Scott Fitzgerald Gray has been flogging his imagination professionally since deciding he wanted to be a writer and abandoning any hope of a real career in about the fourth grade. That was the year that speculative fiction and fantasy kindled his voracious appetite for literary escapism and a love of roleplaying gaming that still drives his questionable creativity. In addition to his fantasy and speculative fiction writing, Scott has dabbled in feature film and television, was a finalist for the Jim Burt Screenwriting Prize from the Writers’ Guild of Canada, and currently consults and story edits on projects ranging from overly obscure indie-Canadian fare to Neill Blomkamp’s somewhat less-obscure “District 9” and the upcoming “Elysium.”
More info on Scott and his work (some of it even occasionally truthful) can be found by reading between the lines at insaneangel.com.
Writing has a reputation as a singular kind of pursuit. We writers are all supposed to be lonely, broken figures locked in our garret workspaces, blindly pursuing our personal muse while our families fret and pace in the drawing room downstairs. And while there’s a part of me that would love to live the life of an 18th-century literary cliche, I don’t fit that mold overly well. Because my creative process and my history of making a kind of living as a writer has been largely shaped around the idea of collaboration.
My writing career started out in Canadian film, where I worked in screenwriting for a number of years, made a pretty good living, and ultimately quit because none of the projects I actually cared about were getting made. But when you work as a screenwriter, you pretty quickly embrace the idea that screenwriting is a highly collaborative process. At its worst, screenwriting is the experience of having your ideas beaten down and second-guessed by people who can’t do what you do (but that’s a topic for a different post, probably). But at its best — which I’ve been fortunate enough to see a fair bit of — screenwriting is about a shared creative vision. It’s about making your own ideas stronger and sharper by the process of having other people add to them. It’s about recognizing specific limitations and having to focus the work to adapt to them. It’s about hearing other people’s ideas and riffing off those ideas to come up with ideas you never would have thought of on your own.
A lot of years later, I spend a lot of my time working in collaboration with a ton of other people as a freelance editor and occasional designer for the Dungeons & Dragons game. I write fantasy and speculative fiction, most of which takes place in a shared world of my own creation (the Endlands). There’s a lot to be said for the single-author worlds that all epic-fantasy fans are familiar with, from Middle Earth to Westeros to the lands of the Wheel of Time. But for me, the richness of some of the most memorable fantasy worlds owes itself to the collaborative process by which those worlds were built. The Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Eberron are shared worlds that most fantasy fans with a gaming background know of. Other literary examples include “Thieves’ World” and C.J. Cherryh’s “Merovingen Nights” books. And don’t forget what’s probably the grandfather of shared-world fantasy, the Hyborian Age — created by Robert E. Howard but vastly expanded upon by DeCamp and Carter, Roy Thomas, Kurt Busiek and Tim Truman, and many more.
For those who haven’t worked in a shared-world creative milieu, I think it’s easy to assume that it must be hard for a writer to feel good about having to give up some of the autonomy that creativity so often demands. But here’s a lame analogy. I know pretty much nothing about music, but the process of writing in a collaborative environment has always struck me as probably being something like what it feels like to play in a really great band. You as an individual might be great at what you do, but being able to riff off of the ideas and explorations of other people can take what you do to a whole new level. And in this lame analogy, the writer who absolutely can’t stand to have his or her work and ideas subjected to scrutiny, to suggestion, to the confines of history and culture that didn’t spring fully formed from his or her own mind is kind of like the lead guitarist who needs to constantly shred without worrying about what the rest of the band is doing. Or what song is even being played.
For me, there’s something special about worlds crafted through collaboration, because there’s something special about the process of collaboration — and of how that process sharpens, rather than dulls, individual creativity. RPG designers and shared-world authors work through a similar kind of process. All of those same things that are the best parts of screenwriting are wrapped up in the shared-world creative exchange that is game design and tie-in fiction — making your own ideas stronger and sharper, focusing in response to limitations, riffing off of other peoples’ creativity. In a screenwriting context, one has to balance the full scope of the imagination against writing within a production budget or having to make use of specific locations because those are the only locations available. In a shared-world writing, you balance all the things you could possibly do with existing canon and history — with the rules of the world as they’ve been laid down by the writers and designers who came before you.
There’s a great satisfaction in being the creator of pure ideas, for sure. But for me, there’s a different kind of equally great satisfaction that comes from being part of a process of ideas and creativity that’s greater than what I could accomplish on my own. And despite having the freedom as a writer and indie publisher to do whatever the hell I want with no input from or control by anyone else, I will happily continue to collaborate until the day I die.