The Impacts of Collaboration on Writing

Tony White

Posted filed under Experience.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

When The Writing Platform asked me to discuss how working collaboratively – as I do from time to time – might have influenced my writing process, I wasn’t immediately sure. To give some examples of the kind of projects in question, last year Dicky Star and the Garden Rule, my novella reflecting upon the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, was published alongside a series of works by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson, and I wrote a script for their film The Toxic Camera. I created a GPS-triggered work of fiction called Missorts that was commissioned as a public sound work for the city of Bristol and launched at the end of the year, while in April 2013 the Science Museum publish my new novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. An apparent flurry of activity, although of course all of these projects have been developed over periods of up to several years, and involved differing degrees and types of collaboration, but they were often written to slightly crazy deadlines and – last year at least – published with little space or time for reflection, so the question was a welcome one.

Working collaboratively? Of course much of being a writer and of the publishing process is collaborative even if it is not usually called that. Research and work done with other writers or with agents, commissioning editors, copy-editors, typesetters, proof-readers, designers, photographers, all the way down the line to readers; all of these can perhaps be thought of as collaborations of one sort or another. If you are starting out as a writer and think that you don’t like collaborating with other people, then you probably need to have a rethink and get to like it, as it is a fact of life even in what – to borrow a term from particle physics – might be called ‘standard model’ trade publishing. But in publishing as in physics the standard model is no longer the whole story. The book trade is changing fast, as are the ways that people read and engage with writing, and the book trade is not the only place where such changes – economic as much as technological – are being felt.

Reaching readers interests me, and going where readers are, and that may be partly why I also find it very useful to collaborate outside of the trade, to work with artists, composers and musicians, technologists and others, but this may not simply be a strategic response to a changing world. Thinking about it now, I have been working this way for much longer than I have been a published author. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that I went to art school, catching the tail-end both of a post-punk DIY scene, and of a kind of multimedia ‘arts lab’ ethos in art schools that saw artists working with emerging technologies like sound and moving image, or with their own live presence. For a few years in the early 1990s I commissioned live works, screenings and readings at a gallery called The Showroom in London, working with visual artists and writers including Caroline Bergvall, Tim Etchells, Aaron Williamson and a Swallowing Geography-period Deborah Levy (‘Swallow this!’ she wrote on the title page of my copy after the gig). In 1994 I founded Piece of Paper Press, a samizdat imprint used to publish limited edition, 16-page, A7 books by artists and writers. I’m just about to publish the twenty-seventh title in the series: an exclusive new Jerry Cornelius story by the great Michael Moorcock, who has been a supporter of the press for a few years now. Between 1999 and 2007 I also worked for Arts Council England’s then Interdisciplinary Arts Department, supporting emerging practice in art and science collaborations, sound art and new forms of distribution across the arts. These days I pretty much write fiction for a living, but perhaps it is not surprising if I have brought some of those ways of working into what I do as a writer.

Sometimes collaboration is about needing to ask for help; wanting to do something different or needing to bring other kinds of knowledge, expertise or processes into a piece of writing. In my own work this might include a musician composing an accompaniment to one of my short stories for a particular gig. Other times, someone might know or be a fan of one of my novels and, because of that, approach me with the idea of developing something new together. That is how more than a decade ago I ended up on a remote Scottish island with art and science duo London Fieldworks, composer Kaffe Matthews and a world champion stunt kite team amongst others, contributing to an interdisciplinary project called Syzygy. Come to think of it, that did demonstrably shift my writing process: I haven’t written a review, per se, of a visual arts project or exhibition since then, instead choosing to use fiction as a way of writing about art, but in the spaces that are normally given to reviews or catalogue essays.

