Collaborating with one or more co-authors offers unique challenges and pleasures. On the face of it, it looks like doubly—or triply—hard work: you have two or more egos to manage and motivate, potential disagreements about creative direction and weight-pulling, and a more laborious process to get ideas agreed and edits approved. And yet…
When it works, collaborating is brilliant fun. More minds on a project means more imaginative resources, more ideas about plot and character, more people to keep the thing going. There’s that magical sense of a new voice emerging, a creative whole that’s genuinely greater than the sum of its parts. And of course there’s the pleasure of sharing with like minds a creative process that can often otherwise be very lonely.
I’ve thought a lot about collaboration recently, as I’ve just co-written with a couple of pals Kitten on a Fatberg, a comic novel-in-emails about a very eccentric writer’s group. (They’ve all got a book in them, unfortunately.) Here are our top five tips for making a shared writing project work:
1) Make sure everyone is sold on the idea
Before you get going in earnest it’s vital that all of you are really invested in the idea, and that you spend some time fleshing out the structure and characters and arc. This gives you time to check that everyone is really engaged enough to want to see the project through. It’s also where that extra creative input can really make a difference: we found that when it came to plotting and characterisation, three heads were definitely better than one.
2) Focus on the How as much as the What
Collaborating with one or more other writers is inevitably a more clunky process than writing on your own, so you need to have a robust way of working in place that can work for all involved.
Some collaborators take a different character each and write alternate POV chapters. Some people divide up outline, first draft and second draft. Some sit together and sweat over every sentence (not recommended). In our case, we set up an email account and devised a fluid structure where each character could fire in messages at will; this suited well the various time pressures of day jobs and parenting that each of us had to juggle.
Obviously there are no rules here, except to say that your communal MO will have to be one that sits fairly comfortably within the constraints of everyone’s daily schedule. A novel is a marathon, not a sprint, after all.
3) Agree on some practical ground rules
Once you have hit on a basic working process, there will be other more granular—but just as crucial—questions to address. What if at some point you disagree on a way forward for the story? What if you dislike the edits your partner has done of your work? What if you feel you’re doing more of the work than they are?
There is no easy answer to any of these questions. Ideally you will have ironed out some of them in the thinking about planning and process. One good ground rule is to say that no co-author is allowed to undo the edits of another co-author; this can be quite a strong self-policing mechanism, of course, as it cuts in every direction.
Ultimately, though, you have to respect the people you work with, and to love the shared process; otherwise, what’s the point? Personally, I’m a big fan of the writing of both my co-authors, and feel very lucky that they have agreed to work with me. And we have always seen the books as ours, never as a bit mine (this bit) and a bit yours (that bit). When the voice of the book takes off, it belongs to all of you, together.
4) Schedule regular check-ins
When you’re busy drafting chapters, it’s easy to get your head down and lose sight of the bigger picture: Where is the story heading? Are we still on track? Are we all still happy? Does anything about the plot or the process need reconsidering?
Over the course of Kitten on a Fatberg, we met frequently to chat through such questions. The conversation usually began with a discussion of our different characters, as if we were catching up on absent friends. Though we had a rough idea of the various arcs at the start of the book, these inevitably changed dramatically over the course of the actual writing. Characters and plot points came and went, and gradually the path to the story’s madcap denouement became clear.
5) Divide up the post-writing jobs
Once you have a draft, there are of course still plenty of other jobs to do. There’s editing at various levels, from sense-checking structure and plot right down to proofing. There’s the work of submitting the manuscript. There’s the marketing hustle, the liaising with publishers and—in our case, as we’re with Unbound—the securing of pre-orders.
Different jobs play to different strengths. Different people have different amounts of available time. We found quite organically that these tasks sat naturally with different people. Alex sense-checked the plot, I enjoyed the marketing side, and Martin is already planning our next one. And that’s when you know that your process is working—when you’re ready and willing to do it all over again…
Dan Brotzel’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is due out in early 2020. He won the Riptide short story competition in 2018, and was Asda Christmas Cracker gag champion in 2004.
He wrote his latest book with co-authors Martin Jenkins a freelance writer, researcher and editor with numerous publications including an experimental novel A New Science of Navigation, and Alex Woolf who has written over 100 books for young people and old, both fact and fiction, published by the likes of OUP, Ladybird, Heinemann and Watts.
Their book Kitten on a Fatberg is now available from Unbound. As a DIY MFA reader, you can get 10% off Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound) using the promo code KITTEN10!