Writing a Story in Reverse, with friends


You know that movie by director Christopher Nolan — Momento — where the action moves in sequence from the finish to the start? I’ve always been intrigued by how Nolan could not only conceive such a thing, but how do you pull it off? I was reminded of the movie yesterday as I launched a collaborative story project via a site called Today’s Meet.

Today’s Meet is a backchannel site that can be used during lectures and conferences. It’s a nice design. Easy to use. Each new post in the channel moves to the top, sort of like a blog. I was playing around with it the other day and wondered if it might be possible to use it for writing a story.

The trick would be that the story would have to be told in reverse by the writers, who would have to add their next part of the narrative in time sequence before the part they are reading. In other words, if a character is eating an apple, the next part to be written would be the character getting the apple and preparing to eat it, and before that, the character expressing hunger for an apple. Everything is one-step backwards.

Which means I had to start the project with the story’s ending and then allow folks to backfill the plot. Here’s my first post, which is actually the last few lines of the story: By the time it was all over, she wondered whether the device would actually work the way it was designed. She honestly did not know.

I know. Confusing. But intriguing as a writer who likes to explore the off-kilter world of composition. And eleven brave folks, mostly from my urgings over at Twitter during the day, joined me, adding elements of the plot during the course of the day. Oh, and each post could only be the size of a tweet — 140 characters. Thanks to: Tony, Cindy, Matt, Larry, Sabi, Linda, Gail, Dennis, Doris, and Mike for coming along for the ride. Your words were magic! (and thanks to connections with the National Writing Project, since a number of our writers are part of my NWP network)

The plot of our collaborative story revolves around a woman who has been given some sort of secret device and needs to meet her friends, who are not showing up. There’s a hint of danger in the air, and secrecy. A few minutes ago, I ended the story with the first line of the story: It all began innocently enough.

As we were working on it, I was reflecting on whether this is a possibility for the classroom. I suppose, but I think the backwards-design of the story would be way too complex for my sixth graders. Their critical thinking skill levels are such that they need to see things develop in proper chronological order. But it might be possible with high school students. A few of the posts to our story seemed out of sequence, or slightly jarring to the posts around it, and the problem with Today’s Meet is there is no editing. You write, you post, you’re published. That’s tricky business for writers.

Go read the Collaborative Story-in-Reverse(note: I had to update this as a PDF file because the Today’s Meet site expired on me.

It was a fun experiment, and I kept checking in to see where the story was unfolding towards. We never really answered crucial questions (what is this device anyway? And why such secrecy?) but I think the story is interesting to read.

Peace (in the collaboration),


Bringing Collaborative Stories to an End

The three strands of this week’s collaborative storytelling — in Google Wave, on an Etherpad site, and in a closed network of teacher-writers — were brought to an end this morning as I wrapped up the adventures under the title The Datastream.

You can read all three stories together on a Google Docs website that I created. You also have the opportunity to read each story on its own through links that I put on that master document.


I did very little editing or tidying up of the text, although I wanted to re-form the stories to make more sense as we neared the end.  That was the editor in me. I resisted the urge, figuring that the way the stories get tangled and untangled is interesting in itself, and part of the process, and I did not want to lose the various voices of the collaborators. I loved how links, images, even Twitter, became part of the Wave story.

I struggled with how to end the three stories, even as I tried to steer the narrative towards each other in the last day or two. It became a science fiction-ized story at that point because I could not see any other way to bring the stories together and to a close. What I did not want was a project that never ends.

Ending are as important as beginnings, right?

I decided that I would write the ending piece as second-person narrative — an attempt to draw the reader into the collaborative experience as much as the writers (and there were more than 20 writers across the platforms collaborating on different strands of the story).

So, the obvious question: does this kind of collaborative story have a place in the classroom?

Absolutely, and as Tracy wrote about on her blog, you don’t need technology. Simply having students write the start of a story on paper, and then pass that paper around the room two or three times (it’s a good way to have them think about plot — one person does exposition, another person takes on rising action, etc.).

A few years ago, I used a wiki for this kind of student collaborative writing over a vacation and the students loved it, although the story made no sense whatsoever. Perhaps it would be good to designate some “student editors” of the story, to do sort of what I did here — gently shaping it.

