It is probably worth considering how much of a debt collaborative writing of the type we’ve been discussing owes to modern communications technology.
Heide and I live twenty-three miles apart. Without word processing, e-mail, video conferencing and web-based file sharing, we would not be able to collaborate on fiction in the way we have. That a number of these tools have only been fully available for less than twenty years demonstrates further how lucky we are to have them at our disposal.
A hundred years ago, a collaboration like ours would have been very different. We would have been sending packets of typed or handwritten sheets back and forth through the post. Decent version control of our documents would have been virtually impossible. There wouldn’t have been the same free flow of ideas as we currently have. Our communications wouldn’t have been as responsive. A distance of twenty-three miles would have been as hampering as two hundred and thirty miles.
Heide and I text, phone, e-mail, Skype, share files via an internet server, Tweet, blog, and post on forums, Pinterest (a little) and Facebook (a lot). And I am sure that, if someone were to read this book in as little as ten years time, some of these concepts would seem as antiquated as MySpace or BBS. Hello, future person. How lucky you are to have even better communication tools than us.
Despite the freedom offered by some other forms of communication, e-mail remains a standard tool for modern communication. Although e-mail has existed in some form since before I was born, it hasn’t been a universally understood tool for very long at all. There are adults alive today who have not known a world without e-mail. Myself, I was still writing letters – actual paper and pen and envelopes and stamps – for ordinary communication as recently as 1997. Hotmail, the world’s most popular web-based mailing system, was only launched in 1996.
E-mail allows collaborators (particularly those separated by any kind of distance) to communicate in very specific ways. Heide and I bounce e-mails back to each other on a daily basis. I’ve just looked; fifty e-mails from Heide to me in the last eleven days. There’ll be a similar number that have gone the other way.
A large number of those e-mails begin with sentences along the lines of “What if…” or “Why don’t we…” or “I’ve had a cool idea. Shoot me down if it’s crazy” (we almost never shoot each other down although I’ve not yet replied to Heide’s message about the proposed Satan-inspired restaurant evening.) E-mail is probably the collaborators’ main method for sharing ideas. We can put our ideas down at any time, share them instantly and then there’s the handy trail of e-mail conversation threads we can look back on for reference. Those ideas will migrate to word-processed documents at some point but 90%+ of them are spawned in e-mail communication.
As well as sharing generated ideas, we question each other via e-mail. If I’m writing a chapter and I cannot recall if character X has any previously mentioned family and our planning documents don’t provide an answer, I will e-mail Heide at once. If I can’t remember when we’re supposed to be doing a reading or where the convention is we’re going to the next weekend, another e-mail goes out. I ask more questions than Heide. I’m a man; I live in a semi-permanent state of confusion.
And one step beyond questioning is the offering of criticism. Heide and I are very gentle critics of one another’s work (which could also be read to mean that we’re not forceful enough). Even as we’re writing a chapter, the other might offer a suggestion of how the story ought to be steered in another direction. Collaborators must criticise one another. The immediacy and informality of e-mail can make that very easy.
However, the features of immediacy and informality can also make e-mail dangerous. Write in too formal English and your mail can seem frosty. Write too informally and briefly and your words seem trivial and flippant. And sarcasm! As a Brit, sarcasm is in my blood and permeates pretty much everything I say or write. Almost any casually written e-mail can be read with multiple meanings if you read it out in a sarcastic voice. You probably don’t need warning about this one. Most of us have been bitten by the effects of a hastily written e-mail.
Perhaps less meaningful but just as important as ideas, questions and criticism, e-mail is a great tool for mutual support. What writer doesn’t like receiving mails that say “Brilliant idea!” “Well done!” or “That chapter was the best thing I’ve ever read, Iain. You deserve a Nobel Prize for Literature!”? I’ve not actually received that last one, but who knows. Heide and I, as we struggle with our agreed deadlines and the expectations that we’ve set ourselves, have always bounced e-mails back and forth to offer that extra bit of support. It’s another area where collaboration wins over solo writing. The solo writer can only give themselves a pat on the back or explain to their non-writer friend why what they’ve just done is so worthy of congratulations. Mutual support and mutual appreciation amongst collaborators are excellent things. In moderation.
The other communication tool that we now find indispensable is a web-based file sharing server. We use Dropbox but there are other file-sharing services out there and I’m sure they’re equally lovely. Dropbox allows us to have folders on our computers which synchronise with each other via the web-based server. In this way, if I edit a document and click save, it will be updated on Heide’s computer seconds later. If we happen to edit a single document simultaneously and then save, Dropbox provides two versions of the document.
File sharing like this makes version control of our prose very easy indeed. There is only ever one version of the document (or occasionally two conflicting versions) and we can use the Dropbox archive to rescue old versions if need be.
The really interesting phenomenon created by using something like Dropbox is that Heide and I are essentially writing directly in front of one another. Anything that I’ve written and saved can be viewed by Heide and vice versa and, since we’re responsible writers who save every few minutes, our collaborative partner can watch a chapter blossom, grow, shift and change as it is being written.
When we first realised that we were, in essence, writing in public, we sat down and discussed our feelings about it. We both hate writing with someone looking over our shoulders. I shudder at the thought of someone next to me, watching me making poorly constructed sentences and bad word choices before I have gone back and hammered them into a better shape. It was strange then to discover that neither of us had a problem with have our collaborator view our work in progress across the internet. We discovered a peculiar comfort in it, particularly at those points when we were writing at the same time. I could be typing away at my chapter and see a little notification pop up in the corner of my window, telling me that Heide’s chapter had been updated. I would have a peek and frequently see that she was much further on with her chapter than I was with mine and it would spur me on to get cracking with my own section of the novel.
File sharing has blown away any concerns about sharing our work with each other. There’s no big reveal if your collaborator has been watching you write your part of the novel all along. We were fortunate enough to find a total willingness to share with each other. This was not only a great confidence boost but also gave us opportunity to offer comment and encouragement as we went along, turning the traditionally solo activity of writing into something more like a team sport.