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Collaborations - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
In the Angel meme, we got talking about doing a "virtual spin-off," and I pointed out that I would definitely not want to do it alone, and that set me thinking about all the collaborations I've worked on, from early high school on. It's gone from the incredibly great to the... well, there is no word. Let's just say that for awhile after I finished my undergraduate education, the thought of working with other writers without absolutely strict and unbreakable chains of authority filled me with dread and terror.

On the good side, I have made a ton of friends writing collaboratively. My friend Kim and I pretty much bonded over writing a script for Olympics (now Odyssey) of the Mind. We'd known one another casually (you have to in a small town where no one ever really switches schools), but one day, our coach/guidance counsellor grabbed us away from scenery-painting and said, "Hey, we need a script." (Yes... marvel at the sequence of events.) We worked together on that, then on some SW fanfic (the Sue-errific Images of Darkness, which I still love and will write a scene featuring my character in), and then finally another friend brought in a contest for young writers, and the three of us wrote a novel called To Cry A Silent Tear, about a group of pacifists trying to unite the world by chasing soldiers out of bases and then, er, unplugging things or maybe smashing computers. Sometimes, we'd persuade a diplomat to go along with us, if I recall. But the plot wasn't the point--we worked together on it, forming the characters in late night improv sessions (actually acting and trying to make each other cry), meeting weekly to read and edit one another's contributions and plan out the next section, organizing the whole thing. If I recall, we used to tear a single sheet of looseleaf paper into three sections and write out the major points of a chapter on each section, which would then be handed out and stapled to the completed chapter, to be turned in at the next meeting. My Aunt J, bless her, typed the whole thing for us.

Shortly after Kim and her family left town, chienar came to me with a script she'd written, and asked for my help on it, and that turned into a several-year collaboration, creating generations of a mountain family. We would spend hours on the phone reading to each other, and while I would never, ever credit those stories as being especially brilliant (and I doubt chienar would, either), I learned a whole lot about the craft of writing from them, and it was those stories that taught me to write from a masculine point of view when it was needed. I enjoyed being Charlie and Michael as much as I enjoyed being Kieryn and Juliana, and I could actually pull it off after awhile. And chienar and I really got to be good friends, and joined a writer's group together with adults. I can't stress how important that was to me as a writer, to be outside of my age peer group. And hey, Nancy Kress read our stuff, and was really very kind (I say in retrospect, though at the time I thought she just "didn't understand"). Equally important, at the time when I was most likely to cut myself off, I discovered that I had a friend who honest-to-God really actually understood what I was about.

After a horrible collaborative experience in college, I'd more or less sworn it off as I moved more into fanfic, but I realized that I wasn't doing well with finishing a long SW piece called The Penitent, and I finally decided to just open it out. It wasn't an unambiguously good experience (lots of drop-outs, odd matching, and so on), but it was good to be in company again, and the story ended up steered in directions I never anticipated when I started it. I started dropping into other stories, like the Sith Order stories, which were conceived as collaborative from the start, or The Shifting of the Sand (aka, I'm Your What?), which started with one person's idea, but was opened up as I had opened The Penitent. Mr. P proposed a Tolkien crossover, and we worked together on it for a very long time. Finally, I ran into a_p_, a fellow Anakin fan who happened to live in my area, and got talking to her about an AU idea I'd had called By the Grace of Lady Vader, regarding Amidala rejoining Vader within the Empire, and we got working on it. ladyaeryn joined us, and the Lady Vader stories (Grace and its sequel The Ascension of the Queen) turned out to be some of the work I'm proudest of writing on ever. a_p_ and I got to be friends in RL, and we remain friends still (thank G-d).

There've been other semi-collaborative projects (sjepstein and I had thought about starting a comic series at one point), but those are the main fully collaborative efforts I've been in... at least on the good side.

But there is a dark side.

