Ever wondered why in the world authors collaborate on writing a novel? After all, writing fiction is incredibly hard work, even when it has to be done inside a single brain. Why add all the communication problems that inevitably arise when you try to divide up the work? What’s the gain?
Jules posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have noticed that a couple of your novels were written in collaboration with another author (John B. Olson). I have recently embarked on a collaborative novel project with a friend and fellow fantasy writer, and so I am interested to know about your experience of working with another author.
My questions relate primarily to the process of collaboration: How and why did you decide to collaborate? When you were planning the novel, how did you negotiate any differences of opinion? How did the writing process work? (i.e. How did you divide the writing between you?) How was the publication process different (if at all) to having a novel published as an individual author? And finally, what were the benefits of working with someone else rather than working alone?
I realise that there may be too many questions here to answer in one blog post, so please feel free to answer only some of them if necessary.
Also, for a little context, my co-author and I are unpublished writers who are at roughly the same stage on the stage in our writing journey: Sophmores who have a reasonable amount of writing under our belts, but haven’t really moved into the realm of thinking seriously about publication until recently. We have complementary styles in planning (he is good with strategic thinking and the big picture; I am good at details), and our writing styles are also quite compatible (we have written together before, for small projects that were about the fun of writing rather than seriously considering publication). The experience thus far has been incredibly enjoyable; we have drawn on the Snowflake Method in a number of areas to help with our plot and character planning (and it has been an enormous help!).
Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas and insights, both on your blog and your e-zineóI have personally found them incredibly helpful on my writing journey.
Randy sez: Whew! This is a big topic. Let’s take those questions in order:
Jules asked: How and why did you decide to collaborate?
Randy sez: I met John 15 years ago at a writing conference. We discovered we were both science geeks and quickly hit it off. I’m not quite sure why John likes me, but I like him because he’s fun to be around, makes me laugh, gets my jokes, and . . . hmmm, I guess that’s enough.
However, that’s no reason to write a book together. You write a book together only if you find reasons to believe that you can produce a better book together than either of you could on your own.
That means that the other guy must bring something to the table that you don’t have. And it means that you need to be able and willing to give up control of some parts of the process to him.
In our case, it didn’t take long for us to learn that the other guy could write. We do tend to write differently, but I respect and admire the way John puts words on the page. Apparently, he thinks the same about me.
We spent a couple of years exchanging a lot of email and going to conferences together and brainstorming before it ever occurred to us to coauthor something. What happened was this:
I thought John needed to focus on just one project. He’s incredibly creative and he gets way more ideas than he can ever use. So I used to hound him to “focus, focus, focus.” Finally, he sent me a list of 10 projects he had in development. I asked him which ONE of those he’d work on if he could only do one. He told me, “Number 4 on the list.” Then he made me an offer. He said, “I’ll focus on that one if you’ll coauthor it with me.”
That was a deal made in heaven, because it was an idea that I thought was brilliant AND it was a book I could contribute to. The premise was simple: An explosion on the first mission to Mars leaves four astronauts with only enough oxygen for one of them to make it to the Red Planet alive.
What I liked about the story was that essentially it was “Survivor on a spaceship.” It was a psychological thriller in closely confined quarters. But there was techie stuff too, plenty of biological tech stuff for John (who’s a biochemist) and plenty of physical science tech stuff for me (I’m a physicist).
So I agreed to work on the story with him. Since it was his idea, I insisted that his name had to be first on the cover, even if that broke alphabetical order.
Jules asked: When you were planning the novel, how did you negotiate any differences of opinion?
Randy sez: We split up the areas of expertise. John knows life-sciences, so he got to decide on any questions of biology. I’m the physics guy, so I got to decide on the rocket science stuff.
John wrote the scenes in which the female biologist, Valkerie, was the point-of-view character, and he got the final word on all Valkerie-related issues.
I wrote the scenes in which the male engineering physicist, Bob, was the POV character, and I got the final say on Bob issues.
We had a third POV character named Nate, a rough-edged teddy-bear of a guy who was mission director. It turned out that I can write a rude character easily, so I took on all Nate responsibilities.
This actually worked out very well. Our editor, Steve Laube, asked us right at the start how we’d settle any irreconcilable differences. I said that the book was John’s idea. If we couldn’t agree, then I’d back out of the project and let John take it from there. Since we both knew that neither of us could write the story alone, that was strong motivation to settle all problems amicably. We never really had any major battles. Vigorous discussions, yes, but never any hurt feelings.
