Group Stories: A Guide

For convenient but separate story advertisement, planning and discussion threads.

Group Stories: A Guide

Postby Ghurlag » Tue Mar 08, 2011 12:46 am

A Preface

This guide is meant to prove instructional for new or inexperienced members who wish to take part in Group Stories. I do not suppose that it is by any means complete in that regard, and any old hands with additional insight are encouraged to shout it out so that others may benefit from their wisdom.


---


Would you like to play a game?

I've taken part in a good number of group stories in my time as part of this little community, and couple of them have gone on to become what I would term reasonably successful. Most of them went okay for a while and then faltered when the initial enthusiasm ran out, or individuals became unable to commit. A few others I have seen are nothing more than initial posts with little to no follow up, which gradually sink to the bottom of the boards like motes of dust.

This little guide, actually a replacment for an older but similar guide from the official BL site (Oh ancient land, we weep, never upon your earth again to sleep), is intended to help as many group stories as possible get from the second category to the first, and (somewhat ambitiously) to eradicate the third category altogether.

As a lot of what is to follow focuses on what can go wrong in a group story, and so I would like to a little moment to tell you what can go right. Group Stories can be immensely satisfying. Unbelievably so. Most of you will have written before, so you will know what it is like to see your ideas come together in some prose. The effect is only magnified when you are spinning together the ideas and brainchildren of other writers. Seeing something you invented or helped invent referenced in another writer's work is immensely rewarding. For myself, even the process of spinning those ideas together is great fun, whether or not they make it into a finished work.

Group stories can also be good for novice writers, finding their feet, not truly able to commit to writing something alone yet. The group helps you form the story, and provides a reliable reviewer base for your work - one which is committed to helping you improve, as their own work is involved in yours. That kind of support can be invaluable for the fledgling enthusiasts, giving them the confidence to go on to write confidently on their own... and get published.

So yes, group stories rock.


"I wanna write a GS" : Starting a story

1. Let's start vaguely...

One of the most critical issues that seems to be at the root of most of the few-post, dust-mote category group story attempts is that the initial post looks a little something like this:

BadGSAuthor wrote:I wanna write a GS. Anyone in? I don't really mind what it's about.


The problem is that the author of course wants to write collaboratively with others, but hasn't given an idea for the story's basis or provided a framework for deciding upon it. They're usually hoping that someone else will come up with a good idea in response, or that people will hammer something out together. However, the collective response from the community in most cases will probably look something like this:

The Community wrote:Um....


Without guidance as to what they would be doing, people don't seem to get the spark of interest necessary to get them spewing ideas. Some people may respond, but their responses won't usually be what the author hoped for. Furthermore, the post indicates a certain laziness that doesn't bode well for the future of the endeavour. Stories that start this way are prime candidates for being swiftly forgotten.

The uncomfortable truth is that no matter how you hope it will end up being run, the responsibility for getting a story off the ground will almost always be that of the person who proposed it. You are the one who must provide the intial spurt of creativity which gives the basic premise of the story, and you are the one who most organise people into getting things together. If you can't even summon the energy to drawl out a setting or an idea, why should everyone else do it for you?

This often seems unfair. Sometimes people simply want to work in a group for a while, but there are no existing stories they can attach themselves to. Rather than wait around for one to turn up, they decide to petition for one. At least they're being pro-active, right?

Well, yes, that's good. But if you can summon the energy to do that, you may as well take another bite out of your Snickers bar and come up with a setting for the story. Flip a coin if you must - 40k or WHF? Then narrow it down from there - set in the Empire or the Chaos Wastes? Inquisitors or Space Marines? Keep going until you have enough material to write a short passage explaining the intended flavour of the story - two or three paragraphs is fine. Even if you think it's rubbish, it's an idea, and having an idea for a story is a necessary factor in getting a GS going.


2. Yeah, I'll organise you soon

As I mentioned above, the person who proposed the story will almost always be the driving force behind it during the early days. As well as being the initial creative outlet, you need to devote some time to management and motivation of the people who reply. We're pretty relaxed around here, so you needn't get too strict (indeed, this can be bad) or start annoying people, but you do need to keep the conversation flowing whilst everything picks up. You need to be able to commit yourself to checking up on the thread regularly and responding to everyone. Consider your future commitment prospects in this scenario:

Guy with an Idea wrote:...ending with a cataclysmic battle on the plains where all our characters finally meet.

