Are you collaborating with the right person?

An excerpt from ‘How To Write A Collaborative Novel’ by Heide Goody and Iain Grant
If you’ve found a candidate for your collaborative endeavour, what aspects should you examine before you leap into a project? Think about who they are and what they do. Get some understanding of these, and then compare with who you are and what you do.
For the moment, we will assume that there will be two of you working together, and that you will split the work fairly evenly. We’ll look at some other models later.
Are either or both of you professional writers? It’s probably best if you’re both the same, one way or the other. Part of this is to do with experience. If someone is making a living from writing, then they are at a point in their writing career where they (hopefully) know what they’re doing. A talented amateur might have some raw edges that could lead to frustration, so take care to examine things like attitudes to criticism, spelling and punctuation.
The other reason for worrying about the amateur /professional status is the relative amounts of time that each is able to spend writing. Make sure you have some honest and realistic discussion around this area. If you map out a schedule that depends on you both turning out two thousand words a week, and you never get the time for that then it will all end in tears. Consider a different schedule, a different working model, or perhaps a different writing partner.
Closely related to this is a personal quality I will call a work ethic. This is hard to pin down, but very important. You want to know that you can rely on your partner. Obviously, there is no reason why your writing schedule cannot be flexible, after all, there’s an excellent chance that you’re undertaking this project for enjoyment, and there’s no fun in being frog-marched to a finishing-line. Problems will crop up, people will get ill, day jobs will need attention. What you don’t want, is a writing partner who is a flake. You don’t want someone who just doesn’t have the same drive as you, or the same desire to create a quality product.
How can you possibly find this out?
You will get clues from what they have written before. How regularly do they produce new work? How well is it finished? If you’re in an environment that throws down writing challenges, like competitions or exercises, how do they respond? Will they move out of their comfort zone to rise to the challenge? Indications that they are prepared to adapt are encouraging signs that they will make a good writing partner. If you don’t happen to be in that kind of environment, consider undertaking some writing challenges, at the same time as your partner. See how well you both flex.
This brings me to the question of style. The number one question I have heard about collaborative writing is how do you make the styles match?
You can lay down some guidelines before you start writing, on how the prose will be approached. You might say that it will be written in the third person and rely on dialogue where possible to move the narrative. This will not make up for an enormous gap in styles though. If your partner writes in an elegant Shakespearean style and you write in a terse, modernistic style, then you will need to work very hard on style.
If you decide that you really do want to try and overcome a massive difference in styles, you could attempt it. We will talk later about the ways of working that will enable you to smooth over the joins in your styles, but here are two ideas for approach, if you are going ahead with the partnership of elegant Shakespearean and terse modernistic.
One of you flexes to meet the other. One of you might be happier to write in a style that could match the other. You can only find this out by discussing and possibly practising. Perhaps you’ll end up in a place that is between the two extremes, or perhaps one of you will find it easier than the other.
The other possibility is that you carve up the work to suit your styles. Perhaps you alternate chapters of pacy action with letters or recollections written in the more florid language. This method would be less suitable for an even split of the work. I’d go so far as to suggest that it should even be driven from the opposite direction, in that you would seek out your writer of elegant Shakespearean prose if you found that you needed some specific inserts to a project.
If you’re interested to know how I tackled this question, I was a member of our writers group for long enough to get a really good feel for everyone’s personal style. Some people were closer to my own style than others. What really made me think that I could collaborate with Iain was when we both submitted something for review, and someone guessed which pieces were ours, but got them the wrong way round. I realised then that perhaps we had enough in common to suit a collaborative writing project.
When we started writing out collaborative novel, Clovenhoof, we even went so far as to see what  computer analysis would tell us about our writing styles. We took one chapter written by each of us and fed them into what text analysis websites we could find. Of course, any semi-decent experiment requires a control subject so we borrowed the text from a story by our friend, Mat Joiner.
We pasted the text into Textalyser (http://textalyser.net) which gave us this initial feedback.
Heide
Iain
Mat Joiner
Total word count :
3832
4274
1250
Number of different words :
1700
1889
842
% Words that are unique
44%
44%
67%
Readability (Gunning-Fog Index) : (6-easy 20-hard)
4.8
4.7
5
Average Syllables per Word:
1.54
1.5
1.47
Sentence count :
674
791
207
Average sentence length (words) :
9.67
9.25
11.23
Max sentence length (words) :
39
88
36
Min sentence length (words) :
1
1
1
Readability (Alternative) beta : (100-easy 20-hard, optimal 60-70)
67
70.6
71.5

 

So, we two write sentences of comparatively similar lengths. In terms of word variety, we two are identically wide-ranging in vocabulary. We are a hair’s breadth apart on the Gunning-Fog index. On the other readability scale (based on what I do not know), Iain’s words are apparently slightly more readable (more juvenile?) than Heide’s. Heide uses fractionally longer words than Iain.
I’m not sure if this tells us much about whether we write in a single voice. But what about word choice?
Most Common Words
Heide
Iain
Mat Joiner
1st
You
said
Him
2nd
clovenhoof
you
You
3rd
said
ben
Them
4th
ben
clovenhoof
Then
5th
nerys
nerys
Like
6th
Michael
him
Nettler
7th
Dave
man
What
8th
Like
looked
Face
9th
Him
think
thought
10th
Blenda
hand
Did

 

Ignoring the most common words, it turns out (shock and amazement!) we both use the words ‘said’ ‘you’ and our protagonists’ names frequently. Not much gained here.
I Write Like (www.Iwl.me) proved a little more interesting. Using algorithms and comparison methods that I am not privy to, I Write Like told us both of us write like Cory Doctorow (author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) but that Mat writes like William Shakespeare. And, although I’ve no idea why any of this should be so, it is comforting to think that a piece of software thinks that we collaborators are alike in some way.
The final bit of analysis we did was to see what gender each of us writes as (or should that be in). I entered our pieces of text in Gender Guesser (http://www.hackerfactor.com/GenderGuesser.php) which is a variation of the Gender Genie ( http://bookblog.net/gender/genie.php). These work by looking for words that are judged to be ‘male’ or ‘female’. For example ‘with’ ‘if’ and ‘not’ are regarded as feminine whereas ‘around’ ‘what’ and ‘more’ are regarded as masculine.
And here are the results.
Heide
Iain
Mat
  Female = 7857
  Female = 6585
  Female = 2063
  Male   = 8155
  Male   = 9311
  Male   = 2269
  Difference = 298; 50.93%
  Difference = 2726; 58.57%
  Difference = 206; 52.37%
  Verdict: Weak MALE
  Verdict: Weak MALE
  Verdict: Weak MALE

 

So, out of the three of us, Iain is apparently the most masculine writer, although we are all three weak male writers. The site says that ‘weak emphasis could indicate European’. I’m guessing that this means that we are judged to be European writers (which, ignoring politics, we are) although why European writers are more asexual is perhaps a question for me to ask some non-Europeans.
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: , , , ,