Monday, 31 July 2017

Round Robins: fun and folly. It's complicated.

We have experimented with many and varied forms of Round Robins at the Grind Writers, and its predecessor the Closet Writers Group, over the years. Some people call it collaborative writing.

We've done paper ones in a journal that was circulated by hand to members. That vanished somewhere and has not been seen since. Once a Round Robin goes AWOL, it is very hard to locate it again.

We did a very fun one at TCW one year -- passing it around and around. Finally, the man in our group got bored with it and wrote a character who killed everyone. Well, that was that. We had a good laugh at the implausibility of it all and its abrupt ending when we finally read it through together. 

I can imagine really fun RRs were they passed around in the pub and everyone had a shot with every contribution they made.

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A bunch of us wrote in turns (for about 4 or 5 go-rounds) to a prompt that Margo liked from a workshop at the Surrey International Writers Conference orkshop on Writing Historical Fiction presented by Vancouver's best-selling historical fiction author Roberta Rich

For this one, we sent a Word.doc around by email. We had to add our bit within 72 hours, or pass on it and send it on to the next person.  (If you don't have a time limit like that, RRs will languish in one person's inbox while they're out of town, too tired to write after work, sick, uninspired, having a life crisis...)

That RR petered out when we couldn't quite agree on whether to keep it as real historical romance or set it in a made-up time and have it be a kind of fantasy historical romance. 

It was set in Tudor England in the time of Henry VIII. Some of us (Margo readily admits to this) were lazy and didn't want to look up every detail as we wrote -- did they really drink mead in the 15th century? (and come to think of it, was Henry's rule the 15th or 16thC? [it was both]) Did they have those lace cuffs she wanted to put on one gent's shirt? Did they say certain phrases? What sort of horses did they ride? You have to stop and verify everything for historical fiction. The research actually is great fun  -- deliciously distracting -- but it took a long time. 

We had built in a way to keep track of new characters any of us introduced along with their names, characteristics, and relatioship to other characters.  And a system of chapter recaps. (When the manuscript became so long it was quite unwieldy, Margo divided it up into tentative working chapters, something she wasn't entirely sure others appreciated but since we hadn't really developed a working structure, it wasn't always easy to discern things like that). 

Then there were style differences. Again, we had no structure to resolve those kinds of differences at all, never mind amongst 6-8 intelligent, imaginative women. For instance, some wanted to write sex scenes with the lustiness of the Tudor era; others wanted to have those four-poster boudoir curtains lower gently before things got too explicit. (Did they have four-poster beds in Tudor England? What was in their mattrasses? How did they keep those feather pillows from becoming vermin havens?  ...... you see how it goes)

Margo came to believe it would be so much easier to set it "somewhere in time," a time that sounded very much like Tudor England but wasn't, then be free to just make things up but with a real-sounding kind of Tudor flavour. She was in a minority, although even that wasn't totally clear. 

There were other issues, which I've forgotten. After a couple of rounds when the mechanics were demonstrating our house a-building was a mite rickety, we had a face meeting to try and resolve things. 

But we'd started out just writing gung-ho enjoying ourselves, and hadn't built any kind of decision-making structure. The truth is, too, you can't write by democracy.  So we ended up kind of treading water til the impetus to write fizzled and everyone got busy and their lives and dayjobs took over, and down down down the RR floated in the inbox until inertia ruled the day.

We did however send our output (which we all quite liked by the way) to Roberta and she was very gracious in the comments she sent us from deepest Italy somewhere, probably receiving more awards or doing research for her most recent book in her Venice trilogy - A Trial in Venice.

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If a group of writers produced really stellar, publishable output, collaborative writing could get really, really complicated unless you've sorted out a whole bunch of things before you start writing.

Say you decided to send it to a publisher and you have 8 or 10 people involved. They would all have to agree to the copyright and would receive royalties. The bookkeeping alone would be monstrous -- and who would do it?  Someone would have to get an agent for it; who'd do and negotiate that? And what agent would want to deal with 8 authors in a book that's not an anthology?  

Or would you self-publish? If self-pubbed, who would do all the work of compiling the front matter, designing the cover (and would 8 people have to agree on the cover? Oy); obtaining the ISBN, and holding the credit card to make those payments, doing the admin around getting refunded by the others. Who would format the manuscript for uploading if self-published. And if those tasks were all done by one or two of the group, should they get a higher royalty percentage? And who'd negotiate that?

I find my eyes getting heavy and my head lolling towards my chest just writing this.

Memo to self: never write collaboratively with more than one, max two, other writers. Way too complicated.

Then there was this.  Of about seven who started that Round Robin, at least two dropped out permanently at some stage. But they had already put quite a lot in a the beginning. Would they be entitled to equal royalties if it got published even if their input ended up being 1/200th of the total? Who would negotiate that? Who would draw up the agreement; who would hold it 'filed' somewhere? 

It's complicated.

My feet started to hurt just thinking about all that. And when it fizzed, I vowed to myself, "No more Round Robins!"

But they can be fun. So we did the uber-easy kind at the last Grind Writers. You just pass a paper around with a starter prompt. It's folded such that each person can see the contribution of the person before them, but that's all.

So they add theirs, and round it goes. It's quick and easy and very silly, therefore fun. And, of course, usually so wildly disjointed and contorted that these can be a howl to read at the end.

Here's the one we did last meeting on the fly. 


If you love writing historical fiction - this:

10 questions with historical fiction author: Roberta Rich
March 8, 2014 March 5, 2014. Roberta Rich, author of "The Midwife of Venice" and "The Harem Midwife" answers 10 questions about her favorite time period in

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See what I mean?
National Post: March 2017
A brief history of forceps and childbirth, from the author of The Midwife of Venice

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