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Anne R. Allen's Blog


My Photo

Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Writing Collaboration: Is it Right for You?

by Ruth Harris

According to the sublime Cole Porter lyric: Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.

Writers do it, too. Often. Collaborate, that is.

  • Peter Staub and Stephen King paired up to write horror and dark fantasy in The Talisman. Their Black House is a Stoker Award winner.
  • Joe Konrath, an Amazon bestseller, is a serial collaborator who works with a number of different co-authors in a variety of genres. He describes his working process and shares his collaboration agreement.
  • A.D. Garrett is the writing collaboration between Dagger Award-winning novelist Margaret Murphy and forensic scientist, Professor Dave Barclay. Together, they write forensic thrillers.

Other pairs of co-authors have also created impressive successes.

  • Vanessa Kelly, known for her Regency Romances, and her husband, Randy, write sports romance as VK Sykes. Vanessa and Randy are the authors of the USA Today Bestselling Philadelphia Patriots Series. Their newest book is Payoff Pitch.
  • Marian Edelman Borden and Rhonda Dossett write together as Evelyn David. Currently they are writing two mystery series: The Sullivan Investigations Mystery series and The Brianna Sullivan Mysteries. Their latest whodunit, Mind Over Murder, is available in ebook formats and trade paperback.

Believe it or not, Marian and Rhonda have never met in person. “We were waiting for a very special Oprah – but that ship seems to have sailed. For the first year, we'd never spoken. All exchanges were by email. Now we talk frequently on the phone.”

Anne R. Allen wrote the nonfiction book How to be a Writer in the E-Age with bestselling novelist, Catherine Ryan Hyde, her friend of long standing.

In order to explore the inner workings of collaboration teams, I reached out to Vanessa and Randy, Marian and Rhonda, Anne and Catherine. Many thanks to each of them for taking the time to answer my questions.

RH: To begin at the beginning, how did you first decide to collaborate?

ARA: We've been friends for a long time, and I helped promote some of Catherine's workshops on this blog early on. Since we were teaching similar subjects—me on the blog and Catherine in workshops—we decided to pool our knowledge in book form.

CRH: I had been wanting to work on a nonfiction book for writers for a long time. But I felt like there was a big hole in my knowledge. I’d been with an agent for so long that I really didn’t know the down-in-the-trenches stuff like submissions in the “right now,” not submissions ten years ago. The fit with Anne’s experience was perfect.

Vanessa: It started out as a marriage survival tactic. When Randy was approaching his early retirement, I asked him what he intended to do with his free time. The answer came back as something like this: “Oh, I’ll just drive you to all your appointments and to shopping and just spend the day with you." O_o. I knew I had to do something, since so much together time would probably drive us both crazy. I think our writing collaboration has really helped keep our marriage healthy!

ED: We met on an Internet writers forum in 2002. We were each posting stories, learning the mechanics of writing fiction. We exchanged emails, offering feedback. Our styles of writing, even at the beginning, were similar and equally important, we shared a similar sense of humor. At some point, we decided that we'd try to collaborate on a story.

RH: How do you plot or are you pantsers? How do you create characters?

ED: Actually plotting styles is the one difference between us. Marian prefers to talk through the plot; Rhonda prefers to let the characters "talk" to her as she writes. So we've developed a general approach: plot but leave plenty of room for talkative characters to change the direction of the story.

Vanessa: We’re pretty anal plotters, especially me. I love to use plot boards, GMC and character charts, and I also write bios of my characters. Randy is a little more streamlined, but he also does tons of pre-writing work. We usually start with the hero and heroine, figuring out who they are and what central problem currently bedevils them (we both often dip into to the Sixteen Master Archetypes book by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders for ideas). From there, we brainstorm the basics.

ARA: We got together at Catherine's house and brainstormed one afternoon (with some help from Catherine's wonderful mom) and came up with the concept. We went home and fleshed out an outline and book proposal and it all seemed to come together pretty easily.

CRH: Anne and I both had a few things we’d written that writers had found especially helpful. That made it a little easier, because we could spread out what we already had (some of it just in my head, like the rejection stories) like a road map. Then it was clear what was needed to form a cohesive whole.

RH: On mechanics—Do you use MS Word, Scrivener, Google Docs? Or something else?

