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Collaboration: Two writers are better than one(?)
One of my favorite young adult books (and films) is Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. These authors have written two other novels together, and Levithan also teamed up with John Green for another of my favorite books, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I'm fascinated when writers work together to tell a story, and I'm curious about how these things come about, what their process is, and how the story develops along the way. After all, writing is supposed to be a lonely business, isn't it?
I think most working writers will agree that all published stories are ultimately collaborations. There's the critiques you get from your beta readers, feedback from your agent, changes from your editor. There's also the input of copy editors and proofreaders, who can sometimes save a story at the last possible moment and catch all your mistakes. Your friends and family help you brainstorm, or happen to say something at just the right moment. Your read another story or watch a movie that inspires a brilliant idea for yours. Along the way, many of these suggestions are entirely optional — it's still your book — but it's good to listen and be open to anything that will make your book stronger. Your crit partners, agent, and editor all want it to be the best story it can be, and you know what? Even if you agree with them and make some changes, it's still your book.
So far, I have only collaborated with another author once, on a novelette titled "Lost in Natalie," which was recently published in the summer issue of Space and Time magazine. I wrote it with my friend Mercurio D. Rivera, a critically acclaimed science fiction writer; he critiqued an early draft in our writing group and thought it was a great premise but the light, almost campy tone was jarring against the darker themes. He wanted to take a crack at working on it together, and I agreed. (There was also some sort-of-incest in the story, which I think is what really got him interested...)
The basic plot was about a guy who attends a sex party called a "swap meat" at which everyone switches bodies throughout the night. But there's a police raid—because of course that kind of thing is totally illegal!—and he has to escape in someone else's body. Hijinks ensue.
As this was our first collaboration with anyone, let alone each other, we approached it as sensibly as we could. Mercurio had my original draft, which he reworked into a new outline, and we decided to simply use that as a guide and alternate chapters, sending them to each other to pick up the thread like a round-robin game. As we reviewed the other's section, we were free to make any changes we wanted — without tracked changes—no questions asked.
Mercurio kicked it off:
Attached is my stab at an opening scene for "Lost at the Swap Meat" (working title). I'm afraid that my outline has sort of fallen apart. Nonetheless, I'll also send you the outline in its current state in a separate email.
My skin is very thick; feel free to re-work any or all of this if it's not working for you.
I worked on it. A few days later I sent him this:
Here's my first pass on the second scene, along with some changes and additions to the first section, which was quite good. Wow, it really is porny though—where are we going to market this thing? Anyway. Feel free to change whatever you need to. I'll choke down my pride :) I basically stuck to your outline here, and threw in some other threads we might explore or lose along the way
I got it back a week later:
Tag! You're it!
P.S. Outline is broken. Luckily you don't normally write with one, right? P.P.S. I ramped down the sexual flirting in the cab—I figured they'd be too shaken up from their near arrest, but I kept it in the apartment. P.P.P.S. My latest scene sucks. Please make brilliant. P.P.P.P.S. "Conner" is now "Gustavo"—to make the characters slightly less white-bread.
Gustavo? Okay. We changed that to Enrique at some point.
Look! It's a whole day early! This latest scene is still a little rough, but I think we have some direction. I updated the outline with some ideas for the rest of the story, but feel free to ignore it if you can come up with something better. I am really excited about this and I like how it's coming along--we'll obviously have a lot of editing to do when we're done, but nothing we can't fix.
It's coming in a little long as well, so I think we may have to trim a lot if we can't sell it at that length and with its mature content. We'll see after we finish.
Carry on! I expect something soon :)
And so it went. Back and forth. It was awesome.
The collaborators (Photo by Matt Kressel)
Reading through our old e-mails, I was also working on my first draft of Fair Coin at the time, and at least one other short story. But I always looked forward to getting the next section from Mercurio, and my faster turnaround times kept him working and motivated. And the end result (many, many critiques and revisions later) was something better than either of us probably could have managed on our own.
Mercurio writes wonderful dark, thinky stories with beautiful prose, while I think my strengths are in dialogue and character, and our different approaches to plotting meshed very well. The story ended up having a really interesting, provocative theme and the ending is one of the best things "I've" written. I learned a lot from him in the process, and because we were constantly revising each other's sections, and then our own sections and lines, the whole story smoothed out so even our friends couldn't tell which scenes we wrote. (Actually, we barely remember anymore either. We're each happy to take credit for the bits we like though.)
Moreover, our friendship survived the experience, and we eventually sold the story to a great market, so I count that a win. So why did this go so well? Being friends helped, but that also could have gotten in the way. First and foremost, we kept our egos out of the equation. We admire each other's talents and instincts, and we respect each other. We're both used to receiving constructive criticism and revising our work. It was also a lot of fun! We both loved the story and wanted it to reach its potential, and I am so energized by that creative process with other people.
You would think two writers would make the story go twice as quickly, but that isn't always the case because you also have two people with schedules and responsibilities and lives to work around. Sharing the workload did help though, and I am often still amazed — and a little shocked — at what we created together. (A small caveat if you're interested in checking out the story in Space and Time and are familiar with most of my other work: It is really not young adult.)
The experience of writing with Mercurio also prepared me for other projects down the line, including my new novel, The Silence of Six, which took a more collaborative process with my publisher than I was accustomed to. And I would definitely love to collaborate on another story or even a YA novel, with the right project and the right person. (E-mail me!)
I'm sure there are as many ways to collaborate on a story as there are to write one on your own. Some people use Google Docs to share documents, or write their sections independently before swapping them. I know some author couples who also have worked together, which probably makes things easier. (Probably.)
Writers, have you collaborated on any stories? What was that like? What are some of your favorite collaborations?