Faith is travelling today, on her way home from Marcon! Since she couldn’t be here to post, we’ve invited Garrett Calcaterra to talk to us today about writing in collaboration. Garrett is the author of the award-winning horror book Umbral Visions, and co-author of the fantasy novel The Roads to Baldairn Motte. Garrett teaches writing and enjoys playing music as a member of the band Wheel House. Welcome to Magical Words, Garrett!
Many forms of popular art are created in collaboration—music, movies, television shows, and graphic novels, just to name a few—but writing, for the most part, tends to be created by individuals working in solitude. The notable exceptions to the rule are book projects written by duos of well-established writers, and the occasional movie screenplay. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and the Dune prequels from Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are all examples of just this sort of collaboration in fiction. In the film world, the Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Though, No Country for Old Men), Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Shrek, The Mask of Zorro, and Pirates of the Caribbean), and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hott Fuzz) are all well-known writing partners.
Co-writing isn’t reserved only for big name authors and Hollywood screenwriters, though. Similar to making music with other musicians, writing collaboratively plays off the strengths and imaginations of each writer and results in a unique creation you never could have written on your own. Collaborating pushes you out of your comfort zone as a writer, which is vital if you want to improve, and it exposes you to alternative techniques for everything from narrative voice and dialogue to world creation and work discipline. Hell, working with a co-writer might even be what it takes to get you your big break. After all, no one listens to Mick Jagger or David Gilmour solo albums—it’s the records from The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd that continue to be played decade after decade.
“By going into a collaboration at all, you concede that this won’t be a story precisely the way you’d have written it,” says Tim Powers, author of the novel On Stranger Tides and frequent collaborator with fellow steampunk progenitor James P. Blaylock. “Luckily, we both have pretty much the same literary tastes, and are familiar with each other’s writing, so we never veer off too widely.”
Powers’ point is an important one. If either you or your writing partner is a control freak, or if you simply have different literary tastes, you might find yourself embroiled in a rock-band-worthy feud. Ultimately, you should pick a partner you respect as a writer and genuinely get along with. I’ve personally worked on numerous collaborative projects, and in each scenario my collaborators have been writers I met from my college days, at work, or in a writing group, and in each case the partnership was formed before the specific project idea was ever cooked up. It’s not a scenario of, “Hey, I have a cool idea for a story—who can I get to help me write it?” but rather, “I dig your writing—would you be interested in working on a project together?”
Once you’ve got your team in place, start bandying around ideas until you come up with something everyone is excited to write. For my most recent collaborative project, The Roads to Baldairn Motte (L&L Dreamspell, 2011), my writer friend Craig Comer pitched the idea of a war of succession told from multiple non-traditional vantage points—from the viewpoint of characters like crofters, millers, sailors, whores, and common soldiers, as opposed to the typical kings, queens, knights, and princesses seen in typical fantasy fare. It was an idea both myself and third collaborator Ahimsa Kerp were excited to delve into, and that’s all it took for us to get started.
For Powers and Blaylock, the idea for their first serious collaborative effort was a giant tomato being ravaged by worms in Powers’ vegetable garden. “One of us noted that the day-by-day loss of more and more of the tomato was like the struggles of Santiago to bring in his huge fish in The Old Man and the Sea,” Powers recalls. That’s all the spark they needed to get started and the resultant story, “The Better Boy,” went on to be a finalist for the World Fantasy Award.
Whatever your inspiration might be, the real fun starts with the brainstorming and writing phases. If you’re adventurous, you can go the route of Powers and Blaylock and jump right into the writing, or (if more worrisome like me) you can brainstorm everything first: milieu, conflict, characters, theme, plot, etc. “Continuity will always be an issue with collaborative projects,” says Comer, explaining why we chose to plan everything out for The Roads to Baldairn Motte. “We created a bible for the world with major characters, events, cultures, and even a lexicon of swear words.”
