5.18.2012

So You Want To Be A Co-Author?

I made my own Condescending Wonka! 
Now that I've finished my first ever co-authoring novel project with my good friend and colleague Ian Healy, I figured I'd come back to the ol' blog and write about the experience a little and share some of the wisdom that I've gained since joining this project nearly two years ago. 

The Oilman's Daughter is an alternate history steampunk novel set in the 1930s. It's a fantastical marvel that features steam-powered spaceships, orbiting railroads, space pirates, and would-be oil barons. We got through the first act in early 2010 and took a year-long hiatus, namely due to my cross-country move and other projects that sprung up along the way, but with perseverance, we powered through it to wind up with an 85,000 word adventure that I think people are going to love. 

But getting there wasn't always easy. Even though Ian and I have been working together on separate projects for years, there was still a period of struggle, at least initially on my part, as I worked to grasp the idea that he had so clearly mapped out in his head. I remember early on even considering bailing on the project and having him write it for himself, because steampunk was so foreign to me and all of the elements were so overwhelming at first, that I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off. But as the characters evolved, my comfort level increased, and every chapter I wrote became easier and easier.

So how did we do it? Here are the brass tacks: 

1. Plotting. I know I've ranted against outlines and such, but in a collaborative work, they are pretty necessary so everyone can agree before the real work of writing begins. Ian plotted out the first eight or nine chapters or so before we even got started. Nothing too fancy. Just a few sentences explaining what happens. This provided a good roadmap. Eventually, I added ideas for the second act and we got that plotted out more or less together. By then, we already knew where the story was headed and how we wanted it to end. After several discussions on the topic where we bounced all kinds of ideas around, I did an initial mapping of the last act. He added his input, then I added mine and we essentially came to an agreement. We had a few bumpy moments toward the end, but we straightened it out easily enough. The book all in all was about as collaborative as it could get in terms of plotting. 

2. The story has two lead characters and it's told alternately through their POVs. Ian had the valiant hero, Jonathan Orbital, and I had the gruff and menacing antihero space pirate, Phinneas Greaves. Not all collaborative novels need to be done this way, of course, but for our first time doing this, it definitely made it easier for us to have our own characters to work with. So with that in place, Ian would write a Jonathan chapter, and then I would pick up the next chapter with Phinneas, and so on and so forth. 

3. When one of us would finish a chapter, we'd send it to the other for editing and proofing. If he saw some extra elements that could be added, he'd add them (thus mixing his "voice" into mine so it would sound cohesive), or he'd take anything out that sounded extraneous. And I would do the same with his chapters. Each of us would approve one another's edits before adding the clean copy to the master document. Ian was the dedicated master holder, and he would add each chapter and then send me the updated one. It helps to have one person who is the sole organizer that way. 

And the method was as simple as that. The idea of doing it this way was not only to make sure the manuscript sounded unified, but also to have an essentially submission-ready copy by the time we finished the first draft. All in all, it's a much more efficient way to work.

So with that said, I have a few points of advice to offer people who are thinking of trying something like this, because when it comes to working creatively with others, it can either go as swimmingly as this arrangement did, or it can quite easily end a partnership. 

1. Check your ego at the door. It's hard to do, I know, but a collaboration is the quintessential definition of compromise. Ian and I didn't run into too many incidents like this, namely because he had such a firm grasp of the concept while I was still learning. So I had to trust him on a lot of it, and it all worked out for the better. But the main idea is to keep your mind open to your partner's ideas and trust them and their ability to take the story in a certain direction, even if you're not sure at first. If you can't relinquish that amount of control over the work, then you're working with the wrong partner. 

2. Be organized. Projects like this have a real potential to become a complete disaster if you don't have a concrete method in place. This is why we devised the system that we did. We are also working several states apart, so it's not like we could get together in person and organize our stuff. It was imperative that we had a working system in place. Ian is really the more organized of the two of us when it comes to work, so I completely entrusted him with the handling of the master document (you really don't want to see the state of my documents and download folders right now...lol). 

3. Be patient with each other. This isn't quite the same as the ego check. Instead, it's more about understanding that your partner has things going on in his or her life that might get in the way of producing. Oh, we probably could have had this thing completed a year and a half ago if we really wanted to, but we both went through periods where it just wasn't happening for whatever reason. We always knew that the book would get done eventually, even as both of us were working on several of our own projects at the same time. Maybe we'd punch out a chapter or two and go a few months without picking it up again. Either way, don't harangue or harass your partner too much about getting it done, or you may find yourself without one. 

4. Write with the right person. Sounds self-explanatory, but I know plenty of people who have co-authored with folks they hardly knew, and their experiences were unnerving in many ways. However, there can also be drawbacks with writing with someone very close to you, because you might almost be too close to weather one another's criticisms. Ian and I have rarely minced words with each other when it comes to our work, so there was no problem there. But we're also highly respectful of one another's work and ideas. So when looking for a collaborator, make sure that you have an honest and frank way of dealing with one another, make sure you trust each other enough that you don't have to worry about them hamstringing you, and make sure you like each other's work. And if you can't get all of those things to come together...

5. Protect yourself. Draw up a contract that details the project in question and who will be doing what. It never hurts to put these sort of arrangements in writing, even if you completely trust the person you're working with. At the very least, it makes you feel officially committed to the project. At the worst, it protects your creative bunghole from being reamed. 

Anyway, those are just a few basic pointers on the novel collaborating experience. I really enjoyed the process, and in many ways, this was easier than writing a book solo. It's nice to have someone there sharing the same vision and scratching your back as you go. It turns what is in many ways a very lonely profession into something far less so.