The Insanity of Collaboration


“How did the oceans get their names?”

This is the way conversations in my house now start.  And have ever since my wife and I started collaborating on a project intended to be multiple novels long.  I don’t know how to lump these questions together, so I don’t know whether to call this particular question more unusual than most.  Often they seem unrelated, but I still know where they’re going to end up.  “Well…the Atlantic and Atlantis have the same root words, but I don’t remember which was named after the other.”

“I was thinking the Pacific.”

“Well, that would be the Latin pacificus,” at this point I’d made up that Latin word, thinking it sounded right, “which is the same root as pacifist.”

“What if it had a different name?”

“Different name?”

“What if the ocean wasn’t quite so…Pacific.  What if Magellan didn’t manage to circumnavigate the globe?  What would be the opposite of Pacific?”

The conversation went through some permutations of what the opposite of Pacific might be.  Pacific came specifically from the Spanish mar pacifico, peaceful sea.  Would the opposite be warlike sea?  Mar guerrero?  Or perhaps hungry would be a better origin.  The Hambric Ocean?  The Chinese and Japanese would clearly have names for “all that water to the east”, but those names wouldn’t be used in Europe, and thus America.

Renaming oceans isn’t really the point of this story.  The point of this story is that I would never have considered whether the oceans might be different in our world, because I only ever envisioned our world as the real 1866 plus automatons.  But as the story has progressed and as we’ve discussed it, I’ve realized this story is taking place in a small part of a much larger world where there are many more things that are different.  Because questions come up like “where do the automatons come from?” and “are they really steam-driven, since there’s not really room for a coal hopper and boiler?”  These end up being really fantastic questions that I would have never asked while approaching this world.

This is our third time collaborating, but our first time on written-word fiction, and really our first time inventing a world from scratch.  Previously we’ve done a spec script that was playing largely in HP Lovecraft’s toybox, and a movie spec that wasn’t anything more than just silly/stupid fun, just to see if we could write something that long together.  This is something entirely different, and it’s a process that I’ve needed to get used to.  Especially the idea of not having complete control over the creative process.

I’m not sure what I expected going into this process.  Certainly I didn’t think I would come up with the entire world and plot and just use my wife for her brilliant descriptive writing.  But adjusting to a give-and-take of the creative process, of plotting, and especially of world building isn’t something I was entirely prepared for.  Questions like “what is the giant ocean to the West of the United States called?” aren’t questions I expected to field, because it’s not world building the way I world build.  And they were questions that frustrated me in the early going, because I saw them as distractions from the plot at hand.  Which was, I need to stress very strongly, entirely unfair.  Now that we’re getting words on paper, these questions are the oddly fantastic nuggets that make me think more about the world we’re creating, and what it looks like beyond the rather tight confines of Huntsville, 1866.  A city of roughly 6000, a story taking place largely in 10 square miles, on a planet of 1.5 billion people and 150 million square miles.  They’re especially the kinds of things we need to know about the world if this is going to become a series.

Even if none of it shows up.

Because this is the world that needs to be.

So we know what happened in the US presidential election of 1864 when incumbent Hannibal Hamlin went against Democrat Andrew Johnson.  But we also know what happened in ancient China that got things going, and what’s different about the Pacific that changes the way the world is tied together.  Some of them might end up being important, some of them might be flavor, some of them might just be in our heads.

I’ve relaxed.  I’ve learned to just let the questions come, argue them out, and see where the pros and cons are.  Because that’s what collaboration is, it’s taking the styles and ideas of two people and turning them into a unified product.  One of them cannot be closed to the other, or it’s a dictatorship.  Which doesn’t work with just two people.

So the lesson that I guess I’ve learned about collaboration?  Actually collaborate.  It’s one of those things that feels so completely obvious to say, but it was still something that I had to come slowly.

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