ARA: Funny you should ask. The only real problems we've had stemmed from formatting issues. I write in Word and Catherine writes in Word for Mac. We didn't realize that the two Words don’t mesh unless you save everything to Word 2003 (.doc, not .docx). Otherwise you get glitches in formatting for ebooks that read wrong on some devices.

CRH: Because these were all separate “pieces,” using separate Word docs (at first) for each chapter worked fine.

Vanessa: We just use good old Word. We’re pretty old school in that respect. I’ve tried to use things like Scrivener and Google Docs, but they just seem to mess with my process.

ED: Nothing elaborate. We use MSWord, employ Track Changes, and exchange via email the work-in-progress.

RH: How do you divide the work? Do you alternate chapters or does one person write 1st draft, the other polish, edit, refine? Or something else?

ED: We both write all characters and share the writing of every scene. The WIP goes back and forth constantly, with each of us tweaking and adding, so much so that we couldn't tell you who wrote what.

ARA: With a nonfic book like this, it was a piece of cake. We each wrote separate chapters and didn't do much besides proofread each other's pieces. We first published this with a small press, where they did the final edit.

CRH: It really divided itself, like Anne getting “How To Blog.” We let our experience dictate the work split.

Vanessa: Randy writes the first draft, then I do a major revision. He then does another pass through the document, refining and doing another level of copy edits. We then print out the document and I go through it line by line to catch any little errors or inconsistencies. We basically keep handing the document back and forth until we’re satisfied with it.

RH: How do you resolve disagreements?

Vanessa: We argue about it. Fortunately, we generally feel strongly about different things. Randy is very plot and story focused, and I worry more about emotion and characterization. So it’s usually not as difficult to reach an agreement as it could be, since we tend to defer to each other along those lines of concern.

ED: We don't have that many disagreements. We talk through when we hit a spot that isn't working for one of us. We've never had a turn in a story that we didn't both agree on.

ARA: I can't actually think of any. Is that weird?

CRH: We had none! I swear! I think it was a great example of how collaboration really can work, and doesn’t have to be a minefield.

RH: Are your writing styles similar or do they need to be honed into a single voice at some point in the process?

ED: Our writing styles are similar and have become more so over the years of collaboration. For our Brianna stories, which are set in Oklahoma, Rhonda will tweak when she sees something wrong with a geographic reference or an expression that wouldn't fly in that area. Similarly, Marian, who used to live in Washington, DC, will tweak stories set on the East Coast when necessary.

Vanessa: I’d say our writing styles are fairly similar; we even accuse each other being wordy and occasionally a bit arcane in our writing styles. It’s pretty funny to see how we red-pen each other in a fairly consistent way, but don’t seem to see the problem in our individual work.

ARA: I think we have distinctive voices, but they are similar enough in tone that they meshed very well, or at least our reviewers seem to think so.

CRH: Yes, I agree that our styles are easily distinguished. I think you could cover up the name at the beginning of the chapter and still know who’s writing. But we both like to serve up plenty of humor with lessons like these, so I think the styles meshed well.

RH: What are the biggest upsides of collaborating?

ARA: For me, I got my name linked with one of the bestselling authors on Amazon. I'm not sure what Catherine got out of it, except that she likes to help people and um, "Pay it Forward"

CRH: No, no. I got a lot more. I got a whole different perspective on the industry, especially the most recent changes as they affect the new author. I got a lot.

ED: Collaboration gives us the advantage of having someone to play off ideas. Talking through the plot, throwing out ideas, often with the preface "this may sound crazy," allows us to explore all kinds of possibilities for a story.

Writing is a tough business. Authors, especially in the rapidly changing publishing world, face disappointment on a regular basis. While it's wonderful to have someone with whom to celebrate the triumphs, it's also incredibly helpful to have someone to share the disappointments and frustrations.

Vanessa: It’s fun and also mitigates against the sense of isolation that often afflicts authors. It’s wonderful to have someone that close to you who “gets” what you’re doing. We spend hours talking about our writing and our books, which is a great way to keep our brains active and engaged.

RH: What pitfalls should writers considering collaboration be aware of?

Vanessa: Do NOT collaborate if you can’t let stuff go or you are a grudge holder. You need to be willing to lose an argument occasionally. If you’re not, it won’t be a happy relationship. I also think you need to define your work process before you even set one word down on the page. You want to be collaborating, not competing with each other.

