Collaborative Writing of a Story Cycle: Salome Jones on Red Phone Box

Red Phone Box: A Dark Story Cycle published by Ghostwood Books.

Red Phone Box: A Darkly Magical Story Cycle published by Ghostwood Books.

Almost two years ago now, I was very honoured to be invited to contribute to a wonderful project called Red Phone Box. It is a collected, interwoven set of writings by Warren Ellis, Robert Bal, Chris Bissette, Joff Brown, Francesca Burgon, David Church Rodríguez, Gábor Csigás, Peter Dawes, Tim Dedopulos, James ‘Grim’ Desborough, Hollis Dorian, erisreg, Lacie Grayson, Kate Harrad, Salome Jones, Tamsyn Kennedy, Sezin Koehler, Uri Kurlianchik, J.F. Lawrence, Gethin A. Lynes,  Steven Sautter, Matthew Scoppetta, Joe Silber, Thadeus E. Suggs, Chuck Walker, Dan Wickline, Cvetomir Yonchev and, I’m happy to say, me. It’s not a themed anthology. In fact, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before.  What made it possible was the single-minded dedication of its two editors, Tim Dedopulos and Salome Jones.

I invited Salome to answer some questions on how the project came about, and how the process of creating this wonderful  ‘dark story cycle.’

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RG is me and SJ is Salome Jones

RG: I’d like to ask you about how the conception of Red Phone Box came about? When you started, did you have an idea of the structure, or did the submissions play a part in how the structure came to be?

SJ: The structure evolved from what people wrote. There were obvious junctions and threads of plot. You could see where writers got their ideas from other stories. I used the existing pieces to form what structure we could first, and then, with Tim Dedopulos’s help, looked at what supports needed to be added to make it function as a completed work. But the other writers really determined much of what we ended up with.

RG: Traditionally, writing has been seen as a very solitary pursuit, do you think a work like Red Phone Box challenges that notion?

SJ: I think writing has been solitary because it has mostly had to be, although collaborations have been happening for a long time. But I think the internet has made larger scale, long distance collaborations possible. It’s certainly easier to write alone. But if you’re very social, it can be really fun and also mind expanding to start writing where someone else left off. The way we all started to think, the way different team members would separately introduce similar ideas, shows me that we must be naturally able to create as members of a collaborative.

RG: Could you talk a little bit about the process of prompting writers to cooperate in this way?

SJ: Originally, I wrote a story that was very open-ended. I left some mysterious aspects to it so others would have things to explore. Then I asked  everyone to write a story that connected by at least two points, besides the phone box. They could use that first story or any of the ones produced as we went along. Borrow characters, settings, events. If I got a story that didn’t feel very connected, I’d ask the writer to add points of connection to it. That was it until we hit the midpoint. By then patterns were emerging. Some were good, but some were unworkable if we wanted to make a longer story arc out of it. At some point, there weren’t very many female characters, so I asked for more female characters.  At first they were afraid to write each other’s characters. Everyone seemed to want to invent a character. So I asked them to focus on the characters we had.  It was a bit like directing any kind of improvisation if you don’t want it to be completely random.

RG: What were the themes that you kept in mind as you began to weave these disparate pieces into a cohesive whole?

SJ: Loneliness and isolation are things I felt were depicted strongly in quite a few of the individual pieces. It seems to reflect a quality of life in London, because it’s so big and so hard to get across, and, especially now, economics aren’t much in favour of going out to socialize. It also struck me how in a way the book reflected the occasional conflict between religions and cultures in London and the UK more generally without taking any sides, except against conflict. Even though these themes came about organically, I was aware of them in filling in the gaps with additional material.

RG: Were there other unifying strategies that you were applying to create something more than just a loosely themed anthology?

SJ: Well, the main unifying ingredient was that we located the clear story threads and made sure they continued. Once we had about 35 stories, where a plot line dropped off, I would ask a writer to write the next story. I’d say, ‘solve these problems but otherwise it can be whatever you want.’ Which in hindsight seems a little cavalier, but it mostly worked.

There were a  couple of stories that were written in the first person. Because they were both good stories, I needed to find a way to make them fit into a third person narrative. So in the end, I made them objects. One is a woman’s journal left in a cafe. The other is an academic journal article. Basically, I asked myself: What can I do with this story? What other information is needed to make it fit? Then I either wrote another story that would connect it, or I asked someone else to write one that would.

Basically, we made it a goal that it would be a story cycle. So we looked at what we had, and thought forward. What could happen here that would lead to a conclusion? What’s the natural progression of events after this? How do these different characters relate to each other? You ask those questions enough and you get people to move those plot threads forward, and eventually you get something like a collective novel. Or you get a lot of stories, which when you pull back and look at the bigger picture, make a broader story.

RG: Clearly this is an example of editing as a tremendously creative act.  Can you speak a little about that?

SJ: The best analogy I can come up with is that it’s like making a quilt. You have all these pieces of fabric — stories. They have colors and patterns — characters and plots. But what you want to do with them is cut them into shapes and, making use of their existing properties, connect them together so that you see something new in the end product. It’s that sort of piecing together, along with making the writing stronger where necessary, buffing out inconsistencies. Adding in the right pieces.

RG: What were some of the practices, assumptions, modes of production that you had to overcome to act as an editor for this?

SJ: I edit novels for a living. Usually there’s one author. They give me work, I read and make notes on it, we go back and forth and it’s done. I rarely change anything major in someone else’s work. It’s more like I suggest revisions and they make them, or not if they disagree. But for this complicated piece to work, I had to give up my usual reluctance to make changes to other people’s work. Part of my job on this book, was to make sure that the whole book worked as one thing. And sometimes that meant rewriting bits of other people’s stories. I tried as hard as I could to respect the integrity of their work. Some pieces required very few changes. Some required a lot of changes. In the end, the editor’s job on something as complicated as this is not to let writers be embarrassed by the end product. No one writer will have the perspective to resolve inconsistencies between their own stories and the rest of the collection. So I had to stop holding back at some point.

I also had to get over the idea that a book could be perfect. You lose so much of your perspective every time you reread a passage that eventually you just cannot see it clearly without a long break, or you might never see it clearly again. I found myself scrambling near the end because I would read a chapter deep in the middle of the book and it would look so weird to me. I would start to think, oh my god, this might be complete nonsense. I had to learn to just ignore those impulses and trust my earlier readings of the text.

RG: What were some of the most challenging aspects of the project?

SJ: The hardest thing was the amount of time and attention it took. It was grueling at times. Which sounds ridiculous, because how hard could reading some words and marking them up be? But in a book that’s 110,000 words long, where 28 people have written bits of it and you have to keep the whole thing in your head while you try to make sure that everything one author made a character do fits with what every other author made her do, and then multiply that by 20  characters and 28 writers… um. You see the difficulty. Also, many of the writers were relatively inexperienced and some were brand new. I wanted them for their imaginations, though, so this didn’t matter too much to me. But it did increase the amount of work necessary to make the book professional grade.

RG: This was a project over two years in the making. How do you feel now that you have finally got the printed results of your labours in your hand? Would you consider doing this again?

SJ: I love the book. I loved working on it. I’m ecstatic and really… tired! I’d like it to be read by a lot of people, because: So. Much. Work. But I also understand that it requires a bit of work from the reader. Because it is separate pieces, like a mosaic. You have to look for the patterns. Even though they’re pretty clearly there, it’s not a book you can just speed read through or you’ll miss a lot. And people aren’t necessarily willing to give it the time it needs. But I think those who do will enjoy it.  And yes, I totally would do it again. We’re planning a second book, hoping to take what we’ve learned and make an even better second volume.

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If the book and the process intrigues you, consider purchasing the book. All links to buy it in different formats are over at the Ghostwood Books site. They’ve produced a lovely, limited edition hardcover version.

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