Or “When Collaborative Fiction Goes Bad”.
So let’s imagine that you’ve written a piece as part of a collaborative fiction venture, and you’ve created a character that you like and that you want to develop further. In fact, you’ve already written more about him, and you feel that you have something really interesting emerging here. But then, some nagging doubts are raised about the man’s – well – character. And finally someone else goes and uncovers his dark secret. What are you to do?
I’m not entirely sure where my sympathies lie here, to be honest. Douglas Bruton is a massively talented writer – he regularly wins decent competitions, and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize last year. But, as one of the commenters says, I wonder if he’s being a little bit precious. After all, surely in a work of collaborative fiction, more than one perspective must be allowed? (In fact, I did this myself in my – so far – one and only contribution, by suggesting that Prospect Cottage might be in a slightly worse state of repair than previously indicated by the owner.)
Then again, I also have a vision of the other authors on the site marching with pitchforks and blazing torches towards where the poor character lives to administer mob justice, which doesn’t quite feel right, either.
Either way, a bit of controversy can’t be all that bad for Greyling Bay, can it? Go and have a read – it’s an interesting place.
Thanks for bringing this up here. I am forbidden to discuss this any further on the Greyling Bay site. Bickering it has been called. Passionate about what I do is what I think it is.
The ‘rules’ of the site say two things that are pertinent here: the first is you cannot ‘rewrite’ a character and make him into something he is not. In a comment on the character of Darius Bredwyn I specified that he was NOT a threat to the streets of Greyling Bay and then this recent writer made Darius into a sexual predator. That sounds like a rewriting of the character in my book.
Secondly, we as contributors are invited to state our avowed intentions with a character that we are intending to develop, so that other contributors do not get in the way of that intention by sending the character off in a different direction. I had stated, clear and unequivically, that my intention with Darius was that people would come to like him and see him as a warm and gentle, if slightly ‘off the wall’, character. That intention has been thwarted by what has happened in this rewriting of Darius.
Collaboration involves working together and each piece of writing being sympathetic to the whole. I sometimes have done an exercise with kids where they add a line to a story and it goes something like this:
line 1: It was a bright and warm day with the sky clear and the sun up.
line 2: A man sat on a park bench feeding the birds.
line 3: The man’s name was Arthur and he was an old man.
line 4: He fed the birds the same time every day and they knew to come to the same bench and to wait for him there.
line 5: They gathered in numbers, singing for Arthur, getting more and more excited until he arrived.
line 6: Today Arthur spoke to the birds about the sun and the warm air and the flowers beginning to show.
line 7: Suddenly a dragon swooped down from the sky and with one swipe of its claws it killed Albert.
There’s always one (often more) who misses the tone and who makes the story about his/her story. There is some collaboration going on in the first 6 lines where each added line is sympathetic to the rest. The seventh line is not collaborative. Where does the next kid go with the story now? And the answer is probably that the next kid is a bit flummoxed!!
I am flummoxed that Darius was allowed to be rewritten against my stated intentions for the character. I am flummoxed that what has been written is out of keeping with the flavour of Darius, and Greyling and everything else that has been written. The piece itself, ‘The Outsider’ has merit as a piece of writing, but it does what that dragon in line seven does to the collaboration.
My response has been described as a writer being precious about his character… that I think is just stone flinging. This is not a writer being precious about any one character. It is a writer being precious about the stated rules of the collaboration he had bought into and had himself abided by. It is a writer being precious about the wider project of Greyling Bay. It is a writer who feels that this project, which is wonderful in conception, has been marred by the prospect that any one of us can take another person’s character and do a ‘dragon swooped out of the sky’ with them.
I think it is bad for Greyling Bay.
Jonathan, thanks for blogging about this: it’s already driving some more traffic towards Greyling Bay, which will, I hope, be good. I notice that Douglas has commented too: I’ve purposely not read his comment yet, so I can address yours first.
I agree with you that Douglas is a supremely talented writer, and I was very pleased when he submitted his first piece to me: when he then continued to submit, I was absolutely thrilled. He seemed to understand precisely what I wanted, and was able to reveal extraordinary depth of character and back-story with very few words. It was all wonderful stuff (and yes, I do still have several pieces of his on hand, which haven’t yet appeared).
I am saddened that he’s so upset by this latest piece. Several contributors to Greyling Bay have now seen their characters written about by other writers, and not one other has objected: and that collaboration and interraction is a major part of the blog. I don’t think it lessens any of the work: it does is present a challenge to the writers, though, and I think that’s a good thing.
Right. I shall now read Douglas’s comment. Do I need protective clothing, do you think?
Douglas, first off: let me repeat what I’ve written to you via email and via the comments over at GB: this piece was not intended to upset you. I’m sorry it has: but I’m not sorry that it’s provided us all with this challenge, which can only be good for us as writers.
“Thanks for bringing this up here. I am forbidden to discuss this any further on the Greyling Bay site. Bickering it has been called. Passionate about what I do is what I think it is.”
