In April 2018, the Collaborative Writing Challenge released Army of Brass, their seventh collaborative novel and a fun steampunk adventure. During the launch, more and more people were talking about collaborative writing. How do you do it? Is it hard? What are the benefits? Today I’m going to talk about all of that and more, with a feature from the coordinator of the novel herself, Phoebe Darqueling.
What is collaborative writing?
Collaborative writing is a single story crafted by more than one writer. Even just two people working together constitute a collaborative effort. The methods they choose to use may differ, but the result is the same: a coherent novel.
In some situations, multiple minds are put together in the creation while only one or two people do the actual writing itself. Often times, many writers will take turns writing a continuous plot line using the same characters, setting, and conflict. Every contribution to the work is a part of what makes it what it is, no matter how small or insignificant they may think their part was. It’s all for the greater good! 😉
Why you should do it: the pros
- Strengths and weaknesses often even out. A lot of writers struggle at the thought of coming up with a full plot on their own. Some excel at the story’s beginning and setting characters on a path. Some are brilliant at twisting up an ending and neatly tying up loose ends. Some craft daring adventures but have no idea how to get a character into that situation. With a collaboration, everyone gets to let their strong points shine.
- Choices, choices! Most collaborative works are told from multiple points of view, leaving each author with the choice of who they want to write from or what scene they want to tackle. It keeps things fun and often allows everyone to write the character they are most comfortable with.
- More writers means less work for each person. Sometimes, just the idea of writing 70,000 words (give or take a few ten thousand) can cause quite a bit of anxiety. That’s a lot of words! Working with other writers not only gives you a bit of a break in between sections, but it also helps make that daunting task seem a bit more manageable. I might struggle with writing 70,000 words, but I can write 2,500 a few times and be okay.
- Less chance of writer’s block. If you get stuck on a scene, no worries. Just hand it over to the next writer and let them take the wheel. When it comes back around to you, you’ll be less likely to get stuck because you’ll be considering a new scene or angle at that point.
- A surprise at every turn! One of the most fun and challenging aspects of collaborations is seeing where other authors take the story. You might envision the main character meeting a new love interest in the abandoned city, while the next author might actually write them confronting a new villain! (Or both? Plot twist!) It’s exciting to get that next chapter and see what you have to work with. It never gets boring, that’s for sure.
- Marketing efforts are doubled. When you write and publish a book on your own, you take sole responsibility for marketing that book and getting it in the hands of readers. When you work with others, that book becomes everyone’s “baby” and you all do your best to see it succeed. More people marketing it means higher visibility and therefore a better chance of it getting out there.
Challenges you may face: the cons
- Differences of opinion. This is the one everyone worries about the most. You may not all agree on the direction the story is heading or on certain additions other authors might add. You’ll need to work out ahead of time how you’ll handle these instances: you’ll have to be willing to either work together to alter the story line or you’ll have to be able to let go of your previously planned direction and work with what you’re given. Not every chapter will go the way you envision it unless you’re the one writing it, so be prepared to change your plans at a chapter’s notice.
- Surprise, surprise! Although surprises are listed as a pro in the above list, they are also considered a con. Not everyone is always so thrilled about a surprise twist just before their chapter, and sometimes they can be hard to work with. Especially when it steers the story in a completely different direction. Accommodating these new plot lines, characters, or twists can be a huge challenge, and could cause anxiety for some writers. It’s also one of the most rewarding feelings when you manage it, so again, this is just as much a pro as a con.
- Dropouts. One of the biggest things that sees collaborative works fail is having people drop out of the writing. In larger groups, this isn’t as big of an issue, but one-on-one or in small groups, this can devastate a story. Especially if the dropout decides to pull all of their written chapters as well. I’ve seen half-finished collaborations practically start over because of authors having a disagreement and pulling their work.
- Delays. Another issue that could arise is when an author is supposed to be writing but mysteriously disappears and doesn’t respond to messages for days or weeks on end. This also includes the “excusers”: those writers who always have an excuse for why their writing is late or delayed and are always saying “I’m working on it, I promise! I”ll have it done tomorrow!” then take a week to finish up. These can be avoided by having a set writing schedule with the stipulation that the writing will skip ahead to the next writer after a certain amount of time, but not all collaborations follow schedules. Delays can mean losing steam, losing motivation, and losing interest in the story altogether.
- Missing marketing. It might take a group to make a collaborative story, but it only takes one person to market it, right? Some authors won’t tell you they feel this way until you’re already in the marketing stages, and it’s frustrating. They feel as if the writing itself was their part, and that it’s not their job to push it to the readers. They’ve done the “hard work” in their eyes. If this isn’t established early on, you may find yourself doing all of the marketing for a group that doesn’t seem to care nearly as much as they did when they were writing.
