Summer school holidays are nearly over. We have one week left, and while the world outside baked in the naked sun, in our little air-conditioned bubble we tried to offer the kids opportunities to catch up with family, pursue creative passions, work hard on chores (thanks, lads!), read as a group, and try to identify and pick apart biases in political and philosophical arguments on either side of whatever issue caught our attention on some given day.
One thing we haven’t done yet is write some collaborative fiction – a highly amusing endeavour we first tried out last year. It’s not something I’d ever tried before, and while I realise many have, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure then let me try and pitch the idea to you.
My two boys are not writers. One is currently an avid reader but has no interest in the effort of writing. The other currently doesn’t really get into reading unless forced to but enjoys the imaginative playground of writing – if that’s all he’s allowed, since the instant visual feedback from Lego or Unity or Scratch or various engineering games requires far less deferred gratification.
Nevertheless, last holidays I set them a simple collaborative fiction task. While there may be many alternative approaches, here’s what we did:
- Decide on tense and pov as a group. We chose past tense, limited third person – ie, tell the story from the point of view of a single character. Each writer is going to create their own character and write from that character’s point of view.
- Decide on what constitutes an acceptable contribution. For us, the guideline was ‘more than one page and less than two’ to try and stave off the slacker who just wanted to write a sentence and then go back to consuming media, and by the same token it needed to be a justifiably good effort.
- Decide who’s first, and give the writer free reign to choose setting, genre, etc.
- Each successive writer takes what’s already been written and writes a subsequent scene that progresses the story.
We set ourselves five days for this, so with three contributors the total story would be 15 scenes. A basic plot structure on the whiteboard directed each day/scene to some overall dramatic task.
With two thirds of the participants having little to no experience in writing fiction, this may sound like herding cats. Indeed, it often was – each wanted his own character to be the superhero of the story, and without a D&D-style rulebook to limit abilities and consequences, anything could and often did happen, and any care for overall plot wasn’t even an afterthought.
As the third writer in the group, in most cases it fell to me to try (from an independent character arc), to try and tie together the wildly different plots and points of view of these other characters. Having never done this before, it sounded difficult, but turned out to be highly amusing and creative. It changed for the kids, too: While their first contributions were reluctant and disjointed, they became increasingly interested in reading the new instalments when their turn came up, and by the end were very invested in their story being part of a larger, unified plot, and a world beyond the one they’d individually imagined.
The resulting story is certainly no short fiction award winner, but it’s something in our family library I’ll be able to come back and enjoy again in the future. Not only does it have contributions from my kids at a specific point in their development, but thanks to the mechanism of its development there’s enough unexpected turns in the plot that it should remain entertaining for a long while yet.
As I mentioned earlier, this was a new experience for me. I’ve never written collaborative fiction like this before, and it also helped me realise a few things about my own work:
- The best surprises are unplanned. My ingrained desire to plan everything out ahead of time (which partly comes from experience in engineering, I’m sure) is playing it too safe: It costs us the opportunity to encounter those surprising, unexpected moments in the creative process.
- I fear winging it, but I don’t have to. I prefer a comprehensive outline also out of the fear that I don’t have what it takes to make it up as I go along and still deliver a unified story. Yielding control of 2/3rds of this story to others (who have no such fears!) forced me to discover not only that I can tie it back together, but that that’s fun.
So, if you’ve never engaged in collaborative fiction, I hope this paints a picture of the sort of fun that can be had. As for me, with a week left of summer holidays, I’m looking forward to starting another of these projects in the time we have remaining; whatever surprises my young coauthors have in store for me, we’ll have a few laughs and a lot of fun.