49 Writers Interview: Glenda Smith

Earlier this year, Alaskan author Michael Engelhard shared a post called “Many Voices: The Pleasures and Pains of Anthologizing.” Anthologizing is tricky enough – now imagine collaborating with several authors, none of whom you know personally, on a novel. Alaskan writer Glenda Smith, pictured above, is in the process of doing exactly that. In this interview, she shares details of her involvement in The Book Project. I wonder…will there someday be an Alaska Book Project?

How and when did you become involved in the book project?

In November of 2008, shortly before my birthday, I received an e-mail from someone I didn’t know with the subject line of “looking for writers.” I have been writing some short stories, in more of a journal manner than a book, and saving these in a collection. What I really wanted to do with them was write a book.

On opening the e-mail there was a brief statement that The Book Project was soliciting writing samples and would be selecting a group of published and novice authors to collaboratively write a novel in 12 months. It listed Peter Lihou’s e-mail address and said that anyone interested needed to submit a 500-word writing sample to Pete. What it didn’t say was the potential author was to submit a 500-word writing sample of why they wanted to participate in the project. Wanting to submit something that would stand out, I submitted a 500-word article I had written about my experiences with a ruptured appendix a few years earlier.

When Pete contacted me, he provided more details about the project, including what the sponsor wanted in the writing submission. I offered to provide another submission but Pete said my writing was great, he thoroughly enjoyed it, and no further submission was needed. I received my author’s contract and saved it to my computer on my birthday, November 24, 2008, and by December all selected authors were required to sign a contract whereby each would split an equal share of royalties. Provisions in the contract included that anyone who left the project would receive a percentage based on the number of months they participated; however, the remainder of their “earned” royalties would be donated to the charity of their choice – a great incentive to participate to the end.

Do you think being Alaskan had anything to do with being selected?

Amazonclicks is the project sponsor and they are based in the UK. The main requirement was the ability to read and write proficiently in English and the goal was to have authors from around the world. We have authors in Australia, Canada, Spain, British Channel Islands, mainland UK, Spain, Turkey, the Philippines, and four in the US (Alaska, Colorado, Tennessee, and Texas). I don’t think being from Alaska helped in my selection but I guess I would have to ask Pete.

As a novice writer on the team, what challenges do you face?

Five of the remaining thirteen authors already have published poems, short stories, and/or novels. Keeping that in mind, I think the published authors who already had their own writing methods have been more challenged by the collaborative writing than the novices. In all honesty, my biggest challenge was trying to stick to a guideline of 4,000 words for a chapter and my own difference of opinion regarding one part of our story. I wasn’t alone in this – our group was either vehemently in favor of the selection or vehemently opposed.

The novel is actually three stories that interweave, with authors being divided into groups to write about one thread.

Tell us a little about the process of collaborating online. How do you feel one another out?

Part of the “feeling one another out” process was taken care of by division of the authors into groups. This was done by the project coordinator, Peter Lihou, who allegedly had some sort of ranking system to decide who to put in which group. This was not divulged to the group but overall it seems to have been a good matrix from my standpoint. Although there have been some disagreements between the groups, the individual groups have meshed pretty well. We have been at this for seven months now, and one of the authors commented that she was amazed how our forum “chats” often remind her of small office meetings and/or water cooler discussions.

How do you integrate styles?

Part of the process early-on was determining what type of “voice” we would use to tell the story. The on-line forum has many areas that discuss characters, chapters, story line, where the story lines intersect, research, etc., and everyone is required to participate as part of the author agreement.

Since my group has finished writing, we have been editing (and reading) the integrated chapters for grammar and punctuation. When we started, I thought there would be a lot of necessary revision so the book didn’t sound like twenty people had written it. I’ve been very surprised that all the chapters have meshed very well and the story is one I would have difficulty putting down before I finished. Taking the time to decide up front has left little work to integrate the novel.

And how do you steer things in a different direction if you feel like they’re going astray?

