I recently read Mappalujo by Jeff Noon and Steve Beard. It was a really interesting read. I had a great tie reading it. It felt like something innovative and exciting, and as I read I wondered about how the book came about. With its separate but linked narratives it seemed to defy my expectations of structure while still seeming well-themed and, well, exciting.
It wasn't until I got to the end of the book and the appendices that I found out about the writing process. Steve and Jeff used a formalised approach called Mappalujo. They based their chapters on a collection of cultural icons, from Gilbert and George to The Velvet Underground. Writing alternate chapters they ended up with something unique, powerful and just, well, cool.
I wanted to know more about how it worked. What about outlining? Character arcs? What about redrafting, sharing control? So, I contacted Jeff and he has answered a few of my questions.
I've got to be honest - this is the most exciting post I've been lucky enough to post. Mappalujo is a brilliant idea and I want to do it with... with someone, sometime.
So here it is. Check out the rules below, and my interview with Jeff at the bottom of the post.
The Mappalujo Rule Book
Mappalujo is a writing game designed to allow two or more players to create a shared narrative between them. It offers a balance between a collaborative work process and individual freedom.
Players decide between them on a bank of ICONS, a number of celebrity figures either living, dead or fictional. We recommend between six and twenty icons for each new story. Icons should be taken from as broad a range of cultural worlds as possible. An example six might be: OPHRA WINFREY, BATMAN, LADY GAGA, BENOIT MANDELBROT, JEAN-PAUL GAULTIER and BRIDGET JONES. Your chosen icons will be used to influence each chapter of the story.
Rules are decided about maximum length of chapter, for instance no more than three pages of text, or no more than 1,000 words. Mappalujo works best when limits are set in this way, to allow each icon to have its proper influence.
The game begins. The first player chooses one of the iconic figures and writes a short chapter based on it. The icon can influence the writing in any way. For instance the icon BATMAN might lead to a piece about masks, about fighting crime, about revenge, about losing a parent to a violent incident, about comic books, about superheroes, about people copying the behaviour of animals, and so on. This influence can be obvious, or tangential. There are no limits to the extent or range of the iconic influence.
Once chapter one is complete, the chosen icon is removed from the icon bank.
This first chapter is sent to Player 2, who chooses another icon from those remaining in the bank and responds with a chapter of their own, influenced in turn by this new icon.
Mappalujo is suitable for creating both traditional and experimental narratives. So, this second chapter can follow directly on from the first in terms of plot, characters or atmosphere; or it might not, depending on the agreed style of the story.
This second chapter is sent back to Player 1, and the second icon is removed from the icon bank.
The game proceeds in this way until all of the icons in the bank are used up. As the story reaches its final chapters, the players will have fewer icons to choose from, so increased creativity plays an important role.
Stage one of the mappalujo process is complete when the last icon has been used, and the final chapter written. There will now be a number of chapters or episodes, one for each icon in the bank.
These completed chapters are regarded as the raw material for a story. The two players now work together in a more traditional manner, editing and tweaking as they see fit in order to improve the story. During this part of the process a balance should be found between perfecting the story as a whole, while retaining the individual iconic nature of each chapter.
When both players are satisfied with the outcome, the mappalujo game is finished. The story is complete.
Interview with Jeff Noon.
You wrote Mappalujo with Steve Beard. How well did you guys know each other when you began the Mappalujo process?
J: Hardly at all. I’d recently moved to Brighton after living in Manchester, so I was looking to make new friends and contacts. I went to a book reading session at a bar and heard Steve read. We got chatting afterwards, and then met up a short time late for coffee. We talked about working together on something. But we were both aware of the difficulties of writing prose in a collaborative manner (as opposed to writing film scripts, say, which lend themselves much more to a writing team’s joint efforts). So we decided to come up with some kind of formal approach that would allow our different styles and interests to merge in some way. The Mappalujo process was born from those discussions.
I think I read that you decided the number of chapters that the two of you would write. To what extent did you outline the story arc of the project as a whole?
The first stage of the Mappalujo process is to choose a number of chapters, say ten, and a set of iconic figures to go with them. Iconic figures are people of influence in the worlds of art, politics, science, philosophy, etc, living or dead, real or fictional. These iconic figures are then used, each in turn, to influence a chapter of the story as it builds. Steve would choose an icon, write a chapter based in some way on that icon’s life or work, and pass it on to me; in turn I would choose another icon from the list, and write an answering chapter. The story builds up in this manner until all the icons in the list are used up. So the story is written chapter by chapter, with the two authors swapping chapters back and forth. We didn’t plan the story out in any way, not to start with. We just improvised and jumped off each other’s previous chapter. It was very much an explorative process, finding pathways through a labyrinth. The overall arc of the novel only came into being as the individual stories were completed. We soon realised that all the events were taking place in the same city, which we named Lujo. Very gradually the story of Lujo emerged, with a whole set of characters living there, to carry the story forward over many decades of the city’s history.
How much did you and Steve talk about the story during the process of writing the first draft?
We would meet up every so often to chat about the process and the story, and to exchange ideas on future events. It started out as an experiment in writing; only gradually did we realise that we were actually writing a novel, or a series of interconnected short stories. But once that idea took shape, we started to think of it in novelistic terms; so more planning took place, the longer the writing process lasted.
Was it more enjoyable producing the first draft than writing a first draft alone?
Yes, it was very enjoyable! But also frustrating at times. We found it was quite easy to wander off down pathways that looked really exciting to begin with, only to discover that they were actually dead ends. So we would then have re-think meetings, to discover a new approach for the story. But the whole game-playing aspect of Mappalujo always keeps it interesting, and fresh and lively: you never know where you’re going to go next. And of course the more we did it, the better we became at utilising the system.
Was the redrafting and crafting of the final draft more complex than for an individual project?
The first draft produced a kind of soup of raw materials, from which we then crafted the novel. This second part of the process is more traditional; rewriting a second draft pretty much as an individual writer would. One of us would have a go through the material, shaping it, changing it, adding things, discarding other things, etc. The second writer would then treat that new draft as his own, and rework it. We’d then meet up to decide on the final draft. It was probably a little bit more complex than a writer working alone, but not much. This final stage was very similar to how two writers might work on a film script together.
Did the redrafting process take a long time?
It’s really difficult to talk about chronological time passing, because we would have intense periods of working together, and then periods where we took breaks. I would guess that the whole process of writing the novel, beginning to end, took about five years, with breaks here and there. We probably spent half of that time on the initial icon-sharing process, and half on the redrafting. I do remember that we did a lot changes later on, when we starting thinking about how a reader would respond to the book.
Did the Mappalujo process teach you anything about how to write with another author?
I think it solves a lot of the problems of collaborative novel writing, because two or more authors of different sensibilities are able to feed their individual styles and interests into the chapters. Even when we were working on the novel’s overall story as an arc, we never wanted the book to lose that initial feel of a game being played, of different styles meshing together. We wanted it to be a bit ragged at the edges, rather than super smooth. And out of that Mappalujo process, Steve and I have recently started to work together again, this time on film scripts, a much more standard way of writing, but one that is definitely informed by the lessons we learned from creating Mappalujo. I think we’ve learned how to let our individual styles feed into the whole, which is probably the most important aspect of any collaborative project.
What advice would you give to other writers considering their own Mappalujo project?
Set a limit for the length of chapters, say two pages. Don’t start with two many chapters: six to ten icons should be fine. Start small, and build from there as the story reveals its true potential. Make sure the icons are interesting. Figures with highly individuated attributes and styles are best, because they lead to the most influences. Avoid direct parody of an icon’s working style, if possible. Try to think of more lateral kinds of influence. And most importantly: have fun! To begin with, it’s a game, an exploration of possibilities. Then it becomes something else, a narrative. Follow the flow of the story, wherever it might take you.
And there it is. I think it's a really exciting idea and I've had a few ideas about possible projects. I hope you might have a go too.