In life, you have groups you work well in, and ones you don’t. It applies just as much to writing collaboratively as it does to everything else. I conveniently forgot about the horrible experiences I’ve had working with others when I eagerly signed up to contribute to an online magazine in August last year.
I found an opportunity on one of the many Facebook writers groups out there. The website was run by a Dutch guy looking for extra writers for his website. From the get-go, you could see it was his brainchild and his artistic vision. It had parts of his complex novels and his stories on it. There is only so much content, however, that one man- even to the imaginative powerhouse such as he- could produce.
So this is where I came in. He needed help putting out regular content, and turned his website into a collaborative online magazine. Although I wouldn’t be paid, I thought it suited me. My website had been set up for just five months, and only a few online journals had published me. Besides, I was too inexperienced to ask for money for my writing, right?
The first theme of Introductions was perfectly flexible. I had my dark flash fiction Love Is Dead and a ten-line poem Self Aware? to contribute. September turned up the heat with a racism theme. I redrafted my short story, Solidarity, now a serial.
October rolls along, and this is when things start to get a little bit trickier. The theme was superheroes. Fantastic! I had plenty of characters and ideas for my own original superheroes- including Gisella. She was strong enough to lift a car, but not strong enough to stand up to her father and brothers and pursue the man she loved. It was that struggle that would be the essence of the story.
But, I wasn’t allowed to use it.
It was only existing superheroes that could be used.
By this point, I had noticed the small ‘Donate To The Cause’ button which probably generated next to nothing. Still, I was concerned we would be flagged for violating copyright laws. I shared my concerns with him, hoping that he would see sense and let us create original superheroes.
Sadly, this would not have fitted his artistic vision. It had to show how superheroes help and influence society, or something. So he made a new rule; you couldn’t name the superhero you wanted to write about. He didn’t seem to trust our creative integrity to write an original superhero. Oh, and it had to be set before 2001, because that was the year of 9/11.
I couldn’t believe it. How did he expect me to write a well-informed fan fiction from a time I could barely remember, let alone write it in less than a month? The task was daunting, nevertheless I did my best, I still wrote and heavily researched. I had seen a handful of superhero films, but I hadn’t read a single comic. I toyed with using Superman, but that was taken by my cowriter. I tried a comedic Avengers’ Halloween party, but that quickly hit a dead end. I looked more into Iron Man. I loved Robert Downey jr’s portrayal of him in the films. But how could I do him justice and not tread over old ground?
Falling through a Wikpedia rabbithole, I found a plotline from the 1990’s comics about Iron Man’s seldom mentioned half-brother Arno. Together, they reclaimed a criminal stronghold and turned it into a utopia named The Troy. But what happened afterwards? There was where my story lay.
But this story needed more time. I couldn’t release a half-baked story. I couldn’t give it a good ending, and the character motivations and interaction needed work. I became so stressed that I couldn’t enjoy writing it. No matter how hard I tried, it was like head-butting a wall.
Then, my cowriter had to pull out that month. He had bad writers block, life got in the way and this challenge was insurmountable. Thinking quickly, I threw together a flash fiction about Clark Kent/Superman in his senior years, ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’, and redrafted a fan poem about Buffy The Vampire Slayer. By this point, he was happy to receive anything and let it slide.
Bizarrely, after all that, he decided the theme for November would be the year 1921. Yes, you heard me correctly!
His muse-of-the-moment was the Prohibition era, and he wanted our content to match this vision. Rage was not the word. He declared this not long after I asked him not to assign me a period piece, as historical accuracy is a weakness. My wishes clearly fell on deaf ears, so I opted out that month. To make up for it, I offered to manage a submissions feed, keeping it as flexible as I could. We were very lucky that most of the stories not only fitted the theme but were also very well written.
I wanted to try writing to task, challenge myself a little. He wanted to give me a baptism of fire, so he could feel he was making me a better writer. I resented him for putting me on the spot, for putting me under so much stress, for not allowing me the flexibility to complete the tasks effectively. I was so bogged down with ‘the task’ he set me that I couldn’t write properly.
When November came, I was drained. I felt exploited, and for all this, I got nothing back. No payoff- literally, I was writing for free-, or even a feeling of accomplishment. By the end of the month I couldn’t go back. I was merely a cog in the storytelling machine.
He found another girl to replace me, which was fine. Eventually, the website became the solo venture as it was before. Maybe that suited him, maybe it didn’t. In any case the website was left to die. He had a girlfriend and a desire to have his books properly published.
I think it was a learning journey for everyone involved. Was it a journey worth going on? Probably. My boundaries are stronger for one thing. Do I still resent him after a year? Not really. We may not have worked as well together as we’d hoped, but I think we’re still on good terms. I wish him the best in whatever he does. At the end of the day, working with different people is part of life and I’m still eager to work collaboratively, though I try to avoid saying yes to things I can’t commit to.
Jen Hughes is a regular guest contributor to Diary of A Writer’s Blog and a student at Glasgow Univeristy. She is a young writer from Ayrshire, Scotland who has been writing since she was seven. Her work has been published on a variety of online journals and magazines such as the McStorytellers, Minus Paper, Oletangy Review and Pulp Metal Magazine to name a few.
If you like what you see so far, you can find more of Jen’s work in the links peppered throughout the article or on her website dearoctopuswriting.wordpress.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@dearoctopus4) or Tumblr https://dearoctopuswriting.tumblr.com/ or give her a like on Facebook (Dearoctopuswriting).