29 Jun

How to collaborate on fiction in 2016 using pair programming, Skype, and Google Docs

I just finished a new collaboration. It’s a short story of nearly 10,000 words that will be in Bridging Infinity (you can pre-order here), edited by Johnathan Strahan “The latest volume in the Hugo award-winning Infinity Project series, showcasing all-original hard science fiction stories from the leading voices in genre fiction.”

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The writer I collaborated with was Karen Lord, who currently lives in Barbados (author of Galaxy Games, Redemption in Indigo, you’re reading her, right?).

There are a lot of different ways to collaborate. I’ve done many of them. But for seamless and rapid writing, one method stands out to me that was first introduced to me by Karl Schroeder.

In 2007 Karl and I spent a weekend in Toronto writing a short story called ‘Mitigation.’ The story would eventually spark my time spent on the novel Arctic Rising a couple years later. To write this story, Karl invited me to spend a three day weekend at his home while we worked on the story (also a 10,000 word story).

We spent the first night there drinking scotch and spitballing ideas, and the next morning in a diner scribbling ideas on the backs of paper mats. The fun, world building stuff that could go on and on.

But back at Karl’s office the work started. Karl had a plan, one he said he’d done with another writer before, where we would share the keyboard. One of us would write a single sentence. Then the other would revise that sentence, then write a next one. Other writer would revise that sentence, then write another.

Starting can be the hardest, but with one line at a time, swapping in and out of the chair, we soon had a few paragraphs. In fact, it was starting to get hard to stick to just a single line. Karl commented that once we started being unable to stick to a line, we’d switch to paragraphs.

This had the effect of blending our styles. It also forced us each to check in with each other, live, line by line, on what we thinking and trying to do. Get stuck? Jump out of the chair and usually the other writer could jump in.

We did this until we had 2-3 pages in short order. We broke for lunch and spitballed some outline ideas, coming up with upcoming scenes.

At that point, we then each took alternate scenes, not paragraphs, concurrently. I’d work on my laptop, Karl on his desktop, and email the scenes into a final document and edit them. In three days we had a clean, tight, 10,000 word short story that ended up being in a Year’s Best anthology.

I’ve done many other forms of collaboration. Handing the document back and forth, outlining for others to write, muddling through it on an ad-hoc basis. But Karl’s method really jumped out at me and I proposed trying to use it despite the fact that Karen and I are thousands of miles apart.

The methodology we used is something programming friends of mine indicated were similar to the idea of ‘pair programming.’ According to Wikipedia:

Pair programming is an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator,[1] reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.

While reviewing, the observer also considers the “strategic” direction of the work, coming up with ideas for improvements and likely future problems to address. This frees the driver to focus all of his or her attention on the “tactical” aspects of completing the current task, using the observer as a safety net and guide.

Karen was willing to try it. To write the document we used Google Docs as we could both use it at the exact same time, creating that concurrent use atmosphere and live ability I found so fascinating when I worked with Karl.

To get the live Pair Programming aspect, we used Skype. To write like this, I really found the live ability to talk to a partner to be killer. The reason is this, in past collaborations, I’ve found a lot of communication can be lost in text, emails back and forth, and people going around in circles without realizing it.

I found that just talking live to the person, I can see their face the moment I suggest an idea and more accurately assess whether we both truly love it, or whether they really love it and I don’t, or whether it’s something we’re both ‘meh’ on and should keep talking about. There is so much more you can figure out, and faster. You can tell when someone is just spitballing, as opposed to really hung onto something.

Karen and I spent a two hour Skype spitballing ideas on the first day, from which we came up with a skeletal idea for plot, some world building, and what we wanted to accomplish from the story.

The second Skype session was a half day of using the same method I described Karl and I did, but with Karen and I meeting over Skype and using Google Docs. One of us wrote a line, the other edited it and wrote the next. Then the other would come on and edit that then write the next. Soon we were doing paragraphs. Then sections.

The next two days we traded off sections, and then we did a series of revision passes that were not done live on video.

It took about four or five days to create a 10,000 word story called The Mighty Slinger for Bridging Infinity. Calypso singers, hard SF megastructures, idea SF. It was a hell of a lot of fun to write and I’m pleased to see that for a second time this process of ‘pair writing’ in a near-live situation works well, and that fact that it can work over great distances was a pretty amazing experiment, I felt.

Writing can often feel isolating. Being able to spit ball ideas and gain energy from another writer’s enthusiasm over the project made this a great experience.

2 thoughts on “How to collaborate on fiction in 2016 using pair programming, Skype, and Google Docs

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process, but my favourite bit was at the start of the writing – you were blasting old calypso and reggae in the background and we talked about spouge and ska!

    • That was a lot of fun. The music made for a great atmosphere within the collaboration, yeah 🙂

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