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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 32: Collaboration

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 32: Collaboration


Key points: First, last, and in between: Don't. Collaboration means (a) famous author outlines, skilled sidekick fleshes out (b) alternating chapters (c) brainstorm and split writing/editing (d) come up with a shared world then write your own books. Don't collaborate to try to shore up a weak point -- learn how to do it! Collaboration is hard work. Consistency is a problem. How are you going to handle disagreements? Three rules for collaboration: #1, learn to do it yourself first; #2, Lay groundrules beforehand; #3, Decide on the process.

[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And WE are not that smart.

[Brandon] Collaboration. We want to do a podcast on this for a couple of reasons. One reason being that Dan and I are going to collaborate on a book next year. We're finally going to do it.
[Dan] We've talked about this forever.
[Brandon] Yes. But we are going to collaborate on a book and so...
[Dan] I think we finally found one that people other than us would want to read.
[Brandon] Yeah. Someday we'll explain to you all of our loony ideas about books that no one enjoys. But we also are planning a collaboration between the three of us.
[Howard] Indeed. I get to draw the pictures...
[Dan] Which we can't tell you about at all.
[Howard] Because they won't let me write a darn thing.
[Brandon] You can write words on the pictures, like splurch and stuff like that.
[Howard] Like little labels.

[Dan] The other reason we're doing this podcast is that I would suspect that with maybe one or two contradictions, this is the most requested topic we get. It's not one we have felt real confident in talking about yet, so we decided to just bite the bullet and dive in and do a before and after. Here's what we think now, and then next year you'll get here's what we think after we've actually done it.
[Howard] In fairness, I have started collaborating just in the last three months, hiring a colorist, and it's made a huge change in my work.
[Brandon] I did collaborate this year on a book. That was my first experience doing so. We'll talk about what it was like to do that.

Let's pin down collaboration. I've heard bandied about lots of different ways to collaborate. We're going to talk about mostly, primarily, writing novels. I've heard the concept, one concept being someone comes up with an outline and hands it to someone else that writes the story. This is kind of the James Patterson method of collaboration. Where a more famous author has an idea they can't write. They find an author who is very skilled but is maybe needing help with their career or something like this. And finishes... fleshes out their concept, gives it to them, they write it. You'll see it a lot in science fiction and fantasy.

Another way of collaborating I've heard of is the alternating chapters collaboration where each writer takes a couple of viewpoint characters and writes different viewpoints from those characters and then puts them together.

There are collaborations which are... I think this is probably the most common I've seen were a couple of writers get together, they brainstorm a bunch of concepts, they all write down their concepts, they go back-and-forth and build sort of a world bible. One of them actually writes the thing and the other one edits the thing and does the drafting and then sends it back and forth. I don't know for 100% certain but I think this is how Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman did it during most of their collaborations. I've heard people thirdhand tell me that, which is why I can't say it's sure because I haven't heard straight from either Margaret or Tracy's mouth.

Have you guys heard of any other types of collaborations? Howard, you're collaborating? Let's talk about what you're doing.
[Howard] We see it all the time in the comics industry where you have a penciler and an inker and a colorist, you have a writer, you have a letterer... you have five or six people who are getting together to all tell the same story. There is information passed along at each stage. It's an interesting sort of collaboration because typically when the writer is done, the writer is done. The penciler sits down, draws the pictures. The inker just traces because we've all seen Chasing Amy. Then the colorist adds a layer of information. Then it comes down to the letterer whose job it is to actually put in the text that the writer wrote as text. Sometimes by that point, somebody has decided, ah, the text needs to change a little bit in order to fit this. Sometimes it gets passed back to the writer, but sometimes it doesn't. It's very, very linear. So at each stage, the writer is giving stage directions to the penciler, the penciler is giving indications to the inker and to the colorist for what's going to happen next. Of course the writer is informing everything the letterer is going to do. It's very, very linear.
[Dan] As we learned when Jake was on the podcast, there's a lot of give and take in that process. No one of those people is dictating what everybody else has to do. They say here's what I think should happen, this is your area of expertise, how do you think we should best convey this visually or verbally or whatever.
[Howard] My relationship with Travis is interesting in that I have hired him to color my work. So I currently don't get a lot of feedback back from him saying I really think this character isn't properly motivated. Because that's just not the way our relationship is right now. It might change over time. What I have found happening, and this is fascinating to me, is that when I was doing both the penciling and inking and coloring, when I needed to communicate light and shadows or volume, I wouldn't do it with the line art because eh, I just have that information in my head. I'll just put the shadows in when I color. Now that I'm handing it to Travis to color, the lines have to communicate where the light and the shadow is if it's at all important to the story. So my line art has changed. As a result of the collaboration, I think the artwork has gotten a lot better.

