Image taken from the CWC website, link through the photo

For the past few months, I’ve been participating in the Collaborative Writing Challenge – this project asks a group of around fifty authors to write a novel together, in some predetermined genre. Fifty authors! You say (I said). One book! Impossible!

Here’s how it works. The CWC puts out a call for authors to sign up for the project, a novel of a particular genre, and accepts first chapter submissions from all authors for a novel in that genre. The story coordinator, who oversees the writing of the book, chooses their four (or so) favorite submissions and sends them out to all the authors who have signed up for that project, asking for votes. The winning chapter becomes the first chapter of the project.

Meanwhile, the story coordinator is busy setting up a thirty-chapter writing schedule where all authors can sign up to try writing up to three chapters in that thirty-week schedule. No matter what happens in the book, it’d better be wrapped up by chapter 30! Each chapter gets assigned three different authors to attempt writing it within a week, using summaries of all previous chapters prepared by the story coordinator and the full chapter that comes right before theirs. The story coordinator picks a winner, to send on to the next group of writers and the process repeats. An example of how this works:

John, Taylor, and Monique are signed up to write Chapter 23; on Wednesday, they each receive the chapter summaries and reference notes for all twenty-two preceding chapters, and the full text of chapter 22. They have until Tuesday of the following week to each submit their version of Chapter 23 to the story coordinator. The story coordinator chooses Monique’s as the best submission, which is summarily is sent on to the people writing Chapter 24, and a chapter summary is prepared for all future writers.

I signed up last July when I had ‘nothing to do’ and when, in the middle of my winter quarter of graduate school, the email came that my turn to participate in the challenge I said some not-so-nice words while looking at my schedule for the week. My first attempt was a bust where I opened too many cans of worms without leaving any clues for my next-chapter authors – but my second attempt, chapter 27, for the fantasy novel Esyld’s Awakening – was chosen to be included in the final work. The blurb for Esyld’s Awakening is:

In a land of direwolves and dragons, the Abdita or “Hidden” are a species devoted to maintaining the balance between man and the earth. Guardians by nature, their powers are misunderstood.

When a dark force rises, the balance of life is unsettled. Blight and sickness spread.

Desperate for answers, King Rouaix Godfrey XVII turns to the mysterious Prime Order. He sets his knights – led by the unequaled Ser Pagaene – on the Abdita.

But the High Priestess of the Adbita summons a different kind of champion; Esyld, a guardian with wisdom on her side.

Thrown together, each tests the patience and fortitude of the other. But both sides have secrets, and it may take more than nature or man alone to stop what is coming. Can enemies work together to save all?

The project was interesting for me, as an exercise, because it forced me to write outside my comfort zone (let’s face it, almost all writing is outside my comfort zone but this was even MORE so). First, it forced me to let go of control – something I struggle to do in many areas of my life. You can’t choose what happens to the characters once they leave your chapter – your super-elaborate secret plan to solve all the plot holes may go awry after your pen leaves the page. A character you were counting on between your chapters to save the day may die (well, crap) and there’s not much you can do about it but stare at the chapter summary in frustration, shaking your head, before moving on. And because you can’t control everything, it forces you to be adaptable – perhaps, just like your characters at times are painted into a corner and must worm their way out via inventive solutions that you never would have considered were your back not against the wall. As a bit of a plotter, being forced to write by the seat of my pants in less than a week stretched my writerly talents. I also can’t control every comma placement or image description in the book; I know Esyld’s Awakening (despite our truly fantastic story coordinator) will have mistakes. But CWC is about the process, the growth for the writers, more than about the final finished product.

The CWC also forced me to write with incomplete information, something I don’t like to do which then stalls my writing progress. I’ve been thinking about some of my characters for years without ever really making an effort to put pen to paper for them. Why? Because I ‘don’t know them well enough’ or ‘haven’t researched the time period enough’ or ‘haven’t built up their world enough’. These are all valid concerns, don’t get me wrong; nothing makes for a worse book than one with huge anachronisms, poorly developed characters, and bad world building. But sometimes, you have to let go of your hesitation – of not knowing every detail – and just put words on the page. This process leads to important discoveries about characters and worlds, that would never have been made without writing it out. During CWC, you don’t have every word of every previous chapter – in particular, character development is tough. But you have to write anyway.

I’m signed up to try project 8, a romance novel (time period not stated but it seems likely to be a contemporary) and will enjoy the chance to flex my writing muscles again. CWC does play into one of my strengths very well – writing for a deadline! #sprinter – and has given me the motivation to keep up some writing even when grad school gets tough.

Would you try a project like CWC? Why or why not? Have you ever tried a collaborative writing project – with much or little success? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Categories: Writing


Meghan Barrett is a student at Drexel University, earning her PhD in Biology. She previously attended the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she earned a B.S. in Biology and English/Creative Writing and was a part of the Honors College. Meghan was a founding member of NeuWrite/Edu, a science-writing collaboration group at Geneseo, and worked as a Writing Intern for Phi Beta Kappa's Online News Site, The Key Reporter.


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