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.

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

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:

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?


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