Writing as a Collaboration — What is Collaborative Writing?

This is Part 1 of our series on Writing as a Collaboration.

As a speculative fiction writing team, the most common question we get asked, after, “where do you get your ideas?” is, “how does writing with three authors work?” Collaboration is not new in the speculative fiction world. Scan the shelves of your favorite bookstore and you’ll find many novels coauthored. From thriller giants Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child to fantasy staples Anne McCaffrey and Andre Norton, many authors have experimented or fallen in love with collaborative authorship.

What is Collaboration?

From two authors exchanging manuscripts for developmental editing to authors taking turns writing sections of a book, to full co-drafting, collaborative writing can take many forms, but at its heart collaboration is any joint writing venture where more then one author is involved in the process of bringing a novel from idea to the market.

What are Some Benefits of Collaboration?

One of the reasons some authors choose to collaborate is the belief that two (or more) heads are better than one. Worldbuilding and character development can get a great boost from drawing on the collected creativity and experiences of a team. Drawing on multiple worldviews as a story is developed is one way to add complexity to characters and their motivations.

Another reason that some authors choose to collaborate is the notion that many hands make the work light. There are many more steps than just sitting and writing that go into creating a successful novel. From world development to drafting, editing to submitting (or formatting for indie publication), and the never-ending process of marketing, authors must wear many hats. In a collaboration there is more than one person available to tackle these tasks. Especially with the rise of indie publishing, having an extra set of eyes and hands for this work can be very attractive.

A third reason that some authors choose collaboration is that working together to develop a communal world and characters is a lot of fun. Manny collaborations, including ours, start as role-playing experiments. Taking new characters and placing them into scenarios together to see how they interact is not only fun but can lead to surprising discoveries about the characters and their motivations. Authors can learn a great deal about their characters by slipping into their skins and experiencing the created world through their eyes.

What are Some Drawbacks to Collaboration?

While collaborative authorship can be enjoyable and has an element of play, there are some potential pitfalls along the way. The most perilous is the potential for disagreement. In a single-author endeavor, the author has almost total control of the project before submission. The author can make all of the decisions about characterization, setting, and plot in the first draft without needing anyone else’s approval. In collaborative writing, disagreements are likely to occur at every stage. Collaborative authors need a process in place for working through these disagreements and bringing the project back to common ground.

Another common pitfall is the emotional strain that can be placed on a friendship if collaborative partners begin to feel that there is an uneven distribution of workload. Many collaborations fall apart due to interpersonal issues that single authors don’t have to consider. Ego, differences in creative vision, and personal conflict can all derail or end a collaborative project.

Finally, on a more practical note, collaborations have more complicated business arrangements. From taxes to splitting royalties there are many business decisions that can strain a collaboration.

What Makes a Successful Collaboration?

With all of the potential pitfalls for collaborative authorship, successful collaborations need to have a few common elements. The first of these is strong communication. Successful collaborations will have systems in place not only to share ideas and make decisions together, but also to work through any disagreements as they arise.

The second element that successful collaborations should have is a healthy dose of mutual respect and trust. Solving disagreements is much easier when both parties know that their opinions and beliefs are respected by their partner. As in any close relationship, if respect and trust are missing, the relationship is doomed. Eventually, disagreements will become fights and the project will suffer.

The third element of successful collaborations is open-mindedness. Collaborative authors must be willing to consider new ideas and new points of view. They need to understand that blending more than one vision ultimately makes the story stronger.

The last element that successful collaborations should have is a sense of fun. A joyless collaboration will create a joyless story. Collaborative authors should first and foremost be friends. It is from that core friendship that the open-mindedness, respect, trust, and communication will stem.

Conclusion

Collaborative authorship can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience as long as the writing team works to ensure that interpersonal conflict doesn’t overwhelm the creative fun. In this article we’ve talked a little about what collaboration is and what makes a collaboration successful. Over the next two articles, we will talk about some of the specifics about collaborative authorship. We’ll tackle what are some of the tips and tricks for drafting and editing as a collaboration and some special considerations for publishing as a team.

For Discussion

Would you ever consider writing with another author?
What changes do you think it would make to your writing process?

