We are pleased this week to feature an interview with Jodi Cleghorn and Paul Anderson, creators and editors of Chinese Whisperings anthologies.
- What should everyone know before they read any CW?
(Paul) Chinese Whisperings anthologies are more than just collections of individual stories. Each story can be read on its own as a complete and self-contained story. In fact, that’s one of the conditions we place on our writers when they join—that their story has to be capable of standing on its own.
But the stories aren’t just single stories that have been collected together. Each anthology is itself a story, each story connected to the others. You can enjoy Chinese Whisperings for each individual story, but we also hope you’ll enjoy the larger story arc, and keep returning to the stories to spot further and deeper connections.
- How long has CW been around?
(Jodi) CW will clock its third year as an anthology series in January 2012, but it existed first for nine months as an idea shared between Paul and me (‘that crazy interconnected short story anthology’), and for six months prior to that as a much pondered concept.
- How did that name come about, and how has CW developed over time?
(Paul) The name comes from the children’s game of Chinese whispers. We had the concept of telling the same story from multiple points of view, and over time that became a series of stories that were connected. We wanted to avoid having each author pick up where the last left off—this wasn’t to be a collaborative novel—so instead asked each author to select a minor character from the previous story, reference an incident from it, and then write their own story. That was the whisper that was carried forward. I wrote the last story, so used the main character from the first story (Mercurial by Jodi) as a minor character. That way the anthology became very circular, and we realised that you could start reading at any story, move forwards or backwards, and have the effect be the same. The Red Book is a like a snake swallowing its own tail. The Yin and Yang Book is something different—it is a spider’s web. One of the ideas that inspired the concept was Jodi’s desire to write a story that explored the outcomes of different decisions; she is a huge fan of Sliding Doors and Run Lola, Run and the concepts behind these films influenced the second anthology.
We began with a common prologue, before splitting off. Our male writers explored the consequences that arose from one decision, our female writers the consequences of the alternative. Yin and Yang, female and male, go or stay. The Yin Book and The Yang Book existed as separate eBook anthologies sharing the same opening and, intriguingly, identical endings. When each story had an obvious link to the previous (as in The Red Book) it was easy to see how things connected; in the second anthology it was incredible to watch characters from each parallel timeline popping up, interacting, creating fixed moments in time that anchored both storylines as happening simultaneously in the same place.
(Jodi) CW grew from a mad idea into a publishing house with three imprints beneath its umbrella.
It is now known as a project which exists to push the boundaries of the short story, collaborative writing and the format/formula of the anthology. It gives emerging writers a shot at publication and an opportunity to work professionally with an editor. And if you listen to our writers, it is a safe space to explore new ideas and ways of writing.
- Who is involved in CW, and where did they come from, writing wise?
(Jodi) Each anthology is a balance of male and female writers, and for the most part, they are emerging writers. There is the odd exception to that, but as an editor, I’m specifically looking for new, energetic writers seeking a break through opportunity. For the majority of our writers, their CW story is their debut publication.
We don’t open for submissions, or ask for interested parties to pitch ideas. We hand pick our writers, keeping a close watch on the different twitter hashtags for writers—especially #fridayflash, #Tuesdayserial and those writing for [fiction] Friday.
The defining factor of all our writers is they have a strong online presence, so if you doubt your ability to get a writing gig via Twitter think again. I recruited all but one of the Yang Book writers via Twitter. Writing wise, all CW participants have these common elements:
- Work ethic—they were producing work on a regular basis when we were scouting for new writers
- Quality—they all had examples of their work online, which demonstrated a solid understanding of the mechanics, combined with engaging and unique narratives. The new writers in YandY were overwhelmingly regular contributors to #fridayflash
- Connection—they were all active on social media, using it specifically to get their writing ‘out there’.
- How are the authors selected, and how do new authors get noticed for it?
(Paul) The original line up of authors were friends of ours. Either writers who had become friends, or friends who also happened to write. The Red Book was a huge risk, by a start-up publisher nobody had heard of, created by two writers from a not-terribly-well-known writing site. We didn’t think we could approach anyone who didn’t know us, and we weren’t even sure it would work!
Fate then intervened. Writers dropped out and we had to begin recruiting other writers, and this is where social networking stepped in. Our original writers, in addition to their personal connection to Jodi and I, were connected to Write Anything. We also branched out, looking at people we knew through Twitter and the now defunct writing forum Editors Unleashed.
The writers from The Red Book were invited back for The Yin and Yang Book, and we reached out through Facebook, our own blogs and Twitter to recruit the others.
So visibility is quite important to be selected—we have to know you are out there, and Twitter, participation in online writing fora, including our own Write Anything, ensures we know you are out there. Of course, it isn’t enough to be seen. We have to like your writing too, so any writer wanting to take part in the future should have samples of their work that we can see, such as on a blog.
Finally, a willingness to experiment, cooperate and collaborate is an essential. We write and edit collaboratively on Chinese Whisperings projects. Anyone precious about their work is likely to have a hard time of it.
