How to Collaborate on a Book Without Killing Yourself or Your Partner

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that me and Ellie Soderstrom are working together on a new story called…well I’m not sure what it’s called yet. Definitely not Stinky and the Cheese Have an Adventure I can tell you that much for sure.

If you’re wondering how such a collaboration gets started, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Basically I sent Ellie an email saying, “Hey, you ever think about collaborating on a story?” and the next thing I knew I was run over by a train full of awesome.

But while I was on my little blogging hiatus last week (oh and I’m back by the way, so hooray for me) I thought, “Maybe there’s someone out there in internet land who could glean something with three whole weeks of experience I have with this.” So without further dithering these are my top five tips for success in collaboration.

1. Trust is essential.

I’m not talking about the, “I’m willing to lend you my wallet full of money and I expect you not to spend it all on hats,” kind of trust. I’m talking about something deeper. When you collaborate on a story like this you’re sharing a small part of yourself with the person you’re working with. You’re throwing them ideas, and working with the ideas they throw at you, and you’d really better be sure that you and your partner are going in the same direction writingwise.

I’d known Ellie for a good while before I approached her with this idea. I’d been reading her blog posts, so I knew she had a healthy respect for the importance of story and character, and she’d done some edits on A Prairie Home Apocalypse: or What the Dog Saw so I knew she really understood the fundamental mechanics of prose. Also, and this is crucial, I knew she wasn’t lazy. Because the last thing you want to have in a collaboration is one person doing all the work.

No, scratch that. The last thing you want to have in a collaboration is one person doing all the work when that person is you.

2. Your partner isn’t psychic.

Actually, hey what to I know? Maybe you’re partner is psychic. But I’m not, and neither is Ellie. It sounds obvious, but there have been a number of times when I’ve been rattling on about some story element or other and Ellie would say, Wait where did that come from? Which means when I have an idea for a plot point or a character trait or…whatever I have to communicate that. It sounds obvious, but with all the intricate details that go into constructing a story like this, it’s easy to get lost in the fog.

Oh, and speaking of communication

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

This is a collaboration. On an entire book. Which means you’re going to spend a lot of time shooting ideas back and forth. For me this has been the most amazing phase of the process. Because it’s here that you really see the value of true collaboration. Me and Ellie have spent hours on the phone hammering out plot points, asking questions, making suggestions, fleshing out characters, you name it.

And there’s something about that time that really makes the story come alive. It’s different than just sitting in a room by yourself dreaming all that stuff up on your own. I’m not sure why it’s different, but trust me, it is.

4. We’re gonna need a bigger outline.

You’ve heard me talk about outlining here before. Outlining is my thorn in the flesh, my Achilles heel. But if you’re going to collaborate you have to outline.

Well, okay no. You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything. You could do the clunky, “I’ll write a chapter then you write a chapter” thing. But in addition to the danger of falling into a Head You Lose style tiff with your writing partner, you’re also tying your hands timewise.

With a good outline and the clear sense of the direction of the story, me and Ellie can be working on different scenes simultaneously. And let me tell you, there’s nothing more encouraging to a writer than to take a look at the document your working on, and see that it’s grown by several thousand words while you were sleeping.

5. Learn to let go.

I hear a lot of writers say things like, “I want to have control over my work.” If you are this person, then collaboration is not for you. Because in every stage of the process you’re constantly having to give things up.

Maybe it’s a plot point that really sings to you, or a character that is just so cool. Whatever. You’re partner starts asking questions and you don’t have all the answers, and she says, “I’m not sure we really need that bit.”

And the thing is, she’s probably right. But you love that character with the tiny head growing on his thumb for no reason. You love that scene with the rodeo clown and the power outage. And you’ve got to let them go.

Because if you can’t convince your writing partner that they make sense, how are you going to convince your readers?

Bottom line: collaboration is great. If you can find the right partner. To be honest I’m having so much fun with this I’m not sure how I can go back to writing solo.

