In a creative project, are two heads better than one?
Writing partnerships can produce a remarkable synergy, building on each other's talents to create work unlike anything the individual authors could do alone. On the other hand, unsuccessful collaboration can be disastrous and has ruined many a friendship.
Kevin J. Anderson has worked on numerous novels and stories with dozens of collaborators, and many of those projects have become bestsellers and award winners. Rebecca Moesta has written books and stories with numerous other writers. In this in-depth book Anderson and Moesta describe various collaboration methods with frank recollections of their own experiences. You'll learn collaborative techniques that will suit any sort of writer, as well as the pitfalls you may encounter.
Includes a sample collaboration agreement to adapt to your own needs.
"As a writer, editor, proofreader, and English teacher, I found a LOT in this book for me. I honestly wish I'd read this before I started teaching a couple of years ago. My students often struggle to work collaboratively, and I think this would have given me some tools to help them through some of the challenges they had while doing group projects. This is a great book for writers, but it's a great choice for teachers too. It's short, clear, easy to read, AND interesting."– Amazon Review
To Collaborate or Not to Collaborate
There are as many different reasons to collaborate as there are potential collaborators. Later we'll discuss what to look for in a collaborator, but let's first consider why you might want to join forces with someone else.
Reasons to Collaborate (Why?)
Enrich the Pool of Resources
Collaborating has the advantage of drawing on two or more different minds, areas of expertise, knowledge bases, sets of life experience, and publicity potential. Collaborators can produce a book that is unlike what either of them could have produced alone.
Let's say you came up with a novel or short story concept that captures your imagination, but you simply don't have the expertise to do it. No matter how much research you do, you just can't understand the life of a Beltway politician or an Afghanistan combat veteran or an abused gay singer. You might team up with another writer who has the knowledge you need and wants to help tell that story. The other writer may not have your ability to do worldbuilding or to develop characters or plot. But combining your abilities can produce a richer, more ambitious book.
Kevin says, "My first major collaborator, Doug Beason, connected with me at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where we both worked. We had each had some short stories published, and Doug had sold his first novel, a military thriller. I worked as a technical editor, while Doug, an Air Force officer, was a high-energy physicist with a PhD and had worked for the government for many years. I had a scientific background, though I primarily wrote adventure science fiction. Pooling our expertise, Doug and I were able to produce fast-paced, heavily researched high-tech thrillers in the vein of Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton. Doug had the military and governmental background to provide the veracity that those novels needed. I brought detailed plotting, worldbuilding, and action-writing skills to the table.
We wrote and published eight novels together through major publishers, as well as a handful of short stories. In 2017, we sold and delivered Critical Mass, a credible Poseidon Adventure-type survival story of people trapped inside a high-security nuclear-waste storage depot. The new novel incorporates our individual strengths as writers. We also drew on Doug's knowledge of the nuclear industry, his background as a former member of the President's Science Council, and his experience as chief scientist at the Air Force Academy, to infuse the book with a level of realism neither of us would ever have managed on our own.
There's no better way to learn different writing, plotting, characterization, and editing techniques than to work side by side with another writer and observe how he or she does it. How do they outline their stories (if at all)? How do they flesh out their characters? How do they describe a scene? How do they find time to write? How do they market their work?
Kevin says, "When I was just starting out as a writer, I collaborated with dozens of other new writers to do short stories. Many of those experiments failed, as you might expect, but I also learned valuable lessons about plot twists, brainstorming, developing an idea by taking an unexpected turn, alternating chapters with cliffhangers, adding emotion to writing. Reading a library full of writing books would not have taught me as much as working with a collaborator did.
Some lessons are vital, such as:
•There's more than one way to write a sentence or describe a scene.
•Your words aren't perfect, precious, or sacrosanct.
•A different take on dialogue or character might be more effective than the original one you imagined.
When developing your craft and process you can get set in your ways and think that yours is the only proper method of doing something. Collaborating with another writer can teach you otherwise.
