A very modern novel

Is we the new I? asks soon-to-be collaborative author, Paul Redstone? In a daring collaboration with 14 other writers, Redstone describes what the first workings of a collective novel might look like where ‘no one writer is in control’, and the first words are written in a Highland retreat.

There’s a well-known quotation often attributed to Virginia Woolf: ‘Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.’

Novel writing, though, has always been more like masturbation. A solitary, furtive pursuit. The end result is truly your own creation, but in most cases it will never be shared with another human being. And while there may occasionally be the mutual satisfaction of a co-authored novel, rarely do literary get-togethers escalate to a ménage à trois, let alone a full-blown orgy.

Well, an intrepid bunch of writers is hoping to change that. Our mission: to write and publish a collective novel.

Our dangerous liaison kicked off on a snowy March weekend in a large country house in the highlands of Scotland. The plan, an ambitious one, was to have the structure and characters of a novel in place by Sunday night. There were 15 of us – all psyched for the unique challenge, but also prepared for the possibility of abject failure. Our starting point was an outline inspired by William Faulkner’s multiple narrative novel As I Lay Dying, which we had all read in preparation. We would develop and write one character each. The challenge then would be to shape our disparate viewpoints into a cohesive story. And into a book that people might actually want to buy.

The weekend had a happy finish. We left the Balavil Estate with a solid outline, a truly wonderful array of characters and, in some cases, a single-malt hangover of epic proportions. Since then we’ve come a fair way with the writing, and I think it’s fair to say the story is coming together better than any of us probably expected.

The collaborative approach is the bread and butter of screenwriting, where the creativity of multiple writers can help keep a story fresh and bring greater individuality to characters. But does the approach have anything to offer literature? We think so, and we hope our experiment will prove the point.

And why hasn’t it been done before? Well, there are certainly obstacles, such as the logistical (and other) issues involved in getting a group of writers together. You could easily expect that fitting the inflated egos of 15 authors into a single room would present an insurmountable challenge, but in fact this proved to be far from the case. And fortunately it was a big house. Perhaps one key factor is that we’re all business writers (we do it for money!), so we’re well disciplined in the project and team ethos, and open to being influenced by each other’s ideas. We’re also used to working with the tight constraints a project like this entails.

The biggest hurdle for the collective novel is probably the traditional business model of publishing, with its play-it-safe approach focusing on bankable star names. But with the new possibilities of the digital age, that could change. We’re publishing via a company called Unbound, which publishes a book if enough people pledge to buy it. We’re doing a lot of the marketing ourselves, via blogs, social media and so forth. I believe that a few short years ago, the task would have been almost impossible. Our creative experiment is actually a very modern affair. (The character I’m writing is a teenage girl who communicates solely through text messages and social media. To her generation, this will probably seem like the obvious way to publish a book!)

The collective approach has its issues and limitations, but it’s exciting, not least because no one writer is in control. The book is like a living organism with a will of its own. What another writer writes might just alter the destiny of my character. Collective writing lends itself naturally to character-driven literature with multiple narratives, as each author has a unique style. But that’s not really a limitation at all.

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