Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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Writing in Pairs
by Victoria Grossack
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If you have a writing partner, this can happen!
As the saying goes: "Two heads are better than one." But there's another, just as true: "Too many cooks spoil the broth." What makes the difference between bad soup and good writing? I have thought about this long and hard over the years, because, as most readers of this column know, I frequently collaborate with Alice Underwood, especially on our Tapestry of Bronze series.
Ingredients for Successful Collaboration
Respect. This is the primary ingredient in any good working relationship. If you don't have mutual regard for each other's abilities and personalities, then you have no business collaborating. Constructive criticism is one hallmark of respect. I look forward to reading my partner's next draft; while I may find ways to enhance it, I'm sure it will be interesting. When she balks at something I've written, I try to understand her objections. I know she's a smart cookie, so I had better take her comments seriously! If my partner's work needs improvement, I point it out tactfully. After all, in the next scene I write, I may commit some basic error -- I want correction but I don't want her to come charging at me.
Respect, however, needs to be balanced with honesty. One of the things we have learned to do is to speak up when we feel that something isn't working. On a recent project, Alice was unhappy with the title, and rejected several versions until we came up with one that worked. We both insisted on changes to scenes that the other had written, and in some cases it took serious persuasion. Occasionally we go to a third party for an opinion, making sure we put the case as objectively as possible. We do this because we both want our novels to be the best they can be -- we don't want our egos to get in the way.
On the other hand, I make sure to praise Alice for sections that she has done particularly well, and she returns the compliment.
Trust – in Writing. Trust in your co-author's integrity is key, but it also makes sense to put your agreement in writing. Alice and I have had more glory than money, but we are careful about making sure that we're both mentioned in contracts, particularly with agents and publishers.
Mutual Commitment. When we consider actual assignments, we evaluate the work we're thinking about taking on. This is especially important with a long-term project. We ask ourselves if we're both ready to commit the required time and effort. Do we each have something to contribute? Do we share a similar level of excitement and enthusiasm? This is something that each partner has to consider, because it is not fair to the other to start a project and not to see it through.
Method Matters. Once we take on a major project, Alice and I take a methodical approach. We usually start with one or more general discussions, after which we separate to mull things over privately. One of us then drafts an outline. Sometimes we ship this back and forth several times. We then confer again, work out a few more details, and divide the labor. With the basic structure in place, we wiggle our fingers and get to work. As one of us finishes a section, she sends it to the other. The recipient makes detailed comments and revises as needed and passes the section back. When we get to the final draft, we review everything word by word.
We have also worked out our own way to keep things from becoming confused. There's a version number at the end of the file. If one of us has a comment or a question for the other on a particular passage, we sometimes offset it in the file by using double parentheses ((like this)), often prefacing detailed comments with either "V" (for Victoria) or "A" for (Alice). We also use the tracking comment feature in Word.
Having a good writing partner is great, but not everything always works out. Here are some potential problems or issues and some suggestions on how to deal with them.
The Story Is Not Yours. In the end, the voice of the story belongs to neither of us. Alice prefers certain words and has certain patterns in her sentences that are not mine. I am sure she feels the same way about my words and my sentence patterns. It is peculiar to work long and hard on something and yet not have it be completely my own. On the other hand, in our case at least, the novel is usually much better than either of us could manage on our own.
Serious Artistic Disagreements. Alice and I were stuck, for months, on something fundamental to Antigone & Creon: Guardians of Thebes. We were in agreement on one of our first scenes, in which Antigone was being walled up in a cave to die -- told from her point of view, and a simply horrifying passage as she says good-bye to sunshine -- but we were divided on how to continue. I wanted the other characters to talk to her, through the wall. After all, Antigone is one of the main characters and so it seemed wrong to ignore her for most of the book. Alice thought that Creon would never tolerate people hanging around in front of his niece's tomb, and would send his soldiers to haul off anyone behaving so defiantly.
We were at an impasse. We recognized the validity of each other's arguments, but stubbornly clung to our own positions. I finally remembered something that the local archaeological director had shown me when I visited Thebes, Greece: something that allowed us to hide those conversing with Antigone yet still permit those conversations to happen. Recalling this genuine feature of Thebes -- I only wonder why it took me so long to remember it -- not only made the story possible, but made it a lot better.
So, one solution to a serious artistic disagreement is to keep searching for another option. A second solution is to offer to write a draft of a scene with the proviso that you realize that the scene may get cut. A third solution is to yield. When you write with another person, you may not always get what you want.
Weaknesses May Remain Weak. Description is not my forte, but for years all I had to do was include the phrase "add some description" in a passage and it would magically appear. Recently I started tackling some solo fiction projects -- Alice and I share many interests, but we don't overlap on everything -- and I had a rude awakening when I was forced to assess my own descriptive ability.
Not Everyone Makes a Good Writing Partner. I have several acquaintances who have hinted, over the years, that they would like to collaborate with me on something. Usually I think that these co-author wannabes are not right for me. I may have little interest in the project that they are suggesting. I may think that they are simply not good enough writers. I may -- ahem! -- not even like them enough to want to work with them on something long. Writing with someone else is an oddly intimate activity; sometimes I feel as if Alice and I share the same brain.
You Have to Learn to Write with Someone. Even if someone does strike you as a good potential co-author, you're going to have to learn how to write with that person. Alice and I had collaborated on other projects quite successfully together before we attempted Jocasta, including a project related to our profession, and then several smaller non-fiction pieces. But when she suggested that we attempt Jocasta together I was initially skeptical, and we had a lot to figure out.
A Partner May Quit or Not Contribute His or Her Share. If your writing partner quits, then you can take over the project if you have the interest, the ability and the energy. However, you should document the fact that the other person has quit and has given up rights to it.
It is trickier if you reach the end of a project and one has done far more work than the other. What should you do? My recommendation is that you talk it out. If one person is doing far less, but still contributing, you can compromise by giving the partner who has worked harder on a project more of the proceeds. For example, instead of splitting royalties 50-50, you can opt to share them 60-40.
Having another person sharing your joy and frustration is also wonderful. With many people, I don't talk about my writing; I know I'm imposing. But Alice understands how I feel when we get a good review, or when the agent calls with good news, or when we have to wait because a manuscript is out there and we can do nothing but wait. More importantly, she can also enter the same imaginary world with me, for she knows the characters as well as I do.
A version of this article originally appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.