Questionable: What’s Your Collaboration Process?

I used to get asked about collaborating all the time, mainly, “How do you do that?” My answer was, “It’s complicated.” It’s still complicated, but since people are going to ask . . .

(1) The first thing I recommend is that each collaborator pick a character and write that. That approach has never failed me in any of my collaborations. It emphasizes the power of voice to make a character come alive and since writers have different voices, it’s a no-brainer for variety in the narrative. It also cuts down on collaborator conflict since you’ve got your own character and subplots to explore. It’s not so much “you stay in your lane and I’ll stay in mine,” as it is “this is your part of the story and this is mine, and we’ll visit each other.” Think of it as writers with benefits, the benefit being that you don’t have to write the whole damn book. Also, it’s really a lot of fun seeing what the other writer comes up with, reading new stuff in a story you’re writing. Writing is a lonely business, collaborating is not.

One of my creative writing profs at OSU (Hi, Michelle!) gave us a writing exercise to take a character from the short story of the student next to us and write a scene with that character and one of our characters. I thought it was odd, but it was the most illuminating exercise I ever did because the character from somebody else’s story pulled my character into situations and settings and conflicts that were completely new to me. I had to stretch, and I found out more about my character doing that than I had by writing the character in my own story. Bob and I just did a good hour’s worth of talking about character change, what it meant, how Liz and Vince echoed each other, acted as foils for each other, how the ten million subplots played out the dynamics, and I realized things about Liz I hadn’t thought about, and I think he saw things in Vince, too. The idea of two writers (or more, I’ve done three) in a narrative each with their own character seems like it would be counter-productive, but if you’re both interested in the story, if you both care about what the story means on the surface and in the subtext and you explore that not only within your characters but without, in the relationships between the characters and how that subtext plays out, you get a narrative that’s really rich, probably richer than you’d get controlling all the characters yourself. Collaboration pushes you out of your ruts, and redesigns the ruts you keep.

(2) The second thing is to work out together plots and subplots that serve your characters, picking one to be the main plot. My plan for this trilogy was three mysteries that taken together would make one huge romance novel. Bob’s character Vince is a cop, so he got the mystery plots, which is just his cup of tea bottle of beer. My character, Liz, is a ghostwriter who gets roped into writing a romance novel in the second book, and the romance plot is what I’m happiest writing. He likes plot, I like character. Of course Liz is also involved in the mystery plot and of course Vince is part of the romance, he’s the love interest, but this way Bob gets control of the mystery plot (he loves control) and I get my say on the romance, aka the YEC (Yucky Emotional Crap, which he would prefer not to touch with a ten-foot burning zombie).

And then when the first draft is done, you look at all your plots and subplots and talk about the parallels, how they’re showing the character arcs (not telling), how they’re all in one way or another, connected to the same spine that your character arcs created. If they all interlock, your story is tight, which is what rewrites are about. Not creating new content, but pulling all the narrative as close as possible to those Big Ideas. I think one of things that defines a good storyteller is that feeling a reader gets that there’s an authority in the text, that they’re in good hands, they can relax and lean into the story, that it will all make sense in a satisfying ending. (Note, not necessarily a happy ending, but a satisfying ending.). And two people hashing out how the events of the story support the central idea pretty much guarantees a tight, authoritative story.

(3) The third thing is practical: you have to work out a strategy for exchanging chunks of the story. This time was awkward because I had about 65,000 words of the story done when I got stuck and yelled for help. Plus, like all my other mss, it’s old, so there were different versions. So I dumped the whole thing in Bob’s lap and said, “You do Vince, we can change whatever you want” (I was desperate) and all of a sudden my dead story was alive (not a zombie reference).

So we started off with the first two acts (which are now over 70,000 words again, so we’ll be cutting that later), but swapping huge files is a lousy way to write, so with Act 3, we went to labeling scenes. I did a scene list chart, always tentative but a starting place. I wrote in all the Liz scenes I knew about, leaving room for Bob’s stuff. It’s easy to edit a table, so we can keep a fluid list with notes, passing it back and forth.

We labeled scenes “L 3-1 Liz vs Vince May 9.” The L is for “Lavender’s Blue,” followed by Act 3, Scene 1, followed by the conflict, followed by the date it was last changed. It’s clunky, but it works most of the time, although sometimes we need to add something following the conflict like “Red Box Blow-up.

