Questionable: How Different is Collaboration from Single Author Writing?

Peggy asked:

How different is your writing process when you work with another author (or authors, as in your more recent collaborations)? Does anything fundamental change about how you plan (or don’t plan) the storyline, conflict, beats, etc.?

Completely different.

When you write by yourself, you can do anything you want, change things as you go along, writing out of chronological order, you own the world.

When you collaborate with somebody, you give all of that up, but then so does he or she. So a good rule of thumb is not to collaborate unless you’re getting something really great in return. In the case of Bob Mayer, I was getting somebody who could write male POV really well because he was male. I was getting somebody who understood action stuff because he’d been a Green Beret. And I was getting somebody who worked exactly the opposite of the way I did, so I was forced to move outside my comfort zone, always a good thing. It was worth the trade-off in power and freedom.

I generally start a book without a plan, just write to see who and what shows up to play. But if you’re collaborating, you start by negotiating a plan before you put anything on paper. In my collaborations with romance writers (The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, Dogs and Goddesses), we began with a premise, three sisters who were hiding the fact that they were witches, three strangers who were about to find out that they were part of the same triple goddess. When I collaborated with Bob, we started with characters. For Agnes and the Hitman, I said “I want to write about a food critic.” He said, “I want to write about a hit man.” Then we tried to figure out how the hell a food critic was going to meet a hit man. So in the case of the romance collabs, we started with a premise and then each came up with a character who would fit that premise; with Bob, we came up with characters and then designed a premise that would bring them together.

The next step was designing an antagonist to oppose all the protagonists. To do that we had to figure out what the protagonists wanted and why, how the antagonist would block their attempts to get those goals, and why the antagonist would do that (in pursuit of his or her own goal, of course).

Once we had that, we plotted the turning points; that is, we’d say, “At this point in the story, THIS will happen to all the protagonists.” They all started at the same place in the plot although maybe not in the same scene, they all hit and reacted to the same turning points at the same time, and they all came together at the climax to defeat the antagonist.

So lots of prep work.

Then with the romance collaborations, we’d go off and write three separate romances, keeping in touch while we wrote, writing each other’s characters into our stories wherever they’d overlap. We’d swap scenes with each other so that writers could rewrite their own characters, make sure their actions were in character and their voices stayed the same, and then at the end, we’d meet in one place with a lot of post it notes, write a slug for each scene on a post-it (we each had a different color) and then put them in chronological order on a wall, separating them into strips to show what day it was. We could see by the color if we had too many scenes about one character grouped together, so we’d do some rejiggering to even things out. And we did a lot of reading and responding to each other’s scenes, especially on Dogs and Goddesses. Then we put them all in one doc, and we read it as a complete novel, looking to see where the transitions weren’t smooth, etc. We were essentially writing three stories that interlocked instead of collaborating on one story.

With Bob, things were different because we were only writing one story for the first two books; that is, he wasn’t writing an adventure and I wasn’t writing a romance, we were writing a romantic adventure that was one plot. That required a lot more actual writing together, so we’d be swapping sixty or seventy e-mails a day, trying to keep our scenes fitting together. Wild Ride was the easiest because we did that one as parallel plots so we could write separately and then put the scenes together, but even then, we kept one master document going and kept in constant touch. We drove each other crazy, but I think we were both learning so much that neither one of us gave up.

The key to making those collaborations work was that we each had complete control over our characters. If somebody wrote a scene in which my character did or said something I knew she wouldn’t say or do, I could go in and say, “No, she’d do THIS.” And the others could do the same with the scene in which I wrote their characters. I think that’s crucial to making a collaboration work. Even though you’re cooperating with someone, you have to have your own sphere in which you have control. (For my collabs it was always character, but others split the work into different spheres. The Ellery Queen collaboration was divided into research and plotting from one man and writing from the other.) That control over your part of the collaboration and the sense that the work is divided equally are crucial to any collaborative success. The minute you start resenting each other or interfering in each other’s spheres, you’re toast.

So writing collaborations is completely different. I learned a lot on all my collaborations, but none of them were easy. Unless you have a really good reason to collaborate (and I definitely did on all of mine), stick to writing solo. It’s much, much easier.

16 thoughts on “Questionable: How Different is Collaboration from Single Author Writing?

  1. Thanks so much for your answer!

    I’m collaborating with someone who has a very different process, but I do think that she adds a lot (she excels at detail and setting, which I tend to give short shrift, and my strength is dialog). We both have day jobs, but there’s a lot of texting and emailing going on (shhhh). We’re each taking point on a character and we’ve finally got our action plot and romance plot interlocked, but right now I’m struggling to verbalize a concrete goal for her character. One day at a time, I guess?

    Anyway, thank you again, for answering my question and for the blog itself. It’s my new favorite lunch-break reading, and I’m so glad you post so prolifically! I’m learning a lot from the commentariat, too, so thanks, ARGH people!

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  2. I’ve loved all your collaborations.
    Lately I’ve read some collaborations of others that really just seem like the lesser writer adding the more successful writers name to their stuff to sell books. No sign of the more successful writers style in the collaboration.
    Do you think that’s possible or just disappointment disguised as paranoia in my head?

