A fictional utopia in seven easy steps

The making of Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics

by Jess Barber and Sara Saab

So. We co-wrote a novelette, then Clarkesworld bought it (you can read it there right now!) It’s the first published novelette for either of us, our first co-writing experience, and the first — but definitely not last — collaboration to sprout from the fertile soil that is our ridiculously talented Clarion class of 2015.

The process, which we largely pantsed, took us a little by surprise. We wanted to document the process as well as write up some story notes. Which is hopefully why you’re here. Hi!

Inspiration! Or, god make all the bad things stop for just even one hour pretty please

We didn’t set out to collaborate on this story. We’re very different writers: Jess is primarily motivated by character and exploring relationships and emotion; Sara is driven by a first-order desire to shape language. But we’ve admired each other’s fiction since that first critique back on day 1 of Clarion (it was of Jess’s story “You and Me and the Deep Dark Sea,” available now in Sunvault, if you’re wondering), and we’ve spent a lot of time since then agreeing and disagreeing about how good fiction does the magic.

Two things inspired this story.

The first thing was our interest in writing visionary — or utopian, or better world — fiction. Look, the actual world is a trashfire. It’s important for art to mirror this, but it can also provide a place for people to find safe harbor, and rest, and visualize a better version of themselves. We both have stories we return to when things are hard, and we wanted to try to write something that might serve that purpose for someone else.

Second, we were compelled by stories that span characters’ lifetimes — stories that explore the complicated ways people and relationships evolve over time, and which challenge the notion of a “traditional” story arc that resolves in a happy ending. Stories that challenge the notion of what a happy ending even means, over the course of an entire life.

Tertiary inspirations: Thoughts about the story engines that move readers forward, and how voice and plot influence this. The compelling relationship tropes at work in a lot of fan-fiction, and whether those can be deployed in original fiction. And, well, general nerd-outs about city planning.

There was a whole lot of ‘writing the stories you want to read’ with this one.

Ideas you get in the shower

As we mentioned, this story didn’t begin as a collaboration. We’d discussed writing together before, and had made a few half-hearted attempts, but nothing really clicked. Then Sara sent the first scene of this story — the scene where Mani and Amir meet in the misters — to Jess, and Jess immediately fell in love.

Our Clarion class sends each other bits of works-in-progress fairly often — sometimes for advice, but mostly for cheerleading and “inspiration”, often in the form of cajoling and threats. Jess began badgering Sara incessantly for the next bit of the story, but after the first couple scenes Sara stalled on where to take it next. Jess began to offer many helpful suggestions, which eventually led to Sara saying: you know what? Maybe YOU should write the next scene.

So Jess wrote the next scene. And? It just clicked.

Nuts & bolts & things

We worked in a shared manuscript in Google Docs, and we’d pass the writing baton every beat or every scene — effectively, every several hundred words. Each of us would mark up the latest section written by the other person with notes (points to return to) and limited line edits, then write fresh words to extend the story.

For what it’s worth, we live on different continents, in Boston and London, with a five hour time difference. Part of the reason this worked so well was that each of us often woke up to fresh words to read. Sometimes we’d roughly agree the next section, but often it was a surprise. Once we were in the document and energized on new developments, it was more likely we’d start drafting the next section.

Index cards and arguments

We passed about six weeks and seven thousand words like this, but about halfway through the story, we began to slow down. We sort of knew how the relationship arc went, but needed to agree how to resolve the main city planning plotline. Luckily, Sara was in Boston for Boskone in February, so we took our butts to the Cambridge library, grande Starbuckses in hand. Jess produced a stack of multicolored index cards. We mapped what we had so far. Then we started thinking about the next bits.

We had decided that since this was a story of a better world in a climate of real and imagined dystopias, we had to be vigilant not to accidentally omelas it (yes, that’s a verb now). We also felt strongly that we didn’t want to use a ‘science/technology is bad’ gambit to generate conflict in this world — we’re both pro-science technologists and we just don’t believe that either of these things are inherently bad.

