Fiction writer’s block, to be specific. I’ve written here and there on this blog a bit, and I’m a copywriter in my day job. No problems there really.
But the ghost story that started flowing like molten lava in the fall of 2009 turned to stone in the fall of 2012. In fact, last summer I got a comment that said, “Where the heck is the rest of the story! 2012? It’s 2015!”
Good point. And soon it will be 2016.
When I got that comment, I was elated that someone read the chapters that are out there and couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. I hoped that Strangecat’s interest would fire up my creative power.
But my most creative hours have always been between 1 and 4 a.m.
But I have a 9 to 5 and I need my sleep.
And on the weekends there’s no time.
And I have many more excuses.
Then an idea came.
Last fall while I was on vacation in France, a sudden inspiration struck me. Not for The House on the Lake (which, BTW, is actually written and done…in my head, just not on paper).
The idea that came was for a comic story about a living gargoyle.
The first several paragraphs flowed effortlessly, which is common for me. Never any problem starting stories.
What happens is this crazy foot-tall gargoyle cat pops in through the narrator’s window and says he grants wishes. He’s irritated about his “tragic fate” and he’s rude, rushed, and ornery.
“What do you want, madame?” he demands, and Madame is like, “What do I want? You’re the one who popped through my window. What do YOU want?”
Then I got stuck again.
The magical creature gives the narrator the chance to have a wish fulfilled–but how does she phrase her wish so that she really gets what she wants? How does she avoid all that crap that often happens in wish-granting stories, where the wish is taken too literally, or wrongly, or it upsets fate?
So I sent the intro to some writer friends and asked them what they think happens next.
I was on to something by asking that.
But I hadn’t phrased it quite right, because I didn’t know yet exactly what I was asking for. Kind of like what I was trying to avoid for the narrator in the gargoyle story.
I got responses like “I can totally picture this” and “I love this crazy gargoyle character and want to know how he got cursed with his ‘tragic fate’ of granting wishes.”
And stuff like that.
But encouragement wasn’t what I was looking for.
Then, three months later, what I was looking for finally occurred to me.
Have THEM write the next installment.
I asked a couple friends if they wanted to do this. Both were down.
The first to write the next installment laid down 9 short paragraphs that paved the way for exactly where the story needed to go.
When it was my turn again, I was on fire: My shit was funny, it was propelling, some of it was moving and beautiful.
Same with my friend’s.
We went back and forth I think three times each, and within two days we’d finished a story I probably never would have wrapped up otherwise.
Why this is weird, but cool
Writing is a solitary activity for most of us. Writers are generally introverts. Not all, but many. We’re not all shy per se, but we tend to restore ourselves by thinking and writing alone.
So working together is almost counterintuitive.
But there are a lot of writers who find it natural to do. Only screenwriters are occurring to me right now–the Coen Brothers, for example. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that one time. Francois Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman a lot of times.
But there are great children’s books, cookbooks, travel books, and all kinds of books and stories that are the products of two or more people.
OK, here’s a fiction example, sort of: Grimms’ fairy tales.
And some Wikipedia information on collaborative fiction.
Basically, great stories can be born from collaboration.
Why it worked for me
1. It’s easy.
I’m busy, and I’m lazy.
I’m not really lazy, but you know what I mean.
When you’re working off a cue someone gives you, then doing your part is almost like filling in the blanks.
I do this a lot with nonfiction too, when I’m ghostwriting at work. I’ll write a friendly intro, pop in some bones and as much meat as I can, write the call to action, and then send the draft to the person whose name is going on the finished piece and ask them to add or change anything they think is necessary, since they have more details than me–because they went to the conference or they’re teaching the course or whatever. Then I edit their additions and boom–within a day we have a helpful piece of SME content for our audience.
The same seems to go for fiction:
It’s just easy to take something where you want it to go when someone gives you prompts.
2. It’s convivial.
I remember being at lunch at Vermont College, which used to have a very untraditional and incredibly awesome low-residency undergraduate degree program, where you designed your own study around your passions and did most of the semester’s work from wherever you happened to be.
I was eating with a writer friend and one of our advisors, and they were talking about a spontaneous jam that had occurred during a previous residency, where everyone was gathered around a campfire and there were guitar players and singers and people with flutes and tambourines, and the advisor, at lunch, commented on how much he had enjoyed the unifying spirit of making music that night–how collaboration takes things where you don’t expect, and creates a sound and a mood that feeds your soul.
I admired what he was talking about, and totally regretted that I wasn’t a musician.
But when you write with someone, you sort of are.
Your intro paragraphs are like the guitar line (if that’s the term) and the drumbeat, and your writing pal brings in the bass, and then you start singing, and then your writing pal harmonizes with your vocals.
How this worked with the gargoyle story is that my friend’s first installment inspired me to go into the gargoyle’s history in my second installment, and then everything just flowed. I’d been avoiding the gargoyle’s history when I was writing the story on my own because I was set on getting straight to the narrator’s wish.
But this song benefited from the bass and the harmony that took it in a direction I hadn’t intended, but ended up enjoying.
3. It’s fun if you’re competitive too.
We didn’t try to kick each other’s asses, but we upped each other’s games.
4. It’s motivating.
I’ve written about this before: Once you’ve got your springboard, it’s actually hard not to dive into the lake of your work because the momentum is finally there.
Exceptions, and avoiding pitfalls
I wouldn’t try this for every story. For example, The House on the Lake is completely my own. Collaborating happened to work for The Magician of St. Pierre because I’m not married to the story.
Being flexible is essential.
Want to try collaborative writing?
Try it with a story where you know you’re not going to read your friend’s installment and be like, “THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Try it with a story you feel open about, where you know you’ll read your friend’s installment and be like, “Huh. YES. I wouldn’t have thought of that. But I can go with it.”
Choosing the right writer is key.
I knew this story would work with Josh because we once co-wrote an absurd and affectionate parody of Nancy Drew stories.
The Magician of St. Pierre was perfect for this because it too is comic and absurd.
I’m lucky to have a few fellow writers who I write or tell stories with. But I wouldn’t co-write with a writer who doesn’t share my style of humor or my love of certain genres.
I’m going to edit our collaboration and maybe enter it in some short story competitions.
If anything comes of it, I’ll let you know.
I’ll also be working on a different treatment of the story with another friend who wants to work in longhand via US Mail. We both feel like sometimes all this instantaneous blue light crap can be too much.
On the other hand, it’s pretty cool to open the Google Docs app and see what your friend is typing, live as they’re typing it.
If you do collaborative writing, let me know what you think and how it goes!
Photo by Flickr user Kit Dunsmore.