Thursday, March 22, 2012

Collaborative writing

MaryAnn chose for her post this week to write about the show Avatar: the Last Airbender. Which is great, because I had been planning to write about the show this week too, and now instead of trying to describe the show, I can tell you to just go read her post!  
(really, you should anyway, for her tips on writing antagonists. On my part, I spent the first season just wanting to give Zuko a hug.)

Also, I'm just going to put this up here for MaryAnn, and any other fans of Uncle Iroh.

But I had actually been planning to only talk about the show tangentially. See, late last year, after listening to me complain about how I could never get my characters to feel real, and that I had some trouble getting myself to write, a friend coaxed me in to joining her Airbender fanfiction group.

I'm not going to talk today about the legality of fanfiction. In our case though, we don't write for anyone bur our small group, we certainly don't attempt to sell anything (definitely not legal, as well as Not Cool), and we don't even use the characters from the show, but our own characters. We just go off from the general setting and events of the series and make up our own plots from there.

There are two ways we write: taking turns on posts on a forum, or all taking turns writing in instant messenger. Basically, it alternates so that each character has a chance to give their perspective and move the scene along. Planning for these sorts of things is a little like improv sketches: you agree about what the scene is and then go from there.

And thus, here is what happens when a by-the-numbers writer enters into the world of collaborative fiction.

1)  What do you mean, I can't make a five page outline first?
It's been a long, slow struggle for me to find the most efficient writing methods for my personality, my ideas, and my (lack of) work ethic. What works for me is lots of planning, outlining, writing out thoughts and ideas in various Microsoft Word documents, deep analysis of characters before writing.

This does not really work when you're sitting on AIM with three other writers all waiting for you to come up with the next portion of the story.

And so I have to come up with something right there on the spot. It's not always good. It's sometimes pretty terrible. But as long as it moves the story along, well, my fellow writers forgive me.

There are still some miscommunications. Last week, I was doing my usual thing of putting out my ten ideas first to get rid of the silly ones, but my fellow writers just said, "but those ideas don't make any sense!" but as I was trying to explain about the list of ideas, the discussion had moved on without me.

In other words, it's good for my ego from both sides.

2) Timeline
This is perhaps been the biggest learning curve for me: we write multiple storylines at the same time. Sometimes decades apart. I'm all, but how do we know that something important hasn't happened in the interim? How can I plan if I don't know what happened already???? To be honest, I'm still not entirely comfortable with this, but I'm doing my best not to appear calm and collected. (note: I am only partially successful at this).

3) Characters
As I have mentioned on multiple occasions, one of my great weaknesses as a writer is character. I tend to come up with great plot ideas rather than great character ideas. This writing group is entirely character based. My first character was kind of a flop, but then I randomly came up with Kalliyan.

This is Kalliyan, as drawn by Shin (one of my fellow writers). For those of you who know the show, she's a waterbender from the Foggy Swamp Tribe. She loves chickens, trees, and making new friends. She makes her money as a mediocre fortune teller (her talents are unreliable, and she's more likely to be able to tell you where you'll be in four days, five hours and sixteen minutes than anything helpful about your love life). She's also incredibly naïve and unprepared for life outside the swamp.

I don't know how it happened this time, but Kalliyan is the kind of character I dream about creating. I always know exactly what she'd do in every situation.  And Kalliyan definitely happens to the plot, rather than the other way around.

And prior to this experience, I would have sworn that I was terrible at humor. But Kalliyan (who is, admittedly, a bit of a caricature) absolutely lends herself to silly situations and sayings.  And yet, when I try to write funny stories for publication, I come up absolutely blank. And that just goes to show how crucial good characters are to great stories.


Have these experiences change the way I write? Maybe not in any direct fashion.  Writing for the forum and writing for publication seem to exist in two different spaces in my head. But it's given me confidence that I can come up with ideas and workable sentences on minutes' notice. And that's a good salve for those nights when nothing seems to go right.

Also, I'm having a lot of fun.


  1. I LOVE Uncle Iroh, and that picture just fits him (and Zuko) perfectly.

    What an interesting way to write a story. Improv writing, I never thought about doing that. I'm a little curious about how the stories turn out.

    I may be a little too "by the numbers" kind of writer for it. But it does sound fun. :)

  2. That's really cool, Sabrina. I don't even do the flash challenges over at Liberty Hall anymore because my brain needs time to stew on things. In fact, I read these posts and then come back after I've thought about my comment for awhile. It's the way my mind works. AND YET! Perhaps something like that would be good for my brain.

    It does sound like fun--and I bet it is helping you. Great post!


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