- What would you recommend to authors that would like to take part in future projects?
1. Buy both the books. Get a feel of exactly what the project entails: the manner in which we wind together narratives and standard of the writing.
2. Ask yourself how you feel about releasing characters you create out into the wild, to be picked up and developed by other writers. We expect writers to work closely with at least two other writers in the anthology, growing and refining shared narrative arcs. If you like to work alone, CW is probably not the project for you.
3. Ask yourself if you can commit to a nine month project. This is how long it takes each anthology to be written and produced. While your part may only be a month or two, you will be called back at the end, when all threads are tightened—retro-woven.
4. Give yourself a trial run. Can you write a story of 3500 (or 7000) in three weeks—from first draft to final. This is what you will be expected to do as part of CW.
5. Have examples of your work on your blog or website. Make sure these are the best possible examples of your work. Then…
6. Make yourself known to us. Paul and I are both on twitter and Facebook, and there is also the Write Anything website. Say hello—engage us in a virtual conversation. Let us know you are interested in the project. We can’t promise you an invite, but it will ensure we take the time to stop in and look at your work.
- Why should authors want to be involved in these projects?
(Paul) If anyone gets involved to make money, gain fame, etc, then they are involved for all the wrong reasons. We hope the anthologies make money. We want all our authors to gain fame—or at least increase their exposure. But what should interest authors about these projects is the way it stretches you. The majority of our writers are at the start of their careers as writers. For the writers of The Red Book, it was the first time the majority had ever been published. Involvement in Chinese Whisperings exposes you to the pressures of writing to deadlines, producing multiple drafts, taking critiques and editorial direction, and collaborating with other writers, negotiating and compromising on plot points.
If you are already a successful, published author, then you probably don’t need to be involved in Chinese Whisperings (though we would welcome you!). But for novice writers this can be exactly the experience needed to turn you from an amateur to a professional writer.
(Jodi) Entry level authors can expect three, yes that is THREE, days of editorial time on their debut novel. It’s a blink of the eye in the life time of a novel. When you get involved in Chinese Whisperings you get the opportunity to develop the all important author-editor relationship. It won’t change your life but it might change your writing. We make a huge investment in all our writers, working alongside them to develop and hone their stories and their craft in general.
The CW website exists as an author platform as much as it is a platform for the anthologies. We encourage interested writers to stop in and explore the website in depth and see what it offers for writers.
- Why should readers want to read CW?
(Jodi) There is nothing like CW on the market. I like to say it is the best of short stories and novels combined. As a reader, it is rare you get to do something totally new.
There are interconnected short story anthologies, but they tend to be written by single authors, or a small group of writers. The Yin and Yang Book takes 22 writers and their stories and winds them all together, with the intricacies of an embroidery needle and thread.
When I first developed the idea, I wanted to create something which would make CW stand out from other anthologies. I wanted to create a collection of stories which compelled readers to read every single story, not skip through reading a few at the front and a few at the back. The best reviews we got, when The Red Book released electronically, was readers saying they’d given themselves ten days to read it, a story a day and found they read it in one sitting. They had to know which character would become the lead character and how the entire thing wove together. And then when they got to the end, they had to start again to get a deeper appreciation of the narrative as a whole.
The additional draw card with The Red Book is you can start with any story in the anthology and you can read it either forward or backward. That alone should make a reader say, ‘what the heck’ and take a punt on our little anthology.
- What does CW do with the profits from the sales? Are authors compensated?
(Paul) Profits? What are profits?
For Chinese Whisperings we decided that authors should be compensated on a percentage basis. Each of the authors of The Red Book get 8% of the net proceeds, and in The Yin and Yang Book they get 4% for the combined book, and 8% for the single anthology sales
All this relies on us actually making enough money to share out! Sales of the eBook have been disappointing in comparison to the exposure we had. We also have the problem that third party vendors such as Amazon and Smashwords only pay out once you hit certain levels, and we haven’t.
This is a reflection on our inexperience in pushing the eBooks, and possibly picking the wrong price point for the eBooks. We’ve got a lot better since then. Jodi has been spot on picking prices for our charity anthologies, and could now organize an Amazon chart-rush in her sleep.
Now that the paperbacks are coming out, we anticipate sales to be far stronger, so we can finally provide our authors with the compensation they deserve.
(Jodi) With the paperback about to go on sale, we’ll also be able to provide authors with a contributor copy on top of their ongoing royalty payments.
- When are the important dates to keep in mind for CW’s various collections?
(Jodi) In terms of ongoing dates… all our anthologies begin with the start of the Chinese New Year—so it differs from year to year, from late January to early February, when the actually anthology beings. We start to scout for new writers in December. CW takes between nine and ten months from start to completion because the manner in which the stories are written, one after the other, meaning the release dates are normally between October and December.
The big dates to lock in right now are the release of The Red Book and The Yin & Yang Books. They will be released by Amazon Chart Rush on Tuesday 11th October. For those wanting to pre-order, they can drop into the CW website and purchase their anthology via there.
