If you’ve been following my newsletter (and if you aren’t, sign up today!), you’ll know that I’ve been working on a creative fiction collaboration with a fellow fantasy author, Jean Lee, to create a work called King Eowain and the Boar, set in my Matter of Manred milieu. But what exactly goes into a creative fiction collaboration?
Many curious — and skeptical — friends and acquaintances have asked us how, or why, we chose to collaborate on writing a long work of fiction. “Isn’t it a lot more work?” they demand.
“How did you write it … together?” they ask with narrowed eyes.
The most common question, of course, is: “But … why?”
For the Challenge
I’ve spent twenty years building a world so detailed that if you ask me, “What was the most significant event in your world a thousand years before story-present?” my reply would be, “In which country?”
But I’ve done it all by myself. I have never collaborated on a writing project with anyone else. So it was a challenge to myself: Can I do it? Can we do it?
With another brain involved, there’s someone challenging me, pushing me to become a better writer, making me question my assumptions. What is the king’s motivation for this crazy midwinter hunting expedition? Is that characterization falling flat? Does that setting description play? Has the pace slowed down with too much description?
I also wanted to do this out of respect for Jean and her work. I think she’s an immensely talented writer and I wanted the opportunity to work more closely with her, as a learning exercise for myself. I was deeply impressed with the work she did on Middler’s Pride, when she took a character that I had created—in the most bare-bones sense of the word—and gave that character a life of her own, while still being grounded in the world that I’d created.
For the Fun
I often tell Jean, “If it’s not fun, we’re doing it wrong.” And I believe it should be fun. I didn’t want to do this as a commercial exercise (although maybe someday it will become that). I didn’t want to do it because I enjoy giving myself more work to do. Because believe me, a collaboration is definitely “more work to do.” I just wanted to have fun.
Behind the Story
One day, Jean and I were instant messaging back and forth, as we have often done. I forget who exactly started it, but one of us adopted the persona of a common grunt soldier in my milieu, complaining or encouraging the other to keep up with the march that our unit was making. It was a metaphor for the struggle of continuing forward with our writing careers.
We both of us have had our difficult days, when it seems like becoming a published author, becoming a full-time fiction writer, is too high a hurdle to surmount. Days when the journey toward that goal seems pointless. But, like soldiers on a march, we have to remind ourselves that ours isn’t really to wonder why.
It was just a few minutes of dialogue between these two soldiers, the one encouraging the other, but it made us both feel better about the journey ahead.
At the same time, I was looking for a new short term project, something to fill the time with fresh creative energy while I worked on rewrites of other projects. I was rereading “Culhwch and Olwen” from The Mabinogion, and Tolkien’s translation of Gawain and the Green Knight at the time, both medieval romances set in King Arthur’s Court. The Christmas Feast was common to both, and the idea of a story about a midwinter boar hunt that becomes a magickal adventure started to percolate.
Jean was writing her Middler’s Pride tale at the time. I liked what she was doing with Gwenwledyr, and our instant message improvisations were fun, so I suggested that we give collaboration a try. To my surprise and delight, she agreed!
Tips for Collaborations
A writing partnership is like any other relationship; it thrives on respect and communication. As you work on the project, keep the following in mind:
Describe the Project Upfront
Fiction, nonfiction, memoir? Try to craft your elevator speech. Even better, create an outline. This gives both/all parties an idea of which direction the story is most likely to flow, and helps define what’s in-bounds and out-of-bounds.
Describe the Writing Process
Will one partner write out the story in narrative form, and the other flesh out scenes and dialogue? Will you draft chapters and trade them for comments? Some writers work well brainstorming together; others prefer a silent room. How often and how will you meet?
Set Ground Rules for Critiques
How will you give and receive criticism and comments? Some partners handle bluntness and sarcasm without missing a beat, but most require a gentler touch. The longer you work together, the easier it gets. Remember your partner’s criticism may be a gift; she cares enough to help make the work better.
Set Realistic Deadlines
Expect the project to take at least twice as long as planned.
Speak Up Before It’s Too Late
If you are feeling unfairly burdened, take the chance of bringing it up. The sooner the better.
Let the Small Stuff Go
Entering into a collaboration involves giving up some control. Your partner may have a different approach to a scene, character, or problem. Consider that a good thing. This is why you are working as a team. Laugh together, especially when everything is going wrong. Because sooner or later, everything will go wrong.
When you finish each chapter, share a bottle of champagne. When you complete the first draft, take yourselves out to dinner.
Obviously, in this digital age, this may not be as easy as it sounds. Jean and I live nearly a thousand miles apart, have day jobs and families and lives and paltry travel budgets. Neither of us is going to jump a plane to visit the other just to celebrate a completed scene or chapter. But we send each other virtual high-fives, hugs, compliments and kudos.
Years ago, a friend told me the motto of a happy marriage: “I can’t read your goddamn mind!” The same is true in writing collaborations.
Jean and I will begin publishing episodes from King Eowain and the Boar to Wattpad on November 12th, 2017.
From now until then, Jean and I will be posting examples of the collaborative work we did in creating this project, from character sketches to scene studies to imagining the world.
If you’ve ever wanted a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a collaborative fiction project, check it out!