Reality Skimming

Flying Electrons by Alison Sinclair

Flying Electrons by Alison Sinclair

Collaboration in the Electronic Age

In the small hours of this morning the phone rang. Being my mother's daughter, I was bracing myself for disaster when I heard the brr-brr-brr-brr-chhh! of the FAX machine. One ... two ... three ... I know only one person who sends me multi-page FAXes at 3 am: Lynda Williams, my friend and literary collaborator. I sauntered through to the kitchen, collected the pages from the floor, and stood in my pyjamas reading about the impeachment of the Ambassador of Rire. I sat down at my own computer, composed a couple of interjections on behalf of the Ambassador's foster son, and FAXed them back. Then I went back to bed. That afternoon I received two E-mails from Lynda to let me know that she had uploaded the draft of that chapter to our electronic 'maildrop' so I could retrieve it for further tinkering. When I do so, I will deposit the chapter I have been working on, for Lynda's perusal, comment and editing.

In this way, over the next eight months or so, we will write a novel.

Oh yes, I should mention that Lynda lives in Prince George, B.C. and I live in Ottawa, Ontario. Before that Lynda lived in Prince George B.C. and I lived in Leeds, England and then in Calgary, Alberta. And before that Lynda lived in Hamilton, Ontario and I lived in Boston, U.S.A. ...

All in all it's been over twenty years since we discovered each other as undergraduates at the University of Victoria. The fruit of our collaboration is a long, shaggy Space Opera detailing the fortunes of the inhabitants of the Empire of Gelion and the Confederation of Rire (both originally invented by Lynda). Some of the early versions would offer rich material for blackmail if they fell into the wrong hands! Initially, we passed sheets of paper hand to hand, writing largely in dialogue with the barest of scene setting or description. When Lynda graduated and I stayed on an extra year, we mailed each other fat packages of handwritten and typewritten scenes, accompanied by pages of analysis. Sometime during our postal era, we each got our first computers, Lynda a TRS-80, and (somewhat later) myself one of the original MacIntoshes, and our individual efforts became more extended (and readable). While I was in Boston and Lynda in Hamilton, we subscribed to one of the first commercial E-mail services. Then we experimented with modem-modem file transfer over the phone, and via the OPUS-BBS system. With my move to Leeds came a University computer account, allowing me to correspond via Internet with Lynda, who was working as sessional College instructor in Prince George. Lynda founded her local Freenet, largely, she claims, so she could have a platform to keep up the exchange. The Saga enjoyed a brief on-line incarnation as part of a Speculative Fiction website maintained by Lynda. These days the bulk of our communication is by FAX, phone, and Internet, and we are in the process of building a website for the presentation of all our supporting material ( Lynda, with a Masters in Computation, is a self-described "baby UNIX guru" and is my first recourse when UNIX for Dummies lets me down. I am merely an enthusiastic end-user with a necessary facility -- as a member of the Macophilic minority -- for file conversion and transfer.

I can't recall when exactly we decided to try and carve the Saga into novel-sized pieces, but with the appearance of my first novel Legacies in 1995, publication ceased to be something that only happened to other people.Over Christmas/New Year of 1996/1997 we got together in Victoria B.C. to consider in detail how we would turn a section of the Saga into a self-contained novel.The Great Victoria Snowstorm arrived and by the end of five snowbound days we had a scene-by-scene outline of the first novel, titled Throne Price, and rough outlines of two more. We returned to our respective abodes and set to work.

Our shared cast of characters has been established over the past twenty years. There are those whom one or other of us regards as "theirs", and tends to treat with extreme possessiveness -- which was why I sat up at 4 am writing rejoinders on behalf of the Ambassador of Rire's adopted son. I knew he would have been more vigorous in defending his foster-father. There are other characters whom we lob back and forth, at will. Generally, we write from the viewpoint of "our" characters - Throne Price was told in alternating chapters, with each of us writing one of the two protagonists. Alternatively, there are times when one or other of us gets the bit between her teeth and runs with it, or, alternatively, gets hopelessly bogged down and "turfs" the debris to the other. Certain sections were entirely collaborative efforts, regardless of whose point of view was used. We pass what we have written back and forth for additions, amendments and comments, especially when the scenes written by one person involve a major contribution from the other's characters.

Over the years, we have largely worked out areas of jurisdiction. Most scenes have been discussed before writing, or have passed through previous drafts, so the second writer's revision tends to concern the details of speech and behaviour of "their" characters rather than the shape of the scene as a whole. Lynda has final say on what may happen in the two worlds and their societies, though since I like to write description I am often in charge of sets and props. I have final say on matters genetic and medical, since my educational background includes degrees in chemistry, biochemistry and medicine, and I am violently allergic to that line so beloved by Star Trek writers, "his DNA is rewriting itself" and other affronts to bioscience. Lynda has final say on matters computational, since her degrees are in general studies, librarianship and computation, and one of her pet peeves is the AI which is indistinguishable from human in all details, so beloved of SF in general. Lynda's ideas come to the fore in the building of the compu-communist society of Rire, where the ultimate democracy is realized by reliance on intelligent, but non-sentient, arbiters. Minor quibbles we resolve by E-mail. Major differences of opinion we hash out on the phone. The penultimate chapter of Throne Price took us well over a week to resolve since we each had very different ideas about what was permissible. Lynda resisted having my character postulate desperate and (for his culture) criminal solutions to the bind he was in, and I resisted denying him the use of his full intelligence to his efforts to escape. However, after a spell of daily E-mails and frequent phone calls, and revisions numbered a through f, we had a dramatic scene we both were very pleased with. And more importantly, we were still talking to each other! As Lynda has said, the secret of this kind of collaboration is that the work may be important, but the relationship is even more so.

And thanks to a meeting at a local science fiction convention one summer, the novel found a publisher, Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, an emergent small press undaunted by the prospect of a series projected for nine books or more. As Throne Price started to wend its way through the publishing process, we met for five days in Calgary to block out the second novel and divvy up the writing. Which is how I come to be picking FAXes up of my kitchen floor at 3 am in the morning.

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