Iain is currently acting as editor and cat-herder-in-chief on a collaborative novel with TEN (count them, TEN) writers. A contemporary story set in a tacky British seaside resort, the Ten To One novel will follow ten characters whose lives intersect that of a mysterious old man…
We thought we’d ask those ten writers about themselves and their involvement in collaborative writing. All ten interviews will appear here over the course of the project.
Today, Maria Mankin…
Who are you?
I’m Ten to One’s west coast American (although sadly, this title doesn’t seem to come with any perks beyond receiving emails from the UK at odd hours). For the last five years, I’ve lived in the Bay Area, not far outside San Francisco, although I was born and raised in New England. Eight years ago, I traded the certainty of digging my car out of snow drifts and checking myself for deer ticks every year for the slightly less definite death by earthquake or uncontrollable wildfire. Unfortunately for my friends and family back east, California has been very good to me thus far, and instead of returning to the fold, I send obnoxious emails with subject lines like, “Enjoy these photos of our February picnic!” As you might imagine, it endears me to them completely.
For the last three years, I’ve been working as a full-time writer. Before this peaceful shift into working from home, I spent seven years teaching preschool while publishing part-time. The introvert in me loves the lifestyle I have now, but I wouldn’t trade those years in the jam-hand trenches for anything. I’ve published six resource books for Pilgrim Press, as well as been part of three anthologies (same publisher). I also write a book review blog called Books j’adore that recently hit ten thousand followers.
How does Ten To One compare to previous collaborative writing experiences?
I’m used to working with one or two other people, and while those books require enormous reserves of patience, especially during the marathon skype sessions (it can be seven or eight hours at a stretch during some parts of a project) that are required to keep things moving forward, I also know those writers so well that it’s not terribly difficult to predict problems or resolve questions. With ten writers…well, I’m not sure any of us were entirely prepared for the amount of coordination and compromise this book would require!
It’s a slippery thing, trying to write a book with a bunch of strangers. We’ve spent months building this novel together, but when it comes down to it, I really only get to see a facet of each author – I know them as the stories they tell. Their characters, however, are dear to me. Since last April, I’ve spent hours reading about each one’s quirks and considering how these people fit into Nell’s experience in Skegness. Each of us introduced a character who is integral to the world we’ve created, and it has turned out to be quite painful to say goodbye to a character after every round.
What do you think are the challenges/obstacles that face the collaborative writer?
At the onset of a book like this one, it’s of critical importance to be in sync about the commitment level to the project. Deadlines and revisions can be handled so much more easily when everyone involved is invested in the end result. Once in the thick of it though, I think the most important thing to remember is while constructive criticism is both helpful and necessary, we have to remember how little we know about each other and harness a certain diplomacy to keep these relationships productive.
In terms of collaboration, criticism and diplomacy, how easy has the Ten To One project been?
I actually can’t recall any arguments, although we probably haven’t gotten to where we are in the novel by constantly agreeing pleasantly with each other. Our spirited debates are generally conducted via Dropbox; everything I’ve read there (or received via email) has been respectful, thorough, and prompt. I do sometimes wish we could hash out our ideas over a beer or a cup of
coffee tea, but as far as communicating over thousands of miles goes, it’s been great.
What do you see as the advantages of collaborative writing?
I find that writing collaboratively keeps me from getting stuck – even if I’m not quite sure what needs to happen next, other brains are working on the problem at the same time and coming up with solutions I never would have considered. Also, it’s exciting to open up a collaborator’s file at the end of a long writing session and feel freshly inspired to revise and fit together multiple pieces of writing.
As an American, are there some specific problems with writing in British English and writing a story set in the UK?
Well, I think it’s been a chapter or two since I’ve gotten any emails about my drafts that specifically reference a phrase or idea that is just completely American, so I consider that a win! Honestly though, the difficulty fluctuates for me depending on what I’m writing about in a given chapter. I had actually planned to visit Skegness when I was in the UK in September, but when I discovered exactly how many trains I would have to connect to, I lost my nerve. During that same trip, my husband and I were having dinner with his colleagues, and they informed me (with nearly straight faces) that I was pronouncing Skegness wrong. One of them had no idea where I was even talking about until another guy leaned over and whispered, “she means ‘Skegness’ (insert correct pronunciation here).” That just about captured my most bungling American moment thus far.
