Writing Books, Part Deux: Improv With Google Docs

Imagine if two or more authors could work on the same document at the same time and see each others' changes live. It's like authoring a conversation.

F. Paul Wilson, Contributor

March 21, 2012

6 Min Read

F. Paul Wilson

As told by Repairman Jack...

Collaborators fall together in different ways. Wilson's current collaboration followed a tortured path. Sarah Pinborough, a British writer, was scheduled to be a guest at NECon in 2009. Wilson had never read her and always likes to have tried some of the guest's work. He bought Tower Hill and was impressed by the unorthodox choices she made with the plot and the heroine. She had to cancel her NECon trip and so he sent her a complimentary email. A desultory correspondence began.

The following year he was rebuffed by Amazon.uk when he tried to buy the ebook of her new novel, A Matter of Blood (U.S. rights had yet to be sold). She emailed him the PDF, which he stuck in his Kindle. He encountered a quantum leap in style, and was intrigued by a character referred to as "the man of flies." The name triggered images and scenarios that ran off at a ninety-degree angle from Blood. He knew he'd have to pursue those but felt it only fair to include Pinborough, if she was willing. And frankly, he knew the apocalyptic feel she'd brought to Blood would come in very handy.

But Wilson lives down the Jersey Shore and Pinborough's a Londoner. Brits spell funny and have screwed-up punctuation, especially their quotation marks. Could this work?

Wilson opened a Google Doc and committed his nascent ideas to digital paper. The (tongue-in-cheek) working title was "The Flies of the Lord" and he projected novella length. He gave Pinborough access to the doc and asked her if she wanted in. She was game but neither of them would be simultaneously free until late 2011-early 2012. No biggie. They'd keep adding ideas for characters and scenes and plot twists into the doc as they occurred. The other would drop by and comment on the ideas and enhance them or make an alternate suggestion.

The result wasn't an outline, by any stretch; more like the ingredients for a stew without a recipe.

Through a slow process of accretion, the doc grew; by the fall of 2011, when the World Fantasy Convention rolled into San Diego, they had something to talk about. Pinborough had crossed an ocean and a continent to attend, and the two of them sat down for a couple of hours of spitballing.

Now, we've been talking all this cyber and digital stuff, and that's all great, but there's nothing like a face-to-face convo to make things gel in the planning stage. They'd met a few times before, but this was their first tête-à-tête, and the ideas flew. They nailed down what the novella would be about (beyond the global catastrophe of its plot) but they needed something immediate to involve the journalist protagonist. Pinborough had found something in her research for a YA novel that was deemed too dark for kids, but fit perfectly here. Wilson took that a step further, and suddenly they had a wicked and gruesome twist that delighted them both. The novella was now headed along a path neither could have predicted.

They decided to set it in England (which meant they'd use Brit-style spelling and punctuation) and on a fragmented Dos Passos approach to convey the global scope of what was happening.

Currently they're into the writing process, albeit in a somewhat epileptic fashion since each has other commitments. They're using Dropbox (as in Draculas). Pinborough had never heard of it but she's taken to it swimmingly. They've kept the Google Doc as their idea well and are using it as a story map--not a full outline, but rather a progression of story beats a few chapters at a time. This way they won't feel locked down.

But the need for face time is ongoing. For that they use Skype every few weeks. (For the two or three people out there who don't know, Skype provides a sort of audiovisual telephone call via the Internet.) The five-hour time difference between London and New Jersey means Pinborough's finished her morning writing by the time Wilson's making his first cup of coffee. But Skype has proved excellent for planning out their next moves.

Now on to something really exciting.

Two of the point-of-view characters are husband and wife. Oddly enough, Pinborough's been writing the male scenes and Wilson the female. They needed an argument between the two--a blow-up over religion--and the question arose: Who should write it? Wilson suggested they both write it--simultaneously. Make it like improv theater: Wilson, who had to memorize the Catholic catechism growing up, takes the religious wife; and Pinborough, who had a more secular upbringing, takes the skeptical husband. Yeah. Why not?

At a preset date and time, they both showed up at the Google Doc and got into it. Pinborough had written the setup scene a few days before, and they jumped off from there. The result was ... electrifying. After some early, slightly barbed back and forth, the heat grew and things were said that seemed to come out of nowhere--things that had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the crumbling relationship. On looking back, it all sprang from deep in the characters and their marriage as conceived, but neither Wilson nor Pinborough had realized the relationship had deteriorated to this point.

Pinborough was delighted with the exchange and Wilson was positively giddy. The argument had reached into areas neither of them would have taken it alone. Beyond the addition of a few dialog tags, they decided to leave it just as it had gone down. They now knew that the answer to the old question of "Can this marriage be saved?" was a big fat "No".

They resolved to arrange other improv encounters between characters. This can happen only with a collaboration and only with something like Google Docs. (Yes, a chat room would provide the same immediacy, but when they finished in Docs, the dialogue was all formatted and ready for pasting into the manuscript.)

I'll keep you updated from time to time as to how it's going. In the meantime, if you're on Twitter you can follow Pins at @SarahPinborough; she's on Facebook too. But be warned: She occasionally uses language that would make Dorothy Parker blush.

Repairman Jack is the alter ego of F. PAUL WILSON, an award-winning New York Times bestselling 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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