On the Art of Collaboration in Writing

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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!

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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.”

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13 comments to On the Art of Collaboration in Writing

  • Welcome to MW, Garrett, and thanks for an interesting post. I’ve only worked on one collaboration so far; a short story I wrote with a friend. The finished product was pretty good, though we’ve yet to sell it, and the process itself was enjoyable. We told the story through two POV characters, giving ourselves a natural way to split the writing.

    I’m planning to write another story with a different friend, and am looking forward to that project a great deal. I think that this person and I will find it easier to have a more freeflowing exchange of ideas and a more fluid division of labor, simply because we have a different relationship. I’m looking forward to the process.

    Thanks for giving us some ideas to consider as we go forward with the project. And again, thanks for taking the time to join us here at Magical Words.

  • Misty and David, thanks for the warm welcome. It’s a great honor to contribute something to MagicalWords. If any readers have questions or their own experiences about working on collaborative writing projects they’d like to share, make sure to leave a reply. I’ll be checking in regularly and would love to continue the conversation. Being a writer often leads to a solitary life, so it’s great to work on collaborative projects and to discuss the writing process in general with like-minded people.

  • Garrett, I’m so pleased you could be our guest today. I’ve talked with people about collaborating before, but never really understood how to make it work. I’m curious – did you ever run in a creative impasse? And if you have, how did you resolve it?

  • Garrett, that you for the post! I write collaboratively with my friend Sarah (who might post later, she’s on the west coast). We’ve written and pitched a novel and got some interest, and are rewriting. The thing I found (we found, I guess) with collaboration is that it works best if you can fight well. That is, have fights that end up being productive and that don’t destroy a friendship. That can be hard. We actually write together–one of us will write one scene, the other, another, and then we’ll exchange them, read them, talk out changes, etc. We write a multiple pov text, so often one of us will do a majority of the work in one pov. But we’ve gotten to the point where people can’t tell who wrote what, or that there are two authors. 🙂 It’s fun having someone else to share and build a whole fantasy world with–I write on my own, too (we both do) and it’s very different!

    Thanks for all the advice!

  • KR1L3Y

    I’m just now working on my first novel and I’m the lone author, but my brother is my alpha reader. I do all the writing on Google docs, and he has access to the file, so he will leave comments online as he reads. He will also call with questions or comments, or just to discuss the future of characters and story, so in a way it is a collaboration, I’m just the only one doing the writing. It’s great to have someone to share all my ideas with, so I could definitely see myself trying to collaborate with another writer in the future.

  • Gerat to have you here at MW, Garrett!

    At this stag ein my career I would be scared out of my mind to do a collaberation story. I have so much left to learn before I spread my mistakes to someone else. 🙂 But you are correct, collaberations can turn out some awesome unique works if done correctly.

  • @Misty – I’ve never run into a project-ending creative impasse with any of the collaborative projects I’ve worked on. Certainly, there’ve been creative disagreements and heated arguments, but my collaborators and I always managed to come up with some sort of compromise. As writers, we can be pretty opinionated and pig-headed at times, but as long as you always have the best interest of the story in mind and don’t let your ego get in the way, it works out in the end. I had some animated arguments w/ co-writer Eric Tryon and film director Pete Vander Pluym when working on the Dark Days script, but none of us had any hard feelings afterward, because the best interest of the story always won out and our arguments showed our honest passion for the characters and the story. If one of them had said, “Well, I don’t want you to write that part because you’re a hack!” it would have been a completely different matter, one that probably would have resulted in fisticuffs…

    @PeaFaerie – That’s the best compliment you can get if people can’t tell which writer wrote which section. And I agree, oftentimes those creative arguments result in a better all around story. As Craig Comer said in the article, collaborating really makes you pick and choose which aspects of the story you want to fight and which you’re willing to compromise on.

