Co-writing a Serial Novel

Writing doesn't have to be a lonely profession. Dan Koboldt shares how he collaborated with two other writers to plan, write, and revise a serial novel.
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Writing doesn't have to be a lonely profession. Dan Koboldt shares how he collaborated with two other writers to plan, write, and revise a serial novel.

For most of the fiction that I've written – three novels and half a dozen short stories – I was the sole author. Although agents and editors played important roles in the publication process, when it came to the actual writing, it was all on me. My newest series, however, is co-written with two other authors. The experience was different (and enjoyable) in a number of ways, so I thought it was worth sharing with the WD community.

The world's mysteries have always fascinated me. The Bermuda Triangle remains one of my favorites. Thanks to improvements to aviation safety, communication, and navigation technologies, most experts feel that travel through the Triangle is safer than ever before. But I've often wondered, what if the experts are wrong?

 A shipwrecked team of experts must unravel the secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, before it kills them all. Get a sneak preview here.

A shipwrecked team of experts must unravel the secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, before it kills them all. Get a sneak preview here.

This gave me an idea for a story premise: in the wake of two category-five hurricanes, the Bermuda Triangle has reawakened. As ships and planes begin disappearing at alarming rates, an investigation team goes in to figure out what has changed. I pitched it to Serial Box, a relatively new publisher that produces serialized fiction in digital and audio through an app. They liked the idea, so they offered to develop it into a series. This meant undertaking the Serial Box creative process, which is unusual in a number of ways.

First, all serials are team-written. This meant recruiting two co-writers to the project. Sylvia Spruck Wrigley is a pilot and aviation writer who has a blog about airline disasters. She's also a Nebula-nominated SF/F writer who contributed to my nonfiction book, Putting the Science in Fiction. Mindy McGinnis is a young adult writer with an impressive list of accomplishments. She's also incredibly prolific (and writes full-time). Somehow I cajoled both of them to become part of The Triangle. Second, Serial Box publishes their projects as serials with 8-10 episodes of about 10,000 words each. It's like television, but for books: every episode tells a story and contributes to a larger, season-long plotline.

Planning a Co-written Serial

Serial Box brought us to New York for a three-day writer's summit, during which we hashed out the details of the series and planned an entire "season" of ten episodes. Co-written projects, it turns out, require a lot of planning. We had to figure out the main plot line, the subplots, and how to piece it together. We argued over the main characters, their backgrounds, and their motivations. It was taxing but also really enjoyable to learn how Mindy and Sylvia think about stories, and to fit that within the Serial Box framework.

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We also had to nail down the speculative elements, because they're so integral to the overall story. It was a ton of work, but I came away feeling energized and confident. When I got back from the summit, I had to rewrite the series outline almost entirely. A lot had changed, which I suppose isn't surprising. The story had three authors instead of one. I could already tell it was going to be better than what I'd have written alone.

Co-writing the Serial

The writing phase of our project was highly organized. It took place in "rounds" that lasted a few weeks each. During a round, each writer took the lead on one episode. We'd tried to assign episodes at the summit according to following rules of precedence:

  • If the episode involved aircraft and/or crash investigations, it went to Sylvia. She has the expertise.
  • If one or more characters died, Mindy took the lead. She's good at killing people (in fiction).
  • Whatever was left went to Dan. Hopefully, there were some action scenes because he likes those.

In the first week of the round, we produced detailed outlines for our assigned episode. After a call to work out some details, we began drafting simultaneously. I think we had two weeks to write the "zero" draft. Mindy, who writes fast and fearlessly, almost always finished first. Sylvia often came in second. For my part, I usually took until the last hour of the last day. Luckily, Serial Box gave us flexibility when we needed more time. Schedules are great and everything, but we had our own lives, too. We communicated early and often, which helped avoid any major schedule conflicts down the road.

Team Revision and Editing the Serial

 Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres

Once our "zero" drafts were turned in, we read one another's episodes and provided notes. Our producer Julian weighed in as well. This phase of the process was incredibly valuable to maintain consistency across all of our episodes. When a problem arose, we worked as a team to find the best solution. Sometimes the issues were logistical, i.e. where the characters were and what they were doing. Yet we also had to coordinate on things like character moods and relationships (Julian called these "heart lines") so that everything fit.

After the revision discussion – usually a conference call followed by discussions in our Slack channel – we got our episode-revision marching orders and had about a week to make the changes. Then the episode drafts went into a folder for the editor, and we began planning the next creative round. Keeping that momentum was stressful sometimes. However, Sylvia and Mindy were working just as hard as I was, and that was a powerful motivator.

After the writing rounds, we went through the editorial processes just as I'd done with my other publishers. Our editor was Brian White, and he provided some outstanding insights into tightening down our story and making it consistent. Mindy, Sylvia and I mainly made changes to our own episodes, but we helped each other quite a bit. The same was true in the copy edits and proofreading phases. We took a team approach and it made those laborious processes easier on everyone.

We often talk about writing as a lonely profession, but it doesn't have to be. Co-writing takes a lot of the burden away, and lets you create projects, in synergistic fashion, as part of a team. I'd advise any serious writers who haven't done co-writing projects to give one a try.

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