[Brandon] Now, I want to speak to something here. Now that we've defined...
[Howard] Let's divert.
[Brandon] Let's start talking to our listeners and say how are you going to use this? The first thing I want to begin by saying is for most of you, this is going to be a bad idea. This is the first thing I want to say to you. Because so many new writers want to collaborate. I've interviewed a lot of writers. It's always been curious to me that this comes up so often. Well, tell us how to collaborate? Help us collaborate? I've found... this may not be you, listener who is listening right now who wants to collaborate, but...
[Howard] But, it's probably some of the other listeners.
[Brandon] But take a moment and see if it isn't you. A lot of people who want to collaborate want to collaborate because they know they are weak at a certain part of the writing process and they don't want to have to learn to do it. So they want someone else to do it. I get a lot of e-mails... you'd be surprised at how many e-mails I get from people saying, "I have this really great idea and I would sell it to you so that you can write it for a certain amount." Or, "I've got this really great idea, why don't we do it together? You write it, and I'll give you the idea." These are people who don't want to learn to write, who want to take this shortcut.
[Howard] Boy, I sure would love to find a collaboration partner who's willing to take over the story when I get to all the hard parts.
[Brandon] I think a lot of new writers... maybe not that obvious... I know you listeners are not e-mailing me and trying to do this... but maybe you're trying to find somebody to work with so that you can shore up your weak points. My advice is a writing teacher to you is learn how to do it yourself. You need to be able to do it yourself.
[Howard] When you see published authors... and I'm going to use a couple of examples here... Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Both fantastic writers in their own right and very different sorts of writers. Established careers. When the two of them collaborated, yes, they shored up each other's weaknesses. But none of those weaknesses were so foul...
[Brandon] Game ending weaknesses.
[Howard] As to prevent them from being published to begin with.
[Brandon] What you're doing with these types of collaborations is they're getting together because the mix of ideas between them create something that neither of them could have created alone.
[Howard] They admire each other's work and they want to team up and see if they can create something even better.
[Brandon] Most people I've talked to who collaborate have told me that working on a book with someone else is not half the work, it's double the work. It is harder to collaborate. Kevin J. Anderson said this frankly to me when he was working with Dean Koontz. He said this took twice as much work to collaborate on this book because of the back-and-forth and how much... the strange thing about writing is... out there, I think it is the most personal and solitary of the arts... the artform, the entertainment mediums that we have. When you are listening to music done by a band, there's always a bunch of people contributing. A lot of novels, you really are getting one person's vision, with very minimal input even with editorial and things like this changing that story. You're getting one person's vision. When you take two people who are used to doing that on your own and put them together, it can be a lot of work to write something.

That said, I do think you can come up with great ideas. You may be wanting to collaborate because you have a friend of yours that when you talk together, your ideas become something better, you bounce them back-and-forth, and that's great. I may suggest that you collaborate on concepts and then you write your own books. Do a Steven Erikson type collaboration where he and a friend came up with the world together and then they each wrote books in the world. That may be a way to approach it. Or give it a try. But if you give it a try, try some of the different tools that we'll talk about in the next part of the podcast. But let's go ahead and do an advertisement.

[Howard] We mentioned Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Do yourself an enormous favor and listen to Niven and Pournelle's Inferno.
[Brandon] This isn't quite as famous as their big collaborative works.
[Howard] Mote in God's Eye is huge, wins all kinds of awards, earns out royalties for them every year. Inferno is... it's not really a retelling of Dante's Inferno.
[Brandon] I love this book. It's a science-fiction writer who dies falling out of a window...
[Howard] It's like a sequel. It's a sequel to Dante's Inferno.
[Brandon] A science fiction writer dies falling out of a window because he's drunk at a party and gets trapped in Dante's Inferno and has to travel through it.
[Howard] And finds out that the rules of Dante's Inferno are the rules that his new universe adheres to.
[Brandon] The afterlife. It's awesome.
[Howard] It's great fun, and it's a good read.
[Brandon] In fact, we should do a podcast on adapting literary works. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Inferno, these sorts of things. We'll do one of those. I'm going to can of worms that.

[Howard] Good can of worms. Let's go back to collaboration tools.
[Brandon] I just recently finished collaborating with Robert Jordan. Which... you may think, oh, that doesn't sound like a collaboration, but that's actually what Tor called it. That's what the contract said. A collaboration. In this case, it was a different sort of collaboration. But I can speak to what it was like to work on this book that was not my own, at least not wholly my own. It was Robert Jordan's that was handed off to me. I found that it was, as has been said, more work than writing one of my own books. Even though large chunks of the book were delivered to me done, and the entire world had been world built, and all these things. And yet, at the same time, it was twice as much work. Writing The Gathering Storm took me twice as long. 18 months... no, 16 months. About twice as long as it takes me to write one of my own books. Part of that is because it is a little bit longer, but remember, he gave me written sections already done. Why was it so much longer? Well, there's so much more to keep track of. Instead of... when I get to a point in my own books and I say, oh, I don't know who would be here, I can just make up somebody and place them in there to fill the role.
[Howard] With the Robert Jordan books, you had to make sure that there isn't already an answer to that question.
[Brandon] Right. Exactly. Keeping consistency is very, very challenging in a collaborative work. This will be a problem even if you're working with a friend on a book. You're going to have to be very, very careful not to contradict each other. It's not something that I think that most writers would instinctively say, oh, this is going to be one of the problems.
[Howard] It's super difficult for you collaborating with Robert Jordan because you can't go back to him and ask the question.
[Brandon] Right. I can't.
[Dan] Even in a wholly original work that you and your friend have come up with, you're going to be surprised at how many little details there are. Does this main character know how to drive a car? When did they learn how to drive a car? At some point, some weird little thing like that, you're going to say and something they have written has contradicted it.

