Collaborative Fiction

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.

Blogging with ChatGPT

Since OpenAI’s ChatGPT was released five weeks ago, it’s caused a bit of a stir, not least among education faculties. It’s hard to see how having the ability to generate a moderately convincing and unique essay in under two seconds won’t disrupt education as we know it. Sure, it’s got its limitations, but those limitations are disappearing with each generation of this type of software. For the many blogs, news and information services which are simply platforms for advertising and generating search engine results and click-throughs, this stands to effectively eliminate the cost of generating the content in the first place.

My colleague Mike Hartley last year pointed me at Roald Dahl’s The Great Automatic Grammatizator, in which the industrious engineer Adolph Knipe builds a story writing engine and, given this is the 1950s and there’s no internet, proceeds to corner the market on fiction writing – much to the further detriment of writers still penning their content the old fashioned way. So much so that the story ends with the line:

Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.

The Great Automatic Grammatizator – Roald Dahl

While I don’t blog to generate advertising revenue, instead being more interested in the practice of kicking out a short essay on occasion without too much planning or editing, I was certainly interested to see how this tech is to play with. So I duly headed over to ChatGPT, set up an account, and hit it up with some questions. Disappointingly (though maybe not) it wasn’t too interested in generating outright controversies:

It was however more than ready to prove the existence of Santa Claus:

It was also more than ready to assert the opposite when asked as well, showing that for at least some topics you can have it prove up is down and down is up. For topics that are less cultural however it seems disinclined to go this direction. It didn’t stop me trying to push the point, however:

After a bit of a wait while it seemed to have cardiac arrest, it got a bit further…

…and then went out to lunch for a while before cracking on towards its exciting conclusion…

So after its dire warnings about keeping things based on reliable scientific evidence, I thought I’d finish off with asking it to get a little creative. I thought the result was actually very impressive, given that it needed to know what Fermi’s Paradox was in order to get started, and that it structured this to present two perspectives and then draw a conclusion using them:

In with 2023

I always find the new year an opportune time to reflect. A lot happens year in and year out, and it’s easy to miss just how much our situation may have changed over the year, or how much we’re changing ourselves. This last year was a reflective one for me, and there were a few highlights that seemed worth sharing…

A winter’s walk in Sydney. Gotta love it.
  • I started journaling in January for the first time (yeah, it took me that long). I can’t recommend it enough; among other benefits there’s an extra sense of accountability to how I use my time…
  • We normally never travel, so given travel uncertainty during school holidays, we drove coast-to-coast across Australia. In the middle of winter. And had a great time.
  • We avoided catching COVID during our travels or from the office
  • We caught COVID while working from home. Thanks, kids? And yet, four vaccinations and a few virus mutations later, it does seem increasingly manageable.
  • I shifted away from software development to devote more time to writing, family, and personal development.
  • I no longer have a motorcycle, for the first time in nearly 20 years.
  • I picked up my first ever iPhone, thereby changing camps and having to relearn where all the keys are on my phone keyboard again.
  • I started teaching my 17 year old how to drive. Which also means that the little kid who was about 4 when I started blogging (back in the old blogspot site) has come a long way!

If you’d asked me to predict any of this on the first of January last year, I don’t think I’d have picked even one of them. All I dare assume about 2023 is it’ll be as much of a surprise, and a challenge, and a delight, as 2022 was. We’ll try to grow in the process, and God willing we’ll be back here again in twelve months sharing the adventure that is the year that was.

In the meantime, allow me to wish you a Happy New Year for 2023.