All in all, the pros and cons are fairly balanced. Some of them can even be switched for certain people. Some authors see sharing the work as a con, while others think the discussions that arise from differences of opinion help shape the final product. You’ll need to give it a shot and see for yourself just how well collaborative writing fits your style (or doesn’t). It’s worth a try, anyway. And there’s a lot you’ll find yourself learning along the way.
How does it work?
I’ve personally attempted collaborative writing four different ways, and each had its own challenges and rewards. There are many variations to these, so I’ll keep it basic.
Method 1: the think tank
This form of collaborative writing focuses on the story’s creation more than on the writing itself. A group of contributors come together to discuss characters, personalities, relationships, conflicts, back stories, plot lines, and twists. Once a detailed idea is hammered out and agreed upon, one or two writers pen it down in novel form. Typically, a general story line is decided upon and then each chapter or scene is discussed in depth before they’re written to ensure all major details will be included.
Method 2: one-on-one
This involves two authors alternating the writing, either by chapter or scene, and discussing the potential story lines in between. This method works great for close friends or for people who know that they get along, communicate well, and have similar writing styles. Because this involves such close contact, I don’t recommend it for total strangers. Not that it can’t work with strangers, it just tends to be a bit harder, as close friends are more likely to be a bit more expecting and accepting of what the other might come up with.
Method 3: a group effort
One of my favorite methods is the group effort. Three or more writers (with no real limitation on how many, though more is harder to manage) take turns writing a chapter each. In this method, an overarching plot is rarely decided ahead of time, leaving each author to direct the story any way they like. This gets you the most surprises in the story but can also potentially have the most disagreements. You’ll want to make sure everyone is in frequent contact, and have a plan for the off-chance that someone drops out or gets delayed. In my experience, this is the method that has the most pros and cons to it, and is also one of the most rewarding to finish.
Method 4: organized submissions
This is the method they use over at the Collaborative Writing Challenge (CWC) and it’s another favorite of mine. It’s well organized and gives a large number of writers a fair shot at being included without sacrificing the story’s potential. It works on a submission basis, where 3-5 writers are all given the previously written chapter and a list of reference notes (including character bios, settings, and plot lines). The writers each take a shot writing the next chapter in the story, and a story coordinator reads the submissions and chooses the best fit. Writers have the option of attempting multiple chapters, so if their first chapter isn’t chosen, they still get another try. Even if you don’t get any chapters into the story, the writing itself is a wonderful experience and most writers agree that they are glad they participated.
The making of Army of Brass
Most collaborations tend to be plot-heavy. That wasn’t the case here. I’m more than pleased with the way Army of Brass turned out. It is by far the most detailed of the CWC novels to date and combines more characters, intrigue, development, and subplots than any previous novel. It sounds intense, but those writers handled it with ease. I’m thoroughly impressed by the authors who participated and what they were able to bring to the table.
In addition to being the most in-depth of the CWC’s novels, it was also a new genre for the writers. Steampunk hadn’t been done before, and the story coordinator for this project, Phoebe Darqueling, went above and beyond to make sure everyone had all the information they might need to get started, including the definition, common tropes, and examples of the fun and quirky genre. Here’s what she had to say about her experience as a coordinator, challenges she faced, and being on the “other side” of the collaborative writing process.
Despite a lack of familiarity with the genre, many of the CWC writers stepped up to the challenge and performed brilliantly. Others were clearly intimidated, and I had several weeks with very few or no submissions at all. On top of that, with so many intertwined storylines, trying to find balance and keep them all rolling along was another challenge. It made it very difficult to choose more than one chapter at a time because the authors often tried to advance several plotlines within one chapter, and this multi-pronged approach often couldn’t be reconciled with other submissions.
Now that I was on the other side of the decision-making process, I gained a whole new appreciation for what “rejection” means and the many factors involved choosing works by different authors and making them fit together. During the editing process, I did quite a bit of splitting and reorganizing the order of chapters to achieve the balance and pacing the story deserved. In addition, my own editing experience helped me to go back and add a few vital sentences here and there to create a coherent whole, and I think the writers and readers alike will be very pleased with the results. In fact, Army of Brass is already being hailed as the best novel produced by the Collaborative Writing Challenge, so thank you to everyone who contributed your time and creativity to the process.
This was one of the most challenging and rewarding collaborations I’ve ever had the honor of being a part of, and I’m so glad I got to experience it, because this was my first true steampunk story, too.
For anyone who hasn’t experienced collaborative writing, I fully recommend you give it a try. Not only will it challenge you as a writer, but it deepens your understanding of a story’s balance and pacing. It teaches you to analyze previous chapters and explore potential outcomes as well as how to tie together seemingly disconnected plot lines. Your communication skills will gain a boost as you work alongside other authors, and you’ll end up with a really fun writing credit to add to your resume!
If you’re still unsure, check out Army of Brass for yourself and see what collaborative writing can produce. 🙂
Order your e-book copy of Army of Brass on Amazon.