6 reasons why you should NOT write collaboratively

An extract from Heide and Iain’s forthcoming book, “How To Write A Collaborative Novel”

…because collaboration can be Hell

Good reasons why I wouldn’t like to collaborate:

I can’t commit the time

Give this some careful thought, dear reader.
Being a writer involves a commitment of time. How much time you commit to writing depends upon what kind of writer you are. Some might argue it doesn’t have to be an enormous commitment, but it should be fairly regular. Others, myself included, would argue that writing takes up a similar personal commitment to running a small business or caring for a housebound grandmother or feeding a heroin addiction.
A lot of writers have irons in a number of fires. There are the short stories and poems they write on a regular basis. There’s the workshops, spoken word events, writers groups and events they attend. There’s that novel they’ve been working on for some time. There’s also that book deal they’ve been chasing and that screenplay they’ve been hankering to write.
Indeed, for quite a number of writers, the time they commit to writing is the equivalent of running a small business whilst simultaneously caring for a housebound grandmother and feeding a heroin addiction. Oh, and then there’s the day job that they’re holding down to actually pay the rent.
A writing collaboration is a brilliant method for dividing labour and seeing speedy results but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be a commitment. If you can’t convince yourself that you can spare the time for this new project, then maybe you should postpone the project until you can.

I could never share my characters with someone else

I have heard this a lot and I have some respect for it. Writing is an intimate business and there is something so intensely intimate about character creation that, for some writers, it is almost an act of mysticism. Some writers will talk about a character appearing to them in a eureka moment, fully formed and complete. Others might talk about characters writing their own lines of dialogue with the author as merely the conduit for the character’s words. Others may even say that a character in their story will refuse to do what their told and lead the story down new avenues. Others might say this is a load of codswallop and if your characters have a mind of their own and speak in their own voices then you probably ought to quit writing and set yourself up as a spiritualist medium.
Whatever your view, characters are deeply personal to the writer. Some will be discreetly veiled versions of the author, of family members, of friends, of people they have known or of famous people they do not know. Characters may exist to present a worldview, be it philosophical, political, moral or cultural, that the author wants present in the story. Bad writers will write with an agenda in mind, using characters who are mere ciphers, constructed so clumsily that the writer’s agenda is painfully obvious. Good writers will write with an agenda in mind but using characters so artfully developed that we as readers do not even know that our sympathies and opinions are being manipulated.
Character creation is a deep and complex business and sharing with others is hard, firstly because explaining our character creation processes to others is not easy and, secondly, because writers grow to love their characters and can regard them with a parental affection that cannot be easily shared.
Sharing already established characters is particularly hard. If you have a series of stories already written featuring a certain character, getting another writer to get inside your character’s head in way that you’re happy with is going to be very difficult. By analogy, imagine the hard work, uncertainty and emotional doubt a person would experience in trying to forge a relationship with the older step-children of their new marriage compared to the natural (though perhaps no less turbulent and no more rewarding) relationship that emerges between parents and their own children.
I would ask that you think carefully about this aspect and maybe consider doing some trial writing exercises with your collaborator. How about if you create characters with your writing partner, so that you both know them intimately, and you both have an equal stake in protecting their integrity? You might find that you can overcome your fear in ways such as this.

I don’t play nice with others

If you really don’t like the idea of socialising with other writers then collaborative writing will be impossible.
I would urge you to try to be a bit more social though, as those skills are needed to sell your work in the twenty first century. The idea of a successful yet reclusive writer is not a reality anymore. The modern successful writer is a writer, a performer, a teacher and a shameless self-publicist.
Of course, these days, socialising and the concept of sociability can mean a variety of things. Some people have a very active and open presence on social media but do not like mixing with real flesh-and-blood people. Conversely, there are plenty of people who love parties, will leap into conversation with strangers and can effortlessly hold the attention of an entire room but have never even considered getting a Facebook or Twitter account.
Whatever your preferences, you need to get out there. You need to socialize (chatting to people on social media might be a more painless start if you find it tough to interact personally) in order to be a writer. You need to be doubly sociable to be a collaborative writer.

Bad reasons why I wouldn’t like to collaborate:

My partner will steal my ideas

I want to roll my eyes when people say stuff like this because, frankly, it’s little bit arrogant and very silly. Ask yourself these two questions:

1) Are my story ideas brilliant? Not just good or great but stone cold bloody fantastic genius?
2) Are my story ideas original?

