Collaborative fiction can occur for commercial gain, as part of education, or recreationally – many collaboratively written works have been the subject of a large degree of academic research.
Our overall process changes from book to book. Usually while I'm working on another project, Mary will come up with an idea, run it by me for my input, then get on with plotting and research. Nothing's ever set in concrete. No two books follow quite the same procedure.
A collaborative author may focus on a specific protagonist or character in the narrative thread, and then pass the story to another writer for further additions or a change in focus to a different protagonist. Alternatively, authors might write the text for their own particular subplot within an overall narrative, in which case one author may have the responsibility of integrating the story as a whole. In Italy, various groups of authors have developed more advanced methods of interaction and production
The methods used by commercial collaborative writers vary tremendously. When beginning writing the short story 'the toy mill' Karl Schroeder and David Nickle began by writing alternating sentences, whereas when English authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote Good Omens they largely wrote separate plotlines and then collaborated much more heavily when revising the manuscript.
The collaboration may be very limited indeed, when John Green and David Levithan wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson the only plot point they decided on was that two characters would meet at some point in the novel and that their meeting would have a tremendous effect on their lives. After this decision, they separately wrote the first three chapters for their half and then shared them with each other. After sharing, they then "knew immediately it was going to work", as stated by Levithan.
Academic perspectives and projects
From an academic perspective, there is anxiety about collaborative authorial endeavors. Academics are concerned with being able to discover who wrote what, and which ideas belong to whom. Specifically, in the humanities collaborative authorship has been frowned upon in favor of the individual author. In these instances, antiquated ideas of individual genius influence how scholars look at issues of attribution and tenure. Collaboration scholars Ede and Lunsford note, "everyday practices in the humanities continue to ignore, or even to punish, collaboration while authorizing work attributed to (autonomous) individuals". In particular, literary-critical essays often move to "settle" questions of authorship before moving on to their central interpretive purposes. Woodmansee uses studies of writing practices since the Renaissance to conclude that the modern definition of authorship, is a 'relatively recent formation' and that previously 'more corporate and collaborative' forms of writing prevailed, suggesting a long history of Collaborative Fiction. She further argues that the concept that 'genuine authorship consists in individual acts of origination' is an entirely modern myth.
For Renaissance playwrights, collaboration appears to have been the norm; Bently notes that nearly two-thirds of plays mentioned in Henslowe's papers reflect the participation of more than one writer. There is also an issue of continuous revision: it was common practice in Renaissance English theatre for professional writers attached to a company to compose new characters, scenes, prologues and epilogues for plays in which they did not originally have a hand. Scott McMillin has exported revision as a deconstruction of authorial individuality in the Sir Thomas More manuscript.
In an artistic sense, as Lorraine York notes, "Critics and readers feel a persistent need to 'de-collaborate' these works, to parse the collective text into the separate contributions of two or more authors". This is part of a tradition in criticism to view collaboration as a subset or aberrant kind of individual authorship – such that later readers could separate out by examining the collaborative text. Particular examples of this approach to criticism include Cyrus Hoy who studies authorship in the Beaumont/Fletcher plays.
There have been several university-based projects that investigated collaborative fiction, both from a writing perspective and as a testbed for scientific techniques, such as visualization of narrative structure.
Caverns is a 1989 novel written collaboratively as an experiment by Ken Kesey and a creative writing class that he taught at the University of Oregon. The cover of the book says it was written by O.U. Levon—the name of this supposed author, spelled backwards, is "novel U.O." (University of Oregon).
Because of Kesey's attachment to the project, the book was widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines. Critics were generally intrigued by the book but ultimately critical of its shortcomings: noting in particular the lack of a coherent voice and a too-large cast of characters. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Bob Sipchen noted, "Caverns is an amusing lark, full of weird characters and goofy plot twists. It was a sufficiently intriguing project to make The Mainstream Media swarm around Kesey again. But no one is calling Caverns literature."
A Million Penguins
The first well-known wikinovel was A Million Penguins, an experimental work launched in 2007 by Penguin Books in collaboration with Kate Pullinger on behalf of the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, apparently inspired by the success of Wikipedia. Its website was heavily advertised and it quickly became a target for vandalism. On March 7, 2007, the Penguin Books UK blog announced that the project had come to an end.
