Wait! Don’t run! I’m not planning another epic three-part three-day post. I only call this Post 1 because I anticipate future posts on this same topic. Please, I’m so sorry I put you through what I have this week, I just had so many thoughts to share on one subject.
Alright. Collaboration. As I’ve mentioned in passing both here and on Unleaded, I’m in the process of collaborating on a novel with my fantastic wife. As I’ve also mentioned here, I’m currently working through every damn episode of Writing Excuses in reverse order. It’s odd listening to them backwards, since it means they randomly fire Mary Robinette Kowal and get progressively worse equipment. This backwards listen has delivered me through season 4, and I’ve now come to the end of season 3 and their episode on Collaboration. Give it a listen, it’s only fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and they’re not that smart.
The episode has put me on defense, just a little. Basically the advice given over-simplifies to: if you’re a starting writer considering collaboration, don’t do it.
I’m not going to pretend to contradict them for a second, I’m not going to suggest that new writers such as myself and my wife should form collaboration teams, or especially that novice writers shouldn’t, as apparently some do, contact established writers and offer to either sell them an outline or “collaborate” by having someone like Brandon Sanderson write their novel for them. Seriously. Who the hell does that? DON’T DO THAT!
They make some fantastic points, collaboration shouldn’t be about finding someone to do the things you don’t do well so you don’t have to do them. Now at this point an astute follower of my writing here and Unleaded will no doubt point out that I wrote a blog post called “Coauthor as Foil” where I made this argument:
Perhaps the single best piece of advice I can give from my limited collaboration experience so far? Find your foil. Find someone who is good at the things you’re not so good at, someone who has admitted their own shortcomings and they’re your strengths. Admitted is an important piece of this. I don’t know if authors can work together if they don’t know their own writing well enough to know what they’re good or bad at.
It might sound like the lazy man’s way of advancing as a writer, find someone who can do the things you can’t so you don’t have to. But it’s also a learning experience. I’ve been told the best way to improve on my flaws as a writer is to read people who do well what I do poorly. See what they do, analyze it, and bring it into my own writing. It’s fine advice, but it’s only the second best way. The actual best way is to find someone who does it well, and not just read them, but witness their process. Watch it come together. There’s something about being there in the planning stages that just doesn’t come across in the final product.
This now sounds like I’m contradicting myself. The trick here, though, is the learning process. I didn’t team with my wife’s skills at bigger picture world building and description so I could not do these things, I teamed with them so that I could do them better. I’d like to think I now do.
There’s a deeper reasoning to our collaboration on this project, though: we already did it anyway. I can’t think of the last project either of us worked on that didn’t include a certain amount of idea bouncing back and forth. Heck, one of the best monsters I’ve ever created was for one of her novels. Nickajack largely started as an experiment in formalizing, and I’ve very happy with the results thus far. Does that make us an aberration? An exception that proves the rule? I don’t know, I certainly can’t say this will be a success in the long-term, but in the short-term I’m very happy with our results.
Would Howard Tayler still yell at us? Probably. Is that going to stop us? Absolutely not.
A few words about our process, at least the process so far. We’ve developed a fantastic three-part method for churning the first draft. We world build in our separate ways. She looks at the distant past, I tie that in with the recent past. We talk about it with each other, get it all written down, and make sure it’s all internally consistent. It’s how she knows what’s going on in our world in 950 BC and I know what went on in 1863. We outline together, and I cannot stress enough how important I think that is in the process. Both the outlining, and the shared nature of it. We both throw ideas out, we bounce them off each other, and come up with the best path forward. Sometimes she’ll end up having all the ideas for one chapter, sometimes I will, sometimes they need to come from both of us. Sometimes she’ll have all the ideas, but only after I’ve vetoed one and we move on to her second idea, or vice versa.
Then the writing begins. I’m the rough draft writer, which means I’m sitting down and turning the outline into chapters of around 1500-2500 words, making sure all the ideas are there, that we’ve gone from point A to B to Z as planned, that the dialogue and descriptions are down. These rough drafts aren’t missing anything, but they are quickly written, which is my style. Like I said, I’m not using the collaboration as an excuse to not write description, but as a way of getting better at it. Which means writing it. She’s the first draft writer, going through a few chapters after my pass and polishing things up, making the draft as good as possible. Even those bits that we know will change. Perhaps especially those bits we know will change. In the end, I call them rough and first drafts because mine isn’t quite a first draft, and her’s isn’t quite a second, and because I’ve long used that phrasing in my own short stories to distinguish between the pass where I’m getting ideas down and the pass where I’m making the ideas work together.
That’s really where we stand two-thirds through the initial draft. We’ve discussed some plans on how we’re going to do the second draft process. It may be largely similar, but with the outlining stage replaced with a reading the first draft together stage. For those interesting in our process, I’ll probably talk about it when it happens. It’ll probably develop organically, much as our first drafting process has. With collaboration, like with any writing, it’s about finding the methods that work best.
I still stand by finding your foil if you’re going to collaborate, but don’t use it entirely as a crutch. Don’t assume collaboration is the best possible idea. There’s a lot to keep in mind. Make sure you have the same goals, make sure you have ground rules. We actually went into this process with a negotiated out if we decided it wasn’t working. As the Writing Excuses folks point out, it doesn’t make the process easier, there are more things to juggle, not fewer. There’s working around schedules, especially if you don’t share the same sofa most evenings. There’s negotiating ideas, the novel isn’t going to be entirely one writer’s baby. That was, perhaps, the hardest part for me to learn. I’ve found it very rewarding, however, and I think the novel is far stronger for both of our ideas than it would have been if just one of us was writing it. Collaboration is not a tool for everyone, but then, no writing tool is.