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Writing a Collaborative Book by Gill Merton

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Gill Merton

Five on a Novel Island

It’s not often that one author is made up of five different writers, but that’s how it was with Edinburgh’s Gill Merton. Gill was born when Gilmerton Community Centre’s long-running creative writing group came together to write a novel, called Entitled:

Her lost baby…

His missing children…

A lifetime of lies

In 1971 Nan and her toddler twins arrive on a remote Scottish island – allegedly long-lost family of eccentric lady-of-the-Big-House, Maud Campbell. By 1985, the teenage twins are asking questions…because someone knows they’re not twins. They’re not even Nan’s children. And Nan isn’t Nan.

Entitled began with a short story by Sheila Corrigan, one of the not-so-famous-five. Sheila’s original was a few hundred words long – flash fiction at its best. Characters, Sally and Dr Malcolm were there from the start, conspiring in the traumatic events that bind them – and leading Sally to do what she does. The rest? All that came later, ideas flying in from everywhere.

Our planning was loose. Each week we had a chat (a lot of chat) about plot; we shared out characters; we decided on broad scenes – and then we each wrote something. We expected duplication and contradiction and confusion, as the story was evolving all the time, but the aim was to get some words down, however messy they might be. Rinse and repeat…Then we could chat some more, and start to edit, edit, edit. At first we were aiming for a modest novella-in-flash; it was much later on we realised we might have a potential novel.

There’s no doubt that Entitled has a dark premise – the lengths someone might go to, to have a family – and as the title suggests, there’s a core theme of entitlement: what gives any one person a right to act a certain way? Sally remains an enigma: we know why she does what she does; we might empathise – but is she justified? (Now there’s a reading group discussion.) The most flawed characters, though, have to be Malcolm and Martha, and their breathtakingly self-centred lives; this made them a guilty pleasure to write. As for the ‘twist’ at the end of the book – will readers see it coming? It doesn’t matter either way. On the other hand, there’s humour, too, and a real sense of warmth on the island. We all secretly want to set up home on the fictional Inniscuillin. Naming it (and spelling it consistently!) then pinpointing it geographically was a highly entertaining puzzle.

The question of a sequel has cropped up. Could we do it again? Yes, not least because the novel’s ending (as in all good stories) is also a beginning. Would we? Right now we’ll settle for a less of a three year challenge – haikus to be printed on a tea-towel, perhaps! The lifeblood of the group is that we’re always trying new things, challenging ourselves, but mostly as individual writers supported by each other. So it’s back to our own projects for now – but let it be noted, we’re quite happy to try our hand at a screen adaptation, especially if it’s on location and we can all have cameo roles…

Has it been a great experience? Without doubt. We’ve learned so much in the writing of Entitled, but if we were to summarise the main points, they would be these ‘Top Tips’:

  1. ‘It’s not you, it’s us’

Creating a cohesive story, rather than a series of clearly-individual scenes means not getting attached to ‘our’ characters or scenes, and being willing sometimes to kill our darlings for the sake of the bigger picture.

  1. Commitment not Committee

Discussions did go round in circles, we duplicated, disagreed, dithered; it would have been too easy to fall into a round-robin experience. Having a particular group member to oversee the development, editing and maintain one voice (our group tutor, in our case) and having chapters narrated by different characters, has given us the best of both worlds.

  1. Money does talk (quietly)

We sought funding from the UK National Lottery Awards for All scheme, which supports community initiatives – and we were successful. With an outcome defined and being trusted with ‘public’ money, we gathered momentum, when otherwise we might, despite our creative intentions, have flagged.

  1. When a prefect should be perfect

If there’s one thing all of us underestimated, it’s proofreading. One, two, three…six, ten, versions later, niggling errors still glare out like neon lights. We’ve done our best. (And we’ll never be as judgemental about traditionally published books again!)

  1. Faith, Hope and Love

Entitled is a project, the first time we’ve ever tried anything like this. Three years on, we have proved it’s possible to publish a novel. We have a certain amount of talent as writers, we have a basic skill-set, but most of all we’ve pushed on with collective delight and determination. We’ve always had faith in the project, we’ve never lost hope we’d achieve our vision – and, warts and all, we do still love the novel…

(c) Gill Merton

About Entitled:

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Gill Merton is the collective pen name of Elizabeth Nallon, Coreen Connell, Simon Bramwell, Sheila Corrigan & Anne Hamilton.

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