As you can guess, Angela and I are passionate about the value of collaborative writing and how it can be done successfully. Our experience lies mostly, though, with nonfiction. So I was excited when Kathrin Hutson approached us with a post outlining some tried-and-true techniques for co-writing a fiction book. I’m sure many of you have wondered about the possibility of co-authoring a story and the best way of making a go of it. So read on for some great tips!
Collaborative fiction has received a lot more recognition in the writing community, especially now that some groups have figured out just how to make it work.
The problems I have found with online collaborative forums are that a few people are really dedicated to the project, but most who signed up to participate get burned out, bored, or distracted by life and disappear. Sometimes one person overrides the creative expression of other writers, and a clash of visions for the story ensues. Ideas get lost behind a strong personality, and frustrations arise when an agreement cannot be made on characterization or plot.
All writers have different styles, ideas, and visions for a story. But the whole point of collaborating is to work with other talented writers who want to hone their skills and embrace teamwork. An effective collaboration will create an imaginative, exciting, entertaining work of fiction that is much different than what any one writer could create alone.
Working with the online collaborative fiction community Collaborative Writing Challenge (CWC) as both Chief Editor and Story Coordinator has exposed me to a successful, supportive community of writers who create full-length fiction novels together one week at a time. Our pilot novel was published this June and has received wonderful reviews. In only one short year, CWC has formed a collaborative system with three major components that embrace author uniqueness and encourage open communication and teamwork.
These three ‘must have’ components, when used correctly, ensure that every collaboration flows from section to section, and most importantly that it gets completed.
#1: Teamwork and Always Saying Yes
The whole point of a collaboration is not having to write an entire novel yourself, and not having to formulate all characters and story lines on your own. Adding one, two, or twenty other creative minds to a project makes for incalculable possibilities, and never knowing exactly what’s coming next is half the fun.
Always Saying Yes means that participants accept each writer’s section as it is. If the plot twist is conceivable, if the character could make that decision, if the conflict resolution is not impossible, let it stand. Changing the story’s elements simply because you don’t agree with another collaborator’s choices or wouldn’t have written it that way yourself does not make for happy collaborators, nor for the most imaginative version of the project.
Teamwork at this point takes all the credit for a great collaboration, and for writers who will return time and time again. A writer may submit a confusing section that pulls the story in a new direction, or has details inconsistent with previous submissions. When this happens, do not simply reject the section altogether. No writer wants to hear that their submission just didn’t work, nor see someone else completely rewriting all their hard work. Instead, reach out to these writers, ask questions, give suggestions.
“You wrote that Character X carried a 50-pound box of groceries for his neighbor, but two chapters ago he broke his arm skateboarding. It’s not quite believable that he carries that box with a badly broken arm. Would you like to rewrite that section with those details, or would you like me to try it for you?”
This open communication is key. Remember to be courteous, to acknowledge that they worked hard for a section of which they were proud enough to submit, and that they still want to contribute. Everybody needs a little reminder of the details or intention of a project.
#2: Keep the Facts Organized
CWC has a fantastic system of consistently updating its writers with the important details of the stories they’re working on. Every week, a 400-500 word summary of the new chapter is written, as well as a detailed list of characters, locations, and highlights, in order of appearance. We call these the “reference notes”. These give a one or two sentence description of each character and their relationship to the other characters. The same is done with each new location, and the “highlights” are constantly updated.
Highlights are short descriptions of a plot line that has been left open and can be picked back up later, such as: ‘Character Y had only finished applying half of her makeup before she got the call about her grandmother and rushed to the hospital.’ This ensures that the next writer can choose to pick up this vein about Character Y’s unkempt appearance.
Creating detailed summaries and reference notes also makes it easier for writers to get the information they need to continue the story without having to read through every previous chapter. Make sure these are always accessible to every collaborator.
#3: Create a Schedule – And Stick to It
Having a schedule detailing when each writer is due to submit their section, and when the collaboration is expected to start and finish, is a powerful way to keep the project on track. Agree on a certain length, like 30 chapters or 60,000 words; give each writer one week or two weeks to submit their section; choose the target length of submissions; and decide who writes which chapter(s). Then hold each other accountable to this schedule.
Of course, sometimes life gets in the way and a contribution is late, or a writer cannot finish. Sometimes participants drop out altogether. This is why #1 and #2 are so important – if a collaboration finds these minor obstacles, open communication with one another allows writers to pick up an open chapter, to help a struggling collaborator, and to have all the details at their fingertips, no matter where the finished sections are kept.
You may find yourself part of a collaborative system like CWC’s, with a designated Story Coordinator who updates the information, contacts writers, and ensures each submission is consistent with the story and schedule. Or you and your fellow collaborators may have outlined the novel from beginning to end and cannot wait to fill in the blanks together. Either way, Teamwork, Organized Facts, and a Detailed Schedule are three invaluable tools to keep your project consistent, entertaining for writers and readers alike, and will get the project finished.
Kathrin Hutson is the owner of KLH CreateWorks (www.klhcreateworks.com), and offers free tips affordable editing services to writers of all skill levels and in all genres. The first book of her fantasy series, Daughter of the Drackan, will be published this October. She is also Chief Editor and Story Coordinator for Collaborative Writing Challenge (www.collaborativewritingchallenge.com), and enjoys nothing more than working on all of these projects from her home in Grass Valley, CA. Kathrin can be contacted at Kathrin.Hutson@KLHCreateWorks.com.