by Sean Williams
Writing is a pastime best conducted on your own — or so common wisdom would have it. Yet writing teams exist, and in many realms they are expected. Take television, where the writers’ room is the norm. Or the academy: one physics paper has 5,154 authors.
In literature, collaborations are more common than you might realise. For every superstar Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett team-up (Good Omens), there might be an F. Scott Fitzgerald and his uncredited wife Zelda, or a “James S. A. Corey” (The Expanse) being the pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.
Although new writers such as the Brontë siblings may collaborate, the practice seems to fall away with age, perhaps because writing relationships can be as fraught as familial ones, with as many pitfalls to navigate.
Add to this a collaboration nearly always proves to take as long as a solo work and any monies might have to be divided among the contributors. Why would anyone willingly share their art with someone else for little to no benefit?
In my experience, collaborating can be creatively stimulating, educative, motivating, productive, and revitalising. Plus, it’s great to have a friend to keep you company on a publicity tour.
Here are six techniques to help would-be co-writers take their first steps in this direction.
1. The chain
This is the simplest method, one of two that require first settling on what your story will be and then breaking the writing of it into bits completed separately, in chronological order.
There are many ways to serially tackle the discrete tasks that will combine to form a glorious whole. Some teams might choose to write alternate scenes, chapters or sections; others might alternate whole drafts, giving each participant long stretches of time to work on solo projects.
Whichever way you tear it down, every member of the team has a professional obligation to deliver. Break one link in the chain and it falls apart.
2. Parallel processing
The second way to devolve an outline requires trust and communication beyond that required of ordinary collaborative relationships.
In parallel processing, you divide characters among authors, so one provides the voice of X, another Y, and so on. Each arc is written separately, then edited together when complete. If X or Y diverge too much from their expected paths, plotting and structural problems can arise, but the powerful juxtaposition of distinct voices can outweigh the risk.
3. The hothouse
An extreme version of serial collaboration, this method used to require being physically in the same room as your writing partner(s). One starts writing and keeps writing until they get stuck. They then tag in the next writer, who takes over. Repeat until done. Food and sleep are optional.
The benefit of this method is the words are guaranteed to keep coming.
These days the “in person” requirement is greatly relaxed. Google Docs is just one platform allowing writers to work on the same document at the same time, no matter where they are.
4. The undertakers
Brainstorming what a story will contain is, for many collaborators, the fun part — providing they can agree on a final project.
One method of achieving this agreement is by giving one of the co-writers a veto to be exercised when consensus can’t be reached.
Another method requires every element of the final project must be agreed to by every collaborator. This can be time-consuming to achieve but avoids any lingering resentment if someone is outvoted or overruled.
More generally, every shared undertaking should have a binding agreement in place before serious work commences, covering issues such as whose name goes first, which agent will sell the work, how any resulting IP will be divided, and so on.
It is much better to have these agreements in place and not need them than the other way around.
5. The Marxist Manifesto
Collaborators should have common ambitions but complementary skills, otherwise you might as well work alone. The way roles are divided in the working relationship can reflect those skill sets – which might, of course, lie in non-writerly areas such as business or marketing.
To some, the perfect collaboration is one in which every participant’s weaknesses are covered by strengths in their fellows. Everyone contributes and everyone learns by example.
6. Resurrection of the dead
Finally, the easiest and safest way to audition a potential co-writer is to give them a failed draft and see what they accomplish with it. If it’s a success, great: the original author gains a new collaborator and a finished work.
Should this (or any of these methods fail) the author is no worse off.
They can just revert to writing alone – for some their natural habitat.