Writing Collabs

I see this a lot in writing groups: “I’m looking for someone to co-write a book with me” or “Anyone want to collab on a project?” or more general questions about sharing experiences with collaborative writing and how to make it work.

I can answer those more general questions.

First of all, when you are cowriting, you need an idea that appeals to both writers in a genre both writers are familiar with and comfortable in, or at least a genre one writing is familiar with and the other is willing to explore. You need to be on the same page (no pun intended) regarding the plot and overall direction of the book.

When I was cowriting, I was a teenager. My best friend and I were creating a massive fantasy world together with complex magical systems and a large ensemble cast. It was self-insertion, big time, with the main characters being based on she and I, and the majority of the cast based on our friends in some way. It was something fun that we worked on during lunch and on the weekends. She was the inventor, she came up with cool scenes and plot twists and world-building facts. I was the archiver, I kept track of the information and blended it into a coherent story and a stable world. She was also the artist, drawing pictures of characters, scenes, and the map.

It worked for us. Until we graduated and life got in the way and she handed it all over to me.

I haven’t done any further collaborations (and I will explain why later in this post) but I did work for many years as a ghostwriter and some of the tips are the same. Like, a good contract makes a good friend. Even if you are working with a friend or family member whom you trust (unless it’s your spouse, but even then …) have a contract laying out who will do what, how decisions will be made when you disagree, the approximate timeline for each draft, how often you need to check in with each other about the project, the credit/payment split for after its published (no, really, settle that before you put even a single word on the paper, not after its written and ready to be published), who owns the rights to what, how much of it you can share publicly, and what will happen if one of the other backs out of the project. Both of you need to sign it and have physical copies of it.

Be open and honest about what you want to do, what you feel your strengths and abilities are, and what you expect the other person to do. Too often, people are asking for collaborators when they really want ghostwriters. The difference? Collaborators are both active participants in the worldbuilding, writing, and editing process – maybe in different ways, maybe not in perfectly equal proportions, but they are both involved every step of the way, and they receive equal or near equal credit for the work. Ghostwriters receive an outline or summary from a client and do 100% of the writing and self-editing phases, sometimes they even do part of the outlining phase too. Someone who knows they want a ghostwriter generally offers a lump sum in exchange for full rights. Someone who is trying to disguise a ghostwriting contract as a collaboration will say “I’ll come up with the idea, you write it, and we’ll split the profits 50/50”. If you’re going to do all the work, get paid up front and let them do what they want with it, or do your own thing and keep all the money – only agree to a royalty split if they’ll agree to a fair labour split.

Collabs are difficult things. You are taking two authors with different ideas, different experiences, and different writing styles, and trying to create a single book. Back in high school, the style part wasn’t too big a deal – we were still trying to find our creative voices so we were experimenting together, exploring possibilities and variations until we found what we wanted. But we had a lot of long, sometimes tense, conversations about how to blend our ideas. Dragons were vetoed, she didn’t want full-size dragons in this series. Since it started as her idea and I was invited in, I had to let that one go. We argued about types and levels of powers for different characters, about how they would react in different situations, about the outcome of different story arcs …

When you write, you get attached to characters, to snippets of dialogue, to scenes, and you don’t want to cut them in the editing process. That’s where the saying “kill your darlings” comes in. For the most part we approached these problems logically, picking the solution that made the most sense for the story as a whole, but sometimes it was hard. I’d have an idea and it would hurt that she didn’t see the genius of it. And I’m sure my reluctance or refusal to consider some of her ideas stung her as well.

This leads me into why I haven’t done a collab since then, or the biggest reason anyway (I also have no time to deal with that level of project right now). I don’t trust anyone enough to work with them on a writing collaboration.

It comes down to trust. Trust that they will hold to the contract. Trust that they won’t dismiss your ideas and then steal them for another project. Trust that they won’t walk away partway through. Trust that they will listen to you with an open mind and keep disagreements civil and logical.

I don’t understand how complete strangers on Facebook can jump into a writing collaboration project together. I just … how do you know if you like the other person’s ideas? Or their writing style? Or the level of graphic content they want to include (violent or sexual, too much or too little)? You don’t know.

Do these people asking strangers if they want to co-write hold job interviews to find the right person? Do they settle for the best of the bunch or do they hold out for the right person? Is it like hiring a secretary or finding a spouse?

Writing is a deeply personal thing for me, even when I’m writing fiction. I throw myself into it. It is a passion. If I’m going to work with someone, it has to be someone I can trust with those deep secrets, those hopes and dreams, those vulnerabilities and fears.

To be honest, I do miss those long walks while Steph and I talked about Zoedar, brainstorming and creating together. And I think, when my kids are grown and my husband is retired, and my life doesn’t revolve around keeping small things alive and bills paid and food on the table anymore, maybe I will find someone who will take long walks with me, someone who wants to take on the vast process of co-writing a book or a series. Until them, I’m going to knuckle under and get through the mountain of projects waiting to be tackled.

And I wish all the co-writing teams out there the very best of luck and success.

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