Monday, April 07, 2008

Miriam Goderich chats about collaboration

Book collaborations are like marriages. When they’re good, marriages are happy unions full of mutual respect, in which both parties work together as a team to create successful projects. As Tolstoy might say (if he were around and blogging), however, no one wants to read about good collaborations. They simply just work.

Bad collaborations are another animal altogether. Each is unique in the set of circumstances that converge to make for a miserable experience for all parties involved and, like bad marriages with children involved, there is often huge collateral damage. Having spent the better part of the last week trying to negotiate among the parties of several collaborations gone sour, I thought it might be a good time to talk about what can be done to prevent metaphorical (or even literal) bloodshed once you’ve decided to write a book with your husband, sister, best friend, co-worker, or even someone you were introduced to by your agent in the hopes that you’d end up with a proposal she could sell for high six figures:

1. If you’re seriously thinking about collaborating with someone you live with (and presumably love) or are related to (and presumably love) or have been friends with for years (and presumably love), think twice, or a dozen times. Unless you have the kind of relationship that can withstand the pressures of deadlines, your own secret knowledge that you are a better writer than the other person, their idiosyncratic work habits, or fragile egos unable to take exacting criticism, this is a recipe for disaster. If you’re thinking of collaborating with a total stranger, interview them thoroughly to make sure your styles and work ethic are compatible.

2. Be clear on your role before you sign the collaboration agreement. Are you the writer who is taking an expert’s ideas and communicating them in lucid, readable prose? If so, the lead person on the project is the one with the ideas. S/he is the “Author” and you are the “writer.” Simply put, you need to check your ego at the door because while your collaborator may be a total diva, madman, and/or generally unpleasant person, without them and their idea/story, there would be no book.

If the partnership is an equal one – e.g., you’ve jointly developed an idea for a series about an Elvis impersonator from outer space – then, you must have the wherewithal to make your case at every stage of the process with conviction and respect but also to take on equal responsibility for workload, meeting deadlines, and making the appropriate representations about the work to your publisher. In this scenario, your belief that your partner is a hack while you’re a closet Hemingway is only going to cause trouble. If you wanted to show the world how brilliant you are all by yourself…you’d write your own book by yourself. This is a team effort and compromise is of the essence.

3. Work out the money terms, who the copyright holder will be, and how the cover credit will read before you even send your proposal out to agents. For one, the agent you sign with will need all of this information in order to negotiate your contract with a publisher and ultimately to pay you both. But, also, knowing that this stuff has been agreed to from the outset will mean that no one can change the significant terms once it looks like the book is going to be a huge bestseller with George Clooney trying to option the film rights. Again, less bloodshed will ensue.

4. Once the book is sold and the excitement has died down, the battle with the blank page begins and that’s where a lot of collaborations can fall apart. Now, there’s a looming deadline, money that will have to be returned if a satisfactory manuscript isn’t produced, and the dawning conviction that your writing partner, who is never up before noon, and doesn’t return phone calls, just isn’t as good a writer as you thought s/he was and will doom the book to the remainder bin within six months of publication. In other words, the honeymoon is over. It’s time to hone your patience, negotiation, and sportsmanship skills. Take a deep breath, list the reasons you respect your collaborator, give him/her the benefit of the doubt, and involve your agent as soon as you’ve determined that the project is in jeopardy. Keep the whining to a minimum.

5. If the person you’re collaborating with turns out to be (a) totally irresponsible and uncooperative, (b) morally/ethically suspect, or (c) psychologically abusive beyond the pale, cut your losses. If they won’t relinquish their rights to the project voluntarily, offer to buy him/her out or walk away yourself.

After reading this, you’re all probably thinking, “What a downer!” but in fact, most collaborations really do go smoothly, friends are made or kept, and result in good or even great books being published. It’s the bad ones, though, as blogger Leo would say, that teach us about ourselves and the business. What are your collaboration horror stories.


  1. Miriam, great post. I have a Google alert set to "collaboration" as I've written a bunch of books about this *in* collaboration with my husband. Normally, the alerts point to articles and posts about some new technology for collaboration or some technologist's brilliant exegesis on how to collaborate. This is the first post I've seen from an agent. Good for you. You're hitting all the points. When we got started, we fought like crazy; then at a certain point, three books down the line, I think, we realized that each of us was better at something than the other (duh) and that when one of us got stuck, the easiest thing was to just hand it off to the other. Now we each claim credit for the truly brilliant sentences. I just cross-posted to my blog. And what a coincidence that you're handling my Zoetrope friend Lisa McMann's Wake. Congrats.

  2. Not a horror story, but I chuckle when I think about it:

    In college I was "collaborating" on a book with a friend. Once in a while she would ask:

    "How's the book coming along?"

  3. I work alone, but I have a miserable collaboration...

    The right and left sides of my brain don't get along -- same with the front and back.

    It's one constant thunderstorm up there. Oh well, keeps my ears clean!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  4. Thanks for posting this. I keep seeing more and more collaborative novels in YA and have been curious about all the implications...

  5. I too am glad to see this post. I think it occurs to many people what a great idea this would be without really thinking it through. I have a friend who writes YA too and she loves to get the story down and hates to revise. I'm the opposite...getting the story down kills me, but revising is great fun. We've discussed this idea of writing a YA together before, she would write the first draft, I would revise, but we're not serious, I don't think. I love a good critique, but I'm not so sure about working with another person for real! I think for now I better stick to my own writing. Thanks!

  6. I always wonder about the voice of the writer getting muddled when there are two. All the collaborations that I've known have gone sour.

    Better to plug away by yourself!

  7. Miriam, wonderful post on collaborative writing! Insightful and informative for those who've never tried or imagined collaborative writing. It is a technique that can work exceedingly well for the right pair using the right method and that’s where the real challenge exists. As you might remember, my collaborator, Rob had at least 38 books published when we chose to collaborate while I, a newbie to fiction and publishing, was a tech writer with many years of experience of tight deadlines, putting ego aside for content/accuracy, and all the other joys of high-tech documentation. We chose who would do what, outside the writing itself, based on who had the most appropriate skills. I did research; he handled all publishing. Each sentence was written by both on us on cell phones at our computers (he in Chicago, me in Atlanta: one had the master copy, the other the ‘let’s try this’ copy). We worked hard (and I had catchup to do in the craft of creative writing), argued fiercely at times (unresolved issues were put aside for discussion in a few hrs or the next day), and loved the stimulation and magic as our two different minds/voices merged into one in our final words. We started each day prepared to work and ended each session with a schedule of when to begin again. We gave ourselves the right to ask each other to 'kill our darlings,' ask if ego was the source of contention, and give the other a scene on faith that it would work out with the right to scrap it if it didn't move the action forward or add substantially to the storyline or the characters. Those rules, the agreement that our friendship came first, and really listening to what the other had to say proved to be the right method for us. While that book has yet to sell, it has never received a negative review from an acquisition editor (two minds are better than one? *G*). For us, that freedom to write together 5-8 hrs/5-6 days/wk has not recurred — we both miss it.

    Again, wonderful post!

    Lyn P.