Here’s the fourth interview on collaboration. This series celebrates collaborative creativity in honor of the Shared Worlds summer camp, which challenges teenagers to build and share imaginary worlds. It’s also important to note Steve Perry is one of the writers whose advice helped turn a classroom experiment into the innovative summer camp, Shared Worlds.
Novelist Steve Perry wanted his daughter to learn a trade, so he helped her write her first novel. The author of more than fifty books, Perry has written numerous media tie-in novels, including some set in the Conan, Star Wars, and Net Force universes. However, he is most known for his creator-owned Matador Series, which includes The Man Who Never Missed and The Musashi Flex. He is particularly adept at writing martial arts scenes.
S. D. Perry co-wrote her first few novels with Steve Perry while still in college. She writes mostly media tie-in fiction, including novels set in the Star Trek, Aliens, Predator, and Resident Evil universes. Her novels are known for action made all the more exciting by rich characterizations. She has collaborated with Britta Dennison and Steve Perry.
Below, the Perrys talk about various methods of collaboration and the excitement of having different voices.
What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing? How do you do it? When does it work? How does it positively affect the final product?
Steve Perry: Ideally, a collaboration would be half as much work. Practically speaking, it usually doesn’t parse out 50/50. Sometimes writers of equal ability do a piece; sometimes there is a senior/junior writer, and in either case, the project can be divided up differently.
I’ve been junior writer, senior, and equal; worked with several other writers, and there are all kinds of ways to do a collaboration. Method I’ve used the most is for one writer to do a complete draft and for the other to rewrite it. I’ve also traded alternate chapters, and sometimes each writer has a favorite character they mostly fill out. Some writers play to their strengths — one might do fight scenes, another love scenes. Varies according to the wants and whims and skills of the players.
Michael Reaves and I would sometimes joke when we were on panels that I did the nouns and he did the verbs. He and I started because he had an idea for a big SF book and hadn’t written anything like it before; he’d been doing fantasy novels.
My daughter and I began collaborating because I wanted her to learn a trade to help support her while she went to college.
My son and I did a book because he wanted to try it, and if you can’t help your own kids, what’s the point?
Other writers I’ve co-written with have come up as stories we bounced off each other, or as WFH [work for hire] projects in which I had more time or different skill-sets they wanted to use.
Somewhere in my files, I have a copy of an unpublished story I did twenty-odd years ago with William Gibson. It’s not a bad story, though I suspect neither of us would want to see it published now. I keep threatening to sell the ms on eBay as a collector’s item. Even a half-Gibson story might be worth something…
S. D. Perry: In my collaborations with my father, the benefit was that I was a novice and he was helping me along, getting my name out there–and teaching me how to work quickly and cleanly. I believe I wrote first drafts in our collaborations, and he “fixed” everything ’til it looked professional. I had a similar experience with my other collaborator (Britta Dennison), only the roles were reversed–she was new and I played editor. Britta and I actually divided up characters in the books we wrote together. I think having different voices in a book can be exciting… And I think it helps to have another pair of eyes looking at continuity.
Steve Perry: In theory, a collaboration gives you a story or book or movie that neither writer would have produced alone and is better for it. Your co-writer will bring something to the table you might not have considered, and the tale will shine brighter.
Sometimes this works great. Sometimes, you wind up with a project neither writer loves, but that still works. The old joke about how many drafts it takes to do a collaboration is that you pass it back and forth until both of you are equally dissatisfied with it.
Positives are that, if you have two published writers, you might get both their audiences. Negatives are, if you are equal partners, you get half as much money. And if your collaborator misses a deadline, you might have to hustle to make up for it.
Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?
S. D. Perry: I suppose my advice would be to set out clear guidelines before you begin a project–who’s responsible for what, who will deal with submitting, etc. I’ve been lucky–in both of my collaborative relationships, I’ve dealt with talented, easy-going authors who were open to working things out, to shifting responsibility as needed. I’ve heard horror stories, though, of teams falling apart, of one writer unable to complete his or her part, of secret discussions with editors where one of the team was left out…
I guess I’d say if you have any doubts about your partner, draw up a simple contract that you can both sign, spelling everything out. Or, you know, don’t work with anyone you don’t feel you can trust.
Steve Perry: Decide who gets the final draft before you start. With a junior/senior arrangement, this will usually be the senior writer.
Or agree to agree on everything, which is passing hard, but, I suppose possible. Somebody has to have the final say.
At some point, you have to finish, and if you aren’t willing to let it go without making changes every draft, you’ll never get done. I once collaborated on a short story long-distance with a friend who was a working pro. Every time I’d send him a draft, he’d kill my favorite darling, and I’d put it back next draft, and kill one of his. This went on for several drafts — longer than either of us would have done had we been writing it alone.
Finally we got to a stopping place and I sent it off.
First magazine we sent it to bought it. I called him up to tell him. He allowed as how he had some more changes he wanted to make.
No, I said, you don’t understand. They bought it. They will be sending us a check. It’s done.
It can be absolutely delightful, collaboration. And if you are ever going to work in the movies or TV, you have to learn how to do it, because nothing you write there is ever graven in stone. If you can’t allow somebody to rearrange your words, cut or add to them, you can’t be a scriptwriter, because that’s how it works. A producer can tell you that you’ve written the best script he has ever seen, it’s terrific, it’s wonderful! And if it makes it to the screen, you can bet the farm it won’t do so exactly as you had it. ‘Tis the nature of the beast.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.