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?