Vacancies: Postscript| November 6, 2019
Several years ago, Mishpacha’s Hebrew-language magazine put out a fascinating story supplement. Essentially, they played “Pass the Story” in chapter form. In the classic game, kids all sit in a circle. One person offers a single sentence starting with “Once upon a time,” and each person adds on a line, creating a fantastical tale.
In this supplement, one writer wrote the first chapter of a complex story. Then she passed the document on to another writer who added her own chapter, and then the next writer built upon that.
Each writer had a vastly different style, and the story ricocheted from thriller to family saga to drama. The writers hadn’t created a plot beforehand; they were each simply handed the story and had to pick up the plot thread wherever it was, and run with it.
It was a daring experiment. Some readers loved the final story, some didn’t. But everyone loved the concept.
When planning our next Yom Tov issue, we toyed with using the same technique in Calligraphy. But the consensus was that our readers enjoyed getting a number of individual stories and would feel cheated if they just got a single story, no matter how gripping it was.
Still, the concept stayed in the back of my mind, niggling from time to time.
Then, it was nearly summer, and we had a serial slot opening. I wanted something light and fun and a little different. And I wondered: What if we’d take the same concept and create a serial in which each writer penned a single chapter?
I ran the idea by a few other editors and got mixed responses; they all thought it was a cool concept but were concerned that execution would be tricky. When reading a serial, readers want a cohesive experience from week to week. We’d have to ensure that our character stayed in character even as each writer made her own mark on the story.
I reached out to a core group of fiction writers and presented the plan. They were cautiously enthusiastic. We decided we didn’t have the Israeli guts to write with no overarching plan. We were going to have to cook up a plot we all could live with, and hammer out the full story line before a single word was written. We set up an online chat room, logged in… and the fun began.
She’d just created a $6 muffin. Her new, sleek window shades would be arriving any day. Was she, too, falling for the lure of the new and the trendy?
Cruises and murder mysteries and hotel intrigues, oh my! What happens when you put 13 fiction writers in one chat room and tell them they can’t leave until they come up with a joint serial plot? You get 13 slightly crazed writers and a whole lot of zany ideas bouncing off the walls.
Just joking, of course. We were allowed breaks for eating and sleeping and doing laundry. But, while we weren’t actually chained to our computers (though if you ask my kids, I’m always chained to my computer), before the plot of Vacancies even began to take shape, there were weeks’ and weeks’ worth of ideas — discussed, considered, tweaked, embellished, and ultimately rejected.
Some ideas were too complex for a short serial; others didn’t lend themselves to the multiple-writer format. And some were of the wouldn’t-it-be-fun-but-we-could-never-get-away-with-this genre.
Each of us had her preferences, each advocated for her personal favorite setting, character, plot, name, and more. As time went on and the plots kept on changing, the discussion became ever harder to follow. You’d take a break to run out to the store (’cause sometimes our wheels just don’t turn without chocolate) and come back to find that the poverty-stricken waiter on the luxury cruise had suddenly become a floaty alternative medicine healer working out of her basement.
And then you’d spend the next hour reading through all the back chats that led to this point, only to realize that the discussions had moved forward without you, and, wait, now they’re talking about a health-conscious gym owner and a strip mall?
Undoubtedly, there are much more efficient ways to come up with a serial plot. But for the sheer fun of having a bunch of creative people let their imaginations run wild together, there was no comparison.
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 666)
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