By Zach Bohannon and J. Thorn
Zach Bohannon and J. Thorn are bestselling science fiction and horror authors, and the co-owners of Molten Universe Media. They are the hosts of “Authors on a Train,” a unique experience centered around collaboration, and workshops to help take your craft and marketing to the next level. For more information about Authors on a Train, please visit www.authorsonatrain.com
I arrived in Chicago earlier in the afternoon and met up with my co-author, J. Thorn, as well as eight other authors whom I’ve only spoken to on Slack over the past several months. Thorn and I handpicked these eight writers to attend our inaugural “Authors on a Train” retreat, and the time had finally come. We boarded the train and headed to New Orleans for an amazing week, having assembled a fantastic group who had traveled from as far as the United Kingdom and Australia to be with us. And I was excited to get started.
So, what is Authors on a Train?
The idea came to us back in March, when we took an Amtrak train from Chicago to New Orleans with fellow authors Joanna Penn (J.F. Penn) and Lindsay Buroker. Once in New Orleans, we spent a week collaboratively writing a novella, American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice. By the time the week was up, we’d completed the entire first draft.
On Thursday night of that week, one of my favorite metal bands from Sweden just so happened to be performing in New Orleans on a rare U.S. tour, so J. and I went to the show. Before the concert, we sat outside of a restaurant and talked over burgers. Among the many things we talked about as we reflected on the week was how cool it would be to share this experience with other authors. Collaboration has been a hot topic in the world of writing, especially in the indie community, and I’d be willing to bet that no one has done as many different types of collaboration as J. Thorn. Whether it’s putting together multi-author box sets, writing a book with one other author, writing a single, cohesive novel with ten other authors like The Black Fang Betrayal, or finishing an entire novella in a week in New Orleans with three other writers, J. has completed several different types of collaborations. We knew that we had a ton of experience in collaboration between the two of us, so how could we share that with other authors?
The answer came in what we were doing that week with Joanna and Lindsay. Joanna looked at me and said, “Why don’t we bring a group of authors on the train with us, come down here, and write stories and do workshops for the week?”
And now, we had created a unique experience for other authors. Once in New Orleans, we planned on delivering a week filled with morning and afternoon workshops where J. and I would dive deep into our collaboration process, but also share the methods we use to write our stories and to sell them.
I knew it was going to be a blast, and I was eager to get started!
And so it begins…
I woke up sometime before 7 a.m. on Monday morning to the sound of the train attendant saying, “Now arriving, Memphis.” The speaker is loud, and you’re not going back to sleep after hearing that.
But today would be a fun day. I got to know a few of our attendees over breakfast and then hung out in the observation car with J. and several of the others. We chatted about where each of us is in our author journeys, as well as about the industry, including different trends we see. The conversation flowed, and I loved talking shop – I’m rarely around other writers in person, so it was awesome to trade war stories with other indie authors who are experiencing the same things I am.
A few of the attendees wrote on the train, and the writing pairs teamed up and started plotting the stories that they would be working on during the week.
After watching the rural Mississippi countryside slide by, we were greeted by bayous and swamps before arriving in New Orleans. We headed to our individual hotels in the historic French Quarter before meeting at the co-working space later that afternoon—LaunchPad New Orleans, where all the workshops during the week would be held.
Once everyone arrived at LaunchPad, we gave them an overview of the week. Everyone brought a genuine excitement and enthusiasm to the room. I began to realize the importance of face-to-face events with other authors some time ago; J. and I had discovered the value of time like this, and now we’re routinely getting together to discuss plans for our publishing company (Molten Universe Media) and co-written stories, even though we live several states apart.
After fueling up on beignets and chicory coffee from Café du Monde, we were ready for the week.
Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
On Tuesday morning, I felt a tension in the room. This was the day when everyone would start writing their collaborative short stories. And they were all doing so with someone they had only met in person two days before in the Chicago Amtrak lounge.
As writers, we are used to being alone in our little deprivation chambers. We type away on our computers and build our stories from the ground up. We know our first drafts aren’t so great, but that’s okay because no one is going to see them until we’ve gone through possibly dozens of revisions. We’ve got time to make things pretty before anyone else gets their eyes on our writing.
But collaboration changes all of that.
When you collaborate with another author, you must be willing to open up. At first, showing someone else your unfinished words, or ‘darlings’ as some authors like to call them, can be an anxiety-ridden task. But you’ve got to trust your collaborator.
In my collaborative process with J. Thorn, I write 100% of the first draft. When I’m finished with that draft, I send it over to him without doing any revisions. The first time I did that, it wasn’t easy. Not only was I slightly embarrassed that he would judge my writing, but I was also concerned that I’d left him too much work, and that he’d have a breakdown trying to make my draft better. But once I took a step back and remembered that it was all part of the process, and that this wasn’t the first time he’d ever revised a manuscript, I was able to take a breath and hit Send.
So, it was magical to watch all of this unfold for others in front of my eyes. Each writing pair had brainstormed ideas before Tuesday morning, but this was the first time they would be sharing their ideas with the rest of the group.
The writing goal for the experience was to publish a themed anthology including all the co-written short stories created during the week. We’d all agreed on “New Orleans Vampires and Ghosts” as the theme and I started the process by holding our story meeting in front of everyone – we’d come into the week cold, unsure of what we were going to write just like the others, so that everyone could see how we brainstorm our ideas and start an outline. Then it was their turn to share.
I was proud of how each writer put their ego aside and brought their best ideas to the table for their respective collaboration. They were also receptive to brainstorming amongst the entire group, and awesome ideas landed on the table for every story, including mine and J.’s. The writers embraced the awkward vulnerability of the process, and I knew that if they could carry that same attitude through the entire project, each story would be incredible.
Check back in next week for part II! The anthology is now available for predorder.
If Authors on a Train sounds like something you’d want to attend, we are currently accepting applications for our 2018 retreat. It will take place November 11-16, and again head to New Orleans by way of Amtrak from Chicago. For more information, go to www.authorsonatrain.com.