As many of you know, Jessica West and I co-wrote the Serial Novel Sin Eater which released last fall. As we’re gearing up to start working on Season Two I wanted to take a little time to reflect on the process of collaboration, co-writing, and some of the really important things we learned by doing this.
I’ve tried co-writing before, and it has never worked out. Some of the reason for that is ego (both mine and the other persons) and some of that is expectations. On my part I almost always end up feeling like I’m carrying a huge load and like if I don’t do things myself they won’t get done. Missed deadlines, lack of priority or concentration, and disappointing communications have stopped many great collaborations in their tracks. I’m sure on the flip side, there are people who would say that I am controlling, anal, and despite all of that, unreliable, usually because of my health stuff flaring up and taking me away from the project, but non-the-less, I have let people down as well.
What made things different with Jess? Why did our attempt to write together work so brilliantly that we are both bouncing on our toes to do it again?
It wasn’t easy, but I’m going to share some of our secrets with you now.
BEFORE YOU WRITE
Before you even start on this adventure, picking a writing partner is really important. You can’t just write with anyone, and honestly, you can’t even just write with people who you like a lot. You have to choose someone who you respect, who you know going in on day one has something to teach you. If you don’t truly believe that the other party can fill in blanks where you know you aren’t good enough, you might want to choose someone else. The key is respect. At some point you’re going to disagree, and the question is, do you respect this person enough to step aside and let them make decisions? If you don’t trust them to do that, if you don’t believe they know more than you about some things, then maybe it’s not a good pairing.
For Jess and I, it was very clear from before we even started writing that I am the more emotional one and she is the more practical/action oriented one. You can see this in our separate work. When we put those together, something really amazing happened. Sin Eater is full of emotional prose and character motivations all mixed in with fast paced action that zooms the reader through to the next scene. I learned a lot of Jess and at least she says she learned from me.
THIS IS A BUSINESS
Before you put a single word on page, have a frank conversation about publishing responsibilities and royalty expectations. I came to Sin Eater with more experience with publishing and marketing so Jess has been gracious about letting me take the lead with some of that, but I have run everything we do passed her and I know she’s not just sitting around expecting me to do it all. She works hard to market our product, and takes an active role in everything we do, including advertising. I was happy to take the lead, knowing that she wasn’t going to just abandon me to do it all. If one of you prefers to do nothing, make sure your partner knows that and is okay with that, otherwise, you could end up with some hurt feelings and resentments.
Having a contract is another important part of this. You are expending emotional, financial, and creative energy on something, that if it falls through, chances are neither of you can use (because you created it together). Make sure you have a contract making the ownership of the world and royalty plan clear. You wouldn’t want to end up contributing to something, having it fall through, and then see the other person using your work without your permission!
HOW YOU WRITE
There are a number of different ways to co-write. The most common (and I think easiest) I’ve seen is where each author takes a POV and you alternate chapters. This way, you are writing your style, your way, and it doesn’t interfere with what the other person is doing. All you need to do is make sure you’re reading along and plotting together so the story stays on track.
Jess and I, of course, couldn’t do things the easy way. We wrote Sin Eater completely collaboratively. We each had a hand in every single chapter. In some I wrote the majority, in some I added in paragraphs, sentences, and even words into what she wrote. This requires a tremendous amount of trust (and liberal use of track changes). Because we blended our writing completely, it’s often impossible to tell who wrote which sections. Even for us, as we look back, we don’t remember who did what. But what I do know is that the end result is smooth and clean. In order for this to work, you need a good editor, and a willingness to back down. Jess and I have both had to let go of things we really wanted simply because the other person came up with something else. In the end, it was about the work and we chose to always go with the best idea, leaving ego at the door. If you can’t do that (be honest!) don’t co-write like this. It’s a lot more fraught for tension, but I do think it yeilds really exciting results.
PLOTTING, SCHEDULING, AND DEADLINES
In order for Sin Eater to work, we had to really plot out every chapter. (See my post on How To Outline A Book for more info on how we did that). We wrote an overall plot arc, which changed as necessary, and beat plotted every moment and every scene. This meant that either of us could write. If Jess was feeling a particular characters POV, she would skip ahead and write that while I stayed back and finished the current chapter. If I was rocking the romance vibe, I’d work that in, weaving dialogue into existing scenes to flesh them out while she knocked out the words on moving the action forward.
This worked because we had plotted before hand. This also worked because we’d agreed to schedules and deadlines. Did we miss them? Sure. But we had a calendar and we checked in. Jess and I talked literally every day, sometimes sitting on chat as we wrote and talking through plot points. This might not work for everyone. Make sure your partner has the same communication style you do. If you’re co-dependant like me, a distant partner can make you feel out of control. Because Jess and I were always aware of what was going on with the other (kid stuff, health stuff, writers block) we were able to adjust and support each other.
Jess and I wrote in Google Docs, Word, and Scrivener. We moved things around depending on what tool worked the best in the moment. Scrivener became our home base, but it’s hard, because two people can’t be logged in at the same time, even through dropbox (you’ll save over each other’s work and lose stuff, beware). What Scrivener offered though was the corkboard, the summaries, the color coding of the outline and the ability to move chapters around. This was our master document.
Another important point in logistics is the ability to move on and call a thing done. Sometimes, you can spend years on one chapter if you let yourself, but you have to keep going. A co-writer is great for keeping you on task and on schedule. You can always go back later and play. That is, until you can’t. Once you’ve both decided the work is done (stick a fork in it!) and you’ve moved out of the writing phase and into the production phase, make sure you’re being respectful of your partners’ time and money. It’s not fair to start making changes after the “Approved” stamp has been placed and the work has moved on to formatters and distributors. Co-writing isn’t just writing together, it’s building a complete product, and you have to always keep the other person in mind with whatever you do.
IS CO-WRITING FOR YOU?
However you go about a joint project (alternating chapters or co-mingling voices) co-writing can be rewarding, exciting, and challenging all mixed together in one fabulous goulash. If you think it’s for you, take the time to find a partner who you respect and who you feel listens to you. You have to be equals for this to work. It’s not like curating an anthology, where one person is the publisher and their word is final. Collaborative writing means all parties need to be heard and respected. When you lose that, you will lose a lot of time arguing and unfortunately may even lose the work.
Attempts at collaborations have ruined friendships and torn down businesses. Just because writing is an art, doesn’t mean it’s any different. If anything, art heightens our emotional investment, so be sure of your partner, know your commitment level (and theirs), and write the best damn book you can – together.