Arguably the most difficult part of writing collaboratively is figuring out how to divvy up the work. Powers and Blaylock traditionally have gone the route of passing their manuscript back and forth and taking turns writing. “Basically, one of us would write a couple thousand words and give it to the other guy, who would take it home and re-write it pretty freely and add another couple of thousand words to it,” explains Powers. “It would get revised as we went along, and then one of us would say, ‘This here is the ending—let’s ditch all the stuff after it.’” Their system is ingenious in that rather than simply picking up where the other left off, they rewrite the entire story from the beginning each time it’s their turn. In addition to enabling them to fix any continuity problems, this system also solidifies the narrative voice, which is vital for a collaborative piece. No one wants to read a story that feels choppy and piecemealed together.
Another option, and a more practical one for longer projects, is to split your project up into different sections. For The Roads to Baldairn Motte, the book premise lent itself to telling numerous stories from different characters’ vantage points, so each of us three collaborators wrote our own novella which tied into the larger story line. This allowed each of us to work on our own at our own pace (although we were diligent in communicating with one another along the way and making sure we stayed true to our overall vision).
Prior to Baldairn, Kerp and I collaborated on another project, a screenplay titled Dark Hunger: the Story of Sawney Beane, in which we similarly split up our responsibilities. The story had two narratives, one with our main protagonist, and the other a convergent story that began thirty years prior. In that case, it made sense for each of us to take one of the narratives and write it on our own, since any variations in voice would actually help distinguish the storylines. While never produced, the script did go on to be a finalist in several screenplay festivals.
The third and most pure form of collaboration is, of course, for you and your collaborator(s) to sit down and write together. This is what Kerp and I did for the sections of Dark Hunger where our two story lines overlapped, and it is also the method I used with collaborator Eric Scot Tryon on the short film, Dark Days. “We were always both in the room, talking out the dialogue,” says Tryon of how we essentially wrote the script verbally. “The person at the computer was really just taking dictation. In that sense, I think it really was a pure collaboration—much more so than sending the piece back and forth. If I looked back at the script now, I’m not sure I could connect a single word of it to one particular writer or the other.”
Whichever route you go in splitting up the work, the beauty of it all is that you get to work with likeminded people who know what it’s like to be a writer. “Writers typically lack the inherent collaboration that, say, musicians have, and so working together on a project is a nice break from solo hours at the keyboard,” says Kerp. More importantly, you will be pushed to go in a direction you never would have in your own writing. As Comer explains it, “Having your ideas rebutted from the get-go really makes you think about why you’re making certain choices, and what choices you’ll risk an argument to defend versus what you’re willing to let go.”
Powers and Blaylock are of a like mind. “I think having a second by-line on a story encouraged each of us to be a bit crazier in our plotting and writing than either of us would have done solo,” says Powers. “You’re always thinking, I can say the other guy wrote the loony stuff.”
“Also, if I come up with something too loony,” adds Blaylock, “I trust Powers to question it. I’m not sure he ever does, but the process frees me up a lot. I tend to be slightly to moderately autobiographical in my stories, but the characters in the collaborations are much more thoroughly made up. I like that: another way in which I’m compelled to come up with something new.”
If you or your partner is a well known writer, you’ll have a decent shot at getting your collaborative project published and read by the masses. If you’re a no-namer, your task is a bit more difficult, but not impossible. “I think it’s much harder to sell and market a collaborative project,” says Kerp. “Mosaic novels are not exactly the rage. (George R.R. Martin, Gardener Dozoi, and Daniel Abraham released Hunter’s Run a few years back, but they are each quite established writers.) The flip side, though, is that you get to work on submitting and promoting with your co-writers, so the collaboration never really ends.”
Indeed, finding a publisher and marketing after publication are largely number games, so it helps to have more people involved. “Selling a collaborated project, especially as unknown authors, may be a bit tricky,” weighs in Comer, “but having more muscle to promote and sell the book after publication definitely outweighs the cons of finding a publisher willing to take a risk on you.”
The key is to use your numbers to your advantage; once your project is done and edited to perfection, pool your resources, split up the chores of finding suitable markets and sending out submissions, and if you find a home for your piece, divvy up the promotion and marketing work. At that point, the only bad thing about your collaboration is, as Tim Powers puts it, “You have to split the payment.”