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Monday, 25 July 2016

Collaborative Writing: How Hard Can It Be?

Over the years, you may or may not have noticed that something called the Northern Beaches Writers' Group regularly makes the ill-advised decision to include me in the creation of a collaboratively written children's book.

This is part of the Write a Book in a Day challenge, where writers and illustrators write, illustrate and bind a book within twelve hours, all to raise money for the fight against childhood cancers. Well, last Saturday we assembled at our secret fantasy factory and did just that, emerging at the end of the twelve hours with a book about a magical spider amulet, sinister secret societies and a time-travelling convict.

The work begins...
Of course, the process of writing a book in such a short time, and collaboratively at that, can only be described as fraught. To steal a line from one of my favourite Dark Age chroniclers: "A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some bad."  

When we all rocked up at stupid o'clock, the general mood was upbeat. Much food and many excellent baked goods had been brought, confidence was high and nobody was hungover or at all worried about spending twelve hours on a non-smoking site. Nobody.

As a group of seasoned, multiple award-winning WABIAD veterans, there wasn't quite as much naked terror in the room as one might have expected. When the email dropped in, we were relaxed, confident, and ready to roll. We were to write about a spider, an escaped convict, a beautician and rubbish tip. This author kept his mouth resolutely shut for the first minutes of the brainstorming session, being utterly determined to keep anything resembling a robot or a military vehicle out of it.

No robots were created in the making of this book.
What we ended up with was a tale which spanned two centuries, several cultures and, because I was there, included firearms and humorously stereotypical Chinese secret societies. We cracked into writing, I cracked into feverishly deleting passages containing profanity, death and sex (I kid you not) and then we all settled back for our first read through.

This is where it gets interesting. As we read through each chapter, it became apparent that not a single one of us had come away with a common understanding of the (admittedly quantum physics complex) plot line. Devastation! Disaster! Something else beginning with 'D'!

With a lesser, merely mortal group of authors, we would have expected something like this to happen:

But no - this is the legendary NBWG. Everyone took a breath. I consumed half a pound of nicotine gum, and a discussion took place in which everyone's politeness instantly attained an elaborate, Jane Austen level of intensity. Plot holes were identified, compromises made, faults eagerly admitted and gnawing, soul-destroying anxiety and rage carefully hidden. In short, we smiled, communicated and then formed like Voltron to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

We all settled down to work again except, of course, for me. My chapter containing nothing but a firefight and some people shouting at each other, I filled the time by adding another firefight and doing a last minute check for profanity, etc. Rather dishearteningly, I found some. Then, after a mere three and half hours, we had converted eight more or less disconnected chapters from wildly different books into a seamless and compelling tale.

A brilliant bunch of professionals. And some bloke with a ponytail.
And this is really what this post is about. I've been collaborating with these people for so long that I now take the process for granted. This is very, very wrong. Some very special qualities are required for successful collaborative writing, and all of our team has these in spades. Faced with a potential disaster, every single one of them sunk their egos, pride and irritation, negotiated from positions of extreme generosity and never once lost their tempers, even consenting to accept advice from a seething Chinese person mumbling through a huge mouthful of Nicabate.

I know that the usual practice is to simply panegyrise everyone involved, over-use exclamation points and thank everyone and everything it is possible to think of, up to and including the weather, the traffic and people who weren't involved in any way. But that would be to miss an opportunity to showcase just how profoundly impressive the NBWG team actually is.

If you want a more detailed breakdown of the collaborative process, with special emphasis on recovery, watch this space - one will be coming out very soon, using our book "The Time of the Jade Spider" as a case study.

If you want to sponsor us (and I know you do), you can still do so until the end of August.

The link is:

The team is: Northern Beaches Writers' Group

And the cause is a fantastically good one.

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