If you answered yes to the first one then I congratulate you on joining a select circle of brilliant individuals.
When I think of brilliant story ideas, I think of a few stories that have figuratively blown me away with their twists and turns and mind-blowing concepts. The cyberpunk novels of William Gibson (Neuromancer et al) created a dazzling world that entranced me. The twist at the end of Iain M Bank’s The Use of Weapons is, for me, the most astonishing one in all written literature. The short horror stories by Jonathan Carroll are the most disturbing I’ve ever read.
But much of the brilliance of these stories comes in the execution. The ideas are good, great even, but it’s in how they are expressed through writing that makes the story wonderful. With virtually no exceptions, the stories that have most impressed me are not wholly original. The cyberpunk tropes that William Gibson popularised were being used by John Brunner and others up to ten years earlier. The twist in The Use of Weapons is also the premise of a famous American Civil War novel; Iain Banks just made it alive and shocking. Jonathan Carroll’s short stories make use of standard horror and mythology tropes.
Am I saying Gibson, Banks and Carroll are villainous idea-thieves? Of course not. They’re all very gifted writers and – here’s the important bit – if a random writer stole one of their ideas and wrote their own novel based on it, it wouldn’t be the same brilliant novel. Execution is key. In fact, most writers, most well-read and much-admired writers, succeed by breathing life and drama into some very hackneyed story models.
Does anyone honestly think that the Harry Potter stories are successful because JK Rowling came up with the idea of a child going to a magical school in modern day Britain? No. Because she didn’t. Jill Murphy was writing her critically acclaimed and commercially successful Worst Witch books more than twenty years before the first Potter book came out. There are even earlier precedents if you care to look for them.
So back to those two questions. Only if your story ideas are both brilliant and unique should you fear that you have something worth stealing. In fact, you only have something to fear if your ideas are brilliant and unique and your potential collaborator is both dishonest enough to steal them and skilful enough to make something of them. What are the chances of that?
There is virtually no need to be precious and secretive about ideas. Ideas are ten-a-penny. Taking ideas and making something out of them is what counts. If you’re an ideas person you will always have more ideas. Your partner is not there to steal them, they are there to help you make them into something.

I won’t get rich if I have to split the profits

Anyone that goes into writing with the idea of getting rich has been given poor information. A tiny percentage of writers make a living out of their writing and, yes, there are people who become phenomenally rich through writing, like the previously mentioned JK Rowling, but such examples are the exception, not the rule.
Let me make an analogy. Writing is like metal detecting. It is possible for a metal detector to uncover a buried hoard of Saxon gold or a priceless relic of an ancient civilisation. It has happened but it hasn’t happened often. Most metal detectors will discover nothing more than a few old coins, the occasional item of small value and – do not forget – the pleasure that comes from an activity they enjoy.
Writers write because they enjoy it or because they feel they must. Writing in the expectation of reward is silly. The computer you write on will probably have cost you more than the sum total of your writing earnings over any five year period, just as the metal detector’s equipment will cost more than the value of any trove they are likely to find.
But – to stretch the analogy further – writing, like metal detecting, is a traditionally solitary activity. Metal detectors work alone on the whole but if a pair of detectors team up to sweep a field, their chances of finding something of worth, and of finding it quickly, increase.
If you write something collaboratively that is successful, then that’s excellent. It’s likely that both you and your partner will have increased sales of anything else that you’ve done as a result. And, even if your collaboration is not successful, you’ll have had fun along the way.

I don’t want anyone else to see how I work. It’s embarrassing.

A collaborator is not like a reader or a beta-reader or an editor. They get to see your world at its most basic and crude. They get to see all the mistakes and monsters that you create before you set it all straight.
According to Jewish folklore (trust me, I’m going somewhere with this), Adam did not have only one wife but three. The first, Lilith, doesn’t come into this digression and she was a wrong’un anyway. God made Adam a second wife from one of his ribs, putting her together, bone, muscle, blood, bile and snot right in front of Adam’s eyes. Adam, having seen the gruesome inner workings of this woman (which were no different to his) was repelled and refused to take her as a wife, poor woman.
So it is with a creative act like novel writing. We fear that our fellow human beings (be they readers or co-writers) might be horrified to see the weird snotty and bloody thing we create before it is done. We would rather our readers, like Adam, are asleep or ignorant of our work until it is complete and then, like Adam upon awaking and seeing his third wife, Eve, will be smitten by its beauty and wonder.
Well, tough.
Collaborating with another writer does involve some shared intimacy and your co-writer is going to see the literary equivalent of blood, bile and phlegm before the job is done. If your shared piece is to be something more than purely superficial storytelling then you are going to need to open up to each other a bit.
If this bothers you greatly then work out some ground rules with your partner. I’d suggest that you keep an open mind though. All writers understand and respect that a work in progress might be a rough approximation of the finished gem. On the other hand, your crazy notes and diagrams might be interesting tools to another writer.

Pigeon Park Press’ new collaborative writing project Ten To One is currently looking for participants: http://pigeonparkpress.blogspot.co.uk/p/ten-to-one-collaboratively-written.html

Posted in 2013, Books, How-to's, Writing Tagged with: , , ,