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Thursday, April 26, 2007

 

Corporate Camel

A good friend of mine has introduced me to a most useful concept, that may be familiar to those of you who have watched a badly-managed series: the Corporate Camel.

Here's how it works. When she was a small girl, my friend's father would play what they called the 'dot dot dot game' with her, which involved each of them taking turns telling a story, then stopping at a significant point, saying 'dot dot dot...' and letting the other take over. She only played it once with her mother, however, because of a fundamental difference in artistic vision. My friend began the story about a corporate camel, a businesscamel who had important meetings and wore a suit. Her mother, a practical lady, didn't see this as plausible: to her mind, a camel would not make a good businessman. Instead, she reckoned the hero would be happier as a racing camel. Hence, whenever the mother took over the story, Corporate Camel ripped off his business suit and went to the racetrack. Whenever the daughter got the story back, Corporate Camel left the racetrack, got back into his suit and went to another high-powered meeting - only to leave it for the racetrack again when it came back round to the mother's turn.

This is a pleasing example of a problem you get when different writers collaborate on a series without a definite leader, or a shared vision. As per my usual policy I'm naming no examples, but I'm sure it's a familiar experience: in episode three, Corporate Camel is romancing a beautiful dromedary; in episode four, he decides that romance is a luxury a tough camel can't afford and he needs to be a camel of action; in episode five, a little bit of action exhausts him and he spends most of the episode recuperating; in episode six, he's back to courting the dromedary again; in episode seven she's dumped him; in episode eight she takes him back...

This is not much fun to watch; in effect, it means every writer is undermining every other writer, and the result is that nothing really builds to anything. It isn't given time. No sooner has one thing been set up, then the next writer comes along and knocks it all down. In situations like this, it's probably better just to pick one thing and go with it: a dromedary romance that works all the way through is preferable to an endless on-again-off-again tick tock, even if romance isn't your favourite thing. Collaboration is the name of the game: sometimes it's best to think of the overall effect more than the individual moments.

Otherwise you wind up with a Corporate Camel: a horse designed by a committee, with chronic career indecision besides.

Comments:
A friend of mine and I kept up a collaboration via email on a story for a long time; the fun ended up being in trying to end your segment at a point way too difficult for the other writer to get the character(s) out of. Hilarious, but probably even more unpublishable :D.
 
I'd say if you were going to collaborate with someone, you should set down those specific points (character identities, plot twists) that would be agreed upon as unbending and not subject to one person's individual whims or hijacking of the story. Just makes sense to me that'd you'd talk these things over before committing yourself to that marriage of the mind.
 
At the risk of sounding like a complete sociopath, there is absolutely no way I'd want to write a sorry with another writer. How can you guys do it? What motivates you to do it? Isn't it, you know, icky?

For me the whole planning and thinking up and writing is really very deeply personal. My story is mine, my characters are mine, and like a five year old I'm going to share them with anybody. Although, judging by what I've been writing lately, I'd say it's personal in the way that defecating is personal rather than in the way creating a work of art is personal... :-)
 
...and I'm NOT going to share them...
 
TV series have writer's bibles for this purpose, documents which detail the world and tone of the ongoing story. Depending on how well they're put together they can be fun and inspiring or limiting and ideacidal. Getting it right can be very satisfying. But what a series really needs is an enthusiastic script editor with a phone glued to one ear and a direct brain feed of caffeine in the other...
 
I want to read a story about a mild-mannered corporate camel by day, a high speed racing camel by night.

Sometimes I think the TV camel stories are because they don't know where to bring the story, and so are having things happen but still in a holding pattern until they make up their minds.
 
Collaboration is a very good way to avoid writers block. But I don't think I could do it in terms of writing a novel. But all other types of writerly collaboration are great fun (and also the most stressful and annoying thing you can do depending on if its going well or not).

But a mixture of compromise and doing it with people who you won't need to compromise with is the key.

Also its a good idea to argue everything out in the ideas and first draft stages rather than in the finished product. Any producer who lets their series become a scitzoid camel is not doing their job properly and any writer who is happy to be sabortaging the work they are creating are mistaking ego for art.
 
Oh. And did anyone see that news story (was it yesterday?) about the camel that crushed its owner to death at a petting zoo? Is this a sign?
 
That was one reason I loved the TV show, "Deep Space Nine." The character arcs were consistent all the way through--for seven years! I don't know how they did it.

I do collaborate. A friend and I wrote four novels together. It helps that we share a brain. We finish each other's sentences even when we're not writing together. Sadly, it does seem to spook agents and editors. They just don't see how it could work, so they don't bother to read the manuscript. We just shrug and keep writing. If we keep writing, we will get better, and sooner or later we will write a book that is so good that it won't matter how many people wrote it.
 
Have you tried submitting under a composite name? You don't have to tell agents it's a collaborative work at the approach stage - you could break that news after you've had an offer.
 
We did try submitting under a composite name. We queried one agent who would only agree to read the full ms. if it were sent to her under a composite name. She wouldn't even read the thing unless it was one name, even though she knew upfront that it was two people. Strange, eh?

Happily, I met someone last weekend who sold his first two novels, which were collaborations, and neither his agent nor his editor minded. He has a top-notch agent, too. So, there is hope. As Miss Snark says, it all comes down to the writing. If we do that well enough, we will be fine.
 
It does sound a bit peculiar to me, but each to their own, I guess. Good luck!
 
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