Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Team writing: what defines a co-author

I have always been a solitary writer. But not all writing is solitary. There are many writers who do team writing, some under a single composite name. Then there are the ghost writers whose great contributions go unrewarded while some (usually famous) person gets the accolades that come with sole authorship.

I recently embarked on a team writing project. How I managed to entangle myself in such a venture is still a mystery to me, but it began with a conversation that went something like this:

“Mommy, can I write a book with you?”

“Sweetie, Mommy writes books for adults not eight year old kids.”

“But maybe we can write a kids’ book now and when I get older I can write romance just like you.”

(Blush, blush, blush) “I’ll think about.”

A few weeks later my first team writing project was on the way. It was a science adventure novel, written for children eight to twelve years old. My co-author: my eight year old daughter.

We first started out brainstorming, and boy was my daughter excited and full of ideas. I must admit, I thought her excitement would have fizzled the moment we began writing the manuscript, so I began the first chapter on my own. I discussed the chapter with her and was surprised when she started making recommendations, contributing to the ideas and rearranging the chapter. Then one day I returned from work and found her on my laptop. When I asked her what she was doing, she proudly showed me what she added to the manuscript… all three sentences. It took her a few hours.

We sloshed through it for about a month, writing back and forth, discussing everything until the third chapter. Then we hit a dead end. Weeks went by without either of us touching the manuscript. That’s when I realized what was missing: an outline. As a solitary writer, my outline is written in my head. But my co-author cannot read my mind. So I sat down and carefully planned out the concepts I wanted covered and wrote a detailed outline of the book. Excitedly I showed it to my co-author.

With a shrug of her shoulders, she responded “ok,” before returning to her video game.

I ploughed along anyway. Having a good outline, I wrote the book within a week. With great excitement I shared the rough draft with my co-author. She immediately started critiquing: “This chapter is too long; I want first graders to be able to read it; the sentences are too complex; how would they know where in the cell they are? Kids aren’t allowed at the museum of Natural History unsupervised...”

Her critique was quite valued and I gladly made the changes. But by the sixth chapter (there are ten chapters), she lost interest. Getting her to even read the rest was a challenge. I threatened to remove her name from the book. After all, how could an author not be interested in the book they have written?

So I share this longwinded preamble to ask the question: What defines team writing? Do both authors have to contribute 50/50 to the writing, editing etc? Is it a matter of idea sharing?

I am going to summarize my daughter’s contribution and then my contribution and then I’ll ask you to be the judge.

My Daughter’s contribution:
• Brainstorming
• Orally suggesting scenarios to set up the story
• Ensuring that the language is age appropriate
• Ensuring that dialogue fits that of a nine year old American
• Critiquing sentence structure, chapter organization, chapter length

My contribution: All of my daughter’s contributions plus
• Writing the story
• Editing the story
• Revising the story
• Checking for scientific accuracy
• Researching the information

Based on this information, should this maunuscript be considered the product of a team writing project or is my daughter’s contribution something that a critique group would do worth only acknowledgement in the dedication? Should her name be included as a co-author on this project?
Finally, what would you do if you were writing as a team and your co-author isn’t contributing as much as you expect?


Dayton Ward said...

I've enjoyed several collaborations with a co-writer, during which we contributed to the researching of the story as well as dividing up the writing, editing, and other duties. For those, our cover credit has always read "by X & Y."

But, we've also had a couple of projects that worked out in fashion similar to what you're describing here. In those instances, we agreed that the book would be credited as "by X" on the cover and title page, followed by an additional "Story by X and Y" credit on the title page. Also, Y's other contributions to the project were highlighted on the acknowledgments page.

KeVin K. said...

One the other hand, Dayton's collaborations have always been with other adults; people with faculties, skills, and experiences close to his own. I have spent the bulk of my professional life working with people who are much younger and less experienced or knowledgeable than I, who have not been blessed with my undeserved advantages, or who have significantly different perceptions of the world than the generally accepted norm. (No, I am not still talking about Dayton.)

Measure each of your contributions to the creative/collaborative process not in terms of the finished product, but in terms of your ability to contribute. Your daughter devoted several hours to crafting three sentences. Has she ever attempted anything like that before? And completed the attempt? She is, I gather, a creative child. But disciplining and focusing creativity is a skill that can be acquired only through years of practice. At age eight her mental "hardware" is not yet sophisticated enough to fully grasp the abstract complexities of crafting a story.