    @KR1L3Y – Google Docs is a great tool. Collaborator Ahimsa Kerp and I used it extensively in the past, and it’s great at making sure there’s only one master document. Nothing is worse than having multiple versions of a WIP and not knowing which file has the most recent revisions. Technology has lots of advantages, but it’s important to make sure you have a clear organizational process with your collaborators and that you’re in constant communication as to to who’s doing what. For Baldairn Motte, Craig Comer was in charge of being the master compiler. Ahimsa and I would work on our individual parts, then send it to him to put it all together, that way there was never any confusion. I’ve grown accustomed to using Google Docs, Track Changes in Microsoft Word, and a bevy of other editing technological techniques, but it can be confusing at times as to what’s what. There’s definitely something to be said for the simplicity of what Powers and Blaylock do by simply passing a printed manuscript back and forth to each other.

  • Julia

    Hi Garrett,

    Thanks for a great post! The details about process were particularly interesting to me, as I’ve done some collaborative writing in my academic work, but not in fiction. I’ve undertaken two collaborative projects — one for a non-fiction article/essay, which was an absolute blast and very well received, and one for a non-fiction book that has, shall we say, failed to get off the ground.

    One of the hallmarks of the successful piece was that my co-author and I wrote the bulk of the article in a very intense week when we were doing nothing but working with each other. I’d come to visit her, stayed in her guest house, and we wrote in a mad flurry of conversation, private writing, exchange of individual pieces, and then rewriting of each others’ (and our own) work. At the end of that, I took the lead on putting the whole thing together into an article and doing the necessary details, as well as dealing with submission, proofs, etc.

    I think the challenges with the longer book project stem in part from the fact that both my co-author and I have too much else on our plate, and that we seem to have a different writing process (she’s a planner, while I always end up coloring outside the lines). But I’m wondering if there’s something about the larger scope that’s particularly daunting, or that makes it harder to generate momentum for the entire project. Any thoughts? We’d both like to do this book together, it’s just not (yet) gelling and I’m trying to assess if there’s a way that a different approach or structure might help.

  • @Mark – You should definitely try your hand at collaboration. It’s like playing chess or a 1-on-1 basketball game against someone who’s better than you–it forces you push yourself and get better.

    @Julia – Good question. Not sure I can asnwer it, but as long as I’m using analogies, how about a hiking analogy… if writing a short story or article is like a cool day hike (a quick jaunt that might leave you sore and with a few blisters, but is over with in a hurry), then writing a novel or non-fiction book is like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail–it’s damn hard to sustain your creative effort for months on end and reach the end goal regardless of whether you’re going solo or have a partner. Books are hard to write, period.

    Having said that, having a partner certainly can help, particularly if you have differing skill sets. First and foremost, you have to be honest with yourselves. Is this a project that you’re both fully invested in completing? If not, then I don’t think the collaboration can work. Maybe move on solo. If you’re both on board, then great, the key is delegating the work. If I’m hiking with somone who’s great at reading maps and picking out camp spots safely away from bears, then I’m going to leave that part to them and focus my efforts on finding fresh water or putting together some decent camp food at night. The same goes for writing.

    If you have the luxury of sitting down together a couple of times a week and writing together, fantastic, go for it, but that’s proabably not feasible for most of us over the long term. That leaves delegating as the only other option. If your partner is a planner, let her do the planning and organization, chapter outlines, etc, while you work on first drafts (and coloring outside the line). Then discuss, debate. Do you need to recolor inside the lines? Move the lines? Meet in the middle? Really, an open line of communication and keeping up a healthy debate is key the whole way, and probably the key to sustaining your momentum. What’s working? What’s not? Are you happy with your results? Should you try switching roles?

    Just when you think you’ve figured it out you’ll probably hit a new obstacle. Just like on a long hike, you’re going to come across washed out trails, burnt down bridges. Communicate and work as a team to play off each other’s strengths, encourage each other, keep your egos out of it and focus on the task at hand, and hopefully you’ll get there.