ED: Collaboration means checking your ego at the door. It's not Marian or Rhonda's mystery -- it's Evelyn David's story. Final piece of advice: For a collaboration to work, it helps to have a sense of humor (in fact it's vital).

ARA: I should think collaboration on fiction would have lots of pitfalls, but collaborating on nonfiction is a lot easier. We each had our own chapters and fields of expertise, so we didn't have much to argue about.

CRH: I’m sure there are many pitfalls. Egos, for example. But like any human interaction, honesty, an ability to speak up, and maybe putting some points of the agreement in writing should go a long way.

Now about you.

If you’re thinking of collaborating, here are a few questions to ask yourself first:

  • Did you share when you were a kid?
  • Can you put the book first and your ego second?
  • Is your style compatible with your collaborator’s and easily blended? If not, will one of you act as editor and referee with the ability to make final decisions?
  • Do you both have a sense of humor that will help you through the rough spots, the disagreements, the disappointments?
  • Do you both write at the same speed? A Ferrari and a bicycle will both get you where you want to go but not at the same time.
  • Plotter or pantser?
  • How will you handle finances and bookkeeping?
  • Decide on a marketing/promo budget and how to split the expenses.
  • Is one (or both) of you a competent formatter or will you have to budget for pro formatting?
  • Same applies to cover design. Can you DIY or will you need to hire a designer?
And yes, sometimes the best collaborations run into snags. For a look at how Michael and I resolve our differences, here's a post at my blog on When Collaborators Disagree.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you been thinking about collaborating on a book? Have you ever successfully co-written anything? Do you have any disaster stories? What advice do you have for potential collaborators?


99c Special! Last week!!!

The Chanel Caper by Ruth Harris and The Gatsby Game by Anne R. Allen

It's CHANEL AND GATSBY, a comedy two-fer

Hollywood and Manhattan: it's Bi-Coastal Comedy! A perfect read for those last lazy days of summer.
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The Chanel Caper
Nora Ephron meets James Bond. Or is it the other way around? 

The Gatsby Game 
A Hollywood mystery with celebrities, murder and a smart-mouthed nanny. Read it before you see the new film about the same real-life mystery, The David Whiting Story, due later this year.


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 entry fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS NO FEE Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. September 19th-20th

Steamy Romance Anthology. NO FEE Fast Foreword is open for submissions for their "Holiday Hot Romance Anthology" Holiday-themed steamy romance or erotica. 3,000-8,000 words long. If the work has been published elsewhere, you must include bibliographic information and hold all publication rights. Deadline September 20th

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I imagine a sense of humor really helps!
I've bounced ideas and stories off one of my critique partners because we understand each other's writing so well, but we've attempted a story together. Might be interesting.
I also see how a man and woman team would work so well. They'd fill in the gaps.
And who knew PC and MAC could work together after all...?

August 31, 2014 at 10:19 AM  
Blogger R. A. Meenan said...

Ironically, my love of writing and the current series I'm working on basically started as a collaboration with one of my dear friends. We basically role played the original draft, totally pantsing it, through AIM. It took years to get the novel to real working condition, but sometimes I miss the raw emotion of role playing.

My wonderful role play partner is now also my book cover artist. He's totally amazing. XD And who better to create my cover than one of the contributing authors?

August 31, 2014 at 10:23 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Alex—A sense of humor definitely helps! Writers can get awfully intense about character/plot points/style/grammar/even punctuation. lol (Ask me how I know.)

Let us know if you and one of your crit partners decide to try a story together. Since you understand each other's work so well, you're already in a good place to start. Sounds like there's a potential to turn out really well.

August 31, 2014 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

R.A.—What a terrific story! Love that your role play partner is now creating your covers. Talented people coming full circle in such a creative way is truly inspiring and reveals the best side of collaboration.

August 31, 2014 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Love this post! I have seven books published, and one of them, A Purse to Die For, was written with my friend, Cindy St-Pierre. It is quite different from my other books (which are all wacky) - this one is a more serious whodunit.
The big pro for me: I find it hard to write serious (rather than comedy) for 80,000 words. When I do it with a partner, it is lots more fun. We surprise each other. I was looking to see if anyone in your article above experience similar pros.

