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A Method for Collaboration

On Codex, we’re having a Collaboration Contest, where writers team up in pairs to work on short stories. We’ve had a variety of contests, and they tend to teach us new things and force us to crank out sometimes very good writing.I’ve been appealing to a friend offline to join me as a collaborator in this contest, and she mentioned that she hadn’t done a collaboration before and was curious how it might work. I’ve collaborated in what for me has been a very satisfying way with fellow Writers of the Future winner Steve Bein, and have a method to suggest. What I’m about to describe is only one way to collaborate, and it assumes that the writers will be participating on an equal basis and are in the collaboration to learn and produce a really good story rather than for other ends. Here’s my informal writeup of the method I proposed to my friend for the contest.

  1. We fire e-mails back and forth, brainstorming ideas for the story
  2. One of the ideas catches our interest and we start brainstorming other elements. Maybe the first idea we came up with was a character in a situation, so then we might brainstorm other characters, other events, etc.
  3. Sooner or later we get to a point where one of us is itching to start the story. This might be very early on, when we barely have the basic idea for the story in our sights, or it might be much further on: we might even work out a complete outline for the story when we start writing.
  4. Whoever is the one who got inspired to start writing first writes to a certain point–anything from a paragraph or two to half the story or even a bit more–and then passes it back to the other person to continue. We continue to discuss the story through e-mail or even by phone as we go.
  5. We continue writing chunks of the story, not necessarily of the same size each time, alternating until it’s finished. (The chunks don’t even have to be written in order, although it’s easier to do it that way.)
  6. When we have a completed first draft, one of us does the first round of editing. If one person did more of the original writing, the other should be the one to do the first round of editing. During editing, we discuss any major changes before making them, but other than that we’re ruthless and edit the stories almost as though they were our own. We don’t hesitate to strike out a beautiful phrase or change a character or what have you even if the other person has done the original work. However, we do this using Word’s “track changes” feature, which is very easy to use, so that if something needs to be restored it can be.
  7. The person who didn’t edit the first round edits it the second round, using the same approach.
  8. If necessary, we continue alternating, editing the story all the way through and passing it back to the other person, until both people are happy with the story.
  9. When it’s time to market the story, one person is elected to be the marketer and keeps track of markets. Both people must agree for the story to go to a specific market. If the story is sold, the money is split 50/50 regardless of word count contributed. Any further direct use of the story (expansion into a novel, reprint sales, etc.) is done only with the agreement of both writers. Both writers are free to write derivative works from the piece (e.g., stories in the same world).
If the collaboration is a novel collaboration, a written collaboration agreement is written up and signed between the parties before work goes far on the book. I have one of these to view as a sample.So that’s one approach to collaboration. Another is that one person will come up with an outline or synopsis and the other will write the story; either or both could do the editing afterward. Another is that one person offers a story to the other that is “broken” and the other rewrites it into a strong, working story (thanks for that idea, Ruth Nestvold!). Another is that one person just begins writing, then passes the story to the other to continue in any way they please at a given point. Yet another is that the writers take responsibilities for certain elements, for instance each taking certain characters or certain kinds of scenes (fight scenes, dialog-heavy scenes, etc.). And there are other approaches.

One important element of a collaboration is mutual respect. Even if the collaboration is between a major, successful writer and an unknown, each has to respect the other’s skills and intentions for the thing to work. Lack of respect or trust is likely to make a collaboration fail.

If you’ve tried collaboration, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in comments, below.

Added later: By the way, we won the contest.

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