Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Collaboration

No man is an island, or so John Donne once surmised. Although the phrase is pretty general and can apply to nearly any aspect of the human experience, in this blog I would like to equate the phrase to the process of writing. In other words, collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

"Two heads are better than one" would be the other appropriate phrase to use.

I often think about what Hearts of the Betrothed would look like if I hadn't shared my ideas about the novel with anybody while it was still in the early parts of its development. Certainly it would look different than it does now, in the later stages of the second draft, but can I be certain that the story is better than it would have been if I'd kept it all a secret? Did conference with friends and colleagues improve the overall story, or just save me time in editing?

I'm sure there are writers out there who have the patience to finish an entire piece of work without sharing it with anybody, but I am not one of those writers. Whether it's a need for approval or a just a method of getting free feedback, I have to share pieces of my work with others before it's done. Sometimes they tell me it's good and to carry on.

Other times somebody will say something that makes me look at the story from a different angle.

The fact of the matter is that each of us thinks in a very specific kind of way, and they're all very different. If we all looked at the world through the exact same paradigm, reading would be a lot less interesting. Every narrative would sound the same, because we would all be looking at the world in the exact same way! Some writers focus on setting, others on characters and dialogue, others on action. An effective writer, of course, has a balance of all three in their stories but we all have strengths and weaknesses.

The importance of sharing your work with others is that sometimes somebody else will see a way in which a particular scene could have improved depth, or is lacking a detail or two that would paint a much clearer picture of what is going on, or improve the link between a scene and the overall theme of the story.

Of course if you don't agree with a suggestion, you don't have to use it. You're the writer, after all. Any story you write is your baby; your keystrokes are the Word of God.

A good example of what I'm talking about is the character of Eowyn in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Granted, this is an anecdote that was related to me so I have no way of knowing if it's true or not, but it illustrates my point.

When Tolkien was penning The Two Towers, his daughter complained to him that he never put any women in his stories. Now before somebody mentions Arwen, I will remind everyone that the movies deviated quite a bit from the original story. Arwen was just a shotgun-wedding character thrown in at the end to marry Aragorn. In fact, Eowyn was originally supposed to marry Aragorn in the early it's interesting how things can change that way, in this case based on the suggestion of a young woman who wanted to see more than just a bunch of boring old dudes in her father's work. Eowyn became a rather powerful feminine character considering how misogynistic Tolkien's work tended to be.

I know that my own work would not feel as complete if I had not received feedback and suggestions from my friends and colleagues. The collective consciousness is far more powerful than any one individual's imagination. What if Byron, Shelley and Shelley hadn't challenged each other to write horror stories? Frankenstein never would have existed!

On to collaboration. I was recently involved in a collaborative project (still a work in progress as far as editing is concerned) and was discussing other collaborative possibilities with a friend of mine last week, and it got me to thinking about other collaborative works that I've encountered over the years.

One huge thing that I've noticed is that collaborative works seem to require more effort than if you're just writing something on your own. Sure, you've got two or more people motivating each other to stay focused (like a gym group, etc.) but your work is not entirely your own...and that can make it hard to feel like you're putting in your full creative potential.

However, I've noticed some amazing literature come out of collaboration. Anne McCaffrey? Not a huge fan. Her collaborative works? Much better, in my opinion. I've also never been that big on David Eddings, but when he collaborated with his wife on The Redemption of Althalus, the improvement in quality leaps off of the page at you. All it takes is that second pair of eyes and voice added to a project to really give it some depth, sometimes.

An example from my own life would be Dimensions. For those of you who don't know me very well, Dimensions is the table-top role-playing game that I started to develop in high school. At around 15 to 16 I was playing a lot of RPGs with friends, but found myself dissatisfied with the rules systems for one reason or another. As a result, I decided to develop my own. It started as a project in my basement, written out on looseleaf paper. I borrowed the elements of rules that I liked from various systems, and made up the rest. A lot of my ideas I shared with my best friends Travis and Vic during physics class, which got the ball rolling even further.

We started to play the system, to test it out. Needless to say, early forays quickly pointed out the glaring inequities in the system. As a result, I went back and tweaked a little, then tried it again. The system got better, more fair for all players.

Eventually people started playing Dimensions on their own, without me around to 'supervise'. Travis, especially, loved the system and started tweaking it in his own way. We lost touch for a while, but once we reconnected (which had a lot to do with Dimensions, actually) we began to compile the system and hash out a complete rules system. It's still a work in progress, but what was once a casual idea became, with some collaboration, something that has the potential to be published one day. At first it was hard for me to give up complete creative control, but I never could have gotten Dimensions this far without Travis and the other contributors to the system.

When you release an idea into the collective consciousness, it is no longer entirely your own. When you collaborate on an idea, every imagination improves the finished product as a whole.

What does everyone else think? Is it better to collaborate, or hold firm to your own creative ideas until you have a finished product, untainted by the opinions of others?

Collaboration can create unexpected ideas that never would have been conceived least, that's what I believe. I was brought up to believe in the idea of sharing. It hasn't failed me so far.

-James Funfer