The Art of the Collaborative Writing Process

I talked last week about collaboration agreements and creative control, but people often ask me about the process of working with a collaborator. How does it actually work? After all, writing is usually a solitary pursuit.

Truthfully, every collaboration partnership will find the process that works best for them. In non-fiction, the most common partnership is where one person provides the knowledge or expertise while the other does the actual writing. It can work this way in fiction, too, where one partner who loves research provides the details the other writer needs to make the book’s world pop.

In fiction, probably the most important consideration is voice—the novel must have a consistent voice and feel to the writing all the way through. The exception, of course, is when the writers purposely want two distinct voices or points of view in the structure of the story, such as alternating chapters from different characters’ POV. In the vast majority of cases, however, the book should feel “whole,” with no indication that multiple writers had their fingers on the keyboard.

The best way to achieve this is to have one writer be the primary writer. The primary should be the writer whose natural voice best fits the purpose and tone of the story. This will mean less revision later for reasons of voice, which is one of the harder things to edit and revise for if it is not strong from the start.

The primary writes the first draft; then the secondary takes it and makes edits, additions, suggestions, etc.; then it returns to the primary to be “polished” into the proper voice. Some may choose to have the secondary write the first draft and then the primary work it into the right voice in a rewrite, but I believe that is an inefficient process. The primary would almost certainly have to do a complete rewrite of every chapter to get the voice the collaborators want.

In my collaborative fiction project, I am working with two other writers. We each bring different strengths to the table. I am the primary writer, because my voice is the one we liked best for the project. I tend to focus on character and emotion. One of my collaborators, Jim Kempner, is excellent with plot and research. My other collaborator, Jeff Pero, is a line editor with a great nose for writing action. So our process goes something like this:

We all hash out the outline of the book. This was an enormously fun part of the project, full of synergy and enthusiasm. I then wrote the first draft. Then Jim took it and added detail and description and poked holes in the plot and logic, which he then mended. Jeff took it from there, checking for grammar but also policing the pacing and action. We all, of course, also kept an eye on character and dialogue and all the other things we writers need to juggle!

After Jeff, it came back to me, and I polished it, massaging all of Jim and Jeff’s inserts into the voice of the book. Then we all sat down together, read it out loud, and made line-by-line edits.

And that is how the three of us wrote our book, The Egyptian Enigma.

Have you ever worked with a collaborator? What was your process like?

The Collaboration Agreement: A Literary Pre-nup

Collaborative writing has always been prevalent in non-fiction, but it seems to be becoming more frequent in fiction as well. To that end, I want to talk a little bit about collaboration agreements and what they cover—and don’t.

I am not a lawyer, but I have been involved in two collaborative projects—one non-fiction, one fiction. In both cases, we made sure to sign a collaboration agreement. In the non-fiction project, we were all strangers so it made a lot of sense to protect ourselves in this way. In the fiction project, we are friends, so it was even MORE important to sign an agreement.

Why, you ask? If you’re friends, doesn’t the legal stuff strain the relationship?

Absolutely not. In fact, it is essential that friends sign an agreement in order to KEEP their friendship intact. Face it, people get nuts when money is involved. Knowing up front how money and rights will be divided takes all that pressure off and lets you just do the project and be friends.

I’m not going to cover in detail what is in a collaboration agreement. You can read a sample one from the Writers Guild of America. The National Writers Union is also a good resource for all things freelance.

Basically, a collaboration agreement lays out what the work is that you are collaborating on, how rights and money will be divided, and what happens in different eventualities, such as one partner dying or deciding to quit the project.

What I think is also important, but is not covered in this legal agreement, is creative control. By that I mean, who has the final say? If the two of you (or in my case, three) don’t quite see the vision the same way, whose wins out? In my case, we have talked it out until we reached consensus, but that can 1) be slow and 2) lead to something that no one is completely happy with. It can also lead to fantastic synergistic ideas that never would have come about on your own!

Another aspect of creative control is final editorial control. When you’re working on plot and scenes and the language and those end-stage revisions, and you disagree whether a scene should be in or out, or whether using “gorgeous” is better than “breath-taking”, who wins? In a case where one partner is a writer and the other is not, the writer should have final say. In a case of multiple writers? Well, once again my experience has been with the haggle system, which works fine but is deadly slow when you reach the line-by-line stage of revision.

My suggestion for who gets final say over the creative control is this: 1) The Writer always wins if the other partner is not one. 2) In the case of multiple writers, the one who brought the original idea should be the overseer.

While modifying the collaboration agreement to include a Creative Control person might not be legal (you’d have to ask a lawyer), it is a good idea to discuss and decide on one with your partner(s).

The Creative Control manager needs to beware of becoming a dictator. Remember why you teamed up with your collaborator in the first place—because this person(s) has valuable contributions to bring to the project. Keep an open mind, because synergy can strike when you least expect it. In my own fiction case, I know that my partners’ ideas and plotting and research and writing skills have made the book a thousand times better than what I could have done alone.

So sign that collaboration agreement and get on with the fun stuff—writing!

WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien