Writing someone else’s story

Over 5 days last week I co-wrote a short story with someone 3,330 miles away. The actual time spent on it, though, was more like 5 hours. Here’s how it worked.

Those of you who’ve been here before may remember a blog about coincidences,  in which I mentioned Eden Baylee and how we, along with others, are regular contributors to Richard Wood’s Word Count Podcast. (A couple of blogs were also devoted to an interview with Eden to coincide with the publication of her first crime novel, Stranger at Sunset.) She and I had chatted before about co-writing something and, when Richard posted his prompt for the latest show – the words Frozen, Time and Whisky – we decided this was the opportunity.

We’d write a story in 4 parts
1. Introducing the characters and situation
2 & 3 Developing them and it
4 The resolution

Each part would have 250-300 words and Eden (in Toronto) trusted me (in Aberdeen) to toss a coin and tell her whether she’d be writing parts 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. It was tails, which meant she’d write 1 and 3.

A little aside here. Much of Eden’s previous work has been in a genre I’ve only once tried (for a bet) – erotica. It would have been an interesting challenge if she’d decided to go down that route this time but the scenario she set up was fairly open, although my development of it could legitimately have taken it in that direction if I’d had the … er … nerve so to do. The situation Eden had sketched was that of a woman who’d drunk too much, slipped on the ice and, when she came to, heard 3 male voices discussing where they could take her to do whatever they had in mind. And that’s all of the story you’re going to get because I’d rather you listened to the end result when the show’s been put together.

So it was my turn and it’s very interesting developing someone’s else’s characters, especially when you know you’re going to have to relinquish control over their fates. They may start to emerge and separate into goodies, baddies or whatever, but then you have to hand them over and wait for them to be returned, having taken directions you might not have anticipated. But the lovely alchemy of writing takes over and in this case, Eden picked up on one line of what I wrote and decided to take part 3 in a direction which wasn’t identical to what I had in mind but was close. So, at the end of it all, instead of having to solve a conundrum I hadn’t created, I could relate to the characters as I had before and tie the story up in what Eden accepted was a satisfying way. I should stress, though, that there’s no guarantee that collaboration will always run that smoothly, but then, the harder you make the goals that have to be met, the greater the satisfaction in meeting them.

‘So what?’ you cry.

It was all done via emails, of course, and time zones played their part in the experience – each of us effectively writing when the other was asleep. We made comments and suggestions for what turned out to be minor adjustments to each other’s copy and the whole thing was great fun. We then recorded our individual pieces, Eden sent hers over and I edited them together into a single narrative with which we’re both happy.

Well, it’s very refreshing to be forced out of a comfort zone, to be set writing problems which haven’t arisen out of your own psyche. It’s energising to find inspiration coming not from a muse but from someone else’s imaginings, which then become your own. It’s intriguing to see a narrative weave off in an unexpected direction and have to help it towards a conclusion that fits in with everything that’s happened. And I’m sure it’s just as intriguing to set up a situation with no idea where it will lead and to see someone else take it to a satisfactory dénouement. It’s a great writing exercise with a fascinating end-product. Try it.

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