You are one of two American writers in Ten To One. Your character is an American in the UK. Jason Holloway is writing about Bobby, a British character. Do you think you have an easier ride than Jason?
I don’t know. I certainly think it’s easier for me to write an American; it would have rung false for me to try to capture the British sensibility. Jason volunteered to write a Brit though, and he seems to be very comfortable with that decision, so I can’t say with any authority whether he feels cheated out of getting to write an American. I’m just grateful he took that bullet so I didn’t have to!
Describe your character, Nell.
When I started writing about Nell, I thought she would reflect me more than she has. I started boxing last year, and when I applied for a spot in the Ten to One crew, I was living temporarily in London and had to put my training on hold until I was back in the States. I missed it, and I spent more time than I expected thinking about what might be happening at the gym while I was gone. Since I had decided to write Nell as an ex-pat, I wanted her to have a place she could feel a little more at home; boxing offered something akin to community for her. It was interesting, as well, that she left the States in large part to escape her difficult family following the death of her husband, yet the people she’s drawn to in Skegness are combative, difficult, and even more dangerous than those she left.
After I gave boxing to Nell, however, she turned into a very different person than I was expecting. Her defining characteristic, to me, is her ability to survive grief and alienation without being completely defined by it. In her situation, I suspect I would be incapable of getting out of bed, much less starting my life over. Nell is not a victim of her circumstances though. She has a remarkable (and probably unhealthy) ability to compartmentalize problems; this enables her to make exciting – and often dangerous – decisions to push her life forward.
We’ve seen a lot of Nell and yet we’ve not yet got to know her fully. Would you consider using her in stories outside this current novel?
I’ve actually spent November doing just that. I have over fifty thousand words written already, and although I haven’t decided whether I want to turn these stories into a collection of shorts or try to make them into a novel, I’m having a wonderful time telling her story. For such a reserved character, she has quite a lot to say now that I’ve let her off the leash; I’ve developed a nasty case of carpal tunnel trying to keep up!
Which is your favourite Ten To One character?
I tried to choose between Mabel and Bobby, but ultimately, I couldn’t decide. Mabel swallows swords; in my mind, it doesn’t get much more badass than that, and yet she’s the kind of character who excels at bringing people together. Bobby, on the other hand, is such fun to write into scenes! He’s vindictive and unpredictable but also seems like he wants to be redeemed. He tries to disguise that beneath humor and gore, and I think that’s an interesting place for a character to live.
What does it feel like to be in the final five writers in Ten To One?
It’s incredible. I love writing Nell, and it’s been exciting to see how the novel has developed over the last seven months. This experience has changed me as a writer in ways I never could have predicted, and it wouldn’t have happened without this amazing little community.
What are your thoughts on the voting process?
I’ve always thought of myself as a competitive person (a painful but accurate American stereotype), so I thought I would get a rush from the voting process, but in actuality, it’s been brutal. I’m too attached to the story and the other characters to want to see anyone eliminated. I don’t know what the book would look like if we’d approached it as an opportunity to collaborate for ten chapters without the elimination element, but I suspect it would have been…wonderfully complicated.
Do you feel that the judges and the reading public are looking for something different in the Ten To One chapters?
I don’t know. I’ve certainly gotten feedback from friends who have been reading along, but it’s been along the lines of them wanting more of our story rather than asking for something different from it. I do enjoy seeing the responses to questions about the book posted on Facebook; it’s been great that some of our readers have been interested in engaging in that way.
That being said, I also think we’ve strayed pretty far from the typical reading experience, and while it may be hard for people to imagine what it looks like to have eleven people (including Iain) contributing ideas to one book, it’s actually quite a barrage of information! When it comes down to the decisions made in the story, ultimately the writers have to claim ownership. We’re the ones who answer for the choices that have been made – they have to be ones we’re proud to defend. All we can hope for is that we’ve done our characters justice and that our readers have had a good time along the way.
Final question. What should this novel be called when it’s finished?
I’m notoriously bad at titles. When I was at university, I used to ask my roommates to each give me a word; I would then take those suggestions and turn them into titles for my poems. It was incredibly difficult to keep a straight face when I had to workshop those pieces aloud. I can only hope my co-authors are blessed with a better method!