Frog and Esther Jones

Books, Projects, and More

Collaborative Writing FAQ

We’re calling this an FAQ, but that’s a lie.

Fact of the matter is, if you so much as ask an author at a convention about collaborative writing, your response is almost guaranteed to be something along the lines of “Don’t even think about it,” or “Collaborative writing ruined my marriage.” The fact of the matter is, when done poorly, collaborative writing can be the death of a relationship, or a friendship, or an acquaintance. It’s the sort of thing that can make people want to choke the life from each other.

But we know from some of the great author combos that it’s possible for collaborative writing to not only work, but to excel. Weiss and Hickman, David and Leigh Eddings – some of the greatest fantasy series out there come as collaborative projects. So how can authors at the con tell you not to do it, when it’s been so very successful in the past?

The fact is, collaborative writing can be one of the best writing experiences out there. It can enhance your stories exponentially. If two or more people combine their brains, the story gets to paper quicker, easier, and with higher quality than just one. It doesn’t work for everyone, but all you have to do is follow a few simple rules before it works for you.

So have a read, and see if you and your partner(s) can follow these rules. If everyone you write with can happily sign on to all of these, then you have yourself a collaborative writing team. If not, then all the other authors are right; walk away before you start hating each other.

Rule #1: You Suck

That’s right, you heard us. You suck. You’re really bad at this writing thing. Just accept it.

You’re wondering why we’re opening this with a blatant insult. The answer is that you need to develop a very tough hide against perceived insults before you even think about collaborative writing.

Ira Glass once said that artists don’t create because they want to, they create because they need to. He nailed it. A writer writes because he needs to tell a story. It burns within her, yearning to break free and enter the world. When we put pen to paper (finger to keyboard), we do it because we are driven by some deep, inner need to do so. That kind of passion is what makes a great artist.

The problem is, that very artistic drive begins to get tangled up with the artisic drive of your writing team; everyone has a story they need to tell, and everyone argues with each other about which story and how to tell it. This, then, leads to the bickering, the hurt feelings, etc. When you put yourself on the paper, and someone else thinks it would look better another way, that can rip you to the bone.

Collaborative writing does just that, over and over again. You are stripped bare, your work is altered, and you have to swallow that, get back up, and write some more. That means it’s time to kill the old ego, and really accept the things other people are telling you. Trust your partners, and trust that they know what they’re talking about. If everyone has done this, the story becomes the focus, and not the writers. As a result, the story becomes awesome.

Also, without egos in play, the chance that you are all going to throttle each other goes down significantly.

So, start with the assumption that everything you say is wrong. Begin by taking as given that you suck. Until you find some sort of consensus that you are ok, maintain that default assumption. This assumption will pre-empt all of the hurt feelings that are otherwise coming. It is this step that wards off many potential collaborative authors, and the failure to follow this step that ruins relationships. So embrace it; you suck. Now turn to collaborative writing to make you better.

Rule #2: Your Partner(s) Suck

This is kind of a corollary to Rule #1. Obviously, if everyone agrees to Rule #1, then Rule #2 must also be true.

Rule #2 is important to avoid the “hugbox” paradigm. It is very, very tempting to not hurt the other person’s feelings, and not tell them that they have flaws with their work. It’s the mirror image of Rule #1. In fact, Rule #1 exists primarily so that people can follow Rule #2.

Rule #2 requires each person to commit to ripping the living hell out of each other’s work. If there’s something that even looks like it might be a problem, say so. If something isn’t working, tell your partner it isn’t. We are talking full-on, no-holds-barred, brutal honesty.

If all you do is tell the other person how good they are, then you are missing the whole point of collaborative writing. Collaborative writing is all about using the criticism of others to improve the whole. The fact of the matter is, we all have strong points and and weak points. Having multiple people doing a collaborative writing project means it is likely that one person’s weak points are covered by another’s strong points. That’s wonderful…as long as the strong one in a given circumstance speaks up and says something.

So, when reading something someone else has written, go in with the assumption that they suck. If their writing proves this assumption wrong, then wonderful. But if it doesn’t definitively stand up to the assumption of suck, beating it back with full force, then let them have it. Remember, they’ve already agreed to Rule #1, so you won’t be hurting any feelings when you tell them that they do, in fact, suck.

Rule #3: Plan Everything

This one seems pretty obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. When you and your partner(s) sit down to write, you already need to know what (s)he’s writing about, and (s)he needs to know what you’re writing about. That means that you both need to have planned everything out in advance.

The two of us commute for two to three hours every day. That gives us two to three hours a day to talk over everything about the story before we sit down to write it. By the time we’re actually at the computer writing, we know what’s going to happen to which character and why.

If you’re an organic, sit-down-and-see-what-happens writer, this is going to be tough for you. It’s not impossible; that’s Frog’s style of writing as well. But the two of us have found that those discussions are where the organic collaborative process enhances the story. So sit down for a while every day with your partner and bang out the storyline you’re going to be writing. Come up with new motivations, new plot twists, new characters, etc. while talking to each other. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know what you need to put to page, and your parnter(s) will know what it is you’re putting to page so that their stuff lines up with yours.

Otherwise, one partner will always be having to adjust his or her creative flow to adapt for the writing that the other partner has just done. Don’t do that to your partner(s), they’re way to valuable to abuse them like that. Plan Everything.


Rule #4: Divide and Conquer

At the end of the day, there needs to be portions of the story that each person is responsible for. Maybe you divide it by chapters, maybe you do it by characters, maybe you do it by location. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you do the division of labor between you and your partner(s).

What matters is that you divide before you try to conquer. Know, going into the project, who is doing what. Once a person takes a task, the whole group must agree: that person has the ultimate power and the ultimate responsibility for what that task results in. Other people can comment, but the final, ultimate say is theirs.

Decide this allocation of power before you have a disagreement.

You will disagree on stuff. If you’re following Rules #1 and #2, your disagreements will be productive, and will lead to better writing. Some disagreements, though, will not die on those alone. Some will persist. When you divide the labor beforehand, then the person who is not responsible for that given task needs to accept that, at the end of the day, theirs will not be the final word. That way, when the two (or three, etc.) of you are at complete loggerheads, one person makes the call, and then everyone moves on to the next issue.

The only other option is to totally stall the project on that one issue. That way lies madness. Therefore, take the project, divide it, and then conquer it.


Rule #5: Keep. Talking.

All the time. Every day. As you are typing, as you are thinking; you and your partner(s) need to be in almost constant communication about the project. If you go off and do something wonderful, something absolutely brilliant, but you don’t tell everyone about it, then they can’t write to take advantage of it. Conversely, if you do something devastatingly stupid (see Rule #1) that you think is brilliant, your partner(s) can only fix it if you tell them about it.

This is covered a little bit in Rule #3, of course, but the talking needs to occur during the planning phase, the writing phase, and the post-writing phase. Zero-drafts, revisions, every single step of the way. This process only works via hard-core, open communication. When in doubt, tell your partner(s) about it, so that either they can fix it, or you can muddle your way through doubt together.