If there’s one quality that seems to characterize writers, it’s our need for time alone. Time to think. Time to daydream, to play with our words.
History elevates the solitary writer as a kind of legend: that elusive genius, scribbling furiously in a forgotten attic, until at long last (usually upon completion of their magnum opus) they expire, penniless and unsung.
Public gratification, it seems, always comes too late.
Today, though it’s much harder to hide in any attic long enough to write a magnum opus, we still strive for that ideal. The penniless and unsung part, too, we also to accept as a matter of course.
But what if the two are related?
What if we turned our gaze to a different writer: one just as talented, but not solitary? This writer has cultivated an audience and is making an impact now. And his/her attic is full of other writers.
Already I hear bodies shifting uneasily in seats. Collaborate with another writer? Compromise on creative ideas for a mutual product?
Maybe that penniless and unsung part isn’t so bad after all.
Five years ago, talk of collaboration always made me nervous. Sociability has never come easily. While I’ve learned to “turn on” the social butterfly at events, I still find the simplest lunch appointment exhausting. Communal working environments are even more complicated, especially when it comes to my fantasy tales.
For years I wrote Great American Fantasy Novels in the solitude of my home or a coffee shop. If I worked with a mentor or writing group, I’d bring my pages on the appointed day, take copious notes, then go back to my cave to revise my work . . . alone.
More experienced scribes began urging me to find a writing partner. “You’ll improve so much more quickly,” they assured me. “Many professional writers get their start this way.”
So I tried a few. But even if I liked the other person and his or her style, something about the personal interaction just didn’t click. On that excuse, I retired to my cave once again to pen Great American Fantasy Novels . . .
Until the day I couldn’t.
Last October, sick of my own fears about sharing my work, I started serializing one of my novels on the web. I knew enough about internet viewing trends to recognize that nobody would read a big book, no matter how compelling, without some pretty visuals to draw them in.
So I reached out (hesitantly) to a few local artists “Would you do a quick sketch for a chapter?” I asked. “Just one?”
The Big Change
Suddenly my far-flung creative planet was joined by others in its lonely orbit. These artists, some of whom also turned out to be writers, brought a fresh perspective to my story that I never could.
Before I knew it, I was co-writing other projects with them: short films, comic books, interesting genre hybrids. But these collaborations were different from my writing group or previous attempts at team writing. I noticed significant changes in my work:
- My perfectionism and fear of criticism subsided.
These two qualities had run rampant inside my solitary attic, wreaking havoc on my ability to produce work in a professionally viable way. Now, thanks to my co-writers and artists, I received regular feedback by people who cared about the story, and also cared enough about me to call me out on my fears.
- My creative output increased.
Two brains work faster than one. With collaboration, I doubled my available experiences and expertise. My weaknesses as a writer were balanced out by another’s strengths. Suddenly I was finishing projects and getting them out the door to an audience rather than dithering around with no sure direction.
- The quality of my work skyrocketed.
By the time a collaborative project was finished, it had undergone a preliminary “vetting process” by other minds. I could feel more confident sharing these stories with others. And the general audience response to them more than proved my point.
Of course there were some legal considerations. My co-writers and I had to agree on joint ownership and set clear expectations. And there were some projects that I continued alone in the solitude of my attic.
But overall, collaboration transformed my approach to my writing work, even my fantasy tales. If my journey had ended there, I would have been more than satisfied.
It’s Not Over Yet . . .
But this past April, the weekend I finished the serial, I got an email from Theatrics. This innovative company is best known for launching the world’s first interactive TV show, Beckinfield, about a small California town with big paranormal secrets. Anyone who wanted to, from professional actors to brand-newbies, could create a character and tell the story through video posts.
Theatrics had seen my serial and wanted to know if I would design a show like Beckinfield, based on my fantasy world.
To do it, I’d have to collaborate with a brand-new co-writer: my audience.
“Wait, let me get this straight,” I said. “You want me to build a story, hand the keys to an undetermined number of people I’ve never met, and let them drive my creation right off the lot?”
Right then and there, my Inner Loner reared her head. Big time.
But at some point, I realized this type of story did have some boundaries to keep actors on track. And beyond that, my journey into collaboration thus far was just a reflection of changes across all entertainment. Audiences want to get out of the armchair and into the action. There will always be a big audience for traditional media like books and films. But why not also give this new method a try?
If I was committed to collaboration, this was the logical next step.
As you’re reading this, the resulting show, called Aurelia: Edge of Darkness, just launched its beta. I can’t give you a “rousing success story” (yet) about how my audience and I made the next internet sensation. And hey, in twelve weeks, I might have to admit it totally flopped. Who knows?
But if I’ve learned anything thus far, I’ve learned that the process of collaboration is its own art. Even if the final product isn’t quite what I hoped, perspective will rub against perspective along the way, showering sparks that fuel many creative fires to come.
I’ll take that over my solitary attic any day.
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What about you? How do you leverage collaboration to enhance your writing work? Share your tips and ideas below!
And while you’re at it, if you’d like to check out Aurelia, or even dive in as an actor, email me at [email protected]. The beta show is private; once enough “citizens” enter the world, we’ll go public (sometime in July). In the mean time, I’ll be happy to send you the invite link to take a peek. When you arrive, just look for the crazy girl in the purple shawl. That’s me!