Madeleine Robins

October 13, 2015

Writing in (Yet Another) New Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:59 PM
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I got invited to do a cool thing!

(Okay, part of my delight is that I don’t think of myself as being part of the cool crowd, and therefore, being invited to do a cool thing plucks at my deeply-buried high school nerd self.)

A few months ago a writer of my acquaintance asked me if I’d like to be involved in a Serial Box project. “Serial what now?” I said, with my customary aplomb.

It was explained to me: Serial Box is a new venture that takes as its model the episodic novels of yore–or more contemporaneously, seasons of TV: a work of fiction with new content released every week, written by a team of writers, to create a satisfying episode and a satisfying “season” arc. You subscribe (and get your content to read, or in audio form) and each week there’s a new episode, one of 13. And there’s a range of material, too. Right now you can access Bookburners–sort of a crime procedural, but with magic (trapped inside books) and a special team of operatives who strive to keep the world safe from magical apocalypse. The next project is Tremontaine, a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, full of manners and intrigue and secrets and lies… It debuts on October 28.

I am under ferocious rules of secrecy about discussing the project I’m involved in. But I can tell you a little about the process, which is unlike anything I’ve ever done. We started out with an idea, a some characters, and a time period (it’s the English Restoration…new terrain for me), based on a play written by the project creator. A “bible” and some other materials were sent out, and then we had a three day “story summit” meeting in New York. And for three days we talked about the characters, the overarching story, the plots of the individual episodes–all the things you would talk about in preparing for a new writing venture. But there were constraints. We would talk for 48 minutes, then have a 12 minute break (during which one was not supposed to talk about the project, although it didn’t always work that way), then another 48 minutes, and another 12 minute break, etc. Our producer kept things moving along, and it was an extraordinarily productive way to work.

At the end of the three days, as we prepared to scatter back to our home ground, we had a very loose outline, not only for the series, but for each of the episodes, and each of the episodes had been assigned to a writer, with deadlines for outline, discussion, rough draft, discussion, and final draft for each episode. I’m writing episodes 4, 8, and 12 (it just worked out that way–we got to dibs the episodes we wanted to write). But even with deadlines and outlines, a lot of negotiation is still going on, and as we’re all doing serious research, we keep nudging at the shape and presentation of the characters, the timeline (it’s historical, but in the time-honored way of authors, we occasionally compress or expand the timeline to make sure drama is served) and the way our episodes work together.

I have always been a little leery of collaborative writing. Who does what? Whose voice is the final one? What happens when you just flat out disagree? But collaborating this way sidesteps some of those reservations, while making a virtue out of others. If we flat out disagree we talk it out–and it’s not just two writers, but a whole writers’ room who can see different perspectives and find different ways out.

The first episode is currently scheduled for April, 2016. The minute I can tell more about the project I will do so. In the meantime, Restoration London is calling my name.

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