Thoughts on the collaborative writing process

collaborative writing article on readwriteweb I came across an interesting blog post on ReadWriteWeb this morning that got me to thinking a little about how Protagonize works versus many of the diverse other collaborative writing systems available on the web right now. The author of the post referred to Protagonize as “very slick”, which is all well and good, but the user comments were actually what caught my attention.

In the general sense, there are many similarities between the larger sites out there; many provide author profiles, many allow authors to collaborate on the same stories. What I have noticed is that the prevalent theme amongst many of them appears to be that the end goal is to produce a novel, novella, or something “publishable.”

One of the comments lambasting collaborative writing over on the RWW post was of particular interest:

“Penguin publishing house tried this already and it was an EPIC FAIL! It was called a Million Penguins … it was a wiki novel…and…it was awful. Never published, and they abandoned the project – but best of luck!”

As a brief disclaimer, I didn’t become aware of A Million Penguins until well after the project was over, probably about six weeks ago. It definitely has some parallels with Protagonize, but the goal of the project is entirely different. I think what the commenter above unintentionally hit on is the grey area between many of the collaborative writing projects out there right now.

I think of Protagonize as a writer’s playground; aspiring authors (and some professionals) post ideas for stories, either something they’ve come up with offline that they want both direct and indirect feedback on from other writers, or just as way to flex their creative muscles. Aside from the direct feedback provided to authors by branch and chapter ratings, Protagonize creates an indirect feedback mechanism in the form of activity on the stories published. The popularity of your story, based on a combination of new branches or chapters posted, comments generated by the post, views, and number of favourites and page markers added, provides the author with feedback that they likely wouldn’t be able to receive any other way.

I’ve never really considered Protagonize as trying to accomplish the nigh-impossible task of creating entire novels based on the input of dozens or more users. This has long been the major point latched onto by critics of collaborative fiction writing: the more chefs with their hands in the pot, the more the story loses its flow, and the worse the quality level of the writing. I don’t disagree with this, but I think it definitely falls more under the umbrella of interactive fiction sites trying to reproduce the great (insert your nationality here) novel. They could go against the trend and tailor their sites more to the potential upside of collaborative fiction, instead of constantly reinventing the wheel, recreating failed (depending on your point of view) collaborative experiments of the past.

From the last three months of watching both stories develop and authors evolve in their writing techniques on Protagonize, I’ve found that we manage to (mostly) avoid this problem. Addventure-style stories generally fall outside of this critique, as they end up becoming the equivalent of a gamebook after they’ve been branched enough times. The collaborative novel writing conundrum reared its ugly head with the addition of linear stories, but thus far, the bulk of the content produced within linear stories has been limited to a handful of authors per storyline.

Interestingly, the addventure stories tend to bring in many more authors into the fold. It’s not uncommon to find that 20 or more authors have participated in a single addventure. However, linear stories seem to generate more of a small-team approach; two or three authors, sometimes a few more, usually round out even the longest linear stories published. This likely comes down to the fact that readers are able to follow a linear plotline much better, but they become slightly wary of contributing to a story where there’s only one possible ending. In addition, the longer the story gets, the more monolithic it appears, and by default limits the potential pool of authors to those who’ve participated early on in the process. Trying to write chapter 462 of a novel requires much more of a time investment (in keeping up with the storyline and plot twists) and fidelity to the storyline than writing a branch of an addventure, or even a late chapter of a short story.

This means that, generally speaking, the first few adventurous souls tend to produce the bulk of the material in a linear story. An excellent example of this would be Amo1143‘s “Drop point“, which has been one of our most popular linear stories in the last month with nearly 40 chapters published. To throw some basic statistics out, the breakdown of chapter posts by author in the story so far comes out be nearly dead even. Three different authors have written portions of the story; two of them have posted 12 chapters each, and the other has posted 13. The trend continues among other linear stories. However, a popular addventure such as the currently top-ranked “Choose Your Own Adventure” has a similar 45 posts as of this writing, contributed by six different authors.

What I’m getting at with these high-level statistics is that to be a successful site in the collaborative writing arena requires the ability to both diversify your offerings — which we will be doing more of in the future — and to not limit yourself to lofty, difficult-to-attain goals such as generating entire novels. The concept is grand and I’m sure it’ll happen eventually, but coordinating dozens or hundreds of authors on a single story becomes like trying to herd cats. This medium excels at the distribution of small chunks of information, be it crowdsourcing written content or peer-to-peer file sharing systems; allowing users to develop a large selection of short stories instead of a single, elaborate tale is just that. It doesn’t require quite the cohesiveness that writing a novel entails, yet it still engenders that same sense of community and a common bond with other authors (perhaps moreso) that communal novel writing generates.

In any case, I think we’re doing pretty well so far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. What do you think is working well? What could we be doing better? What would you like to see added to the site in the future?

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17 Responses to Thoughts on the collaborative writing process

  1. Rac7hel says:

    Protagonize is the only collaborative writing site I’ve investigated, so I wouldn’t know if any of the others accommodate this idea I have. First let me say that my interest in collaborative writing is purely for practice, feedback and fun. I don’t expect to end up with a complete novel, or even a halfway decent short story. Having expectations for the final product seems to take the fun out of it. (I like the thrill of knowing that I have to deal with anything that anyone throws at me, even if I think it’s crap!)

    Anyway, Protagonize is a great way to get feedback for the original idea for the story, and to practice writing bits of stories here and there. But I’m trying to imagine a way to practice composition. What if when an author starts a story, he has the option of continuing to direct it as it goes along? Maybe when someone adds a chapter, the “director” gets an email, reads the chapter, adds the following chapter title and then posts it. That way you could work on tying all those different segments together, creating a climax, and actually… you know, ending the story at some point. ;)

    I think that could be a really fun challenge for the director as well as for the other authors. What do you think…?

  2. Jillian says:

    I too, am very fond of Protagonize for the main purposes of just having fun, as well as ‘flexing my creative muscles’, as Nick so aptly put it. Also, the addition of rankings and ratings makes it all the more fun and challenging for us authors to write the best stuff we can.

    Commenting on Rac7hel’s idea, I agree that it would be a good way to bring stories together and perhaps make them a bit more cohesive. However, I also agree with Nick that the very idea of Protagonize is to avoid the types of collaborative fiction that seemed to fail so often in the past.

    For example, wouldn’t allowing an author to read a branch before its been posted take most of the fun and spontenaiety out of the whole process? For me, there’s nothing better than getting an email saying someone has posted a followup to my branch and waiting in anticipation to see where they’ve taken the story!

    Also, if a ‘director’ chose not to post a followup branch that had been emailed to them…well, that would really suck for the author who put all the time, effort and creativity into writing that branch only to have it rejected because it didn’t necessarily go along with the original author’s idea or direction.

    Anyway, I think there’s a whole lot of potential for Protagonize and the place it could go. I love to hear (and try to think of) all these great idea’s and imagine all the venues that could open up for all of us writers who love Protagonize so much!


  3. Christophine says:

    Joyride actually arose as a test-run of an idea I had some time ago. I was part of an online writer’s group, and we were given an assignment to write a very unusual love or sex scene, one with a twist. The group broke apart shortly after that, however. Before the date the story was due. My original story was far too smutty for Protagonize (even with a mature rating) so I came up with a different way to play around with the idea of consciousness transferral as entertainment, misused to aid a crime. I wanted to see how it would play out, both with readers and what ideas other authors would come up with around it. Also what new things I might be forced to add, change, or twist to cope with the twists others would throw into the thing.

    I’ve actually been considering ways that Protagonize could be used like an online writer’s group, where people interested in an assignment write a very short story around a moderator’s theme, and critiques and suggestions are offered about the writing by fellow authors. Like Rac7hel’s idea, though, it would require some moderator powers. Something, if I remember right, that will come with the introduction of groups.

  4. Gaelythe says:

    Old habits die hard. The above comment is from me, and I rather forgot that I’d resurrected an ancient username of mine for use on Protagonize rather than the one I use most of the time.

  5. nick says:

    Great feedback so far, guys. I’ll take a little time to digest your comments and post something tomorrow. I just wanted to make sure you guys knew that I’m seeing this. :)

    .. and yes, Gaelythe, I hope the addition of writing circles / groups (I still haven’t settled on a name for it) will help fill the gap we have right now. I’m working on the design for it as we speak. Hopefully I can get it going within the next couple of weeks; it’s turning out to be a bit more complex than I had anticipated, mostly because I have to please a variety of different groups with the end product. I’m betting it’ll be an evolutionary process, but I hope the first release will sate some of the desire for group feedback and critique in a more closed environment.

  6. Gaelythe says:

    Well, Nick, however it goes, I’m sure that the end product will satisfy quite well, even if it needs a few tweaks in the beginning. I have been quite impressed with Protagonize thus far. You do excellent work, a compliment I never extended even when I was happily writing away on AS or PH or the old Addventure-style sites I tried out. So far, the design of your site and the work you’ve put into it have made this the best experience I’ve had in collaborative writing, from the site point of view. I do miss my old co-writers sometimes, but I’m working on them. ;)

  7. Rac7hel says:

    Jillian is right that it would be stupid to have written a whole chapter and then not have it published just because it didn’t “fit.” There must be some way to allow people to write whatever they want, and still give one person some sort of general control over the thing… I like the idea of one person writing all the chapter titles. Of course, there would be some lag time between the chapter being published and the director posting the next title… and during that time you wouldn’t be able to write anything on it. But I don’t know, I think it would still work…

  8. redhat says:

    This has been my first experience with collaborative writing, Nick, so I don’t have a whole lot to compare it to, but It seems like you’ve struck a pretty good balance between structure and freedom. The only quirk I’ve noticed, is that comments seem to get disjointed. Some end up sticking to chapters, stories, and authors, so sometimes it’s tough to follow what’s being said, and to whom.

    Rach, one alternative for more control might be for a story owner to publish a rough outline of how they want the story to progress, and people could write parts that flesh out the outline. I don’t know how that would look on a website, but maybe something like a flowchart diagram that the story owner defines major plot lines and some general ideas. It kind of takes some of the spontaneity out of it though.

  9. Ganga says:

    This is my first fiction writing experience of any kind (collaborative, addventure or solo) – although I’ve been wanting to write fiction for long, and it’s been a funtastic (not a typo ;)) experience so far! It’s fun reading, more fun writing, and even more fun when someone branches off from your story into something you didn’t think of!

    Nick – Agree with your observations on linear and non-linear stories. I thought I was more comfortable with organized linear writing since some addventure-type stories seemed to be spreading out in too many directions, but I guess that’s the fun part of it!

    I’ve found many great stories, with excellent starts. Maybe I was trying for things to be too perfect, but I still wouldn’t mind some times seeing an ending to a story! I know, the fun part of protagonize is not the end product, but the journey. Nevertheless.. (Is there an option to end a story if we thought a certain closure has been reached?)

    As for linear stories, I agree that one wouldn’t have the patience to scroll through 100 chapters unless they were involved since the early stages.

    From my limited observation:

    – Linear stories seem to work very well with small teams who understand and complement each other very well, and have been participating in the process from the early stages. Serious stories are probably better written linear, I think.

    – Non-linear stories seem to work very well for more light-hearted stories where it is “anything goes” – like a WWF mania if you will, for lack of a better analogy ;)

    One more thought – once we categorize a story as linear or non-linear, it looks like we can’t change it. Can we have the option to change this on a chapter by chapter basis – ie., can the author, when posting a chapter decide if they want the next branch to have only one chapter, or have multiple branches?

