Guest Post: “Reader/Writer Collaboration — Wave of the Future?” by Cindy Dees

DeesC-AuthorPicThanks so much for inviting me to be here, CR! So, let’s get the housekeeping items out of the way, first. I’m Cindy Dees. I grew up on a horse farm, dropped out of high school at age fifteen to go to university, got a degree in Russian and East European Studies, spent twelve years as a U.S. Air Force pilot and part-time spy. I wrote my first book on a one-dollar bet with my mother that I couldn’t do it. Fifty books (military romance and thrillers), a bunch of awards, and New York Times bestseller status later, I’ve more or less won the bet.

My first epic fantasy novel, co-written with the brilliant Bill Flippin, is called The Sleeping King. It’s an old school, doorstop-sized epic fantasy, complete with dragons, elves, dwarves, monsters and the like, and is the first of what I fondly hope will be a lengthy series. In it, a boy and a girl go in search of a legendary sleeping king who is prophesied to save them all from the evil empire. I assume it goes without saying that hijinks ensue.

What I’d really like to chat about today, though, is the inspiration for The Sleeping King. It says a great deal about how the publishing industry is changing and how it might evolve in coming years.

This book is based on a live-action fantasy game called Dragon Crest. In live-action games, players dress in full costume and run around the woods, fighting with padded swords and throwing bean bags at each other to represent magic.

To you experienced gamers, this concept is nothing new. However, this may be the first time you’ve encountered a full-length commercial novel by a major publisher written about the adventures of those real people. And for me, that’s what makes the Dragon Crest project really interesting. It’s a collaborative effort, not only between Bill and me, but with hundreds of game players who have designed and played their own characters without any constraints from Bill and me.

The advent of the Internet and social media has made the entertainment industry a great deal more interactive than ever before. We have chat rooms and review sites like this one where people share their opinions about books. We have online games with millionsof participants. We have movies based on books, books based on games, and games based on movies. We have television based on comics, and comics based on television. The lines between various forms of entertainment and storytelling are blurring. Fast.

DeesFlippin-1-SleepingKingUS

One of the last bastions of separation in the entertainment industry has been the dividing line between authors and readers. Of course, we have dialogs like this one. But how often do authors ask their readers for major input into stories? By what mechanism would an author even go about gathering that input?

When I was very young and dinosaurs still trod the earth, I had a cardboard book bound in a notebook format with three stacks of silly sentences. I could flip each stack separately to combine the sentences into even sillier combinations. Over the years, authors and film directors have experimented with alternate endings that let the reader/viewer choose the outcome they like best. Nowadays, we have a thriving fan fiction industry where individuals write their own stories set in a particular world with borrowed characters from a published book they enjoy. But all of these are relatively solitary endeavors without actual collaboration between the author and reader.

Bill and I, in cooperation with Tor Publishing — which has been fantastic about letting us try this bold experiment—are taking it a step further. We’ve created a big, sprawling, complex world, and we’re inviting in anyone who’d like to dramatically influence the stories we tell within it.

Will the Emperor squash the prophecy foretelling his end? It happened live, and you can find out how it turned out in The Sleeping King. Did our intrepid adventurers discover that the sleeping king was real or something else altogether? It’s in the book. Will the second orc incursion destroy the colony of Dupree or not? Hundreds of players actually fought that battle at a campground in Massachusetts, and you can see the results in the second Dragon Crest novel next fall.

Which one of several suitors will the main female character choose, if any? I don’t know the answer to that one. It’s still playing out in the live world. Will the Empire ultimately be defeated, and if so, by whom? I have no idea. Once the players figure it out, Bill and I will write a novel about it. I’m guessing that will take place two or three books from now unless something shocking happens in the upcoming season of games.

Even the book characters themselves have been created by regular people. I, as an individual author, could never hope to dream up the variety and variation of characters that hundreds of brilliant gamers have thought up over two decades.

I’m not suggesting that all books in the future will be created entirely by groups of readers. I think the tortured author toiling alone to turn out a masterpiece will still exist. Even in the Dragon Crest project, deft writing skills are required to create coherent and engaging stories out of the mish-mash of player activities and inputs.

However, I do think there will be a place in the publishing world for collaborative efforts. I’m betting that readers will enjoy being able to talk with their favorite book characters in a chat forum, or take selfies with them at a gaming convention or book signing. I also expect that new models of reader and author interaction will emerge as technologies continue to evolve. I think the author/reader conversation will be more direct, and that authors will solicit and receive input on what stories they should tell.

Although story telling is possibly the oldest form of entertainment (besides sex, of course), the art form is moving into a brave new future fueled by technology and will inevitably evolve. It just remains to be seen exactly how. The Sleeping King is one such experiment.

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Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin’s The Sleeping King is out now, published by Tor Books. For more on Dees’s novels and writing, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.

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