I would suggest that for future projects you emphasize and utilize the strengths she brings to the team. The brainstorming, the organizing events in broad strokes, the dialog. Let her see the other steps in the process, explain without making it a lesson, answer questions, and be ready to let her do the parts she wants to do, even if you can do it better and faster. And never, ever "fix" anything she's done. (You're the pro, make your work support hers.) Keeping relative attention spans in mind, talk through things before you write rather than ask for feedback on what you've written. (Invite her to read/critique the work in progress, but don't make it a requirement.) She wants to write with you because she wants to share in life with you, so do it on her terms.

And her name definitely goes above yours on the cover.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Dayton, I have never written fiction collaboratively before, but in my professioal life as a scientist, we do mostly collaborative work and the level of contribution determines where the author's name is placed. The first author most often does the most work while the last author is the owner of the lab where the work is done, or the PI (Principal Investigator) of the project. I've heard horror stories though even in this narrowly defined setting.

In terms of my, er, collaboration on this project, since my co-author is an eight year old kid, I think I will cut her a little slack. What do you say?

Jewel Amethyst said...

KeVin, great advice. One of the reasons I agreed to this collaborative project with my daughter is because I realize she has the potential but never sticks to anything long enough to truly develop that potential. It was my way of letting her explore different things to find something she loves and can stick to.

The other reason was to change her perception of authors. In my daughter's mind, an author wrote a few minutes a day (minimal investment) and rakes in bucketloads of money and fame. In fact one of the first questions she asked was, "will my picture be on the back cover of the book and will that make me famous and popular?"
I wanted her to realize that there was more to being an author than just an avenue to easy money, and that most authors work their butts off for minimal rewards. That is why I involved her in most aspects of the writing including having her write a synopsis (still incomplete) of the book.

I know you're probably saying that will discourage her from being an author. On the contrary, she has now proposed a few more ideas for books in the series. And I have found her strong points: brainstorming, setting up plots and dialog. But the weakness remains her ability to stick to anything long enough to complete one project before going on to another. Conquering that is still a work in progress.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've done a couple of co-writing projects and I'm not a fan. I do make sure that if I do the most work I get first billing. As for your daughter and this project, it could be a great marketing tool. Just saying. :)

Jewel Amethyst said...

By the way KeVin, as for her name going above mines, we already agreed it will be in alphabetical order (her idea, not mine). Since I'm J and she's L, mines will be above hers.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, you'll be surprised that she is the one who pointed that out her value as a marketing tool to me. She told me of a four year old who wrote a book with his mother and was on Good Morning America (or one of those kinds of shows)because of it. So yes that was her trump card when I threatened to remove her name. I guess she did her research (lol).

Dayton Ward said...

"In terms of my, er, collaboration on this project, since my co-author is an eight year old kid, I think I will cut her a little slack. What do you say?"

I wasn't offering a judgment about your particular situation, but simply offering up examples of how I've dealt with collaborations and assigning credit. I didn't and don't think our way of handling it is a universal answer, but simply food for thought. Every collaborative relationship is different, and every project undertaken by a writing team is different.

Liane Spicer said...

This is a good practice run for you, Jewel. Clues you in to just how complex writing collaborations can get.

From what I've read on the subject the ones that work well are far outnumbered by the ones that don't. Each partner tends to believe s/he has done most of the work either in terms of the actual writing or the brainstorming, editing, etc.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Dayton, I really didn't think you were offering judgement, but rather sharing your experience. Your experience in collaborative writing is something I can and will learn from.

Liane, this is indeed a good practice run. Maybe one of the tricks to mastering collaborations may be to have roles and contributions defined and agreed on ahead of time. But even then, it can break down. And of course if that person and you share a more intimate relationship it can be quite prickly.

Truth is though, while I'm complaining(a wee bit)about this "practice" collaboration, I'm just happy that my co-author was interested enough to try. She still exceeded my expectation, to some extent.

KeVin K. said...

"In my daughter's mind, an author wrote a few minutes a day (minimal investment) and rakes in bucketloads of money and fame."

Well, yeah. That's why I am one.

Flowerpot said...

It sounds like a partnership that will help both of you and I think each team must be different and there get from it different things. It's working off each other's strengths and helping with weaknesses isnt it?

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lol, Kevin. If only that was my reality... (sighing dreamily)

Flowerpot, you are absolutely right. I have discovered some strengths and weaknesses within me as a writer (and mother), and I hope that my daughter has uncovered some of her strengths and weaknesses as well.

One of the things I've learned is that I suck at writing children's dialog. Luckily for me that's one of my daughter's strengths and she can tell me "Mommy, that does not sound like a nine year old kid," or "Kids don't talk like that." So yes we have complemented each other in that respect.

She's also really good at coming up with plots that set up the story (the initial adventure). What happens during the adventure, however, is up to me to work out.