Who has forbidden you to discuss this over at GB, Douglas? Not me. I have not forbidden you to do anything and I find it rather disturbing that you should imply that I have. You’ve written over 4,000 words about this to me now, via your many emails and blog comments, and a lot of those 4,000 words is complaint.
You keep pointing out bits of the “rules” to me, and seem to forget that I wrote them: I know what they state. And you seem to have missed the bit where it says that people are free to write about any of the characters that appear: there’s no ownership. They belong to us all. It’s a collaboration, and if we can’t write about each other’s characters then the whole project is hobbled.
It’s clear that you are fond of Darius, and like him a lot: but several of Greyling Bay’s readers have commented that they find him a bit creepy, me included. Chris (who wrote The Outsider) has taken this popular feeling about Darius on board and explored it. No one knows where this is going: it could be in the character’s imagination, as others have already pointed out. Or not. You could have chosen to use some of the 4,000 or more words you’ve now written about this whole thing to develop the character of The Outsider to support your view of Darius; or to reveal a darker side to Darius; or even to show us how kind and warm Darius really is: instead, you’ve objected to it repeatedly and now you repeat those objections again, here in Jonathan’s blog.
“This is not a writer being precious about any one character. It is a writer being precious about … the wider project of Greyling Bay. It is a writer who feels that this project, which is wonderful in conception, has been marred by the prospect that any one of us can take another person’s character and do a ‘dragon swooped out of the sky’ with them.”
Douglas, please: have a closer look at some of the other writers’ pieces at Greyling Bay. Several of them centre on characters that other writers have begun. It’s what makes Greyling Bay exciting. Thank you for being so complimentary about Greyling Bay, though: I like it too, even with the current kerfuffle.
“I think it is bad for Greyling Bay.”
I’m sorry about that. But I disagree and as Greyling Bay is my project, then my word stands. And I will not apologise for that.
I value the contributions you’ve made to Greyling Bay, but if you insist on protecting your characters from the attention of other writers like this, then I wonder if it really is a good project for you to be involved in. Because as I’ve already pointed out, this collaboration is a large part of it and if writers object to it all the time, then the whole thing will freeze and die.
This is interesting. I’ve not read the original so can’t comment about the original character and subsequent treatment of that character.
However, Jane does not seem to specifically address Douglas’ comment about his character’s creation – with respect to the rules. Saying ‘as Greyling Bay is my project, then my word stands…’ while true, seems a bit harsh, if not arrogant.
For Jane: ‘Forbidden’ was perhaps too strong a word, and I apologise for using this and perhaps giving people the wrong picture. But I was asked by you to stop commenting on the thread as it was upsetting you so much and spoiling it for other contributors to Greyling Bay. I certainly did not want to upset anyone.
I added a comment here in defence against the charge that I was perhaps being a bit precious about my character. I think I have also illustrated what a collaboration ought to be if it is to be constructive and meaningful. I will not repeat what i have already said about coherence, but urge others to go to the thread on Greyling and see for themselves.
I stand by everything I have said about the rules having been broken. You may very well have written the rules but I do feel they have been broken here and no one seems too perturbed by this, which begs the question as to why have rules at all.
You say: ‘ people are free to write about any of the characters that appear: there’s no ownership. They belong to us all. It’s a collaboration, and if we can’t write about each other’s characters then the whole project is hobbled.’
That is all very well, and I adhere to all of that. But the characters first should have some coherence and not be rewritten. This ‘Outsider’ piece very much feels to me like a ‘dragon swoops out of the sky’ moment.
It is also the case that we as contributors were invited to say what our intentions were with a character in order that other writers not take them in a direction that would contradict that intention. This I did and it has made no difference to what others have been allowed to do with Darius. I own him in so far as what he is… and it was stated that he was no threat to anyone on the streets of Greyling… now he is a sexual predator. ????
As to me having used 4000 words to ‘complain’ when I could have used some of my words to rescue Darius, you will know already, Jane, that I have subbed a piece called ‘Darius Bredwyn Loses his Laughter’ which is the first step towards that rescue.
Thank you for saying such complimentary things about my writing. Back at you, I love the idea for this site and have, as you say, other pieces subbed to you and waiting approval or not. I wrote this response here not as further defence of one of my characters, but as defence of me and my right to object to what has happened and not to be called precious in a way that diminishes who I am both as a person and as a writer.
I will happily continue to contribute to Greyling Bay, but if I am being asked to not contribute, I will respect that too.
The debate is interesting up to a point, for this reader. It ceases to be interesting when it becomes obvious that the initial parameters (good ones) governing a seriously interesting project) have been ignored.
How many other characters have been changed by particpants other than their creators?
The logical outcome is that any participant can now take any character or storyline and play as daft as they like with them. A shame, I think, spoiling the integrity of the project.
Vanessa asked:How many other characters have been changed by particpants other than their creators?