- What are the relevant important links for sales, samples, etc.?
(Paul) Our site for Chinese Whisperings is http://chinesewhisperings.com/ where you can purchase the CW anthologies in all formats directly from us.
You can also find us on Amazon, Smashwords, and from your friendly neighbourhood bookstore.
- Where will the print books ship to, or will they be available worldwide?
(Jodi) Our books ship worldwide. They will be available at all the most popular online bookstores, but we also have distribution points in Australia, UK and USA for people wanting to buy direct from our website. When they buy direct from us—we’re able to keep the retail mark up and pass on the extra profits to the writers.
- What formats are the digital versions in?
(Paul) What format would you like! Currently we have .mobi, .epub and .pdf versions. That covers the overwhelming majority of eReaders. And if you purchase from Smashwords, you can pick from a number of other formats including .lit, .txt and .htm
- What promotions are being done for people that want print and digital versions?
(Jodi) One thing Paul and I are both passionate about, is the bundling of print and digital editions. We don’t believe in the either/or mentality of print vs digital, but see the two forms as complimentary. This means that for every paperback bought through our website, we will provide a digital edition. We provide this at no extra cost to the reader.
We’re currently running on the website a taster of all the stories and interviews with the authors about how they came to write those stories—so readers know what they are getting when they purchase one of our stories.
- What have you gained personally from the CW projects?
(Paul) A large number of very good friends from across the world, and an increased confidence in my skills as an editor.
(Jodi) I’ll ditto Paul, but to add two things, an awesome business partner, who keeps me focused and grounded, and a solid platform to develop other literary projects. There’s also the Award for Emerging Artist I won earlier this year, at the Aurealis Awards here in Australia. CW definitely played a part in being considered worthy of the award.
- How successful would you say the CW project has been on a scale of 1 to 10 and why?
(Jodi) It sounds a bit of a suck to say 10… but the fact we could take concept, which is both simple and complex and make it work in practice means we’ve achieved what we set out to do. But there’s always room for improvement. Our writers have all grown and developed since they started, as Paul and I have as editors.
- What do you feel is CW’s greatest success?
(Paul) The fact we got there in the end, that we actually published the books, and that all the authors are still speaking to us!
The Red Book was plagued by so many disasters we began to blame a malevolent sprite, nicknamed the “CW Fairy”. Not content with blighting the project with ill-health, economic woes and personal disaster, the CW Fairy hung around for the subsequent anthology and gave us more of the same!
So the fact that we did it, and did it so well, is probably the greatest success.
- What do you think CW could do better in the next project?
(Jodi) I think we’ll be better able to weave the intricacies of stories in future projects. YandY showed the writers just what they could do, in terms of picking bits from other stories and winding them into new stories, not just from their own anthology, but from the parallel world in their opposite anthology. I believe we now all have the confidence to really throw ourselves in the deep end in 2012.
I believe we’re better positioned now, via other eMergent Projects—such as 100 Stories for Queensland and Literary Mix Tapes, to build a better community vibe and structure around Chinese Whisperings.
- What is next for CW after October?
(Paul) Good question! Right now, eMergent Publishing is concentrating on our writer’s website Write Anything, the release of the paperbacks of the two Chinese Whisperings anthologies, and the release of our Literary Mix Tapes anthologies, so we don’t have any finalised plans for the next Chinese Whisperings. We do however have three ideas for future Chinese Whisperings and we hope to shortly begin work on the next three anthologies. Watch this space!
(Jodi) In a word… genre! And I still have one interconnected concept to trial. If The Red Book was a circle and YandY a spider’s web, the idea I have ticking away in my head would be best described as a zipper. And in the medium term, I would like to experiment further with the YandY idea in an Australian context.
- What question did you hope I would ask, and how would you have answered it?
(Jodi) How did Chinese Whisperings start?
CW is the hangover from a NaNoWriMo idea I didn’t have the balls to attempt in 2008, when I signed up for my first sortie into November writing madness. I wanted to write ten interconnected stories. Several months later, having left my job as magazine editor, to just write, I was doing contract work on another magazine and was offered more work. At that point, I knew I could take the offer and help the lady in question grow her dream, OR I could take my skills and produce something of my own.
The idea of doing it solo never occurred to me. I think that’s the kick back to working in magazines—it’s a collaborative effort. At the time, I was a regular reader at Write Stuff (now Write Anything) and I considered pitching the idea of some kind of anthology to Karen, the site founder. Several days later I decided I could do it myself, I didn’t need to ask anyone for help. Turns out I did need help—and and it came in the guise of Paul Anderson hanging out on Facebook (right when they first installed the chat feature) and I told him I had this idea for ten writers to write ten stories which all connected. By that stage I had the formula I thought I could use.
Paul said the idea was just crazy enough to work, and we went on to grow a publishing empire, only to end up back at the start, with the interconnected short story project.