Storyville: How to Collaborate on a Fiction Project
I’ve worked on two major collaborations in my career—The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books, 2016), which is four novellas linked together in the same world, but entirely independent, with Nik Korpon, Caleb Ross, and Axel Taiari; and the novelette Golden Sun (Chiral Mad 4), with Kristi DeMeester, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt. So how did these projects come together, what was the process, and what tips do I have for you? Let’s dig in and see.
THE SOUL STANDARD
Nik, Caleb, Axel and I go way back—to The Cult days, to the Write Club workshop. We’d been talking about doing something together for a long time, and The Soul Standard is what emerged. We knew that we wanted to write something gritty, dark, and weird—tapping into the neo-noir we all liked to write, but in a thoughtful, powerful, layered way. We talked about our various stories, and then got to work. We didn’t have a ton that was set—we were more interested in our unique narratives and voices, instead of worrying about overlap, continuity, and cohesion. Now, this was a few years ago, so my memory is fuzzy, but I’ll try to relate what I can.
Here is the synopsis from Dzanc Books:
Across four different districts of a city that has torn itself to shreds, four different interweaving tales (each written by a different author) play out. In “Four Corners,” a morally dubious banker must keep his employer happy at any cost (Caleb). The next story, “Punhos Sagrados,” concerns a boxer who finds himself torn between honor and the woman he loves (Nik). “Golden Geese” follows a hardened criminal with a terrifying condition who must come to terms with the life he’s led (Richard). Finally, “Jamais Vu” provides a stunning denouement as a man searches endlessly for his missing daughter, a task which is complicated by a peculiar condition: his inability to recognize faces (Axel). Told in rugged, bare-knuckled prose, The Soul Standard is a nonstop thrill-ride down the darkened avenues and through the shadowed alleys of a nightmare town.
The first thing I can remember is that these were four different voices. Caleb had more humor, Nik and I were more gritty neo-noir, and Axel had some fantastical elements to his section. There was a meteor. That was one detail I remember. It was a big part of my story (which is probably why I remember it), and so I asked if the other guys could work it into their tales. So each one of them had a moment where they saw it, or it affected something. I felt like in this world, it would be hard for any section to miss that element.
There was also a weird drug that ran its way through the book—so we had to have that purple liquid show up in Caleb’s, then Nik’s, then mine (where we found the origin), and later Axel’s story. One mistake I can remember making is when my protagonist ran into Axel’s—in the subway, I think. I had him as fat, overweight, and in reality he was very skinny, emaciated even, so I had to change that. I was aware of the tone of my section, and it got pretty bleak. In fact, there is a rape scene in my novella that I tend to forget, when talking about extreme moments in my horror or thrillers. It’s so violent, that I tend to block it out. But it’s there. I was a little bit surprised, in fact, when Dzanc signed us, I was worried it was too dark, too violent—the entire project. Known for edgy literary fiction, I guess we did enough to separate our prose from descending into just the gore and darkness. It’s a wild ride, and I know that we didn’t want to end on my section, for sure. LOL. So Caleb to Nik to me to Axel made the most sense.
THE SOUL STANDARD AUTHOR TIPS
Nik: The best tip I'd have for collaborating would be to pay attention to the other stories so you can pull in threads and details that make the stories organically feel part of the same universe instead of a couple stories smashed together between two covers. (Richard: Yes, agree. That was always important to us.)
Caleb: Collaborate only with people you trust and whose writing values you believe in. Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why says, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." When it comes to writing, you've got to understand why your collaborators write. What fuels them? What do they believe in? When you understand why your collaborators write, it's easier to trust where they are going in terms of plot, mood, and character development. And therefore it's easier to go in that same direction. (Richard: For sure. I definitely trusted Nik, Caleb, and Axel with everything from creating quality material, to making deadlines, to helping with promotion. Crucial.)
When Michael Bailey announced Chiral Mad 4, a project that encouraged collaboration, I knew I wanted to do something. I’d been lucky enough to be in Chiral Mad 2 and 3 before this anthology, so I had a good idea of what Michael liked to publish, and thought this could be a lot of fun. I also knew that I wanted to do a Rashomon. If you’re familiar with the 1950 crime/drama film (directed by Akira Kurosawa), then you know what I’m talking about. From Wikipedia: “The film is known for a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.” (The four POVs are a bandit, a wife, a samurai, and a woodcutter.) I’d written one before (my story, “Dyer” set in Dyer, Indiana on the dunes, a play on the word “dire”) and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do it again—with other authors.
Once I realized that I wanted to do this, I started reaching out to authors. I wanted to find authors that had a few things in common:
- I had to have experience with them, and know their work, had to enjoy it.
- Their voices had to mesh well with mine, and the other writers.
- They had to be people that I could work with—professional, kind, available.
- And they had to be powerful voices that would make an exciting partnership.
I’ve published a lot of people over the years in the four anthologies I’ve worked on, as well as at Gamut magazine and Dark House Press (DHP). The first name to pop into my head was Damien Angelica Walters. I published her novel (Paper Tigers) at DHP, she was in The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and I published her at Gamut. She has a dark, lyrical, mythical quality to her stories, and I thought it would work well with my voice. She accepted. Then I approached Kristi DeMeester. She is another author I published at Gamut, and much like Damien, I’d been a fan of her work for a long time—similar dark, poetic, melancholy style. She also said yes. Then I asked Michael Wehunt. At the time, I hadn’t read much of his work, but did publish a long, weird, literary story of his at Gamut, and his voice was fresh in my head. I thought he would balance the rest of us out, and so I asked him as well. He also accepted.
