CWC – From the Other Side

This weekend has been a really interesting experience for me in my working with CWC as a Story Coordinator. It seems forever ago, but was probably only about a month ago, when Laura asked me if I would like to participate as a writer for CWC’s second collaboration ‘Ambition.’ Of course I said I would love to – any excuse to keep me writing is a good excuse. I was assigned to start writing my chapter this last Friday, and boy did it ever sneak up on me.

‘Ambition’ is a Spy novel set in the 1920s, and I like to describe it as The Great Gatsby meets 007 with a female protagonist. Needless to say, the story is all espionage, hidden clues, secrets, and even murder and greed that needs to be covered up. All splashed with a little bit of romance and history. Even before becoming a part of the group of writers scheduled to write individual chapters for ‘Ambition’, I really wanted to read it in its entirety. But I can’t…until it’s finished, and until it’s published. Besides all of the covert operations in this book, it has three different levels of the story – the main character Angelina’s present; her past working for Madame Lockridge as her “ghost writer” so to speak; and the actual story that she’s written, which turns out to be more of a memoir than anything else. There is a lot of information to keep up with here, especially because the characters in every level are the same, or seem to be.

I took Friday to read the last chapter that was written, as I get to do as the next writer in line. Only myself and the two other writers this week get to read that chapter. I was lost.

I took Saturday to read over the summaries and reference notes that are on the CWC website for the ‘Ambition’ writers. Every chapter gets its own 300-500 word summary, and though they are very thorough, it’s nothing like reading a novel. You don’t get a sense for the stylistic narrative of the piece, or the subtle nuances of how certain characters speak to each other, or their personal quirks. It’s the SparkNotes that I have to add to. Then I looked at the reference notes (split up by each “level” of the book), which details certain story lines that have not been wrapped up yet, and gives a one or two line description of each character. I have to say that they are incredibly well-organized, and have been arranged in the least confusing way possible. Again, I was lost.

How was I supposed to just pick up from what was left off? I hadn’t been following the updates week by week since the collaboration started. I hadn’t read any other chapters other than the one written before mine. Should I pick up the present story line, or delve more into Angelina’s past, or give some insight into what happened next in the book of Madame’s life? I had absolutely no clue what to do.

And then I realized that the other writers scheduled in ‘Ambition’ had just as much information as I did. They probably felt just as clueless upon receiving the chapter written before theirs, probably struggled just as much in coming up with the next great piece to add to the story. I hadn’t just been thrust into the middle of a collaborative novel where the plot had been laid out, the characters described in detail, and where everyone was on the same page with where the story was going. And this is the beauty of CWC. Everyone’s left in the dark with a few candles scattered about, and still manage to paint a gorgeous picture that flows with what has been written before it.

I definitely have a new-found appreciation for what these writers go through, week after week, in creating something that gives you so many options but so little control.

When I write my own novels, I know the characters inside and out. I understand where the story’s going, or at least where I intend it to go (sometimes it likes to take itself in completely different directions, and that’s okay too), and I have this understanding of the book as a whole because the entire thing came from me. This is just one chapter of ‘Ambition’. This is something that belongs to so many different people that at first it felt like it had no defining qualities at all for me to pick up and continue running. But that’s so not true. It just has the defining characteristics of all these different writers, and this was my chance to add a little piece of me to it as well.

As a Story Coordinator, I get to watch characters and events unfold within the story, choose the chapter that best fits with the direction, make a few minor tweaks here and there just to keep it all on the right track. I’m guiding, shaping, molding, and sending it back out there to all the writers. I’m not creating anything. And each and every one of these authors, on all CWC projects, are creating something out of almost absolutely nothing but a few bones. That’s all they get.

Yesterday I was able to write the first half of Chapter 18, my assignment, after rereading the summaries and notes probably four times, and finding a sudden spark of inspiration within the crumbs of clues. Today, I finished writing the second half. I don’t know if my chapter will be selected this week, but it is an experience of squeezing your creative assets harder than they’ve ever been squeezed before.

Thank you, CWC Writers, for all of the magic created by your chapters. They feel like they stand alone, week by week (I know my chapter feels like a pebble on the beach), but you’ve managed to create amazing, fleshed out novels by adding the pieces together one by one. And my favorite part about the whole thing is that I’m sure all the writers before me have gone through this experience, and that’s what we have in common over the months of creating this book. The finished project will be read by everyone involved, but until then, everyone understands what each week’s writer goes through in coming up with their own chapter.

I would absolutely sign up to write another CWC chapter, and I understand now exactly why the authors keep coming back again and again, project after project, to contribute one more. It’s that much fun.

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