Questionable: Is Collaborating on a Novel a Good Idea?

Danielle asked:
A friend recently approached me about collaborating. I think we could be great together but she is not a writer. She is a devoted reader and I trust her judgment. . . . What advice or resources would you have for someone taking on a partner? I don’t think she’ll be interested in the grunt work but in the plotting and world building.

In your case as described, I would strongly advise not to.  In fact, run away.

There are partnerships where one researches and one writes—Ellery Queen comes to mind—but almost inevitably the one doing the writing does 95% of the work and gets half the money and then things blow up.  If you do decide that you’ll do the writing and she’ll do the plotting and research, make sure you get the lion’s share of the money, at least 75% and probably 90% and then only if she does allthe research and plotting.   

But that means that you’re going to let somebody else plot the book you write, which means you’re giving up a lot of control. In fact, you’re basically ghost-writing her story.  That only works if she’s James Patterson (and even then you’re still going to get a fraction of the money for doing most of the work). But if she has no name to sell the book, you’re both going to work on the plotting, and then you’re going to write it?  She’s a good friend.  Mention her in the acknowledgements and buy her a nice dinner when the book comes out. Helping with plotting is what a critique partner does for free, not what a writing partner does.  A writing partner writes.  If she’s not writing half the book, she doesn’t get half the money. If she’s not writing any of the book, she’s not collaborating and she doesn’t get any of the money.  

(You would not believe how many times people have come up to me at book signings and said, “I’ve had a fascinating life.  I’ll tell you about it, you write it, and we’ll split the money.”  I smile and say, “No.”  But I’m thinking, “HELL, no.”)

My collaborations have mostly been with great partners—hardworking, open to suggestion, creative and cooperative, writing an equal share of the story—and it was still difficult.  A collaborator who doesn’t write? Nope.  Nope, nope, nope. If I’m going to write the whole book, I’m going to get the whole check.

Two questions: does your writing process change in your collaborations and even though you’ve collaborated with a few people more than once, (Krissie, Bob) was it a different process each time?

Well, we got better each time.  

The process for all my collaborations (not for collaborations in general) was that we each took a character and wrote that character’s arc and plot.  That is, Bob took the Guy and I took the Girl and we negotiated from there, but he wrote all the Guy’s PoV and I wrote all the Girl’s.  With Krissie, it was the same thing, except there were three of us in each collab (Eileen Dreyer in the first one and Lani Diane Rich in the second) and we each took a female PoV.  In The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, Eileen took the oldest, bossy sister, Krissie took the peacemaker middle sister , and I took the youngest rebel sister.  In Dogs and Goddesses, I took the oldest jaded college professor, Lani took the middle practical tech expert, and Krissie took the youngest dreamy romantic. Because all the characters were deliberately so different (and so reflective of who we were) it was easy to put them together in a book, which is not to say that collaborating is easy. It isn’t; it’s much harder than writing solo.

The writing process changes when I change collaborators because their personalities and writing processes are very different.  Writing with Bob is miles different from writing with Krissie.  Not better, not worse, just different.  The real key is finding a collaborator who has the same vision for the story that you do (that involves a lot of discussion beforehand), has the same work ethic you do, and who is open-minded about change.  One of they key rules we always had was that we got say over our character’s dialogue and action in the scenes that others wrote.  If your collaborator says, “This bit you wrote won’t work for my character, she wouldn’t say or do this,” find out why, and let her make the changes, even if it means losing something important to you. And vice versa, of course.  

If you get a collaborator who tries to dictate to you, or who decides to take a vacation in the middle of the book, or gets angry and lets that take over his or her side of the book, then you’ve got a major problem.  Choose your collaborators carefully.  Now that I think about it, Bob and Krissie are both so open-minded that I should have known in advance it would work out.  (Bob and I had some non-writing fights, but any time we hit a wall in the book, we just talked it out.)  I’m not sure my collaborators would say the same about me, but I was fortunate in how flexible they were.