Kevin remembers a particular "light bulb moment" with a collaborator:
"As an exercise, several new authors (including me) met together on a writing retreat to create a collaborative thriller. The plan was to hole up for a few days and bang out the entire novel, with each of us writing different chapters. In the lead-up to the retreat, we plotted a detailed outline with four separate storylines that all tied together. One of the participants wanted to develop each storyline independently, letting the events resolve in due course, unconnected to the other storylines. I disagreed, saying, "No, all of the storylines need to come to a head at the same time." One plot thread was clearly shorter than the others, and I insisted that we adjust the pacing to match.
"We laid out the plot on a bulletin board using index cards for our chapters, each card one of four different colors corresponding to the four storylines. I shuffled the cards around, demonstrating the impact and choreography as the plot lines culminated together like the grand finale of a symphony, which was so much better than having one plot thread culminate before the others.
"(A good example of this model is in Return of the Jedi where three main plot lines build to a simultaneous grand finale: Han, Leia, and the Ewoks are on the forest moon of Endor trying to knock out the Imperial shield generator; Lando Calrissian leads the rebel fleet in the big space battle attacking the Death Star; and Luke Skywalker faces off with Darth Vader in his personal battle before the Emperor aboard the Death Star. All of these storylines reach their climactic points at the same time.)
"I'll never forget the look on the face of the one doubtful collaborator as she got the concept and saw all the pieces fall into place."
Regardless of your skill level as a writer, there's always more to learn. Collaboration is an excellent way to bring new skills, techniques, and information to your repertoire.
For us, there's nothing more exciting than taking an unformed idea and using another writer as a sounding board. We brainstorm together, developing stories and characters in ways that we would never do by ourselves. Plot twists come up that simply wouldn't have occurred to us before.
When Brian Herbert and Kevin plot one of their Dune novels, they meet together for days and just brainstorm, taking down notes, jotting down or discarding ideas then adding new ones, sometimes coming back to twists that now made more sense. He compares their collaboration and brainstorming to a jazz performance with two musicians—each performer jamming without sheet music, knowing his part, yet still able to surprise his partner.
Rebecca and Kevin work the same way. He says, "I'll take an idea and a plot outline that I'm excited about, one that I think is perfectly good, but once Rebecca starts massaging it, she pokes holes in logic that I hadn't noticed, builds up characters I hadn't paid attention to, and in the end it becomes a much better book."
The synergy and shared enthusiasm of brainstorming and writing with a partner make the process so much more fun than doing it alone.
Build a Career
Established authors sometimes collaborate with junior writers to offer them experience, exposure, and publication credits. In these cases, the established writer usually helps the junior writer learn the craft, provides a foot in the door, and sells a book that the newbie wouldn't have been able to. In turn, the newer writer does a lot of the heavy lifting of researching and writing the draft manuscript. We have both mentored many newer writers, helping them develop their craft.
Legendary science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey helped out many writers this way. She contributed her name to projects—often novels in one of her established series—and developed them with a newer writer. The newer writer did much of the plotting and writing, while Anne was there to guide them and to help promote the resulting works, many of which made the New York Times bestseller list.
Kevin says, "I've met many talented writers with impressive skills who were still trying to find their big break. By working with them, even on a short story, I've helped give them exposure they wouldn't be able to get on their own. Likewise, my own career benefits from the energy, enthusiasm, and work the other writer brings to the project."
Even when two collaborators are at similar places in their careers, they may help each other grow through the combination of their individual marketing platforms and fan bases.
Add Writing Accountability
Countless studies show that working out with a partner or group can significantly increase the amount of exercise we do, especially when those partners are encouraging. We tend to gravitate toward the habits of the people around us, so finding the right fitness companion can dramatically increase our likelihood of success.