    I like Rachel’s and Redhat’s suggestions about control for the story – the owner providing an outline of what they have in mind about this story. For instance, Rachel put forth her thoughts about what she was expecting to see in “Death in a Singsong” when she started that one, and everyone followed suit.

  10. nick says:

    Some great suggestions in this thread. Some of the ideas may sound better in theory than in actual implementation, but that’s the whole fun of throwing ideas out there. Eventually some of them will stick to the wall. :)

    To preface my comments with a bit of a caveat, Protagonize is an ever-evolving creature. It’s very organic, and though I do have a long-term roadmap for larger features, the smaller ones tend to be developed a bit more haphazardly and I prioritize based on (a) what I think the site needs to make it work more smoothly, mostly in terms of polish, and (b) what I see people asking for on a regular basis, or things that are obviously hindering their use of the site.

    With that in mind, at a high level, the ability to allow original story authors to guide a storyline (within reason) is definitely of interest. I think that the new groups feature coming in may alleviate this slightly, as group moderators will have some basic administrative-type abilities, and each group will have the option to be locked down tightly to a specific style (or it can be as open as the current system.)

    Additionally, there’s already the obvious option for the original author to add a comment on the story if they want to provide input to other authors.

    I’m toying with the idea of adding some kind of sidebar where the original author can comment or provide notes/guidance on the story separately from the comments, but I don’t know if providing moderator-style controls to every story author is the best way to go. It could definitely cause some chaos if authors get a little overzealous about moderating or pruning their own stories.

    Along the same lines, Vulgrin had emailed me a while back with the suggestion that we should allow multiple versions of the same branch of a story, and users could vote on which one they felt was the best. The highest rated branch or chapter would be shown as users navigated through the story, but then alternate versions could still be viewed, kinda like a Digg-style “below your threshold” style view where you’d have to manually expand the alternate branches to see them. The problem I see with this approach is if someone posts a follow-up chapter or branch, and the parent suddenly gets voted down (and in turn, another branch is surfaced), the story could become totally disjointed, or worse yet, make no sense at all.

    Allowing for some kind of area where the original story can write a brief outline that can potentially be edited throughout the life of the story (and is visible at all times if the user wants to see it) could definitely be done, though.

    Redhat also makes a good point about comments sometimes being a bit hard to follow. I’m hoping that the combination of a few features will address this problem:

    Email notifications; these are working now across the board, and I think they’re helping keep conversations going quite nicely.

    On-site notifications, which I alluded to in last week’s roundup blog post, are coming very soon; they’re basically a recap of all the notifications that have been sent to you since your last login.

    Merged comment view; this is sort of like the “wall-to-wall” that you see on Facebook. Between this and adding a better overall view of all recently posted comments, conversations should become a bit clearer between various parties.

    Groups, which will feature some basic message-board style functionality (utilizing the existing comments system with some modifications); this should work somewhat like the way Flickr does their comment threads within groups.

    Again, excellent feedback so far. I’ll put together another blog post later this week based on the comments here and see if I can filter things down to a more specific list of changes and requests.

  11. Gaelythe says:

    There is, of course, a potential here already for deeper collaboration if folks are willing to do it. We all give an email address when we join the site, and most people seem to have chosen to allow contact by other authors through Protagonize. It’s something that the group I used to collaborate with on Ancient Sites and PanHistoria did. I’ve already outlined the way this works to Nick when he and I were talking about my previous collaborative writing experience, but others might be interested in doing something similar, or it might spark further ideas and discussion. So, here goes:

    We had a fairly large number of writers, and often a large overarching plot that was left just vague enough that it could accomodate a lot of creativity in how each author contributed. We also often had smaller subplots that were created by smaller groups within the main group. We would make plans in a general way via email or postings on a members-only board hidden from the public. It could be very intensive collaboration or fairly loose, and everyone was open to “Well, what if we take it in this direction?” suggestions. We did have something of a moderator, whose main participation in the stories we wrote was to give narrative nudges if we seemed to be stalling, or to haul us back on track (again, through a narrative he wrote in the story) if we wandered too far afield from the main plot. Since most of our collaborative fiction was military in flavor, it was easy for him to post as the supreme commander of the military and issue orders to his officers in order to get things rolling again. Our sideplots, which could grow sometimes as complex as a main plotline and go on for months or years, would carry on merrily side-by-side with the main plot. The sideplots might involve anywhere from two people to eight or ten, rarely more than that. Lots of email flew as general plotlines were hammered out, and some of it was even sometimes roleplayed through some IM client or other if someone wanted to include a conversation but wasn’t sure that they’d be able to keep a character someone else had invented true to the intended personality.

    Obviously something like that would be easier in a group with a story closed down to a particular set of writers, since an entirely open story could have someone come alone and throw a major monkey wrench in the works of some carefully thought-out plotline. The more free-wheeling open story has its joys and challenges, and is great fun. But so can deeper collaboration be. Especially so if your co-authors are people whose writing you enjoy and whose approach can spark new ideas for you.

    I’m accustomed to that kind of deeper collaboration, and have greatly restrained myself from firing off email to other people saying, “Hey, what if this happens, and then this? Want to plan something?” I’ve written to one author because I had an idea for a chapter that would either kill a character he introduced, or at least heavily imply the death of the character. Writing seemed like the polite thing to do. I haven’t gotten a response, so that chapter is on hold currently. But still, the potential is there already through email, if we’re all bold enough to start writing each other with our thoughts, suggestions, and plans.

  12. Superincompetentrobot says:

    Firstly I love Protagonize and am so pleased I StumbledUpon it otherwise I would have never found a site like this. I’ve never really been part of an online writers community before. I have a few suggestions of what I’d like to see and many of them have been said by other people in the comments above me.

    I think sort of ‘Note Board’ system next to the story would be great as a way to see the direction the original author intended and as a way to help progress the story forward. Currently I seem to be using the tags for this. Yesterday I found a story that I was interested in adding a branch to, I saw one of the tags was ‘Cloverfield’ and realised that this was the direction the author wanted to take the story.

    A message board or forum would also be a great way to help develop the community, share ideas about stories, get literary advice and just have a chat.

    I also like the idea of being able to switch between Linear and Branching mid story. I also like the idea of having the original author or a narrator to help progress the story(mainly linear stories) in a set direction.

    Finally Nick I would like to say thanks for a great site. I love the atmosphere on this site, it feels very welcoming and laid back, and it was this atmosphere that made me feel welcome to contribute to the site.

  13. Rac7hel says:

    Anyone please feel free to email me about a story! I’m trying to find more time in my life to focus on this stuff, and I know it would help to have some planning going on behind the scenes.

    Nick, Ganga reminded me of something I thought would be cool. What if you allow the original author to delete a branch that no one has written yet, after at least one branch has been written? That way you could make parts of the story linear, and still branch in different directions at key points.

    I’m excited about the group feature; It sounds like it will spice it up nicely.

  14. redhat says:

    On a side note, I was supporting the site by checking out the sponsors. In the Cafepress link you can buy apparel with the Protagonize logo including a t-shirt for your dog, and a thong among other things. Nice choices Nick. Did you pick those out??

    Dave (redhat)

  15. nick says:

    Yeah, my girlfriend thought the thong was a funny idea. :p

    As an aside, I’m going to buy one of those shirts for my dog, though. I’ll probably be buying a batch of shirts at some point soon and give one featured author each month a t-shirt.

  16. Rac7hel says:

    hey if you pick me, give me the dog t-shirt! I promise, if Joshua wears it, that’s much better advertisement than if I wear it.

  17. Ganga says:

    Aha, now we know the real names of Redhat and Gaelythe! :) It’s interesting to hear your collaborative writing experiences, Gaelythe. I look forward to a lot of such collaborative writing here!

    BTW, didn’t know about the Cafepress products until Redhat mentioned them. Nice!

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