Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

Collaboration: when two or more partners fuck a project up beyond all imagining. -- The Cynical Writer's Dictionary

So I’ve completed the first day of National Novel Writing Month with 1,711 words. Off to a running start. And it looks like I’ve got more to say, hence this post. I had pretty much convinced myself that I wouldn’t FaceBook or (un)blog during November, because all of my waking time would be spent crafting my already-forgettable NaNo story. Turns out the words flowed, if not like water, at least like molasses in January. So why not catch up on my writing history on Prevarications?

My NaNo story is one of sole authorship, but I have tried my hand at collaborating. None of the projects are what you’d deem sucessful in any light, but I have at least attempted it.

The first collaboration never got off the ground. Back in the late 80s, a friend proposed we write a “sequel,” of sorts, to the Camelot story of King Arthur. Our story would be about a child of the court, perhaps a child of one of the Knights of the Round Table, and what it would be like to grow up after the country’s unity, as symbolized by the table, had been shattered. It was an intriguing idea, but after batting it around a couple of times, we never set words to paper. We never decided on a gender for the child, whose offspring it would be, how much magic would be woven into the tale, and so on. The project died aborning, and frankly, that was probably for the best, because my King Arthur knowledge at the time was relegated to Le Morte d’Arthur, The Sword in the Stone, Camelot, and The Idylls of the King. Around this time, I began collecting Arthuriana, eventually amassing four book shelves in all, all in the name of research. I read maybe 1%, over the years, of what I owned, and then foolishly “lost” it all by selling it preparatory to moving back to the Quad Cities in 2003.

Another friend proposed the second collaborative project that I’ve been a part of. The novel, a murder mystery, began in 1998 or 1999, and is still, more or less, active. More about this in a minute.

The third collaborative project was proposed to me by yet another friend in 2004. This would be a long-distance collaboration (much like the second project; again, more about that one in a minute). We cast about for some common ground and lit on the idea of writing a comedic horror novel about professional wrestling, considering the fact that we both liked horror and we both watched WWE/WCW/TNA and the like. The premise was a fun one — a professional wrestler in an independent Texas league makes a pact with a demon to become champion. (I guess that would kinda be like signing a contract with Vince McMahon, knowwhutImean? That’s an in-joke for all you rasslin’ fans.) We worked in sly references to our individual writing projects, placed a Hulk Hogan like character as the proprietor of a used-book store, and were off and running. Or so I thought. We plotted out four chapters, wrote most of the first one, and . . . ran out of gas. I don’t know what it was — working long-distance or not falling in love with where the story was going or not liking what the other partner was proposing — but we fizzled out after a year or so of on-again, off-again writing sessions via email. I’d still like to return to this story, but have no idea if I’ll ever have the chance.

That second collaboration mentioned above? It’s the longest-running non-writing writing project I’ve ever been a part of, and that’s including a couple of my own efforts that date back to the 70s. The novel was mentioned in this post (as one of the great unfinished American novels): Legacy, a murder mystery, set in Dallas, involving an antiques dealer named Jordan Taylor who ran a store named Legacy. The story began with an idea, more like a dream, that the friend had: she dreamed that someone kept receiving scary phone calls from a mysterious, dangerous individual. The caller would threaten bodily harm or death, and then hang up. Why, my friend wasn’t sure, but from that seed grew full-blown characters, a plot (with a couple of ingenious twists, if I do say so myself), and a Maguffin that … well, you’ll have to read it to see what happens.

That is, if we ever finish it.

Things I’ve learned:

1. The Web is great for collaboration. Wikis, collaborative writing sites, document sites like Google Docs, and communication tools like Skype keep you linked in real-time, real conversation.

2. Write more than once a week. Believe me, every Friday night at Barnes & Noble or every Wednesday night online just won’t cut it. Serious about your writing? Do it as often as you can.

3. Respect each other’s schedules. Though writing more than once a week is necessary, sometimes it’s impossible.

4. BE ON TIME. You’ve scheduled a 7:00 pm starting time on Skype. Don’t be connecting ten minutes after the start time and expect to have a very cooperative partner.

5. Write an outline. Some teams are able to wing it, and more power to them. For my individual projects, I mostly just wing it with some idea of where I’m heading. But I’ve found that for collaborations, I and my partner have *got* to have a map and not just some vague idea of direction.

6. If you’re going to make a major change to the story (like, change the motivation of a major character), you better be prepared to do the heavy lifting of re-plotting the outline and testing your idea *before* you propose it to your partner. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions.

7. Be honest with your partner. If something isn’t working, tell her or him.

8. Grow a thick skin. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes, especially if it’s your first collaboration. And be prepared for your partner to dislike everything you’ve written that session.

9. I work best crafting sentences in real time with my partner, or having the partners alternate writing a few sentences, then going back and editing. Something that doesn’t work for me is “you write this chapter, I’ll write the next chapter” style of collaboration, which I understand is how Stephen King and Peter Straub wrote The Talisman. A local professional team that I’m acquainted with work it like this: the two writers plot the story together. Then the junior partner writes a treatment that’s roughly half the word count of the final project. The senior partner fleshes out the treatment, adding dialogue, deeper characterization, bits of business, and so on. Both partners read and discuss the product, making small tweaks to the final draft. Find a rhythm that works for you.

10. Take it seriously. Avoid using your Skype work sessions to share gossip, the latest music video you’ve discovered, or trade information best left to phone calls and/or email.

Today’s Prevarication: I’m the easiest writing partner in the world to work with.


About Bruce Diamond

Despicably proud old man. Text-extruding asshole (thank you, John Scalzi) with a skewed vision on life, pop culture, writing and general assholiness. Not a scholar, not a gentleman, not Martin or Lewis. But still trying to make life fun and funny.
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