The story could be contributed to by any site visitor, although a team of students at the University moderated contributions, in an attempt to keep the project on-track. Due to the site receiving more than 100 edits every hour, Penguin imposed "reading windows" that froze the novel so that editors could read over what had been changed to get their bearings on where the story was going.
Reactions to the project were mixed, with some commentators expressing interest in seeing how the project took shape, including the potential educational benefits while some described its progress as "predictably horrible".
In April 2008, the Institute of Creative Technologies of De Montfort University published A Million Penguins Research Report, which concluded:
Certainly, some of the participants in the project did attempt to 'write a novel' but it remains unclear as to whether they succeeded. What today appears not to be a novel as we know it may in time come to be seen as one, just as work once judged not to be poetry is often later brought into the critical fold. But for the moment at least the answer to whether or not a community can write a novel appears to be 'not like this'. Our research has shown that "A Million Penguins" is something other than a novel and, thereby, opened up new questions and avenues for exploration. It has treated the final product not as a variation of a printed novel or something which could be turned into one, but as type of performance. The contributors did not form a community, rather they spontaneously organised themselves into a diverse, riotous assembly. We have demonstrated that the wiki novel experiment was the wrong way to try to answer the question of whether a community could write a novel, but as an adventure in exploring new forms of publishing, authoring and collaboration it was, ground-breaking and exciting.
The Painted Sky and The Shifting Light
The Australian rural genre novel The Painted Sky (2015, Penguin Random House) / Der Bunte Himmel (2015, Ullstein Buchverlage) was written by five Australian women under the pen name Alice Campion. Four of the group went on to collaboratively write The Shifting Light (2017, Penguin Random House). Their unique writing process has resulted in critics applauding their "single" author voice.
Italy has a strong tradition in collaborative fiction: the most remarkable texts being Lo zar non è morto, a 1929 collective novel by the futurist team "Gruppo dei Dieci", Don Milani's Scuola di Barbiana experiment, Lettera a una professoressa (1967), the various historical best-sellers produced by the Wu Ming collective between 1999 and 2011, and In territorio nemico, the 115-author novel realized within the SIC – Scrittura Industriale Collettiva project founded by Gregorio Magini and Vanni Santoni, which established a codified methodology for the collective production of literary texts.
Australia has a number of famous writing teams. In 1944 James McAuley and Harold Stewart collaborating as Ern Malley wrote seventeen poems in one day as a hoax against Max Harris and his magazine Angry Penguins. From the late 1920s to the late 1940s Flora Eldershaw and Marjorie Barnard wrote under the name of M. Barnard Eldershaw. During that time they published an impressive body of work that included 5 novels. Evidently Barnard did more of the actual writing whilst Eldershaw concentrated on development and structure of the works. Louise E Rorabacher who wrote about the collaboration stated: "that in their early collaborative novels it is impossible to distinguish their separate contributions." The partnership worked because according to Nettie Palmer, a leading literary critic of the time: "Any difference in the characters of the two women doesn't make for a difference in their point of view or values." Dymphna Cusack wrote twelve novels, two of which were collaborations. She wrote Come in Spinner, a novel set in Sydney during the end of World War II, with Florence James. The completed book was submitted and won the 1948 Daily Telegraph novel competition. Cusack also collaborated with another writer – Miles Franklin on the 1939 novel Pioneers on Parade.
This tradition has continued into the 21st century. The 2015 Australian outback novel The Painted Sky was written by a group of five, and its 2017 sequel The Shifting Light by four authors who collaboratively write under the pseudonym Alice Campion. Both novels were published by Penguin Random House in Australia. As 'Group Fiction', three of the collective have also written a guide to collaborative fiction writing called How to Write Fiction as a Group. In 2020, novelist Craig Cormick collaborated with Indigenous Australian writer Harold Ludwick to write an alternative history novel, On a Barbarous Coast, about Captain Cook's 1768-1771 voyage to Australia.
Community and educational uses
Collaborative writing has been used to increase community engagement in writing: one of the three 2008 TED Prizes was given to Dave Eggers, partially for his work with the 826 project, which uses many collaborative techniques to engage school children, and community groups in writing. The 826 Valencia chapter consists of a writing lab, a street-front pirate supply store that partially funds the programs, and two satellite classrooms in nearby middle schools. Over 1,400 volunteers—including published authors, magazine founders, SAT-course instructors, and documentary filmmakers—have donated time to work with thousands of students since the chapter was founded. His TED Prize wish was for community members to personally engage with local public schools.