I’ve been told that we were idiots and we should have had a written contract in place that spelled out what could go wrong. OK, so we were idiots. Maybe God protects idiots, or maybe we were just lucky. But we both often said that we thought we were lucky to be working with the other guy.
I still feel that way. I’ve known John now for fifteen years and he’s my best friend, aside from my wife.
Jules asked: How did the writing process work? (i.e. How did you divide the writing between you?)
Randy sez: Gack! We had to learn how to do that. At first, we thought we could speed things up by planning things in advance and then just writing the scenes simultaneously. So we tried that and found that it just didn’t work. John would write a scene and I’d write the one that was supposed to come right after it. And they didin’t connect emotively.
Writing fiction is mainly about getting the emotive stuff right. Style and plot and concept and theme matter, but you can screw up all those and still score with your reader if the emotional impact is right. And we weren’t getting it right.
We both had day jobs, so that presented a problem. We solved it by simply planning things carefully.
On Sunday nights, we’d call up on the phone and work out exactly what would happen in every scene for the next 3 chapters or so. We’d define who the POV character was, and that would determine who got to write the scene. Then we’d assign time slots, something like this: Randy writes the next “Bob” scene on Monday morning and emails it to John. John revises it as needed, and writes the follow-on “Valkerie” scene Monday night. Randy revises that Tuesday morning and makes sure that it’s in sequence with the “Bob” scene. Tuesday night, Randy writes a “Nate” scene. And so on, through the week. We were on a tight schedule, so we couldn’t afford to miss a time slot.
Jules asked: How was the publication process different (if at all) to having a novel published as an individual author?
Randy sez: Essentially the same. We pitched the concept verbally to an editor at a writing conference. John did almost all the talking (because he’s better at verbal pitches than I am). I just nodded wisely and said, “Uh-huh.” We did our research in parallel. We wrote the proposal, submitted it, and sold it within 7 weeks, without an agent. (That would be a lot harder to do now, but it’s still possible.) The process was very much the same process throughout, except that some things (like the contract) had to go through both John and me.
Jules asked: And finally, what were the benefits of working with someone else rather than working alone?
Randy sez: John’s strengths are in concept development, pitching the book, female characters, and emotive writing. My strengths are in fleshing out a storyline, male characters, making the logic work, and project management. So our strengths were highly complementary. And likewise, our expertise in the techie aspects was complementary. It just made sense to work together on this project.
You didn’t ask about the possible hazards of coauthoring, but I’ll give them.
First, you might lose your friend. This didn’t happen to us, but it’s happened to others. Writing puts stresses on a friendship, and if it can’t handle it, then either the book or the friendship will go. Both John and I felt that we valued the friendship more than the book. If you go into it with that attitude, you have a good chance of coming out OK.
Second, you might simply have styles that are too different. John and I have different techniques, but we agree on the main elements. We also have different management styles, but we were able to take the best of both.
Third, you might have different skill levels. A book in which one coauthor writes much better than the other is going to be a problem, unless one of the authors acts as the expert and the other acts as the writer. This can work extremely well, and there are some teams in which one author does all the writing and the other provides some valuable skill.
Fourth, you might have different work ethics. Writing is hard, and not everybody has the time or ambition to put in the time it takes. In our case, the writing took an enormous amount of time. We always liked to say that John wrote 80% of the book — and I wrote the other 80%. It takes more work when you’re constantly revising the other guy’s work. But we think it turned out better than either of us could have done.
Would I coauthor again with John? LOL, of course! In fact, I did do it again. Our first novel OXYGEN was very well-received, so we wrote a sequel, THE FIFTH MAN. (Both are now out of print. We’ll be releasing both of these books soon as e-books.)
After writing these books, we both had other books to write that weren’t so well-suited for coauthoring, so we went on to write those on our own. But we’ve often talked about how much fun we had and how much we want to write something together again someday. I’m sure that’ll happen when we get the right project. We’ve been tossing around some ideas lately.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: Check out the second half of my interview with Larry Brooks on his blog at www.StoryFix.com. Larry asked me my opinion of the current crisis in publishing, and I gave him my latest thoughts on the subject.