So, what do people think?


You wrote:Oh wow, count me in, that sounds awesome! What should I do first?


You wrote:Hey, know you haven't responded yet but I was wondering if it would be okay for my character to be a Dark Elf? Still really pumped for this!


You wrote:Oh, I've changed my mind since last week, I don't want it to be a Dark Elf after all.


You wrote:This dead?


Guy with an Idea wrote:Sorry, been a little busy. Yes you can be a Dark Elf.


Pretty discouraging, huh? Keeping track of what people are saying and responding to them is one of the responsibilities of the story proposer in the youth of a group story. Often people will be enthusiastic enough but liable to go quiet on you. To keep the talk coming, ask questions often in your responses. Try and establish what people think of ideas and encourage people to comment on each other's thoughts - getting a cross-dialogue going will decrease your workload and make the story more likely to survive.

Another important task is making sure people know what you want back from them. Lay it out as explicitly as you can - do you want a character sheet, or do you want people to brainstorm for a while? If so, about what, exactly? Provide topics for discussion as prompts - it's a remarkably simple and effective method of getting things done.


3. Consolidate your assets

So, let us say that the ball's begun to roll. You've laid out an idea, and a couple of hands are raised in interest. Through a bit of poking, you've got them talking to you and each other, and ideas have started to wrap themselves around your theme. Well done, you've probably avoided the dust motes by now.

Now it is time for a bit of a pat on the back. But don't keep it private - air it. Sum up everything that's been put forward so far, tying the ideas that have consensus in with your initial theme, and laying out those points that are still vaguely defined or to be decided on.

Whilst apparently contributing, this summation is a critical little step for your story. You not only bridge the gap between the lore as you initially presented it and the ideas of various group members, you also provide the story with a solid step from which to work. Leaving things to flounder around in the discussion can lead to confusion and contradictions which endanger the integrity of your work. You're moving towards the story itself now, and you need to be conscious of getting everyone on the same page as you move forwards.

Maugan Ra wrote:It sounds simple. Almost insultingly so. But if a Group Story is going to die a slow death midway, nine times out of ten it is because folks didn't make and stick to the plan. It's all well and good having a strong idea to start with, and you certainly need one - it's what draws other writers in. But once you've got your fellow writers involved, hammer out a solid plan for what is going to happen in the rest of the story.

Do it post by post, chapter by chapter, so that everyone can look at the plan and see for themselves just what they have left to write. This allows some writers to get ahead of schedule, and end up being a few chapters ahead of the others. This is perfectly OK - indeed, a good buffer is useful, as it allows you to keep up a steady posting schedule.

As the misty veil of Albion is cast aside, we turn our gaze to the war-torn island of Albany, where the Red King vies with his former master for the control of a realm in dire threat.
User avatar
Ghurlag
 
Posts: 697
Joined: Sun Feb 20, 2011 9:57 pm


Flavours of the Beast : Types of Group Story

Postby Ghurlag » Tue Mar 08, 2011 2:18 am

Flavours of the Beast : Types of Group Story

You will be unsurprised to hear that there are a number of types of collaborative fiction, and that there are multiple manners in which you may organise them. This section attempts to outline these subgenres and methods, and assess their ease of application and suitability.

Things are categorised as they appear in my head. Your results may vary, always consult your librarian before digesting dangerous literature.



1. The True RPG

These are increasingly common on the boards nowadays, and can be a good source of fun, expecially for those who like a little structure to stiffen their narrative.

For those of you who don't know, a RPG (Role-Playing Game) is a game where players take the role of a fictional character and use a combination of narrative and structured decision-making to control them. The key point to be noted here is that actions in the game succeed or fail (altering the narrative) based on a fixed set of rules which the player appeals to and adheres by.

RPGs are usually lead by a singular rule-interpreting authority, the game master, and typically have roughly 4 players, though this varies.