Other educationally motivated work has been developed by the University of London and used both to improve the writing skills of the participants and as a testing ground for scientific techniques, such as visualization of narrative structure. The project attempted to show students the workflow of a novel from inception to production and to improve teamwork and feedback skills. Workshops lasted up to a week and aimed to produce a full-length novel from a plot idea provided by an established author, with younger students producing smaller sized novels. Because the workshops were very short the use of collaborative writing was required so that a novel could be produced in the timeframe. Techniques from software engineering were used to arrange the workload amongst the students.
Recreational collaborative writing
Collaborative fiction can be fully open with no rules or enforced structure as it moves from author to author; however, many collaborative fiction works adopt some set of rule on what constitutes an acceptable contribution.
Writing games for collaborative writing have a tradition in literary groups such as the Dadaists and the Oulipo. The advent of the internet has seen many such collaborative writing games go online, resulting both in hypertext fiction and in more conventional literary production. For example, the Baen's bar forum, known as 1632 Tech, has been a prime force behind the many works in the popular alternate history 1632 series under the aegis of Eric Flint — especially The Grantville Gazettes. Author and scholar Scott Rettber's paper "Collective Narrative" discusses connections between avant garde literary groups and online collaborative fiction.
We've done things differently with different works, For our children's book, we had a complete outline. Each of us would write one section each week, and we would revise when we met. This method worked well. By the end, you really couldn't tell who had written what.
Influence of tabletop gaming
Other forms of collaborative fiction have evolved from the practices of tabletop and role-playing video game gamers and related 'fandom' activities. Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons are often seen as a process to generate narratives though each characters interactions Such table top role-playing has always been an exercise in collaborative fiction, but can possess more structured rules: players acting out in an antisocial way can be penalised by the game mechanics (though they are just as likely to be penalised socially).
Eventually, these tabletop behaviors merged with hypertext fiction to create text-based interactive role-playing environments, like roleplaying MUSHes. In 2001, OtherSpace became the first such game to publish a novel taken from these interactions.
Ring of Fire (series) is a series of alternate history books by Eric Flint and other authors set in a universe created by Eric Flint with the intention of integrating multiple authors into the fabric of the universe structure.
Sites such as Orion's Arm, Galaxiki, and Epic Legends Of The Hierarchs: The Elemenstor Saga encourage the development of fictional universes rather than novels (though 'Epic Legends' is parody of fantasy universes).
Online collaboration platforms
With the development of the internet collaborative writing is gaining new relevance with various online collaborative writing platforms emerging. Most popular are collaborative real-time editors such as Etherpad and Google Docs which are however mostly used for coordinating projects and brainstorming. Nevertheless, they have also been used to collectively write works of fiction, such as The Legacy of Totalitarianism in a Tundra – an over 300 page book written by anonymous users of the Literature (/lit/) board of 4chan from over 71 countries using GoogleDocs.
Traditional fiction writers and writing circles have experimented in creating group stories, such as Robert Asprin's Thieves World and MythAdventures – such approaches date back at least as far as The Floating Admiral in 1931. There are many highly regarded collaborations, but also some collaborative work produced as spoofs or hoaxes such as Naked Came the Stranger, which was allegedly written to illustrate the point that popular American literary culture had become mindlessly vulgar. The Australian genre fiction collaborators known as Alice Campion are thought to be the first in the world to publish commercial fiction as a team of five, now four. Their popular novels, The Painted Sky (2015) and The Shifting Light (2017) were published by Penguin Random House.
The disadvantages of the collaborative writing process can include problems with series or sequels to successful books, if one partner has other commitments or is bored with the project, then losses, delays and pressure on the relationship may occur. The Association of Authors' Representatives recommends that "a collaboration agreement must deal with termination of the collaboration: How the collaborators can part ways, who keeps the money, who keeps the rights to the material".
Moreover, there can be legal complications if, for example, two authors are under contract to write other books individually for different publishers – if there is any overlap on the types of books then the contractual responsibilities need to be thoroughly examined to avoid copyright problems.
- Collaborative blog
- Collaborative writing
- Virtual season
- Computer-supported cooperative work
- Round-robin story
- Shared universe, for when authors collaborate in a setting rather than a particular storyline.
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- Learning materials related to Collaborative play writing at Wikiversity