A Room of Our Own: On Writing Collaboratively

Writers talk so much about the hero’s journey, I think, because we take them all the time. We start from a comfortable spot, in front of a blank page, nothing ventured, nothing lost. We advance into the unknown out of fear or need or destiny, and all’s going well enough until we slip into the underworld around the beginning of the second act. After that, it’s all about slogging through Hades, grinding out words, fighting off demons, until by inspiration, hard work, and divine grace we win that golden cup of story, and bring ourselves home, and find a white page in front of us again as if nothing happened at all—but we’re changed, sometimes forever, by the experience.

By contrast, collaborative writing, like we do on the Bookburners team, feels less like the classic hero’s journey, and more like an epic fantasy quest, the sort you get in the kind of books hefty enough to use for home defense. Rather than a single protagonist, you have a raft of characters, all with their own expertise and quirks, and rather than entering the underworld of your own soul, you’re going on a voyage together. Maybe as a group you think you know where you’re going, but maybe you don’t. Maybe the journey will surprise you. But wherever you’re bound, you’ll get there together, or not at all. And, as in the epic fantasy quest, the real story isn’t about the task—it’s about the people.

When Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery, and I gathered for the first Bookburners story summit, I imagined we’d be able to make good work together, but what I didn’t expect—though I should have, I mean, I’d only been reading epic fantasy quests since I was running around middle Tennessee in tie dye shirts and cutoffs—was how much I’d learn.

Some of what I learned was simple: for example, the true hidden creative potential of notecards and markers, for example—trust me, it’s not just marker fumes!—or the level of detail your outline needs so that it makes sense to your fellow writers. (As I learned to my shame, a title and eight bullet points, not even in complete sentences, does not an outline make. Especially when one of those bullet points is just Homunculus!!) Some of what I learned, like the trick of walking writers through serious structural edits, was more complicated. Every writer on the team would have a different list.

But the most important stuff I discovered writing Bookburners doesn’t fit on any list—much like saying “he came back taller and slightly green” doesn’t sum up how the War of the Ring changed Pippin. The easiest way to sum it up is that I’ve grown by watching other writers solve problems I face myself. Everyone has their own writing style, their own set of storytelling “moves,” original or inherited—but it’s hard to analyze other writers’ moves, because we so rarely get controlled experiments, watching others work with similar characters and situations. But in Bookburners, since each episode depicts a new adventure in the tale of our Vatican magic-fighting squad, I got to see how Brian would open a horror scene, how Margaret developed an A-B structure, how Mur could bring every plot twist beat back to character.

Even that makes all this sound more clear and programmatic than it feels from within, as if I’m discussing a simple sharing of technique, when actually I’m talking about developing broader, subtler instincts and rhythm. I started to appreciate how my fellow writers would handle reaction shots and scene pacing, what they’d leave in narrative summary and where they dove deep, which sense details they might deploy and why.

Which is how the epic quest goes, isn’t it? Quests aren’t additive—our heroes don’t succeed just by combining their strengths. They succeed because, for all their differences of background, experience, and approach, the team learns together. They become better people, not only because of the adversity they’ve undergone, but because of the friends who stand by their side—even when those friends aren’t close to hand. The writing still happens between keyboard and chair, the moral work is lonely as ever, but we know at last that we are not alone.

bookburners-sagaMax Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards—Full Fathom FiveThree Parts DeadTwo Serpents Rise, Last First Snow and Four Roads Cross. A paperback edition of Bookburners is available now from Saga Press, and you can check out individual episodes at Serial Box.

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