Before Jedi Skysong (aka, darth_stitch) and Belle Bayard joined The Penitent, it was plagued by people dropping in, staying for a post or two, then dropping out--which is fair, but frustrating. I was the one who flaked out on The Sith Order, just abruptly losing interest in the storyline about the first Sith Uprising and the various inter-relationships among the rebellious Jedi. I liked my character, Zemai Laryhi (she in fact makes an appearance as a ghost in The Penitent), but I just couldn't seem to keep writing where I was. I was more interested in other parts of her life, and I ended up dropping the baton on the whole shebang. The sequel to The Shifting of the Sand (That You Might Live) got off to a rousing start only to have nearly all of us lose interest at the same time. Lord knows why. And the LotR/SW crossover that Mr. P and I worked on? We got as far as the beginning of The Two Towers, I think. We knew what we had planned--which actually included bringing the LotR characters back to the GFFA (which Anakin had dream-visions of), and what we did finish, I quite honestly liked a great deal, but there were two full novel-length books to work the crossover into lying ahead of us, neither of us wanted to change a jot or tittle of Tolkien's story right up until the point when we planned to send them away, and he was going through the whole high-school-to-college thing while I was doing the grad-school-to-real-world thing, and it just... faded. The fact that the Jackson things came out and split Tolkien fandom probably didn't help--I'd run as far and fast as I could from Tolkien fandom already.

When collaborations die, even of perfectly natural deaths like that, you end up wondering what the right thing is to do. Does one of you have the right to keep going alone? If so, what if the other wants to opt back in later? And what about the disappointment in each other that has to be involved? It's a real strain on friendships, even online.

And that, of course, is dealing in stories where everyone wanted everything to work out well, and was trying to be good.

What put me off collaboration for quite a long time was working on my college soap opera. I was the executive producer and head writer/story coordinator. I also sought out other writers, because turning out a whole script every two weeks while keeping up with college work was, erm, more of a challenge that I was willing to take on at the time. We split it up by storyline. Because I was also crew (and occasionally cast), I was always on set, literally for every shoot, often running the camera and acting and directing (and later, editing), so when there was a script problem, I was always the one who handled it. Now, I'd read a lot about how directors handled scripts: "Nice idea. Now improvise and maybe I'll come up with something entirely different." I thought of myself as being very lenient. Heck, I once left in the line--verbatim--"I don't want to talk about him. All I want to say is Aaron, Aaron, Aaron, I love Aaron." Didn't even make the actress try it out as an improv to see what was more natural. To me, this was being really free-wheeling. Then one day, two of my writers decided that they didn't like the storyline I'd given them at the beginning of the season, and wrote the entire season off as a freshman girl's dream.

I chopped off half the page (where she woke up and said, "Phew, it was only a dream") and left the rest alone.

They exploded. I was treading all over their creative efforts. I was disrespecting them. I was undemocratic. I was a bad writer who couldn't stand that they didn't like the storyline I'd fed them. The next year, after I graduated, I understand that they saw to it that no one else would ever be so dictatorial, by having a "contract" which guaranteed that writers' words would never be tampered with by the crew. At one point, they played the "You're not so hot" card: "If what we saw of last year's writing is what you're aiming for, then we're so much better than you that we don't need to listen anyway."

(That's my perspective, of course, and fairly snarky. From their perspective, it would probably be, "That control freak bitch who thinks she knows everything about everything changed our script without even asking, and then had the nerve to say someting about her rank on the show... how dare she?" I was obviously--to their minds--just being capricious and manipulative and mean.)

Every element of the script was a fight, every tweak for the sake of continuity an apocalyptic battle over free speech and freedom of expression. I was anti-egalatarian, fascistic, and so on. Since I'd devoted six out of eight semesters to the station, the fact that they got any support annoyed me to no end (as I recall, I blamed it on the fact that they watched Bullwinkle--and did G-d knows what else--with the station managers, which was ugly and nasty of me, but I think I knew enough to not actually say it at the time). The whole experience had been a nightmare--the season before had been the Aaron-Aaron-Aaron-I-love-Aaron thing, and I'd avoided changing to keep peace in the home, but I hated compromising with bad writing--and the emotional manipulation involved in it drove me berserk. When a boss at one of my jobs said that I should go along with her idea because it just "hurt her feelings" that I was skeptical of her plan, it was this college incident my mind went to, and I went home and threw pillows until I could calm down. Give me a reasonable, logical argument about why that version should be there, but don't start trying to play me emotionally. That's just going to piss me off.

Anyway, by the time I finished with the soap, I thought I'd never collaborate again unless I was being paid an obscene amount of money, in which case, I'd be happy to go along with whatever wacky notions the story coordinator happened to have. It's funny how that one bad experience negated all the good ones for so very long.


Anyway, I've never yet collaborated on HP fic, and probably won't (though I have been thinking about tossing out Blood in the Earth to share with interested parties, as it's clear that I'm not going to get any further with it alone!), but I'm thinking of jumping straight to collaboration in a Buffyverse fic idea, which is kind of silly because I don't know who the like-minded writers are, and...

Um, anyway. I don't think I do have a point. I was just thinking about the subject. Collaboration, whatever else can be said about it, makes writing a whole lot less lonely.
3 comments or Leave a comment
sreya From: sreya Date: May 4th, 2005 02:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Blood in the Earth could be a fun collaboration. Or remember that Professor Potter idea you had on SOTW two years ago? That'd be another good collab.

I've been a beta-reader for a collaborative story, and I always put my foot down about actually contributing any writing, although I would join in on brainstorm sessions and AIM roleplays when the authors needed it. I'll admit I'm very leery of collaborating because I've never done well on joint projects of any kind. I couldn't even play with my dolls with other kids when I was little because I always had a very set storyline in my head and it drove me nuts when others didn't follow it. ("NO, Barbie's not supposed to do THAT!" I guess today, I'd say it was out of character :~P) And then there was the evil email roleplay I was involved in my freshman year of college. We all had particular characters we'd adopted, but no overall storyline, just kind of meandering around while we figured out what to do with them. I quit when someone actually STOLE my back-from-the-dead Anakin Skywalker because "Face it, Jaya, you won't let him turn back to the Dark Side, but it's more INTERESTING if he does!" Grrr!!!!!!

(Try picturing one of your Penitent collaborators deciding mid-trial that Anakin should go beserk and kill half the courtroom occupants in order to drum up a little excitement, and posting it online before consulting anyone!)

I have to admit, though, sometimes it looks like a lot of fun to work on a single story within a group of authors.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 4th, 2005 02:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Try picturing one of your Penitent collaborators deciding mid-trial that Anakin should go beserk and kill half the courtroom occupants in order to drum up a little excitement, and posting it online before consulting anyone!)

All too easy...

You used to do that with your dolls, too? Ha. I also used to play dress-up with friends, and get very annoyed if they didn't go along with the script about who was rescuing whom from the wicked witch, and who was friends with whom. It's just not fun to play stories when the rules suddenly change. It's like trying to play baseball and having someone come in right after a grand slam to say, "Now, home plate has slid into an alternate dimension, and you'll spend the rest of the game running backward and taking runs off the board, trying to get back to actual home plate." Or, a closer comparison, "Oh, hey, I don't like these teams. Let's have a dance and whoever wins it gets to be two new captains, and we'll start all over again, only not with any bats or balls or anything, and the object is to just run zig-zag around the field."

Of course, my tendency was to keep playing what I'd started out playing, and if I got left behind, so what? At least I was playing it "right"! ;)

I think one of the reasons the good collaborations worked out well was that we had the same idea of what we were were expecting to do and talked it out. We knew where we wanted it to end (Penitent never really came together until we knew what the verdict was going to be in both trials), and we agreed about what was going to be written before it was written. If I noticed a continuity lapse, we'd talk about it before it went up. (Which had the curious side effect that the Lady Vader stories have fewer internal continuity problems than some of the longer things I wrote alone!)

I keep wandering back to that Professor Potter story in my mind (I'm sure you've noticed Merlin and Arthur showing up a lot, and in a young Dumbledore fic I'm working on, he and Flamel see the Lady of the Lake, who's moved (along with the lake) into the Forbidden Forest. I just got very sidetracked doing other things.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 4th, 2005 10:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's like trying to play baseball and having someone come in right after a grand slam to say, "Now, home plate has slid into an alternate dimension, and you'll spend the rest of the game running backward and taking runs off the board, trying to get back to actual home plate." Or, a closer comparison, "Oh, hey, I don't like these teams. Let's have a dance and whoever wins it gets to be two new captains, and we'll start all over again, only not with any bats or balls or anything, and the object is to just run zig-zag around the field.

I believe that's called Calvinball :)
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