Thursday, February 18, 2010

Guest author Dayton Ward: Collaboration: (or, “How to Write with Your Best Friend and Not Kill Each Other”)

Dayton Ward is a science fiction author primarily known for his Star Trek novels and short stories. He published stories in each of the first three Strange New Worlds anthologies, making him the first author to render himself ineligible under the rules of that series. As such, future authors who achieved the same feat were said to have earned a "Wardy." You can find him at home on his hilarious blog, A Pimple on the Ass of the Internet. Be warned, though: you'll be spending a lot of time there.

Blogging for someone else’s site is—to me, anyway—a lot like being invited into someone’s home. I feel underdressed, even though I’m wearing a tie and jacket for the first occasion in ten years that didn’t involve a job interview or burying someone. I’ve checked my teeth for food remnants six or seven times, and I keep reminding myself not to drop The F-Word every couple of sentences. I brought a bottle of wine, but chugged it in a fit of nervousness before ringing the door bell. We’ll just have to see what happens now, won’t we?

Still with me? Sweet.

When I was approached about providing a “guest blog” here at Novel Spaces, I asked myself the question I’m sure is pondered by everyone who receives such an invitation: “What the heck am I going to write about?” Okay, if you’re thinking I used a different word in the spot where “heck” goes in that last sentence, you’re probably right. Now, with the question hanging in the air before me the other night, I was reminded that February 2010 represents a special milestone for me. It marks the tenth anniversary of my first published collaboration with my best friend and frequent writing partner, Kevin Dilmore. Therefore, “Collaboration” seemed like an appropriate topic.

What started out as something fun to do and a way for me to ride his coattails into the world of magazine writing has during the ensuing decade blossomed into a cooperative force to be reckoned with, if I do say so myself. Together, Kevin and I have written six novels, twelve novellas, a handful of short stories, a whole bunch of magazine articles, and web content as well as other stuff I know I’m forgetting. We’ve acquired a light-hearted reputation as an “irreverent duo” among our writer friends as well as fans and followers of our work, and when it comes to conventions or book signings, neither of us is keen to attend such a function without the other. Indeed, last summer, we attended a convention and participated in a charity “roast” of a fellow writer, carrying our shtick onto the dais and sending up our colleague in our best Abbott and Costello impersonation. Well, “best” if it means Abbott and Costello cursed a lot.

I mean, a lot.


When it comes to our writing partnership, Kevin and I often are asked some variant of the question, “How does it work?” As often as not, our initial response is something along the lines of, “He writes the nouns, I handle the verbs,” and so on. In truth, our professional relationship, which is an outgrowth of our friendship, was almost from the jump founded upon a very basic ground rule from which everything else is derived: Equal work, equal credit, equal blame. Yes, it sounds trite, perhaps even naïve, but it’s a winning formula that’s served us with distinction for lo these many years.

We don’t dwell on who first put forth an idea or concept that ends up in one of our stories, or point to passages in a book and say, “I wrote that.” We strive to write as one voice, not two stitched together. Is it easy? Of course not. We’re writers, and writers are known for suffering all manner of personality quirks ranging from suffocating insecurity to delusions of fortune and glory to raging egomania. So, there’s all of that to worry about while we’re sweating the little things like contracts, deadlines, and even trying to figure out how to con some editor into paying us for our next batch of scribbles. It helps that we have similar notions about what we think makes for a good story. Some of the most fun we have on a given project comes from the brainstorming sessions as we develop a story outline. We’re also fortunate in that our individual approaches to storytelling tend to complement one another to great effect.

Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to dividing the work on a given project, Kevin and I do not simply glare at one another and throw down a quick bout of Rock-Paper-Scissors, with or without the “Lizard-Spock Expansion.” Over the years, we’ve settled into a groove which—at the start of a project, at least—is pretty consistent. I’m usually the custodian of the “big picture” and keeping all the various plot trains on their respective tracks. Kevin’s strengths lie in characterizations and making the denizens of our various stories act, sound, and feel like real people with whom the reader can relate. This gets the ball rolling, and we head off to our separate corners and start slinging words. Along the way, we find new ways to challenge each other to work outside our particular comfort zones. As a result, each successive project ends up being a learning experience to one degree or another. Toss all that into a blender and hit the Puree button, and we end up with a mixture of ideas and effort from which we usually take quite a bit of unabashed satisfaction. Are we successful each and every time? Not at all, and in that event we either refine, revise, or restart the process and keep at it until we get it right. If we’re lucky, we even take away something from the misstep that makes us better writers and collaborators when the next project comes along.

Oh, that reminds me: The project comes first. Always.

Writing in collaboration is definitely different from working solo. There also are many similarities, such as there being days when you feel incapable of stringing words together in any comprehensible fashion. Only, now, you have to add into the mix the fact that your partner might be turning out page after page of gripping prose which is sure to win you both awards. Well, maybe that’ll happen, but first you have to do your hunk of the writing. Working with a partner might mean writing at a pace which is markedly different than what you normally experience with your own projects. If flexibility is a dirty word to you, then you might find collaboration a frustrating experience, at least until you adapt to the new situation. And if that’s not enough, there also will be times when your ideas are the better ones so far as the health and direction of your project is concerned, just as there will be occasions when the opposite’s true. A truly successful collaboration hinges on the commitment of all involved parties toward putting the needs of the project ahead of any personal goal or agenda. In short, you need to check your ego at the door. Better yet, leave it at home in a box—the same box with that stash of porn you say you threw away when you got married.

Kevin and I each know that the other is always putting their best effort toward a project, minding our respective deadlines and roles and all that jazz. Not only do we trust that we’ll both hit our designated marks at our appointed times, but also that our combined work will mesh well together because we’ve been communicating throughout the process. In other words, no surprises or improvisations sprung at the last minute. If inspiration strikes at two in the morning, then an e-Mail is fired off at 2:01, before any sort of revisions or rewritings begin. Consensus is reached, man hugs and fist bumps are exchanged, and we get back to work.

Which brings me to my final point: Trust.

There are plenty of articles you can read which offer advice about collaborations. They’ll give you guidance on defining roles, establishing goals, structuring contracts, dividing the work, and even how to resolve conflicts. Guess what? None of that crap is worth anything if you don’t trust your partner. You can probably sense where this is going, so I’m just going to come right out and say it: A successful writing partnership is like a marriage. It requires work to keep things running smoothly. There must always be clear communication, mutual respect, and—above all—trust. Without these vital components, any collaboration is doomed from the get-go.

So, that’s the secret of our success. If you’re participating in a creative collaboration, what’s the source of your magic?

Dayton Ward


KeVin K. said...

Good Lord. Who thought inviting Dayton would be a good idea?
Oh, wait.....

I have tried collaboration on three different novel projects, all involved putting together novel pitches for Pocket Books' Star Trek back in the day. All of these were long-distance relationships with people I have met in the flesh two or fewer times. In each case we put together pretty darn good pitches -- but by the end of the process I don't think any of us was looking forward to spending the next few months turning the pitch into a novel. (I try not to dwell on the fact all three of the other authors went on to publish Trek novels without me.... Try.)

My thought is that your friendship with Kevin and not just the give-and-take of frequent in-person interactions are a big factor in the success of your process. Mutual respect and affection (I'm sure the Marines have another term for it) are as important as deadlines. At least that's the impression you guys give anyone who knows you you. I'm guessing a solid personal relationship, not just a working relationship, is important to collaboration.

Christopher Pimental said...

Dayton, please write a blog post about how to build a house with your wife and not want to kill her. It's too late for me, but it might help someone else. (Perhaps I'll rephrase this...)

Dayton Ward said...

I'm still trying to figure out how my wife didn't boot me to the curb years ago.

Liane Spicer said...

Dayton, thank you for being our guest!

Writing a novel solo is complicated enough in itself; the idea of doing it in collaboration with someone boggles my mind. You've got it down to an art, though. I'll refer to your article in the event I'm ever crazy enough to consider a team approach.