ATHENA has a die-hard following on JukePop, but this unique story is co-authored by 4 writers. We thought they would offer a unique perspective about their process of writing. A quick intro about the 4 authors below, then we’ll get right to the Q&A session.
Ryan W. Norris is a full-time evolutionary biologist and part-time writer of (mostly hard) science fiction. He has published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. When he writes with his collaborators you’ll see a softer side to his scifi.
Damian Hamilton is a homeless, jobless vagabond. He just paid money to put a tape deck in his car.
Ryan Evey is is a software developer in Idaho who has two young children that he regularly lies for his own entertainment. His wife is immune to his lies since she doesn’t listen to most of what he says.
William W. Beckman is a caveman and an architect. He is currently riding a bicycle in Finland.
1. Can you walk us through the collaborative writing process for a typical chapter of Athena?
Not a lot of thought really went into creating a process, it’s basically just a free-for-all. There are a lot of discussions about the big picture, medium picture, and local storyline. Someone writes something. Someone rewrites it. It gets moved to a different location. Someone else edits it. Sometimes a whole subplot gets written and then the rest of the story gets written around it. Some sections get deleted outright.
Basically it’s how anyone writes – it just so happens to be more than one anyone doing it.
People might expect it to look like those exercises that happen in creative writing classes where you pass a story around a room and this person takes over where that person left off. That’s not the case at all. It’s not divided up by chapter, section, or character. In fact, for much of the story you can’t really point to a block of text
and say that this individual author wrote it.
For example the first section in Chapter 2 was initially written by one person. We didn’t like it. Another person tried it. That wasn’t right either, but we wanted something almost halfway in between. Person 1 went back and combined them – sentence by sentence. A third person came in and smoothed over the combination. Then he deleted the old last line and wrote the last two sentences you see now. It went from being a problem to being a favorite section.
2. Why might an author consider doing a collaboration piece? Specifically, a long-form piece.
We probably can’t really speak for other people. ATHENA is unique in that it was something that we’ve worked on since college. Another feature to ATHENA is that it’s genuinely long-form. It’s a serial, not a serialized novel. It’s probably safer to compare it to a TV or comic series than a book. Chapters combine into Episodes, Episodes into Seasons, and Seasons into Arcs.
Bob Kane didn’t write Batman from beginning to end. People get bored, busy, old, and dead. If you have collaborators, they can take over until you recover. They’re also your editors, fresh set of eyes, and ticket to generating more output.
3. Is writing collaboratively slower or faster? How long does an average chapter take to write?
Some of us would have written pretty much nothing solo, so it’s definitely faster than that. Overall, it’s probably faster, but you do end up bogged down with getting feedback from The Committee or wanting that edit that isn’t happening on your preferred schedule.
It’s really hard to say how long it takes. We try to keep a 2 month buffer and then publish on set dates of the month as fast as our buffer permits. Buffers are a good idea for anyone writing serial fiction, but they’re critical when the ideas are spread out across more than one brain. A lot of stuff ends up getting written but then reorganized into some later timeframe. What it means is you feel like you’re spending a ton of time on one chapter because everything you’re writing ends up in a later chapter. Then later you hit a chapter that just needs a read through to make sure that the most recent parts of the story don’t necessitate a few wording changes.
4. What are the benefits of writing collectively? Drawbacks?
The benefits are definitely being able to rely on one another to pick things up. We come and go as life requires. 4 out of 4 lives turned insane within a short time after we first submitted the first chapter of ATHENA to JukePop. Babies, moves, new jobs that should not be paired with a time-consuming hobby, other writing opportunities. When everyone’s firing on all cylinders, you get writes, rewrites, editing, and reorganizing all happen almost simultaneously and you can get a really polished product quickly. Other times you’re just happy if someone is writing something down.
Another big advantage stems from the fact that some of your ideas are stupid. It helps to have 3 people calling you an idiot for trying to add time-travel into your story. Meanwhile, our expertise is very variable. We don’t have to spend as much time researching the rabbit species in the woods in North Idaho, realistic dial-up parameters for a 1996 desktop, details of Uranus’s moons, or how to merge classical and quantum physics in a manner that simultaneously explains FTL travel, superpowers, and psionic communication. We have semi-experts who know how to get those answers quickly.
The biggest drawback is that you can start to become dependent on a person. We don’t break up the writing by character or chapter or anything, but some of us are just better at certain things than others. Needing them when they’re having major surgery can slow things down. For instance, Evey usually takes care of all of Amy’s cussing in the story, Hamilton takes care of the badassedness, Norris makes sure the characters visit enough North Idaho restaurants that are no longer in business, and Beckman works on lens flares. If Beckman’s off the grid, you’re pretty much going to have to wait to get your lens flare.
You also might not want to give away control of your baby. ATHENA was always collaborative, but there are other projects we’ve had individually where we couldn’t imagine letting these other jerks mess with it.