  • I’ve written three – no, four – collaborative short stories; each with a different partner.
    For the first one, we came up with the basic premise online. I wrote the first bit and sent it to him; he rewrote and added, and sent it to me, rinse, repeat, until we were done. I started it as light horror, but it quickly went toward the surreal as we each allowed our imaginations to run free.
    The second collaboration was with a “Name.” Basically, I wrote the entire first draft. He polished and finished it, then sent it to me and a market at the same time. It sold right out of the chute (I think the magazine bought his name, and the story was secondary, but still….).
    The third collaboration was much like the first, except that we had a skeleton of the story we’d worked out online before we started writing. At the end, we both did a final pass online and talked about sticking points until we were happy. That one sold twice!
    The last one was done over a weekend. We took turns typing, but no single word was his or mine. That was fun, too. Unfortunately, the anthology we wrote it for collapsed before getting off the ground.

    Collaborating is incredibly fun and remarkably challenging. You have to trust yourself and your partner, and be willing to change the approach to one that works best with that partner.

  • Julia

    Hi Garrett,

    Thanks! The analogies are great — and I suspect that the root issue might be that both of us are also juggling other writing projects at the moment. But I find the advice about delegation especially helpful. Once we pick things up again, that sounds like a good way to work with some differences in creative process.

    Thanks again.

  • Hi Garret! Glad to have you posting here. PeaFaerie is absolutely right – you’ve got to learn conflict resolution and humility to work with another person. (Read – I’m very type A.) But it’s well worth it. After working together for years we’ve each developed distinctive writer voices of our, but we’ve also developed a “we voice” that comes out when we write together.

    One technique we use all the time to develop plot and character is role playing or improv theater. One of us will say “I’ve been thinking that Rafe finds Deor weirdly threatening, but he can’t put his finger on why…” The other says, in character, “You’re being paranoid, Rafe, she hasn’t done a thing to you. Besides, she’s a nobody changeling and she’s got no magic to speak of.” Aaaand we’re off… We’ll run the same scene multiple times, changing what happens with different iterations to see if that makes the plot better or worse. It’s a great way to do revision. Eventually we sit down together and write like mad to get it all on paper – the scenes we write aren’t from memory the way we role played them, but the role playing embeds a sense of the characters and the plot direction so we don’t sit and stare at the screen wondering what the scene is for.

    It’s also just loads of fun. I not only have a whole imaginary world of my own, I get to play in it with my best friend.

  • @Julia – I’m glad the analogy was somewhat helpful. If you feel like other projects are getting in the way, try to mutually set a goal where you can both wrap-up your other projects, or at least put them on hiatus, and give yourself a good week or two where you’re both solely focused on your collaborative project. Inertia is a very real thing in writing, and a collaborative book is a big boulder. If you can both be working at the same time to get the boulder moving and create some momentum, then the writing will be much easier to maintain, even once you get back to working on those other projects again.

    @Lyn – Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree, the collaborative process varies drastically from project to project, and each time it’s a huge learning experience. I’m grateful to have worked with some fantastic writers, and being able to put my ego and writing dispositions aside to some extent has allowed me to learn new techniques and skills from my collaborators that I now adopt in my solo writing efforts–everything from tighter dialogue, to pacing, to back story jumps, to jump-cut section breaks… you name it. Collaborating is a great way to expand your craft and learn new tools of the trade.

    @Sarah – That’s awesome you role play with your collaborator to figure characters out. Coincidentally enough, I just had some of my students read Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics (although it’s geared toward writing comics, it’s just as applicable to fiction and screenplays), and he talks about how he takes a method acting approach to creating his characters. By putting himself into his character’s role, he’s able to figure out everything from speech patterns and physical mannerisms, to motivation and state of mind. I can’t say I’ve personally role-played out any of my characters, but I’ve internalized the process Moore describes and I’m a strong believer of reading a manuscript out loud during the revision process, particularly dialogue.