Collaborating is cooperating.  I remember on UMF, Eileen was insistent that the local diner served martinis and I was insistent that it did not (no local diner I had ever been to was organized enough for a liquor license or wanted a bunch of drunks in the booths).  My compromise was writing in that the diner was under new management and the new manager was an idiot and was serving martinis. It actually fit well into the plot—the new manager was a minion of the Big Bad who was not happy about those martinis—and Eileen got the scene with martinis in the diner that she needed to make her plot work.

Krissie and I were laughing the other day about her mattress in D&G; she’d had her very petite character wrangle a queen-size mattress onto the top of her station wagon, drive it back to the place she was staying, and haul it up a flight of stairs that had a turn in the middle.  Lani and I said, “No, she didn’t,” and while Krissie was explaining she was sure that was possible, Lani and I (people who had actually wrangled queen-sized mattresses) said, “Nobody will ever believe it.”  She finally gave up and made it work a different way.  And there was the time Krissie and Lani told me there wasn’t enough passion in a sex scene and harassed me until I went back and rewrote, which lead to the creation of our term for a great sex scene: “Dick and Awe.” And we also dinged Lani for wimping out on a sex scene in a courtyard by saying repeatedly for weeks, “That’s the courtyard where nobody ever has sex” until Lani gave up and wrote a sex scene there.  We had a good time on that collaboration.

On the whole, I don’t recommend collaborating because you get half or a third of the money and you lose control over any part of the story that isn’t yours.  It’s much harder than writing solo, although there are some great rewards, including learning a lot from the people you’re collaborating with.  Hard to believe I didn’t know what a double tap was before I met Bob.

30 thoughts on “Questionable: Is Collaborating on a Novel a Good Idea?

  1. I can’t believe I’m the first comment today. Surely that can’t be correct. I’m just stopping in to say thank you to all you argh people who sent sympathy and tea yesterday. I took Zoe to the vet this morning and she’s gone now. Out of pain and playing with Midnight, her soul mate who left us eight years ago. At least in my imagination. She had a peaceful end, but I felt so wrong leaving the vet without her. I’m having her cremated and I’ll bury her ashes next to Midnight.

    My children tell me an afterlife doesn’t jive with science, but I’m not interested in finding out for certain for a good long time yet.

    1. I don’t see why an afterlife doesn’t jive with science. There’s nothing in science that precludes it if you define “life” as “spirit.” Hell, we just finally got a picture of a black hole, which is something that definitely exists and yet is something I still do not understand. I’m keeping an open mind since I might be finding out sooner than I thought. I’d promise to report back, but I am positive that you can’t blog once you’re dead. I am also positive that there are dogs in my afterlife because I’m going to see Jasper and Rosie and Lucy and Bernie and Lyle and Wolfie again. Also Zoe is having a wonderful time, now pain free and feeling like a puppy. I’m sure science will back me up on that.

    2. Sending hugs along too. It’s so hard to let them go, but it is the kindest thing you can do for them. She’s no longer in pain, and there will always be a piece of her in your heart.

    3. Absolutely an afterlife, with all our beloved pets. I am also convinced out departed pets send us comfort if we can receive it.

    4. Big hugs, Kate. Wishing you both peace. Such a hard time.

      Recently, I was chatting with a woman I know who gets a little tattoo when a pet passes. With a kind of eternally connected symbol. She knows not everyone understands her process but so many of us do. Pets are tiny beings with big hearts.

    5. So sorry to hear about Zoe – it just plain hurts when they go. I like to think my old, departed dogs are all together somewhere, too – whether they get on or not is another matter since I’ve always had SPCA rejects with behavioural issues (“character” as I call it). Mine are probably lunging at other dogs in Dog-Heaven while their angel walker hauls them back and says ‘so sorry, she’s a rescue’ or lies and says ‘my gosh, she’s never done that before’. Anyhow, hugs.

  2. I missed yesterday but sending you hugs this morning. It is always so hard to make that decision but it takes a loving and unselfish person to do it. Don’t be surprise you will still go to talk to her and look for her when you enter a room. When I lost my Italian greyhound I had him cremated and put the urn on the mantle so I could talk to him while I adjusted to the loss. 15 year habit was hard to break. Surprising how comforting it was to have him there. He is now scattered on his ranch.

