Category Archives: Collaborative Fiction

Panopeia Begins

I’m pretty excited about the latest developments at my collaborative writing site Pan Historia.  Traditionally Pan has always maintained a high level of privacy for its membership – it’s a place to feel safe in the maelstrom of the internet where you don’t know who is reading, who is watching, and who might make off with your most prized piece of prose.  It’s also allowed people to feel free to experiment with personas and characters that they might not otherwise feel if using their own names on a site freely available to be viewed by all. While this has always fostered a deeper sense of community with our writers and role players, as well as safety and trust, it has made it a lot harder for people new to the site to see what we’re doing and to feel like they’re welcome joining in.

A few weeks ago we decided it was simply time to open up our community daily postings to the general public (i.e. it is not necessary to be logged in or registered to the site to read these posts) to better give possible newcomers a chance to savor the flavor of the site.  Of course this led to our wonderful volunteer administrators to discuss the best ways to increase the activity on the dailies and how to make them more representative of the site as a whole.  This led to the creation of Panopeia, a new collaborative story play that happens outside the context of the rest of Pan’s novels (collaborative story lines that can include anything from two to a hundred writers working together on one theme/story), that allows people to use their creativity and their current characters.  It’s also totally open to newcomers to the site.  Of course it’s possible to read without joining Pan, but if you want to write you will have to register.

Some of our admin, staff as we call them at Pan, are portraying characters that are holding the keys to the mystery of Panopeia, which is currently taking place in an strange and supernatural hotel, in order to help guide the story, and keep all the elements straight, but otherwise the possibilities are pretty wide open.  This is a great way to get an introduction to what we do at Pan, and from there I am genuinely hopeful that people will find their way deeper into the site to enjoy all our other features and stories.  One of the greatest pleasures I have at Pan, as I stretch my writing muscles over dozens of stories, is finding new writers to interact with.  Instead of writing being a solitary lonely business at Pan it is a social one, where new lifelong friends have been made (and a few marriages too!).

As Panopeia grows and develops I’ll report more on this social experiment in writing and its impact on Pan.

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Writing Need Not Be a Lonely Business

Good fellowshipOne of the sweet deals I have noticed in working collaboratively with another writer (or even two or three in the case of Pan Historia, my writing and role play community where I have honed my skills over the years) is that I need never really suffer from writer’s block.  If you’re stuck you can get together with your fellow writer and start serving a few idea balls back and forth until you get a good volley going.  Some ideas won’t work, but usually, and pretty quickly when you have two creative minds at work, you’re going to get something good going.

Even if you’re not planning on writing a collaborative novel talking to a trusted friend could still help you.  Present them with the situation, ask them what they might do under those circumstances.  Perhaps something they suggest will surprise you.  Chances are coming at something from an entirely different point of view might spark off something in your brain.  Interestingly I have played this game with author friends of mine, people who write brilliant stories, and while I seldom end up using their ideas, just the fact that we batted it around gives me inspiration for something uniquely me, and that works with my characters, my plot.

In other words even disagreeing with suggestions can be fertile ground to break through a virtual barrier that is hold you back from writing.  I don’t belong to any writing groups but I imagine this is why many writers join them: to get ideas going, and to have trusted sounding boards.  Ultimately you make the final decisions, or if it is collaborative, the two of you will have to agree, but the process can be full of help and support, much like the Hero’s Journey.  Writing need not be a lonely business.


My Writing Apprenticeship at Pan Historia

I earned my writing chops at Pan Historia.  Day in and day out, for more than ten years, I have logged in to my alternate self.  In the halcyon early days I am quite sure that I was averaging probably a thousand words a day easy, some days more, some days less.  The stories were numerous and varied.  I like a lot of different genres, and sometimes I found that what I liked to read was different from what I like to write.

I wrote historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt, the American West, and sometimes Rome.  I wrote science fiction, particularly beloved was the now sadly lost in time and space, “Forever is Far Too Long” (please forgive me if I slaughtered the title).  Forever was the brain child of one of my closest friends, a writer of amazing imagination and craft.  It was a real challenge not only to occupy a world created by her, but to occupy a character created by her.  I hope I rose to the occasion.  I know I surely learned a great deal.  I feel like it was a sort of apprenticeship.  I also wrote noir detective fiction with a fun bunch in our grand “Marlowe Detective Agency“.  That was an idea of brilliance, if I say so myself.  When I look at the way that people’s attention spans have shortened, even in the last ten years, it’s probably impossible to do now, but basically each episode was a complete mystery.  One person wrote the detective, and it was the detective’s job to actually solve the mystery the other writers crafted for him. Later on I moved to horror. I have never been a big fan of horror movies, but I have always enjoyed horror fiction from Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King.  I found great joy in crafting tales of dripping ickiness to disturb and creep out my readers.  I discovered I have something of an ability in creating villains that people love to hate.