We started talking in a group email about what we wanted to do. I had pitched the Rashomon idea when originally reaching out, and so that was the plan. But what next? We started talking about horror, and chirality, about madness and surrealism, about fantasy and transgressive fiction. What could we do that wasn’t the same old horror story? We started with setting—what were the obvious locations? We talked about woods, haunted houses, insane asylums, and tried to imagine the opposite. We ended up picking a beach. Which means we also talked about the season–and summer seemed the LEAST horrific. Winter symbolizing death, fall about dying and change, with spring full of hope, but summer seeming the most hopeful, bright, and alive. Also, it wouldn’t be at night, in the dark, but the light of day. We were set.
For the Rashomon, we decided to set up a standard, nuclear family—Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter. And then we added one more—the missing middle child, and daughter, Bea. We talked about switching up the sexes, but in the end decided we had enough to worry about, so why not stay with the obvious choices? Michael chose the father, Nathan; Kristi took the mother, Marcy; Damien took the oldest child, the daughter Cat; which left me with the last child, the youngest, Andrew, and the last section of the story. I was excited, but nervous.
We kicked around a lot of jumping off points, the e-mails bouncing back and forth and eventually (Thank GOD) Michael just wrote the first section. We had given each other a lot of details about the four characters and Bea, but it took one of us just going for it to get it started. He wrote it, then sent it around to everyone, Kristi up next. She wrote hers, based on what he’d done, picked up new material, then sent that around again. Damien did hers, rinse and repeat, and then I was up last. Each section had its challenges—Michael with getting us started, setting the tone, nailing down some facts; Kristi building on that without losing the voice and vibe; Damien having to go wider, without repeating what had been done; and mine, with such a young protagonist, also echoing what had happened, but adding new material, and then getting the ending right. It wasn’t easy, for any of us.
The editing process was pretty smooth. We wrote, edited, passed it around, made edits, wrote more, passed it around, etc. We all read each section and made comments, and edits. This was part of the reason I wanted to work with such talented professionals—they all caught mistakes, pointed out continuity errors, spoke to their characters about what fit and what didn’t, and fought for the truth and emotion of their family member, while keeping the entire story in mind.
With my own section, most of the changes I made dealt with two things. The first was the age and voice of my character, Andrew. He was the youngest. So I had to be careful with his voice, his language, and at times I wrote him too old, too wise. I tried to get away with a few instances where I purposefully used words that were beyond him. I wanted the reader to see that he got some of that knowledge from a television show (behemoth, leviathan) but the song, the poetry at the end, that was supposed to tap into a greater evil, the moon, the magic, the dark power that took Bea, and informed the ending. You tell me if that worked. LOL. I mean, it got into Best Horror of the Year, so I guess I didn’t screw up the ending. The second was my portrayal of the other characters. There were a few instances where the other authors said that what their character did in my section didn’t sound like their voice, or match their character, or motivation. I lost most of those battles, but really, I didn’t need to push for their characters—just mine. You have to let your ego go when working on a group project with overlap like this. And in the end, that was a wise choice on my part—for all of us, I think.
When we were done, we gave it one last read, approved it, and sent it in. Then we waited. I thought it was very good, but had no idea if Lucy Snyder (who ended up co-editing) and Michael were going to like it as much as we did. As much as I did. When we got in, I was thrilled. Having orchestrated this project, it meant a lot that we got in. And then of course, getting into the Best Horror of the Year—that was amazing, a lifelong dream of mine. To have Ellen’s approval on this novelette, it was so satisfying.
GOLDEN SUN AUTHOR TIPS
Michael: Establish your story parameters before you start, with the knowledge that much of the joy of writing is discovery, so those parameters might—and probably should—need to change to some degree as you go. If you're starting the story, plant plot seeds as you build the world and set the atmosphere, things your partner(s) can grow into interesting story elements. I did this in "Golden Sun." If you're following your partner, comb the soil for those seeds. (Richard: Couldn’t agree more about the joy of discovery. And we did change a few things, tweaked them as we went. Michael definitely planted plot seeds, and set us up nicely. We combed the soil, each of us, after every new section.)
Kristi: When collaborating, it’s incredibly important to suspend the ego and remember that consistencies in story are far more important than a detail or sentence you’ve fallen in love with. Additionally, be open to following and exploring new ideas that pop up during initial drafts. (Richard: So true. All of this.)
Damien: I've collaborated twice now, with "Golden Sun" and "Her Beginning is Her End is Her Beginning," a novelette I wrote with E. Catherine Tobler for Cassilda's Song. For the latter, she and I worked in similar fashion as we did for "Golden Sun," by passing the story back and forth. My advice would be much like Michael's—brainstorm as much as possible before writing a word, but don't put your story in a box. Allow it to grow and change. Take care to really read what your collaborator has written and keep an open line of communication. (Richard: Yes, all of this. Be open, be flexible, and communicate well.)
The quality of your project will be defined by the quality of the people you work with. It’s important to be original and innovative, but also to let your story or section breathe, to listen to your partners, to defer when it’s their protagonist, so that you don’t write a passive, cliché, uneven character. You know your world and your characters better than anyone else. I mean, they’re just a part of you, right? Lose the ego, be open, and communicate well and your project should shine. Like a golden sun. (LOL—wink.)
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