Last week (at the very moment my friend Madelyn Rosenberg and I were announcing to the world the good news that our young adult novel DreamBoy will be coming out next summer from Sourcebooks Fire), a friend shared with us this New York Times article,”On Writing with Others” by John Kaag.
Having just finished a young adult novel with the awesome Madelyn (and begun another with the awesome Jenny Bitner), I have found the experience to be full of surprises–almost entirely the good kind.
Here’s my take on five reasons that having a co-pilot on that long trip across a novel is a good thing… and one reason it’s not. Some are echos of Kaag’s excellent insights; others are my own.
1 ~ a committed relationship ~
Perhaps the most encouraging part of collaborative writing is the commitment I bring to the project. When I work on my own, it’s easy for me to convince myself (after 20 or 30… or even 120 pages) that what I’m writing is crap. When I write with a friend, however, I am committed for the long haul,whether or not it seems crappy during those horrible spells of self-doubt. I can’t help thinking of all the time and work my friend has put in on the project, and that makes me push through the muck, even when I’m not sure where exactly we’re headed.
2 ~ instant editor = better risks ~
I am, as Kaag suggests, much more likely to let loose with some half-baked notions in early drafts when I know my co-writer is there. These risks are usually huge fails, but every so often, they work fantastically.
When I write fiction on my own, I may take the same risks, but I worry much more over them. On my own, a serious misstep could head me down a long and fruitless path. Since I don’t have an instant editor, I may not be convinced of my mistake until I’ve already pounded out another 50 pages or so. And we all know there’s nothing quite so sweet as trashing a huge stack of pages just start over where you were a month before! Yippee!
When I write with a friend, I know I have an instant editor who can shake her head and point me in a better direction. Yippee, for real!
3 ~ operation UNblocked ~
There is nothing so amazing as getting stuck with a scene, sending it off (sometimes mid-sentence) to a trusted friend, and having it return a day or so later with that scene successfully finished and another started.
Gone is the head-pounding!
Gone the endless trips to the kitchen’s candy jar!
Gone the long walks full of mulling and wondering and wishing I knew what came next!
4 ~ surprise! ~
The surprising things that happen when you write with a friend are beyond fun. I’ve created structures that I thought were headed one way, only to find out when Madelyn returned her editions/additions that there was a whole other dimension to the scene if I just tilted my head one way or another.
Sometimes it’s a matter of a fortunate misunderstanding. For example, when I first named the character Talon for DreamBoy, I intended for her to be a male. Madelyn read the name as a female and used a female pronoun for her. So I’m easy… and here’s proof. I just rolled with it. Now Talon, the girl, may be my favorite character in the novel, and calling her a boy would probably prompt her to reach through the pages of the book and whack me on the head. (Yeah, she’s got that kind of spunk.)
5 ~ balance ~
Let’s face it. I have obsessions — those go-to things that give me energy and make me glow. I would write about rivers and earthworms and clouds all day if someone would buy me food and cover my mortgage for doing so. But a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds is… well, I was going to say boring, but since I’m obsessed, I actually find that idea pretty intriguing. Maybe I should write a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds? Hmmm… But I digress. Back to point: I have obsessions, so do my my co-writers. And sometimes those obsessions, being as they are obsessions, get to be a bit much.
I mean, what is it about the canned peaches in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? And I’m pretty sure Nora Roberts was watching way too many of those cook-off shows when she wrote Angels Fall.
So having two different writers with two different sets of obsessions gives a bit of balance to the work. Or at least I like to think so.
There are some projects that are not good candidates for collaborative writing because co-authorship requires you to let go. And letting go of something extremely close to you can be difficult and scary… and quite frankly, unnecessary. Here are the facts: The final writing will not reflect your solitary vision nor be subject to your solitary control, and there are some things that won’t come out right without your solitary vision and control.
So choose wisely when considering a project. Are you willing to let go of your idea and allow it to become what it becomes? Do you have a friend whom you respect enough to work with? If you can answer yes without reservation, you might want to give collaboration a try. If not, keep it to yourself until you’re ready to publish. And then let it go the old-fashioned way.
(… oh, and the waiting… sometimes the waiting can be be a drag…)