Writing a novel by yourself is hard enough, so how do you corroborate your thoughts and work ethic with someone else’s? It’s actually very easy if you’ve got the patience, understanding, diplomacy skills and motivation to keep the ball rolling.
This is not a how-to guide. This is not an example of: The One True Partnership. Every collaborative novel works differently. These are just pointers taken from our successful co-author story! . There’s only one rule you should probably abide to: write with a close, totally honest friend. Let’s explore why…
Safety and Honesty Are A Writer’s Best Friends
find someone who can give you both
Writing is personal. It’s private, up until the moment you want to share it with someone else. We usually don’t do this until we’ve polished the crud out of every single word, so what does this mean for collaborative writing? It means you must feel safe sharing work with your partner and they must feel safe with you.
This is a must. You’re going to be sharing broken sentences, half paragraphs, malformed ideas and lines that don’t make sense. It helps if you already know each other’s weaknesses and if you can recognise those weaknesses within yourself.
On the flip side, it’s important to recognise your partner’s strengths. There might be a scene that your partner is better suited to writing than you are, they might flare for set-up, or action, or contemplation, or sadness, or blood and gore. You need to be atuned to handing over the pen to the person who will probably best do the scene justice. Don’t cling to something just because you want to control that scene.
The nice thing about collaboration is that you can discuss the results. You can embellish what you partner has written – if you think it’s necessary – you can offer improvements, or you can just enjoy a brand new section of the story that’s sprung to life without your touch. Ever wished a scene would just write itself? That’s a little bit what collaborative writing can feel like at times. It’s a real pleasure.
In conclusion, if you’re unable to say to your partner ‘I don’t think this sentence/dialogue/scene is working,’ then your work will not improve. You need to be willing to accept input in any area of your writing and feel comfortable with receiving it. You’re not reviewing each other, you’re working together.
Discussion is Critical
but this shouldn’t be stressful or argumentative
I love the discussion bit of collaborative writing. It’s difficult not to go on and on about a story you’re writing to your family and friends, so having someone who not only wants to talk about your story but help you write is a real highlight.
You are both idea factories. Your partner might have more ideas than you, while you find ways to link things or develop them, or vice versa. Both of you may be overflowing with ideas and need to narrow down your options. Having a partner means the consistency and intricacy of your plot should be tighter than ever. You’ve got a second pair of eyes and a second mind helping you fathom out the pieces. Throw ideas at each other, even the silly ones, it may lead to something awesome.
Of course, you don’t always have to agree upon something and you’ll need to discuss the best solution, but whatever you decide this shouldn’t leave one of you feeling disappointed. Don’t cling to anything that isn’t working – always debate why you think it should stay, or accept it if something needs to be changed. Both of you must be happy. There’s nothing worse than having reservations about a section of the story. This is where honesty comes into play.
Always, always be honest if you’re not happy about something. You don’t need to discuss every detail, that can hamper the actual writing process, but big things, like character backgrounds and development, should always be talked about. ‘What if…’ is probably my favourite opening proposition. If you don’t live with each other: send text messages, make a phone call (FaceTime is quite fun, if you have that) – make sure you’re both on track with the story’s development. My partner (Mitch) and I often send SnapChat videos to each other.
If you get to a point in the story where the rules of the universe or the character’s personality aren’t totally clear yet, check with each other to see what the solution is. Discuss, discuss, discuss. (But don’t forget to write.)
Compromise and Share
both of you own this thing
Mitch and I are very lucky in that we are symbiotic twins and don’t really need to compromise, we think as one. The biggest compromises we have to make are actually with our editor. On a couple of occasions our editor has made a content change that has rubbed us the wrong way, or she’s asked for half of a chapter to be rewritten. A lot of the time we can totally see where she’s coming from and have cut lines, altered lines, or rewritten scenes. Other times, we’ve had to take a deep breath and let go, because overall the story doesn’t suffer for her changes.
Aside from compromising co-authors need to remember that neither of you ‘own’ a character. All the characters are ‘shared’ and you shouldn’t feel afraid to think up details for every character. In the same vein, you shouldn’t start to think of a character as ‘yours’ and get resentful when your partner has ideas for McMary’s childhood or romantic interests – that’s not collaborative or productive. I have a tendency to write from two particular characters POV more so than the others, and so does Mitch, but this doesn’t stop either of us from developing what happens to any character, how the character feels, and what the character’s back story might be.
two unsure people is a lot messier than one
I would say that plotting is the most important part of collaborative writing. When you work alone it’s alright if you’re unsure of where the story is heading because you can figure that out along the way. With collaborative work, both of you need to know where the story is headed to have maximum effectiveness when actually writing (you probably won’t write sitting next to each other very much) and to make sure that the structure doesn’t suffer.
You need to be able to write independently without feeling that you’re steering the story in the wrong direction. Without planning, scenes that wander away from the main plot can be doubly as troublesome and the overall structure will feel meandering, weak, and unclear. Mitch and I planned every single chapter. We didn’t plan intricately as (mentioned above) this can hamper the actual writing process, but we made every episode purposeful. For every chapter we planned a sub-plot and the main-plot; two moments that needed to happen in every chapter. How those two things unfolded was mostly unknown.
Before we began any writing, we planned the whole first season of our series so we could see the end game and could structure the information in each chapter accordingly. This solid method of planning allowed us to write independently without struggling to think of ‘what happens next’, resulting in a strong narrative structure. The real bonus is that both of you have already agreed on the overall content and so you shouldn’t feel too uncertain about the chapter’s direction. The final product will still need debate, and you might find that half way through writing you need to call up your partner to ask questions, or to discuss a new idea. But, as you know, I think that’s the fun part.
Deadlines and Motivation
one of you will probably be the driving force
This is really where writing with a close friend comes into play. You need to know that the person you’re about to work with is not lazy, and at least one of you needs to be organised about meeting deadlines and making sure the work gets done. Writing with someone you don’t know very well can make it awkward to crack the whip, you might not know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and your partner might just disappear all together.
Motivation Techniques: You’ll have to figure out what works best as not everyone is receptive to the whip or the soft paws all of the time. I generally try to be motivating by thinking up scenes, or instances, or bits of world building that will excite my partner and inspire them to write. I set deadlines (never underestimate how motivating a month can be). Sometimes I simply ask if she’ll be able to write by a specific date. When we lived together, I would sit down next to Mitch and start plotting with her, or start writing. And sometimes, now that we live apart, I’ve just had to drive across cities to her place and make her sit down and write the scene I know she’ll be great at doing. *cracks whip*
Giving Leeway: It’s paramount that you don’t make your partner feel stressed or under pressure. Most writer’s don’t write full time. They have a different full time job, bills to pay, food to buy, people to see and toilets to clean. Sometimes you just have to back off and accept that your partner needs to take a break. You don’t want your partner to resent you for bullying them into writing all of the time.
You Are Both Responsible: If you have a serious deadline, however, and you’re the one who has too much to do, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to make time, even if you don’t sleep. Once you sign a contract, you’re expected to deliver and it’s not fair on your partner if you don’t pull your share of the weight. You both signed up for this, so don’t leave your partner hanging, it reflects badly on both of you.
Don’t be Controlling: If you are the main motivator, do not be controlling. Always remember that this is a collaborative project and the creative process is in a constant state of flux. It’s easy to feel frustrated when you’re partner is behind on their share of the work, but don’t get haughty or smug. That’ll tear your relationship to shreds.
Have Patience: This is something I struggle with as I’m always writing and steam-rolling to get things done. I like to be ahead of schedule so that the quality doesn’t suffer when we’re under pressure. But I never take scenes that I know Mitch will a) be great at writing, or b) she’s been feeling passionate about. Unless you’re going to be in big trouble with your publisher, don’t take over the writing in your impatience.
Sharing Ideas Across Distances
apps, programmes, folders, etc.
You’ll need to keep each other up to date with your side of the writing, and in this day and age there’s no excuse to lag behind. One of the most effective programmes Mitch and I use is a phone and desktop application called Evernote. It’s growing quite popular, so you might have heard of it.
For this app to be of any use, at least one of you will need to pay for a premium account. With premium you can share folders with one or more people, and any updated work can be shared almost instantly. Mitch and I upload full chapters, the plot plan, character lists, dialogue drabbles, current notes, diagrams and much more via Evernote. It’s instant, easy to use, and accessible anywhere. It’s basically a portable notebook that can hold as much content as you need it to!
Evernote is a little bit buggy about updating your notes sometimes, so watch out for that, as you might only have half the content. Never rely on Evernote for sharing the final chapters, but it is incredibly advantageous as a planning and note-keeping tool.
For sharing chapters, Dropbox is probably your best option. Mitch and I can share full chapters across vast distances without glitches. We can edit and update scenes instantly, leaving each other comments in Track Changes, so the process doesn’t slow down even thought we’re so far apart. It’s also a good alternative for those who can’t afford Evernote, as the first 1GB of Dropbox is free.
Scrivener is a professional writing programme that took off with storm in 2010-2011. Not all writers like it (I’ve fallen out of the habit of using it myself) but it’s great for personally organising your work. It allows for binders, folders, formatting, novel parts, and more. You can house everything about your project in one place with Scrivener. The only downside is that you can’t easily share the raw document, only the compiled results, which is difficult when you’re working collaboratively. That said, I would recommend it to anyone, and I know that Mitch drools over its every facet.
I’ve also heard writers rave about GoogleDrive – especially if there are more than two writers involved. It allows for the same access as Evernote, where you can instantly edit work without drastic conflicts. The only downside is that you can’t access content without the internet and it doesn’t allow for the same intricate folder and contents system as Evernote, nor is it as portable.
What programmes or apps do you use? If you can point me and other readers in the direction of new writing tools, particularly for co-authors, that would be fantastic!
A United Front
the business end of things
Okay, obviously you shouldn’t be a stubborn duo with guns blazing, but you should be one voice when speaking to your publisher. Before answering any queries, both of you should be aware of the discussion at hand and agree upon the answer you give.
When work is returned to us, I’ll inform Mitch that we have new edits to approve of, or vice versa. Once both of us have read the chapter, I (usually) will reply to our editor with a confirmation that we’re happy with the changes. If we’re not happy with the changes, I usually leave Mitch to explain our reservations and the alterations we’d like to make (she’s much nicer than I am).
I never confirm something without consulting Mitch first. If the editor needs a response from us quickly, I usually say, “I’m happy about the changes, but I will wait until Mitch has also read the chapter before confirming anything.” Or, “There are a few sections that we’d like to alter on the new copy. I’ll discuss them with Mitch, and we’ll get back to you. Thanks!”
It’s no good if you’re both giving different answers to the publisher. You need to CC your writing partner into all emails, so they can see what’s being said, and one of you needs to speak with a unanimous voice. It makes communications concise and clear. Both of you can speak within the same CC chain, of course, but we tend do this sparingly.
I hope this post helped! Thank you for reading. Got any advice to add? Experiences to share?
New science-fiction/fantasy series by W. H. Wood and Mitch K. Allan Now airing on Big World Network!
- #Writing Collaboration: Can You Play Nice With Others? (jillarcherauthor.wordpress.com)
- Experience with Collaborative Writing (josselynegl111.wordpress.com)