Recently, I asked a writer friend if he’d be interested in some collaborative writing: a project in which two or more authors share the creative control of a project. It makes sense, right? After all, two heads must surely be better than one? And these days, the commercial bestseller lists include a number of successful teams: Gaiman and Pratchett, John Green and David Levithan, Jenny Han and Siobahn Vivian, for example. If they’re doing it, there must be something in it? My friend isn’t adverse to the idea. Maybe we could have a go; see where it leads us. Neither of us has a clue how to go about it. Maybe a story with two key characters, and two distinct voices? We throw some ideas into the ether. I read a book on planning because I suspect seat-of-your-pants writing isn’t going to work here. He emails some story suggestions. I send some back. We bandy them around, each of us wasting time on Wikipedia in the name of research. Then, one morning he drops 300 words into Dropbox—something he wrote a while back. ‘I wrote this,’ he says. ‘Have a read, and see if you can add something to it.’ It’s achingly beautiful: two paragraphs of raw hopelessness, more poetry than prose. Immediately, a response pops into my head. It takes me all day, but I write 400 words, giving the story a second voice. On its own, my piece seems simple and paltry, but when paired, the two sections coalesce and become something else: something more significant than just the sum of the two parts. My collaborator and I are both stunned at the result. How did that happen? Doubtful, we pass the text back and forth a few times, tweaking things, and eventually decide that the completed story, told in two distinct voices, is something special. Could I have written this story by myself? No. The story is stronger than anything I’ve written on my own. But what about the process? Was our ad hoc approach typical of collaborative teams? I ask a few writers more experienced at working in pairs.
Kevin Berry, one half of the Sir Julius Vogel winning duo K.D. Berry (Dragons Away, Growing Disenchantments, Fountains of Forever) says his high fantasy stories with Diane Berry start as “lots of discussion of ideas, shortlisting ideas, outlining. All this is basically discussion, and then we write it down. As for writing itself, Diane and I take turns at writing scenes, picking those we think we could do well at. Then the other person edits/rewrites the scene, and back and forth a couple more times. The end result of this iterative approach results in books that appear to be written by a single person with a consistent style.”
Award-winning screen-writer Kathryn Burnett describes a similar process for film writing collaborations. She says: “The collaborators spend quite a bit of time in discussion about the project—usually in a café/bar/restaurant. Then they start beating out the bones of the story. Then, depending how they work, they might put flesh on those bones, actually writing scenes, together or separately.” Burnett and her current collaborator, Nick Ward, break up the story first, writing half the script each, then they swap scripts and rewrite each other’s work. “If we’re in the same room we sometimes work on the whole script line by line. Sometimes we Skype. But in essence it’s a productive process of back and forth. And funnily enough we hardly ever shout!”
In a less obvious example, writer Piper Mejia is working with artist Jan Morrison on the development of a graphic novel based on Mejia’s YA fantasy trilogy, a project which they estimate will take five years. At the outset, both stakeholders had different ideas about what the new work should look like. Mejia says: “Jan read my book and believed the story would make a fantastic graphic novel. Jan’s vision was that that the graphic version should have minimal written text—the images should tell the story, as they do in a Shaun Tan book—so requiring considerable artistic input. This is completely opposite to my initial idea but I love how Jan interprets my words and I respect her work, so I’m excited to see what she can do. We feel that while the written novel is essentially mine, the graphic novel is going to be hers, yet influenced by my words.” In terms of process, the pair meet once a fortnight: “I tell the story, describe the characters and setting, and [Jan] draws the individual elements. The next time we meet we discuss what’s working and what’s not. However, what’s interesting from a collaborative sense, is how often I’ve had to make changes to the novel when we discover what I’ve written doesn’t work.”
Clearly, the collaborative process isn’t rapid: having two people working on a project doesn’t mean you can churn out your novel in double quick time. More communication is involved. But already, my first foray has proved that working collaboratively can prompt me to lift my writing to another level. And if it can do that, why aren’t more writers doing it? “I absolutely think it can but it’s dependent on your collaborator,” says Burnett. “If you’re lucky enough to have a genuine creative synergy with the other writer (which I do) collaboration can bring out the best in both writers as it challenges you both to be better and of course you can bounce ideas off each other. When you’re simpatico, there’s nothing better.” Mejia and Berry echo the same thought, both expressing their regard for their respective collaborators’ talents.
I think about this, and about the quality of those 300 words sent to me via Dropbox. I hum a little song at being so lucky. Because, obviously, effective collaborative writing isn’t so much about the process, but more about choosing the right collaborator.