More recently I was commissioned to work with the brilliant Blast Theory on an interactive drama for mobile phones, commissioned by Channel 4 and broadcast in October 2010. Ivy4evr, as it became known, was a very complex writing project, but before any real writing began we had to do audience research. The brief had been to produce a drama for young people that would be delivered on mobiles, but rather than simply jump into the app market, or assume that this would be delivered by video onto iPhones, we needed to know what kind of technology our target audience had access to, and how they behaved with it. Perhaps surprisingly we found that among the sample groups we worked with there was almost zero use of so-called ‘text-speak’, so we gladly threw that cliché out straight away. A more important discovery was that only a tiny percentage had smartphones. Most young people at that time had old or hand-me-down Nokia hand-sets, usually with big bundles of free text messages on their contracts. We also found that being in a lesson at school or college was no barrier to our potential audience reading or replying to a text message. Ivy4evr would have to be delivered by SMS: a one-to-one, text messaging conversation taking place in real time and at any time of day. The mobile developers who joined the team were used to coding SMS engines with a large enough capacity to run real-time, interactive quizzes for prime-time TV audiences; technology that we stretched and pushed as far as it would go.

In addition to the story itself, and the considerable ethical and legal implications of facilitating intimate conversations with a fictional character, there were many interesting and challenging things about writing Ivy4evr. For all the apparent simplicity of the 160-character text message format on a basic mobile phone screen, the drama itself would be completely automated, and ‘the script’ was in fact a huge series of spreadsheets where each apparently discrete message from ‘Ivy’ to the reader/player brought with it a host of coding preconditions (what the reader might need to have done to be receiving this message now, rather than any of a myriad other), and needed to incorporate fields into which user profile data could be fed back, things that ‘Ivy’ remembered about you or wanted to tell you, or that related to how you had responded to a particular question, maybe days ago. Thus a single message might need to be instantly compiled from numerous sources on the project’s highly secure database without compromising either privacy laws and Ofcom regulations, or the ‘natural’ feel of a 160-character message.

Through early work with small groups, to paper tests, and on to a final, week-long, real-time systems test prior to the actual broadcast, we quickly found out what worked and what didn’t, and also that our initial ‘guesstimates’ about response times – how quickly users might reply to Ivy and how quickly she should reply back – were wrong. During the tests, texts were flying back and forth in a matter of seconds, taking minutes to burn through whole story-lines that we had initially thought might last hours or days.

During the complex rewrites that resulted from each test, and the long days in the Blast Theory studio, I was reminded of the old Burroughsian saw about collaboration: ‘The third mind is there when two minds collaborate.’[1] In the book The Third Mind, Gerard-Georges Lemaire elaborates: this ‘is not … a literary collaboration but rather the complete fusion in a praxis of two subjectivities […] that metamorphose into a third; it is from this collusion that a new author emerges, an absent third person, invisible and beyond grasp, decoding the silence […] the negation of the frontier that separates fiction from its theory. It is, finally, the negation of the book as such – or at least the representation of that negation.’[2]

‘Complete fusion’? Well, maybe not, and we weren’t negating the book but proposing – in effect – a new kind of book, but I was only half-joking when I said once or twice to Matt, Ju and Nick during our collaboration that I felt more intelligent when we were all in the same room.

It was brain-fryingly complex stuff at times, but Blast Theory’s experience of creating interactive and augmented- or mixed-reality dramatic experiences – through their own long-term collaborations since the mid-late 1990s with computer scientists on seminal, large-scale works like Desert Rain, Can You See Me Now and Uncle Roy All Around You – meant that they had ways of analysing and understanding what we were doing. They quickly found new ways to describe the kinds of story structures that we were creating – we talked of ‘stubs’ and ‘story ladders’, of ‘calls to action’, ‘triggers’, ‘pre-requisites’ and ‘response settings’ – and looked for ways to reinforce the reading experience not just through an unprecedented degree of personalisation but also by being explicit about when Ivy needed something, when she was asking a question that needed a reply: ‘Q.,’ she might say at such times. ‘Am I right to worry?’

Importantly, readers’ replies to such questions weren’t falling into a vacuum. The drama was not running on tracks like some old ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ book. The story unfolded much more organically than that. But neither were their messages to ‘Ivy’ being read and responded to by us (nor by a warehouse full of ‘work-experience students’ as one critic suggested!), it really was completely automated, with readers’ respective experiences of the drama being both dependent upon and defined by the fact that they were each having a unique and two-way conversation. So the final collaboration here was with the reader, who was supplying as much as half the text of their own private version of Ivy4evr. For a writer of stories this was and is fascinating. As ‘Ivy’ might say: Q. Where is the actual story located in a piece of writing that is being produced in such a way?