My experiences with RPGs are limited, but I can observe that the reliance on actual gameplay means extra dedication is neccesary to pull it off - people need to commit to contributing in real-time rather than over the time-variant messaging structure that is the internet forum. This can be particularly tricky when considering participants in different time zones.

The RPG format, however, often makes for an intriguing story to write, as it is one of the only times where the author themselves quite literally does not know what is going to happen as they write it. This can, however, lead to parts of the story seeming fractured or nonsensical if not managed properly.

Maugan Ra wrote:"True" RPGs are generally very fun to participate in. The key point when considering them is the importance of a regular schedule for playing, a specific time where everyone can sit down together (or at various PCs, as is the case with the online games) and play. Unlike the other types of stories mentioned, an RPG really doesn't work with time delays between responses - everyone has to be present at the same time if it's going to work.

The other important thing to consider when thinking of an RPG is how much work the Games Master will have to do. If you are just a player, then all you really have to do is show up at the appointed time with the details of your character in hand, and maybe a few dice. The Games Master, on the other hand, will have to do between five and ten times as much work as any of the players. He has to describe the scene, control the actions of NPCs, recite all of their dialogue, and generally improvise like hell when the players do something unexpected (and they will).

So, an RPG is only as strong as it's GM. With a good GM, you get brilliant and engaging stories. If the GM really isn't up to the task, then the entire game is likely to become rapidly unenjoyable and fail.



2. The Not-Quite a RPG

This is the most common form of collaborative fiction on the BL boards, and has been for some time. This could be put down to its being a tried and tested formula, or merely simiplicty of arrangement. In either case, it is a potentially good system, but not one without its dangers.

The formula goes like this - each contributor comes up with a character which fits the setting of the story, much as you would in a RPG. Then, once writing commences, each writer contributes a chapter-ish length piece about their character's story arch, in a certain order. This loops onwards until the story reaches the end and is resolved.

Being such a well-used system, there are a number of known flaws. Firstly, the system is reliant on all authors continuing to contribute when their turn comes around, and usually such stories can be stopped in their tracks by a single individual dropping out. To mitigate this, it is usually advisable to keep the number of writers to a small core of the dedicated. Four or five writers is the upper limit for a completable story under this system, and even that may be considered pushing it.

Secondly, these sorts of stories are known for being prone to loop endlessly. As each writer writes only a fraction of the whole thing, they often feel that there is more to be explored in their character's arch. This can lead to the Neverending story, where the characters are dragged from one location to another until the readers' brains melt out their eyes and they give up waiting for it to end. The simple solution to this is to make sure everyone knows how it ends before you begin.

Thirdly, the semi-RPG format can often lead to a fractured storyline, with clashing writing styles and misunderstandings of the plot combining to create a confusing mess that only the writers would even attempt to read. There are a number of literary mechanisms you can use to cope with and even exploit differing styles in writing, but the only sure-fire solution to catching plot misunderstandings is for the writers to review each member's post as or before it goes up and force the issue of corrections when they are necessary.

If done well, the semi-RPG can turn into a very nice piece of prose, with different authors' voices realistically constructing different characters in the story. If done badly, it can spin into a confusing wreck.



3. World-Building

World-building is the process of collaboratively creating a shared environment for individual (or indeed other collaborative) stories to be set in or based upon.

World-building is a popular enterprise on these boards, because unlike other formats it allows for large numbers of low-input contributors to dip in and out of the project as and when they are available, with only a miminal (and interchangeable) core required to keep it going.

The basic idea is that you bang your heads together and design something - be it a faction, a physical location or an event - and then each member can do what they like with the thing. The format allows for people to contibute as the world develops, providing stories to illustrate their ideas for expansion of concepts, but it also produces a 'permanent' artefact which can be revisited at a later date as material for new stories.

One of the greatest things about the format is that it does not make you reliant on others, but leaves you open to their contribution. If you wanted to, you could happily continue developing the world all by yourself, regardless of everyone else's lack of interest. The manner in which fiction from a common base is spun out into individually-wrought tales also protects against conflicts of style and intent in the finished works.