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    1. A lot of collaborations by Very Famous People with unknowns means that the VFP gave the unknown the plot and told him or her to write it.

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  3. I started following you, Jenny, when you were writing Don’t Look Down with Bob. I don’t remember the name of the collaboration blog then, (it was before He Wrote, She Wrote), but the blog itself was a lesson in conflict being interesting. Not that you guys were ever at it on the blog with knives, but there was a humorous reflection of your different approaches to the writing that entertained. I’d go back and reread it, if it weren’t lost in the ether now.

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    1. I think it was still called He Wrote, She Wrote, but I think it’s gone forever. We took the Crusie/Mayer website down and the last vestiges of the blog went with it. It’s a miracle we didn’t kill each other.

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  4. Thinking there may be some differences in collabs with “before” friends (Lani, Krissie) vs “fellow writer but not old friend” (Bob).

    Some of my fave old movies were written by husband & wife writing teams. Sometimes hubby & I toy with the idea of writing something together but haven’t. We’ve collaborated many times in life–marriage, house, kid raising, business–but somehow the writing thing feels different. Could be one of those, if it’s good it will be very good experiences but if it’s bad it will be very bad. Still, someday maybe.

    The scene near the end in Best Friends with Goldie Hawn & Burt Reynolds has me wondering. Yes, they’re not in a good couple place at that point, but even the agreement on what to write looks time consuming. And that’s not nearly as bad as the writing couple in Friends with Money.

    You make a good point about each collab owning their bit. Think overall it’s the time thing that gives me pause. It’s hard enough having to answer to myself during the draft stage, can’t imagine everything having to pass muster with two votes…

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    1. The big difference was really gender, not length of friendship. It even dictated how we divided the work. I think it was a big help that Bob and I were never in a romantic relationship, so we never worried much about hurting each other’s feelings or protecting a personal involvement. We became friends, but it was always about the book. Once we stopped writing together, we really haven’t kept in touch.

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      1. Interesting re gender & division of work. That would have made a great basis for a paper back when I was in uni. I did a fab paper on female editors (primarily from modernist period) so studying female collab writing styles would have been a good complement:)

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  5. Great post on collaborations and timely too! My critique partner and I collaborated on a fairy tale romance Beauty and the Curse, which releases tomorrow 3/19! Yay! Our collaboration started because we wanted to get into a certain publishing house’s party (I hear its a blast) so our 2 other RWA roommates (yes there are 4 of us in a room – super fun every year) suggested we write a novella together and submit it to them. We started plotting it out at RWA, worked on it while our plane was delayed, worked the entire flight back to NJ and finished plotting it before we landed. Then we divided up the work, wrote on our own, as well as got together in person.

    She writes humorous, sweet contemporary and I write grittier, steamier sci-fi romance and paranormal romance. We ended up with a humorous, contemporary paranormal (Hmm…light urban fantasy?) and had a blast doing it. Unfortunately, the house we wanted didn’t buy it. They wanted darker. Our agent sold it to Amazon’s short story line, Story Front, even though it’s technically a novella at 20,200 words. Although we won’t be going to the publishing party we wanted to this year, we did end up with another published book under our belts. And had fun doing it. 🙂

    I would totally do it again. I really think you need to be sure you pick the right person to collaborate with because it is a lot of hard work, a lot of back and forth, and a lot of compromise. But it’s also freeing in that when one person is stuck, the other person tries her hand at the scene and can usually un-stick it. Plus you each bring your strengths to the project.

    Jenny – did you use drop box or the like to keep your master files?

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    1. We worked prior to Dropbox. I think we swapped in e-mail, but I can’t remember now. Bob and I definitely swapped in e-mail.

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  6. Agnes and the Hitman was my favorite of all of your books. I wish you could write more with Bab Mayer, but I do understand that not every collaboration has a long life span.

    When do you think you may have another book available? I have read all of the existing books 4 or 5 times and need something new…

    Also, is the novella The Hot Toy in print?

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    1. “Hot Toy” is a novella, and it was part of a collection called Santa Baby. You should be able to find it pretty cheaply used (like for a penny on Amazon, but then there’s shipping). I think SMP is going to release it again at Christmas. In nine months. And thank you for liking Agnes; I like her a lot, too.

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  7. Agnes is such a wonderful character and I can’t imagine that her life became quiet and stable after the wedding-especially with 3 hit men in her life. Any chance that there could be another novel about her and Shane or even a series of short stories? Dorothy L. Sayres had great success with her Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Vane even after they were married.

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    1. I can’t write Agnes and Shane without Bob, not just because of legal issues but because that was a real collaboration, he contributed half of the writing and half of the worldview and a lot more. We’ve both moved on to other things, so trust me Agnes and Shane are doing just fine, definitely happy.

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  8. I collaborated with my critique partner on a historical that’s due to be published next month. I’m a planner/backstory/plotter/detailer and she just ‘goes’, so it was hard for me not to know where the story was heading. We’d never written historical before, so that change in perspective helped us work more carefully with each other. We simply hashed out who was going to write which character and then swapped scenes for the most part. It was a lot of fun, and almost like one of those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books when I’d read her latest scene, anxious to find out what happened next.

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