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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8 comments for “What I Learned from #DigiWriMo’s Novel Experiment

  1. Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer)
    November 4, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Really excellent post. Definitely agree with you about the process being what’s most important. I also worried about the vignette idea discouraging people from writing in each other’s vignettes, hence the guideline I added during the planning session recommending that people either “start a new vignette or add to an existing one.”

    I watched the novel unfold probably way more than I should have [sleepy now], and I was actually pleasantly surprised by just how much intermingling of cursors there was within individual vignettes, particularly the earlier ones. Vignette 1 and 3 and 22, for example, each had at least half-a-dozen contributors. One thing I will encourage people to do the next time I do an activity like this: try to avoid working outside the document and cut and pasting. The sections that were written inside the document in real-time seemed to encourage the most interplay and collaboration. Plus, it sure is beautiful to watch a flurry of cursors in a Google Doc. And I find it kind of joyful when cursors start doing friendly battle as two people try to change the same thing at once. [grin]

    • ekswitaj
      November 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm

      It did seem like the writing picked up significantly after the addition of the guideline at the top, and I definitely agree about cutting and pasting

      Out of curiosity: did you see the chat feature being used at all?

      • Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer)
        November 4, 2012 at 8:31 pm

        No, except for a few messages here and there, and at one point we had a big message suggesting that people use the chat. When there are so many participants coming and going, the chat announces all the comings and goings, which drowns out the actual comments.

  2. November 6, 2012 at 4:59 am

    Nice post. I didn’t participate but am enjoying reading up on those who did and the experience. All valuable.

  3. Rolf Konig
    November 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    I think the concept of the vignettes, as disjointed as they may seem initially, is a very good one for such a large collaborative effort. They work like dream sequences. I also think that it would make for great story telling if those writers who are logged in would freely add or alter the developing vignettes. There was a brief moment while I was writing a vignette in the middle of the night and a couple of other cursors floated around the developing story line. It was fun and more use of this would be an exhilarating writing experience. Cutting and pasting does not lend itself to such interactions.
    Maybe another novel could be attempted during DigiWriMo and the lessons learned could be used to improve over the first attemp.

  4. November 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Many of the #digiwrimo folks don’t know each other, have never met in real life — the novel exercise took place at the very beginning of the month. I’m wondering how much politeness was a factor; people consider it rude, perhaps, to edit or change each other’s words? I’m eager to see how this kind of exercise will work with a classroom of students who know each other and who have already done some peer review with each other.

    • ekswitaj
      November 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm

      That’s a great point. I know that early on during MOOCMOOC when we did the collaborative essays, a lot of us were hesitant to change things until we started talking to each other (on Twitter and using the Google Docs chat feature).

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