My friend Ryan Werner and I are involved in a work of collaborative fiction, the old Round Robin exercise. I’ll describe the general rules and what we’re up to below, but you probably already know something about this sort of exercise as it is. It’s been my turn to contribute for longer than I can remember, though, and I owe Ryan something, so I thought this week I’d use the Writer’s Notebook to make myself get something done on that story.
In what follows, the italicized text is where Ryan stopped writing, the bolded text is my minor revision of that ending, and the rest is some of what I’ve added.
He swung the shirt around Lawson’s neck and brought his hands towards and then passed each other in a near collision. As he tightened the shirt around Lawson’s throat, Grady was practically carrying him a block down the street to where Cordell’s truck was waiting, passenger side door open, and the second after Lawson blacked out, Grady swiftly guided him to the seat, kicking in his feet and closing the door behind him.
Lawson turned to run but his head whipped forward and he nearly lost his feet as Grady swung the shirt around Lawson’s neck and caught the other end and yanked. He tugged the ends away from each other and twisted, wheeling his arms like he was driving a truck, jerking on the shirt to keep Lawson off his balance, and when he’d formed a leash of the shirt he dragged Lawson down the walk and into the street and further still, hauling him stumbling for a block down the road to where Cordell’s truck was waiting, passenger side door open, and the moment Lawson blacked out, Grady caught him and guided him to the seat, kicking in his feet and closing the door behind him.
When Lawson woke he saw light winking at him. He thought perhaps he’d gone blind or had died and this was the stars and the shimmering light of death. But he blinked and his vision came into focus on the tree overhead, the sunlight sprinkling through it. He shifted but couldn’t move. He was hogtied in the bed of a pickup. He groaned.
Afternoon, bud, Grady said. He was leaning with his forearms across the wall of the bed, grinning down at Lawson, a cigarillo in his teeth.
You know what I been thinking about?
Fuck you, Grady.
I been thinking about when we first met. You remember that? You and Leon and Janine, and that other one, that girl of yours. Carly?
Yeah, the four of you just sitting around in your living room getting drunk one night, not a one of you up to anything interesting, and here I come, busting through your door like it was my own. You remember that night?
Let me up, Grady. Untie me, damn it.
I come busting in your house and switching off whatever lights I could find, locking your own door, telling you to hush in your own house. And you just sat there. Old Leon, he had the balls to ask what I was up to, but when I told y’all I’d just outrun a trooper and needed a place to hide, you, bud, you just sat there calm as you please, never said a word.
You said you’d been drinking and speeding a bit and didn’t want to get hassled. We’d all been drinking, I knew how it went. I felt for you.
You felt for me.
I was stupid.
No, son, you were smart. You used to be smart about things like this, about how you ought to deal with me. Now you gone and started thinking. He leaning into the bed and flicked Lawson’s forehead, a hollow thump against the skull. You started opening your mouth. You think you’re smarter than old Grady. But you forgot that night, you forgot why I come into your house in the first place.
You chose me? You came to my house on purpose?
No, bud, I picked the first house that would do. I wasn’t just drunk, I was—running some things—and there weren’t no way in hell I was getting stopped by no trooper. If it’d come to it I’d have killed you all that night if it meant saving my own skin. But you invited me in, you said you understood. And that’s what you got to understand now.
He reached and grabbed the ropes pinning Lawson’s wrists to his ankles, and he jerked them hard. Lawson’s shoulder popped like a knuckle cracking, and he cried out. Grady stepped up on the tire and leaned all the way into the bed, his other hand on the floor to steady him as he put his face into Lawson’s face, the smoke from his cigarillo the only thing between them.
I don’t get caught, son.
Typically, the Round Robin is something like a “first line” exercise, except the line you’re handed isn’t always the first, and it usually comes from a writer you know. The idea is that someone starts a story, writes for a specified period of time or word count (see the FYI below), and then hands the story off to you; you pick up the story where the previous writer left off, write for your specified period or length, and then pass the story on to a third writer. And so on, and so on.
It’s a pretty common exercise–so common, in fact, that most advanced workshops avoid it because they’re sick of doing them–but I still think they can be useful. In my case, I think I’m also jealous of the collaboration possible in other art forms like film or stage, and I love to push writing into other artists’ business.
In the case of this story, Ryan and I are tackling it a little differently than the classic Round Robin. Usually, you’re supposed to be tapping into a freewritten subconscious, just writing from whatever you were handed and seeing where it goes. The upside is that a story can take directions none of the other authors would ever have foreseen, which can keep the writing fresh and challenging all through the exercise. To some extent, Ryan and I are doing that, but we also know each other’s work and style well enough, and respect each other enough as writers, that we’re invading each other’s work as we go. That means when I hand off my story to Ryan, he gets total ownership of everything, my scenes as well as his own, and he gets to revise everything to fit his vision before he adds more text of his own. Then, when he hands the story back to me, I get control over everything and re-revise the piece as well as adding to the end. The writing remains surprising and fascinating, but we’re never beholden to the work and can change the things that frustrate us or take us too far away from the story we had envisioned. Plus, because we are revising as we go, with each new hand-off the story gets tighter, better written, and closer to a final draft. For example, what appears here is rough and quickly written, but rather than Ryan having to offer careful comments on how he might fix my writing, Ryan will get to fix it himself as he sees fit, and I just have to wait until it’s my turn again. And round and round we go.
Our approach really only works when two writers have similar tastes and can respect each other’s work. For this to work, you have to be comfortable with yourself as a writer and be willing to relinquish control of your story even in its drafting stage, which is often difficult to do. But if you ever have a chance to do something like this, I suggest you give it a shot. It can be a cool experience.
(FYI: One of the coolest recent experiments I’ve seen in this form–and the book that led me to take the exercise seriously–is the fun little story-cycle Write Across Canada. In that book, one writer created characters and a situation, set in Newfoundland, and then restricted themselves to 600 words and 48 hours. Then they sent the characters–and the story draft–to the next province over (I forget whether they sent it to Labrador or Prince Edward Island first), where a writer in that province would continue the story. The only rules were that each chapter had to be set in the province it was written in, had to be shorter than 600 words, and had to be written within 48 hours, and then the story would move on to the next province. It’s a little messy sometimes but from a writing perspective, all the more exciting for the mess, and if you can get a copy, you should definitely check it out.)