Of Collaborations and Round Robins

MDg (Mike) brought us a terrific blog last week and gave us some insight into the collaborative writing process with working on a story with Gibraltar. It proved quite illuminating to see their collaborative approach. It also served to recall some heady memories of Ad Astra’s first Round Robin, the multi-universe mind and universe bending saga (not quite complete).

Oh, those were the days … the long days and late nights – particularly so if you were on one side of the world and most of the other participating authors were on the other side! Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It was especially thrilling later in the proceedings when we had somewhat established the story and characters and become accustomed to each others characters and managed to get online a few authors together and started thrashing out some scenes in real time together.

Then, we’d gather around our respective laptops/computers. Some at work, chiming on on the QT, some at home trying to keep an eye on the kids, some just in from work or about to head out in a bit, but there we’d be, gathered to possibly write something. Someone would see a few on, and quickly set up an AIM chatroom. I had to go sign up to AIM. Then we’d find ourselves in a chatroom and next thing there would be abbreviations and smilies leaping out at you! I was you see all very new to this kind of thing. TYL. Brb. LMAO. These were all strange codes I soon quickly had to come to understand. Anyway, the coven of round robin witches would be hovered around ready to work their magic.

But I get ahead of myself somewhat. You see, a lot of us had never been a part of such an experience and did not fully understand what a round robin was. Quite a few of us were hesitant about signing up to such an adventure given our lack of knowledge and the uncertainty about how much time commitment might just be involved. How the whole thing even came about is even hard to recall and decipher, spread over a number of different threads – but let’s just blame it on Steff i.e.: SLWalker.

Firstly, there were a few reassurances that the whole thing was not canon, unless we decided it was, in our respective universes. Then there was some discussion about what could or could not be done to another’s character. And then there was a decision to be made by the various writers about which of their characters to drag into this whole crazy scheme.

For myself, I opted to bring in my Vulcan science officer who served aboard the Kestrel Border Patrol cutter. T’Vel seemed to me a compelling character to bring into the story which at the point of her insertion was in need of a few science heads. T’Vel was typical Vulcan but also came with a lot of personal baggage that might prove potentially interesting when thrown into an extreme situation. My hope was to get an opportunity to write for the Vulcan, who by that date had little significant story time, and to explore some of her characteristics and the driving factors of her life. However, T’Vel would prove to be quite a dark and morose character all on her own so I also decided to bring along the alien Stanley who was something of an enigma and to let others have a little fun with him. And by dent of the fun I had and others had reading him and his potential to add chaos to the mix, I decided to throw my Captain Gregory McGregor into it too – albeit by way of a diversion and plot dul de sac. So I had my stable of characters chosen and at this stage the story was already on the go.

Pumped and psyched up for the whole experience, Steff and Teddog had assured us that it was going to be easy and fun. Then went and used our writing and characters against us by going on to say that it would be a hell of a blast and writing experience as well as being terrific opportunity to try out the legs of our characters in settings less familiar. This all proved to be true but little did we know just what we were letting ourselves for. And at the time, a lot of us really didn’t know what we were getting into and how this would all work out. Did I mention my complete lack of chatroom knowledge already? Now I can LOL with the best of them. Prior to this experience, I thought that had meant ‘lots of love’. I must be an ole romantic at heart.

So with lots of eager enthusiasm and naivety, we ventured forth with the multi-verse round robin. Soon it would snow ball into something beyond our imaginings… well our expectations. First, there was a thread for the posted story (which later had to be divided up – eventually into four parts – read that again – four parts), sensibly a thread for a character blurb to give others a sense of the character, a thread for reaction and discussion to the posted story. As time went on there came to be a soundtrack theme thread, and a multiversal crack thread and Rob’s behind the scenes of the Multiverse thread where he interviewed and gave TV Times shout outs to the characters and stories. The thing was going to take on a life of its own.

To begin with, we wrote our own characters and explained them getting transplanted into the multiversal universe. As postings went by, we got braver, as our characters bumped into other characters, sometimes literally, and got to talking. That meant we had to start working together to produce the scenes or write each other’s characters. That was a big step for many of us. Trusting others to write our own characters and taking on the challenge of writing other people’s characters.