August 31, 2014 at 11:37 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Melodie—Thanks! You bring up an excellent point about how a partner can help move us in a new direction that might not ordinarily be so comfortable. Means that collaboration, among other things, can be great way for us to expand our range!

August 31, 2014 at 12:10 PM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 31, 2014 at 12:37 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

As Anne made clear in her post "Ten Obsolete Beliefs That Can Block Self-publishing," a great advantage falls to those who produce a lot, fast. When it works out, I would think collaboration helps in this regard. I'm intrigued by the idea of teaming up with someone, but only if we each had defined assignments that didn't conflict. Probably--for me--this idea would work best with an expert willing to share "insider information," and leave the writing to me. Otherwise, I see myself constantly running back to the entry door, to reclaim my ego.

August 31, 2014 at 1:33 PM  
Blogger sue mcginty said...

Have not tried collaboration in fiction writing, but collaborated many times on courses for Mc-Graw Hill. It's like marriage, if the chemistry is right, it's great, if not...But Alex is right. A sense of humor helps.

August 31, 2014 at 1:42 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Barry—Thanks for taking the time to comment. You've pointed out one of the crucial aspects of collaboration: Know Thyself. You've defined what you could do, but also a pitfall you know enough to avoid. Excellent advice for all writers considering collaboration: Think ahead and define your roles.

August 31, 2014 at 1:50 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Sue—Thank you! Humor, absolutely positively. :-) And, like marriage, there will probably (but not inevitably) be ups and downs. Perspective matters and so does keeping the end goal in mind.

August 31, 2014 at 1:53 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Hi, Ruth, In higher ed, lo those many years ago, I co-taught teacher ed classes but usually with the same person I wrote journal articles with so I knew her strengths and she knew mine. She was an idea person, and saw the forrest and I was a tree guy so we meshed pretty well in and out of class. And we're still speaking today! Since I've been writing fiction I've toyed with the idea of collaborating. Especially since I spend so much time doing research and plotting. It would be great to have someone to pace my writing with. Help me pick up speed. I know a lot of fast writers but I'm not one of them. Great post and would love to try this one day. Paul

August 31, 2014 at 2:27 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Hi Paul! So…you've done it before. Successfully (you two are still speaking).
Maybe try again? Maybe put a time limit sort of like a trial marriage? If it works, great. If not, shake hands and split. No hard feelings. Sound like a plan?

August 31, 2014 at 3:02 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Ruth, thank you. It does sound like a plan. I'm going over to my publisher (JMS Books) and her Author FB page and see if anyone has done this before and who might be interested in future. :) Love the trial marriage idea.

August 31, 2014 at 3:24 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

Fascinating subjection. A couple of writers friends threw this idea out there...that we should write together. But we have totally different styles and genres. But I'll never say never!

August 31, 2014 at 6:43 PM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

I'm intrigued by my response to this question. I'm a collaborator in many ways, & in multiple settings, even back to 5th grade, when my initial forays into fiction involved collaborating with a pal. Now, though, writing's almost too intimate to want anyone in "between the pages" with me. Hmm. I'm not sure what I think about that beyond being intrigued.

August 31, 2014 at 8:55 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Julie—Couldn't agree more. Never say never but make sure you understand what you're signing up for! :-)

September 1, 2014 at 4:33 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

CS—Intrigued can be a step forward but there's absolutely no reason to think you need to go any further than that. Collaboration, like spinach and techno rock, is not for everyone!

September 1, 2014 at 4:33 AM  
Blogger R. A. Meenan said...

They really do! I'm very blessed to be surrounded by some amazing creative minds. =D

September 1, 2014 at 2:29 PM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

At the bookstore we have book on our shelf (darned if I can remember the title!) that is a collaboration of several mystery writers. What they did was one wrote the first chapter, the second wrote the second and so on. I'm am very intrigued by that concept. How interesting it would be to see how your beginning ends in someone else's imagination. Or, I guess how your ending begins!

September 1, 2014 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Christine—If we're talking about the same book, it was Naked Came The Stranger. It was done as a joke and co-written by some journalists at Newsday, a Long Island newspaper. Made a bit of a splash at the time. Just writers goofing off and having fun! Whyever not?

September 2, 2014 at 11:03 AM  

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