When I’ve told people that, for the past four years, I’ve been working on a collaborative serialized fiction project with a whole team of other authors, I’ve generally gotten one of two responses.
Response #1: “Cool!”
Response #2: “How is that possible?”
In one conversation, after the second response, I explained the process we use—the meetings, the outlines, more meetings to hash out details, drafts, feedback on drafts, all before it goes to an editor—and thought that would do it.
“But what if you find yourself disagreeing with another person?” my friend said. “In that case, the other person would have to be killed.”
My friend was joking, of course. But his comment got at a popular conception of authors as solitary figures, writing in their offices apart from society, then delivering their manuscripts to publishers who then put them out into the world.
In my case, that conception is a myth. I’ve always thought of writing as collaborative. Whether I’m writing fiction or journalism—and I do both—there are the people I interview for information, the people I bounce ideas off of, the people who are part of the experiences I’ve drawn from. I also loved working closely with editors from the beginning, encouraging them to be aggressive, part of the process, to kick the tires hard before putting books or articles on the road. Maybe it’s my name on the title page or the byline, but I know that those letters are really a stand-in for me and my relationships to a small crowd of people who make it possible for me to string some words together on a page that hopefully mean something.
But four years ago, when it came to writing fiction, I was getting a little tired even of that. I was getting bored with stewing in my own juices. I wanted to collaborate with someone on something—anything, really—from the very start, at the idea’s inception, all the way through to the end. A book? A graphic novel? An animated short? Some sort of multimedia extravaganza? I was open to anything, but didn’t know where to start.
I talked my way onto the Bookburners crew after hearing about the kernel of the idea, which was Max Gladstone’s. I loved the combination of swashbuckling adventure, soap opera, magic, and a bunch of really nifty ideas. I was excited to learn about who the rest of the team was: Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Andrea Phillips. We were all coming at Max’s idea from different angles, with different perspectives.
Looking back at our initial notes, before our first meeting, it’s amazing how little we had to go on. The bare bones of a plot. The vaguest wisps of character ideas. But it was enough to start the engine, and that engine has now been running for four years straight.
I can see how some would-be collaborations don’t work out and become confrontations. Maybe egos and power dynamics get in the way. Maybe people coming in with the best of intentions—eagerness to get outside their own ideas, to play, to participate in creation—end up simply not liking their collaborators’ ideas. Maybe there just aren’t any sparks.
But from the start, that’s not what happened on Bookburners. I found in Max, Margaret, Mur, and Andrea people brimming with ideas. We took those skeletons of plot and character and started fleshing them out, freely tossing possibilities at each other and tossing them out again just as freely when they didn’t work. We built trust through honesty and respect. Our ideas started sticking together, one by one. By the end of a weekend, we had our characters and a vague map of the world, and ideas for how to get from one end of the story we wanted to tell to the other. It got us through our first year of Bookburners episodes. It also made us friends.
That was what I was hoping would happen: that we would essentially serve as one another’s minute-by-minute editors, until we all came up with something that was better, more textured, more interesting, than what each of us might have come up with on our own. You know, the old (yet useful) cliché about the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
What I didn’t quite see coming was the way that four years of collaboration would not only deepen the friendships among us, but make the story and the characters deeper and richer as well. I’ve liked each new year of episodes more than the last. I love the way we’ve all let the characters we’ve created grow, develop, and change—in some cases pretty radically. And I love the way the world keeps evolving, too. At some point, we decided not to hit the reset button at the end of each year, and the story is way more interesting to me for that. And I’m not sure that kind of development would be possible without the passage of time, the luxury of living in and with the material for a while, of letting things settle a bit in between bursts of writing. The rest matters as much as the movement, I think.
It also means—or at least I think it means—that the story will come to an end. It has always been part of the plan to end it, and that end is in sight now. We have a lot of work to do first, but it’s hard for me not to think about that and get a little wistful. My appetite for collaboration has only grown. I’d love to work with even more people, creating even more things. But my fondness for the Bookburners team runs real deep now. It will be very bittersweet—though also immensely satisfying—to write the final words of whatever my final episode is, and to say goodbye to the characters and the world we’ve transformed. I’ll miss even more the excuse to hang out with my fellow collaborators.
Maybe we’ll just have to find new excuses.
Brian Francis Slattery is the author of Spaceman Blues, Liberation, Lost Everything, and The Family Hightower. Lost Everything won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2012. He’s the arts and culture editor for the New Haven Independent, an editor for the New Haven Review, and a freelance editor for a few not-so-secret public policy think tanks. He also plays music constantly with a few different groups in a bunch of different genres. He has settled with his family just outside of New Haven and admits that elevation above sea level was one of the factors he took into account. For one week out of every year, he enjoys living completely without electricity.
Catch up with the first three series of Bookburners, the urban fantasy series about a secret team of agents that hunts down dangerous books containing deadly magic, and get ready for season 4 on June 13.