What I Learned from #DigiWriMo’s Novel Experiment

Yesterday, I participated in the creation of a massively co-authored novel. The goal had been to reach 50,000 words; we reached 41,184. With this kind of event, however, it is the process and not the product that counts, and so I want to explore that process and what I learned it from it here.

So a duck walks into a bar and a square and a Starducks and a dystopian society and  . . .

Post-viva celebration pint. via ekswitaj

Post-viva celebration pint (one of my outside commitments).

A shared planning document was opened up a few days before the event and a Twitter chat held the night before to make decisions about it. I participated in the former but not the latter due to outside commitments. While I do think that, in this case, the chat was necessary for finalizing the ground rules, my own inability to take part in it reflects one of the difficulties of massive international collaboration. With time zones and various schedules, anything done in real time will exclude someone. (The time zone issue came up during the composition of the novel as well but only to the extent that who was awake when helped determine who contributed at the start and who contributed at the end.)

The decision was made that the novel would be composed of vignettes, connected by the presence of Digi the Duck (whom I had earlier suggested as the protagonist) and by ending or beginning in an unspecified town square. Other characters, themes, and setting could be repeated, but this was entirely optional. In my own contributions, I was much more conscientious about connecting my vignettes to other people’s work early in the day; later, I was just trying to do what I could to reach the 50k goal (even though I should know better). Overall, the novel is pretty disjointed.

Pengu drinks a latte to warm up after getting ...

Pengu McHugh also made an appearance in the novel.

Another effect of choosing to build the novel from multiple vignettes was that a lot less collaboration took place on the paragraph or sentence level. There was a sense that each vignette belonged to its original author, unless said writer specifically authorized additions and revisions. While that is not necessarily wrong, I had a lot more fun when I was adding jokes about flappucinos and beakscotti to someone else’s mention of Starducks. The closer the collaboration, the more likely you are to create something greater than you could have made independently.

All that said, I think that if we had tried to write a novel using a more traditional kind of plot, we never would have gotten past 40k words.

If I were to take part in another collaboration like this, I would suggest encouraging people to add to other’s pieces directly from the beginning. I would also suggest keeping a list of characters and settings with brief descriptions, and maybe even a list of themes, to encourage closer interweaving of vignettes.

Pedagogical Uses

This kind of collaborative project could also be used in MOOCifying a creative writing classroom. I would most likely want to have my students create a planning document in class. Then, I would open a Google document and invite them to edit it (so that I could see who made which changes in the revision history); outside collaborators could join by following the link to edit (which I would encourage students to share over social media). I would most likely evaluate students’ participation as insufficient, sufficient, or outstanding and then give them more formal grades (if necessary) based on brief reflective essays about the process.

Fiction-writing, however, is not the only kind of writing for which such an assignment might work, as Tanya T. Sasser pointed out on Twitter:

click through to read full conversation

What about you? Do you think you might use this kind of collaboration as part of a course, or for any other purpose? If you participated, how do you think the choice to use vignettes affected your experience?


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A Penguin, A Duck, A Digital Writing Month

A stuffed baby penguin standing on the grass in front of a Keep off the Grass sign

My penguin friend, Pengu McHugh, says he will help me out during the month, but I think he is really just jealous of Digi the Duck.

Despite my ambivalence about WriMos, I will be participating in Digital Writing Month (DigiWriMo) during November. My participation, however, will not be focused on reaching 50,000 words. My sense that aiming for a high word count can be counterproductive is magnified when it comes to working with digital media. If I find myself working on a highly visual project, I do not want to stop simply because pictures do not add to my ability to reach a target. (Of course, all this applies to my own working habits and preferences; if a numerical goal helps you, go for it!)

Instead, I want to do the following (which I suspect will bring me up to 50k words anyway):

  • to write a daily Twitter poem (please leave small form suggestions in the comments)
  • to engage in at least one additional form of digital writing daily
  • to learn and use new digital tools (starting with grep, per Jay McKinnon’s suggestion)
  • to use familiar digital tools in new ways (again, please leave suggestions in the comments)
  • to participate in all challenges set by the organizers of DigiWriMo to the best of my ability (though I will, for example, miss the midnight launch due to time zone issues)
  • to collaborate with others in digital environments
Pengu has also suggested that I help him set up a higher profile social media presence. He is a clever penguin, but he can only type in Penguinese, which looks like this: hhhdglp. I told him maybe.


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