Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Pros and Cons of Dos (the Art of Collaboration, Part II)

In Part I of this series, I gave some background of my own experiences in collaborating with other authors in writing crime novels. I recommend reading it first, because I will be making references to the people and books mentioned in that post as I discuss the Pros and Cons of having dos writers on one novel.

By way of summary (or review), I've written eight different novels (two more are currently in the works) with five different authors. Demographically, they are four men and one woman. Geographically, two lived near me and two lived on the opposite coasts of the country, and one smack tab in the central (well, sorta -- Texas). Two I have had face to face meetings with (the local ones), the other three I've communicated with largely via email (though with two of them I've had some phone calls, too).

The primary format I've used with four out of five authors and seven of eight books (8 of 10, if you count WIPs) is a dual first person narrative. In this format, each writer handles one character, writing him/her in the first person. The book is presented in alternating chapters, first one character, then the other.

That FORMAT is an important component in how these books have been successful, at least in terms of the writing. What is the benefit (and difficulty) of a format in which you get two alternating first person narratives?

Pro:  The benefit to the reader is that the first person is an intimate way to convey a story. The reader gets to be in the head of the character, seeing and feeling all she sees and feels. The limitation of that form of narration is that the reader is limited to that character and that character alone in terms of information being conveyed. If "I" don't know a fact, neither does the reader. A first person narration can fall prey to an unreliable perspective, in terms of what is seen, and how it is seen.

That's where the dual narrative softens the blow. The reader gets another viewpoint, another set of facts, from the second character. In many cases, the reader will know something the character doesn't, or get to see something in a different light. All the while, the narration is still that intimate first person style.

Con:  The reader may not like first person, or may get confused as the story jumps back and forth between the characters. Okay, this con is cheating a little. I've very rarely had a reader say this is the case. More frequently, people dig the style.

Pro: The back and forth. This is a pro for the reader, in that it can build tension and create natural cliffhangers. It has always been satisfying to hear a reader say, "I just finished a Bricks chapter, and I want to skip ahead and see what happens next, but then I start the Cam chapter, and by the end of that, I want to skip ahead, but then its back to Bricks, and I'm excited all over again..." Okay, that's a paraphrase, but actually a fairly common one when it comes to reader reaction to the format.

It's also a pro for the writer. It is exciting to get back your partner's chapter and see what happened. Yeah, you may know generally, but the details are fun, and can be surprising. One liners that make you laugh, beautiful use of language, the kind of things that you enjoy as a reader, you get to do while writing a book. Plus there's motivation to get to work on your own chapter, and to keep the bar high. You don't want to let your partner down, unlike your seventeenth workout partner.

Con: I don't see one here, honestly. Hit me up if you do.

Pro: You maintain most of the control over your own character. This is what makes this format an easy first foray into collaboration. You don't agree to share 100% of the book. You get to retain some measure of final say over one very important part -- your narrator.

Con: You give up some control over your own character. Your character is going to appear in scenes written by your partner, so there will be actions and words that he does that you didn't write. See my ego comments below to this point, and pay attention to Part III's tips on how to navigate these waters.

The format isn't the only consideration, though. It's obviously possible to collaboratively write a book in any format. I did a single first person narrative with Lawrence Kelter in The Last Collar, and it worked fine. My biggest concern (lack of a singular voice for the character) turned out to be groundless, and we're working on a second book now. This one uses a limited third POV, with two main characters and several secondary ones getting time on stage.

In fact, the format I described above isn't the norm -- most collaborations don't use it. I tried it first with Colin Conway in Some Degree of Murder, and it worked so well for me that I stuck with it for the majority of my other collaborations. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

There are other considerations when collaborating, focusing on WRITER CONCERNS.

Pro: You only have to write half a book. Cool, huh? You write half a book to finish a whole book. It increases your output.

Con: It's only half yours. This con has never bothered me, at least not in eight outings. Part of the reason why will come in Part III when I dispense with some tips on the collaborative process, based on what I've learned. But a little preview here -- ego plays a role. If you can't check your ego, this con will probably bother you. Also, the ego of your partner plays a similar role, so pick him/her wisely.

Pro: No writer's block. I have to say I've never encountered this dreaded problem (rap on wood), though sometimes writing is harder and other times it is simply a joy. But nothing charges me up like getting back the book from my writing partner. Not only do I get to read some great stuff, but it is energizing in that same way that going to coffee with another writer and talking about projects can be. Only this happens twenty or thirty times over the course of the book.

Con: Oh shit, what if I get writer's block? Obviously, you don't want to let your partner down. So this fear could be scary. For me, I don't fear writer's block, but I do fear writer's shit. In other words, I want to make sure I'm carrying my own weight in terms of quality and quantity of writing.

Pro: Coming up with (and refining) ideas. A lot of writers enjoy sitting down with another writer and brainstorming ideas. Some of us do this with non-writers (my wife, Kristi, is my first reader, and is great about talking through ideas, both in meta and micro terms). Usually this brainstorming happens with our colleague or friend, and then we scuttle off to your writer dungeons and make the ideas come to life.

