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The rise of writer/fan collaboration

Collaborations between writers and fans are nothing new, but a new wave of projects are revisiting the concept with modern technology – and compelling results for both parties. Chris Farnell explains.

“Anyone who tells you they know what’s coming, what things will be like in 10 years’ time, is simply lying to you. None of the experts know – nobody knows, which is great. When the rules are gone you can make up your own rules. You can fail, you can fail more interestingly, you can try things, and you can succeed in ways nobody would have thought of, because you’re pushing through a door marked no entrance, you’re walking in through it.”

That quote was from a keynote speech Neil Gaiman gave at the Digital Minds conference and the London Book Fair. If you frequent this site, you don’t need me to tell you the truth in it. Perhaps one of the most crucial areas that writers have changed has been the ways that writers and readers interact.

While as recently as 15 years ago the writer was simply handing words down from the mountain top, now, through blogging and twitter, writers are in constant conversation with their readers and each other. The next twist in the tale may be writers actually collaborating with their audience.

A Calendar of Tales

Neil Gaiman (who, despite loudly proclaiming that nobody can know what’s coming, was one of the first writers to start blogging and tweeting) has taken his latest project onto Blackberry, with A Calendar of Tales. The project began with Neil simply tweeting questions about each of the months, such as “Why is January so dangerous?”

That particular question got this response from @zyblonius: “Because an ageing veteran just retired, to be replaced by a dangerously unqualified youth, no more than a babe in arms.” That was all the spark Gaiman needed to write January Tale, which you can listen to him read at the link.

The project went beyond that, however, asking readers to listen to the stories and create artwork around them. The January Tale alone was responsible for this short film, and the countless images on the Blackberry site’s gallery.

Of course, fans creating art off their favourite stories is nothing new – you only need to poke your head into deviantart for a second to see that. The entire Cthulhu mythos is one gigantic fan art project dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft, and there probably isn’t a single person writing the characters of Batman and Doctor Who right now who didn’t write those characters first in their exercise books at home.

But while some writers have enjoyed these fan creations (while others have actively fought against them out of the sense that it might devalue their copyright), writers actively encouraging fan art is something new.

A World of Fan Fiction

Perhaps the most radical example of this was the World Builder project launched in conjunction with Adam Christopher’s superhero noir novel, Empire State in 2011. The idea was to not just encourage fan art, but to give it the publisher’s seal of approval.

“Angry Robot editor Lee Harris called me with an idea for an experiment, to allow people to create content within the world of the book,” Adam says. “The very first fiction I ever wrote was Doctor Who fan fiction, and I think Lee knew I was the kind of writer who would have found such a project interesting – it’s certainly not for everyone, but I jumped at the chance. At the same time, Mur Lafferty, who was doing the Angry Robot podcast, had approached them with an almost identical idea. As a result, she became the producer of the Empire State WorldBuilder, which I was rather pleased about.”

It was something that had never really been tried before, trying to nurture fan creations into existence rather than simply waiting for them to appear.

The WorldBuilder was definitely an experiment,” Adam says. “Nobody knew what the level of interest would be. The idea was that people were going to be writing fan fiction or fan art, anyway, but here we could give it the official publisher seal of approval.

“I thought it was a great idea and I was really excited to see what people would come up with. Having someone make something entirely new based on a property you have created is wonderful. And there was a lot of cool stuff – short stories, a comic strip, a set of stills from a long-lost film noir adaptation of the book from 1949. Empire State even got its own theme song!”

So is this something we’re going to see more of? From a purely marketing perspective you can see the advantages of it – you rarely care more for a character than one you’ve written for yourself. As Gaiman says, anyone who claims to know what’s going to happen next is lying, but there’s a lot of potential here.

According to Adam, “It needs the right book and the right author, but it’s an interesting idea and a lot of fun.”

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