However, the format isn't perfect. One criticism you could well level is that is can take much longer than other methods to produce something resembling coherent prose - a lot of ideas have to be thrown together and issues decided on before pens are put to electronic paper. Some people find this fun, whereas others may well point out that all they wanted to do was write a story, not get drawn into a discussion about macro-economics.

The format is also open to the problem of continuation into infinity. Indeed, depending on what is being developed, some world-building project may have no conceivable end, meaning you may never escape them for the 'next thing'.



4. The Truly Collaborative Story.

This is the rarest beast of them all. A truly collaborative story is one where a group of writers simply get together and write a normal story. No individual creation of characters, no writing an arch each - just a plain ol' ordinary story, such as a single common man might write, but with the hands and eyes of many on the prose.

The reason these are rare is that they are very difficult to set up. Most people want to bring their own 'avatar' into the story to act how they wish the character to act, and coming to resolve differences of opinion between authors about what a character should do or how the specifics of the narrative should play out is difficult indeed.

The few successes in this field are usually produced by two authors, who know each other well, working closely together. Writing either takes the form of a 'I write, you alter/ You write, I alter' setup, which risks becoming 'One man and his reviewer(s)', or very short (a paragraph or so) round-robin effort subjected to careful scrutiny on every turn.

By working so closely, the authors can manage to bring out a unique and balanced style not particular to either of them, so long as they are careful to prevent it becoming bland. This closeness also suggests an attention to detail not often found in works with more collaborators, as two eyes are reviewing the plot at the same time, and ideas can be bounced back and forth rapidly.

However, as mentioned, this type of fiction is rare. More common are approximations which fit better into the semi-RPG category. This is due to the inherent difficulty of putting together a stable pair or team who will work so reliably and closely on the story.

As the misty veil of Albion is cast aside, we turn our gaze to the war-torn island of Albany, where the Red King vies with his former master for the control of a realm in dire threat.
User avatar
Ghurlag
 
Posts: 697
Joined: Sun Feb 20, 2011 9:57 pm


Re: Group Stories: A Guide

Postby Maugan Ra » Tue Mar 08, 2011 2:50 am

A quick note in support

I enjoy Group Stories. I really do. I enjoy writing them, and I enjoy reading them. And since I am a viciously selfish creature at heart, I reason that if I can help others write Group Stories, then this will result in more lovely stories for me to participate in and read.

So then. I believe that, at the moment, I have the dubious honour of having participated in the greatest number of completed Group Stories of all the current boltholers. That would be:
War of the Beard: Part One
Penitium Silent
There can be only War
Cytheria


Yes, a mighty four stories. Wooh, all praise and worship to me, yadda yadda etc etc. ANYWAY.

All of those were of the second type of Group Story that Ghurlag mentioned (though There is Only War was co-written by me and Pyroriffic, and probably counts as a blend of types two and four, since we both had our own characters in it). I also do a fair number of "True RPGs", as Ghurlag calls them, which are tremendous fun in their own right - at the moment, I am GMing two and participating in three more.

And what was the point of that little list of accomplishments? Well, half to prop up my own fragile and oversized ego, and half to make the point that I actually have done these things, and thus should in theory know what I'm on about (not to say that every GS I participate in is going to work... no, I've been part of way more failed Group Stories than my four successful ones)

So, when thinking of Group Stories, two points come to mind.

1) Have a plan

It sounds simple. Almost insultingly so. But if a Group Story is going to die a slow death midway, nine times out of ten it is because folks didn't make and stick to the plan. It's all well and good having a strong idea to start with, and you certainly need one - it's what draws other writers in. But once you've got your fellow writers involved, hammer out a solid plan for what is going to happen in the rest of the story.

Do it post by post, chapter by chapter, so that everyone can look at the plan and see for themselves just what they have left to write. This allows some writers to get ahead of schedule, and end up being a few chapters ahead of the others. This is perfectly OK - indeed, a good buffer is useful, as it allows you to keep up a steady posting schedule.

