News of the Weird: A Million Penguins

It has been said that a million monkeys typing might one day produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Then the Internet came along, and disproved the theory.

Still, some people haven’t given up hope. Publisher Penguin Putnam has just launched, the world’s first collaborative, Wiki-based novel. “The buzz these days is all about the network, the small pieces loosely joined,” the project description begins. “But what about the novel? Can a collective create a believable fictional voice? How does a plot find any sort of coherent trajectory when different people have a different idea about how a story should end-–or even begin? And, perhaps most importantly, can writers really leave their egos at the door?”

Over the next five weeks, aims to learn. According to Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog, this is an open-ended experiment, fueled by curiosity, with no expectations or projections as to how it will all turn out. A team of creative writing students has “seeded” the novel to get the ball rolling, and Jon Elek of Penguin’s Viking imprint will be monitoring s progress and reporting on the project’s blog.

The project has generated a lot of attention–and input. As of this writing, there’s the makings of sixteen chapters, as well as an alarmingly large cast of characters, some with extensive (and very amusing) biographies. Some people seem to be taking the exercise pretty seriously; others appear to be actively attempting to sabotage the, er, narrative flow (see Chapter Three and a Half). As you might expect, it’s disjointed, repetitive, and no one part of it bears any obvious relationship to any other part (except the bits that have been copied verbatim from one chapter to another). But it’s early days yet.

Will the end result be readable, or even make sense? Having lived in collective housing, I don’t have much faith in the wisdom of collectives (especially the ability of any invidividual member to clean the collective bathrooms). Still, this a fascinating experiment, and it’ll be interesting to watch how it shapes up over the next few weeks.


  1. I’m thinking the result will be laughable, but not much more. 🙂 We do this in class all the time. Put students in a group, have each write two sentences of a story, then pass it on to the next student. So Penguin Putnam is borrowing lesson plans from English teachers now?

  2. This is interesting but it’s not all that new. I’ve been part of collaborative writing several times before on The message boards there contain threads for role-playing, which is actually just collaborative story telling. Most threads don’t work too well and they’re only really fun for the writers and a few others. Most also dwindle away and die due to lack of interest. One story I was involved in did manage to maintain a coherent plot and we worked our way to an ending. But as stated before, it requires some leadership, organization, and someone to delete the obviously spam posts.

  3. Hah, I say Hah!

    Atlanta Nights was written in much the same way, and it was offered a publishing contract by a Traditional Publisher! This must be the Wave of the Future in Book Writing.

    Farewell, you snooty elite writers! Main Street authors are going to eat your porridge.

  4. Did they ever play that game where people sit around in a circle, one person starts a story, and the next one picks up where the other one left off? I’d expect the quality of this to be about the same…

  5. Of course, in the case of the internet there is a negative selection against the monkey accidentally typing Hamlet…

  6. Apparently the penguins haven’t been introduced to those fascinating creatures we call Humans.

    I suppose I shouldn’t say that an experiment is unworthy because the results are easily predicted–sometimes the common wisdom is wrong. But still, I wouldn’t mind being the goof who’s collecting a paycheck for thinking up this bit of time-wastery.

  7. Out of curiosity, I went to the site and read the first part…and suffice to say, came to the conclusion it was written by aforementioned monkeys. Of course, something that godawful will no doubt end up being an Oprah selection…


  8. Wikis work just fine for non-fiction with clearly defined scope. Wikibooks is doing just fine last I checked. Then again, they’re in no hurry of getting anywhere and no need to worry about profits.

    But fiction? Um, I’m more than a bit sceptical. Yes, it can work, but it needs leadership, organisation, and that every contributor sticks to what’s agreed on. (Yes, everyone’s favourite parts of collaboration still apply – wikis don’t mysteriously take them away…) Otherwise it has a tendency to go either nowhere, or everywhere at once. I believe that this project has a little bit unreasonable time limit, and would need a far longer planning phase. Aside of that…

    Oh well, we’ll see. It’ll be interesting all right…

  9. Since you’ve been ragging on novel-writing contests, I thought of you when I came across this announcement that looks to be on the up and up.

    You could even apply your checklist against it:

    * Company has a history of publishing books? Hmm, they’re just starting, but their first books look on the up-and-up.

    * Prize looks reasonable ($1,000 plus contract to publish)? Entry fee is ten bucks. Check.

    * Judges not only named but who have reputations in publishing? Check.

    This seems to pass the sniff test.

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