Introducing the Collabowriters

There are many crowdsourced projects that result in creative output: from New Lego sets to some very quirky products. Crowdsourcing (in one form or another) has been a part of the creative world for a very long time, but with the advent of new technology, it now allows for some truly innovative experiments and, in this case, is throwing a literary curve ball.

Meet The Collabowriters, which is an experiment in writing a crowdsourced novel – line by line. Each sentence is submitted 140 characters at a time and given a score by the other users. The submission with the highest score becomes the next sentence in the novel and the crowd can’t move onto the next sentence until the current sentence has at least received a score of five. It’s sort of a long-form version of that old literary party game, the exquisite corpse, with more transparency.

So far, the work is four pages in and follows the life of a widower wandering a somewhat post-apocalyptic landscape with a radio of questionable powers. The implications are fascinating to me in how the story will unfold. With voices from every corner, building character, plot, and theme, the story that emerges line by line will truly be a surprise at every turn. Every phrase is a choice that a crowd of authors has to live with for a few hundred pages. I, personally, think the project is very exciting.

IdeaScale had the good fortune to interview Willy Chyr, the mastermind behind The Collabowriters project and he shared some of his thoughts on the evolving literary work.

IdeaScale: How did you get the idea to launch the Collabowriters novel project?

Willy Chyr: I’m very interested in generative art and storytelling in general. I work primarily as a sculptor, and most of my work focuses on using a repeated process to generate complex shapes.

The process behind The Collabowriters is very similar. The procedure of submitting sentences and voting is repeated multiple times. There is no overarching direction, and yet a story still emerges.

I’ve heard of similar projects before. The Sydney Morning Herald did a crowdsourced novel project called “The Necklace” where readers would write an entire chapter and submit it. The editors would choose one of the submissions to be published, and then move on to the next chapter. While this was technically crowdsourced, I felt it wasn’t taking full advantage of the concept. The editors were still making the final decisions and curating the book. I wanted to take the idea one step further, so that the story was written and edited by everyone together without a single person guiding the course of its development.

IS: How many people are (currently) participating in the collaboration?

WC: There are several hundred people at the moment who are actively writing and voting. It seems to be a pretty good balance between having a diversity of styles while also maintaining a coherent storyline.

IS: What is the technology that is powering this project?

WC: I wrote the project using Django, and utilized a number of third party apps to handle various features such as social authentication (Django-Social-Auth) and pagination (Django-endless-pagination). The project is currently hosted using Heroku.

IS: What do you hope to do with the completed work?

WC: I’ve had an organization approach me with an offer to make a crowdsourced audiobook, which I think would be a nice complement to the ongoing project. Once there is enough material, I’d love to use Kickstarter to raise funding in order to publish a print version of the story. If any profits are made, I’d then donate it to a literacy charity.

IS: What challenges have you encountered? What pleasant surprises?

WC: One of the biggest challenges is planning the layout for the text, especially as it keeps getting longer. Currently, the way the text is divided is that every five approved submissions are grouped into a paragraph. While this layout works very well for more narrative passages, it doesn’t work so well when there’s a lot of dialogue. I think there needs to be a feature where you could categorize the type of sentence you’re writing, and have the layout change accordingly. I have a few ideas on how this can be implemented for the next iteration of the site.

As for pleasant surprises, the voting system is working much better than I expected it to in selecting the best submissions and maintaining a coherent story line.

IS: How do you think this novel will differ from traditional novels as a product of its innovative creation method?

WC: I think because there isn’t one single voice guiding the course of the novel, it’s going to break a lot of the rules that more traditional works follow. Every person that enters a submission brings something new to the table, so I think the course of the story will be pretty hard to predict. We’re still in the beginning stages of the story, but even now, you can see that it already encompasses multiple genres.

Additionally, because it is an ongoing novel, I think the story might eventually start to change to reflect current events.

Well, IdeaScale will be following the project as it unfolds and will look forward to hearing what happens to Zachary in the coming chapters as well as what steps the Collabowriters will take in the future.

What do you think of a crowdsourced novel project? What implications does this project have for the creative process in general?

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