In December, most of the potential authors submitted a 1200-word plot. We discussed the ideas on the forum and discussed whether or not they would work with this far-flung large group. Then voted with majority rule and eventually combined two of the plots into the novel we are now writing.

The next thing we did was put together an overall high level chapter outline. Next characters were created and some bios for the characters outlining their part in the novel. If anyone feels we are going astray, we come back to the outline. So far, so good except we do have some loose ends to tie up in the final chapter.

Who handles the logistics?

Peter Lihou has handled most of the logistics, setting up the forum and the wiki sites we have used. He is now handling the logistics of scheduling the webinar where we will reveal some of the story.

How do you collectively make decisions?

A lot of forum discussion and eventually an on-line forum vote is the process that has been used to collectively make decisions. Since we officially began the novel on January 1, 2009, almost all of the authors have over 500 forum posts to date, plus posts to the wiki pages.

How are you handling the feedback and revision part of the process?

Originally, authors were reading individual chapters and posting suggestions on the forum. For example, Chapter 1, Page 3, Line 10, xxxxxx is not spelled correctly or a comma should be inserted after xxxxx, the paragraph might read better if stated this way, or more/less description needs to be included, etc. That was a very labor intensive method for providing feedback and revisions.

One of the authors then put all the finished chapters into one document and I copied that document to my computer. I then took each individual chapter and used track changes to insert words that seemed to be missing, delete duplicate words, and insert grammar and punctuation changes. I then sent the track changes version to him to accept or reject. He and I then had some e-mail discussions on which grammar reference to use. He has then integrated the changes and we are at version 10 of the one document editing. The biggest challenge for me was editing in British English, the voted style to use at this point. I eventually overcame that challenge by using Word tools and setting the selected language to English (U.K.).

You mentioned that the project began with twenty writers and is now down to thirteen. What are some of the reasons people dropped out?

For such a small group, there have been an amazing number of individual challenges. One of the authors suffered a heart attack and after a period of recuperation left the group due to his doctor’s recommendation that he do so. One other U.S. author left because of job difficulties. A couple of people left because of family commitments and another author was asked to leave the group for failure to comply with acceptable behavior as outlined in the writer’s agreement. These are why authors have left as I understand the circumstances. Pete is the only one who knows all of the details.

You mentioned that your experience so far has been both frustrating and thrilling. Could you give an example from each end of the spectrum?

It was thrilling to be one of twenty selected authors from the fifty authors who submitted written interest to the The Book Project.

It has been frustrating to me to spend so many hours doing research and writing bios for character development to have that information not be read by the other groups for chapters that involve all three threads. I will admit it was difficult to try to stay on top of what was happening with the other characters while writing about my own as this sometimes led to more forum reading than actual writing; however, time-consuming edits were required when authors integrated characters without paying attention to character development prior to that chapter.

Anything else you’d like to share about your involvement in the project?

This project has allowed me to learn skills I’m finding useful in everyday life. We discuss the novel itself and everything from admin skills to marketing. We have held two test webinars and it was delightful to talk to most of the authors involved. With the wide range of time zones, a few individuals were unable to make one or the other webinar and this is a challenge we are trying to overcome with the webinar in September.

For anyone who is interested in this type of project, I would encourage participation. Although the requirement in the author’s agreement stated each individual would volunteer at least 1-1/2 hours a week between writing, the forum, and the wikis, some weeks require 5 hours or more just to keep up with all the forum posts.

Overall, this project has allowed me a paradigm shift and expanded my ability to think across several continents.

Glenda Smith is currently employed in the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office for the State of Alaska and spends part of her time doing field work (material mining site and revetment inspections) along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which she says provided a great summer of 2008 driving from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez – some on the highway and some on a narrow dirt road beside the pipeline called the drive lane. Recently she moved from Anchorage to the Valley.

1 thought on “49 Writers Interview: Glenda Smith”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wow! What an amazing, complex project. I'm tickled that an Alaskan took part. (With a day job no less — talk about some juggling.) Congrats to you, Glenda Smith! And as always, thanks Deb –I haven't read about this anywhere else.

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