For a long time I was so involved in my exploration of the American West through the eyes of Wyatt Earp and his brothers that I had great, and rather grandiose, plans for writing a fictional autobiography of his long life that was going to be so historically precise, and so magically astute as to his psychic and emotional landscape that it was going to be the final word on the subject.  The desire to take what I had learned from my near daily collaborative and role-play writing to a novel has always seemed to be a natural progression to me.  But for a long time I couldn’t get started. It seemed like I had this great idea, enough passion for the project, and yet I continued to divert myself with the small episodic posts in the collaborative environment.  The good was that I was writing everyday; the bad was that I wasn’t moving forward on my long term goal.

Finally I realized it was the project itself that was bogging me down.  My scheme was too research laden, too definitive, and too constrained by my own expectations and the structure of history.  My character, Wyatt Earp, couldn’t breathe. I simply knew too much about him, and yet too little at the same time.  My version of Wyatt Earp, the one I have now been writing for ten years, is not the same as the historical.  He’s grown into a very complex, and intelligent man, with a gift for the gab – which the real Earp never had.  I realized that I didn’t have to finish this project just because I had decided on it years before. In fact, after finally writing a version of the shootout at the OK Corral for my collaborative version on Pan, I realized that I had already written volumes on the man, and that my legacy to him was there – on the boards.

I was free to pick a different project.  Now I’m fifteen chapters and over 30,000 words into that novel, and I feel great about it.  My writing is solid (but there is always room for improvement!).  My ability to structure the novel and plot it has been aided by ten years of collaborative writing, but I’m missing the collaborative element.  With that in mind I am considering a coauthor, someone that has worked with me on this story as it existed on Pan Historia.  I’m hoping that another set of eyes will rectify the mistakes, point out the inconsistencies, and increase the liveliness.  What better way to build upon the many positive foundations that Pan Historia has provided me with?


Let’s Get Playful

I started this blog post earlier today. If I had finished it would have read very differently. I would have talked about being ‘present in the moment’ and my observations of human behavior and how we have all, mostly, lost touch with the present in our fast-paced, constantly evolving, sound-byte, multi-tasking world where everyone is rushing to ‘get ahead’: literally and figuratively. It was a dry post, and I didn’t get far with it; a couple of paragraphs and then I started boring even myself. This is never a good sign. If you can’t get your own interest as the writer of the piece than what are you readers going to do? Stop reading that’s what.

End of sentence. Full stop.

So I came to the end of a sentence and I took off for greener pastures, which in my case, today, was writing some fiction at www.panhistoria.com. I really love to write collaborative fiction. Lately it’s been incredibly hard to find the time to do it. In fact my whole movement towards going slow and being present in the moment has really just revolved around one thing: I don’t find the time to be playful and write like I used to. Problem is that I didn’t realize this until about thirty minutes ago.

My community site, Pan Historia, is all about being playful. Collaborative fiction has few lofty ideals. It’s not striving for acclaim and publication beyond the publication of being online where people can share and read, or the acclaim of your friends and co-writers. It’s the writers version of reentering childhood where make believe is the order of the day, and playing dress up is all you have to think about.

For me, of course, as site owner and developer, Pan has developed into a much more serious business – in fact – a business. I have been letting that get in my way. My life is just more busy than it was a few years ago. That’s a fact that won’t go away. I have a relationship to maintain (an enjoyable distraction!), I have a full time job because during these tough economic times I can’t get away with less, and I live in beautiful part of the world that demands I enjoy time outdoors. These are not bad things, and yet I have been letting them freak me out because it has become harder and harder to juggle the different areas of my life and make them all work together.

It’s time to stop battling it. It’s time to take my own advice: go slow, breathe, cook my own food, write for pleasure, and be present in the moment. I don’t have to spend every moment doing something productive. I don’t have to be a marketing DIY pundit. I don’t even have to write in this blog if I don’t want to. I have many blessings in my life, but I need to pay attention to them, remember the job, and be playful. I’ll simply get more done that way – without even trying. Because I’m not working: I’m playing.


Multidimensional Writing Experience

There is a lovely multidimensionality in starting up a new character for a collaborative writing/role play project at Pan Historia that feeds all my creative urges at once, nearly. There are two main roads into a new character: getting an idea for a character and then finding a place for them to dwell; or finding a story you really like and then finding a character to fit in. Creating a new character from scratch is the most creatively demanding because of the added dimensions of home page design. I love kitting out a new page for a new character from finding the right graphics, or creating them from scratch if one has a bit of tech savvy with a graphics program, and then designing a fun informative home page from all the different components.

Home pages are useful. I think of them as character biographies where you can get your decorating urges taken care of and impart something useful about your character in turn. My Wyatt Earp home is both western in theme and includes useful historical quotes about Wyatt from people that actually knew him. My Gabriel Oak home is less about the personality of the character but is very informative about some of my inspiration for the character. Gabriel is an interesting character inspired both from literature and from the movies. Those familiar with Thomas Hardy will recognize the source of the character’s name, and of course the face I use is from the movie version of the novel “Far From the Maddening Crowd”. I’m not a fanboy however and Gabe is his own character. In one earlier incarnation he was an artist with a supernatural angelic side living inside him. When he moved on to a different story he became a drunk, the human mask, of the Archangel Gabriel.

Of course some characters live in many different role play and collaborative stories and one home page can hardly do justice to all their diverse lives. That’s why the profile pages were originally added as a ‘room’ off the main home page. These pages include sections for each novel that a character appears in so that the owner can give a little biographical detail. The beauty of a site like Pan, though, is that with so many interactive features the creativity of the individual takes over and tools are always adapted to the needs of their owners. I don’t try and force people to use Pan the way I anticipated. Instead I’m often adapting Pan to fit in with the needs of the users.

A lot of people reserve their character biographies for the forums of the novels themselves and use the home pages as a place to show off all their awards, prizes, badges, and the little graphical gifts that people make for one another. This is probably a similar approach that many users of MySpace employ, but it’s fun nonetheless. Of course it doesn’t really help me, as a writer, when I click on their home to see more about their character, but usually I can at least some kind of sense from the avatar they have chosen to represent their character. Other people actually write out character sheets. I have never employed one of those. I like to get a general impression, and then let inspiration take its course when I’m writing. If I get too locked down on who I think a character is I find that the work become stifled and creativity shuts down.

I guess I can sum up what I’m trying to say is that using the internet and a web site like Pan Historia allows me and my fellow writers to add layers and dimensions to our writing experience, like creating images and home pages to enhance the experience. The way that any particular writer or role player chooses to implement these tools is often going to be as unique and different as the perspectives we bring to our writing and characters.


It Takes a Village to Create a Good Monster

Beguiling Serial Killer Dexter, image property of Showtime

Beguiling Serial Killer Dexter, image property of Showtime

Most of my adult life I have not signed up for cable TV. It’s been a time sucking temptation I didn’t need or want. But that’s not because I’m some kind of stuck up puritan deeming the viewing of comedies and dramas on the small screen as sinful or wasteful. I just know myself – I love the distraction of a tale well told or a meal well cooked. In consequence my viewing of popular series has been as a customer of Netflix. I tell you this to explain the next part: I watch TV series after everyone else as seen them because I watch them on DVD.

I’m a big fan of the hit Showtime series Dexter and gobbled up Season 1 & 2 with avidity of appetite that left me with a very long wait for Season 3. I had to fill that time somehow. Dexter, serial killer with a code, is such an engaging and fascinating character that when I discovered that he was actually inspired by a book I was delighted. I’m one of those who love to read and believe that most books are better than the shows/movies made from them. I understand that it’s hard work to adapt a book to a totally different medium and realize that the result often diverges enough from the original that the reader is left unsatisfied: their imaginative take on the events and characters far different than the script writer and director’s. So to say that I was excited to find that Jeffrey Lindsay was the creator of one of my favorite television character was possibly an understatement. These were not books based on the hit series, but a hit series based on popular books, bound to be as good at the show if not better. I must be in for a treat so I bought all three extant books at once.

Here is where I’m going to offend Jeffrey Lindsay and all his fans. These were definitely the worst three books I have ever read as a series. I confess that I hated the first trilogy of Thomas Covenant by Stephan R. Donaldson nearly as much but for very different reasons, but in main if I have bothered to read three books by the same author about the same subject I’m probably hooked. I was not hooked; I was desperate. I wanted to be in Dexter’s world and this was the best I could do while I waited for the series to return (thankfully they were both short and easy to read). Lindsay created an engaging character, a bold premise, and a convincing setup, and for that I will always be grateful. But after that he let me down with pedestrian writing and cheap tricks.