Early on in Greyling Bay I inadvertently assumed Malcolm and George were brothers and mentioned them as such in one of my pieces. Allan Mayer – in a response that was a model of politeness and brevity – put me right but then, rather charmingly, said he rather liked the idea of having them as brothers as it opened up new possibilities to him. Had he said: ‘No, sorry, I really need them to be father and son, to fit my next piece,’ I’d have said: Oops, sorry, and asked Jane to alter my piece.
My character, Louise, has become entangled with the girl in the cafe and that’s not at all what I intended but it’s sent me off on a different tack and that’s what I’m currently exploring.
Douglas has made his point and says he intends to address the situation in his next piece(s). I look forward to reading this as it should set the story off in a new direction and one that will be full of interest.
I worried at first that Greyling Bay might turn out to be a series of beautiful but sterile vignettes but the place is buzzing with energy now and that’s got to be a good thing.
I suggest a lesson has been learned all round and that things will progress more smoothly from now on.
Nice to see so many illustrious visitors – many thanks for dropping in. And apologies for setting things off and then not being around to chip in myself (been out at a performance of something of mine).
Haven’t really got time to comment in any great detail right now, except to say that I think Vanessa has overstated things a little by saying that participants can potentially play as daft as they like with the characters and so on. On the contrary, I would assume that Jane in her position as benevolent despot would stamp on any incipient zombie storyline, for example. Then again, if it’s good enough for Pride and Prejudice …
More seriously, the key question seems to me to be whether or not the character development is logical or not – and that choice comes down to the interpretation of that character by the writer AND the readership. If the readership have detected something that the writer didn’t consciously intend, it may still be entirely valid. (I’ve certainly had cases in my own writing where people have interpreted things differently but which have turned out to have had some psychological validity.)
Finally, if Jane were to have to refer all questions of character development back to the originator of each character, the situation would soon become unmanageable, without some kind of formal protocol in place to determine – for example – what happens when the originator goes on holiday, is ill or even loses interest in the project.
More tomorrow. Maybe.
One final thought: there is a fantastic piece of meta-fiction waiting to be written about this whole saga, isn’t there?
Amanda, I’m sorry if my comments appear to be arrogant but perhaps if you were to put yourself into my shoes for a while you might reconsider. Remember that you’ve not read any of the many long emails that Douglas has sent me over this, nor have you read any of my replies; and that Greyling Bay IS my project, and I do have the responsibility to make decisions about how it works. How would you have preferred me to handle this? Would you prefer that I do all I can to placate Douglas? Because that would mean deleting Chris’s piece, and then I’d have to placate him… you can see where that might lead. Or would you prefer that I abdicate responsibility here and let all these comments change my opinion? Because that would end up in a jumbled free-for-all, which would be impossible to police. Someone has to be in charge here, and as I started Greyling Bay then that someone is me. No matter how arrogant that makes me seem to you.
Vanessa, I don’t think I’ve ignored any of the parameters here: right from the start I’ve not only allowed writers to take on other writers’ creations at Greyling Bay, I’ve encouraged it (as Nicola Slade has already discussed). And the piece that Douglas has objected to so very vociferously is only a continuation of that policy. If you read the piece, you’ll see that it’s still just vague mutterings, there’s no substance to any of it yet: it doesn’t change ANYTHING about Douglas’s character, nor does it change any plot lines already developing. It just adds a new thread.
So far several writers have had their work continued by others; Douglas is the onely one to have complained (and the piece he objects to isn’t even from the point of view of one of his characters). The other writers have all embraced that change, and some have presented me with new pieces that reflect and develop the new work.
Jonathan: I can only agree with your comments. Particularly the bit about the metafiction, and the zombies. I shall await your next contribution with interest.
This is gripping stuff and an interesting discussion. Intrigued by the emotions it’s provoked, I just popped over to Greyling Bay to read everything I could on Darius.
Personally, I don’t think anything in the previous episodes suggest he’s a violent sexual deviant. A bit sad and maybe even a bit pervy, but the use of the word “whore” in the outsider episode felt completely out of character. If he’s going to be raping women, then as a reader, I’d expect that to be telegraphed from the beginning. Knowing what I do, it’s obvious why it wasn’t.
As a writer, who normally writes characters he likes, I can understand why Douglas is a bit pissed that his character has now been transformed into a violent misogynist. I will take a lot of hard work and good writing to salvage Darius’s reputation. However, I’m sure Douglas is up to the challenge.
I look forward to reading the next episode.
Hi Joel – thanks for dropping in. I’m looking forward to the next episode myself 🙂
Well, coming rather late to this fascinating furore (and as GB contributor) I also assumed that in a collaborative project, any character I introduce may be developed by someone else – quite possibly in a way I hadn’t envisaged. Clearly Douglas had a different understanding. It’s a shame Douglas feels robbed of Darius, but surely when we take people to Greyling Bay we are releasing them into the care of a community (and an editor) whom we trust (or else we wouldn’t be there?)
Just realised that I didn’t respond to your comment, AliB – apologies. I think you’ve summed it up very well there, although the phrase “care in the community” does make you think a bit.