Writing Books in the Cloud: Part 1

Wilson and three other guys write a book using this cloud thing called Dropbox.

F. Paul Wilson, Contributor

March 12, 2012

6 Min Read

F. Paul Wilson

As told by Repairman Jack...

With a novel about Repairman Jack (that would be me) due every fall, plus side projects like Sims, The Fifth Harmonic, and Midnight Mass, and later in the decade, a trilogy of novels about my teen years, Wilson had no time during the aughts even to think about a collaboration. And frankly, he wasn't keen on them anyway. For projects like TV and interactive, which by their very nature are collaborative, okay. Directors, artists, code monkeys, etc. are necessary evils that come with the territory. But with novels and stories he likes to be in control. (I know I've mentioned how anal he is.)

So he hesitated when Joe Konrath contacted him in March of 2010 about a four-way collaboration on a novel they'd all self publish. Whoa. Collaborate with three other people on a novel? And the plot was already set? And he'd simply contribute characters and guide them through a quarter of the word count? Wilson's control alarms were clanging off the wall.

On the plus side, his partners in the venture would be Konrath, Blake Crouch, and Jeff Strand, three writers he knew and liked personally and respected professionally. So he was willing to listen. Konrath laid out the simple setup: vicious, blood-thirsty vampires running wild and multiplying in an isolated hospital. An enclosed environment where the situation deteriorates and spins out of control before anyone realizes what's happening. The title was Draculas.

Okay, definite possibilities there, but four authors? Would their styles mesh? With Matt Costello, and Steven Spruill, Wilson had always done the final polish. (Not out of generosity ... the anal thing ... the control issues.) With four hands stirring the pot, the stitched-together final product could be a Frankenstein monster with all the scars showing. (Yes, that's a horribly mixed metaphor, but Wilson's the writer half. Deal with it.) Konrath assured him it wouldn't be a problem.

Still Wilson hesitated, so I took him aside and told him to hang loose and go for it. The writing was scheduled to start in the summer. He'd have finished the first draft of The Dark at the End by then. He always lets that first draft sit awhile before revising, so he had a window of free time. Why not put it to good use? Besides, Konrath was asking for only 15,000 or so words. Let it happen. Wilson took a deep breath and said yes.

Each writer took two characters—a protagonist and a vampire. One of the suggested protagonists: "A gung-ho good ole boy gun-crazy cop (think Kevin Costner from Silverado) is the boyfriend of the historian. Meets her at the hospital (To propose? Has ring on him?)" I nudged Wilson toward him. We've done tons of research on guns for my books, plus he has a cadre of fans who do lots of shooting. Wilson was getting psyched now. He has a weak spot for gun porn, and now he could write some.

So where does "cyber" (beyond email, of course) enter the collaboration? Konrath said they'd be using something he'd found extremely helpful in other collaborations (and he's done a fair number of them): a service called Dropbox. It's a form of cloud storage locker with a handy share feature. Once you've installed it on your computer, you can create folders in the Dropbox that can be shared with others you designate. Konrath created a folder called DRACULAS with subfolders labeled "Joe," "Paul," "Blake," and "Jeff," and gave them all access.

Dropbox proved crucial to the collaboration. With a loose outline that was little more than a timeline of the novel's major events, everyone agreed to write their characters' parts in a straight-line chronology and upload them to their own Dropbox subfolder as they were finished. This allowed the writers to see what was going on with the other characters as it was happening. Our anal friend Wilson never lets anyone see his first drafts, but since momentum was at stake (and because he felt at home with these three), he relented and uploaded his chapters as he wrote them, revising them later.

It worked. One upload made each contributor's latest addition immediately available to the other three. As a result, the pace of the writing increased until the book was expanding at breakneck speed. Everyone went beyond their 15k commitment, amassing 70k words in just five weeks. The final manuscript totaled around 80k.

And as the story progressed, a dynamic of one-upsmanship developed. It started with Konrath's line, "Is that a... flamingo?" If you've read Draculas, you haven't forgotten it. If not, you'll appreciate it when you hit it because it epitomizes the novel's unique blend of humor and over-the-top horror. I could hear Wilson thinking, 'He's going that far? Hmmm... I could push it a little further.' And so, when Crouch left Wilson's character with a horrifying situation to resolve on the OB floor, Wilson couldn't resist ratcheting it up a notch.

The collaboration was smooth sailing until Wilson was ready to kill his character. The other authors wouldn't let him. They'd all come to love Deputy Clayton Theel and insisted he survive. They figured out a way to let that happen.

By September Draculas was finished and scheduled for Halloween publication. They'd decided from the start that it would be an ebook. The reason? Each of the four authors had publishing contracts containing first-look clauses, but none of those covered collaborations on an indie-published book. The Kindle-exclusive route obviated negotiations with multiple publishers for permissions, etc.

Another advantage to digital publication: They added extras such as interviews, short stories, and excerpts from other novels, plus all the emails exchanged between the writers during the course of creating the novel (an entertaining peek at the personalities of the authors and the creative process of a four-way collaboration). This literally doubled the word count and would have doubled production costs in a dead-tree book. It cost nothing extra in the ebook.

For publicity, copies of the novel were emailed to a horde of bloggers with a request for a review. The blogosphere responded with enormous enthusiasm, and a buzz arose. On Halloween Draculas leaped onto Amazon's bestseller list.

Throughout the course of planning, plotting, writing, publicizing, and publishing this novel, not a single sheet of paper was used. Not even in payment: Amazon made deposits to Konrath's bank and he distributed the royalties to the contributors' Paypal accounts. No checks were written. (An audiobook and a trade paperback were published later, but the whole process up to that point had been completely digital.)

Next time: Writing Books in the Cloud: Part 2, in which Skype and Google docs contribute to a trans-Atlantic collaboration.

Repairman Jack is the alter ego of F. PAUL WILSON, an award-winning New York Times best-selling author of more than 40 novels and many more short stories. His work, spanning horror, adventure, medical thrillers, science fiction, young adult, and virtually everything between, has been translated into 24 languages. Currently he is best known as creator of the urban mercenary Repairman Jack.
http://www.repairmanjack.com / Twitter: @fpaulwilson / Facebook: facebook.com/fpaul.wilson

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