(4) The fourth thing is really the key to the collaborative relationship: Respect your collaborator and keep your mitts off the other guy’s scenes with one exception: you can fix your character’s dialogue and actions. If the fix is big, you have to talk about it, but that’s mostly tweaking. Otherwise, they get to write their person the way they want. In the final rewrites, we probably tweak each other’s stuff, but by then it’s pretty easy not to overstep. Track Changes is the best way to do this so the other person can accept or reject. And now I must learn to do Track Changes in Pages (I’m liking working in Pages a lot, plus it comes free with the Mac).

I think this is the hardest thing about collaboration, understanding that this book is not just yours, its theirs, too. You’re going to have to accept some things you wouldn’t have put in the book, and the key is to see how you can use those things, too. If whatever it is goes against something important, you have to explain that, and if you’re not on the same wavelength in the book, that can lead to some major conflicts (only happened to me once) but at the end of the day, unless it goes completely against your grain as a human being, let it go. Bob has objected politely to things I’ve done in books and explained why (and so have my other collaborators) and the explanations were reasonable and made sense, so I deleted those things. He’s done the same for me. We save our powder for the big battles, and there have been remarkably few of those (and one I won he should have won, so that made me more careful in the future).

(5) The fifth thing is probably the most essential to the collaboration’s overall success: Talk to each other often and listen to each other. Collaboration is just that, two people working together, not one person in charge, dictating to the other, or two people writing separately and then shuffling scenes together, collaboration is an active partnership, and communication is the key to any partnership. My collabs have always been online with brief in-person meetings to hash things out, and the great thing about online is that you have a record of what you’ve said.

(6) The sixth thing is to be respectful when you talk to each other:

And that’s how I collaborate.

36 thoughts on “Questionable: What’s Your Collaboration Process?

  1. In Wild Ride you and Bob wrote a story which seemed to me like almost two separate views of the same situation. How did that come about? Lavender’s Blue sounds like it has the romance plot between the two main characters as well as the action plot like Agnes & the Hitman and Don’t Look Down.

    1. Wow!! It sounds so complicated, yet you are going at it like a cat after a mouse! Congratulations!

    2. Bob and I were having, uh, problems by the time we got to Wild Ride. I still love the book, especially the action scenes because they were so bananas, actually, that whole book was bananas, but the big thing I remember there was that I completely blew the romance. His character and mine were brother and sister which moved the romance to a subplot, and I lost my grip. Which is a shame because I really liked the love interest in that book. Krissie, as a I remember, liked the wrong love interest. Well, he was a demon, she would.

      This one is different in a lot of ways. No supernatural stuff. There is a romance between the two main characters, but it’s a slow burn across three books. The trilogy was conceived as three mysteries that together would make one romance although there are no cliffhangers, and each book ends with the protagonists in a safe place. And we’re both very different so the writing process feels different. Much calmer, probably because we’re both much calmer now.

  2. This reminds me of when my husband and I would write one-act musical plays with another couple for a touring high school youth group twenty years ago or so.

    Basic division of labor was that husband would write the music for the songs, I would write the lyrics, other wife (English major) would write the book and direct the drama and other husband (masters in coral music and music director of the group) would do the choral arrangements. We’d meet in person about once a month.

    Would start with basic scene/location which could have been inspired by any number of things, could be a song we had in our back pocket, could be something semi-auto-biographical. Once the inspiration came from someone finding a diner banquet sitting on a side walk. Of course that show was set in a diner!

    Together we would decide in broad strokes what characters we might find in that setting and what their conflicts might be. The plot got further refined as songs and lyrics are written (music usually got written first then lyrics). Often the songs suggested new directions or background emotions for the characters or plots.

    There needed to be a certain rhythm and arc of emotions to the play. We would review what we had and discover that we needed an addtional song at a given point and discuss together what the emotion of the song would be and which character(s) it would relate to.

    It was always fun to see what the final shape of the book would be…the gal who wrote the book and her husband who wrote the choral arrangements always had the last word!

  3. This reminds me of when I wrote a script for a musical and I had given the director notes on what I thought the blocking should be because I saw it in my head as I was writing it.

    I had to let him block as a director would and that control freak in me was dying to claw his eyes out at times… but I also didn’t want to micromanage him or his creativity. It was so hard… but there was a certain freedom in letting him do what he knew how to do.

