Fiction writers don’t play well with others—that’s the myth, anyway. Fiction writers are, by definition, people who set themselves up as gods over their own corners of creation. Even those of us who aren’t megalomaniacs tend to be comfortable sitting by ourselves in front of a keyboard.
So it’s not surprising that one of the questions most frequently asked about Bookburners—the supernatural procedural serial I write with Margaret Dunlap, Brian Frances Slattery, and Mur Lafferty—has nothing to do with our Vatican secret agents or the demons they hunt, but with the process itself. How do you get all those writers on the same page?
This guest post is by Max Gladstone. Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards — Full Fathom Five, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Last First Snow. Max fools everyone by actually writing novels in the coffee shops of Davis Square in Somerville, MA. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect. He tweets as @maxgladstone. Bookburners, which he wrote with Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery, is available from Saga Press in January. Visit him at his website: maxgladstone.com
It all starts with the story summit. The Bookburners team lives all over the US, but at the beginning of each “season” we gather in somebody’s living room with a lot of notecards and a few corkboards, and hold a planning session. Over the course of a long weekend, we scheme through the coming year of the serial, and by the end, we know what will happen to our characters throughout the season, and have rough outlines for each episode.
These in-person meetings are vital: being in the same room with other storytellers is exciting, and builds an enormous amount of trust, which is key, because the more trust you build in the room, the more people become comfortable pitching ideas—and spinning off the ideas of others. If you can’t meet in person, Skype or Google Hangouts are great solutions, but seeing the other writers, and being able to talk to them in realtime, is vital.
It helps to share a common language of collaborative storytelling—in fact, the more languages you share, the better. Mur, Margaret, and I have played a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, and Brian and Margaret and I have musical backgrounds of some form, so we had common senses of how to work in a creative ensemble. Shared languages make communication possible.
Warning: notecards are an addiction. Margaret introduced them to our group, and it’s since become almost impossible for me to work without them. No matter how well your group communicates, it’s easy to end up on the wrong page. So, go into your story summit with a corkboard, pins, notecards, and markers. When you have an idea, scribble it on a marker, and post it on the board so everyone can see.
This roots abstract ideas in the concrete world. When you see “And then Sal and Liam fight!” pinned up on the board, it feels real—you can reason about it, argue why Sal might fight Liam, and whether that belongs in episode 12 or episode 14, or if it’s not more interesting for Grace and Liam to fight instead.
It’s hard to focus on story. You don’t want to burn your group out—but you also want all hands on deck. So, set a timer for the discussion. For forty-eight minutes, you’ll talk about nothing but the story you’re trying to develop. Then, when the timer goes off, take twelve minutes’ break—go to the bathroom, play Marvel Puzzle Quest, check Twitter (don’t check Twitter), grab coffee, feed your brain. Then, when the break’s over, back to work!
Build from the Character Out
We started our first retreat for Bookburners with a whole day just talking about the characters—their relationships, goals, directions, and methods. Agreement on characters matters a lot in a collaborative project like this. In fact, and in my opinion, it’s much more important to agree on who your characters are than to agree about what the plot is. You can fill plot holes with spackle and elbow grease, but a disagreement on character can be impossible to remedy, and will cascade throughout series planning. By this point, on Bookburners, we know our characters well enough that we can recognize when a particular beat or line feels more like Grace, our team’s resident heavy hitter, or like Liam, the sardonic hacker, or like someone else entirely.
“First Thought Theater”
This is another Margaret concept. It’s better to have something on the page than nothing. If no one has an idea for how to solve a story problem, suggest something off the wall and wacky—a half-formed notion, an overplayed story bit, a Shocking Twist, whatever strikes your fancy. It’s all about getting the wet clay on the potter’s wheel. Trust that your fellow writers won’t laugh you out of the room. You all have to solve this problem together! By saying something, you’ve taken one more step to a solution.
Let Your Darlings Go
The great gift of a writer’s room is that you have a built-in audience of really smart people for your ideas. You give the room the pitch, and sometimes it takes fire: “That’s a great idea!” Or, even better: “Oh, and if that happens, then we could…” But sometimes your neat pitch lands wrong, and the rest of the room doesn’t go for it. Which is great! You just saved yourself the trouble of writing the whole thing out, only to fix it later. If you have a room where people feel valued, there’s no need to get protective of any one concept. You’ll hit it next time.
If you only do one thing on this list, this is it. Trust your fellow writers, and do what you can to build an environment where you all can trust each other. Trust—in yourself, in your team—makes fertile ground for storytelling. Trust builds bridges, rather than walls. And all stories are bridges of one kind or another.
And seriously. Buy yourself some notecards.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.