Thursday, February 7, 2013

Writing in Tandem

by Allison Pang

I'm the first to admit my attempts at writing with others has been a bit of a mixed bag. Sometime's it's worked and sometimes it's been a big fat disaster, though I think part of that was due to inexperience on both writers' parts.

See, here's the thing - I didn't really get started writing until I was in my early 30's. The idea of ever being an author had long since been squashed out of me due to both its impractical nature and the realization that I would never be any good at it. (Yay, thank you college creative writing classes. It wasn't that I wasn't any good at it. I just wasn't any good at writing literature. *cough*)

So anyway, I had a gaming site I'd set up for women, created around 2005. And part of that environment rotated around something called a PbP (aka Play by Post). It was basically D&D, but instead of the usual dice rolling (although there was some) that you'd get in a standard tabletop game, the PbPs were character driven roleplaying done via prose. The GM (gamemaster) runs the basics and makes sure people are following the basic plot line...the rest is up to the players. (Giving a shout out to fellow word-whore James - who actually writes game manuals for such things - I suspect we even used some of them over the years. :))

Now there is certainly room for issues. Friendships were forged by the ton in the early days - and just as many would fall apart in behind the scenes drama. PbP writers can get extremely attached to their characters. Sometimes it was very difficult for some players to separate themselves from the characters they played. (And many of these games would run for years.)

To minimize potential strife, we did have a set of rules and guidelines, mostly dealing with basic PbP etiquette.  (Some of which could probably be applied to story writing as well.)

Since writing in PbPs is where I basically got my start, I have a lot of fondness for the medium. Like everything else it can be a pretty crazy - often you're writing with players whose writing skills can vary greatly (and for whom English is not always a first language.) As a writing challenge, it's fantastic - in a story that can have many players (I would say 5 to 7 is probably ideal) - the only one you have control over is your own. Whatever your initial writing ideas might be, they can be completely upended when someone else's character does something you weren't expecting.

This means you have to be adept at "writing on the fly" - you have to adapt your character's actions and tailor your writing accordingly. Bonus is when you write the "co-post" - which is where you write your post with at least one other person - usually in a round robin fashion. The trick is keeping your writing narrowed down to only what your own characters know and yet making sure all the different voices meld into something that's comprehensive.

Now, I definitely picked up some bad habits writing this way - headhopping being a big one. PoV issues were also an issue - they way you might describe something in a game post can be different from actually writing a story, but once I started writing solo for publication, it became pretty apparent what I needed to fix.

So where does all this come in as far as book writing goes? Well, when I first started looking at what I needed to do to get published, I had been in the middle of a PbP game. One of the other writers and I decided to spin off a few of our characters and just write a story with them - and we actually managed to write about 80k or so, just pansting over a particular scenario.

We decided to look into getting published, but I think we were at odds as to what we really wanted. I knew that if we were really serious about it, we would have to do some massive edits - for one thing, it was based in an existing game world - I wanted to change that up and build something original. And I was fairly gung ho about it. Obnoxiously so. But problems soon cropped up - our concept of what genre we wanted to be in  wasn't clearly defined and that led to some issues as well.

But when it came right down to it, I think the main hurdle is that I wanted it more than she did. And everything suffered because of that. A novel is a large undertaking - and  co-creators need to be enthusiastic about what can be a very intense labor of love.

In hindsight, I should have walked away - and perhaps if I had, we might still be friends. But communication was breaking down and when I finally discovered her "secret" blog online and started reading posts that were not particularly flattering about me or my writing style, that was the end. (The off-shoot to all this is that I had become tired of waiting on her and started writing what would become A Brush of Darkness, and well, there you go.)

So from personal experience? Communication is so very, very key. Planning. Load balancing. All this should be mapped out before the project is started - it saves a lot of heartbreak and frustration in the end.

You might have thought after something like that I'd give up on the idea of co-writing pretty quick. And I was a bit gun-shy for a long time. It's a pretty awful blow to realize that someone I thought was a good friend clearly had such little respect for me - it paralyzed me for months afterward.

But I *like* creating with other people. I love being able to be excited with someone. It's just a lovely thing when it works.

(I did have a few PbP friends that I keep in touch with - before I got pubbed, we would still write for fun off and on over the years before we got too busy. But that was just stuff for us - nothing I've ever intended to share.)

These days, I am doing the writing for the online webcomic Fox & Willow. This has been a crazy project in a number of ways. First, I'd never written for a comic before. (I'm still learning.) Second, I've never met my artist (Aimo). She's in Malaysia and we "met" when I commissioned her for some art and we discovered we had a lot in common.

But I've taken all those mistakes I made on the first project and turned them around. I have weekly meetings with Aimo online - we discuss everything from storyline to marketing to character development. We're in near constant contact by text message (iMessage for the iPhone means texts are free - fabulous for international collab). We have a dropbox filled with images and ideas. I let her handle all the artwork...and I handle everything else - the writing, the marketing, the web site development.

There are no egos involved.

We also did some small projects before we decided to tackle F&W (which will probably be about 5 years or so in the making.) This was because I wanted to make sure we were compatible from a creative standpoint. To get heavily invested in a project only to have it go under in a few months because we really couldn't work together wasn't anything I wanted to do.

So I wrote fanfic for her - based on a gaming world we both knew...but with her characters. This allowed her to get a feel for my writing style and we discovered I could capture her characters pretty damn well. As she began to illustrate my fanfic, we could see how her interpretation of my words would end up in graphic format.

And everything clicked wonderfully. (As a side bonus, I wrote some pretty smutty stuff - and I've been the blessed recipient of some pretty smutty artwork in return. It a symbiotic thing, I think.)

In the meantime, I do have one other collaboration under my belt. I've got a 6 page story coming out next week in Issue #5 of Womanthology: Space - it's basically an interpretation of The Little Mermaid with genderswapped steampunk robots. So go check that out if you can. :)  (My artist for this one is Chrissie Zullo.)


  1. I really love the perspective you bring to this post. Very interesting to read how you see it all now, having been there while you were going through it. So cool.

  2. Heh. I'm a slow boil, but eventually I can let go. >_<