborates and that’s how stuff gets done.  Even Ted Kaczynski relied on the Postal Service to deliver his diatribes and nail-bombs, while it also seems like it’s the always the quiet neighbor who keeps to him-self that is involved in the mall-shooting.  Nor do I confine the lessons to typical classroom activities.  You see, I haven’t always been a writing instructor.  I have other irons in the fire, have pursued sales leads, managed software projects, hired & fired, conducted reviews, and played Dungeons & Dragons (a collaborative effort if ever there was).

That said, writing with other humans goes against the grain, does it not?  Consider the lonely writer; isolated at the screen, researching, and generally making up stuff.  Writing magic happens alone.  That’s one of the complaints.  Where is the feedback?  Where is the sounding board?  How can a writer find someone willing to read his or her material before it’s ready?

This is one of the bigger bonuses of writing with someone else.  There is immediate feedback. The audience is in place, and egos aside, they review one another’s efforts well before the material hits the grade-book or the submission-letter fan.

Yet, difficulties remain.  Many group-project documents I receive have a patchwork quilt feeling about them.  After thirteen plus weeks of reading each student’s writing, I can tell where one writer’s efforts end and another’s begins.  I’m talking about the writer’s voice, tone, vocabularies, sentence structures, and not about the self-editing that doesn’t always occur (and please, run spell-checker because it’s free).  We all know writing with others is more than a simple copy & paste.

One goal of writing with others is to prepare a document (short story, novel, cookbook, stupid Composition 1 paper, etc…) that is seamless.  The work of many should appear unified in both scope, purpose, and daresay, style?  That’s debatable, but there is probably a reason Faulkner never wrote a story with Hemingway.

True collaboration means both writers have something in mind prior to beginning and that they are willing to work towards those goals.  Enter the classroom thesis, the main idea, the point being proven, the mountaintop of the effort and that annoying thing I ask about before they continue.  For example, if student A wants to write about how text books cost too much and student B wants to write about how text books don’t have enough pictures and the words are too big, there’s a problem.  It’s time for them to refocus and someone is going to have to compromise.

And if neither student wants to compromise, this is a good clue that, perhaps, the effort won’t go so well.  The advice here is to make sure you and the person you are collaborating with are on the same page.  If not, why bother?  You’ll only aggravate one another and that’s not goodness.  Here’s a really funny link to illustrate.

In collaborative fiction, the scope and purpose is not so neat.  I mean, story writers don’t begin with an iron-clad thesis.  They have a plot and they have characters, maybe.  Sometimes they just have an idea or a situation.  I mean, there are almost always characters but sometimes the plot is not in place at the start.  That’s ok.  I’ve just about made up my mind that characters drive the plot and not the other way around.  Otherwise, the story is stilted and forced, and the only thing that should be stilted and forced is a national healthcare service – right?!

But, with only the bare bones of the idea in place, the writing team has to plan what they are trying to accomplish.  And planning is half the fun.  Think brainstorming, like what if there was this guy who fell into a portal to another world when he reached too far into his clothes drier?  Yeah, and what if a centaur found him and decided to take him to the centaur-stables to he could scoop poo for the rest of his days?  A situation like that needs to be fleshed out a bit and two brains are often more creative than one.

And, while this was never meant to be an exhaustive analysis of the collaborative writing adventure, even I know that when I start writing about centaur poo, it’s time to take a break.  Even so, there may be a part two to this.

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