Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, January 14, 2011

Writing Tips - On Collaboration


As a screenwriter, I’m used to collaborating when writing. It’s become pretty easy for me to do. As an editor, however, I know most novelists aren’t so used to collaboration and often go into it with the wrong expectations. If you and a friend, or even just an acquaintance, decide to collaborate on a book, it will no doubt be fun – until a thorny problem crops up that neither of you had anticipated, and make no mistake, during novel collaboration, thorny problems do crop up.

Besides my screenplay work, I’ve collaborated on a novel with another author. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and luckily, we had no problems, but we were the exception, not the rule.

If you and a friend collaborate on a novel and neither of you is a “big name” author, be aware that your book will be much more difficult to sell than if you’d written it by yourself. If one of you is a “big name” author, the book will no doubt be easy to sell, and money will be made, but the big name author will probably end up getting all the credit and all the glory even if the money is shared equally. And if you are the big name author yourself, while your fans will probably buy and read the book, most of them probably won’t like it as well as if you’d written it on your own. They will be likely to complain that it “isn’t like your usual work.”

If you’re bound and determined to collaborate with someone on a book, even your very best friend, the most important thing you have to do – not should do, but have to do – in order for the collaboration to run smoothly is decide who is going to do what and then put it in writing. I know. That sounds unnecessary when you’re collaborating with a long time, trusted friend, but believe me, collaborations can get away from you quickly and end up in a terrible mess.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself why you want to collaborate on a book, especially if the two of you will be writing a book you could have written alone. Do you think two will lighten the workload? That might be true for screenplays, but when it comes to novels, you couldn’t be more wrong. Collaborating on a book is always more difficult and more work than writing solo, but sometimes collaboration is necessary. Let’s say you have a terrific storyline that revolves around the art world of Renaissance Italy, but you know little about the details of the art world of Renaissance Italy. You could research it, of course, but you could also collaborate with someone who is an expert on the art of Renaissance Italy.

Maybe you and your friend have a fairly detailed outline written out for your project. If you don’t, you should. You might think this would head off any problems down the road, but it won’t. Not by a long shot. What happens if you and your friend have very different visions of the story’s protagonist? Whose vision will prevail? Whose vision will prevail when it comes to other characters? You need to be clear on this before you begin writing.

Another important thing to consider is who gets the final edit on the manuscript. If you’re planning on writing multiple books together, will the same person always get the final say-so, or will you devise a different set of rules for each book? If you’re writing with a friend, you might be thinking that the two of you will be in agreement about things when the time comes for the final edit, that you’ll be able to do it together. But you won’t. Believe this, even if you believe nothing else about this article: only one of you is going to have the final say. Decide who that one is going to be before you begin to write the first page of the first draft. When I collaborated, my partner had the final say on the novel, and I had the final say on the screenplay adaptation, and I did have to change some things to make the story more appealing to Hollywood. My writing partner understood this.

You also need to know how you’re going to divide the work. You can’t both “just write” and then combine the two. Collaboration works best if one writer does the first draft, another does a revision, and then the writer who has the final edit, well, does the final edit.

Figure out how you’re going to resolve differences before they crop up, and they will crop up. Don’t expect everything to go swimmingly. Collaboration is a process of give and take, mostly give.

And while it might seem minor, decide before you write whose name is going to go first on the cover. “Going first” is very important to some people, while it doesn’t matter much to others. For example, I don’t care if my name is first or second, or in the case of screenplays fifth or sixth, just as long as it’s on there. In screenwriting, the placement of the name isn’t so important, and it can change from screenplay to screenplay, usually depending on how much a person contributes to the overall story. However in novel collaboration, the writer’s name that’s listed first will generally be listed first for all books the two of you write together.

Now we’re coming to the really thorny parts of novel collaboration: the money. Do you both have agents? If so, whose agent are you going to use? How will this be handled with the other writer’s agent? If you don’t have an agent, which one of you is going to handle the business side of getting one? Who will be responsible for receiving the money when the book is sold? Please don’t think collaborating will make the two of you rich. While it’s not out of the realm of possibility, generally, books written by two people garner a smaller advance than those written by only one person.

I’ve seen novel collaboration ruin long-standing friendships, but this doesn’t have to happen. Not as long as you and your writing partner do some planning.

Novel collaboration can be fun and enjoyable, but only if you plan first and only if each collaborator is crystal clear on what his or her duties are and both of you stick to your plan. So, if you’re planning on collaborating, think about the above as well. No, you can’t see into the future, and you can’t predict what problems will crop up during the writing of the book, but you can devise a plan about what to do when something unforeseen happens. Keep your priorities straight, and above all, know that no book is worth losing a friend.

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