Monday, May 10, 2010

What We Learned about Writing a Short Story Collectively

Colleen commented that she wanted to share "A Crafty Kind of Murder" with her students. She plans to ask them to work together in groups of three to draft their own short story.

Several of our writer friends have been curious about the process, too. While it's fresh in my mind, I thought I'd share some of what I personally learned. Maybe my KH Blog Sisters can chime in!

1. Start with a goal in mind. We wanted to showcase our various characters with the idea of introducing new characters to potential readers. That meant each of us had to have a "solo" and that our characters had to do what THEY do best, not just make a token appearance. This simple decision helped us determine a structure and kept us from straying from our goal along the way.

2. Brainstorm the story elements. Emails went zinging back and forth as we discussed who, what, when, where, why, how and so on. Since we all write mysteries, we quickly realized we needed a victim. Once we decided that, we were working backwards (which is a good way to plot any mystery, in my humble opinion). Without a working story framework, you aren't free to write as individuals. Now, a few of the details did change, such as Carolina's name, but those were easily tackled in the edit stage.

3. Be respectful of everyone involved.
At one point, we realized that our loose plot structure was too similar to a book that one of us had written. To our mutual credit, we took a step back and reworked our plot. We didn't want to rehash each other's work--it was just something that naturally came up in the brainstorming process. But I think what we all learned was that we held each other in great regard, and that the concerns of any one of us were important.

4. Know when to put the work aside. We originally planned to post this as a progressive story in February. However, it quickly reached a frustrating point where we were "lost." We were about half the way through, and we couldn't see how to maintain all the POVs (points of view) and still be coherent. So we put the work aside a while. That gave us the chance to look at it with new eyes.

5. Consider the reader.
Okay, after that break, we started asking, "What if?" and "How can we make this work?" It came to us that if each character "reported" her portion, each author could keep her independence. That left us needing a structure for the reporting, a structure that would essentially stand alone. Thus, the simple "here's what I saw" format evolved.

Here's another way we considered our readers: We cut back on the number of characters. Even though this turned out to be a novella length project, we tossed several of our supporting characters to make it easier for our readers to follow. It's still a bit heavy on the supporting character side, but it's much better than it was.

6. Be flexible. Somewhere along the way, we realized that our original plot wouldn't work as planned. No biggie. You see, an outline is a tool, not a sacred cow. So we jettisoned the portions of the original that didn't work, and we made adjustments. In this case, we needed to change our "bad guy." Early drafts made it clear that our "bad guy" was too obvious. We needed to rework our red herrings and our real clues. Again, this was a brainstorming exercise.

7. Put your ego aside.
I really have to credit all of us Blog Sisters. No one got snippy. Everyone was professional. We didn't always agree, and when we didn't, we were incredibly polite--and we brainstormed ways to get the job done rather than fuss at each other. We found typos in each other's work. We asked questions about the logic. We corrected spellings, punctuation, usage and grammar. (In that way, it was a wonderful learning opportunity! I mean, how often do you get the chance to sit at the feet of authors with so much experience?) But no one, and I want to emphasize this, no one acted unkind or huffy. In fact, we sort of tackled the polishing with gusto!

8. Commit to multiple edits. We needed an introduction for each daily "report." Since I'm a big 24 fan, that television show's format provided the ongoing commentary idea. Once all the reports were in, it was clear that insertions had to be made to keep all the characters straight. So, we were careful to reference who our characters were multiple times. (Hope that didn't get redundant!) Since our readers were getting the story in segments, a wrap up each day made sense. As you can see, the edits must be done with the end product and the end user in mind.

9. Edit yet again for consistency and clarity.
We adjusted paragraph spacing, indents, speaker tags and so on. A "speaker tag" tells the reader who is talking. In a book, the reader falls into the rhythm of the author and quickly learns who is saying what. But in this work, we were showcasing various voices, so that wasn't possible. A few more speaker tags were necessary. We also checked for spelling of the "new" characters' names.

Note: It's really easy to edit out other authors' voices. You are zipping along and you think, "Oh, that's extraneous." Or, "I'd never put something that way." As a result, you dilute the other writers' voices. So, be sensitive to voice when you edit.

10. Along the way, listen to your co-authors. Once in a while, someone would say, "I think we should..." It would have been easy to discount this, and say, "Come on. We've all ready decided such-and-so." Maybe we did, and I don't realize that it happened, but I hope we didn't. I hope we were thoughtful and generous. I do distinctly recall someone really liked the name "Carolina" and so we changed our victim's name. Someone else had another situation they wanted changed. We did that, too. Our goal was to create a product that everyone could enjoy and feel good about.

I would love to hear any reader feedback you have for us. Would you like to see the sleuths again? Did you "hear" the distinctive voices? Are any of you tempted to read another author because of this experiment? Dish!


Monica Ferris said...

What a great wrap-up! Lessons learned, a good how-to, clearly presented. Nice job, Joanna!

Terri Thayer said...

Key to our success: Joanna!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Oh, Terri, it was stubbornness! And Monica, the wrapup was a great way for me to review what we did learn--and to hang on to that new knowledge!

Colleen said...

Thanks for sharing this wrap up. The information that you shared will be perfect to use in my classroom next fall. Thanks so much. I can't wait to teach the short story unit.

Dru said...

Whatever you guys did, it worked because it kept me coming back for more.

Camille Minichino said...

Isn't it great when "stubbornness" works to everyone's benefit? Thanks Joanna and all my blog sisters.

I'd also like to point out that we worked together much as a good critque group should. The idea is to help each person's voice preserve and improve her own voice.

Linda O. Johnston said...

I agree with Terri! But I also agree that we all worked together. It was a lot of fun, and I'm really proud of the result. Thanks to all my fellow Killer Hobbyists!

Betty Hechtman said...

We couldn't have done it without you, Joanna.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Aw, Betty, that's awfully sweet. And Camille is right--we did what a good critique group should do for each other. Colleen, I hope your students enjoy the process. Dru, you're a LOVE.

ralang said...

I think you All did a wonderful job. Thank you so much for sharing your talent.

misterreereeder said...

It was certainly a good and interesting story. I liked how all the characters were bought into the mystery. Great JOB!!!

Anonymous said...

Dear Group:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. Are you planning to publish this in book form?


Joanna Campbell Slan said...

It's available for downloading in its entirety at

That's as far as we've gotten!