My View on Collaborations (Encore)

“Know whut? We should write a novel!”

And thus, all too often, are collaborations born.

Collab01How many times this has occurred is unknowable, although I’d guess the thought has crossed the minds of nearly every writer at one time or another. The number of projects actually completed is minimal, and the number of publishable works is even smaller. Because collaborations are just so darned difficult.

One could liken the task to painting a large building. There’s great enthusiasm in the beginning. “Look at all the shiny cans of paint!” The brushes and rollers are laid out in a neat and orderly fashion, and the drop cloths look so tidy all folded up inside their plastic wrappers. The sun is out; the sky is clear, and the temperature is absolutely perfect for painting. The two, equal partners survey the surface, do a high five, and a quick change into painting togs.

“You start here, and I’ll start over there,” she says.

“Okay, but y’know, I’m way better at trim and detail stuff,” says he.

“No problem. I’ll just dig in with the roller. I’ll do the broad strokes, and you can fill in the gaps.”

And just like that, they embark on a job that could take a very long time. That assumes, of course, that the excitement they started with remains intact, and that they both keep working at close to top speed, which, sadly, won’t happen.

As his painting skills improve, he’ll find things he doesn’t like about his partner’s performance. She goes too fast and misses spots, or she goes too slow and can’t get anything done unless he nags her. Conversely, she’s thinking the same things about him.

When it comes to artistry, she’s clearly superior, at least in her mind. She doesn’t need him to come along behind her and touch up anything. She liked it the way it was! Ah, but the temptation to tweak his work is fully justified, because… well… just look at it. Right?

Collab02Now imagine trying to pull off the intellectual equivalent of painting a big building — a stadium, for instance. That’s what a novel is — a good one, anyway. It’s got multiple floors, compartments of all sizes, interior issues and exterior issues, variable color schemes, and a potential audience of millions, each of whom is capable of finding the slightest error.

Beginning to get the picture? Now imagine painting that massive structure without a plan. “Oh, we’ll just jump right in and start painting. What’s the big deal? We’ve discussed the color scheme; we know where the cheap seats are and what kinds of things the sky box owners will want. We’ve got this!”

What you actually have is a dream. Making it a reality is next to impossible. And I’m speaking from experience. Canadian writer/editor Barbara Galler-Smith and I finished four novels collaboratively. We sold the first three to a traditional publisher and put the fourth one out independently. (Additional info on all four books can be found here. You’ll have to do some scrolling.)

Amazingly, they’re all quite wonderful books, and we’re equally and justifiably proud of every one. But it’s unlikely we’ll ever attempt another.

Why? Because it’s just too darned hard!

A successful collaboration begins with each partner surrendering his or her ego. If that can’t be done on Day One, there’s no need to move on to Day Two. Period.

Next, both parties must agree on a plan — who’s going to write what, and in what order. Might as well decide on edits, feedback and update formats while you’re at it. If you don’t use a word processor that records ALL changes in an Accept/Reject format, your project is doomed. (We used MS Word’s Review function. But the technology isn’t exclusive to Word by any means.)

Collab03A detailed outline is critical, and neither party should deviate from the outline without a profoundly good reason, and they’d best be ready to defend any such changes for the good of the overall story. The outline will then have to be amended, and all resulting plot problems identified, discussed, and resolved in a mutually agreeable fashion. Don’t think for a moment you can come back later and tidy up. You’re just kidding yourself.

And then there’s the whole matter of research. If you’re writing historical fiction, you’ll need to agree on sources and how to resolve disputed views. We chose to write about a period that was only documented by ancient Romans, though our story was told from the viewpoint of the Roman’s arch rivals, the Celts. Whether you’re extrapolating from actual history or just free-wheeling from your imaginations, you’ll need to agree on a framework that works for both of you. Just calling it “magic” won’t cut it.

There may be other ways to approach such a project, but this is the formula Barbara and I adopted, and luckily for us, it worked. And, based on the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that it took 17 years from the time we started the first book until the last book came out.

If you’re considering such an effort, I urge you to take some time to think it through. You and your prospective writing partner can always work on two different projects simultaneously and offer critiques and encouragement to each other along the way. Writing a novel by yourself is a difficult and daunting task. It takes time, patience, perseverance, and drive. Yes, of course it takes talent, too. Writing a book collaboratively requires even more time, greater patience, and the sort of drive and determination long distance/open water swimmers need in order to succeed.

Collab04Creating a top-quality novel as a collaborative effort is like swimming the English Channel without a wet suit. Tethered to an anchor. In the winter.

Dorothy Parker’s comment about wannabe writers applies to budding collaborators, too: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Her words are worth considering. If writing solo is tough, imagine how much tougher it is when done in concert with someone else.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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