I was rummaging around my old computer files when I stumbled across this little picture. It’s the work of a great graphic artist by the name of Bryan Riolo. He’s a talented writer too who tends to stay in the fantasy / horror genre with occasional forays into everyday drama.
The picture above was pulled together quickly, for free, and as a complete surprise to me. It’s a depiction of a prose scene written by yours truly showing the meeting of two beings of pure light. The smaller point of light “Graykin” is about to be transformed into human form and sent to Earth to investigate the disappearance of a Troll from a travelling circus.
It was a key scene from a chapter that I wrote for a Round Robin story.
Everyone know what a Round Robin story is?
For those who don’t think of it as a writing relay race. One writer kicks off the story, and then the next writer starts where the last writer finished. This is not a collection of themed / similar stories. This is one story being told by numerous writers.
They are great fun to do.
It’s also a really good creative and collaborative exercise. It’s advisable to agree a few ground rules before you start such as:
Genre – straight drama, fantasy, crime, sci-fi. It needs to be a genre everyone is comfortable with, or willing to tackle for the first time.
Order of writing – This is important. The first writer has it hard. That was Bryan’s job and he did a fantastic job. The first writer has to set the tone. They need to leave threads that the other writers can pick up. The trick is to not make those threads too obvious, so if the next writer doesn’t use all of the available threads the unused ones blend into the background, literally as background info, without reading like unexplained plot threads. I’ve gone back and read Bryan’s first chapter and it’s only now some four or five years later that I can see what he did was exceptional. I always knew it was good, but had I been more experienced in this writing malarkey I would have been even more impressed. He gave us so many characters to play with, and yet it didn’t feel cluttered. It really was the work of a writer firing on all cylinders.
I was a coward I volunteered for the second chapter which is an easy one. I couldn’t resist reading my early efforts after finding Bryan’s picture. I did ok. I held my own in some tough company considering I’d only written one short story at that point. It’s funny looking back. Bryan’s chapter was entirely set in Florida. So I decided to start my chapter in the far depths of space, and bring my characters into Bryan’s Florida setting. I have no idea what I was on. But hey, it worked.
The other writers who have it hard are the ones responsible for the finishing stages; pulling all the threads together to ensure a cohesive story. All of the writers have the issue of continuing the threads but the final writer has to draw them all together. Not easy.
Style – If your natural writing style is verbose, and you like to drop in the occasional word that will have the reader running to the dictionary you’re going to have to tone it down. The story won’t work if it’s obvious that the chapters are clearly written by different writers. The change in writing style will jar with the reader. A well written Round Robin story should be seamless from one writer to the next. You have to be style neutral while avoiding bland. It isn’t easy, but the creative challenge is rewarding
Handover Points – Define them up front. We had a really fun agreement in place. Each chapter had to end on a cliff-hanger. One of our heroes in peril or deadly danger. It was great writing the chapter because you could write the next writer into an absolute corner and you didn’t have to worry about the resolution. Yeah, I do have a wicked side. But it was good for the next writer too. They didn’t have to think about how to start their chapter. They could kick off straight into an action scene. It made it easy to get the pen moving.
Plot – This is a difficult one. If you completely plot out the whole group of chapters you’ll lose a lot of the sheer blind fun and creativity out of a Round Robin exercise. However, you can’t ignore it either or you’ll end up with an incoherent mess. The current writer, the previous writer, the upcoming writer, and the Editor need to keep talking.
Our project never got finished for reasons too long to go into here, but if you’re a writer who knows a bunch of other writers I’d recommend a Round Robin challenge any day.
I’d gladly do one again post completion of the Project 13 collaboration.
Anybody out there thinking that it’s just a game or not something a serious writer would consider…think again. Anyone read Windhaven by GRRM & Lisa Tuttle? It started life as a Round Robin story. There are many other examples of published Round Robin works out there so dismiss it at your peril.
You’ll also find that the interaction with other writers improves your solo work.
M J Wolfson - That's me.