Team Work

By Elizabeth Engstrom

About two years ago, Matthew Lowes, game writer/designer, asked me to edit the rule book for his new game, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. I got the manuscript, but it didn’t have any of the charts, graphs, or illustrations of the finished book. I couldn’t really follow the instructions, so I just carried on, looking for typos, sentence structure awkwardness, etc. Much of it was repetitive, as there are the Basic Rules, then the Expert Rules, which includes the Basic Game. Then the Rules for Two Players, which includes the rules for the Advanced Game, which of course includes the rules for the Basic Game. You get the idea. So my work was rote, and gave my imagination time to roam.

In the game, the player delves into the underground Labyrinth, there to meet monsters (Really? What kind of monsters?), find treasure (Really? What kind of treasure?), and encounter and endure all manner of adventures. At some point, the player must weigh how many resources he has left in order to turn around and make it back out of the labyrinth before losing all his light, or his food, or his life.

It’s a fun game. While reading through the rule book without real comprehension, I started to wonder: Who would delve into the underground labyrinth, and why? Pretty soon I had an idea. And then I had an idea of what kind of monsters that particular character would encounter, and what kind of treasure he would search for and find, or not find.

I finished editing, and when I returned the manuscript back to Matt, I said, “I could write a novel based on this game scenario.”

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Fast forward six months. The game came out to great acclaim, the accompanying deck of Tarot Cards with art by Josephe Vandel is exquisite, and a small group of writers got together to learn to play. Within a couple of weeks, ten or so authors signed on to write books loosely based on the Labyrinth of Souls.

My book is the first one to drop, only because I finished it first. Published by ShadowSpinners Press, authors to come include Matthew Lowes himself, Christina Lay, Eric Witchey, Stephen Vessels, John Reed, Mary Lowd, Pamela Herber, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, and likely others. We plan a big launch of the first five books at this November’s World Fantasy Convention in  San Antonio, Texas.

The best part of this experience has been being part of the team. We’re all stupendously supportive of each other as we encourage the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the promotion. We even had a memorable weekend away, where instead of partying, the great room was silent except for the quiet tapping of keyboards. We helped each other that weekend with plot, character, and setting, and talked about the unique problems of writing a book that takes place underground. I’m not much for collaboration, but if this is what it tastes like, I will gladly change my opinion. I’ve read three of the novels-to-come, and they are extraordinary, each entirely different from one another.

I invite you to join us in the Labyrinth of Souls, to read these books as they come out, one every month, and bask, as I have, in the astonishingly unique vision each author has for this world.

To collaborate or not to collaborate?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve always eschewed the idea of collaboration.

To me, writing a novel is such an intimate process of soul searching that I could not imagine sharing that process with another person. I suspect I am not alone with that feeling.

But last March during the Wordcrafters conference, Nancy Holder and I talked about her collaborative endeavors with her writing partner, Debbie Viguie. Together they have written many bestselling novels and their partnership thrives, despite differences in… well, we’re all different.

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I’m not going to tell you how they do it, because I only drilled deeply enough into that concept to allow me to give it some serious thought. I did find out this: They always write forward, they never go backward. In other words, when Nancy writes a chapter and then Debbie edits/rewrites it, Nancy uses that version to alter, never going back to a previous version. She may return to a previous concept or scene, but never a previous version. So they are always writing forward.

I found this to be very interesting.

I know many people who collaborate on many things. One friend has had great successes with multiple collaborations, but he has also had problems that have shelved, perhaps even killed, projects with great potential. Such is the lesson to have some type of agreement in writing with among collaborators. And it is also a lesson to be very careful with whom you entrust your fledgling projects.

So now, inspired by Nancy and Debbie’s intriguing arrangement, I’m collaborating.

I have a writing partner for whom I have tremendous respect. We have known each other only a few years, but I’ve kept an eye on him, his work ethic, the way he conducts himself in business and at home, and decided that he was the one for me, if he was interested.

He was.

But here’s the thing. I bring strengths and weaknesses to this partnership, and so does he. We discussed them in depth before embarking upon the first cooperative project. One of my strengths is that I am fortunate enough to have more time to write. He has less time. One of my weaknesses is that I am impatient. So when I finish something and pass it off to him, I need to relax and let his draft come back to me in the time that he has to devote to it. I gladly give up time for quality. And he brings quality.

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We collaborated on an initial project of little consequence, mostly to see how we work together. A shakedown cruise, if you will. It went very well. Since then, we have completed two substantial projects, with two more—including a very ambitious one—in the works.

I am ecstatic. I am writing more now than I have in years, and am enthusiastic about my new work and all the possibilities now opening up to both of us. I eagerly anticipate his feedback and he knocks me out with the things he adds (and takes away), and is always willing to negotiate certain points that are important to one or the other of us, and find solutions to sticky issues.

This isn’t a mere collaboration. I view this as a long-term writing partnership, and I believe he does as well. In this particular instance, our work is way more than the sum of its parts; our synergy has lit us both on fire.

But this was no casual encounter, no off-the-cuff invitation to write something together. Before I approached him, I thought long and hard, and we talked about it in depth before we agreed to embark upon such a venture. It is much like any other business partnership that is heavy on the creative element. Trust is of paramount importance.

Even though I’m currently involved in what I consider a very successful collaboration, still, when I think of the word “collaboration,” I shudder. Collaboration is not for me.

Except when it is.