13 December 2015

3.5 Steps to Successful Writing Collaboration!

Collaboration is a new thing for me even though technically I suppose I've borrowed plenty of times before from real life situations, people, and places. However, this time, writing A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I had a definite plan when I decided to write a novel based on the true life of someone I had met. I realize in hindsight that there are exactly 3.5 steps to successful collaboration.

Step 1

The first issue to grapple with was classification. Is a novel a legal document? Does the word novel mean everything is guaranteed fictitious? I doubt everything in a novel is fictitious. There are always those disclaimers saying "any resemblance is coincidental." 

Writers "borrow" all the time from real people, places, and events. Writers fictionalize the real, usually for the sake of telling a good story, sometimes to hide some unpleasant details. And whose autobiography doesn't include a fair amount of hyperbole or glossing over embarrassments? What is truth, after all? Moreover, is the true truth all that important to telling a compelling story?

Is there actually a big difference between "based on" and "inspired by"? We see that at the start of many films. Even though the film purports to be a version of a novel, we do not get quite the same story. The way around telling the same story is to label it as "based on" or inspired by." Based on is a declaration of connection to a work and sincere attempt to duplicate a prior source. Inspired by is, obviously, only a source of inspiration, thus only serving as a starting point for any version the author/producer wishes to tell, regardless of how close to the original it may be. 

In the case of A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I wanted to tell an essentially true story. At least to begin with that story. However, the vagaries of time being what they are, the story could not end other than in the future. And that, as most of us know, would certainly be fiction. A made-up ending to a true novel. Is there such a genre? A hybrid biographical novel with a fictional ending? 

When I had compiled enough information through social media and some Q&A via email about my heroine's life in Greenland and Canada, and decided her story had to be told, we discussed how it should end. If the story within the "true zone" is already inspiring, the conclusion must also be inspiring--heroic, even. That kind of climax is not too difficult given her adventures through the years which lead up to the present date. It would be quite natural to continue in the same direction and literally go out with a bang--or not [spoilers avoided]. So we settled on A Novel inspired by a true life.

Step 2

Then there was the theme. The message. An old writing professor of mine liked to repeat some famous writer's quip: "If you want to send a message, write a letter!" That's true enough as a writing axiom. Theme might be a better word than message. Don't most novels have a theme, a moral point, or feeling that the reader gets by the end? I seldom start a novel with a theme in mind, but the story tends to develop its own theme by the middle of the manuscript and from that moment I work to accentuate that theme. Our heroine had a rough start to her life and overcomes much along the way in remaking herself into the kind of person she believes will make a difference, not someone who is merely one of the crowd. So we elected to take the situation of her present day world and run with it.

Thus, we have a novel which is a retelling of a true life--birth, childhood, teenage years, youth and on into adulthood--as accurately as can be portrayed given the need for approval from the woman whose life serves as the model for the story. So let's call it 88.5% true--because any one of us is likely to sugar-coat some events and exaggerate others, mute certain details and play up others. Is any autobiography 100% true? Perhaps only to the author! So it is a novel overall, a fictionalized account based on a real person's story yet with a conclusion inspired by the present situation for both her and the world she lives in. I think we've hit the Trifecta! 

To create such a hybrid, I did a lot of interviewing with Anna Good, posing many questions and getting many answers. As a life story, we divided the years by location, placing them in chronological order rather than using flashbacks. I asked her to list 10 major things that happened at each location. I tried to flesh out ("showing" rather than "telling") the more important ones. I wrote as factually as possible, substituting RGW--really good words--when there were gaps in the timeline. I tried to make clear connections that I saw between actions and reactions. Then I sent drafts to Anna for her approval. Generally, she accepted anything I tried to do, only pointing out factual errors or occasionally guiding me in new directions. She seemed happy to let me tell her story in a dramatic way that was, according to her, better than she remembered. That's the supreme compliment to a ghostwriter, isn't it?

Step 3

I began by asking for answers to a lot of questions. We began by breaking down the story into locations. Then compiling details about incidents at each location. If you are working on a collaborative project like this, feel free to use my list of questions.

  • For each location you lived, list ten things that happened.
  • Who was involved in each incident?
  • What caused it and what was the result?
  • How did you feel about it?
  • How did you feel about the result?
  • What did you think about the incident with regard to your life in general?
  • What ties to the past did the incident have and did you recognize that at the time or later?
  • What did you do differently as a result of the incident?
  • What caused you to change locations? Good reason or not good reason?
  • How did you feel about the cause of changing locations?
  • How did you feel after the change of location?
  • What are 5 things that stand out in your mind about the location?
  • Best thing and worst thing about the location?
  • What sayings or big ideas do you remember hearing from each location?
  • What did you gain at each location?
  • What did you lose at each location?
  • After you arrived at a new locations, did you ever wish to return to the previous? If so, why? 
  • Describe a dream you had sometime at each location.
  • Describe the major people you interacted with at each location.
  • Describe the place where you lived (the building/room) at each location.
  • Describe the food at a typical meal at each location.
  • Describe something fun you experienced at each location.
  • Describe something annoying or irritating that happened a lot at each location.
  • In childhood locations, describe a time you got into trouble. How were you punished?
  • In adult locations, describe an incident where you got into trouble. How was it delt with? Punishment?
  • Describe the appearance and personality of the major people you interacted with at each location.
  • Pets?  -for each location
  • Hobbies? -for each location
  • How did you travel around at each location? 
  • Describe an incident with a travel-related problem.
  • When living at each location, what did you want more than anything?
  • When living at each location, what did you fear more than anything?
  • What are some of the books you read? Which ones were important to you?

The village of Tasiilaq, east Greenland, on a nice summer day.
Anna Good, the model for this novel, had attempted to write it herself in the 2014 National Novel Writing Month competition but only got to about 5000 words, mostly about what she remembered of her earliest childhood. I used that in chapter 1, which helped us get started. Then I filled in as many incidents as possible. However, like any life, we tend to recall only the most significant events--good or bad. 

Keeping the novel manageable required us to limit the telling to those events which had significant impact on: 1) her reasons for moving to a new location, 2) her personal growth, 3) support for the theme of the book.

Therefore, chapter 1 has some flash-forwards, anticipating events to come. This is a result of melding Anna's original text with the text I prepared. It seemed to work, giving the reader a sense of where the story is leading without giving away any spoilers. It grows interest in the story. 

Step 3.5

The rest was careful manipulation of facts and sensory details. To back up my understanding of the locations, I did my own research on Greenland and the arctic. I also double-checked every detail with Anna. Mostly she let me write it out; then we quibbled over the details. We understood that I was not writing so much "her exact story" as a story of a girl similar to her who had these similar experiences. The deciding factor was the decision to use her real name(s; they changed at each location) thus forever linking this novel to her life.

The previous blog post describes more of this process.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. Great piece Stephen. As I read you list of questions I was struck with the idea that those questions could be used to great effect for a purely(if there is such a thing) fictional story.I can see asking myself those questions questions and answering them as a character. Ooh, I'm excited. Can I use your list to collaborate with myself?

    P.S. As a retired CPA I appreciate the accuracy you expressed in your listing.

    1. Thanks and, yes, you may use the list. It is not exhaustive anyway. But if one is to write about someone else's life, it helps to get the details. It's often difficult to prompt someone's thinking in the right direction or to garner enough detail.

  2. I am quite impressed with the fire you have for this project. The amount of footwork we do for any novel is daunting, but I can see how immersed you would be in this culture and environment.

    1. What can I say? It's an amazing story made more amazing by my special styling! #humble