Collaborative Writing: The Nightmare (part one)

National November Writing Month is what inspired the first creative collaborative writing project I was ever a part of. At least for professional reasons. Since role-playing on-line was where most of my writing went, I decided I’d put my talent to use somewhere more productive. Thus, with it being a declared writing month, I tackled the daunting task of producing fifty thousand words for the NaNo WriMo goal. You can make the goal anything you want, but the minimum default count for earning a medal on your profile is fifty thousand words. Remember that count because it’ll become important later.

The problem I ran into during this transition was trying to appease everyone instead of focusing on myself. You see, at the time, I participated in an on-line community for role-playing. To make matters a little more sticky, the person moderating it with me was also a friend. One accustomed to my presence 24/7. Did I mention I had trouble sleeping and spent a great deal of time on-line? I may have forgotten to mention that. I baby my friends, it’s a fault of being a people pleaser and that’s not always a good trait to have, especially for a writer.

After trying to balance daily writing for my personal pursuit and maintaining a presence in the community, I was worn out. I couldn’t shift focus as well as I hoped and I tried to merge the two.

Big mistake.

Don’t ever try to over commit to something. It will burn you and turn people away from you as a flake.

What did I do? I approached my friend and ask if it’d be okay to bounce ideas. Perhaps even use our role-play characters as main characters (MCs) in the story I writing. I was light on well thought out characters and needed help. Without considering any paperwork, I piggybacked on my friend’s excitement. (On the principle this was a friend — why would I want to complicate it with paperwork?) We’ll call this friend Subject 257 and reference it as a ‘he’ for the sake of simplicity. He was overjoyed to consider writing with me and had often declared a love of my writing. I’ll admit it was flattering. We skipped past the part about signing any type of legal agreement or even forming an LLC to protect ourselves. Sped through agreements on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) for beta readers.

For a month and a half we churned out alternating bits of the story by writing in our character POVs. Now for role-playing purposes, that’s fine. You tend to alternate the POVs because it’s a thread done in responses. There’s this practice of not taking over another person’s character without permission. Add a long list of etiquette one has to take while role-playing on-line and somewhere along the way it always gets muddled. I guarantee it. I calculated together we amassed over two-hundred thousand words. A quick glance over showed my posts in response to his were always hefty and thick with details or dialog. As it were, my character responses tended to steer the course of events with a storyteller’s vibe. Nothing wrong with that, but it stood out against his style. Yet finally we were at the stage of revising.

That’s when things blew up.

Somewhere it was forgotten I had stated at the beginning I’d be willing to collaborate with him and at the end I’d handle the editing. Not by myself. No, I wanted to handle the initial edits before submitting it to him for proofing. Two sets of eyes, after all, are always better than one. I knew from the start alternating the POVs per every so many paragraphs would be jarring for the reader. It made me reflect on what I knew: cover, synopsis, and then first page. Those are what I learnt in my novel writing and storytelling classes as an English major. Your first few paragraphs are what draw in potential readers who’ve made it passed the first two stages.

My partner had reservations about my writing when we finished up with over two-hundred thousand words. It was quite the accomplishment for both of us, we took different feelings from it. Subject 257 felt more confident in his writing than ever before. I, who had been through this bumpy ride, wasn’t quite as sure after he would pick at things. Every writer needs a thick skin, don’t forget that. I took it all with a grain of salt and tried to move on.

After the elation wore off there was this awkward situation of the project no longer going as planned. He made remarks of how he knew what the market wanted to see and that he would edit the story in a way to maintain a reader’s interest. The sudden attack on my degree, which was never touted, was depressing. I went from being someone he found inspiring and loved reading to suddenly not knowing how to write.

I’m paraphrasing things as no one needs a repetition of the hateful things said — this is why I believe writers need a thick skin. I pulled back from the project stumped. Made excuses to give myself time to contemplate where things went wrong. Yet in the time I was taking to see if I was being too controlling he was sharing the story with other people. Without asking them to sign an NDA. Before all this, I stated the need for an NDA because I’ve had my work stolen in the past. I trusted him not to steal my idea which I’ve spent twelve years now working on. Trust is a fragile thing. I’m telling you now. So take something from this recollection and sign an agreement with your collaborative partner.

What did I end up doing?

Well, I did a blind study. If he could release our work, without abiding our agreement, I could do something similar. I took the initiative and rewrote the first chapter without using any added content Subject 257 lent. It took me a little time to reorganize things, but by the end of the day I had a new first chapter consisting of my original idea. I selected five random people I knew with different reading preferences and career backgrounds. To these people I presented both copies of the first chapter without any clue about who wrote what.

Since the sampling size was small, I expected random results except they weren’t. 4 out of 5 preferred the chapter I rewrote to the one Subject 257 edited. Of these people, only one knew my writing style so I know the results weren’t skewed. The biggest complaint about the collaborative piece was the alternating POVs. The voice didn’t carry itself well as a result and it became confusing for people trying to follow along. It was a concern I brought up before having to go this far for proof. The one person who preferred the collaborative piece changed their mind after I revealed more about the story. Unrealistic was a term tossed around. A character needs flaws, which mine had.

After reviewing the collaborative piece again, I came to realize it was lovely for role-play, but not publication — it wasn’t Fifty Shades of Grey. It had potential, but with the issue of editing getting in the way, it never had a chance to fully develop. I spent over a year and a half away from writing due to the hurtful things said. Remember when I said to have thick skin? This was my first step in helping me accomplish it.

Up Next: What I took away from this experience and how it helped me as a writer.

3 comments for “Collaborative Writing: The Nightmare (part one)

  1. April 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    I thought reading 50 Shades of Grey was like reading a twilight script, lots of longing looks, poorly conveyed emotion and dead characters.

    Seriously though, some amazing storyline is spun in online role-playing forums and chat rooms, great for visualization and conductive experience. But as for reading in novel form, it would be terribly disorienting, you must have excellent editing skills.

    • April 1, 2014 at 4:35 pm

      To be fair, I have not read, nor ever will read, Fifty Shades of Gray. It was referenced because it’s widely known to have been a Twilight fanfiction at its initiation.

      The most I can tell you about knowing of it is what I’ve taken from Wikipedia and watching Ellen DeGeneres try to read it aloud on YouTube.

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