A vast, remote country house in the highlands of Scotland, March 2013. Eleven men and four women have gathered to plot the journey of a corpse from Inverness to London. A successfully crowd-funded collaborative novel is born.
It was an experiment. The idea was to see if 15 business writers could work collaboratively to create a good fiction novel. How could 15 very different people – with individual egos and approaches to writing – possibly produce a single novel?
We were a motley crew – business consultants to Fortune 500 company employees, copywriters of adverts to published fiction writers.
We were trying the new publishing model started by Unbound – which requires full crowdfunding on the basis of synopsis alone, before it commits to publishing.
Collaborative novels have been written before. But we’d never heard of such a large cohort producing a readable piece of fiction.
Back to the corpse. We knew there was one. But how the devil were we going to move it to London? A mapping system involving giant Post-it notes (a handy tool learned from business meetings!) laid out across three rooms threw up a surprisingly impressive plot – the best plan, we concluded, involved a white van, an undertaker and some disturbing secrets.
Who would write what? The starting point was William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying – in which each chapter is written in the voice of a different character. Taking Faulkner’s lead, the group allocated one character’s voice to each writer. As a group we had to establish ground rules. Egos had to be pushed aside in favour of one collective vision: to create a book, like Faulkner’s, with authenticity and urgency, compelling readers to turn the next page.
I was Julia White. The corpse’s daughter in law. Within a few minutes of talking with the other writers about their characters – I had a simple insight: julia intensely resented the family she had married into, especially her husband, but was determined to ‘keep up appearances’ A strange magic kicked in. Far from fighting with the work of the rest of the crowd, I found myself being pulled along in a rush of group creative energy. It was exhilarating. Suddenly, I knew exactly what Julia would say. And how she would say it. Using a memo-style daily diary to put down in a controlled fashion her thoughts. Slipping into the character of someone else is not only critical to writing but is also great fun.
Having worked with some of the world’s biggest companies I have seen what happens when people don’t work collaboratively and have helped facilitate new business thinking through collaboration.
The experience of taking collaboration into an entirely new area reinforced the lessons I had learnt in business:
- Everyone has to believe in a common purpose. Without the clarity of what we wanted to achieve – a novel collectively written, we would not have been able to know what was important and not important to focus on or prioritise.
- You need different styles but a common attitude – we all had our own writing styles, our own ways of approaching the process of writing and even our own preferences for what is good writing. But we also shared a common attitude towards writing and each other – a belief in the creative power of collaboration, a shared sense of fun and a belief in wanting to be part of something bigger
- It requires meticulous project management with clear targets, timings and someone in whom you invest authority to ensure it gets done and it gets done well. We had a superb project manager in Claire Falcon who was one of the 15 authors, without her diligence and ‘nagging’ we would never have achieved anything. And we also had an excellent editorial team – in John Simmons, Jamie Jauncey and Stuart Delves – each also one of the 15 authors – to ensure the novel read well.
Above all you have to sublimate your ego to the greater good – it’s not about me, it’s about we.
It surprised us all when we not only reached our crowdfunding target, which meant publishing could go ahead, but exceeded it. The story drew people in. They wanted to know more. I believe we produced something – collectively – that went far beyond any one of our individual potentials.
Because of my work for Caffeine Partnership, I have always been fascinated by the potential of collaborative working. What makes a group of individuals, departments and organisations become greater than the sums of its parts isn’t luck. The world’s biggest – and for that matter smallest – companies cannot afford to leave good collaboration to accident.
Today, as cloud and social media technologies create ever-more innovative ways to share emotions, ideas and knowledge we are moving into a golden era of collaboration.
Writing in a team convinced me that in the future, people will see this as the end of a self-serving period in history. The fittest will adapt to collaboration. The big-ego Lone Rangers will choke on the Cloud. Only the collaborative will survive to tell the tale of the digital sharing revolution.
I will never forget crawling around on my stomach on an ancient Persian rug to lay out pieces of paper with plot strands on it – and looking round the room to find 15 other people in similar but different modes of physical immersion with the process. Some staring out of windows, others sprawled on sofas, some in solitary reflection, others in heated discussion. It was a wonderful moment that captured the variety and range of people and approaches that came together in one place with one goal. And we had one hell of a party, too – but about that, I am keeping mum!
Keeping Mum will be available on 15th May in bookstores and via amazon.