On Collaborative Writing

Dogs [via jsorbie on Flickr]When I joined Protagonize almost three years ago there was no such thing as a Solo story – everything was open for collaboration. There wasn’t even any Author Guidance, so you couldn’t warn people off of adding a chapter to your story. So much has changed in those three years, but I sometimes find myself somewhat nostalgic for the adrenaline rush of hitting “Publish” without explicit guidance.

I got my start by adding a few chapters to various budding collaborative stories, without asking anyone’s permission or having a set of guidelines to follow. Looking back it seems quite daunting. I was new to the site and I leaped in head first. Luckily, other authors ran with my additions, and soon we had a few rapidly developing stories that no-one could ever predict. That came to be my favourite part of collaboration: ending a chapter with some sort of hook, not for the reader’s sake, but to see how the next author would react. Never, not once, did events follow as I would have written them myself.

Great minds may think alike, but greater minds think differently than those around them.

Unfortunately, that’s also one of the biggest stumbling blocks in collaborative writing. Not everyone thinks the same way you do, and sometimes another author may take the story in a completely unexpected and unwelcome direction. For the most part you’ve got to work with the change, but there are some steps you can take to avoid this sort of situation.

If you started the story, make use of your author guidance. Have a development plan for a character? Outline it in the author guidance, it’s meant to be a tool for people adding to the story, not as a summary. If you’re running a roleplay, make sure to say that only certain authors are allowed to write as certain characters, or that the story is closed to further collaboration. If you didn’t start the story, make sure that the person with control over the author guidance is using that feature effectively. Once you’ve added a chapter to a story, it’s your story too.

Here are some things to remember when working collaboratively:

  • not everyone thinks the way you do; if you aren’t explicit in your writing or your author guidance, don’t become angry when things don’t go your way
  • politeness can get you a long way, and is often much more effective than attacking someone for “ruining” the story
  • the story is not exclusively yours just as much as it doesn’t belong solely to any other person
  • same with characters: you may have an emotional attachment to a character, but once they’re in the story other authors can and will help develop them to further the story

Nowadays, I often see the word “collab” in discussions and on stories. It’s great to see people collaborating on story arcs, but why not take it a step further and share in character creation, too? Here’s my challenge to you: find another author to work with (the recently featured Duo Madness or the Collaborative Corner groups will be good for this) and work together on telling the story of a single character. Adopting the same perspective and trying to make the chapters seamless as if they were written by a single author is one of the best challenges in writing collaboratively.

And finally, some things pertinent to collaboration that the Moderators would like you to remember:

  • if you didn’t write the chapter, you can’t request that it be deleted
  • author guidance is just that – guidance; it does not have to be followed, but it is both polite and respectful to do so
  • label your works properly! “Collabs” in which each author has exclusive control over a character should be put in the Exercise – Roleplay category.

Happy Protagonizing, and g’luck with all your current and future collaborations.

Image courtesy of jsorbie on Flickr.

About Jackerbie

Jack is an infrequent writer, an avid music listener, casual photographer, and globetrotter. He's also a moderator, addicted to caffeine, and frequently mistaken for someone named Jason. His natural habitat is on southern Vancouver Island, but you can currently find him in Vancouver.
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3 Responses to On Collaborative Writing

  1. Delorfinde says:

    Ah, rapidly growing stories … the Protagonize Bus was one of those, even if it came after the solo story option! It grew so fast I’d have about ten pages to read in a day. So glad I leaped in early, because folk who joined later had hundreds of chapters to read first. I only had 9 …
    Same with the Hideout for Misfit Characters I guess. And that was mental.
    You know, the thing that those have got in common is that by the end of them (or where they stopped anyway) no one had a clue what was going on or who was where. They’re great fun when you know what’s happening, but they can be pretty hard to follow.

    • i think what made the Bus and Hideout so hard to follow was that each new author brought in a new character, somewhat roleplay style. it’s a lot easier to keep track of only a few characters, that’s fersuure!

  2. FogCat says:

    Excellent article, Jack. It gets right to the heart of the matter.
    My life as an undergrad is about to come to a roaring conclusion, and I can’t want to dive back into collaborative writing on protag this summer.

    I miss the magic of making the chapter ending gnarly for the next reader… and of picking up on threads of plot from the previous chapter and creating worlds out of them. I used to try to out-write my co-writer(s) with every chapter. If they rise to the challenge, you can both find yourself writing beyond the things you thought you were capable of. Best feeling, ever.

    -Megan

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