One huge mistake: his sister Debra finds out he’s a killer in the beginning of the first book, but she loves him anyway in the second book. Where is the alienation that so defines the character? Doakes gets all his limbs cut off but clumps into the office anyway? Was that mean to be humorous? And the third book… I’m rolling my eyes at this one. In the third book Lindsay blows away his own brilliant premise by making Dexter possessed of a demon, rather than the interesting psychology that is hinted at (not actually explored because Lindsay is not that good of a writer) in the previous novels. The device of Dexter’s inner monologue has its source in the books, but whereas it is very interesting and well done in the TV series, after three books you’re tired of the boasting and whining:

“Gosh I’m a smart guy without any human emotions, why can’t I do my normal brilliant analysis of this challenge right now?”

That was a paraphrase because I can’t access the books anymore. Disgusted that I read all three I passed them onto another Dexter fan – who then did precisely what I did – read them all in disgust and then dumped them off somewhere like a dead body that needed disposal. I have googled around the web for evidence that others viewed Lindsay’s hack writing the same way as I did, but I have not found it. I believe that Dexter is so arresting as a character in fiction that Lindsay is easily pulling the wool over the eyes of his readers, but the glamour can’t last forever.

What is the point of trashing Lindsay’s books in my blog since this is not intended as a review? I think, for me, that it’s that the collaborative effort that took flight from Lindsay’s brilliant starting point shows that the artistic process, even for crafting stories, doesn’t have to be a lonely journey. We all know that movies and TV shows are the result of the work of a lot of people, but we always think of them in terms of a ‘a writer’, ‘a director’, or ‘a star’, but the fact is that all those people and more work together to produce a show like Dexter. Every link in the Dexter chain, from Lindsay’s premise, to the uncanny performance by Michael C. Hall, is part of a greater whole of people coming together to create something unique in the world. At least that’s how I like to think of it when I collaborate on my fiction projects – that we are bringing something unique into the world through our collective creativity and vision. Lindsay conceived Dexter, but it took ‘a village’ to raise this monster.


Other People’s Characters and the Voices in Your Head

As those of you that read my blog regularly know by now I write collaborative serial fiction. I got to thinking, recently, that writing with other author’s characters is not so different than writing solo. It’s certainly not what I would consider the main difference between writing a novel or short story and what I do. One of the most common experiences I have noticed with all fiction writers is that they talk about their characters coming to ‘life’ and having a voice of their own. Often writers will claim that they cannot force their characters to behave in a certain way – that each character has a will of their own.

This is totally true for me whether I write the character or someone else does. The only difference between my characters and the characters of my co-writers is that I don’t hear the voices in my head. I have to have conversations. Since I do all of my collaborative fiction interaction online that comes in the form of e-mails, message-boards, and instant messages so it’s damn near to voices in my head or my general writing experience. Just like when I’m creating my own characters it has its ups and downs. I have to work to be fluid enough to accommodate a writer being true to their character’s personality, and keep us on plot, as well as not make my character the ‘star’ all the time. Just like with any successful living character I can find that they can bring something new to the story that I hadn’t imagined but is better than before, and since this is collaboration their character has equal billing.

It’s the same whether you are writing by yourself, maybe trying to stick to a plot and a synopsis, or whether you are in discussion with another person – sometimes a better idea comes along and you need to be flexible. In the case of a novelist it might be your own inner critic but it could equally be an objective reader, an editor, or an agent. You also have to know when to stick to your guns. Sometimes characters are wrong – what they think is good for them is not good for the overall storyline. It really doesn’t matter who the author of that character is at this point.

My biggest problem with characters written by someone other than myself is not them being true to themselves but when they are out of sync with how my characters are. This doesn’t usually come up with people I write with regularly, but with newer collaborators. When I first started out on this path and style of writing it used to happen far more regularly particularly because my main character was an historical person Wyatt Earp. People had very set preconceived notions of Wyatt based on their previous knowledge of the character whether from fictional accounts like the movie Tombstone or from skewed historical perspectives. More than once I had to ‘buffalo’ a few tough skulls to get it through to them that they needed to be reacting to my version of the character, not one previously written and engraved in their head.

That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a disparity in the way that one character views another. I think that can be very convincingly done in collaborative writing as long as each writer remembers that they might be omniscient but their characters are not. I still write fiction set around Wyatt Earp and I encourage those that write Cowboy characters to view Wyatt as a bully and a pimp, even if Wyatt sees himself as a righteous upright citizen. There is a huge difference in perceiving an event or set of behaviors through your character’s spectacles and another between having characters act out of character.

What I think I enjoy the most about working with other author’s characters is that they often have backgrounds and sets of experiences that my characters have no inkling of. Much as I might be able to imagine a full pantheon of unique characters with interesting backgrounds they all still share one common denominator: me. Other authors bring in their own unique life situations and that gives them a range of choices that can often be surprising to me. Sometimes it’s unpredictable, but after the taste is acquired, collaboration can be a beautiful and inspirational exercise.