5. How did the group come together?
We all met in college at the University of Idaho (the story’s current setting). Many late nights were spent bonding over killing Harkonnen using only harvesters, playing Magic the Gathering, getting kicked out of Orange Julius, or joining forces to overthrow tyrannical RAs using stale muffins. And lots and lots of X-COM. Creating a superhero team was pretty much a checkbox that couldn’t go unchecked.
That was almost 20 years ago. The four of us have maintained a daily ‘Reply All’ email thread ever since. Other people blog, tweet, try to publish short stories or non-fiction articles, or even speak to other human beings or animals using waves of compressed air. We do all of those things (except actual soundwaves), but until very recently our audience has been three other people. There’s almost a collective voice that’s developed, distinct from our individual voices. ATHENA has persisted as a constant throughout. It’s grown into this big story that’s kind of an amalgam of kitchen sinks. Think Buckaroo Banzai, Clarke, Doc Smith, Star Wars, JLA, Hesiod, Cook’s Black Company, Dougal Dixon, Red Dawn, Joyce’s Dubliners, Julie Czerneda, Babylon 5, Stormwatch, Raelism, Toho, The Invisibles, Mad Max, UFO conventions, The Iliad, Dune, Firefly, Last and First Men, Asimov’s Foundation, X-COM, and every weird conspiracy floating around in the ‘90s all mashed together into one storyline written by total amateurs. ATHENA’s currently in that awkward early Gen13 / Fire in the Sky adolescence that all good stories have to go through.
Iterations of ATHENA have been a college radio show, a few short stories, a half finished plan for a video game, and a few other things. The reason it’s happening here and now is because we realized it would never be a comic book (because someone has to be able to draw), but it needed this sort of serialization to happen. A couple of us were moving toward doing some fiction writing [Shameless plug – Norris has a short story in the current – March 2015 – issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact] so JukePop made a lot of sense when we heard about it from another author on the site (Byron Barton of X349 fame).
6. Has it been easier to get traction with readership since garnering interest is a group effort? Any tips for authors?
Honestly, it probably doesn’t change much. Building a readership on JukePop seems to start out with the friends and family you can guilt into checking you out on the site. Then as time passes the rest of the JP community takes a look at your work. You keep plugging along trying to bring people to the site, but, except for that initial wave of friends and family, the fastest growth seems to be among people already reading on JukePop. Hopefully the work or your writing career will reach a point where it transcends the site and you start to draw in a bunch of total strangers who come specifically for that story or author.
So yeah, 2 out of 4 moms read the story on a regular basis, which is like twice as many moms as most stories have, and we probably got a bigger initial pulse of friends, but otherwise the collective thing is probably not adding a lot of readers. Look at Shaunn Grulkowski and Laura Morrison working together on Tradecraft or Laura working with Jenn Flath on The Co-Ed Files. Those books aren’t necessarily getting a bigger set of readers than the authors get by writing solo. Maybe if we were all putting everything we had into marketing, we could combine into a Vote-getting Voltron, but that’s not really happening.
Tips? Bring in your people – we’re all adding readers to a bigger pool here. Be cool to people on the site. Be as generous with your reading and +Votes as your schedule allows. Outlive the competition. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Think of them as ephemeropterans.
You should also think about talking Laura Morrison into co-writing your story. She’s really good.
7. Favorite thing about writing as a group? Least favorite?
Favorite: When a couple hundred million years of informal plotting you had in your head has to get rewritten because someone just thought of something really really cool for the next chapter and you can’t not use it.
Least Favorite: When a couple hundred million years of informal plotting… Actually, the least favorite thing might be that it ends up being such a collective thing that none of us can look at this final product and say, “That’s me. That’s how I write.” If someone likes ATHENA, that doesn’t mean they’re going to like anything we do solo or vice versa. You almost have to view collaborative writing as if it’s writing by an entirely different person altogether. Mostly that’s cool, but I think we’ve all experienced situations where we’ve devoured everything we could get our hands on by a certain author and then had her co-write a book and it’s a big letdown. So, sorry in advance to readers if you hate everything else we ever write. But still give us a try. After all, it’s worked so far for Laura Morrison.
8. Logistically, how does the team write together? Email? Google drive? In-person sessions?
We started out just shooting Word documents around in email, then having long talks and edited text emailed around, and finally we just threw it all on Google Drive and stuck with that. Sometimes people turn on revisions or leave comments on wording or sections and then we’ll try to go through and resolve stuff before final publishing. Given that we’ve lived all over the world while working on this (Pennsylvania, Finland, Maryland, Thailand, Ohio, and a couple places in Idaho just since the story went online) the in-person thing just never happens. A few times we’ve tried to use Skype, but that typically evolves into drinking challenges, web surfing, video game playing, and certain people taking their laptops into the bathroom with them.
So yeah, at this point it’s a set of Google Drive documents that 4 people access.
Thanks for having us on, Jerry!