A. E. Lowan is the pseudonym of three authors who collectively create the dark urban fantasy series, The Books of Binding. Their first novel, Faerie Rising, is available at Amazon. For free original short fiction and all things Seahaven, check out the A. E. Lowan website.

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Prince of Spires
Prince of Spires
2 months ago
Kasper Hviid

Also, group brainstorming have shown to be less effective.

My experience developing websites is that this very much depends on the group and especially the size of the group. A group of 2 or 3 people (which I guess doesn't really count as a group) do know more than a single person and yield better results then when brainstorming alone. If you go larger then you stop looking for the best solution and start looking for the solution that keeps most people happy. You start designing by committee and get very average results. And then brainstorming as a group is indeed inferior to brainstorming alone.

Also, when brainstorming with 2 or 3 people, it is imperative that you're all equal and that there are no repercussions for ideas given, no matter how silly they are.

The Dark One
2 months ago

I work at a specialist higher education institution and our students absolutely hate group work – which is ironic because as soon as they're working professionally they'll be doing group work all the time.

Maker of Things Not Kings
Maker of Things Not Kings
2 months ago

To me, the love of collaboration is a lesson I came to learn over time while producing and recording music. I had singer/songwriters come to my studio who wanted full arrangements behind their songs. Sometimes they had ideas for this, or a genre they wanted to stay within but, for the most part, they played one instrument and sang and then allowed me the freedom to take the song in the direction I "heard". I'd add whatever I thought was of service to the song. I played all the instruments after all. Usually, they'd suggest changes, things they heard and I would do that for them. Sometimes it rubbed me wrong but the more we worked on a song, the more collaborative it truly became but that often started with differing ideas and opinions. While what I did was, technically, work-for-hire, if their ideas varied greatly from mine, I'd finish two versions of the song and tell them to play them both for people before making any final decisions. It was hard, especially when I'd given a song a very distinct sound and they wanted it to go in another direction altogether, but yes, often it ended up with one of us deferring to the strength of the other. And I learned that being able to play all the instruments and record them, wasn't any more important t the finished product than someone who can simply hear them. Two kinds of creativity.

And that, is what collaborative writing often is too.

Now, I do this in writing with the few people I trust to reveal my early ideas to and who I believe will understand my story intent. It's a risk. New ideas and early drafts are delicate and fragile ground to stand on. What I gain from taking that risk is that they willingly take part and offer their ideas for making it more cohesive, more streamlined, more pointed etc. They also call out my blind spots (and i have them!) and can do so knowing i won't over react or get defensive. That's come with age and experience too. In the end, though it's my name that will sit on the finished work and while I'll do the heavy lifting of writing draft after draft after draft, I consider that every bit as much of a collaboration.

Kasper Hviid

how come that 99 % of all novels have one, single author? Also, group brainstorming have shown to be less effective.

Kasper, I'd have to venture to say that's simply not the whole truth. Most books are credited to one author, but collaboration, credited or not, often isn't 50/50 but exists all the same. Almost every author credits others in their book acknowledgments for helping, inspiring, believing, reading and editing. How do you rate/credit all of that? Even if it's one person in your life who stood by you, helped you arrange and make the time and pushed you to keep going when you were lost in the drafts or wanted to give up? That, my friend, IS collaboration, just to another degree and fashion or its credited that way by design.

Sometimes my ideas are developed with my spouse, who edits all my work, or one of my trusted alpha readers who suggests some aspect of the story, a twist, or character trait that I had not thought of before. I may do all the writing and plotting etc but I cannot think of a book or story I've written that didn't have some degree of outside influence that turned it one way or another along the way. That's collaboration too. Editors get credited as such but how, if they've helped to turn those parts that remain a meandering mash of soupy, muddled exposition into a slim, streamlined novel, have they not collaborated with you? The writer deserves the cover credit, of course. But look no further than AE Lowan above. One name but three (?) people. If you didn't know their story, and saw the book, you would think of AE Lowan as one author, wouldn't you. I did. I think it happens more than we are aware. AE Lowan are simply open about that collaboration and their process, where many are not.

