Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Collaboration Dos and Don'ts part 1

When my wife and I decided to write a novel together, we jumped right in and cruised all the way to "The End." (The only rough point was the dreaded "version control" episode.) This is the sort of collaboration fantasy that many writers dream about, but rarely achieve. Like overnight successes, there is more than meets the eye.
  • Both of us came to work together with mutual respect.
  • We had knowledge of each others work as professional writers.
  • We had a common concept for the book.
And we had a clear understanding before we began of who the final decision maker was (my wife).

After lots of discussions, we fell into the pattern of my writing the first draft (the bones) and my wife writing the next draft (the flesh). Rewrites were less directed (hence the need for strict version control). Overall, it was a fabulous experience, and I am still proud of the story we created together.

By the time we chose to coauthor a novel, I had made a career of collaborating: Speechwriting (with the principal). Writing for radio and theater (working with announcers and actors). Coauthoring a book, developing IBM reports with teams, and editing. Those experiences helped me to know that our working together made sense, and they alerted me to potential problems.

I gained some of my knowledge the hard way. My first efforts at collaborating were disasters. I got lost on several round robin attempts. I provided a detailed critique of the first few pages from a fellow Clarion student (and never heard from him again). I exposed an early draft of a short story to a writers' group that savaged it (and my coauthor never really recovered). So:
  • Don't begin until you have a common goal and both of you are committed to achieving it.
  • Don't overwhelm your writing partner with feedback, especially in the drafting stage.
  • Never expose your collaborator to public humiliation, and be aware that the public face of your work belongs to both of you.
Collaboration can speed up your writing. It provides a sounding board for ideas, accountability for writing every day, and a division of labor that may make up for your weaknesses. Under ideal circumstances, it seems as if elves are doing all the work as you sleep. But creating ideal circumstances? That's a big job. For some people it is harder than working alone. More on that tomorrow.


  1. Very timely post, Peter. I am in talks with someone about collaborating on a non-fiction project. Your tips were very helpful. Thanks!

  2. I'm glad it was helpful, PJ. Collaborating on nonfiction is more defined than fiction and an easier place to get experience. I hope your new project is a great success.
    Thanks for commenting!