Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 51

by Laura Anne Gilman

Writers, as a rule, are a solitary breed.  When we have a story in our head – no matter if we’re the talk-it-out type or the sort to hoard it until it’s ready to be shared – it’s in OUR head.  We don’t want someone else coming in with THEIR IDEAS.

And yet, occasionally, collaborations* happen.

There are three (basic) reasons for this.

1.     Jr/Sr writer syndrome.

2.     Shared workload

3.     ‘Wouldn’t it be cool’

The first sort of collaboration is pretty obvious: when one of the names on the cover is far better known, the immediate assumption is that a lesser-known writer has been brought in to “help out” (if the senior writer has died, that’s a different kind of scenario entirely).  Often, this is because the senior writer is mentoring the younger.  Sometimes, it is because the publisher has put them together (“assignment”).

The second is work shared between more obvious peers, and includes shared-world projects.  It also, occasionally, involves married/cohabitating couples, working as a long-term team (Steve Miller and Sharon Lee being a prominent example of this, in SFdom).

The third is perhaps the most common, often coming after a night in the bar at a convention, where one writer sparks an idea, a second writer says “oh, and…!” and half an hour later there’s a plot and an outline and they’re arguing over whose agent gets to pitch it.  Anthologies happen that way, too [if you see more than one editor on an anthologies cover, odds are high that’s exactly how it happened].

Collaborations of types 2 and 3 have the potential to be one of the best writing experiences of your life, with the energy getting ratcheted up every time you talk, the workload shared and the manic giggles doubled.  It could also be a massive clusterfuck with bloody fallout.  And there’s little way of knowing which it will be until you’re already well in.

But there are ways to limit the potential damage, and smooth out any rumbles in an otherwise positive experience.

1.     Have you hammered out the basics [who does what/how you deal with conflicts] before you begin?

2.     Do you actually LIKE this person?  Do you RESPECT them?

3.     Are you prepared for the relationship (whatever it is) to change during the process?

Often, especially in the Type 3 situation, writers go into a project with good intentions and high energy – and the first time a snarl appears, everything goes pear-shaped not because it’s an actual crisis, but because both parties forgot that everyone works in their own way, and even if you think you have similar styles, they’re…not.  And if you work in drastically different styles/methods, you’re going to run into a lot of conflict.

Talk about this before you agree to a project.  Agree to certain things that can be hammered out, and decide on an arbiter for the things that will come up during the process (your editor, agent, or a mutually-respected peer are best for this.  Or, you can flip a coin.)  Think about, not just what you want, but what will make a better result.

Talking about the various ways collaborators handle the actual writing could fill an entire essay on its own, so I’ll say here only that the best way is the way that works best for you both, with minimal yelling and/or bloodshed.  It may take a while to shake that out.  Expect some yelling, some muttering, and the occasional hurt feeling or sulk.  The thing to remember is that in this particular project, you’re not the God Queen of all you survey; here, you’re co-ruler.

And that’s why it’s so important to not only like your collaborator, but to respect them.  If they say “I want to do X,” you need to accept that they have a reason for doing X, and be willing to listen to that reason.  You may disagree… but if you don’t respect them, you’re not going to even give it a fair chance.  Likewise, respect keeps you from dumping the “grunt work” on the other writer – or having it dumped on you.

The truth is, collaboration isn’t “half the work.”  It’s all the work, and then some, much of it unrelated to the actual writing.  But the end result, ideally, is something neither of you could have created on your own.

Collaboration may not work for you – you may come out of it shaking like a cat dumped in water, hissing and spitting and stalking off to a solitary perch until you calm down again.  Or, it may be such a positive experience that the two (or three) of you decide to do it again. And collaborations with different people can end with different results, just as they will end with different books.

But even if you’ve worked through all the possible difficulties and dissensions, and managed not to kill each other, working with someone, like living with them, changes the relationship.  It’s inevitable, once you’re in someone’s workspace, and they’re in yours.  You share more than you planned, you see more than you might have wanted.  At the end, you will know that person – and maybe yourself – better than you did before.  This may be a bad thing.  It may be a wonderful thing.  It will be, assuredly, a different thing.   And the relationship will be different, afterward, as well.

No matter how you go in, I strongly advise having a therapist/mutual friend with a sense of humor and discretion on speed-dial.  Trust me, it helps.

*“collaborations” in this instance means exactly that.  Sharecropping, or hiring someone else to write your plot while you get top billing/majority royalties, is NOT collaboration.

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Coming up in Week 52: when it all comes crashing down

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, including the THE SHATTERED VINE, Book 3 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy,, and TRICKS OF THE TRADE both IN STORES NOW! (ahem). Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)

She also runs d.y.m.k. productions, an editorial services company (www.dymkproductions.com).

And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 51 — 3 Comments

  1. I am so thankful that when Melanie Rawn, Kate Elliot, and I wrote The Golden Key, the working relationship was wonderful. No complaints at all. We hammered out the plot and primary characters together, and off we went. Of course we did break it into three separate parts with each of us responsible for a section, but we nonetheless worked closely on making our sections cohesive. An excellent experience all the way around. (In our case, we were already good friends and shared an agent and a publisher, so perhaps an easier road than for some.)

  2. I’ve had two collaboration experiences. The first was difficult at best and left us both with bitter tastes in our mouths and an unfinished project in the trash can. (I salvaged one subplot I had created for a different book).

    The next one was delightful and I hope will sell soon. Part of that is the friend/respect thing, and partly because we hammered out our expectations and work process before we started.

    Steve Perry once told me that no matter how good, bad, or indifferent a collaboration it will always be DIFFERENT from what either party expected. Leave your insistence that the final product will look like THIS at the door.

  3. I really enjoyed and enjoy the Smith and Trowbridge collaboration on Exordium. Our strengths and weaknesses match up like a jigsaw puzzle, so it’s easy to just write “Sherwood inserts wonderful character interaction here,” when I’m stuck, and fun to respond to “Dave inserts tech-whizbang here.”

    Best of all, though, are the tea-spitting outtakes.