Questionable: How Do You Make a Collaboration Work?

Kate wrote:

Here’s my question: How do you find other authors to write with. I’ve tried one joint project, but two out of four of us quit after our second session. They cited other commitments, but who really knows.

Obviously they need to be writers/people you trust. And I’m selfish, I want them to be better writers than I am so I can learn from them.

Do you have to find writers that write in the same style? The same tone? How exactly does this magic work?


So let’s do this in two sections:

“How do you find other authors to write with?”

Eileen proposed The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes to Krissie and me one night in a bar. I’d had a drink which means I was drunk because I cannot hold my liquor. She pitched the idea and I said yes. Mare is still one of my favorite heroines of all time.

Bob suggested we collaborate when we were both working at the Maui Writers Conference. As I recall, he handed me a glass of white wine, waited until I’d drunk it, and then said, “We should collaborate.” Agnes is still one of my favorite heroines of all time.

Alyssa Day proposed collaborating to Lani and me in a chat room. I was sober. We started working on Dogs and Goddesses (Lani’s title), and then her series took off and she had to write books for that, so she left the project (no worries, everybody was fine, it happens) and I told Lani I knew somebody and we invited Krissie in, and it was a blast. Shar is still one of my favorite heroines of all time.

I can’t remember who proposed Fairy Tale Lies, but the team was Lani, Krissie and I. We did some world building, but they had projects they had to do, and the project went dormant. Then we talked about doing novellas about mermaids in that world, and we did discovery work, but we were all swamped with different books and the project went dormant. We still talked about the world, we just didn’t do anything with it. But I loved the world, so I kept working and started the Zo stories, which I’m still working on, and then in September, Lani said, “I want to do a collaboration that works like a television series, episodes/stories that combine to make a season long arc, each one standing on its own as an episode, in that Fairy Tale world Jen’s been building.” And Krissie and I said, “Yes,” and I said, “Let’s ask Toni to play, too,” and they said, “Excellent idea,” and we asked Toni, and she said, “Yes,” and we got started, but Lani was working on a book and teaching, and Krissie was editing two books and dealing with taxes and upheaval at home, so they said they’d be back in a minute, and Toni and I started talking. A month later, Toni and are obsessively e-mailing and doing chat room stuff and building a much, much better world than I had started, Krissie’s still swamped but she’s starting next week, and Lani said last week, “I have to bow out,” so now it’s Toni, Krissie, and I, twelve stories/episodes to make a novel. I’m having a blast.

So looking back on this, I never start a collaboration, somebody always invites me. Having said that, I think the majority of collaborations don’t work because they are really, really, really difficult. You have to be incredibly flexible, with a big block of time you can give up to just talking about the story and the world, all the while knowing that when you get finished, you’re only going to get a third or a quarter of the money that comes in, and you have to compromise over and over and over again. So collaborations for the most part are not the way to go. In this case, it’s worth it for me because I love this world and I’ve got the Zo stories in it, and Toni’s had an idea for awhile that fits this world, so she’ll have that standalone novel, so what this collaboration is doing for the two of us is building a fantasy world–which is INCREDIBLY difficult–that we can then use for future stories we both already want to write. And Krissie, when she finally gets her slate clear enough to join us, will probably do the same. I can’t begin to tell you how much cleaner, clearer, sharper, more detailed, and more fun this world is after talking about it every day with Toni for a month. It’s been an amazing experience.

But I don’t think I’d ever go looking for collaborators. I like the ones I’ve worked with, I love the ones I’m working with now, but ask somebody new to collaborate? No.

“Do you have to find writers that write in the same style? The same tone? How exactly does this magic work?”

I’ve done five collaborative books, and some of those collaborations went smoothly and some of them did not. I’m proud of all the books, but I look back on some of those experiences and say, “Never again.” It’s just very, very difficult for writers, who are loners by trade anyway, to give up total control (this is me we’re talking about, too), and if you start out with different ideas of what the book is going to be about, it can be hell. If you have writers working with different tones, it can be hell. If you have writers who won’t compromise, it can be hell. But most of all, if you develop personality conflicts during the writing, you’re trapped and it’s mega hell. Having said that, I’m glad I did every one of those collaborations. I learned a lot, I made friends for life, and I wrote characters that I think are much richer because of the constraints of collaborating.

How do you find writers that work in the same style? Read their work. What I’ve found is that it’s more tone and approach than style. Krissie and Lani and I do not write in the same styles, but we have very similar senses of humor, and we approached Dogs and Goddesses seriously as writers, but we kept the tone light because our relationship was sunny. Our personalities and our life situations were perfect matches at the time we wrote. Bob and I had completely different styles, night and day, but we had the same approach to writing: completely professional, the story comes first, be able to justify what you want. So we’d hit places where we’d disagree, but we’d look at it from the point of view of the story: which choice serves this story we’re writing, something new for both of us, better. Bob was also very flexible: he gave in on a lot of things because he said up front he wanted to know more about writing for a female audience. He protected his character and his plot points to the death, and he was absolutely right to do so, but he was very open-minded the entire time. Toni and I have always had similar senses of humor, and I knew she and Lani and Krissie would mesh well, too, so I invited her in because I wanted to write with her and I thought she could bring a lot to the collaboration, and I was so right. So I think the key is finding people who think like you do and have personalities that are compatible with yours, at least as far as the approach to writing goes.

As for how the magic works, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. When Lani and Krissie and I finally got together to work on D&G in person, it took off, we couldn’t brainstorm fast enough, everything we did just exploded. No book is easy, but we had a damn good time on that one. Now, the three of us are out of sync in what we’re handling in our personal lives, they can’t give up everything and just sit down and write because things are pressing them, but Toni and I hit the collaboration at just the right time for us, and we’re working obsessively now, feeding each other’s creativity. Sometimes, it’s just timing. We’re both really looking forward to Krissie joining us in a week or two, and while she’s coming in after a lot of the world-building is done, what Krissie really loves is character, so we’ll show her the world and where the heroine she’s already established starts, and then we’ll listen to her as she brainstorms and move pieces of the world around to fit her story, and we’ll be fine. Of everybody I’ve collaborated with, Krissie is the easiest because she’s a peacemaker by nature, but also because she concentrates on her characters; so as long as she gets the love story her characters need, she’s completely open to everything else. If you find a collaborator like Krissie, grab onto her with both hands. She’s a gem.

20 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do You Make a Collaboration Work?

  1. “And I’m selfish, I want them to be better writers than I am so I can learn from them.”

    Do you think that’s a good starting point for a collaboration? You may learm from anybody – even if it’s only the stuff they do wrong and you can do it better – but assuming right from the start that the others are better writers than you are, you’re putting yourself in an awkward position. Like you’re on the bottom of the hierarchy. Also, why should they work with you in that case?

    It seems to me that you rather ought to look out for people who are willing to try new things, who are ready to argue and find a compromise, and – as Jenny already said – have a similar kind of humor. Because if they don’t, it won’t work out at all.

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    1. I guess what I might have said is writers whose work I respect. Writers I know can finish because I’ve already tried with writers who can’t or couldn’t finish. Writers who are more confident than I am because maybe that will rub off on me. Because really, I’m no judge of whose writing is better than anybody elses. And besides, I often like writers who may not be as technically correct but can tell a story that draws me in.

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  2. 🙂

    I love, too, that I can say something really outrageous and crazy and it’s just a normal part of brainstorming and no one immediately shoots it down. Those things may never make it into the final book, but you’ve got to have that wide open feeling of trust that you can toss around nutty ideas that your subconscious is sending up without fear of ridicule. That sort of trust is unusual, and I treasure that we have it. I’m having an absolute blast, too.

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    1. Toni,
      Do you have novels published right now? If so, maybe you could post a couple of your favorite titles, so I can try them?

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      1. The ones that are in the comedy/thriller vein start with CHARMED AND DANGEROUS, then GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE GUNS and then WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON.

        Think Die Hard in a Swamp if it featured a kick ass pissed off southern Tasmanian Devil. 🙂

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        1. Charmed and Dangerous came out originally under a different name, right? (Because I’m pretty sure I read that one and laughed my arse off. Although, strangely, my arse is still there.)

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          1. It did, Deborah, and the second one did, too. Then SMP decided that they wanted to re-release them in mm and the titles were too long. (g) They were:

            Bobbie Faye’s Very (very very very) Bad Day (which is now Charmed and Dangerous) and Bobbie Faye’s (kinda sorta not exactly) Family Jewels (which is now Girls Just Wanna Have Guns).

            Also, there are three short stories up on Amazon, BUT THEY ARE FREE to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter. I’m the laziest newsletter writer on the planet, so you know, if you get more than two from me in a year, you’ll know zombies took over my body. The link is on the front page of my site (www.tonimcgeecausey.com) and if you subscribe, get them, and decide to unsubscribe, it’s all good. (g)

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  3. I think collaboration and building the story world would be fabulous. I’ve always enjoyed brainstorming. But how do you know when the stew is cooked enough? Do you just keep poking at the meat to see if it’s tender? Or is it intuitive? Or is one person in charge and simply says that it’s time to begin? Do you keep a similar writing pace once you start the story? A lot of questions, sorry.

    I’m a lone writer, and writing for me is weird. For example this morning I was tired after attending a 50th wedding anniversary yesterday. I never planned on writing today, yet after thirty minutes of playing around on blogs early this morning, I opened up the ms. and wrote like crazy. It’s 11 am here and I’m still in the pj’s and unwashed. When the writing energy hits, I have to honor that and stay in flow. I can get a weeks worth of writing done in one day when that happens. How does this work with collaboration. Do you have to hold yourself back, wait for input for others?

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  4. I love how well you and Bob meshed your styles. I love Agnes too. About as much as I love Min.

    You guys had books the I felt I could sink my teeth into and feel satisfied after. So much so that I bought 2 hardcover copies of Agnes and the Hitman. One for me and one to lend out. And I got a softcover in a prize bundle I’d won, so that’s mine too.

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  5. I have multiple copies of Agnes too. It may be my favorite book ever. Humor, har.

    *Makes mental note to buy Jenny a glass of wine at the next conference we’re both at…*

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  6. Many moons ago I had a colleague with whom I did brainstorming (not writing, strategic planning). We hit it off right away when we met (a lot of other people we worked with thought we knew each other before I started working there — he’d already been there a long time — because we so clicked). We used to lock ourselves in an empty conference room to brainstorm, we called each other idiots, he was a stupid dwarf, I was an irrational bitch, we ranted and raved and threw chalk when necessary, then we went to lunch and had a good time and talked about travel and life and good food and whatever.

    Once we were joined in brainstorming by another colleague (because we had a dept overlap to deal with) who had no idea we worked like that. She was so shocked watching us at work — but mostly shocked because after an hour or so of no-holds-barred name-calling, arguing, whatever, we dusted our hands off and said, well, where are we gonna go for lunch. Her jaw dropped — lunch?? whaddya mean lunch?? I thought you guys were gonna kill each other!!

    Nah, we were just passionate. Lots of disagreements and compromises, but, boy, for a few years we made magic happen. The legacy is still there too, even though I left a few years later to move back to Germany and he retired.

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  7. “that Fairy Tale world Jen’s been building”

    I’m suddenly reminded of those Thieves’ World books in the 80s.

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