The experience of collaborating with Blast Theory on Ivy4evr throughout 2010 immediately informed development at the beginning of 2012 of what became Missorts, my public artwork for Bristol. The brief was open and the commission, from Situations and Bristol City Council, was for a site that I know well: a square mile immediately to the west of Bristol Temple Meads station that follows the line of the city’s mediaeval Port Wall, bounded to the east by a massive, derelict, former Royal Mail sorting office, and to the west by Phoenix Wharf and Redcliffe Bridge: an anonymous-seeming corridor of dual carriageways and roundabouts. Flanked as it is by the amazing Gothic architecture of St Mary Redcliffe and the house where poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was born, this part of Bristol is also associated with radical literary practices. Not only with the Gothic revival via Thomas Chatterton’s amazing and metafictional ‘Rowley poems’, and his legacy among the Romantics and with William Blake, but also with the earlier mediaeval heresy of Lollardy, and associated texts such as the alliterative, satirical and revolutionary Middle English poem The Visions of Piers Plowman.

Rather than simply plonking some new cultural artefact directly into this part of Bristol, I wanted to learn from the kinds of cultural behaviours that already existed in the area (just as with Ivy4evr we had taken time at the outset to find out what kinds of technology our target audience used). With the help of a group of Fine Art students from UWE we surveyed culture/media use in various parts of the site and at different times of the day. As with Ivy4evr, the results were surprisingly ‘trailing edge’: people weren’t playing with iPads or Kindles, tapping smartphone screens or even reading the Metro, they were – most of them – listening to music or other content (audiobooks? radio?) on headphones. Also, once a week, a surprising number and range of people attended a Thursday lunchtime organ concert at St Mary Redcliffe.

It was only after collating this research that the idea for a geo-located and fictional audio work that could draw upon the area’s radical heritage but be set within an experience of walking and listening to music was born. That was when Situations and I approached Clare Reddington of Bristol’s groundbreaking Pervasive Media Studio to begin the process of identifying a developer to collaborate with (i.e. to ‘ask for help’, as above).

I knew the area well because I had already done a lot of research towards – and had written an early draft of – a much more ‘linear’ work of fiction that orbited the derelict sorting office, a novella entitled Missorts Volume II (which has now been published by Situations in Kindle and EPUB editions alongside the finished sound work). Rather than adapt that novella, once finished, for distributed audio, I felt strongly that it should remain ‘a book’, but that the new work might create opportunities for new writers and new writing. I also wanted to bring St Mary Redcliffe’s organ music out into the street, if I could find a composer who could do justice to their celebrated, one-hundred-year-old Harrison and Harrison pipe organ. From a private shortlist of two or three, I brought in Jamie Telford, a composer with whom I had collaborated once before; in the late 1990s he regularly played a live, improvised accompaniment to some of my readings. Jamie has a pop background and is a classically trained composer, but most important in this context was the fact that he had played church organ as a child – his father had built a replica pipe organ for the church in his hometown.

With commissioners Situations bringing a huge amount of expertise and experience to the project, and offering a perceptive and hands-on production team, and with hosting and other support from Bristol Record Office (including invaluable work from their archivists Julian Warren and Alison Brown on the transcription of a letter from William Blake, which forms a central theme in the novella), I devised and ran a series of short story workshops that attracted writers from around the country. We used William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s ‘cut-up technique’ to create completely new stories from Piers Plowman and other texts. As the workshops progressed, the writers started to gravitate towards potential locations on site, with each writer also quickly asserting their own voice and practice in the stories being written. These were rich and diverse works of fiction but they began to interact across the site in unpredictable ways – architectural and other motifs recurring in an unusual combination of Gothic, psychedelic and quotidian topographies. Because all of the stories drew from similar, limited sources, markers like characters’ names began to echo and recur across all ten of the pieces chosen for development into the final work. Editing and abridgement brought these connections – in stories by Sara Bowler, Holly Corfield-Carr, Thomas Darby, Jack Ewing, Katrina Plumb, Jess Rotas, Hannah Still, Helen Thornhill, Isabel de Vasconcellos and Sacha Waldron – into a sharper focus.

As with Ivy4evr, iterative testing from as early a stage as possible was also urged by Calvium, the app developer, who have a very robust GPS-based audio app-building template that has been road-tested on some quite high-profile factual and local history projects, including the Guardian newspaper’s King’s Cross Street Stories. Missorts is a work of fiction, but the coding and locative principles were the same. However robust the engine though, it was only through dozens of iterations, countless person-hours spent by the team tramping around the site, doubling back, testing and re-testing boundaries, knowing every inch of it, that final edits and mapping of the work’s constituent parts could be reached. Interaction design – if I’m using the term correctly – was important here, too. For example, challenges emerged around the duration of the stories, where 400-500 words turned out to be about the maximum workable length in a noisy street environment. Then there was the question of how Jamie Telford’s music might give way so that a story could begin. Would it fade out? What would be helpful to the listener learning how to use the work? Should we include a tell-tale intake of breath in the split second before each story started, or a particular short musical phrase? Who would do the readings? Would everything loop? How would you listen again or access information? What would the map need to look like? How about the icons on the map? All such questions could only be resolved by a period of intense collaboration, of testing the work, re-testing it and then re-testing again.

Quite what impact these large-scale collaborative projects will have on my future writing I am not yet sure. My latest novel, Shackleton’s Man Goes South, is published in April. Some of the work that has gone into the novel was begun while I was writer in residence at the Museum in 2008, with further early research and writing undertaken through a wider series of conversations and collaborations. Now I am again collaborating with the Museum – an entity of about the size and population of a small town – on a publication of the novel as their Atmosphere Gallery commission for 2013. I was just about to say that with Shackleton’s Man Goes South being a more or less traditional literary novel there wasn’t really space for anything like user testing. Except that actually in this case there was. What now appears in slightly different form as the opening chapter – ‘Albertopolis Disparu’ – was first published as a chapbook for free giveaway in the Museum in 2009. I was reliably informed at the time that our chapbook had passed the Museum’s informal but stringent ‘litter test’: none of the 5,000 copies given away during that week or so were found dumped in stairwells, on windowsills, under benches or in litter bins around the Museum! It was also tested in live readings, while further feedback came from reviews on 3am and Londonist. Following that early ‘rapid prototype’ publication of ‘Albertopolis Disparu’, as the novel started to take shape I tested the basic structure and early drafts in the form of a lecture with readings at the Free University of Glastonbury, then later on presented other elements of the near-final draft as part of the Biotik programme at the Eden Project.

Now we are planning for a publication where alongside the print edition, ebook formats of the novel will be available exclusively (and later, as part of the same fixed-term license, non-exclusively) free and DRM-free on the Museum website, and for visitors to email themselves from a touch-screen within a dedicated display that will be up for a year. The Science Museum’s own detailed user-based evaluation has been more than just an interesting backdrop: audience breakdowns, dwell-time and visitor statistics around movement and interaction within the galleries have directly informed how the novel is being published, even if these were unknown quantities when it was being written.

From being unsure what impact working collaboratively might have had on my writing, it is clear that it has contributed enormously, and that lessons-learned and ways of working developed in projects like Ivy4evr or Missorts are transferable to more traditional literary forms. Perhaps this is also a useful reminder that the production of narrative is not always so seamless or unitary as the reading of it might suggest.

[1] William S. Burroughs, ‘Introductions’, in William S. Burrough and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, 1978: New York, The Viking Press, p.25

[2] Gerard-Georges Lemaire, ‘23 Stitches Taken by Gerard-Georges Lemaire and 2 Points of Order by Brion Gysin’, in William S. Burrough and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, 1978: New York, The Viking Press, p.18

Tony White is the author of novels including Foxy-T (Faber and Faber), the non-fiction work Another Fool in the Balkans (Cadogan) and numerous short stories. His latest novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South is published by the Science Museum. For more information about Missorts visit White has been writer in residence at the Science Museum, London and Leverhulme Trust writer in residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Tony White is currently chair of London’s award-winning arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm.


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