Similarly, the right writing buddy (see Chapter 2) can
•Hold you accountable
•Act as a teammate when you need help
•Act as a coach in areas where you have less experience
•Challenge you to stretch your ability
•Provide motivation and sometimes a bit of healthy competition
Make a Solitary Profession More Social
Writing can be a lonely business, so it's not surprising that the rates of depression, alcoholism, and substance abuse are higher for writers than for the general public. Staying connected to your fellow humans is a healthy thing, and collaborating can make the writing process more social. Look for someone you click with and care about.
The right writing partner can
•Provide a support system
•Act as a cheerleader when you are discouraged
•Pull you back on track if you've gotten lost in the weeds
•Jog you out of writer's block, if need be
Being part of a writing team automatically builds in one or more extra logic filters, pairs of eyes for proofing, beta readers, and editors.
Pitfalls, Dangers, and Misconceptions (Why Not?)
Thinking It Will Be Half the Work or Twice as Fast
Let's be blunt: this is a dumb reason to collaborate. If you work out the process and create an efficient routine, collaborators can get a book done faster than one writer alone. But when multiple people work on a project, don't assume it means you'll each end up with proportionately less work.
Even in a collaboration that proceeds smoothly, we each still put in about 90 percent of the work we would put into writing a solo novel—and so do our coauthors. Why?
For starters, there's more planning to do before you begin. You should make a written agreement that covers important issues, like how the money and credit will be split, what happens in cases of disagreements, disability, or death, and how to terminate the collaboration if one or more of the partners wants out.
Then, once you start the fun parts—brainstorming, outlining, and writing—there are more moving pieces, emails or phone calls, administrative details. There's negotiating and usually more rewriting. No matter how closely you work together, some disconnects are inevitable. For example, there may be details in your chapters that don't match, or you may want to approach a scene differently, or you may need to change a character's voice. You'll find a lot more back and forth.
Our close friends Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch are a very productive, bestselling, and award-winning writing couple, and they've been together even longer than we have. They work on multiple projects, both individual novels and collaborative ones, some under their own names, some under various pen names, depending on the genre. They are so well-attuned to each other's projects, styles, and vision for the books, they can work together as a tag team to pick up the slack if one of them falls behind.
Several years ago Kris was in a bicycle accident and severely injured her elbow. The pain was so great she couldn't concentrate on writing (much less type on a keyboard) and the pain meds scrambled her thoughts even more. But she was under a very tight deadline for a Star Trek novel, and Dean was able to jump into the driver's seat and finish the work.
We have done that as well, leaning on each other to fill an unforeseen gap. But don't think that if you just pick up a collaborator, you'll write books in half the time with half the work. Never underestimate the horse-trading, negotiating, rewriting, and delays that will happen.
In most cases, for a collaboration to work, you have to allow someone else to tinker with your story, scenes, and characters in ways that you may never have thought of. Writing is a very intimate thing, and you are letting someone into your most private thoughts and words. You have to let go of your precious baby and then, after all is said and done, you have to split the money!
If any of the following situations makes you break out in a cold sweat and consider running, you may not be a good candidate for collaboration:
•Revealing yourself as a writer
•Letting another writer make changes in your plot or prose
•Letting another writer deep into your creative process
•Splitting the money for a writing project
The sting of a failed collaboration can cause deep rifts. Writing with someone puts you in very close quarters with their imagination—and you have to let them into your very personal prose, too. You'll get to know each other very well—including all of your quirks, foibles, and flaws. It's like spending days and days driving cross-country together in a cramped car without air conditioning. Working as a team can throw a spotlight on the weaknesses of either author. Even seemingly minor disagreements can produce resentment that builds like steam in a pressure cooker.
We're aware of several close friendships that were shattered by an abortive collaboration. It has happened to Kevin once—and fortunately only once—with all of his collaborative partners, but it still stings a great deal.
So beware, and address potential pitfalls in advance. Many friendships have been lost when the reality of a writing partnership fell short of expectations.