Thursday, January 12, 2017

Pick Wisely Your Partner (the Art of Collaboration, Part III)

In Part I of this series, I gave some background on my collaboration experiences with other crime writers (10 books counting WIPs with 5 different authors).

In Part II, I listed the pros and cons of writing a crime novel together.

Now, in Part III, I'm going to dispense with some tips and observations based upon my experiences in collaborating with another writer to produce a crime fiction novel, just in case some of you are thinking about doing it. Or I suppose, if you've done it and have some additional tips to add, please chime in!

All set? Okay.

The first tip is the hardest one - know thyself. You've got to ask yourself if writing a collaborative novel is in your wheelhouse. If you have a huge ego, if you are pretty sure no one else has a better idea or a better edit than you, it's probably not going to work. Part of the greatness of collaboration is you get to draw on the best both of you has to offer. A big ego hampers that process.

If you simply have to be in control of everything, collaboration is going to be tough. There's nothing at all wrong with the need for control in one's work, but to collaborate successfully, you have to be able to relinquish some of that control. By that, I mean control over what characters say and do, which way the plot goes, the ending, the title...pretty much all of it. If you can't bring yourself to do that, it's no big deal -- but I'd think twice before collaborating.

Will you be a good partner? Pull your own weight at every stage -- first draft, revision, publishing, marketing?

Ultimately, though, the biggest question comes down to this -- are you amenable to compromise, to respecting the artistic talent and knowledge of craft your partner brings to the table? Because inevitably, she will make an edit or a correction that might irritate you, or lobby for a plot thread that will frustrate you, or not like your idea for the ending, and if you aren't the kind of person who can work through those reactions and work out those differences, maybe collaboration isn't for you.

That doesn't mean you can't have a partnership of another kind. One of the most common partnerships I've had with other writers is as critique partners. And that can be an absolutely invaluable asset to your work, but also one in which you don't relinquish control.

Secondly, you gotta know thy partner. Ask all of the questions you asked about yourself again, only this time, ask them about your prospective partner. Every one applies, in the same way.

Additionally, you've got to be a little bit mercenary here. Yeah, it is important for all the same reasons as above that your partner is a good collaborator (why do I think WWII or Cylons every time I type that word?). But an even more basic question needs to be asked: can he write? Do you want your name to share a book cover with her? Because regardless of how brilliant you are, half a book that's good and half a book that sucks...is a book that sucks. With your name on the cover. So think hard before linking up with someone. Make sure you're comfortable that the caliber of writing that you'll be sharing pages with is top notch.

And skill isn't the only consideration. Sometimes there is just the concept of "fit" that has to be explored. Does your style mesh well with his? Whether you're writing separate characters, separate chapters, or one narrative, it matters! Does her writing method match up with yours? Are either of you stepping out of your genre, and not likely to bring readers along because the genres are so different?

I've been fortunate on this count. My co-authors were all writers in the same skill range as I was, so the result wasn't at all uneven. I was able to grow and learn as a writer from working with each of them, and I hope the reverse was also true. In each case, our styles were close enough so that the transitions weren't jarring (or the single narrative, choppy) but different enough to give the reader separate voices.

As I said, fortunate. Because, honestly my friends, you have to Be realistic about what can happen when you collaborate. It isn't difficult to imagine all of the places where things can go wrong, where you and your partner can disagree. Pretty much everything is susceptible to that very real danger. You could end up spending a lot of time on the project and have it not go anywhere. I had this occur on a non-fiction book that another author invited me to work on with him. The project stalled mostly due to his overwhelming schedule, so I didn't have any hard feelings, but the disappointment was still there. The unused work product was still there.

So you could end up with a dead project. Or, worst case, a collaboration with legal entanglements. Actually, scratch that. Among lost work and legal troubles, I'd say the potential of a lost friendship ranks even higher. And this can happen even when a project is successfully concluded. I was part of a pair of boxed sets with a bunch of other authors. The first one did well, but the second set stalled. Some of it may have been the changes in the marketplace, or the timing, but some of it was most definitely due to lackluster marketing on the part of some of the participating authors.  Me included. I did a poor job of supporting that set, and though I had reasons then [they seem more like excuses to me now], it did nothing to assuage the righteous frustration and anger of those authors who were busting their asses. I still owe them more than just the apology I made, but who knows if I can ever repay that karmic debt?

So the point is, things can go wrong. Don't walk in believing otherwise. But you can take certain steps to mitigate that...