There’s more I could to say, but this blog post is already way over standard length anyway. Maybe I’ll come back to this topic in the future though. Until then you can check out what Ellie has to say about the whole thing.

Insert obligatory end-of-post “Have you ever gotten to collaborate with another writer?” plea for feedback here.

10 responses to “How to Collaborate on a Book Without Killing Yourself or Your Partner

  1. I always enjoy hearing how the collaboration is going–thanks for sharing!

  2. I always thought it was interesting when someone like Stephen King collaborated with Peter Straub. Have you and Ellie happened to read anybody like that talk about their process?

    • Nope. Not a one. We just dived in armed with nothing but a big bucketful of opitmistic ignorance.
      I don’t even know where you’d start looking for a resource like that. I mean I guess you could find some interviews, but I don’t know of anyone who’s written a comprehensive howto on collaboration.
      If you really wanted to find a book about it, you might do as well to pick up a book of relationship advice. When I was writing this post, it came to my mind that collaboration advice is a lot like relationship advice. Trust, working together, being willing to give things up, all of those things are essential to succeeding in love and marriage, as well as collaboration.

  3. 1.) Speaking of trust .. I’m gonna need your credit card # and social security #, there’s a scene coming up that I need them for …
    2.) We aren’t psychic YET, but we’ve only been working together for a little bit. Who knows, maybe in the future I won’t even have to ask you questions like the one I asked above.
    3.) I can’t really explain how great it is to explain the story out loud, either. It feels different than hashing it out in your own mind or with a critique partner. Perhaps the key word is investment. We’re both so heavily invested in the story that each of our random ideas for the story really matter. And they must be said out loud.
    4.) You really aren’t as horrible at outlining as you let on. I mean, calling it your Achilles heel is a bit drastic because I don’t think it will be the death of you. At least not with this story.
    5.) It certainly is hard to let go. I like to listen to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” after you mash up one of my ideas. It helps. Like the time you rejected my title, “Stinky and the Cheese Have an Adventure.” I guess you don’t have as good a sense of humor and I believed.
    And so to answer your question, yes, I have collaborated with another writer before. And it’s going splendidly.

    • It’s not that I can’t outline. It’s that usually I can’t make myself outline. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. Something about working together though…it helps to remove some of the stench that planning ahead tends to leave in my nostrils. And who knows? Maybe this experince will help break the spell, and I’ll be better at outlining in the future. We can only hope.

  4. From reading your post and my personal experience it seems to me that writing fiction with a partner would be harder than writing non-fiction– which makes me glad my partner and I are doing non-fiction. The way the book is structured it’s best that she does one part and I do another, so there’s not a lot of discussion of stuff. However, we’re even closer now than ever because of the book. We live two states apart but we either email, phone, text, or IM everyday so we communicate more now than we have since elementary school (we’ve known each other for 37 years). We’ve only been at this for a little more than a week but so far it’s going great. (It may not go so great when I send her stories back with edits!) We haven’t had to hash out any major issues yet though. So far it’s just the first draft and getting the book down.
    From my experience you make excellent points. Our outline is simple but effective, so that point doesn’t really apply to our particular situation, but otherwise your points are dead on. I’ve already had to address trust, communication, and letting go. I have a lot invested in this book, and it was my idea to begin with, so my anxiety level about the project is a lot higher than hers.
    Good luck with your book; and yeah, another post about this would be great, should you feel so inclined.

  5. I’ve tossed around ideas on Twitter for fun (and one of those sessions may turn into something) and it’s exhilerating. I do having control over my work when it’s just me. But the idea of bouncing ideas off someone else and having those ideas trigger other ideas and so on (hmmm…I just had a vision of what Chuck Wendig might write about that :D). It’s fun. I’m looking forward to your book (pssst…if you need a beta reader, you know where to find me *whistles nonchalantly*)

  6. Trust IS essential. You ARE letting your partner touch your creation and somehow share your soul. I love the idea of doing this with a good friend. Besides, two heads are better than one.

  7. Pingback: Writerly Roundup 3/10/13 « Call Me A Writer

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