United We Explore

As the select group of people obsessively following my every progress update will already know, I am currently co-authoring Greenstar, a science-fiction series, with Simon Cantan. We are still in the initial stages, so it is a little early to talk about the detail of the project itself. However, what is already becoming clear is our quest to share our invented world with readers will take more than a common vision; it will require us to agree on what is and isn’t needed both informationally and grammatically.

Greenstar is not my first collaborative world; Fauxpocalypse was also set in a single world. However, Fauxpocalypse had a few events – often loosely defined – around which each author could build their own story. There was extensive peer-editing, and discussion of how different events might effect different places. But, ultimately, each story was written solely by a single author in that author’s version of English, with that author’s choice of detail.

U.F.S Greenstar
U.F.S Greenstar

Whereas, Greenstar is a much closer collaboration: although only one of us writes a particular draft, the other has a free rein to change anything from a single comma to entire paragraphs. So both the voice and what is said is a balance between two authors.

For some things this is easy: for example, I mix up the order of my speech tags (Josie said, said Josie) throughout my stories, whereas Simon feels they are less intrusive the same way around; as either choice is grammatically correct, we quickly agreed to keep them the same way around.

“No one has ever been offended by proper grammar or proper sentence structure. No one has ever emailed you to say I really wish you would use six more exclamation points on that sentence to let me know what you mean”

– Cliff Seal “Content Strategy – No one cares about your content (yet.)”

However, some areas are more open to dispute: having worked in law for many years, I am very conscious of how overly detailed legal prose seems to the layperson, so to counteract this in my fiction, I tend to pare out descriptions of insignificant events that can be inferred from other actions, and use subtle differences in punctuation to add clarity; Simon has a more conversational style, so sometimes includes more events or details, and relies less on punctuation for clarity. So he will write a scene about a character rushing to an airlock, cycling the airlock, connecting themselves to a safety rail, and pulling themselves to an array; I will rewrite it as someone rushing to the airlock and using the safety rail to pull themselves to an array; and then we will find a compromise.

To someone whose experience of writing is English classes, it is easy to see this as a question of right and wrong: one of us over writes, or one of us has a worse style. But the opposite is true. We both write solid coherent prose in an attempt to convey something that, after plotting and outlining, is already very clear to us.

Each change reveals a point where the prior level of detail might be different from what the audience (necessarily, a sub-set of everyone who is not us) might need. Each cycle of some commas or clauses coming out, and some of those going back in again, results in everything neither of us feel must be there going and vice versa.

Which is why our collaboration is working: instead of parceling out tasks (creating the history of this world, writing sections involving that character, correcting grammar errors), we pass everything back and forth each seeking to move it closer to a finished product. As each of us places the reader thinking the story is right, over “winning” an argument over the technically correct use of a hyphen, we can both focus on the issues that matter.

Have you ever collaborated on something (writing or otherwise)? Do you prefer everyone being equally responsible for changes, or more defined responsibilities?


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