Friday, August 10, 2012

How To Begin A Successful Novel Collaboration

Months ago, Sabrina wrote a couple of fun posts about the art of collaboration. You can find them here and here. Those posts (especially the second one) sparked one of my favorite projects I've worked on this year. I can't tell you a whole lot about it yet, because it's a collaboration, which means that I'm not the only writer. But here are the bare bones:

After Sabrina's post, Sabrina, Sheena and I started brainstorming ideas for a novel. Here is a list of some of the things we decided on that has helped it to be successful so far, as well as some of the things I've learned.

The Top Ten Things We Decided Together

1. Who would be part of our collaborative effort?

How we decided: Sheena wrote a comment at the bottom of Sabrina's post asking if anyone wanted to play Letter Games with her (that's the type of collaboration Sabrina was describing). Sabrina and I both wanted to play, and no one else volunteered. We weren't certain we could come up with a method of letter writing that smoothly incorporated 3 people, but we were willing to try.

This has turned out well for us so far. We had already read and/or critiqued each other's work, so we basically knew what we were getting into. I recommend knowing each other's writing or doing some research before you commit to anything. Or not--it depends on your risk comfort level, I suppose. 

2. What would the genre be?

How we decided: Perhaps this should have come before we started suggesting story ideas, but as we brainstormed, it became obvious that most of our ideas were in the YA fantasy genre. Even though Sabrina didn't have much experience in this genre, she was happy to give it a try.

3. What would our setting be?

How we decided: This happened before we came up with a plot idea too. Sheena was brainstorming, and one of her ideas reminded me about the private school/treatment center my sister-in-law worked at. The first time I heard about it, I knew that portions of that school would end up in something I wrote. Sheena and Sabrina both agreed that it was a good setting.

4. What would the format of the story be?

How we decided: The plot still wasn't there, but things were coming together anyway. We realized that if we are all at the same school, we probably couldn't write each other letters in a way that felt natural. As we discussed plot, we came up with the idea that as part of the school/treatment experience, our characters would be forced to write in a journal that would be analyzed by a therapist. It also made sense that the book would follow the course of one year at the school.

5. What are the rules and history of magic?

How we decided: This was the most complicated part of our discussions. It was also a lot of fun. Someday, when our book is published, we'll have to include a transcript of our discussion. It's hilarious.

If you aren't doing fantasy or science fiction, you still need to discuss the rules of the culture you are writing in, as they will drastically shape what happens in the story you write.

6. Perhaps I should have mentioned this sooner: How we got together to make these decisions...

Sabrina, Sheena and I are scattered across the country, so having face-to-face chats was out of the question (although Sabrina and Sheena did end up meeting at one point. Yes, I'm a bit jealous. J) Instead, we discussed things on the private message part of facebook. A couple of times we set meeting times to discuss pre-writing issues there. It worked pretty well--it's basically instant messaging.

7. Who would the main characters be?

How we decided: We each created our own character. Sheena sent us a whole character analysis, which made me realize I'd better flesh my own character out more. This was the point when I started learning a lot from observing the thought processes of Sabrina and Sheena.

We decided that we could create minor characters on our own as needed. However, once they are out there, the characters are free game for everyone to develop and use. Obviously, we also need to write scenes that include the other main characters. We try to stay true to what we know about their personality and history, but if we transform them, they stay who they are.

8. What would the plot line be?

How we decided: Obviously, we discussed plot lines from the very beginning. By the time we knew about our characters, the rules of the world, and the setting, we had a sketchy idea about the plot line. We had a starting point, and an ending point. But we really didn't know what was going to happen in the middle. Whether this turns out to be a mistake or not remains to be seen. If you are interested in trying a collaboration, you'll need to decide how closely you want to adhere to an outline.

We decided our collaboration was going to be an exercise in flexibility. I know where I'm going with Anastasia (my character), and presumably Sheena and Sabrina know where they are going with their characters. All of our characters are main characters, and they are all going to stay that way. At some point, our plots are going to start knocking into each other. We've each finished three journal entries so far, (this is assuming that Sheena was up typing into the wee hours last night. ) and thus far it's been exhilarating. I've had to make a few minor course adjustments, but I think it's all been for the better. I fully expect to have my plot derailed at some point, but hopefully it will simply jump onto a better track.

This takes a certain amount of trust in your colleagues. When Edwin O'Connor and Edmund Wilson collaborated, Edmund wrote, "In writing alternate chapters with Ed, I very soon ran into difficulties. He would not always accept my cues of my methods, and I found my narrative blocked. I suspected that this was deliberate and that we were playing a game of chess, and this suspicion has been corroborated by Mrs. O'Connor's telling me that, in sending back Chapter 4, Ed had said to her with satisfaction, "Well, I guess I've got him now." (

Only you know if this would be an enjoyable feeling to you. Personally, I don't think I'd like it.

9. How would we send things to each other?

It is crazy how hard the waiting is! It's a little like Christmas. We decided to send things via snail mail. I started first, and sent my chapter to Sabrina. Sabrina sent a copy of my chapter and her own chapter to Sheena, who sent Sabrina's chapter and her own back to me, and I started the round robin again. Thankfully, we still send a little note to each other on facebook when something has been sent out. To get the real experience, we probably should be left wondering when it would circle round again, but that would drive me batty.

10. Is there a deadline for each chapter?

Especially here in the summer, there hasn't been one. The letters tend to get stuck occasionally, but since it works out well for me to have a couple of weeks off in between chapters, I haven't minded. I ponder where I'm going, and I get my to-do list in my real life checked off so that when it's my turn, I'll have time to write. So far, our rhythm works out well for me, even though we never discussed it. If I ever do something like this again (and I'd really like to!) this is probably something we should have discussed. The fact that it's worked out as well as it has is a happy coincidence.

Some other things we should have discussed before we started:

Moral boundaries: What if you are extremely pro-choice, and your writing partner writes something extremely pro-life? Or vice versa. Or perhaps you are very careful to keep the moral content of your books on the same level as Louisa May Alcott. What do you do when your partner writes a racy scene worthy of the 50 Shades of Grey? If something is going to be published with your name on it, you need to be certain you won't be ashamed of it. Before you start is a much better time to iron out these differences.

It is amazing how often I start researching a particular topic and find that Holly Lisle has written something insightful and profound about it. Collaboration is no exception. She has a very thoughtful list of things authors should discuss before they begin  collaborating. It's also a list of things I never would have thought of.

It includes topics like:
1. Determine who will own what. (i.e. the setting, the plot ideas, the characters, the story...)

So many things could go wrong here. For example, what if (thank heavens it is not so, but what if?) I LOVED my character, the setting and the world, but I hated what Sheena and Sabrina wrote? Or what if I loved it, and they didn't? What if I think we should publish it, but Sheena and Sabrina want to drop it? What if we publish it, and Sabrina decides she wants to write a sequel but she is tired of collaborating? What if half way through, Sheena decides to stop writing?

Or, as is the case with Holly Lisle, what if your collaboration includes other authors working on sequels, and the first author doesn't write to the predetermined ending? Do you lose a friend forever or do you anger all those other authors? These are just a few of the endless things that can go wrong if you don't decide the answers to these questions.

2. Who gets the final say in the edits?

3. Whose name will go first on the cover?

4. Who gets the final say on editing?

The list gets a lot more complicated if you have already been published and there are agents and publishers and previous contracts to worry about.

Do yourself a favor and read Holly's article before beginning a collaborative work. It probably seems unnecessary. You might think things like, "But my partner is my best friend!" or "But this is just for fun, and we'll probably never publish it."

But then you'll get to the place where I am--I'm realizing this collaboration we are working on could be darn good. When the first draft is done, it will probably be rambling and rough, but I hope we clean it up and publish it.

Sheena and Sabrina--maybe the time has come for another facebook chat. J

Everyone else: If you are interested in doing some variation of the Letter Game, leave a comment below! Maybe we can get another bestseller started. 


  1. Sounds like you guys are having lots of fun. Let me know if you need a beta reader. :)

    Great post Melanie. I've never considered a collaboration (I'm a bit of a control freak), but if I ever do, this post will be immensely helpful.

    It's also fun to get a peak into the process. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks MaryAnn. I was beginning to wonder if anyone would be brave enough to comment, or if everyone was afraid they would somehow get roped into writing a novel. :D You are a brave woman!

  2. Collaboration sounds like so much fun, and so my kind of thing, considering I'm a writer who likes to discover things as she goes. I'm starting to wonder which of my friends I can rope into a collaboration now...

    1. Good luck! It can be so much fun if you find the right partner(s)

  3. I'm with MaryAnn in that I don't know how I'd fare with a collaborative novel. I've read several books with multiple authors and they are so completely seamless that I've been left wondering how on earth it could be more than one person. This finally explains it. Great post, Melanie.

    Oh, and sign me up for the beta reader list, too!

  4. I think we really need to have a serious conversation about this, although, I am not sure how that would work - would we still mail the letters or would we walk them across the street? Lets talk about this soon, because I think this could blossom into something beautiful. ;)

  5. I am not really sure how this would work out for us. Would we still mail the letters or would we walk the across the street? I think that we should seriously talk about this sometime - I think we could create something beautiful!


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