This is the Captain Speaking
Three years ago, nearly to the day, on a chilly, lonely evening, I sat in front of a blank page wondering how I was going to start my Fiction Friday for the week. The prompt had me stumped so I closed my eyes, reaching out into the inky darkness of inspiration and asked for a hint. The swish of a heavy cape and smell of a dank, musty cellar assaulted my senses. A whispered word and my fingers began to fly over the keyboard. It wasn’t until the last sentence, that I realised where the cape made its entrance and worst still, who owned it. I refused to type the last sentence, so fearful I had overstepped all boundaries.
One of the characters, from a writer I respected enormously, had visited my page and had enticed me into his world, one which had only been hinted at in a few published stories previously. I completed the flash fiction and posted it, took it down, and then published it again. I bit my nails. I then contacted the writer and waited for them to sue me, yell across the continents at me or some other hideous punishment for daring to do what I had done.
Instead, that writer immediately wrote the next chapter to my story. Another talented and daring writer read both of them and wrote a story which gave ours depth and a direction. The Astonishing Adventures of Captain Juan was birthed and was religiously written between us, once a week, posted online, with the rest of the week filled with emails and discussions on where the next chapter would take us. The story grew organically, each of us writing in turn, without it being a chore or regimented. Our conversations about characters were free, positive and encouraging. I think I can speak for each of the writers in saying that the story wrote itself. Characters chose particular writers to divulge their view of the events and loose ends which often made no sense to one writer as they added it in, was quickly picked up and explained in the next episode. In saying that, no character stayed exclusively with one writer, nor one plot line directed by one. This was a collaborative affair, sharing of talents and minds. We never thought of story as being a collaborative project, rather than a fight between the characters over whose part of the adventure will next be told.
Readers could guess at which of the three wrote a particular chapter, but on the whole, it was fairly seamless. I might note too, that much of the collaboration was done online and across continents.
70,000 words down the line, we had a world so real, characters so close, that they would visit us in other worlds, nag and harass us, just so that their stories be told as well. Conspiracy, subplots and more double-crossing than you could poke a rapier at, drenched these pages. What we had written was only the beginning of a much larger saga. It was an intense time to be writing anything other than CJ. It’s a time I feel blessed to have been part of and blessed to have worked with such selfless, talented co-writers.
At the time, I believed that ‘all’ writers did exactly what we did; shared a love of writing, shared our thoughts and characters and encouraging each other to do our best for the ‘good of the plotline and characters involved.’ I’d not considered how challenged others may be in sharing the way we did.
The Captain’s ship is becalmed now. The crew have been pacing the decks and squinting at the horizon; corsairs have been sighted and they itch to begin the battle. One of the key characters awaits for her contract to be renewed. She is currently in the sea; drowning, unless someone saves her, that is.
On dry land, the writers decided that CJ deserved a better port than the dodgy website we started it on, and that, given our small, but enthusiastic following, we ought to look at formally serialising it. Though the characters arrived well established, they had chosen not to fully disclose secrets along the way, so for the story to continue, subplots to play out, the sequencing of events would need to be changed. Our first drafts have been pulled from public view and await editing and a relaunch.
I miss the Captain. I miss the crew. I miss the other two writers; who have now moved onto other projects and interests. I miss the shared passion we had, the excitement of being on those adventures and in being part of voicing those tales from an alternate universe, set somewhere in the 16th century. CJ was truly a collaborative affair. It would be unseemly and downright impossible for me to think about writing the next chapter if the others weren’t ‘on board’. The world which we created is closed until such time we three can come together again. Perhaps this will never happen; which would be a great shame.
It was an extremely exciting, passionate flurry of combined talents and one which I strongly believe assisted shaping me as a writer and manager for subsequent collaborative writing projects.
CJ gave me a thirst for collaborative works and to push the boundaries and understandings of what it is to write with other people. It is with experience that I can offer this advice.
There is no place for ego in collaborative writing; no place for character ownership or control freaks. For a collaborative writing project to succeed, writers must strive for the good of the collective, rather than to highlight themselves or their contributions.
Clear, non judgmental communication is paramount in a collaborative writing project. An enormous amount of trust is needed between those involved, not only in the skill of the written word, but for the empathic dealings with characters. Writers need to trust not only themselves and their team mates, but the characters themselves to continue telling their story.
Collaborative fiction writing is not for everyone. In no way does it mean that one person is a better (or worse) writer or human being than another. It is natural and normal for writers get very attached to their work and characters, and while it’s understandable, it’s not appropriate in a collaborative setting, where the stories or project needs to agree and form a cohesive whole.
Writing collaboratively paves a way into deeper understandings of both your writing skills and in the world you are creating as a group. It allows the story to go places your individual writing might never venture. Collaborative writing engenders a support network and a shared focus; one with has the opportunity to carry you a lot further along your journey as a writer than the end of the project.
There are a number of ways you can ‘get into’ collaborative fiction writing. Some are formal affairs where there are contracts involved, others are more organic, such as the arrangement the writers for CJ had. Seek out writers who write in similar genres as you and approach them with an idea. Start an idea of a story or plotline and ask for others to join you.
It’s an incredible journey, one where you can learn more about yourself through others writing than you can imagine. But with all things; you only get out of it, what you are prepared to put in.
Try it.. you might just like it.. and get hooked; like so many of us.
Photo from private collection