This story project began because I wanted to know what Google Wave was all about. I figured a collaborative story might make sense, and I did learn a lot about Wave from the story writing. I don’t like Wave all that much but I learned how to use it. Then, it occurred to that I am part of a writing community already — the iAnthology — and why not draw them into the concept? So, a second strand began. Someone complained that they could not access Wave, so I started a third strand over at Etherpad, an online word processor that requires no registration.

You should have seen me bouncing around between the three stories, trying to keep plot lines and characters straight in my head. It was fun but strange, as if I were dancing with three partners to three different styles of music, all at once.

If you were a participant in this particular collaborative adventure, I want to thank you. If you are just a reader, thanks, too. We’re in this together, you know.

Peace (in the stories),

Concept Mapping Two Collaborative Stories

Some of you know (because some of you are writing with me) that I launched a collaborative story this week. In fact, I launched two stories. Both began the same way, but one is being done with Google Wave and the other is being written at our iAnthology site (which is closed to the public).

It’s been pretty fascinating to watch the story shift in different directions — in one, a character is believed to be the inventor of the Internet but he comes to visit our main character with a bloodied knife and a story to tell of mistaken¬† identity. The other is set in Italy and again, a “friend” comes calling, but he is on the run from some local bad folks who want a precious stamp.

I thought it might be interesting to use a new site someone recommended called Spicy Nodes (a concept map site that is still in beta) to chart out the elements of the two stories. I’m not sure how Spicy Nodes is any better or more unique than other concept mapping sites.

Here is what I have come up with so far (direct link to the node is here):

You can still join us at the Google Wave story (of course, you need to be in Google Wave to participate). And that raises a question in my head — both Google Wave and the iAnthology limit participation because you have to be part of either structure. I am thinking that maybe we need a third variation of the story — on Etherpad, which requires no log in.

And so, in seconds, I created the start of the story over at Etherpad. Come in and join us: http://etherpad.com/cY2ufkguQ2

Peace (in the node),

Creating a Collaborative Wave Story

A few months ago, I got an invite from my friend, Ben, to Google Wave. I heard the hype and wanted to check it out. So, I got my Wave site set up and … consider me so far pretty unimpressed. Wave is sort of like a merging of email, chat and a wiki. Or something. A disclaimer: Google still considers Wave in beta, so more is sure to come and maybe that will make it more useful to me.

Still, I am determined to try out some of the possibilities and see Wave in action, if I can. Remember: we can’t really think about the learning possibilities of new technology without trying it ourselves.

So, I decided that maybe Wave would be a good way to start a collaborative short story (a sort of exquisite corpse idea). The Wave platform seems like a natural way for a person to start a wave with the start of a story and then allow others to add to the story. It could happen in real time or over time. It would not matter, since Wave is built for both experiences.

So I started a story in a Wave, and went through the process of adding folks from my contact list (I think Wave migrates contacts from gmail) to the short story Wave, sent out a few Tweets to let folks know about it, and … just one person (Thank you Sheryl!) has added a few lines to the story. I think I did everything I needed to do: I added contacts into the Wave, I opened it up for the public, etc.

Here is the story that I began:

To say she was connected would be too simple a statement. She was never disconnected. Even in her sleep, her dreams came to her in bursts of 140 characters. (She knew this because she often woke up and jotted down her dreams, a habit she acquired in her college psychology course. Her notebook was full of nighttime ramblings.)

And so, the night of the storm, with the weather forecasters freaking out about the high winds and possible lightning, she, too, began to freak out. She checked for batteries. She stood waiting near the electrical outlets, ready to pull the plugs at the first flash of lightning.

The last thing she expected was the knock at the door, but then, the unexpected always comes at the unexpected moment …

I figure the next step is to open up the Wave story to my blogging friends who might want to explore along with me.

SO — if you want to join my collaborative story Wave, you can do that by going here — http://tinyurl.com/yjlln5g — and if you don’t have Wave but want to see what the fuss is about, just leave me a comment here and I will send you off an invite (I think I have about 25 invites to dole out) into Wave.

I’d love to see the possibilities of this thing, but I can’t do it alone (the beauty of Wave is that it is built on the concept of collaboration, unless you are alone on your wave, and then it gets pretty lonely in the surf).

Don’t know what the heck I am talking about? Here is an overview of what Google Wave is:

Peace (in the collaboration),