Playing With Others: Writing With a Partner or Two (or Three)

(Note: this is the second in a series of posts about collaboration. There’s a little introductory bit on the first one. If you’re into that kind of thing, by all means check it out there.)

So. Yeah. Co-writing novels.

Not counting the Illuminatus!-inspired adventure novel about public-private key encryption and oppressive MIBs my best friend and I noodled around with in high school (and really, it’s more dignified for all of us not to count that one), I’ve collaborated on three full-length novel projects with other people. Two of them worked out (more or less). One didn’t.

One small caveat before we start:  This kind of thing has as much to do with who you’re working with as how you’re working. The stuff that worked for me may not work for you and whoever you’re writing with.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure the ways I went wrong will effectively hose anyone.

No, Hunter’s Run isn’t the one that got away.

Back when Ellen Datlow was putting out Event Horizon (her online gig before Scifi.com), she had this thing where she picked four authors, slapped them together, and had them write something. It was very structured. Three rounds, something like five to seven hundred words each, with a grand total total somewhere in the respectable short story length. As a method for composing fiction, it was somewhere between a dare and a parlor game. I signed on, and got paired up with Walter Jon Williams, Sage Walker, and Michaela Roessener. We put together an idea for a science fiction retelling of Romeo and Juliet on a world where bullfighting and hand-to-hand martial arts had joined up, with Cretan bull-dancing on the side as a cross between rodeo clowning and the Masons. We planed the whole thing out in great detail before we started. The process, as I recall was something like this: Writer 1 does their bit (yes, I’m one of those politically correct they-singular people—move on, there’s nothing to see here), then sends the scene to the other three who comment. Writer 1 makes any changes that seem appropriate, and tags out. Writer 2 does the next scene, repeat as needed until conclusion. We utterly ignored the wordcount limit, so we wound up with something more like a novella.

That wasn’t the failure. The story came out pretty well. But then we decided to build on it. We planned out a fantasy trilogy riffing on Antony and Cleopatra, talked over the big arcs, sketched it out, and then we went at it. We weren’t constrained by wordcount, we weren’t held to the idea of writing it one scene at a time like putting bricks in a pile, we could work in parallel. We had the freedom to run it any way we wanted. Turned out, that was what killed us.

Understand, we’re talking about four talented, professional writers who had all worked together successfully on the project’s immediate precursor. It wasn’t that we couldn’t work together. It was that when we lost the rigid, game-like structure, we all started wandering off, exploring the parts of the world and story that turned our particular, individual cranks, and the cohesion we had when we were tied to the next scene, then the next then the next went south. Eventually, we just stopped.

The next project also started with something shorter. George RR Martin took me out to dinner one night—Chinese if I remember correctly—and with perfect seriousness said “So, Daniel. How would you feel about a three-way with two old, fat guys.”

Turned out that he and Gardner Dozois had a story that Gardener had started when I was still in grade school, and George had picked up when I was noodling around with that Illuminatus!-inspired thing I was pointedly not mentioning before. They’d run it past folks every now and then, and did I want to take a look, see if I could finish it up.

I could. That turned into a novelette called Shadow Twin. It was a profoundly different project. I hadn’t been introduced to the idea of multiplication when the story was first conceived. Two-thirds of it were already written. And neither of my collaborators wanted to get in my way. I had most of a story, some ideas about where I might take the ending, and a free hand to do whatever I needed to, so long as it worked. I cut out a bunch of what they’d done, added on my bit, and voila. It sold to Scifi.com (Ellen Datlow again), and was reprinted in Asimov’s and a collection of the year’s best short novels, and as a chapbook from Subterranean Press.

And then, we decided to go for one more. There were bits in the novella that seemed like there was more story to tell, places where some piece of business got rushed to fit in a sane wordcount, and the instinct (especially with George) that there was more story to tell.

So we threw the whole thing out and wrote it again as a novel. It was retitled Hunter’s Run. Unlike the post-Tauromachia project, the story was already set. We’d told it once from start to finish, and the expansions we did were to add a framing story that gave the action more context and explicitly set it in the universe of Gardner’s solo novel, Strangers. Very little planning was necessary, and most of the disagreements we got into were over style. (Mostly, I cut out Gardner’s descriptive passages, and then he put them back in.) As the junior member, I got to do the absolute last-pass line edits and polishing because that’s part’s a pain in the ass. The book that came out didn’t read like one of mine, one of George’s, or one of Gardner’s. By putting the story through the blender, it had taken on a voice of its own. Plus which it got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, the American Library Association called it the best science fiction novel of 2009, and it was compared to Camus by Entertainment Weekly and Joseph Conrad by The Times (not the New York Times, the other one). So even if I fought Gardner over every adjective, I still have to call this one a success, right?

And then there’s the third project.

So, .com-era joke. Ready? Two guys who knew each other in high school meet up in silicon valley during the boom.

“Hey, Dave,” says one. “What’re you up to these days?”

“Can’t talk about it. Nondisclosure agreement. You?”

“Yeah, I can’t talk about it either.”

“Still. Good seeing you. We should have dinner some time. Not catch up.”

So I can’t talk about this one in detail. Nothing personal. Just business. But I can talk about the process. For about a year, I met with this guy once a week. We started by sketching out the rough outline and arc of a story, much like Walter, Sage, Mikey and I had back up in the one that got away. But then we broke it own from there. How many chapters, what happened (roughly) in each chapter, who the point of view characters were. Then each of us would write a chapter, give it to the other one to edit and comment on, stick the two finished chapters on the back of a master document. Every couple of months, we’d revisit the chapter outline and add, cut, or change it depending on what we’d discovered about the story in the writing of it.

Like the Tauromachia novelette, this was built in a scene-by-scene format, with each of us aware at all times of what the other was doing and with an editorial hand in the line-by-line work the other was doing. A lot of what we did weren’t things that I would have reached for on my own, and the guy I was working with had to change a lot of things about his style to fit with mine. The book we came out with . . . well, we should have dinner sometime, not catch up about it. But I was and am quite pleased with the project, and I count it as a success.

So, to sum up: The times that co-writing a novel has worked for me, it’s had 1) a very clear, structured story with a lot of fine-grain detail (either as an already-completed story to expand or a detailed and frequently-revisited outline), 2) a lot of feedback between the collaborators, 3) a willingness on the part of all the writers to have to project not be an ongoing act of compromise and not exactly what they would have written by themselves, 4) an explicit mechanism for text written by a particular author to be handed over for review and editing by the others, and 5) deadlines.

I’ve learned a lot from the collaborative novels I’ve written. If it’s the kind of thing you can do, it will teach you things I don’t think you can learn otherwise, both from being in the working company of other writers and by being forced—time and again—to explain yourself.

And seriously, if it’s not the kind of thing you can do, avoid it like the plague.


Daniel Abraham is the author of the Long Price Quartet (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring, or, in the UK, Shadow and Betrayal & Seasons of War) as well as thirty-ish short stories and the collected works of M. L. N. Hanover. He’s been nominated for some stuff. He’s won others.

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