Hail the brief
Friday, 3 January 2014
Thought you might like to see a piece I wrote for D&AD on the theme of stories and how Keeping Mum came to be. It may prove mildly diverting.
This is a story about a story. It’s about how rules can be a writer’s best friend and how the humble brief helped steer a unique writing project to a successful conclusion. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Last January I was asked to take part in writing what might be the world’s first collective novel. The project was organised by Dark Angels (www.dark-angels.org.uk), a lovely bunch of people dedicated to encouraging creativity in business writing. To cut a long story short (see what I did there?) in March 2013 fifteen assorted designers, copywriters and creatives who’d been on other Dark Angels escapades headed to a country house in the Highlands for a kickoff meeting. And that’s when it all got complicated.
Our goal was to produce a modern reworking of William Faulkner’s 1930 modernist masterpiece “As I Lay Dying” which, in case you don’t know, is a darkly humorous tale of a dirt-poor Depression-era family struggling to bury their dead mother. It’s better than it sounds, honest. The original plan was for each of us to write a chapter, but our glorious leaders quickly realised this could lead to some insane variations in tone. Their solution was to make each writer responsible for a particular character, who then takes up the story-telling reins at different points in the narrative. With all the parts written we’d stich the whole thing together and hey presto, finished novel. It was an inspired idea because it makes a virtue of variation and somehow feels more honest than everything being written by the usual omnipotent author.
Even so, asking 15 writers to work together conjured up nightmares of conflicting storylines and inconsistent characters. As I say, our project was unusual if not unique; it wasn’t like we could look at similar projects to show us the way – or could we? As we sat in our planning meeting it became clear that what we were talking about was really just another version of the multi-person projects we all contributed to every week. And the secret of their success? Well, a big part is the brief.
Now if you’re thinking the mere mention of the B word is squeezing the magic out of what should be a process of unfettered creativity, ask yourself where you'd be if you and your colleagues went about your day job without the firm hand of a plan to guide you. In a world of pain, that’s where. It’s exactly the same here. It’s the brief, that much derided document, that enables many people to work together without treading on each other’s toes, whether the project is a novel, a website or an ad.
And that’s my point really. Collaboration, in any context, requires common ground, and our brief – which took the form of a solid chapter plan, character outline and writing schedule – gave us the shared understanding we needed to work independently toward a shared goal. Our brief didn’t say anything about deliverables, key messages and propositions, but it was a brief all the same. Once we’d hammered it out we all knew where we were and what was expected of us. And believe me, that felt good.
So where are we now? Well, the novel – called Keeping Mum - is finished and will be published in early 2014 by crowd sourcing publisher Unbound (www.unbound.co.uk). Secure your very own gorgeously designed hardback copy for a mere £20. The fact it’s finished and ready for release is proof that the process I’ve been describing worked (not to mention a lot of hard work by our three editors who kept a tight leash on everything). Lone geniuses might be able to get away with less; for the rest of us a good brief makes all the difference.
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