Sean McMullen|21 December 2014
Working on a writing project with another author can be tricky. It’s easy to see why some authors avoid joint ventures like poison. On the other hand, collaborations can be a great way to increase output and reduce writing time.
I recently began collaborating with the author Paul Collins on a six-part Young Adult fantasy series called The Warlock’s Child.
Two and a half months after preliminary discussions I had the first of the six The Warlock’s Child novellas in my hands. If there isn’t already a proverb saying ‘Two minds make light work’ there should be. When a collaboration runs smoothly, writing time can be dramatically reduced and output increased. That’s the good news.
Then again, Paul and I are experienced collaborators, and have learnt to avoid the many pitfalls of joint authorship. If you are new to the game, you need to be aware of the negative as well as the positive aspects of working with a writing partner.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a guide to some important issues to consider before embarking on a joint writing project.
The benefits of collaboration:
Definitions: Collaborating requires you to agree on and map out the characters, society, politics and geography before typing the first word. This prevents the all too common scenario of content inconsistencies. This happens when you dive straight in and then realise half-way through your novel that character names, geographical and climate details, and a host of other details are inconsistent or just don’t make sense.
Diversity: Authors have different strengths and weaknesses. Having two authors can help a book work on multiple levels if they complement each other’s strengths and compensate for deficiencies. For example one of the writers may be strong on story, but have a workaday writing style; another may write excellent dialogue but relatively uninspiring description, and so on.
Reality Checks: Most writers have had the experience of writing something ‘brilliant’, only to reread it the next morning, wince and then lunge for the DELETE key. This is not just a morning-after problem. A piece of bad writing can take months to finally ring your warning bells. Having a peer level writing partner means that there is someone to ring the alarm a lot earlier.
Speed: A successful collaboration can cut the time it takes to complete a project. Not only do you have two sets of eyes checking for inconsistencies and errors, the writing time is decreased when the work is divided between the collaborators. Can’t make a deadline working on your own? A collaboration may be the way to go.
These problems make the working relationship uncomfortable, and might even sink it:
Free Rides: Unless both authors make equal contributions to the writing and selling process, the project is not likely to be attractive to the party carrying the larger load. The collaboration of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman on Good Omens is a great example of peer level authors getting together on a novel. A beginner with a great idea will contribute little to the plot, characters, and writing, yet be escorted past the editorial slush pile and get half of the earnings. If you are a beginner, great. For the more experienced partner, not such a good deal.
Intransigence: Beginners often find that experienced authors have strong views on what to do and how to do it. This means that the junior partner will be pressured to give in, leading to a story that quacks and waddles just like all the other works by the senior partner. One could fight back, but this leads to friction and fights. Why bother?
Deference: This happens when one author is seriously ahead of the other in reputation. If you got a chance to collaborate with J. K. Rowling, how aggressive would you be about suggesting improvements to the plot? This would be the chance of a lifetime for the beginner, who wants nothing more than to please the senior collaborator. The beginner becomes little more than a ghost writer.
These three will not sink a work, but they can make the experience a lot less attractive:
Divergence: This happens all over the place, from geography, to landscape to characters. One author can have the character travelling east, but a couple of sentences later the other has him heading for the setting sun. This results in an ugly mess, yet collaborators are often blind to this sort of thing.
Target Audience: Like it or not, books are written for target audiences, and target audiences have rules. For example, one author may have a good idea of what can and cannot go into a novel for the 10 to 14 year old age group, but the other might insist on sex scenes, saying that this age group is interested in the subject. All true, but the publisher would probably not buy it, and even if it did get published the librarians and schools wouldn’t stock it.
Compromise: This is more of a problem for peer level authors. Few people have identical writing styles, and this means that there will have to be compromises. Compromises tend to be bland at best and clumsy at worst. What is stylistic innovation to one author can be bad English to the other. This means that the quirky, clever phrase is either ironed flat or deleted.
Collaborations run smoothly when ground rules are agreed to before starting the project:
- AGREEMENT: Write out and sign an agreement about sharing the rights and profits and expenses of the work, and negotiating deals – it is so much easier than waving lawyers at each other later. This MUST include a parachute clause about intellectual property rights if one of you decides to bail out midway;
- THEME: Decide on an underlying theme, and make sure that it is something that both of you believe in;
- PLOT: Get out the coffee and a couple of notepads, and outline a plot that both of you are happy to follow;
- NAMES: List the names of the key characters and places, decide on the spelling, and update the lists every time someone is added – and make sure you both like them, to save a lot of retyping down the track;
- MAP: Draw a map and mark the distances and directions, even if you don’t want a map in your published book;
- SCHEDULE: Establish realistic deadlines – for example, that neither writer works on the current version for more than a fortnight;
- AUDIENCE: Discuss the target audience, and read a few books that both of you agree address that readership.
Collaboration is a brilliant idea when it works, that’s why many people do it. It is also prone to spectacular failures when things go wrong, that’s why even more people don’t do it. Just bear the good, the bad and the ugly in mind before signing up.