For one, Check your ego at the door. Or the keyboard. Or the email. Hell, I can't make the metaphor work, but you get the idea. As I mentioned above, you have to be able to accept less control, respect the other person's talent and craft, and be able to compromise. If your ego gets in the way, something negative will almost surely happen.

Set  expectations and boundaries . If you know what's expected of you in all phases of the project, and what to expect, there are less likely to be bad surprises. Who will write what? Talk about publishing plans, marketing, all of it.

Boundaries are important, too. For instance, in some of my co-authored novels, each of us wrote one of the two protagonists. There was an agreement that while each of us was expected to treat the whole book as his/her own in terms of editing, revision, plotting, all of it, each writer retained some amount of veto power concerning his/her own character.

Part of this is practical -- you know your own character best. Part of it is about not relinquishing all control. And part of it is showing respect for the fact that the book is a joint effort.

Agree on an approach. Are you going to plot rigorously? Loosely? Barely at all? What point of view will you use? Obviously, you've got to agree on this early on, or things are going to go sideways pretty fast.

Have a good idea where things are going. Many writers, myself included, only outline loosely. Maybe your co-author is the same. That works great for a solo author, and it can work for collaboration, too. However, there has to be just a little structure. Both authors have to know where things are headed. Maybe early in the book, it's just a compass direction, then a particular city in that direction, and as you hit the three quarter mark, it's probably going to be narrowed to a city block, or a specific house. By the time you hit the end of the book, you'll both find your way to the room of the house in which you type THE END. Maybe these plans change a lot along the way, but as you go, you both gotta know those directions. To ensure this, you also must...

Communicate...and be honest! You have to talk with your co-author. A lot. The topics you'll discuss are wide-ranging, including the just-mentioned plotting decisions. But you'll need to discuss every aspect of the book -- characters, tone, theme (I'm in favor of telling the story and seeing what theme emerges from that, but your mileage may vary. It doesn't matter, as long as your co-author is on the same page or willing to be...or you're willing to compromise on the issue), the title, the ending, publishing plans, marketing venues...you have to talk it over.

Talking does no good, though, unless you're honest. Be truthful about your own wishes, and be honest in your critique of the project, whether it is your work or your partner's. For example, as I write this post, I'm currently working on two collaborative novels (plus my own solo book -- it's a juggling act, to be sure). With FALLEN CITY, the Lawrence Kelter collaboration, the first thing I do when I get chapters back from him is read through the edits he did on my previous chapters. We use the Track Changes feature in MS WORD, so the revisions are obvious. I usually accept ninety-plus percent of them, and comment back the reason why on those I don't. Then I read his new chapters, proofread them, and make any small revisions that jump out at me. Some of these are typos, but others are fixes, additions, refinements, or just comments. Then I dive into writing my chapters, starting the process again.

This works for us, especially since we're both writing the entire narrative and not a specific, exclusive character. It's a good form of ongoing revision/editing, and for me, it gets me into the zone for when I start typing a new chapter.  But this communication about what we like, what we don't, what we think should be changed, is constant and ongoing, and it isn't vague or ambiguous. It's honest. Kind, but honest. As a result, we have a good relationship (and in the end, a tighter first draft). [Also, this is a good time to point out a call back here to the ego issue discussed earlier, by the way].

The other book I'm working on is THE WILD, WILD LIST with Eric Beetner. It is our third book together, and another Cam and Bricks Job. This one has a dual first person narrative, so you won't be surprised to hear that when I get a chapter from Beets, I read it and kindly correct any typos but otherwise leave his work alone. He does the same for mine. Occasionally, to make our coordination work, one of us will make a small edit to the other person's chapter. Even more rarely, one of us will edit some dialogue the other put into the mouth of our character. But for the most part, we manage our own plot of land.

The thing is, Eric isn't picky about his work being edited any more than I am or Larry is. But the nature of the books themselves lend toward two different back and forth approaches.

One place where the two approaches are similar, though, is in the communication. I talk a lot with both writers about all the stuff I mentioned above. You have to. In fact, as in any relationship, it is probably the most important thing...or perhaps the second most. The most important thing is to...

Enjoy the ride. You're getting to work with another cool author, making art, and having fun along the way. You're writing a book and getting to read one at the same time. Enjoy it! Enjoy the banter, the flush of creation, the surprises, and the sense of accomplishment. In some ways, it is similar to when you write your own book, but there's a feeling of community to it when you do it with a fellow author.

So enjoy the ride. When it works, it...is...a...blast.


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