Collaborative Fiction – Still in the Laboratory

Collaborative fiction has been floating around as an idea for quite awhile.  Numerous sites have sprouted to let would be novelists collaborate on stories.  Many of these try to duplicate Wikipedia’s approach to multi-author creations.  Anyone can contribute and the story grows organically in whatever direction the latest post takes it.  Wikipedia has been wildly successful as a public encyclopedia, but it’s not clear the same approach works for fiction. 

The rules of collaborative fiction sites vary.  Some, as with Ficlets – a collaborative fiction project run by AOL – limit each contribution to a set number of words or characters.   A contribution can be a prequel or sequel to a previous contribution, but there is no editing others’ work.  Some allow any kind of contribution which can then be edited by anyone. 

One of the most well known collaborative fiction experiments was A Million Penguins, a “wikinovel”sponsored by Penguin Books.  During the short time the site was open for contributions, nearly 1,500 individuals contributed over 11,000 edits to its writing and editing.  More than 75,000 people visited the site which garnered more than 280,000 page views.  Not bad.  Jeremy Ettinghaus, who ran the project, announced its closure on the Penguin blog with these words:

Jeremy EttinghausenSo what of the experiment – can a collective really write a novel? I guess the answer has to be a qualified maybe.  Watching the recent changes and the discussion pages and the user talk pages gives me hope – it is clear that some people have really worked well together, discussed each others contributions and have even made plans to collaborate further in the future which is really encouraging. But clearly opening this experiment up to ‘the whole world’ caused problems – we had vandals, pornographers, spammers and any number of people who had such differing ideas about what would make a good novel that a real sense of cohesiveness was always going to be hard to achieve.

But stories, to be effective, need structure and direction.  I don’t think the problem lies with the tool.  Wiki tools or their equivalents are excellent for collaboration and require only a minor learning curve for users.  The problem is more with having unrestricted public participation on the writing side.  Writing fiction requires specific skills.  Writing collaboratively requires the ability to work productively in a team. 

A format that might work better is to restrict the writing to a small team with (hopefully) the requisite talent, but allow the public to contribute feedback via tagging, voting, comments or suggestions that the writing team can potentially incorporate.  Divide the writing into key tasks such as:

  • Storyline
  • Scene development and sequencing
  • Character development
  • Backstory and research
  • Dialogue

penguin teamworkHave one primary author who would control the storyline, at least at a high level.  Others on the team would take on the remaining tasks.  Each task could have multiple contributors.  There might be other tasks such as producing podcasts of chapters as they are finalized.  This has proven to be an effective way to build an audience for a work in progress.  It would also stimulate more feedback.  Collaborative fiction could become an engaging spectator sport.

Keeping the distinction between writers and audience is beneficial.  Audiences know what they like and don’t like.  Their feedback can be used to “debug” the final product.  Crowdsource the feedback, not the writing.

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