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Sunday, June 08, 2014

BOOK COLLABORATIONS - GUEST INTERVIEW WITH EILEEN BELL, RYAN McFADDEN, and BILLIE MILHOLLAND of THE PUZZLE BOX

I THOUGHT IT MIGHT BE INTERESTING TO INTERVIEW THE APOCALYPTIC FOUR, which includes Eileen Bell, Ryan McFadden, Billie Milholland, and Randy McCharles on how they have collaborated on the books they have. Randy is extremely busy at the moment, organizing When Words Collide, one of my favorite conventions which occurs this August in Calgary, but Eileen, Ryan, and Billie give us a good glimpse into the challenges of writing as a group. Their book, The Puzzle Box, has been nominated for an Aurora award under Best English Related Work as have On Spec and Suzenyms. These are the questions I put to them about working collaboratively:

1). How did/do you come up with a central premise? Is this also collaborative, or does someone come up with an idea and invite others to contribute?

Eileen: With The Puzzle Box, we all pitched different ideas for the central premise to each other, and then duked it out until we’d decided on one. Which was harder than you'd think.
Ryan: The problem with collaborative writing is obviously needing to develop a consensus. With two people, it's fairly straightforward. But throw in a third person, then a fourth, it can be tough. One of the strengths of collaborative writing is obviously the differing viewpoints...which can make developing a central premise extremely challenging. For Women of the Apocalypse, I was late to the game so I was simply told the premise. Easy. You want to write with us, these are the rules. There wasn't much arguing on my behalf. For The Puzzle Box we were trying to develop a concept that would allow us to explore the genres and themes without too many restrictions. But each of us had our different view of what would be exciting (ideas tossed around were Carl Yung's Red Book or the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album cover). In the end, we went with something very simple. We decided that the concept should be easy to explain - in other words: make the stories the sexy part.
Billie: Coming up with a central premise that satisfies the perspective of each person is impossible. Just because we've done it more than once doesn't make it possible. LOL!! It's messy and undemocratic. We bash ideas around, each of us rejecting what we can't imagine doing until one of us digs our feet in and works to convince the others. Somehow, we settle. I'm not convinced it's really consensus, but I guess that's the closest word for what happens.

2). How do you manage to keep the vision of what you're trying to do clear?

Eileen: We try to keep the lines of communication open.
Ryan: For the Edge SF&F releases, there was no boss. So we really needed a simple concept to prevent some crazy results. While there can be some bickering, crying, and wailing, in the end we don't really work in a democratic process (otherwise, one person could always be outvoted), we really tried to come to consensus on the major issues.  
Billie: What Ryan said.

3). What are the difficulties in working in tandem?

Eileen: Once the central premise was chosen, there were few real problems. The worst was probably the fact that all of us were very busy people, so finding the time to talk face to face about what we were doing was hard to do. Thank goodness for email!
Ryan: Again, with no project manager, if we had four writers that didn't work well together, the project would've collapsed on itself. Already, we had four wildly divergent writing styles and the results from each novella are quite different.
Billie: Finding time to give good feedback to three other writers was hard, but necessary. You can't fluff off when working collaboratively. So many times I wished the others lived next door, so we could do a coffee thing, often... dig deep, mess around, and then get back to it.

4). How do you edit your work? Do you keep it amongst yourselves, or get outside feedback over and above the writers involved?

Eileen: We keep it to ourselves. There were three rounds of editing, and each of us edited a different story for each round. First edit was the big stuff - story, character, etc. With each edit we focussed more, until the last edit was basically a line edit for typos and other minor errors.
Ryan: We kept it to ourselves. Not because we didn't trust anyone else (I don't believe), but only because we have our own built-in writer's group. Luckily, we're proficient at self editing. After that, the stories were passed downstream (I read Eileen's first, Billie read mine first, Randy read Billie's first, and Eileen read Randy's first) so we each were the first reader on one person's story. Broad strokes on the first edit (characterizations, plot). The stories were handed back - corrections made - then they were handed to the next person in line. The edits became more line oriented now. Each pass honed in more on the writing and less on the story. Finally, the whole project was assembled - then we each went through and began the copy editing process.
Billie: What they said...plus, I use outside feedback near the end (my husband). He's the cliché police, the inconsistency finder.

5). When you pitched the idea to Edge, did you pitch the idea first, or did you submit a finished manuscript? In other collaborative works that you've done (Women of the Apocalypse, Seven Deadly Sins) was it the same approach?

Eileen: We pitched the idea before writing a word. However, we did have history with Brian Hades, through Women of the Apocalypse (WofA) and Seven Deadly Sins (7DS), so we felt a little more comfortable with pitching a concept rather than a completed manuscript. This wasn't a guaranteed sale, of course. Pitching this way kept us out of the slush pile.
Ryan: I wasn't involved with WotA or the 7DS pitch sessions so I can't comment on those. But for The Puzzle Box, we spoke with Edge SF&F before submitting the finished manuscript. It was written on spec - there was no guarantee it would be purchased. However, Edge SF&F indicated it was a project, if executed properly, they would be interested in pursuing.
Billie: 7DS was a serendipitous accident. WoA was our attempt at adding a twist to another significantly familiar theme.