    And the show was much better for it.

  4. I wrote a four-book duets series with a writing partner and we did just like Jenny says. It was about two BFFs who became matchmakers for younger generations. I took one matchmaker and one couple that was being matchmaked (not a word) and she took the other matchmaker and one couple. And the same as Jenny said, the only thing we messed with in the other writer’s scenes was the dialogue and character of our people.

  5. Jenny wrote: “We save our powder for the big battles, and there have been remarkably few of those (and one I won he should have won, so that made me more careful in the future).” Did I miss what this is referencing? What is the battle Bob should’ve won?

    1. It was a dumb move on my part in Don’t Look Down. JT tells her he loves her way too soon and in the wrong place. Bob said, “Nope,” and I didn’t listen to him and people have been bitching about it ever since. Bob was right.

      1. That’s not so bad, the last book I read, they decided to get married with no build up in practically the last few pages of the book. I was like why!!!! I mean sure lets jump into a lifetime commitment just to be tidy

  6. I am so excited for this book. Also, all the redaction makes me feel like I’m in the middle of some sort of spy/war movie. I amuse easily.

  7. Hi! What software app do you use together? It looks like it’s part of a project management thing. If you’ve already answered, this question, I’m sorry!

    1. It’s an e-mail program called Spike that acts as a project management program. The reason we’re using it is that it gives us a place to upload files that stores them, and more than that, takes the multiple e-mails we send each other and puts them into a format that mimics chat.

      I’m still using Spark for the rest of my e-mail, but this is working out well for the collaboration. Someone also recommended Google Docs for this, but we’re pretty happy with the faux-chat-option.

  8. I’m happy that this collaboration has been going so well and that the Liz series is moving along. I keep looking forward to it!

  9. I love this thread, and it reminded me of my attempts to write a musical. Back in the 70s, I was serving on my first submarine, the USS George C. Marshall, SSBN-659 (Blue Crew). There is a submarine tradition, at least on the missile subs, called “halfway night.” Basically, when you’ve reached a weekend somewhere near the halfway point of a 75 day underwater Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Patrol, you party. Part of the party is entertainment. Some people come up with comedy routines. I came up with a three song musical called “Clean Up Ship,” because that was a major evolution all too often that patrol. I got a few of my division mates to join in.

    I remember two of the songs, which I had not thought about for nearly 50 years. The opening song was sung to the tune of the current McDonalds commercial. “Grab a bucket and mop”. The second was to the tune of Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkle. “Hello bilges my old friends, I’ve come to clean you up again…” I don’t remember the closer, except that it was embarrassing.

    Now I know that some people would call that “filking.”

  10. Wait Liz is a romance ghostwriter? I have the job of Crusie heroine?!! (I assume you already know plenty of ghostwriters, but if you want to talk to one more hit me up).

    Everything I hear about this series makes me more excited to read it.

    1. In the first book, she’s ghostwriting Anemone Patterson’s memoir. Anemone has been married five times, she’s famous for it.

      At the end of the book, she tells Liz their next book is going to be a romance novel. Liz says no, she doesn’t know how to write fiction, she knows nothing about romance, and there’s no contract. Anemone produces a contract, tells her she can learn to write fiction, promises her a lot of money for it, and reminds her that if she stays in town, she can continue her series of one night stands with Vince. Liz says yes.

      So in the second book, she’s trying frantically to learn how to write fiction, while finishing the memoir, and getting in deeper with Vince. And then somebody dies. I don’t know who, I promised Bob he could kill anybody he wanted to in the second one.

        1. Yes, I think protecting Vince and Liz needs to be a condition. Otherwise, they’ll both be burning zombies in book 3. Then again, it could be the start of a new romance subgenre!

          1. Have you seen Warm Bodies?

            It’s about the difficulties of dating if you’re a zombie.

          2. That’s what I said!! A whole new world of Viking zombie romance novels… on fire from last? Or literally on fire?

          3. (If it wasn’t clear, I was just catching up on your thinking and the many helpful comments from the other post.)

  11. I love this post, and the conclusion made me laugh, so thank you. I want your romance novels, but I am also hopeful that you will indeed write a book about writing, which will be wonderful.

  12. I always love the craft posts here. I learn so much.

    And apropos of nothing, it’s election week down here and the honest government ads (from comedy duo juice media) are cracking me up. Time to go vote!

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