Writing Together: Will Collaboration Be a Dream or a Nightmare?

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Writing is generally considered a solitary task and, for those of us who attempt it, it mostly is. However, a lucky few have found writing partners to collaborate with to lessen the loneliness. But collaboration is a skill in itself. All writers need to ask themselves two questions. Could you? And if you find you can, should you?

So exactly what is meant by the word “collaboration”? Ask four different people and you will likely receive four different answers. Because it’s the nature of partnerships. Not all of them are the same. Some people prefer fifty/fifty joint ventures. Some people prefer alliances where each partner focuses on their strengths (in a writing context, perhaps this might be one person writing dialogue while the other develops and writes the overall story). Some people might divide partnership responsibilities into concept (which can be quick, although it depends how good you are at concepts) and execution (which sounds like the more labour intensive part of the process but if you’re terrible with concepts and great at bringing concepts to fruition, it might be the perfect arrangement).

Ultimately, collaboration must involve at least two people both contributing in a significant fashion to the same project – generally by writing actual words that appear in a form in the final cut substantially similar to what was first written.

So what are the pros and cons of the collaborative approach to the writing process? It will often depend on what kind of writing is being done. Scientific and business writing invariably seems to benefit from the input of more than one writer. I think it is also much easier for a scientist or business person to feel good about collaborative writing, because it is less about the writing and more about the science or business.

But for fiction writers, it is about the writing, the story, the language and the way it is shaped. I must admit that I view collaborative novels with contempt, mostly because I think they are primarily about money and not genuine creativity. This is especially true of a number of successful authors who have started pumping out books with co-authors, who I suspect do the majority of the work, simply to cash in. It appears to be the writing equivalent of resting on one’s laurels. Who am I talking about? Clive Cussler. James Patterson. Tom Clancy (yes, I know he is dead but he was a prime perpetrator and may continue to be – novels written by a ghost writer continued to appear from the estate of Virginia Andrews long after her death).

Personally, when I continuously buy the same author, it’s not because I like the types of stories they write. (There are plenty of the same genre that I’ve never read.) It’s because I like the way they – individually – write. I like the way they – individually – execute the stories. I like the way they – individually – create characters. I’m not particularly interested in how well (or how badly) someone else can imitate their style.

Theoretically, I like the idea of collaboration where it is more than just a money-making enterprise. I like the idea of being able to bounce ideas off someone else and have them write the chapters I just can’t get right and vice versa. I like the idea of someone else helping to motivate me and motivate my writing. I can’t think of anything better than writing with a partner who understands what you are trying to achieve, has some idea of how to achieve it and wants to achieve it with you. But I also can’t think of anything lonelier than being in collaboration with someone who doesn’t understand, doesn’t know how and doesn’t want to.

And it just never seems practical. All my best writing is done between the hours of 9.00 pm and 3.00 am. They’re not the hours that most writers keep, let alone most people. Also nobody else seems to have the same enthusiasm or understanding of my writing and what it is attempting to do until after I’m finished writing it.

The most important thing for anyone considering a collaborative partnership is to agree up front who is going to do what and precisely how the relationship, including any authorial credits and financial rewards, will work. Then put it all down on paper so it can be referred back to if necessary. There are so many examples out there of how it can all go pear shaped.

Here’s just one. Raymond Carver was an extremely well-regarded short story writer and after his death, both his editor and his wife tried to claim authorial roles in the creation of his works. We’ll never know for sure but neither made such claims during his lifetime, which makes it dubious.

In justifying her claim, the wife declared his ideas stemmed from hers, but ideas are not copyright. So while we might credit her with being some sort of muse to her husband, authorship appears to be a stretch.

And as for the editor! As well as being a writer, I am also an editor and I have edited many things, but not once have I tried to claim those works as my own, regardless of how little or how much work I have put into trying to make those works the best they can be. Unless the editor was in fact a ghost writer (and in that case not an editor at all), then he has less claim than the wife.

Whatever you decide, collaboration has to be right for you and for any potential writing partner. Me, I’m going to stick with my solitary pursuits. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything and I’m not sure I could justify inflicting my creative process on anyone else. Maybe I should add my novels to that old saying about laws and sausages: you should never let anyone see how you make them.

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