[Brandon] What are you going to do when you disagree? This is going to be very important because you will get very passionate about this story. You will have to have some method of deciding who gets the final say. Whether it's if you can't agree, you toss that concept out and it doesn't get used at all. But what about one of your main characters? What about when you disagree over a fundamental principle of one of the main characters?
[Howard] That was unmotivated. No, that's perfectly motivated. No, that was unmotivated. Well, who wins?
[Brandon] Exactly. This is why when people do come to me and say I want to collaborate, I suggest the alternating characters collaboration because I think this will generally be the easiest for new writers. Either that, or the brainstorm a world together and plot together. One of you write it, and the other do a heavy revision. We've talked about in Writing Excuses before that learning to revise is a very important skill and it should be, in a lot of books, as much work as writing the book in the first place. So you can divide the writing pretty equally between you by having one do a lot of the drafting and one of you do the revisions.

[Howard] Here's a funny piece of irony that I am actually going to tie in and talk about tools. For 11 years, I worked for Novell, making and supporting collaboration software, and none of it applies to this, except maybe sending e-mail back-and-forth, which is a great way to do things. But as I was thinking about that, I was just churning on the word collaboration... two tools that I think might be a lot of fun for authors, writers who want to collaborate to try using. The first is Google Docs where you have a single document that exists online and both of you have editing rights, and in fact both of you can be editing at the same time. Fun things can happen. Worth experimenting. The second is Google Wave. Which I have yet to see really used in a way that makes it worthwhile. But you know what? It's entirely possible that the sorts of discussions you need to have about writing something collaboratively would best be had if you're going to write the discussions down in the Google Wave format. I think it would be fun to experiment with that. I do not have Google Wave invites to give out. I have used it twice and had nobody to wave at.
[Dan] Alas, poor Howard.

[Brandon] Let's end with a few just recap rules for you from the desk of Brandon Sanderson if you're going to collaborate. You have asked for this podcast. Let me give you three things that you need to do. Number one, learn to do it by yourself first.
[Howard] Number one, don't.
[Dan] Don't collaborate because you're unconfident, collaborate because you know what you're doing and want to do it better.
[Brandon] Yeah. Even if [metallic ting] I lost my microphone. Ha, ha, ha. First, learn to do it... even if you're planning you're always going to collaborate together, be practicing on your own at the same time. Number two, lay some ground rules. Beforehand, lay ground rules. Number three, decide on the process. Groundrules means who gets to say on what in this sort of thing. Then number three, decide on the process. How are you going to divide it up? How are you going to divide up royalties? I guess this all goes under ground rules, so let's do two, the second being, lots of ground rules.
[Dan] Well, ground rules of writing and groundrules of extra writing stuff.
[Brandon] That extra writing stuff.
[Dan] Extra writing in the sense of outside of.
[Brandon] Yes. Meta-writing.
[Howard] Extra writing in that you wrote a chapter and it sucks, and I'm editing it out.
[Dan] Extra writing as in the prefix rather than the adjective.
[Brandon] Extra writing as in writing about gum.
[Dan] I think we're done. As we said at the beginning, we are all of us planning to collaborate in future projects. Tune in a year or two from now, when we talk about how it's actually worked.
[Howard] Talk about fulfilling promises to readers late.
[Brandon] At least we're setting it up ahead of time. You've got our writing prompt.

[Howard] I've got the writing prompt. I'm actually going to provide two writing prompts. Writing prompt number one is for all of those people out there who want to be collaborative writers and think it will solve their problems. On your own, write a story about two people collaborating in which things go horribly, horribly wrong. Writing prompt number two. This is for all of those writers who want to write comics and are saying, boy, I sure wish I could find somebody to draw this for me, because they are looking for collaboration. I'm going to tell you what I had to do, and you go do it. Write your comic, and then go draw it your own dang self.
[Brandon] Amen.
[Dan] Take that, listeners.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, and if you make any, Howard will beat you up.
[Howard] Now go write. And draw.
[Dan] Now.
Tags: collaboration, consistency, disagreements, groundrules, process, writing excuses
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