Posts Tagged Collaboration

Collaboration from the Inside Post 1

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.

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The Insanity of Collaboration

“How did the oceans get their names?”

This is the way conversations in my house now start.  And have ever since my wife and I started collaborating on a project intended to be multiple novels long.  I don’t know how to lump these questions together, so I don’t know whether to call this particular question more unusual than most.  Often they seem unrelated, but I still know where they’re going to end up.  “Well…the Atlantic and Atlantis have the same root words, but I don’t remember which was named after the other.”

“I was thinking the Pacific.”

“Well, that would be the Latin pacificus,” at this point I’d made up that Latin word, thinking it sounded right, “which is the same root as pacifist.”

“What if it had a different name?”

“Different name?”

“What if the ocean wasn’t quite so…Pacific.  What if Magellan didn’t manage to circumnavigate the globe?  What would be the opposite of Pacific?”

The conversation went through some permutations of what the opposite of Pacific might be.  Pacific came specifically from the Spanish mar pacifico, peaceful sea.  Would the opposite be warlike sea?  Mar guerrero?  Or perhaps hungry would be a better origin.  The Hambric Ocean?  The Chinese and Japanese would clearly have names for “all that water to the east”, but those names wouldn’t be used in Europe, and thus America.

Renaming oceans isn’t really the point of this story.  The point of this story is that I would never have considered whether the oceans might be different in our world, because I only ever envisioned our world as the real 1866 plus automatons.  But as the story has progressed and as we’ve discussed it, I’ve realized this story is taking place in a small part of a much larger world where there are many more things that are different.  Because questions come up like “where do the automatons come from?” and “are they really steam-driven, since there’s not really room for a coal hopper and boiler?”  These end up being really fantastic questions that I would have never asked while approaching this world.

This is our third time collaborating, but our first time on written-word fiction, and really our first time inventing a world from scratch.  Previously we’ve done a spec script that was playing largely in HP Lovecraft’s toybox, and a movie spec that wasn’t anything more than just silly/stupid fun, just to see if we could write something that long together.  This is something entirely different, and it’s a process that I’ve needed to get used to.  Especially the idea of not having complete control over the creative process.

I’m not sure what I expected going into this process.  Certainly I didn’t think I would come up with the entire world and plot and just use my wife for her brilliant descriptive writing.  But adjusting to a give-and-take of the creative process, of plotting, and especially of world building isn’t something I was entirely prepared for.  Questions like “what is the giant ocean to the West of the United States called?” aren’t questions I expected to field, because it’s not world building the way I world build.  And they were questions that frustrated me in the early going, because I saw them as distractions from the plot at hand.  Which was, I need to stress very strongly, entirely unfair.  Now that we’re getting words on paper, these questions are the oddly fantastic nuggets that make me think more about the world we’re creating, and what it looks like beyond the rather tight confines of Huntsville, 1866.  A city of roughly 6000, a story taking place largely in 10 square miles, on a planet of 1.5 billion people and 150 million square miles.  They’re especially the kinds of things we need to know about the world if this is going to become a series.

Even if none of it shows up.

Because this is the world that needs to be.

So we know what happened in the US presidential election of 1864 when incumbent Hannibal Hamlin went against Democrat Andrew Johnson.  But we also know what happened in ancient China that got things going, and what’s different about the Pacific that changes the way the world is tied together.  Some of them might end up being important, some of them might be flavor, some of them might just be in our heads.

I’ve relaxed.  I’ve learned to just let the questions come, argue them out, and see where the pros and cons are.  Because that’s what collaboration is, it’s taking the styles and ideas of two people and turning them into a unified product.  One of them cannot be closed to the other, or it’s a dictatorship.  Which doesn’t work with just two people.

So the lesson that I guess I’ve learned about collaboration?  Actually collaborate.  It’s one of those things that feels so completely obvious to say, but it was still something that I had to come slowly.

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Thankful Writer is Thankful

Unless I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save draft,” today is the day before Thanksgiving.  Though it may seem trite, I’d like to use the occasion to talk about what I feel thankful for as a writer.  Certainly this is not a comprehensive list of everything I’m thankful for, just a curated list of what has made my life as a writer better.

Scrivener.  I’ve talked about it a lot lately, I realize, but that’s because it’s turned out to be the first actual writing tool I’ve used.  Oh, I’ve tried other products that called themselves writing tools, but in the end they were little more than toys to be played with then put away as I went back to Word.  This is the first product that has actually changed my process as a writer for what I feel is the better, and for that I am thankful.  Of course, there’s that little toy called the “name generator” bundled in, but that’s just for when I’m seriously writer’s blocking.

Vacuumed Cats.  I’ve heard so many horror stories about bad writers group, especially from my fellow members of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia.  I joined the group years ago while doing Nanowrimo and have constantly welcomed their presences as cheerleaders, beta readers, ass kickers, and their attempts to push me into a more extroverted state at conventions.  The last hasn’t succeeded yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the effort.

Flash Fiction Contests.  I’ve stepped away from them the last two weeks while trying to get my brain into Nickajack mode, but they’ve kept me creatively energized lately, given me story concepts, and even inspired my own Flashathon insanity.  I worry a critical mass has been reached with regards to new ones, but there’s at least one contest now every week day, so they’re always there and waiting for when I want a quick bit of writing inspiration.

Collaboration.  Doesn’t hurt that my wife is my cohort in crime on this new novel, but collaboration is bringing more out of this story than I could have put into it alone.  I’m not going to say that every novel should be a collaboration, but at some level most novels are, just so long as the writer is doing any bouncing of ideas.  This is just a more detailed idea-and-draft bouncing that is working well as we can both focus on our strengths, which are complimentary.

Readers.  Not just my readers, but all readers everywhere.  People who would want to read my stories.  People who wouldn’t.  The mere existence of readers in the world requires writers, creates markets, drives demand, and gives me hope going forward in all my projects.

This is just a subset of those things that make me love my life.  Just those things that pertain to writing.  The full list is so much longer.  So let’s take a few days off, let’s enjoy some friends, some family, some turkey, and meet back here on Monday.

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