Collaborative fiction writing using wiki technology

Introduction

Wiki software provides a tool for collaborative authoring of webpages. Does MediaWiki provide a good platform for collaborative fiction writing? This Knol (note: this was originally a Knol) describes our collaborative fiction writing experiences at the Fiction Wikia.

Some examples

Here are links to three large works of fiction we have created in collaboration:

cci
Cellular Civilization

*VirileMail: this story was started by a government employee then became the collaborative work of John (and several others) and David joined at a later stage.
*Cellullar Civilization: David helped John finish this story by writing one chapter and suggesting plot elements.
*The search for Kalid: an interstellar travel novel based on David’s initial idea. Both authors have contributed 50-50.

John’s experience

I started thinking about using wiki software for collaborative fiction writing back in 2004. In 2005 I discovered wikia (then wikicities). The first wikicity I found for fiction writing was specifically for alternative history, so I started Cambridge Computing, a story about a fictional collaboration between Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I also found a few other wikis outside of wikicities that were devoted to fiction writing, but none of them or the alt hist wikicity led to my finding any collaborators.

nailsI then discovered the fiction wikicity and started participating there. At the time, I was exploring Fan Fiction and I was trying to learn how to write X-files fan fiction. My first collaboration was on a story called “Nails“, a story started by user MikeDockery. Several other editors have also collaborated on this story, although, at the current time, it is still not complete. I last contributed to Nails in 2008 and I hope to get back to it again some day.

The talk page for Nails holds some interesting clues about the challenges in using wiki software for collaboration. Speaking for myself, fiction writing is a creative endeavor and when I am engaged in it I do not appreciate anyone trying step in and start an argument about the writing process. If the authors of a story plan that the story will grow into a novel, then who needs some wiki administrator stepping in to say “this is not long enough to be called a novel”. I also take offense at wiki administrators who call works of wiki fiction “abandoned” if they have not been edited for some arbitrary length of time. I think that kind of imposition of arbitrary rules on a creative process is destructive and disrupts the fragile process of forming good fiction writing collaborations. I have been contributing to “Nails” for several years now and it might take 10 more years before it is “complete”. I’m not sure that “complete story” means much in wiki format fiction.

Different people have had different ideas about how the Fiction Wikia should be run. One important axis along which there have been differences of opinion is what might be called the amateur-professional axis. Some people who have come to the fiction wikia are clearly learning how to write fiction. Others are already good writers and probably have formal training in how to write. I think it should be possible for the fiction wikia to accommodate all types of writers. However, it might be best to have those people who are learning to write go and work at another website such as Wikiversity. Personally, I do not mind being in a wiki community that welcomes writers who are at all levels of experience and development.

eggship
Egg ship

VirileMail
The process of writing the VirileMail story has previously been discussed. I suppose I am a rather obnoxious collaborator because I often want to turn the stories that I write into a particular kind of science fiction story. When I came to this story it already included the idea of a mysterious “eggplant” which I turned into a transport vessel for nanoscopic robots! One of the enjoyable aspects of developing fiction in wiki format is adding illustrations for stories. I made an image for the “egg ship” (see the image to the right).

As the first few chapters of VirileMail were created, I was enjoying the process of developing the story as a science fiction adventure, but I got bogged down when it seemed that some of the collaborators were just adding random silliness to the story, possibly in a conscious attempt to disrupt the process. I took a break from the story for a while and then David contacted me and got me interested in returning to the story.

It was while collaborating with David that I learned the value of using internet relay chat as a tool for the collaborative development of stories. We now routinely use IRC as a way to quickly discuss plot issues that would take much longer to resolve by wiki talk page discussion. I think IRC chat should be built into the wiki interface. We also used IRC to create some of the dialog for VirileMail, cutting and pasting part of the story from a chat log file.

Another collaborative effort led to the creation of an audio script for the VirileMail story. The shortened audio version was inspiration for a video teaser (see below).
VirileMail video teaser.

Cellular Civilization

in_spaceWiki software and wiki communities have become the topic of several stories written at the Fiction Wikia. Cellular Civilization started out with space aliens editing a wiki! I’ve also started an alternative history story called West Wing Wiki. At the start, I tried to create a flexible structure for Cellular Civilization that would allow readers to navigate through the parts of the story in multiple ways. I really like making use of hypertext links in stories. I make links to other websites, to other parts of the story and to “meta pages” that have additional information about the story. For example, I like to have lists of characters and glossaries for my stories. Sometimes a timeline is useful.

