How to Be a Co-Author (And Actually Enjoy It)
Some of us have some pretty rough memories of school projects as kids. I know I was always the one who ended up doing a hefty portion of the work. By that logic, of course, it stands to reason that there’s a considerable portion of the population who loved group projects because they never had to do a damn thing.
They’re probably not writers, though, so I’m probably speaking to a lot of the take-it-all-on-themselves types here.
With that history, the idea of working collaboratively on a book might seem daunting, or even downright awful. I’d like to eradicate any fears you might have about that by providing you with a little insight, as well as some strategies for working well with another creator.
My writing career has been largely collaborative. I write many articles and short stories on my own, but almost all of my novels have been written with my long-time co-author.
While other writers lament how writing is a “lonely pursuit”, I have always personally found it to be full of quite excellent company. Writing isn’t lonely when you aren’t taking it on alone.
Of course, nothing is ever 100% perfect—collaborative writing has its limitations, just like writing alone does. You’ll have to decide which variety has the “problems” you’d rather deal with, and which “problems” aren’t that big of a deal for you.
Benefits of Co-Authoring
They say two heads are better than one, and with writing, this can be astoundingly true. Having another person sharing the creative experience with you can mean resolving plot holes more efficiently, coming up with cooler plot developments, making more well-rounded characters, and of course, having a second set of eyes to look over the manuscript.
Whoever your co-author is, they have this amazing advantage of not being you. Not that there’s anything wrong with you—you’re great! It’s just that you only know what you know. You’ve only lived what you’ve lived. What can you do about that? This is, after all, your life…it can only unfold as it does.
A co-author is similarly restricted to their own experiences, as all humans are, but the really cool thing about getting another person in on the writing game with you is that you both have your own unique experiences. My co-author, for example, was born and raised in a different country. She speaks four languages and knows way more about European culture and lifestyles than I do. She’s very globally-minded, and very well-rounded. She’s also older than me, so she grew up in a different generation.
I, on the other hand, grew up in the USA. I completed college (she did not), was homeschooled, lived as a teenager in a small town where it snowed, raised chickens, had siblings much younger than me (whom I helped raise), and started working for myself as a teenager.
Both life experiences are valid, but they’re also very different, and that’s the beauty of it! We both bring our own lives and backgrounds to the table when we write, and that gives our books an added dimension they’d be lacking if it was just one or the other working on it.
It’s also pretty awesome when you can each write a different character’s perspective or outlook, because then it ensures that those characters have very unique voices.
Co-authors also serve to keep you motivated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt discouraged or tired or overwhelmed, only to have my co-author remind me what we’re working t and why we’re doing this. It’s incredibly uplifting, having someone who’s on your side, rooting for you, but also in the trenches with you. They’re not just a cheerleader, a friend or family member who believes in you—they’re a fellow writer. They understand. They’re there with you. It’s something the solo writer lacks, even if they have other writer friends.
There’s also a lot of balancing. You like to write action scenes, and they like to write contemplative moments? Great! You can both play to your strengths (and learn something about your weaker areas while you’re at it).
And do you ever get stuck? Co-authors are helpful there, too! Either you’re stuck and they’re not, so they can keep the momentum going, or they’re stuck and you’re not, so you can help them out of their rut.
Even if you’re both stuck, at least you can kick around ideas together and feel a sense of comradery.
And when you’re both in flow? That just rocks.
Challenges of Co-Authoring
This section mostly applies when you’re working with someone who isn’t a good fit for you (in which case, my recommendation is: GET OUT). However, even with a great match, there are challenges that arise when you work with another person, just like any partnership ever.
One is that you might not be able to do exactly what you wanted to do with the story. Maybe your co-author doesn’t want to write about this particular topic or issue. Maybe you want to explore the loss of a child in a character, but your co-author lost a child and can’t stand to work on a project where that’s a primary focus.
Or maybe it’s less intense than that—it could be as simple as you want to have a character who’s way into sports, and they prefer to have a character who’s artsy and dramatic.
There are, of course, simple ways to work around these issues, and you can always table an idea for another story in the future.
The key is to make sure that you work well together, have good communication skills, and are both considerate and kind enough to one another to make the “working together” experience fun.
For example, with my co-author and I, we respect each other enough to have open discussions about our stories. For us, it’s actually really fun. Most of the time, the ideas we originally come up with are scrapped because, in talking, we both came up with way better stuff. So to me, the process of working with a co-author is actually highly creative, fun, and inspiring.
As I said, though, you have to pick the right partner. The wrong person will make the whole thing agonizing, and you’ll be living the whole “school group project” nightmare all over again.
How to Choose a Writing Partner
If you don’t already have someone in mind, look for a fellow writer who meets the following criteria:
1. You like their writing style, and think their genre(s) of choice would work well with yours.
2. You’ve known them for a while, and you guys have good back-and-forth, positive energy, and usually end up having fun when you talk.
3. They’re committed to their craft. If you’ve seen someone work hard on their own projects, you can be pretty certain that they’re going to work hard with you. Same goes for people who slack and leave their own work incomplete.
There is, of course, no guarantee, but usually someone who you like, respect, and can mesh well with is going to make a good writing partner, and that can make all the difference.
Techniques for Working Together Harmoniously
Talk. A lot.
My co-author and I talk daily. This is aided by the fact that I live with her and she’s my mother. You probably won’t be able to talk to your co-author quite as much as I do with mine, but that’s okay—you can still have productive meetings about your story.
The key is to keep communication going often. Share Dropbox folders and Evernote notebooks so you can both upload ideas. Talk, Skype, text, tweet, email, Facebook message…whatever you want to do. You can use multiple systems, if you like.
You should be able to text your co-author whenever you want, but to make sure discussions don’t fall by the wayside, be sure to set dedicated meeting times, where you either meet in person, call, or video chat so you can discuss your story in real-time. I would recommend doing this at least weekly, but preferably more often. You don’t want to let ideas stagnate, and whatever stage of production you’re in—brainstorming, plotting, writing, editing, revising—it’s important to keep the ideas flowing. Stories are ever-evolving, and when you’re working with a partner, it has to evolve collaboratively.
Know Your Contribution
With my co-author and I, we come up with the story together, as well as character concepts, and then we split off into our separate tasks. She does most of the research—how did people tell time in the medieval times? What was the surface of Mars like one million years ago? How much skin does the average human body have? (Yes, these are all real questions that we need the answers for in our writing)—and I do the organizing, such as deciding the sequence of events for the book, or expanding on character profiles.
Whenever one of us comes up with a new question or idea, we note it. If there’s a concern about whether something we want to do will work, we talk it out, do the research, and find alternatives by brainstorming more. It’s a great balance with excellent give and take.
Decide, First, How You’ll Write
Will there be two character perspectives, with each of you taking one and dividing the book in half (as seen in Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us)? Will you have certain characters, groups, or types of scenes that you will focus on, while your co-author tackles their own preset variety (as seen in Terry Pratchet & Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens)? Or will you just sit there together, debating word choices and typing whatever you feel inspired to write?
Splitting it up by characters is a great method, as it’s very easy to track. Plus, there’s the added bonus of having a distinct voice for each character. In the Animorphs series, K.A. Applegate and her husband, Michael Grant, wrote together. You can tell which characters each of them primarily wrote, because there’s such a unique tone for each of the six main characters.
My co-author and I are actually pretty disorganized with this, but I think it works because we’re family. I’ve literally known her my whole life, after all, so we’re able to balance it out without thinking much about it.
Working collaboratively with others, though, does typically require more organization. I’d definitely recommend outlining a strategy and agreeing upon it before you ever write a word. This will save you from confusion, frustration, and losing precious time to miscommunications.
Still Not Sure?
If you’re not sure—but still kind of curious—then I recommend trying it in a small way. Write an extremely short story with a potential co-author. Do some writing exercises. Critique one another’s work. You could even play Storium together (remember what I said about Storium?) to get a feel for working together!
Ultimately, co-authoring isn’t for everyone, but if you decide it’s for you, it can be incredibly rewarding. And remember: It’s all about having fun, so don’t lose sight of that!
Have you ever collaborated with another writer? What was your experience with co-authorship?