This is a post by Jodi Cleghorn.
It is amusing to find myself so passionately and intricately enmeshed in collaborative writing because I’d always hated group projects. I discovered, very early in this incarnation of my writing life, how exciting and liberating sharing a story with other authors could be, but how few authors and publishers took the risk.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
In 2009, as I completed the first interconnected anthology for eMergent Publishing, I had the idea of a parallel epistolary narrative; a hybrid of digital communication and traditional mail. It was a project that needed a partner though.
In 2011 the wait ended when I met Adam Byatt in real life. Adam took two seconds to say “Yes” when I pitched him the concept and Post Marked: Piper’s Reach was born in the shallows at Brunswick Heads. Over 16 months Adam and I hand-wrote 89,000 words across 53 snail-mailed letters. In the nine months that followed we edited the original web serial into a cohesive epistolary novel.
With Piper’s Reach all but completed, I’m working with Stacey (S.G) Larner on a horror short story. There are other possibilities with friends old and new: a stage play, an audio version of the Piper’s Reach chapbook, more short stories. Adam and I have both said if the right project comes along, we’d absolutely jump at the chance to work together again.
COLLABORATIVE WRITING 101
How do you successfully establish and maintain a collaborative writing partnership? Here are seven tips I’ve gathered along the way (with a little help from my friends!).
ONE: Write with someone you trust.
How did I know I could trust Adam in the beginning? How did he know he could trust me? We’d worked previously in an editor-writer relationship. We were familiar with each other’s writing styles. We knew each other as considerate, generous and respectful individuals. At the end of the day though, it was a gut feeling that Adam was the right person.
Trust is so implicit in a good partnership, it becomes invisible. I say this as I originally left trust off my draft list of points to share in this article!
TWO: Write with someone with whom you share a great rapport.
If you’re going to invest a chunk of your time and creative energy, do it with someone you enjoy spending time. Adam and I shared a love of music and Doctor Who. We’d hung out on social media. I’d published two of his stories. It was meeting in person, feeling that real-time synergy and humour, that left me in no doubt that Adam was the right person to write alongside.
Stacey and I are firm friends as well as regular beta readers. Writing a story together was a logical progression, perhaps encouraged by the fact Adam and I, despite diverse backgrounds, have done it successfully.
THREE: Write with someone whose work you know, admire and respect.
I was always a fan of Adam’s lyrical and evocative language, for the pathos in his characters. It was an honour to be able to have such a personal relationship with his work via Piper’s Reach.
I’m chuffed to see how his style has merged with and expanded my own. There is no doubt we’ve both come out of the Piper’s Reach experience with a greater depth and proficiency as writers.
FOUR: Write with someone who will embolden you to write what you would never dare alone.
Piper’s Reach required two unique voices to make it work. It needed two people who were prepared to explore the subterranean area of love and desire, betrayal and redemption in a raw and public, yet personally intimate way.
The first twelve months of Piper’s Reach belonged to my year of writing dangerously. That provided the bench mark, and Adam supplied the support and encouragement to achieve it. Debriefing via Facebook or Skype with Adam took the edge off the often-gutting experience of reading Jude and writing Ella-Louise.
Writing without the safety net of multiple drafts or an editor’s input before publicly releasing work is a humbling experience. It lent authenticity to each of the letters and allowed a quick turn around from letter to letter. Professionally it put us in a vulnerable position though, sharing unpolished words — but we were doing it together.
Working with Stacey is a little different. We’re doing it privately (for now). Both of us have admitted we’d never have written ‘The Griefing Yard’ solo because the subject matter is just too confronting.
FIVE: Write in a format, genre and style you both feel comfortable with.
I sounded Adam out to see if he’d written letters as a teenager and if the style appealed to him before I suggested we work together. I am, predominantly, a dark spec-fic writer but I adore letter writing. I was suckered by the idea of exploring a love story from the distance of twenty years.
Everything about Piper’s Reach gave me a sense of stepping out of the comfort zone, but doing so in my favourite fluffy bunny slippers.
Stacey and I are very similar in our thinking, we have complementary writing styles and publish stories in the same genre. It has been an easy merger from two voices into one to write the character of Eléna, ‘The Griefing Yard’s’ POV character. I’m told it isn’t always this easy!
SIX: Write with your ego at the door.
There is nothing like entrusting yourself to another to learn to do without your ego! It’s writing (metaphorically) naked, with someone looking over your shoulder and not minding the lumps and bumps; someone who admires the bits you are certain are ugly, malformed and definitely not for public consumption.
Because we forwent our egos, Adam and I are still firm friends – perhaps better friends – for having jointly ridden the dramas of writing and editing a serial and then a novel. We’ve also had the pleasure of sharing two years of our lives with each other.
SEVEN: Establish mutually agreed-upon parameters and stick to them when you write.
Adam and I had The NSP (No Spoilers Policy). We were prohibited from brainstorming, plotting or sharing the future trajectory of the narrative. We’d write a letter and send it (taking a teasing photo for Facebook!).
From one letter to another we didn’t know what we’d read. It kept the project fresh, engaging and exciting. It allowed us to develop unique but related characters, who we had permission to take risks with but never in a way that fell beyond the possibilities of the narrative.
During the editing process we got to collaborate up close and personal. It was open season. All areas of the narrative were available for dissection, discussion and debate. Most of this was done via Skype after the manuscript had been edited by both of us. Other than the arrival of the original letters, this was my favourite part of the process.
With ‘The Griefing Yard’, Stacey and I agreed on the overall theme and an opening scene. I was nominated to write the opening.
From there, we alternated writing, each contributing 200-400 words and reworking what had previously been written as we went. Further on, we were writing 1000-word slabs as we got a good feel for the character, continuing until we reached the end (and our 5000-word limit!).
Despite the compatibility of our writing styles and the process, the final product was a typically messy first draft. But it provided a solid foundation to proceed from. We’ve since met up to discuss the setting, the narrative arc and divvied up each section of the story to rework.
Collaboration is an adventure; confronting in the best kind of ways. It’s rapid-fire professional development, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
If you need absolute creative control or you need the process to be all about you, sharing a narrative is perhaps not the junket for you.
If you are a pedantic plotter and your potential collaborator writes with a devil-may-care attitude to what comes next, writing together might not be a good fit (unless you can find a project that will accommodate both these styles).
If you write slow, writing with someone who is a speed demon may preclude the relationship from working without massive frustrations.
Anything liable to create tension between you and your potential partner needs a close examination. If it cannot be incorporated and accommodated within the project parameters, it may be a reason to seriously consider if collaborative work is going to be an enhancing experience for you both.
The format of Piper’s Reach allowed Adam to have the linear narrative he felt comfortable with while I was able to cast out a number of possibilities, and patiently wait to see which of them had hooks. It let me write fast and explosively, but allowed Adam the slower path. A different kind of project may have been less fulfilling for both of us.
Collaborative writing is a joint conversation, on and beyond the page. It fills me up in a way few other things in life do. It’s a chance to grow something bigger than yourself. If that excites you, find a hand to hold and jump in.
Jodi Cleghorn (@jodicleghorn) is an author, editor, publisher and occassional poet with a penchant for the dark vein of humanity. You can find more about her and her work, long and short, at 1000 Pieces of Blue Sky.