The first time someone mentioned the term transmedia to me I was already collaborating with four project teams. We were working to produce a comic anthology centered on my urban fantasy novel Fallen Heroes. I was also co-writing the first episode of an audio drama spin off. The name I gave to this transmedia project was Unseen Shadows, which referred to the trilogy I was working on, of which Fallen Heroes was the first.
My goal in using transmedia was to create stories in other mediums that could be enjoyed as stand alone adventures. However, when those stories were combined with the novel they would expand the world established within its pages. This meant that a single line of prose within the novel could be transformed into a 22 page comic or a supporting character could take the lead in a five part audio drama.
An Unseen Shadows project begins when someone, usually a writer, reads the novel and wants to become involved. I start by asking them what character they want to work on rather than choose one for them. This has led to some interesting choices, including both main and very minor characters being given the transmedia treatment.
The next stage is for the writer to give me a brief overview of their idea. Once I’m on board they will work up a full pitch, including any suggestions I may have made, before moving onto the scripting stage. At the same time the artist begins work on the main character sketches.
In my goal to create stand-alone routes into the novel I am involved in every stage of the process. I approve each story pitch, comic or audio script, character design and every line of dialogue spoken by a voice actor.
There are currently around forty writers, artists, letterers, colourists, graphic designers and voice actors working within the Unseen Shadows team. Their talent and experience are as diverse as their backgrounds and locale. Members can be found in the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa and the US.
Overseeing a team spread across the world is definitely a challenge. I quickly found that email, cloud storage and social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype were the greatest weapons in my communication arsenal.
All the past and future Unseen Shadows projects are stored using cloud storage. The projects are divided into folders with each one containing scripts, artwork, sound files and more, with access provided for relevant team members. This helps avoid any time zone issues as folders can be accessed 24/7.
I created an Unseen Shadows Facebook group where team members could share developments, discuss ideas, welcome new members and anything else they wanted to use it for. I also use the group to feedback on the progress of future novels or anything else of importance.
One of the main issues a writer working in collaborative fiction must face is the time demands. Projects have to be managed, timescales set and monitored. In some cases I have been the main reason that progress on a project has stalled. This can be because a team is waiting for me to read a script, approve a character or respond to an urgent email before they can continue.
A significant amount of my own writing time is spent overseeing the transmedia and collaborative elements of Unseen Shadows and that can be hard. However knowing the amount of work the team members are putting into their projects and seeing the end results spurs me on to manage my time better, which can only be a good thing for my writing in the long run.
Working within these different mediums has meant that to effectively manage the teams I had to develop, at least, a basic understanding of the terminology within each medium be it comics, audio or more recently film. It also pays to know some of the advantages and disadvantages of working within in each one. I have been lucky to find a lot of people along the way willing to offer me help and advice on that front.
The positives with working on collaborative fiction are many but overall it is the feeling of never being alone. In the dark days when the fear of a blank screen comes calling, a piece of art, a new script or question is not far behind. The light never goes off in the world of Unseen Shadows and knowing there is always someone at work is a great motivator.
These extremely talented people work on these projects not for the money, as all profits go back into the development of new projects, but because they love the source material. They constantly challenge me with their ideas, questions and suggestions for new ways to expand this world they have had a hand in developing.
I have found over the years that these new stories and characters have influenced me in unexpected ways. I have already referenced several of the events and characters created in the comics and audio drama in the second novel.
Working with the teams has taught me how to express to a writer why a particular line of dialogue does not work or to an artist why a character sketch does not feel right. This has helped me with my own self editing when I write.
The last two years has been a great training ground for learning when to step in and when to step back and trust these talented people with my world. The collaboration aspects of the various projects have given me a deeper understanding of my own characters as I watch them written, drawn and spoken by others.
10 tips for collaborative fiction
- Your story may be at the heart of everything but in the realm of collaborative fiction you need the creative lifeblood of your team to keep that heart beating. Respect them and their opinions.
- Ensure your team has a clear idea of what you expect of them before they join the project. I have a statement of intent document, which every member of the team receives, which must be read and its terms agreed to before they can join the project.
- Never dismiss ideas out of hand.
- Used wisely, social media can be a great aid to team communication. Used poorly it can a massive time drain.
- No one knows your world better than you but always be prepared to back up your decisions with reasons that don’t start with ‘It’s my book so…’
- Never be scared to get your hands dirty in another medium yourself. (I had never seen an audio script before Unseen Shadows much less co-written one.)
- Try to gain an understanding of the terminology used within the mediums you will be working in.
- Collaborative fiction can be a huge time commitment. Keep that in mind when deciding which projects to undertake.
- Keep yourself included in every stage of the project.
- Communication is the key. Keep your teams up to date and ensure they do the same. So many problems can be avoided with regular communication.
Barry’s first novel ‘Paladin’ was published in 1999. In 2004 he self published his next story Unseen Shadows: Fallen Heroes, the first in a trilogy of novels. Barry is currently writing ‘Forgotten Warriors’ the follow up to Fallen Heroes. In his spare time he is one of the co-founders of the podcast/website called Geek Syndicate which focuses on all aspects of pop culture. He lives in Northampton with this partner Sue and their two cats/criminal masterminds Max and Frankie.