I know a very popular comic writer who works with their spouse on every single story and comic and who, in fact, isn't the one, of the two of them, who aspired to be a comic writer in the first place! Only one receives all of the title credit (for several personal reasons) but most of all because it's easier to have one person be the "face" of the work in their medium.

I'have to look at that study on group brainstorming. Taking any group of random people and throwing them together? Yes, perhaps. Still, I cannot think of a measured, selective group I've been a part of that was not more together than the sum of it's parts. Also, some people/personality types aren't meant to be group people. That's true. And yet, since I was one of those types for years, I might add that I don't think I was right or better for it in hindsight. In truth, I was too scared to reveal my fledgeling ideas to anyone else and, at times, too full of myself to understand and accept that I simply wasn't as good on my own as I wanted to believe I was. We are our own worst enemies and, in my experience, never is that more true than in creative fields. For me, at that time, It was the safer road to travel, but definitely not better. 🙂

Kasper Hviid
Kasper Hviid
2 months ago

I got it from the book Quiet: The power of introvert in a world that can't stop talking. It mentions a study from 1963 by one Marvin Dunnette as the earliest example.

Beauregard Aegis
2 months ago

While I do see this as true, I would like to see the proof of group brainstorming being less effective. Is there a study or something?

Kasper Hviid
Kasper Hviid
2 months ago
A. E. Lowan

One of the reasons some authors choose to collaborate is the belief that two (or more) heads are better than one.

I think this is a myth. I personally feel that solitude is very essential to the headspace of writing. If several authors really were more effective, how come that 99 % of all novels have one, single author? Also, group brainstorming have shown to be less effective.

Yet, collaboration can be social and fun! Also, seeing how other people work can be a great way to learn.

The Dark One
2 months ago

I've tried once or twice in the past with a mate and nothing ever came of it – we couldn't agree on anything despite being big fans of each other's work.

Only a month ago my sister asked me to collaborate on something. She's been quite successful as a children's writer/illustrator so what we do is VERY different. It might not matter if at least our literary taste was similar but we're as far apart as taste is possible to be. Even that might not have mattered – but we are both incredibly strong willed and utterly convinced of our respective visions.

It would have led to WW3.

ALB2012
ALB2012
3 months ago

I’ve got a co-written historical fantasy with another author – and we must have done something right as it won a readers’ award. That said Diana and I had been co-writing for a while – we knew each other’s styles and strengths and weaknesses.

I think if I was to do it again, it would have to be with someone I knew well, and whose writing I liked and understood. It can lead to disagreements, and done badly it becomes fragmented.

A lot of fun, but a bit of a minefield.

Ron
Ron
1 year ago

My wife recommended trying this. She said I work great on a team in terms of other aspects of life so I should try it with my writing. I was an author in my younger years and really enjoyed it but since life took over, I didn’t have time for it and had to give it up. Now that I am retired, I want to give it another chance but I don’t want to become overwhelmed. This article really is making me consider collaborative writing. I think it would be a good balance for me.

Tanya Sara Fillbrook
Tanya Sara Fillbrook
1 year ago

I’d find it hard to collaborate with other writers; however it’s fine when writing lyrics as I have done.
No doubt there will be many disagreements.

Brian DeLeonard
1 year ago

How do you work with someone who moves at a different pace and quality? This has been a problem of mine in the past. Usually I work too slow, and the other persons come in short on quality, that it becomes difficult to establish a coherent finished product. Does that mean it’s just a bad match or are there ways to get around the problems?

Ewolf20
Ewolf20
1 year ago

I feel like the idea of collaboration is fine, just that my experiences with it soured me from ever doing again. I wouldn't mind doing collaborative writing but I found just having a brain storm buddy of suffice for me.

Greybeard
Greybeard
1 year ago

In your years as a team, did you ever once have a serious disagreement over the direction of a story? If this happened, how was it resolved amicably?

TWErvin2
TWErvin2
1 year ago

A contract establishing expectations, rights and responsibilities can be a critical element in successful collaborations. Not only while the work is being written, but also through the publication process (either self-publishing and all that entails, or seeking an agent/publisher and subsequent publication). It can also establish what each writer owns and can use, moving forward, especially with a series where one of the partners looses interest in the project/world/series.

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