  3. Big hugs, Kate.

    I believe in reincarnation and I don’t give a damn what science says about it. I quite like science but I don’t need to waste my mind’s energy trying to reconcile the two.

  4. Sending all the hugs and even more hugs to Kate. I’m so sorry for your loss. She’ll always be with you in your heart.

    I don’t know what I believe when it comes to afterlives and reincarnation, but I bet all angel pets end up somewhere nice where they can play and sleep and eat and frollic and chase each others’ tails all day long.

  5. Big hugs from me too. And I firmly believe there is something after death and that all our beloved pets will greet us again.

  6. I wonder if there’s a reason that throughout WWII, “collaborator” was a dirty word.

    Anyway, I have read any number of marvelous collaborations. Jenny, you are a clear and present example. Some of my other favorite authors shone in collaboration.

    Eric Flint has collaborated with David Weber in two books of the Ring of Fire series (his) and three books – so far – of the Honor Harrington series. A fourth is forthcoming. 🙂 Eric has written and discussed in interviews the processes of collaboration, because many of the co-writers with whom he has written were not professionals before, and he loves helping new talent develop.

    Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote together. The Mote in God’s Eye, The Gripping Hand, Footfall, Lucifer’s Hammer, at least thirteen, award winners, several of them.

    Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, the Cecelia and Kate novels.

    I could list dozens of examples, but won’t. Some of my favorites never share writing credit. Lois Bujold doesn’t, for the reasons you’ve pointed out. OTOH, she says that everything she’s written is a collaboration with the reader – three books, really – the one she wrote, the one on paper (or electrons), and the one you read. None of them are the same, and her success depends on the one you read.

  7. I think your friend probably needs to find her own writing chops first, if writing is something she wants to do. Let her find her own voice and get a feel for what’s involved and understand the work that’s involved first. If she doesn’t know those things by hard graft, then she’s going to underestimate what you do in the collaboration. I’ve never done it (never published other than fanfiction either) but my impression is that collaboration is something that can work if you’ve got strong individual writers who happen to mesh well.

  8. So…I came onto a book as a beta reader (read two pages and noped out), was asked later to advise/edit, and ended up being a “co-writer.” I get half the proceeds and I think I touched almost every sentence in that book but only wrote one full scene. (Which someone gushed once was the best scene in the book–oops?)

    Now we’re trying to start from scratch together on the second book and arghhh, it’s so tough! But hopefully we will be done in a few months, then on to something else he has a draft for.

  9. I’ve done so much collaborative writing professionally on nonfiction. I think that is much easier. We talk through an outline, we assign who writes, and then usually one person smoothes it out.
    I think a couple of things make it a lot easier. First, we are not plotting; we go in with a set of points we know we want to make
    Second, stylistically, we are all aiming for the same style. Might be a report, or a book, or a journal article–each has its own style–but the goal is to be professional, not distinctive.
    Also, it tends to be a LOT shorter.
    I can’t imagine collaborating on fiction. Then again, I don’t write fiction…

  10. What’s a double tap?

    My husband couldn’t understand why I was so excited when I saw a Defender in California while we were on a trip. That’s what Shane drives!

    1. Two gun shots, generally to the head. Likely fatal.

      There used to be H and H. Head and heart but I’ve not heard/seen it anywhere in a long time.

    2. You shoot somebody twice between the eyes. To make sure they’re dead.
      Yes, the first shot would do it, but . . . men.

  11. OMG, now I can see our Maggie doing the same thing. I hope she’s running around like crazy and finally having some canine company, all boys. She liked the boys.

  12. What I’ve encountered a few times is people saying “you should do this with your writing” and the funny thing is a) they are not writers b) they haven’t read my stuff. So c) f*ck off.

    Can’t imagine collaborating. The only other writer I know on the friend level is so different from me that I think we would have more success putting a dance routine together than writing a novel together.

Comments are closed.