Stop, Collaborate & Listen: Five Points about Collaboration

Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter are both Australia-based speculative fiction writers. Hannett is the author the short story collection Bluegrass Symphony and Slatter is the authorof Sourdough and Other StoriesThe Girl with No Hands & Other, and Black-Winged Angels. They are currently collaborating on Midnight and Moonshine, a collection of stories due out in November 2012.

For the most part, writing is a solitary activity. An idea strikes and you mull it over, jot notes, think about character and setting and plot. You may surround yourself with the company of other people, other writers — go to workshops and critique groups, to coffee shops with your laptop, or travel with notebook in hand — but when it comes to turning vague ideas into a story, when it comes to actually writing, it’s all about you and the blank page. No net.

Writers often prefer it this way. Some of us are natural introverts; we like solitude and the quiet processes of creating narratives, well-turned phrases, and engaging characters. Many of us squeeze writing in between jobs, family life, friends — so we steal a few moments out of our days to retreat into our imagined worlds. Others simply like to keep their work to themselves until it’s completely polished, until all the embarrassing plot-holes are filled and the clunky writing all tightened up. Also, the majority of writers are control freaks — we are gods in our own little cosmos.

When we think of writers, the image is of someone hunched over a typewriter or laptop, maybe in a garret, or a lavish library, but always alone — and always churning out a bestseller, of course!

So people are always curious to find out how the collaboration process works for us. How do we work together to create a cohesive narrative? How do we blend our styles and voices? How do we decide what stays and what goes? What happens if there’s a disagreement? Is it quills at twenty paces? We’ve talked a lot about why this works for us and for today, we’ve narrowed the collaboration process down to five points…

1.      How does the process actually work?

We usually start with an idea sparking an excited What if? discussion; an image or concept that leads to a flurry of questions like, “what if this happened” and “what if she does this” and “what if they do this because of that — oooh, and then that…” This ultimately shapes the story’s plot. Since we live on opposite sides of the country, this is done via email, text messages, Skype or phone. Next, notes are compiled and shared so we’re both on the same page. From there, one of us will start a draft of the story — and how far we go with each draft changes from story to story. If we’re feeling inspired, we might scribble down a whole draft before we send it on; if not, we write until the words run out. Sometimes the story comes out chronologically, but sometimes we’ll build it all out of sequence, jumping between early scenes and later ones, until the whole thing comes together. The story flies back and forth until it’s done.

2.      Brainstorming

Coming up with ideas doesn’t necessarily stop after the initial session. One of the best parts about collaborating is that you have someone to bounce ideas off of, which is fantastic when you can’t figure out what happens next. Both of you have a vested interest in the story, so mid-writing brainstorming can be really productive. When the story starts to take on a life of its own, no amount of planning can prevent the tale going where it needs to go, so it’s great to have someone to talk to about where it goes from here… The excitement of starting a new story is multiplied when you work with someone else — and even better, when you hit a snag, your writing partner is there to cheer you on.

 3.      Not being precious

Writing with someone else means that you can’t be precious about what you’ve written. You have to be willing to let them change words, phrases, paragraphs and even whole scenes. Darlings may be killed and details added or deleted. The wonderful metaphor you spent hours polishing simply might not work once they’ve tweaked the context. The story belongs to both of you, and any changes are not personal insults — they are making the tale the best it can be in and of itself. So before you embark on a collaborative project, you should have established one important thing:

 4.      Trust

You will never be able to let someone else “kill your darlings” if you don’t trust their writing and editing skills. We forged this in a Clarion crit-pit and built upon an initial respect for each other’s writing, then learned to be better editors from being first readers and editing for each other. The fact that we’re friends helps, and the fact that we know we’re both really serious about good editing and good writing. Our separate works are very different — Bluegrass Symphony is not Sourdough and the two could never be mistaken for each other — but when we write together the effect is a seamlessly blended third voice.

 5.      Communication

Like all good relationships, the secret is communication: talk about the process beforehand but also while it’s happening, so there’s an ongoing dialogue. In addition to chatting and emailing, we use track changes and comment bubbles — the best invention ever — to explain why we’re changing something, to make sure we each know the overarching concepts and can maintain the same goals for the story. Be flexible; there needs to be “give and take” to collaboration, and if you feel strongly about something then be prepared to compromise on another aspect of the story. Trust your co-author and think carefully about whether it’s worth fighting over the placement of a semi-colon.