Neil Gaiman sets Twitter ablaze with fan collaboration

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It's no surprise to see Neil Gaiman collaborating with artists and writers. The author of American Gods and The Graveyard Book became famous for writing the award-winning The Sandman graphic novels, which a number of different artists drew, inked, and colored. Fans are rarely surprised anymore—though they are certainly pleased—to see his work on film (Coraline, Stardust) and television (Doctor Who, Neverwhere). But when Gaiman asked his 1.8 million Twitter followers for story ideas in February, he launched a project that allowed professionals and amateurs alike to work with their idol in words and images.

Gaiman created A Calendar of Tales as a BlackBerry Keep Moving project, setting himself the task of writing 12 tweet-inspired short stories in 12 hours. On February 4, he asked the first question, "Why is January so dangerous?" on Twitter, and the large number of responses made #JanTale a trending hashtag. An hour later, "What's the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?" made #FebTale a trending tag too, as writers, artists, and fans rushed to give their 140-character answers in the hope of catching Gaiman's interest.

"I've been trying to figure out for years a way to collaborate with readers," says Gaiman in the first of four video episodes that BlackBerry released for the project. "I loved the idea of getting some kind of feedback, and then I loved the idea of taking what I made and giving it back to people, almost like some kind of ping-pong match."

The project closed to submissions Monday, March 11. Its BlackBerry Keep Moving website, now bursting with words, images, audio, and video, hosts A Calendar of Tales, credited as "by Neil Gaiman and You."

Democratizing inspiration

"When you're trying something out on Twitter, and getting 10,000 replies," said Gaiman in a phone interview, "of course [you don't notice the handles]. There were people twittering back, and I'd think, 'that was cool,' and they'd turn out to be somebody I knew."

Gaiman initially didn't recognize the Twitter handle of writer/artist Al Davison. 'I just thought it was a cool and wonderful thing,' Gaiman says of Davison's winning tweet.

In the case of "February Tale," his favorite response came from @TheAstralGypsy, who described the strangest thing that had ever happened to him in February as "Met a girl on beach, searching for her grandma's pendant, lost 50 years ago. I had it, found previous Feb."

"I just thought it was a cool and wonderful thing," said Gaiman. "I was thrilled, and then I realized who it was." @TheAstralGypsy is graphic-novel writer and artist Al Davison. Gaiman wrote an introduction for Davison's 2010 book Hokusai: Demons and other tales of the Fox Mother. Davison, like many of the Twitter participants, answered all 12 questions.

When a favorite writer calls your tweet 'glorious,' it can make your day. In Janis Van Court's case, it also helped make 'May Tale.'

"I do not consider myself a writer at all," says Janis Van Court, a Utica College librarian, "but I enjoyed the prompt that Neil gave for his project. I thought it would be fun to respond to all 12 as a creative project." Tweeting under the handle @StarlingV, Van Court made a point of checking for each question, but "I really did just toss [the tweets] out there. I tend to agonize over words in email…I really just tried to get a feeling about the question and come up with something honest and spontaneous, and to write it well."

Van Court has never met Gaiman, not even at an event or book signing. She answered the question "What is the weirdest gift you've ever been given in May?" with "An anonymous Mother's Day gift. Think about that for a moment." A fan of Gaiman's work, Van Court was pleased when he favorited the tweet. "He retweeted and called it 'glorious.' That was quite a rush."

Colleen Robbins
Fantasy author MeiLin Miranda was surprised that an aspect of her everyday life became fodder for a fantastical tale.

MeiLin Miranda (@MeiLinMiranda), a fantasy author in Portland, Oregon, jumped on the project before she even knew what it was. "By the time I answered the November question, it came straight from my heart." She responded to "What would you burn in November, if you could?" with the tweet "My medical records, but only if that would make it all go away."

Miranda says, "When he chose it, I was floored! I didn't see the idea. It was just an honest thought. It wasn't 'Oh, he'll like this one.' I'd tried really hard at some of the other ones."

"The best part of actually writing is that sudden magical moment where there's something coming out of your pen that wasn't even there a second ago," says Gaiman in the second video episode. "Everything you've been writing up until that point suddenly, magically comes together, and you…you're flying."

Pixels to pen to paint (and beyond)

"I've always loved collaborating with artists, because when I give them my words, what I get back is something that's absolutely magical," Gaiman says in the third episode. "It's never going to be like I imagined, but if you're lucky, you're going to get back something better." In response to his call for illustrations of the strange and fanciful tales, over 5000 art entries flooded in.

Wylie Elise Beckert
Wylie Elise Beckert's oil-and-digital painting 'February Sky' illustrates Neil Gaiman's 'February Tale.'

One of the reasons for such a high turnout is that BlackBerry turned to DeviantArt. With over 25 million registered members worldwide, DeviantArt is the world's largest online community for artists. Daniel Bornstein, DeviantArt's vice president of advertising sales, says, "DeviantArt has created a native experience on our network that allows our users to actively participate with Neil Gaiman-related content on DA as well as receive information about how they can get involved in submitting their artwork and films via the Neil Gaiman Keep Moving website." DeviantArt also created custom badges and journal skins for the project.

The project's BlackBerry Keep Moving Hub (not to be confused with the BlackBerry Hub integrated mailbox) showcases the different elements of A Calendar of Tales elegantly, boxing the collaborations between the episodes at the top and an explanation of the project at the bottom. You can click a month to read a tale and the tweet that inspired it, as well as to peruse the art submissions and other tweets. Gaiman is selecting images to illustrate the stories in an upcoming ebook and printed book.

This still from plop2126's 'September Tale Animation' video submission spells 'jackdaw' the way Gaiman pronounces it in his narration.

As the project proceeded through each of the 12 months, Gaiman read the tales aloud in his distinctive voice (still English after over 20 years in the United States), and the SoundCloud recordings appeared under the boxes of tweets and images. Gaiman then invited filmmakers to create videos using as much of the audio as they liked. After the videos underwent vetting for appropriateness, Gaiman reviewed them and posted the first of his favorites on the project's Keep Moving Hub to go with each month's stories and art.

"He takes the inspiration, he executes, then gives it back to the community. The giving back is unusual," says Andrea Phillips, author of A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. "Because Neil Gaiman is doing the writing, the quality of narrative is high, but that isn't what matters. It's the process and the participation."

Next: The BlackBerry connection

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