Thursday, March 19, 2015

Collaboration: generalizing from a limited sample.

If you want to learn about how a successful, established collaborative team works, read anything about writing by Dayton Ward. (After you've read this, of course.) He and writing partner Kevin Dilmore have written a dozen and a half Star Trek stories, eBooks, and novels, plus at least one 4400 novel. I, on the other hand, have had one good experience working with another writer, one not-good experience working with another writer, two experiences outlining and pitching Star Trek novels that didn't get picked up, and one "run away!" successful avoidance of working with another writer. Everything I know about collaborations would fit in a monthly column. Which, as it happens, is coincidentally fortuitous.

Note that collaborating with another writer is completely different from being on a writing team. I have been part of the writing team for over a dozen campaign books, scenario books, players' guides (to equipment/character creation/NPCs/settings/etc.) and rule books for assorted role-playing games. I've been on the editorial team for nearly as many more. On one occasion I was the leader of the editorial and writing team – "herding cats" does not do the experience justice. In a team setting the degree of collective brainstorming and/or who's involved in the brainstorming varies during the development stage varies widely from project to project, but once the general structure is set, each writer is assigned sections to write and each editor is assigned writers to edit and from that point on everyone pretty much works independently. In a collaboration the writers work together on every aspect of the project from brainstorming to final edit.
From my limited experience I think there is one criterion vital to a working collaboration. With this criterion in place it's possible to overcome any creative or stylistic differences. Without it, it's impossible to complete anything worthwhile no matter how well the skills and artistic vision of the writers involved might compliment and support each other. It's not a new revelation, or one you haven't heard applied in a dozen settings, but it's one that can be overlooked or taken for granted. The indispensable foundation of an effective partnership is mutual respect. But not too much.

By "too much" I mean, way too much – which pretty much means it's not actually mutual. The writer who reached out to me with the collaboration offer from which I fled, positively gushed about my work. They'd had a couple of stories published to date and their question about collaboration included a high concept for a novel that was intriguing enough for me to ask to hear more. They sent a three-paragraph narrative summary that was fairly solid and showed clear thinking – but it was accompanied by three more paragraphs describing how honored and blown away they were by the fact I was even considering working with them and how much they hoped to learn from me and that, who knows?, we might develop into a lifetime writing team like Ellery Queen. There was no way the real me would ever measure up to the fantasy me this person had created. I told them that, regretfully, my schedule was to jammed to take on another project for at least a year and encouraged them to develop the novel on their own. It's been four years and I haven't heard from them.
In the collaboration that didn't work my partner and I worked out a detailed narrative summary and seemed to be in agreement as to what we were doing, and our skillsets seemed to be compatible. He was well versed in what we were writing about and lived in the area in which the story was set, but wrote in a wooden, passive, academic style ill suited to storytelling. I was almost but admittedly not quite as familiar with what we were writing about, had lived in the setting area in the 1970s but not visited for any length of time since (so everything I remembered was either no longer there or useless to our purpose), and wrote like a storyteller. Somehow this translated into each of us being under the impression that we were the more knowledgeable, more experienced, and more naturally the leader of the team. Worse, when it became apparent early on that we had different visions as to what the final product would look like, we both moved forward with the internal conviction that once the other person saw how it was going to be he'd come around to the correct view. Everything became a power struggle – or rather, everything became a teachable moment in which we each tried to enlighten the other. Not surprisingly, what we ended up with was not what we'd set out to do and was at best 33% as effective as it should have been.
The collaboration that worked began on a fiction site. A reviewer who'd given me glowing reviews of the sort that indicate some understanding of the craft (pointing out how skillfully I'd placed Chekov's gun in an opening scene, for example) mentioned he wanted to write and would be studying my work, along with that of a few others, to see how it was done. I said the encouraging things I usually say to new writers in response, directed him toward a couple of useful writers' blogs, and suggested he look around for serious writers' groups in his area. He told me he really appreciated my guidance, but that last would be difficult because he was in the Army and deployed in Iraq. At which point I realized the appreciation was flowing in the wrong direction and broke my rule about never entering into private conversations with fans. I did not offer to read or edit his work, but I did encourage him to write, offered a few tips and strategies, and browbeat him into submitting his stories. Which got published. And were good. And weren't anything like my stories. For all his saying he was copying me, he'd developed his own voice. We kept in touch, mostly about writing, via emails through his Afghanistan deployments and moves between bases in the US. We met only one time, when he and his wife drove down from Fayetteville for one of my few bookstore signings. Recently I was given the opportunity to pitch for a military science fiction project, and I had an idea for which I'd need help: the story of a battle – including the events leading up to it and the aftermath – told in two narratives from the trenches on both sides. He was game, we hammered out a high-concept pitch, the pitch was greenlighted, and we're now in the throes of actually writing the thing. Our narrative voices are distinctly different – which in this case supports our premise. Our writing methodologies are diametrically opposed. I work mostly in my head – occasionally blurting bits of dialog at the dinner table or mowing the flowerbed as I build bridges between plot points. I may have little more than notes on graph paper in hand when I sit at the keyboard, but I already know the story I'm telling. He makes detailed plans and maps things out. (Literally – he's drawn maps of the major events of the battle that will be in both narratives so the choreography and rhythm mesh; I had to download a pdf of NATO military symbols to read them.) We sometimes seem to speak completely different languages when discussing the project. But. Each of us respects the other as a writer and, more importantly, as a person. And that makes working together possible.


Charles Gramlich said...

I have very rarely collaborated and have never found it to be an easy thing or pleasant thing. I try to avoid it whenever I can.

Liane Spicer said...

Fascinating. I'm with Charles, though. I can think of more fun ways to turn my few remaining strands of brown hair quite, quite grey.

Jewel Amethyst said...

The only collaborative fiction I did was with my daughter, a minor. Even then we had major fights about style, content, dialogue and even scenes. That was a successful collaboration. Of course, being the adult and her parent, I had the power so it was definitely not a similar experience to yours, KeVin.