(an extract from the forthcoming book, “How To Write A Collaborative Novel” by Heide Goody and Iain Grant)
There are lots of reasons to collaborate. Indeed, to remangle a frequently mangled Shakespearean quote, some people are born to collaborate, some achieve collaboration and others have collaboration thrust upon them. Of the reasons that people give for collaboration, some of them are good reasons and some are bad reasons.
I decided to explore the question by addressing a set of statements (many of which I have heard from other writers) about why you should or shouldn’t consider collaborating.
Good reasons why I’d like to collaborate:
It will be fun
Let’s face it, writing is for the most part a solitary business. I’m not saying that writers are sad and lonely but we are frequently alone. To be honest, the independence that comes from self-imposed solitude is something that writers can cherish. The very best writers can take it to astounding, almost monastic levels. When I write, I like to lock myself away in a mountain cabin in the depths of winter, surrounded with six foot snow drifts with no phone and no TV and… oh, hang on, that’s the beginning of the Stephen King book, Misery, but you get the idea.
But just occasionally, every so often, writers also feel the need for human contact and wonder if there is a way of sharing all the fun of writing with another person. And there is a lot of fun to be had. Sharing the creative experience is fun. Taking an idea and discussing, stretching and shaping it is just like playing. Of course, there will be hard work as well, but definitely LOTS of fun.
It will be fast
Two gravediggers should be able to dig a grave twice as fast as one gravedigger. Two painters will paint a house twice as fast as one painter. You should therefore be able to write twice as fast with two people as with one. There’s a certain logic to it.
It’s not one hundred percent true. Old adages about too many cooks spoiling the broth or whatever owe their longevity to holding a kernel of truth. Just as only one person can stir the broth at one time, multiple writers can hardly sit at the same keyboard together.
But conversely, there are reasons why two people might write at more than double the speed of a solo writer, not least because there’s an excellent chance that you will increase your daily word count, if you’re at all inclined to be competitive.
However, just because collaborative writing is fast, it doesn’t mean that you should run before you can walk. You must promise me that you’ll do the groundwork! We show you how to sort everything out. Don’t skimp on the preparation. You’ll thank us later.
I like to bounce ideas around with another person.
Writers are clever people and, like most clever people, tend to think they know absolutely everything there is to know. I should know; I am such a person.
But, if we can take a step towards greater wisdom and humility, we might just accept that other people also know stuff, stuff we don’t know. And stranger still is that, collectively, we know stuff that no one individual really knew. Sometimes a passing observation made by one person will spark a thought in another. There is wisdom in crowds and writers can reap the benefit of that.
Sharing thoughts and ideas out loud is something that even solo writers do. Many a great writer has been heard pacing about their rooms, talking to themselves and even violently enacting scenes from their work. Collaborating with another is a way of doing the same but without appearing to be a complete nutter.
In later chapters, we’ll show you some ways to make sure that you capture those ideas at the right time to be useful.
It will motivate me
Just as there is wisdom in crowds, so there is strength in numbers. People are more likely to lose weight if they join a slimming club. Alcoholics are more likely to shake off their addiction if they attend AA meetings. So it is with writers. I don’t mean that writers are obese alcoholics. Not all of them. But writers are more likely to achieve and succeed if they work in the company of others.
If you’re the sort of person who can’t bear to let someone down then you will find that a collaboration will ensure that you give the project the focus it needs. It’s a strange truth that we’re often more reluctant to let down another person than we are ourselves.
We can learn from each other
Writing is an art form in that there is no surefire and perfected technique for doing it well. How you write is, without a doubt, different to how I write. In terms of style, consider how much you favour first person, third person, unreliable narrators, omniscient narrators, epistolary stories, the use of description, the use of adjectives, comedy, irony, plot twists, structural forms, literary allusions, etc, etc, etc. In terms of your writing practice, consider how you plan, how you write, how you edit, where and when you write, the length of time for which you write at a sitting and how you commit those words to paper (or screen).
With such almost infinite variety, it would be reasonable to assume that you have not yet found perfection in your writing. There is always something else to learn. It’s certainly true that you can pick up some very interesting insights into your partner’s working methods. Be prepared to share your own as well.
It will plug me in to other readers
If you and your partner have other works out there, then it might be beneficial to both of you if you collaborate. Both of you will bring existing readers who will be introduced to the other. Books are interesting that way – authors are not really in competition with each other. As an author, you work in a market that is flooded with product that is then sold on to a worldwide market of hundreds of millions of people.
If a reader finds another writer that they like then they won’t stop reading someone else’s work to make room for it. The very best writers heap praise on their contemporaries and encourage a shared readership.
Bad reasons why I’d like to collaborate:
I am lazy and I want someone to do all of the hard work
This is an extreme version of the notion that your idea is so valuable and saleable that someone will come and do all of the donkey work for the privilege of being part of it. Unless you have some stake in an existing, profitable franchise, it’s unlikely that this will work out for you.
Extraordinarily successful thriller writer, James Patterson, farms out much of his writing duties to ghostwriters or ‘co-authors’. It’s a model that allows him to publish up to nine books in a single year. It’s not a conventional approach to novel writing and some would even regard it as cynical and crass. But it works for Mr Patterson.
I once heard the story that Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Esterhas, walked into a movie pitch session with a single sentence on a piece of paper and walked out again with a cheque for a healthy six figure sum. The story is almost certainly untrue. Also, you are not Joe Esterhas. You cannot take a single idea and expect someone else to buy or to make it fly for you.
I’ve come across lots of people with lots of cool ideas, but it’s the execution and delivery of that idea that matters. I’m afraid that if you find anyone with the writing talent to deliver your idea then they will almost certainly want to work in a more democratic way.
I’ve not written anything before and I need help
I don’t have many hard or fast rules as a writer and the ones I think as hard and fast frequently become soft, amorphous and easily discarded but the one I always stand by is this:
That’s it. Writers write. Or, to give a longer version, a writer is a person who writes. Or to give the super-long version, if a person comes up to you and asks what you do and you are tempted to say that you are a writer, ask yourself if you’ve written anything in the past few days. If the answer is yes, then you are indeed a writer. If the answer is no, then you’re not a writer. You might have once been a writer, you might be thinking about writing, but unless you are actually participating in the writing process then you are not a writer.
Do not go into collaboration as a way into writing. Seek the help and advice of others. Get support from established writers. But do not start down that path with a collaborative project. Stand on your own two feet first. Make your own mistakes. Find your own style. Then collaborate, not before.
I have something that’s just not working and I want you to fix it for me
This is really a variant on the above two. You’re saying that your idea is good, but your attempted execution was poor. A collaborator is not really the right choice to fix it. Maybe you’re after some editing services or a ghostwriter. This, as with the previous reason, are really examples of working relationships in which someone wants somebody else to do something for them.
That’s not collaboration; that’s employment.
There are probably books out there on how to get work as a hack writer or how to employ someone to be your ghostwriter. If that’s what you’re after, go read those books. You don’t want this one.