Collaborative Novels: Like Herding Cats?

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

“This is a really cool concept you guys came up with — but it must be a nightmare with so many writers on the same projects. I bet it’s like herding cats!”

I have heard different iterations of that statement many times in the last six months, since Western Fictioneers announced our Wolf Creek series of collaborative novels (announced it at this very site, I might add). And to be honest, I feared it would be just that — a logistical nightmare. But as it turned out, the whole process has been remarkably smooth. This has surprised even me. As anyone who has worked with just one co-author knows, such a venture carries with it many unique challenges. And we have, at last count, nineteen co-authors on Wolf Creek (with at least a couple more coming onboard soon).

Right after Christmas of last year, Livia Washburn tossed out a suggestion on the WF email forum — to wit, she proposed a western short story anthology made up of supernatural Christmas tales, which many of us jumped on eagerly. She also brought up the prospect of a collaborative novel, and I had a bit of an epiphany: How about a whole ongoing series of them? And somehow we went from that conversation to three full novels in print less than twelve months later.

It would have been very difficult, and in fact virtually impossible, to achieve such a feat in the years before the Internet. As I tried to reconstruct how we got from Point A to Point B, I looked back over the email record that I kept (compulsive historian that I am). Nearly a hundred emails flew back and forth from everyone concerned, making suggestions and proposals for the type of character each writer would like to use. Within a week we had much of the overall plan nailed down. Then I took a few weeks to make some maps, write up a series bible, and outline the first four books — after which we had another round of email exchanges.

The process for each individual novel has been as smooth — which, again, is surprising. There is a stereotype that authors have big egos; I’m not so sure about that, necessarily, but authors do have control issues. A project like this involves bringing together nineteen people — each of whom is used to being the god of their own fictional universe, and is therefore extremely protective of his or her own vision and point of view. (That analogy tempts me to say that what we have in Wolf Creek is a veritable pantheon — but, um, that might indicate an ego problem).

Our teams, however, have all gelled pretty well. I think it helps that so many of the authors involved are veterans of the genre, and are used to both dealing with editorial input and working on series that a lot of other writers are also participating in, if not at the same time. So when I email the novel outline to the other co-authors of a particular volume, including what is specifically expected from their own chapters, they are all eager to meet the challenge. Throughout the process, individual writers coordinate with one another one-to-one to make sure they maintain consistency from chapter to chapter.

In all, this series has been a real joy to work on. I can’t remember when I’ve had more fun on a writing project. This will betray my geekiness, but I kind of feel like a dungeonmaster running an RPG campaign — except all the players are actually professional storytellers. I look forward to each new adventure, and hopefully we are developing a readership who feels the same way.

2 thoughts on “Collaborative Novels: Like Herding Cats?

  1. Pingback: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Tidbits for 12/18/12 - SF Signal - SF Signal

  2. Troy, I agree–this is the most fun I've ever had working on a project, too. I appreciate the way you had everything organized from the beginning and kept a firm hand on the wheel through it all. I'm looking forward to working on future WOLF CREEK series books!

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