The process of collaborative authorship to cross borders and transfer ownership of a story towards the audience

Preset #8

In the fall of 2020, the project operating by the name of Europe Village reached its milestone with the publication of The Whispers in the Trees book on two European markets: in the U.K. and  Hungary. With four more languages to come (Polish, Slovakian, Czech, and German) it remains in the process of crossing all kinds of borders, as it used to do while being written collaboratively by five European authors, all from different countries and with different writing backgrounds. The project was commercial but supported by the Hungarian town of Szentendre, well-known for its artistic vibe.

What – a young adult fiction written by five authors from different countries and with different backgrounds

The effect of the Europe Village project is the book called The Whispers in The Trees. It’s a young adult fiction that uses a mystery-crime theme to tell the story of a young woman separated from her past, her twin sister, and nature. To re-establish that connections and fulfill her story arc the heroine must go on a journey and discover the oldest European trees, where the tips regarding the “mystery-crime” part are hidden.

It’s a kind of “getting back in touch with yourself” book. It supposed to incentivize personal relation with nature and unobtrusively deliver the message that in some ways “nature is magic”. All of that, in the setting of common European cultural and natural heritage.

The creative team

Behind Whispers in The Trees stand at least five authors (six, if you consider the creative leadership). It is a story co-invented, co-planned and co-executed by five people – none of which shared the common native language. Also, none of them had a similar writing background. Playwright sat next to the published writer, who sat next to an academic with five novels still in the drawers, who sat next to the blogger… The team members were from Hungary, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Portugal.

Apart from the writers, there were translators (one for every language) and the team managers. A big team that, in many ways, have influenced the story.  The communication was done mostly online, with a couple of few-days meetings in Szentendre for the most important parts of the creative process.

Why – to create a story that crosses borders between the reader and the writer and transfers ownership of a story towards the audience

The Europe Village project grows from a strong focus on European, cross-borders and ecological values. It comes, of course, from the idea that literature is a tool that still is capable of shaping attitudes and beliefs. But it takes it further.

One of the fascinating things about the origins of storytelling is an idea which nowadays seems counterintuitive. A story is not necessarily something being told (or otherwise shared) by one person, but something molded by a joint effort of different imaginations. Interrupted and discussed publicly over fireplaces thousands of years ago, it changed its course, depending on the crowd’s reaction, and – finally – it passed from mouth to mouth. Every carrier of it, be that druid or an old lady, or someone in a bar, shaped it.

People romantically call Homer the one behind Iliad and Odyssey but the academics are not so sure. Humanity recreated the Epic of Gilgamesh from many versions that differ and span for over eleven centuries. Naturally, it’s not a comparison of The Whispers in The Trees to the ones aforementioned but it took a deep lesson from them. Whenever we re-tell a story, whether we want it or not, it changes. Was that a romance we focused on, was it an action, ambiguity of human nature or the good vs. evil conflict it all tells a lot about who we are. The border between a reader and a creator is thin and easy to cross. And such is a message of the project and collaborative work of The Whispers of the Trees’ authors.

How – by making authors cross border their own perspectives and derive themselves from the singular ownership of a story

Writing in a creative team is not something new to anybody, who has the slightest idea of how any of the TV series is made. The value within Europe Village was the unlikeliness of such a particular creative team. All the reasons for which the team seemed incoherent were the challenge for the writers that became the power of the final product.
The process of writing The Whispers in the Trees consisted of several parts, each of them managed by the creative mentor who participated in planning but not in writing:

  • Preparation of story arc by each of the writers individually for their own stories.
  • Choice of the main story arc that all the team will follow.
  • Working and molding the story arc collectively then planning it.
  • Dividing the team into two-people sub-teams, writing parts of the book.
  • Writing the parts by authors, in their native languages.
  • Translation of the written parts.
  • Choice of the actual main setting (Szentendre town in Hungary).
  • Working on the book collectively, once all the parts are done, molding the story again.
  • Re-writing whole chapters of the book, once again individually or in small teams.
  • Working on the polishing of the book.
  • Publishing.

Lessons learned

There are quite a few lessons to be taken from the process.

Firstly, crossing one’s perspective is challenging, even before the story emerges. Initially, six writers were to be writing the book but one of them resigned because of “political” (or perspective) issues. Even before planning the book, the sole fact that one of the meetings took place in the then controversial Hungary Central European University venue, made one of the members of the team resign. The person didn’t want to create literature with people who found it “okay” to enter that area, despite the fact that the book has no visible political leaning. There are some borders that literature, or writers at least, are not able to cross after all.

Secondly, ownership of a story is a battleground. The story that was chosen was based on one of the writer’s propositions and was particularly dear to the creator. Therefore, a peculiar relation was created. For one person it was something own and personal, for others it was just a material to work on. A lot of the process was what we could call dragging between different members of the team, with each looking for changes… And ownership. A point particularly important, since the book could be written only as long as all of the writers showed interest in it. Therefore – this ownership battleground had to be full of compromises that would end up in a story belonging to everyone. Another round of that came once the main setting was chosen and then another when the book was being rewritten.

The effect – a story that asks the reader to take over telling it

At some point in the process of working on The Whispers in The Trees the story was so many times re-created, re-written, and re-directed, characters changed and the plot varied from its own variations from before that the writers kept catching each other on referring to the part of the story that no longer existed.

Naturally, every writer working solo does that. Merging or splitting characters, changing plot solutions is nothing new.

But here each writer was telling the same and different story at the same time. None of them had control over what and how to write, there were many discussions, misunderstandings, and bitter concessions. The story is so “collective” that it ceases to belong to anybody in particular, even the writers signed on the cover. But the reader of the book should notice what in many moments seemed lost to the writers. The differences both in basics, like pace, style or atmosphere, and in the details. It still carries the echo of five distinct voices. So, at the same time, writers stopped to feel it’s their personal work anymore and yet each and every one of them made a mark on it.

Finally, the book encourages the reader: between those five voices, there is enough space for sixth and seventh… and so on. Take from all the details and main points and continue the book, once the last page is read. The Whispers in the Trees transfers the ownership of a story towards the audience.

Now, this is a clearly visible bottom-up process in the case of many successful stories, Harry Potter to mention one. Mesmerized fans start to re-create the story on their own but that rather seems to be a by-effect of a great story. Another battleground – since many authors fight the audience for that ownership, even suing the authors of the so-called fanfics. The Whispers in the Trees is open to re-telling and follows that trope consciously.

It’s a re-creation of the fireplace storytelling. The message is simple: a story belongs to everyone.