how to collaborate with another writer: a case study

One Small Step: an anthology of discoveries launched last weekend at Conflux. I’m honored to have a story (co-written with the super-talented Jo Anderton) included in it.

This was my first ever collaboration, and I thought it’d be useful to talk about how the process worked out for us.

The Setup

Last fall, Tehani Wessely, editor of the anthology, contacted Jo and me with the idea of collaborating on a short story for One Small Step. We (metaphorically) looked at each other, looked at Tehani, and said, “Sure!” After all we’ve been friends for almost a decade now (has it really been this long, Jo?) and have a lot of experience with each other’s work. Even though our styles are different, we have enough common overlap that we could (probably) handle writing a short story together.

It was also the perfect project for collaboration. Neither of us was playing in the other’s sandbox (“hey, want to write a story in my world?” “Er… no.”) nor was our canvas unlimited (“So what shall we write together?” “Uh, I dunno”). We had a theme (discoveries), a form (short story), and a deadline.

So, we got to it.

The Idea

Almost immediately, we ran into some uh… differences in our processes.

Me, I come up with an idea, then run with it. I churn out several pages to see where it’ll go. Sometimes the idea works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have lots of unfinished short stories on my hard drive. I consider them regrettable but expected casualties of my writing process.

Not so with Jo. She isn’t willing to latch on to the first shiny idea that floats by. She wanted to wait for something special, the idea that set her story senses a-tingle.

So we waited for the lightning strike (some of us more patiently than others). A week or so later, Jo emailed me a photo of an old woman huddled in a doorway with an ornate doll next to her. “I think there’s a story in this picture,” she wrote me.

By golly, she was right.

We were both fascinated by this picture and traded speculations back and forth for days. Both of us agreed that dolls were creepy (I kept having flashbacks to Child’s Play). Then I remembered Hinamatsuri, or Dolls’ Day in Japan. We put the two together and I–yes, well I did what’s natural to my style–forged ahead and wrote a bunch of snippets exploring character, plot, and setting.

I think Jo knew I was chomping at the bit, so she let me. We talked over the snippets a lot (and I learned something about Jo: she doesn’t like to write about royalty). Both of us were very excited and creeped out about what we were getting. And I really appreciated Jo’s insistence on digging deep into the idea and taking it from good to great. “Good enough” doesn’t exist in her vocabulary, and it’s a lesson I’m applying to my own writing from now on.

An Aside

I’m going to pause here to mention one very important thing: do not look at a collaboration as something that will save you time. More likely, it won’t. Jo and I could’ve probably written two stories each in the time it took us to write Sand and Seawater.

Think about it this way. When you’re writing your own story, you only have to satisfy two people: You and Your Muse. When you’re writing with someone else, there are two Yous and two Muses, and they all need to be on board. It’s bad enough keeping one pairing happy, but two…!

(Oh, and apparently, our Muses have some telepathic connection that doesn’t go through us. Now that is also creepy.)

The Actual Writing!

All right, so once we were happy with our ideas, we started writing! Luckily for us, there were two POVs, so Jo took the doll and I took the old woman. We alternated scenes, and I noticed a style difference right away. My scenes sprawl, while Jo writes tighter. Once we hammered out the plot and nailed the climax, we each went through to cut out redundant material and tighten everything up. (I may be a first-draft sprawler but I’m ruthless when wielding a red pen).

A fitting concluding scene took us a bit of back-and-forth, but I think, again, we nailed it.

Checklist For Success

I would call this a very successful collaboration. Not only did we sell the story, but:

  • We are both very proud and pleased with it.
  • This is a story that neither of us would’ve come up with on our own.
  • And–most importantly–we’re still friends. And we both see this experience as a net positive, not something to be quietly shoved into a closet and never ever done again. We’re both too much of loners to do a lot of collaboration, but who knows? In the future you might be seeing more work with both our names on it. *is deliberately vague and mysterious*

Jo has her own thoughts about our collaborative experience here (link might not work until later in the day, since she’s already gone to bed). Update: Link works!

Have you collaborated? Share your experiences!

Comments

  1. What a brilliant summary of your experience. I played in bands for years, where collaboration is simply part of the process. Never really thought about doing it with my writing, but you make it sound not just do-able, but fun and very rewarding.

    • Thanks, Liv.
      What instrument did you play? And what type of music? Somehow I never pegged you as a band person. :)
      And yes, collaboration with the right person and the right project is very fun and rewarding. You need to have a very clear idea of who you are as a writer and what your goals are before you go into it. It’s also advisable to test out the collaboration with a short story, *before* committing to writing the multi-volume epic together!

  2. I love this window into the process–seems like it is one which could have been fraught with frustration, and probably was at times, but sounds like it turned out quite well! I look forward to reading the story.

    • Thanks, Robin. I learned a lot about myself as a writer, and learned a lot from Jo–who is a multi-published author–about writing good short stories. It’s probably not a coincidence that the stories I’ve written since the collaboration have been better-received!

  3. I love the way you worked around your differing processes. I keep thinking sometime I’d like to collaborate on something, and I have something in the drawer, so to speak, with in_the_blue. I just hope she likes where I think I want to go with it.

  4. Deborah Koren says:

    Ooh! What fun! And I can’t wait to read the story. I love your summary of how the collaboration process worked for you, and thanks for the link to Jo’s page. I didn’t know she had one!

    I’ve always had good experiences collaborating. I’ve done it with three different people, each experience was different, but all came out positive, with stories I could not have produced alone. Some has been fanfiction, some published, some screenplays. I think the process was the same though, even working with three different writers, and all very similar to your much more interesting write-up! Basically, we threw ideas at each other, bounced them back and forth until they worked for both of us (fascinating new stuff always comes up that I wouldn’t have thought of), then we each write parts (either different povs, when stories had different povs), or one writes until stuck, then the other writes, or scenes are divvied up by what we do best. When you reach a draft, then each side runs through it with the red pen, until each party is happy with the final. Collaborations have always worked out quite well and were quite easy. I found them to be much quicker than writing solo (except during nano, LOL!).

    • Thanks for sharing about your experiences, Deb! I’m glad that my great experience with Jo isn’t a rarity; I have heard some collaboration horror stories.

      Also I should mention that Jo’s short story collection, THE BONE CHIME SONG AND OTHER STORIES, also recently came out. She’s a much more polished (and prolific!) short story writer than I am!

  5. Tami Clayton says:

    I’ve never written a story with another writer and have often wondered about how it’s done. Thanks for sharing your process. I’m really curious about the photo that inspired your story as well as the story itself. Looking forward to reading it. :)

  6. Sounds like it was a great experience. Like Tami, I am most intrigued to see the image! Would love to read the story too — will have to chase it down!

  7. Ellen & Tami,
    I’m not sure if I have permission to repost the image. Let me check and get back to you on that. :)

    You can find the paperback version of One Small Step here: http://www.amazon.com/One-Small-Step-Anthology-Discoveries/dp/0987400002/

    I know Tehani’s working on an ebook edition as well. I’ll post up here when it’s available. :)

    • Ellen & Tami,
      Unfortunately the photo is copyrighted material so I cannot post it here. It’s from a book called India In My Eyes, which chronicles a photographer’s journey through India in images.

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