After starting Cellular Civilization, I let it alone for a while. David later introduced a new character (Thomas) who took on a major role in the story. Thomas functions as a kind of “magnet” for defective nanite probes. It is a very enjoyable part of collaborative fiction writing when a collaborator introduces an idea that opens up entirely unexpected paths for developing and expanding a story. We have created several pages at fiction wikia to encourage collaboration. It seems that many writers who come to Fiction Wikia do not have much interest in collaborating. Most people have learned that writing fiction is a personal matter, not the kind of thing that involves collaboration. Even wiki participants who seek collaborating authors for their fiction writing projects often have trouble establishing good collaborations. Wiki technology is so new that we are all still learning how to make good use of this tool for collaborative fiction writing.

One aspect of collaborative fiction writing that I expect to see more fully exploited in the future is “forking“. All text contributed at Fiction Wiki is placed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. If you find a story at Fiction Wikia, you are free to start a new version of the story using parts of the older version and adding in anything you want to add….well, almost anything. Near the end of 2006 it was discovered that a category for pornographic stories had been created! This began what is an on-going effort for the community to define the kinds of stories that are not welcome. Since Wikia is supported by Google Ads, content added to Wikia websites is generally “family friendly”. I look upon advertisements at Fiction Wikia as a “deal” by which I am provided with a wiki playground for fiction writing and Wikia “pays the bills” by letting companies run ads. My advice to all readers of stories at Fiction Wikia is that if you are distracted by the ads, take the time to register a user account…registered users see far fewer ads. I think it is particularly silly when Wikia inserts ads right in the middle of the text of a story…really, aren’t the edges (top, bottom, sides) of the webpages enough space for the ads?

The Search for Kalid
I have previously written about collaborating on “The Search for Kalid“. I never would have tried writing Space Opera without some kind of collaboration that led me towards experimenting with a new (for me) genre. Collaboration can be good for knocking you out of ruts and making you try new things. Before I got involved with The Search for Kalid I had been thinking about how to create a “realistic” plot device for telepathy. My first steps towards that goal started with the story Mnemtronium and another project called The Start of Eternity. I’m rather pleased with the way the telepathy plot device turned out for The Search for Kalid and I think I can also use it (slightly modified) for The Start of Eternity. I wonder if I would have ever come up with the details for this telepathy plot device without having collaborated on The Search for Kalid.

Video for “The Search for Kalid”
In addition to regular images, Wikia allows videos. I like the idea of having multimedia resources for stories.

kalid
Question for the reader:
is this image
about dancing?

While collaborating on The Search for Kalid I found that I was sympathetic to a character who started out being described as “The Evil One”. The video (above) is meant to reflect the relationship between “The Evil One” (Set) and his girl, Katherine. Katherine is murdered and Set seeks revenge. I helped write The Search for Kalid over a period of more than a year. During that time the “Set” character took over the story! I think it is in keeping with the Space Opera aspect of the novel to have romantic elements in the story. I was amused that my effort to make images and video for the romantic elements of the story seems to irritate David. He is concerned that Sci Fi readers will ignore The Search for Kalid if they see a video about Set’s love affair.

Wikia recently made available a rich text editing option that might be easier for writers to use than the conventional MediaWiki markup. The WYSIWYG editor is not currently supported for Safari, Opera and Chrome browsers. The Fiction Wikia also has a blogging feature that allows authors to discuss their collaborative writing experiences in blog format. I think this will become a useful tool for building the collaborative environment of the Fiction Wikia. I hope participants will start using it for writing reviews of stories.

I think wiki software provides a good platform for collaborative fiction writing. I hope that additional tools for the support of collaboration become integral to the wiki interface. I think chat should be built into a wiki user interface and I would love to see the addition of tools for collaborative creation of multimedia resources such as video files. The video below shows one example of a way to make a video teaser for a story. In my experience, writing fiction collaboratively at a wiki website is much more fun than toiling away alone.
Video teaser for “Cellular Civilization”

Summary

Wiki software provides a useful software platform for collaborative fiction writing. Fiction authors can collaborate at Fiction Wikia to produce fictional works that are available to the world under a copyleft license. In combination with wiki software, internet chat provides a useful aid for collaborating writers. It will be interesting when some software wizard eventually takes the time to tweak the wiki collaborative environment so as to fully support creative writing.


Additional thoughts about collaborative writing can be found at the Wiki Fiction Blog.

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