We brainstormed a few ways we could climax and resolve the city planning plot. We confess we quarreled a bit. Many coffees were drained. Patience frayed. It became clear to us how different a pair of writers we are — Sara was searching for the most expedient way to move forward without utilizing a conventional rising tension and action-heavy climax arc, Jess was interested in emotionally mapping each character in each scene going forward, in order to make sure they ended up in the right place.

It was hard. But eventually we landed on an outline we both thought would work.

City of Light

In general, neither of us actually works from outlines that often, so we were a little concerned all of our index cards would be for naught. But — probably because we’d stress-tested them so well that day in the Cambridge library — we managed to stay surprisingly true to what we’d planned. We took great pleasure in marking each card with a star (or a weird emoji, when the physical card was unavailable) once each scene was finished.

And suddenly, we had a novelette draft. A flabby, awkward, fifteen-thousand word draft. Luckily, Jess had a trip to Europe planned around this time. So we did pretty much the best thing you can do for a draft (or a human). We took it with us on a writing retreat to Paris.

In Paris, we printed out the novelette and marked it up with highlighter to help us visualize pacing, which was one of our early concerns: different colors for summary, scene, flashback, and time-jumps. And we set to doing a structural / line / cutting edit. Our hope was that the final version would be no more than thirteen-thousand words long.

This part was pretty intense (thank god for Parisian croissants). There were many beats we were happy with, but there were also specific sentences and word choices that we agonized over. There was almost a weird(est) fight over whether to use the word ‘weirder’ or ‘weirdest.’ There was a veritable darling-massacre. We cut a training montage and an adorable hotel scene between Amir and Rafa. We cut several passages from a fictional pan-humanist treatise (bits of these later became our chapter titles!). We cut about 95% of Jess’s tendency to fill dialogue with em-dashes and stutters. We cut a lot of flab.

After a week of this, we were exhausted and covered in buttery, flaky crumbs, but pretty satisfied. We had a critiqueable draft. And the best part — the story was now a much tighter 12.5K long!

The crits (Imperial March plays, over Skype)

We submitted our draft to Sara’s writing group in London first (shout out to those geniuses). After an amazing pancake breakfast, we FaceTimed Jess in on an iPad propped up against the TV for the critique circle. We got some great notes, including several things we ultimately decided to address — the way a few chapters began, the settings of a couple of scenes, the resolution of some of the relationships.

Next (and we’re aware how spoilt we are here), we were able to submit edit no. 2 to Jess’s writing group in Boston (shout out to these geniuses too!). We got some MORE great notes. Here we addressed questions about the power dynamics of the various relationships, the utopian nature of the story, and also challenged ourselves to be sure the story we had was the story we wanted.

More and more, we were pretty sure it was.

Finally, we opened the story up to casual reading and general notes from our Clarion 2015 class, and made structural edits to two beats that were still bothering us.

And then? Four editing passes and ten months later? We were done.

We submitted the story and it was picked up by Clarkesworld, which we were very, very happy about, as you can see:

Did we learn a thing?

Definitely! The process of co-writing and getting to take such a deep look at someone else’s writing process and writing motivations was really fascinating, and we both feel like stronger writers for it.

Even though the back-and-forth nature of the drafting process was great for generating new material, it was also occasionally nerve-wracking. We’re both slightly persnickety writers with strong senses of “rightness” in our own work. Often, reading a new scene that did something unexpected came with a feeling of “this isn’t where I would have gone; is this going in the wrong direction?” But we always worked it out. It was helpful to realize there’s not the one true version of the story you’re trying to find, but more like lots of different possible paths to the same destination.

Working with another writer was also extremely motivating — in addition to the recurring injection of creative energy from someone else, there’s a strong sense of not wanting to let your writing partner down. For anyone who gets bogged down with perfectionism or has a hard time putting “real artists ship” into practice, we’d strongly recommend co-writing.

Overall, collaborating on this story was a highly awesome experience. The final product is something neither of us would have been able to produce on our own. We love it and are proud of it, and we hope you love it too :)

Read “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” over at Clarkesworld!