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    Collaborative Writing: When the Outcome Can Be Better Than the Sum of Parts

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    Creating Together: The Art of Collaboration (5)
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    In 1969 a novel "Naked Came the Stranger" by Penelope Ashe sold 20,000 copies and entered the NY Times Best Sellers List. That is before its 24 authors decided to go public and revealed that they were, in fact, Penelope Ashe. After the revelation the book sold 70,000 more copies, as the unique effort showed the possibility of collaborative writing.

    Imagine a book which is a cross between “Indiana Jones” and “Canterbury Tales,” where an archaeologist is trying to reach “the secret cave of the American ancients.” Set in the 1930s and featuring various characters, among them a priest, a driver and a World War I veteran.

    The cover of the book called “Caverns” stated that it was written by O.U.Levon. But, as it turned out, such a person never existed, the name spelled backward read “Novel U.O.” and the real authors were a group of University Of Oregon students who wrote it collectively under the guidance of their teacher, famous author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Ken Kesey.

    Kesey established a simple set of rules for the project: no writing and no discussions outside of class, strict voting rules on the plot details within the writers’ collective to prevent the process from being “drawn into a lot of democratic discussion.”

    One of the reasons why Kesey decided to turn to collaborative writing was because he felt that the individual literary works of his students were too neat and well-crafted, and at the same time lacking weirdness and conflict, as well as “empty at the center.”

    Here’s how Kesey described his view of the writing process in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine:

    “The fun in writing is like jazz–where you're singing, where suddenly the voice is going forward and you're riding it, you're surfing on top of it. That is the art of writing. How does one impart this? How does one find it? It's as hard to find it as it is to teach somebody to find it.”

    Even though “Caverns” attracted massive media attention, the book was not received well by critics. Some wrote that there was a “lack of a coherent voice and a too-large cast of characters.” Others, like Los Angeles Times critic Bob Sipchen said that “no one is calling Caverns literature.”

    Similar experiments by Harriet Beecher Stowe date back to 19th century, when she wrote “Six of One by Half a Dozen of the Other” in collaboration with five other authors.

    But while Beecher Stowe and Kesey were serious about their experiments, other authors were deliberately trying to provoke the audience.

    In 1969, born out of a desire to collectively write a piece of erotic fiction that would have no literary or social value, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady led a group of 24 US journalists – 19 men and 5 women to illustrate the “mindlessly vulgar” nature of 1960’s popular American literary culture.

    McGrady was convinced that if you threw enough sex into just about any novel, it would sell and become popular. So when working on “Naked Came The Stranger” the writers, who each wrote a separate chapter, did just that, described as many steamy sex scenes as possible and at the same time, deliberately made the writing itself as bad as possible. Some chapters actually had to be edited heavily, because the originals were too well-written.

    McGrady’s expectations were fulfilled and the controversial piece of erotic fiction stayed on the New York Times bestsellers list for 13 weeks, including the period after the writers revealed the provocative ideas behind their masterpiece.

    “Naked Came The Stranger” and “Caverns,” although funny and entertaining, are, perhaps, not the best examples of collaborative fiction, many fans of such genre still believe that writing collectively can lead to fantastic results, when the outcome is actually better than the sum of its parts. So if you and your co-authors decide to write something together, you might consider following these simple rules: listen to others, work as a team, establish your own style and pace, craft your plot and work on characters together, in other words – do what you can to remain on the same page.

    We'd love to get your feedback at radio@sputniknews.com.

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    Creating Together: The Art of Collaboration (5)
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