We started PM’ing or emailing and then someone settled on the terrific idea of using AIM or such like to talk in real time and work some things out. This – after several false starts from myself in the technology of the chatroom – came to be a really fantastic and quick way to get answers to questions. Soon it just became easier to write the stories and share bits via AIM.

There’d be some banter and asides using AIM as we talked about the next instalment and tried to plot some of what was going to happen. With a possibly agreed plan for the current piece of writing, Steff would then crack her whip and set one of us to writing a particular bit. Ok, it wasn’t always Steff cracking the whip – Teddog did some of it too – Me? Oh no, I’d never do that.

Anyway, as that writer was sent scurrying off to their thing – be it a line or a number of paragraphs the rest of us either got cooking dinner or cooking up more consequences or plain ole silly nonsense. Then the person sent away came back with their results.
“Two lines!? Is that it?” :crack whip again:

Ok, it didn’t quite go like that but at times it was a relay race, one person typing away then posting and then with a triumphant finished or more often a shout out to the others: “Now go!” and someone would seize onto the end of the scene and make additions. Wow, it really was quite a rush.

It was also a mind-boggling race to keep up with the story and the many varied posts and threads. The story would twist and turn at tremendous pace – especially if Rob rowed in with a few new ideas! You could always rely on Rob to throw a curve ball or two and create some of the most outrageous scenarios. He thoroughly corrupted my dear ole Stanley – from having Stan smoke a spliff to ‘forget the shit’ to dressing up in drag, his Frank Grayson took Stanley on an adventure the likes of which he had never been.

And therein lay the true pleasure of the whole enterprise. It was the working with others and the challenge to write for their characters and to have our own characters interact with them. It really upped all of our game I think. Yes, when we worked solely on our own stories, there was more time for polish but in this escapade, we were racing against the clock and had to get on top of the characters and novel situations they kept finding themselves in.

It enriched the possibilities for story settings and character exploration. In their own universes, certain characters would not talk about or relate to others in the same fashion. Nor would they necessarily have the same opportunity to explore certain sides to themselves in their canon universes where plots and outlines dictated and acted as safety nets to what the characters could and could not do. There was a freedom to this story telling that was literally exhilarating and fascinating as learned more or experienced more with our own characters by virtue of the round robin.

For myself, the exploration of Stanley was taken to quite comedic extremes that I loved but the real ‘writer’ly part of me was overjoyed at the turn of events that allowed me to explore a horror of T’Vel’s past and explore so much of the angst and pain of it as well as thread between her Vulcan discipline and the struggle to maintain it given the brutal rape of her mind and body. But all safely, or not so safely, within the confines of a telepathic AI meltdown. It also allowed a moment of win for the poor Vulcan as she fought to reassert control of her mind. It was a cathartic moment for the character but it was also a moment I would not be able to recreate within the Kestrel: Hunting Grounds story proper. So what joy it was to write it here in the round robin.

For those of you wondering, the AI meltdown was stopped by trekfan‘s Captain Hank Harrison doing a Kirk-like computer brain karate chop. Seriously, it was the kind of story that had EVERYTHING! Don’t believe me – go and read it! It was truly a story of madcap adventure, with moments of high hilarity, outrageous mirror universe treachery, out and out action, pulsating tension, tender and emotive character moments, Arnold Rimmer (yes, THAT Arnold Rimmer of Red Dwarf fame – only not – or yes actually but different), an AU Dukat and a universe where Gibraltar’s Pava bit the bullet – death by seagulls no less a feat for such a dangerous enemy! I did say the story had everything, didn’t I?!

But the whole point was to talk about the fact that the joy was the creative input of working with others and seeing the fruits of our collaborations and indeed our wrecking of orchestrated plans through the dropping of some crazy curve balls and maddening twists. It was an exhilarating ride, one hard to likely ever reproduce again on such a scale. Nevertheless, it showed the story telling potential of a mixed melting pot of characters and situations and how working collaboratively could be pure awesome. All too often, working as a story teller we are flying solo. We are left to our own devices and to dream up the stories and interactions all by ourselves. No wonder, we often crave feedback of some sort once we publish, it has been such an isolated and individual endeavour.

There are certain fruits to be had from both approaches it has to be said. There are certain limitations too with either writing experience. However, I have to stand and declare, that this at least was a madly fun affair that I recall with great fondness as a reader and a writer.