2) Be flexible

This is real life. Plans change. People drop out of projects, or can't commit to as much as other writers etc etc. If you want your story to thrive, you have to be able to cope with these alterations to the plan. If a writer suddenly can't contribute any more, be prepared to kill their character off. If they aren't able to spend as much time writing as others, have them do a few of the little vignettes that characterise a piece, the little oneshot viewpoints from minor characters that make a good story.

And naturally, if other folks want to join, and have an awesome idea that would really help out the rest of the story... let them! As an example, LL only joined the Penitium Silent story about half way through, if that. And yet we were able to fit him and his character - the delightfully insane Joll Merk - into the story with little difficulty.

There may be more points later, when my head is not full of cotton wool.
Maugan, your slow descent into madness is starting to look more like a BASE jump...
- Rahvin

The 210th Cadian - Tanks, heavy weapons, and an ongoing hatred of Land Raiders.
W: 41
D: 6
L: 14
User avatar
Maugan Ra
 
Posts: 496
Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2011 9:14 pm
Location: Elaborate underground base


Re: Group Stories: A Guide

Postby Ghurlag » Tue Mar 08, 2011 4:19 am

Thanks for the support, Maugan, especially seeing as your pedigree is at least twice as long as mine! - That 'at least' is considering my role in Penitium was very much the initial admin rather than writing, and that it's disputable whether the Silver Skulls project 'finished' as such, though we did draw a line under a good portion of it.

Like you, of course, I have failed and partaken in failures far more often than successes. I wonder if there's a general ratio we could construct? Projects completed : Projects floundered ?

Your point about planning much more directly states what I was floundering towards in the third section of my first post - I might retcon that to make it more comprehensive. The flexibility point I hadn't considered at all yet, but you're damn right that it's important. If Penitium hadn't adjusted to people dropping out and popping in, it wouldn't have survived to the end.

Do you have any advice or observations specific to what I called True RPGs and their sustainability? I don't play them on the boards (or much at all, really) so I don't know too much about the issues involved.

As the misty veil of Albion is cast aside, we turn our gaze to the war-torn island of Albany, where the Red King vies with his former master for the control of a realm in dire threat.
User avatar
Ghurlag
 
Posts: 697
Joined: Sun Feb 20, 2011 9:57 pm


Re: Group Stories: A Guide

Postby Maugan Ra » Tue Mar 08, 2011 1:01 pm

"True" RPGs are generally very fun to participate in. The key point when considering them is the importance of a regular schedule for playing, a specific time where everyone can sit down together (or at various PCs, as is the case with the online games) and play. Unlike the other types of stories mentioned, an RPG really doesn't work with time delays between responses - everyone has to be present at the same time if it's going to work.

The other important thing to consider when thinking of an RPG is how much work the Games Master will have to do. If you are just a player, then all you really have to do is show up at the appointed time with the details of your character in hand, and maybe a few dice. The Games Master, on the other hand, will have to do between five and ten times as much work as any of the players. He has to describe the scene, control the actions of NPCs, recite all of their dialogue, and generally improvise like hell when the players do something unexpected (and they will).

So, an RPG is only as strong as it's GM. With a good GM, you get brilliant and engaging stories. If the GM really isn't up to the task, then the entire game is likely to become rapidly unenjoyable and fail.
Maugan, your slow descent into madness is starting to look more like a BASE jump...
- Rahvin

The 210th Cadian - Tanks, heavy weapons, and an ongoing hatred of Land Raiders.
W: 41
D: 6
L: 14
User avatar
Maugan Ra
 
Posts: 496
Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2011 9:14 pm
Location: Elaborate underground base


Re: Group Stories: A Guide

Postby shadowhawk2008 » Mon Mar 28, 2011 6:52 pm

A lot of solid advice here. Good work guys and keep it coming :)
Shadowhawk's Shade My 40k/writing/review blog. You can check out all my reviews here.

My current fiction projects - Veergati: The Scarlet Records, an Indian space opera inspired by Star Trek.
User avatar
shadowhawk2008
 
Posts: 7716
Joined: Sat Mar 26, 2011 8:17 am
Location: Battle-barge Spear of Lycaeus of the Angels of Retribution


Return to Board index

Return to Planning and Discussion Threads

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests