Tug of War: Some Thoughts on Collaborative Writing

There are many writers out there who collaborate with others.  The past century or so is littered with examples of well-known writers who bring their own unique perspectives to the fold.  Under these circumstances, writers have commonly brought their own flair and aspects of their own writing to the collaboration, while the narrative takes on the unique aspects of both writers.  The thought of collaboration on a work of fiction has not been entirely foreign to me.  It isn’t an easy road to follow, and is probably best left to lifelong professionals.  One of the chief barriers that holds me back from collaborating with others is an understanding of the time commitment.  With talented, prolific writers, such as Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz, and Ed Gorman having collaborated on books, it is possible to do it, but much easier to coordinate when novel writing is your job.

Last week, I caught wind of a press release advertising Stephen King’s collaboration with publisher and editor Richard Chizmar on the novella Gwendy’s Button Box, a Castle Rock story that has at least some connection to King’s Dark Tower mythos.  It is King’s second announced collaboration due for release in 2017.  The first, Sleeping Beauties, is in collaboration with his son Owen, and is set to arrive in September.   With these collaborations in mind, I wanted to discuss some notable collaborations.

Ford and Conrad

One of the earliest examples that I have found of continued literary collaboration is that of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad.  The two writers combined to write three novels.  The first, The Inheritors (1901) is one of the early examples of the science fiction genre.  It is interesting to see their name associated with science fiction, as Ford was known for his modernist leanings, and his particular attention to current events, such as wars. He was a literary critic in an era where science fiction did not have much critical appeal.  Meanwhile, Joseph Conrad had more interest in the “other,” and the ideas of otherness, and the unusual circumstances his white male protagonists encountered when venturing to foreign lands. Things don’t get much more “other” for him than the Inheritors, wherein the main character explores a cabal of people who claim to be from another dimension.  Although I have not read this book, it is hard for me to imagine Ford and Conrad engaging in the realm of the fantastic or even of science fiction.

Niven and Pournelle

Larry Niven, the writer behind the Ringworld series, has a number of prominent collaborations under his belt. The Caltech grad is a prolific writer, with fourteen anthologies and six full-length novels in his Man-Kzu series, and numerous other anthologies.  Niven has co-authored multiple books with Steven Barnes and Jerry Pournelle.  My introduction to Niven came via his collaboration with Pournelle on 1977’s Lucifer’s Hammer, an apocalyptic fiction book that deals with the fallout from a comet impact.  From how individuals react to scarcity, how militaries react to opportunity, and how groups react to outsiders, Lucifer’s Hammer offers a more scientific and sociological viewpoint to how society reacts before, during, and after an apocalyptic event.  Other highly-lauded Niven-Pournelle collaborations include The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), and Footfall (1984).

Nolan and Johnson

I think we’ve all heard of Logan’s Run.  The 1976 Michael Anderson film has become one of the better known movies of its era, and won awards for its artistry and cinematography.  The concept of a society where humans have an extraordinarily short shelf-life (21 years), measured via markers embedded into the skin, is not only the thanks of movie magic, but is also the basis for a 1967 novel.  Written by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the original Logan’s Run was a 133 page dystopic novel set in the far off future of “the year 2000.”  Predominantly a novelist, Nolan dabbled in many other genres in his career, whereas Johnson wrote short stories and television scripts.  The two were well established by 1967, and their novel was earmarked for film almost from the beginning.  However, it took years in development hell before the promising novel became a film reality.

King & Straub

As mentioned above, Stephen King is not averse to collaboration.  Including collaborations with his sons, Owen King and Joe Hill, King has collaborated with Stewart O’Nan in 2005 for a non-fiction book about the Red Sox (Faithful) and Peter Straub for The Talisman (1984) and Black House (2001).  Straub is a respected figure in the horror community, and a multiple time winner of the prestigious Bram Stoker award.  Straub’s style, honed through years of reading gothic novels, has the deliberate pacing and word choice of literary fiction.  He has varied from more direct plot arcs to plots that rely on numerous twists and turns.  King, by comparison, makes characters that are generally familiar, peppering their actions with bits of pop culture, and has these characters go through terrible things.  The Talisman, my favorite literary collaboration, does just that as it follows 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s journey through “the Territories” to find that story’s titular talisman.  It also introduced me to the “overworld-savage world” concept that is the basis for The Dark Tower series.

It is rare that I have even discussed collaborating with other writers.  Part of it is a time consideration, as I know that my own schedule is demanding, and my own energy levels are finite.  Part of it is a control consideration, as ceding control over a story is a difficult thing to do.

Jim & Robert

I first attempted a novel-length collaboration with my friend, Robert, more than twenty years ago.  We’d always been creating stories, and the lands we created through our imaginations were limitless.  It started out when we were in the lower grades at our elementary school, where we created characters that were simply us inserting our own personalities into characters such as Spider-man and Batman.  It progressed from there.  Between the two of us, I’m sure that there’s some journal somewhere that has an embarrassing and exhaustive list of overpowered superhero characters.

We were probably ten or eleven when we decided to write a novel.  We would type out our story, handing it off to each other via a hard plastic “floppy disc.”   The story discussed what we later understood as “nanorobotics,” and focused on a reluctant cyborg; it never got off of the ground after perhaps twenty hard-wrought pages in Word.  I recall the frustration of seeing a new paragraph that went into further depth of the technology.  I did no better, and would send back another paragraph about the cyborg’s Pinocchio-like desire to be human.  After perhaps only a few months of this back and forth, our great novel had no plot, and neither of us had created any sense of movement, either in the sense of the story, or in the creative process.  I am sure that the pages of descriptive paragraphs, wherever they may be, never progressed past that point.

Best Practices: Collaborative Writing

Despite my reluctance to collaborate with other writers, I have discussed the possibility on several occasions.  What I’ve uncovered during these rare discussions makes for some interesting “best practices.”

First, it is important to understand and agree upon the concept.  If the ground rules for the story aren’t clearly articulated, the writing process can become contentious.  At best, collaborating on a story without rules can lead to a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas.

Secondly, it is important to identify the roles within the storytelling process.  Both authors may be charged with advancing the story, but it is best to play off of strengths.  Some authors write elegant description of settings and spaces, while others have an ear for dialogue.  While one author may be aware of their own tendencies, it typically takes an outside voice to clearly articulate and confirm your strengths.

Finally, mete out the direction and plot arcs for individual characters.  Inevitably, a writer develops emotional ties with one character or another, and builds a sense of the character’s thoughts and actions.  A potential conflict here is that another writer may have another sense of who that character is, and how that character perceives the World.  Be sure to identify a character’s starting point, and identify who will be responsible for charting that character’s development.

Anything I Missed?

There are numerous potential pitfalls to collaboration, and probably just as many best practices for avoiding them.  What pitfalls have stood in the way of your successful collaboration, and how did you overcome them?  What would you call the “best practices” for collaborative storytelling?  Let me know in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Viganhajdari, Creative Commons CCO License. 


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: