Keeping Mum, a collective novel written by 15 writers (most of them 26-ers) in the Dark Angels programme has just been published by Unbound. We asked John Simmons, one of the novel’s writers and initiators, a few questions…
Is persuading 15 writers to write a novel together like herding cats? How did you make it work?
No doubt it helped that we all had the experience of Dark Angels courses shared. The fact that we know each other well, and knew each other’s writing well, certainly helped.
When Jamie Jauncey, Stuart Delves and I first discussed this we said: “Let’s write a collective novel”. Actually we had no idea what we meant by that. Our first thoughts were to write it in a relay, with one person passing a chapter on to the next, and just seeing how it might go. But then we realised that would be hopeless. We needed an idea and a structure.
Both came from thinking about William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying. Stuart and I had read it way back, and it obviously stuck in our minds. What we took from that was the idea of writing in the voices of different characters. The basic plot was helpful too: woman dies, needs to be buried after a long journey, things happen along the way that illuminate character.
How did you make the novel come together as a whole, rather than exist as a series of short stories in different writing styles?
Everyone agreed to come away to a long weekend in a remote house in the Scottish Highlands. The house itself, Balavil, was an inspiration, full of atmosphere, as if waiting for stories to be told. I’d drafted an outline for the narrative, spurred on by the Faulkner novel. It was just a couple of pages but early on everyone agreed to work with this.
The narrative needed to be fleshed out, and characters were needed. So we did a few character-discovery exercises. Each of the 15 writers agreed to be one of the characters – the mother who dies (yet remains as an observer throughout the novel), her ill-assorted family, the host, undertaker, doctor etc. This was probably closer to the process of writing a play or TV drama than a conventional novel, but it worked. It turned the potential disadvantage of the impossibility of maintaining a consistent tone of voice, into the advantage of having 15 distinctive voices who tell the story from different viewpoints.
What do you wish you’d known at the beginning of the writing process?
To be honest – nothing. The great joy of the process was the exploration. It was wonderful to discover what we were doing simply by doing it. I often adopt the Nike line in writing workshops – Just do it. There’s a lot to be said for that as an approach, as long as you edit afterwards.
What surprised you most about this project?
That it worked. That it worked so well. The speed of it was surprising too. We gathered for the original meeting in mid-March 2013. We had a complete text finished – including editing by ourselves – by August. It spreads the writing load to have 15 authors involved, as long as everyone is clear about his or her individual role.
In parallel with that, we managed to get the book fully funded by our publisher Unbound, using crowd-sourcing. I think that added to the sense of collective effort. We were all engaged in the writing, but also in the effort to raise awareness and money. And that collaborative spirit continued as we moved through production to launch.
What three things could we all learn about the secrets of successful collaboration?
You have to put aside your ego. It’s difficult and you can never quite do it fully (otherwise you wouldn’t write at all), but you have to accept that yours is not the only voice and not the dominant one. It was humbling to hear people saying at the end of that first weekend “whatever the rest of you decide, I’m happy to go with that”.
A clear purpose is essential, and a clear structure will enable that to happen. After the weekend I took away all our collective notes and commitments, and I stitched them into an expanded version of the plot outline, indicating where each character entered or re-entered the narrative. We all worked to this, stuck to it (at least until the end of the first complete draft) and it meant we were all very clear about our direction and responsibilities.
Editing is vital. Jamie, Stuart and I met for an intensive couple of days at Jamie’s house in Scotland for the final round of editing. All the writers had submitted their pieces, and we had adopted a system of allocating one of we three as editors of small groups within the whole. The final editing that was then needed was to spot gaps or inconsistencies and to stitch it all together.
What are the pitfalls of collaboration?
It won’t work if one person decides his view is more important than all the rest. You probably have to suggest that that person goes away to play by himself because he’s spoiling things for the rest. But genuinely we didn’t have that problem at all.
What moment during the process best sums up the experience of writing a collaborative novel?
I think of the Saturday afternoon – it really was that early on in the process – when we gathered in Balavil’s drawing room in a semi-circle around the fire. Everyone in turn read out their first attempts at writing in the voices of their characters. We read, we listened, we commented – and we realised that, somewhat miraculously, this was going to work.
“To celebrate the launch of the collective novel Keeping Mum, Dark Angels are offering a much-reduced price on a place at the next Foundation course at Highgreen, Northumberland on 7-10 May. So you’ll need to be quick – contact email@example.com and see www.dark-angels.org.uk for details. The price will be £500 and you’ll receive a signed copy of the novel.”