Hell is not other writers
“Hell is other people.” — Jean-Paul Sartre (No Exit: A Play in One Act)
Last year I got my first real taste of collaborative prose writing as one of twenty authors included in 2010’s Chinese Whisperings: The Yin and Yang books. The concept of Chinese Whisperings is elegantly simple: short fiction anthologies in which each story ripples into the next. Only with the 2010 offering things were made even more exciting/complicated (delete as appropriate) with each story rippling back into the stories that preceded it as well across the two volumes, The Yin and The Yang books.
Like most things these days I discovered Chinese Whisperings via twitter. Following CW editor Jodi Cleghorn’s tweets last year led me to the then very red CW website. This was around this time last year, back when Jodi, Paul and the ten writers of The Red Book were busy promoting eMergent Publishing’s first collection of intertwined short fiction. I loved the idea and promptly set about tweeting about it to anyone who might listen. I reviewed the collection on my blog, super impressed at the range of genre and style possible within a collection of stories set within the same fictional world. All of which explains why, when asked if I wanted to take part in this years Chinese Whisperings anthologies, I didn’t hesitate. And the biggest draw? The excitement of writing in conjunction with twenty other authors.
Actually writing my story was the easy part, just as the tip of the ice berg is the pretty floaty bit. I made no secret that right up to the start date for my writing slot I had no idea at all what I was going to write about. That Monday morning I sat down at my typewriter, kids safely delivered to school, I found my inspiration in a news story and set about building my characters around a simple premise. In a day or two I had my first draft. That was when the real work began.
I knew from my outsider’s view of The Red Book’s creation, that writing for CW would be a collaborative experience, both with the editors and the other writers, one that would, of necessity, be fluid and organic as possible connections between stories became actual. I wasn’t prepared for just how that collaboration would help me grow as a writer. Nor had I anticipated just how exciting it was to see other writers take my characters and show them back to me.
Over the course of drafting my story I travelled down dead ends with Tony Noland as we crafted a great crossover point in our stories only to realise too late such a meeting was physically impossible due to the inconvenience of airport security check-ins, learnt something about one of my duo of main characters that had a real impact on my subsequent drafts from watching her do her thing in Claudia Osmond’s story for The Yin Book. By the time my story was complete I had incorporated a character from Jason Coggin’s story, whose relationship with my duo shed real light on some of the darker parts of my tale, while Annie Evett managed to reveal to me more about both my characters as she folded them into her story. I thought taking part in the collaborative side of CW would be fun, but I didn’t expect to be shown something new and totally intrinsic about my characters during the process, yet that is exactly what these talented authors did. All them gifted me wonderful details that helped expose the hidden desires of Calvin and his mother.
Like anything worth doing, writing for Chinese Whisperings was a lot of work, not least for our two tireless editors. As a writer I learnt a great deal from sharing a playground and letting other writers play with my toys. Having to accommodate other writers’ visions has made me a little less precious about my own, while the fresh perspectives provided by so many talented collaborators has helped me to see further into the characters in my own writing over the last year.
About this time last year we were all in the throes of hammering out first drafts, redrafts or final drafts of our stories; each round of stories, with their new characters and outlooks, leading to new and fresh takes on our own. Writing is often a solitary marathon undertaken with just a laptop and notebook for company. Taking part in Chinese Whisperings was more of a fun run undertaken with friends. If you get the chance to take part in similar project, check your ego at the door and run with it. Your writing self will be fitter and happier as a result, taking that energy into back into your own subsequent work. Looks like Sartre’s comment might need qualifying.