6). What do you feel each of you brought to the completed work? Do you have differing styles, and if so, how do you tie the whole thing together so there is consistency to the story?

Ryan: Tying it together was a challenge. Our writing styles vary drastically as did the plot lines. It was a fun exercise for Eileen and I to sit down and try to somehow tie four stories together. 
Eileen: What Ryan said.
Billie: Our styles are very different. We don't even read the same things. We had a brief intro scenario for WoA, but then we heard from people that they wanted to know what happened to the character they got to know in that first scene. That's what we tried to do with The Puzzle Box. Eileen and Ryan had the vision and the stamina to sew the four divergent stories together. They deserve a medal.

7). What advice would you give to anyone else who might be thinking of collaborating on a book?

Eileen: I never in a million years thought I’d ever collaborate on a book - and here I am with number three! I guess the first thing would be: can you talk honestly to everyone in the group about their writing? If you can’t, don’t do it. Secondly, make certain everyone’s in it for the same reason - to build the best book you can. If there is anyone in the mix who is only in it for themselves, forget it. And third: remember, producing a collaboration takes as long - or longer - than work you write yourself. If you can’t imagine dealing with your collaborators for the next two or three years, take a pass. (Ooh, look at me, listing all the ways to say, “No!”) In other words, look long and hard at what you’re about to do before you write word one. If you still think it’s a good idea, then go for it. But remember: consensus is the name of the game.
Ryan: That's a tough one. I doubt it's for everyone. I didn't think it would be for me. But Eileen and I have actually co-written together on several projects now. The framing story for The Puzzle Box we wrote together. We hash out story lines, then one of us goes and writes parts of a first draft, then the other comes in and mangles it into a second draft, and so on. At its core, collaboration requires respect - and the ideal of reaching a common goal. 
Billie: My advice...don't do it. Unless, of course, you are an undying optimist, have the patience of Job, and truly understand the old saw - don't sweat the small stuff. Except for the true guts of your story, it's all small stuff. Ryan is right, collaboration requires respect and trust. There's no room for petty bickering.

8). Would you, personally, collaborate again?

Eileen: Right now, no. But that’s because my first novel is coming out at the end of the year, so I’m pretty caught up in my own stuff. However, if the project sounds interesting...I could be convinced!
Ryan: I would. Depending on the project. It can be challenging, but it can also really make something wonderful. For instance, Eileen often helps me work through some of the broad strokes with ideas. We seem to be in sync with a lot of concepts so it's great working through plots and characters. Billie and I, however, usually come at a story from different directions. When a story is broken, or I have doubts, Billie will usually have the solution for me. Randy writes for more of a dark (twisted?) sense of humour so he brings yet another perspective.
Billie: I would, if the project was intriguing enough. The styles of the other writers don't have to be similar to mine, but one thing I've learned is important to me is that we share a similar world view.

Eileen's Bio: Eileen Bell (also known as E.C. Bell) has had her short fiction published in magazines and several anthologies, including the double Aurora Award winning Women of the Apocalypse (Absolute XPress) and the Aurora winning Bourbon and Eggnog. The Puzzle Box (EDGE Books Publishing) a collaborative novel she wrote with Billie Milholland, Randy McCharles, and Ryan McFadden, came out in August, 2013. Her first ‘I wrote this myself’ novel, Seeing the Light, will be available in November, 2014, through Tyche Books. When she’s not writing, she’s living a fine life in her round house (that's in a perpetual state of renovation) with her husband, her two dogs, and her ever hungry goldfish. Find Eileen online at: http://www.eileenbell.com/,  
Billie's Bio: Promoting community events and artistic projects on a shoe string is where Billie first learned to use innovation and surprise in order to be noticed above the sensory overload of this tech-dense era. She has had success with marketing both fiction and non-fiction over the last 20 years. Most recently, she is promoting The Puzzle Box (Aug 2013), a collaborative novel that contains her novella Autumn Unbound – an unravelling of what happens to Pandora after she was blamed for opening Zeus’s forbidden box, and The Urban Green Man (Aug 2013), a short story anthology containing her story, Green Man, She Restless – a near-future revelation of what happens to a scientist after she's imprisoned by a megalithic GMO conglomerate.
Ryan's Bio: Ryan McFadden is an award-winning author in London, Ontario. A full e-reader convert, he now uses his powers to help code books for publishers and authors. When he's not writing or coding, he's busy breaking and fixing homes with his renovation company, Revival Renovations. His novella, Ghost in the Machine, has been nominated for an Aurora award in the Short Fiction category. In 2010, he was part of the Aurora-winning Women of the Apocalypse. His recent publications include stories in Evolve 2, When the Villain Comes Home, Blood and Water, the 10th Circle Project, and Expiration Date. He is busy working on his next project in the always popular Neo-Noir Supernatural Crime Thriller category. Follow him at http://ryanmcfadden.com

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