In collaborations, that discussion process never really ends, and great ideas from you or your partner can build a wonderful synergy.

Con: Not all of your ideas make the cut. Doesn't this happen when you write solo, too, though? Hasn't every writer sat down with a great idea and then see things gravitate in a way that minimizes, changes, or even cuts out that original idea? So no reason to cry over this, I say.

Really, it comes down to the biggest pro/con aspect of collaboration: interaction vs. control. If you want the wonder and the excitement of working with a partner, you have to compromise some control. This simple fact is woven throughout many or even most of these pros and cons, and I'll talk about it some more in Part III.

Pro: Solving plot conundrums. Painted yourself into a corner? Two heads are better than one, especially when both heads have skin in the game.

Con: The plot may not always go the way you want it to. This is part of the compromise. And if you had your heart set on a plot thread that doesn't go down, that sucks for you.

Relax. The direction things went was probably better, anyway. Otherwise, you wouldn't have agreed to it.

Pro: A built in co-editor. Two sets of eyes on the every draft is a very good thing. I routinely catch typos in my partners' chapters and mine regularly come back with typo fixes as well. But it goes deeper than proofreading. Two minds focused on the book have a better chance of sussing out motivation issues, plot holes, and anything else that is often pointed out by an astute editor. As a result, drafts of collaborative novels tend to be tighter, earlier.

Con: You may not agree on an edit. So what, though? Doesn't this happen with a reader, reviewer, or editor, anyway?

The way to solve this is relatively simple. In all of my collaborations, both of us have had a free hand to edit anywhere throughout the book. Why wouldn't you? But we also retained final say on edits involving our own character. This creates some equilibrium in the process.

Pro:  Cross-Pollination. After the book is finished and out there, you have a built in marketing piece. Anyone who finds my work will eventually find Eric Beetner, Lawrence Kelter, Jim Wilsky, Bonnie Paulson, and Colin Conway. And if they find one of those fine authors first? Well, then they find me, too.

Marketing fiction in today's world is different than ten years ago. The problem for most writers then was getting past the gatekeepers (agents, publishers). Now there are many gates, and some are not even guarded, so anyone can scamper inside. So the problem becomes getting noticed in an increasingly crowded room. If every time someone bumps into one of your friends, your name comes up, and vice-versa, you and your friends stand a better chance of getting noticed.

Or to using a fishing metaphor, more lines in the water, with varying bait.

And (for a third metaphor) if any one of you catches fire? Everyone gets a little warmth.

This is just one more way of recognizing that writing and selling fiction is not a zero-sum game. I imagine a number of people have said that over the years, but I first read it on Joe Konrath's blog, and immediately agreed. A reader doesn't have to choose between your book and mine -- she can read both. If not today, later. Your success doesn't come at the expense of my own. So I can, and should, be happy for your success.

Con: The reader hates your co-author. Ah, who cares? The Internet is full of people with self-important opinions. Plus, the only books you ever wrote weren't with that co-author anyway, right?

Pro:  Marketing help from your co-author. As mentioned above, any marketing your co-author does benefits you, and vice versa. Got interviewed, wrote a guest blog post, appeared on Entertainment Tonight? Either author's efforts help the other.

Con:  You're not as good at marketing as your co-author. Or they aren't. Although in my case, this is my Achilles heel, and something I need to improve upon.

Pro: Building professional and personal friendships. I really like my co-authors. I've met two of them in person. The other three, I've never sat across a restaurant table from, nor hoisted a glass. One, I've never even spoken to outside of emails.

My kids wouldn't think that's weird at all. My parents don't get it on any level. My generation is in that middle position where we accept it but think it is weird. I mean, I've been friends with Jill Maser for something like ten years, and yeah, we've talked on the phone a number of times but 90% of our friendship has been based on emails.

Emails, people!

I have a friend, a retired Australian cop that I e-met a few years ago when he wrote to me because he liked my River City series. We've exchanged emails, and he's coming to the USA in 2017. I don't think I'll get to see him but still...I'm friends with a guy from Australia?! Who I've never met!?

And there are certainly others...many, actually...but you get the idea. So these co-authors aren't the first Internet-based friendships I've made, but they have developed into the most satisfying. Not only do I have some pride in what we've accomplished together, but I genuinely like the people I've met doing that. Would these friendships exist to this degree if we hadn't birthed a book or three together? Maybe, but I kinda doubt it. They'd be...lesser somehow.

Writing is solitary business, and having connections, especially one as direct as co-authoring a book together, is quite frankly, good for the soul.

Con: Are you kidding?

I'm sure I'm missing some pros and cons. Feel free to pipe up if you see any. In the meantime, check out the third and final installment of this series, which will include some tips and thoughts for you to consider if you're going to collaborate with another author on a novel.

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