2017: The Year of Collaboration

The first time I tried to collaborate on writing a story, I was nine.

My friend and I were writing an eight-minute script for the competition Odyssey of the Mind (anybody here familiar with it?). As I recall, our collaboration lasted for one evening — maybe two — because even at the age of nine, I had Very Firm Opinions about writing, and not much in the way of tact for handling my friend’s suggestions. I wound up writing most of the script by myself, and that experience stayed with me, cementing the feeling that I was jut not cut out for writing things with other people.

Fast forward to 2017: The Year of Collaboration.

It started with the card game Legend of the Five Rings. L5R’s mark of distinction among other collectible and living card games has always been its story; there’s decades’ worth of fiction telling the tale of vivid characters and dramatic confrontations. A few years ago L5R was sold to a new company, Fantasy Flight Games, and they took the opportunity to reboot the setting and the narrative, taking everything back to basics and building something new from there.

And I? Managed to get in on the ground floor, starting last year. Not just writing stories for the line, but contributing to the development of the world and the framework of conflicts that will generate fiction for months and years to come.

This is an interesting situation because we aren’t starting from a blank slate. There’s piles upon piles of material already in existence — but the reboot means each piece of that material is getting looked at and evaluated. Do we keep it? Tweak it? Throw it out entirely? I don’t get to make those decisions — that’s up to the Story Team, the official company employees — but I can offer my input, and sometimes they take it. I think some of my fellow freelancers are loving the chance to dive into the middle of the familiar characters and retell their stories in a fresh way, but me, the part I’m enjoying the most is where it’s closer to 50/50 old and new. It almost feels like fanfiction to me: I get to take some beloved toys and throw them into exciting situations they’ve never seen before.

When it comes to actually writing the stories, I think the best comparison here is a mosaic. The other freelancers and I are each creating individual tiles; the overall picture is being created by the arrangement of all the different tiles. So Mari Murdock writes a story about the Lion Clan Champion being killed in battle by the Crane Clan Champion, Dave Laderoute writes about the Crane Champion and her affair with the wife of the Scorpion Champion, and I write about how the Scorpion spymaster is sending an agent north to investigate goings-on in the lands of the Dragon Clan. We have to remain aware of each other’s stories, and the Story Team works to make sure they all fit together into a sensible whole, but each of us is working more or less independently.

It’s different with my other collaborative project, which also got rolling in 2017. Born to the Blade is an epic fantasy debuting today from Serial Box, a company that specializes in serialized stories. I’m part of a team of four writers — myself, Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw — and in this case the setup is more like a television show. We’re each responsible for writing our own episodes (I have three in the first “season” of the story, the first of which will go live next Wednesday), but the narrative is continuous, rather than mosaic-style like L5R. There’s much more coordination between the writers to make sure that details from one installment are picked up in the next, and that the series as a whole creates a single, satisfying arc.

Which means that I simultaneously have more freedom and less, compared to L5R. More freedom because the narrative is wholly within our hands: when we sat down to hash out the first season, the four of us made all kinds of radical changes to the material Mike (our “show-runner”) had initially sent out. We’re not inheriting a mountain of pre-existing canon, and I don’t answer to a Story Team, because we are the Story Team. But since the episodes have to interlock much more closely than L5R stories do, I can’t just run off and tell a little self-contained bit; I’m always keeping one eye on the story up to that point and another on the story after — leaving me feeling like I need three eyes to pull this off, because of course I have to spare one for the thing I’m actually writing.

It’s an interesting balancing act. I’m not about to throw over my solo work for constant collaboration; the latter brings a lot of constraints, like a much more specific target wordcount. (My L5R stories almost all have to be three thousand words, plus or minus a hundred; my Born to the Blade episodes need to be nine or ten thousand. Contrast this with a novel, where my contract will often say something like “90,000 to 110,000 words,” and we all know that if it winds up being 120K that’s no big deal.) And I like having stories where I can say, this is mine, and I get to make the decisions about how it will go.

But I also enjoy finding out what happens when my creativity gets braided together with someone else’s. Although I still have Very Firm Opinions about narrative, I’m more flexible than I was when I was nine; I recognize that other people’s ideas may be adding layers and details that I never would have thought up on my own, making the whole thing richer. The best moments are when somebody else says “what if we did X?” and my brain lights up like a Christmas tree. I’ve gotten that from both L5R and Born to the Blade, and in a job that is often solitary (the imaginary people in my head don’t count), that’s an experience to treasure.

So 2017 may have been the Year of Collaboration, where I jumped feet-first into the art of working with other people . . . but it won’t end there. Legend of the Five Rings is ongoing; we have material to carry Born to the Blade into a second and a third season; I’m even looking at other collaborative opportunities going forward. Because while I enjoy telling stories on my own, there’s a particular appeal to telling them in cooperation with other people, too.

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