Au Contraire writing workshop – Sean Williams on Collaboration

This workshop started excellently, with the lovely Sean Williams giving me a chocolate frog. He had chocolate frogs for everyone. He’s some kind of genius basically. Anyway, he started by talking about what fears might be stopping us from collaborating with others. For example you might be afraid of opening yourself up to other people in that way. You might be afraid that they’ll reject you or your ideas.

But he said that it’s worthwhile to overcome these fears, because it’s impossible to say this is the only way you can tell this story. There must be another way, you just can’t see it. Working with someone else can open that up, and their way might be better.

A neat list of reasons why collaboration is good:

It can help you get through the dip. There’s always a time when you just don’t want to keep writing, for whatever reason. If you’re writing with someone they can motivate you to finish it. Either by actually motivating you or because you feel you owe them.

Another person can revitalise dead ideas. They can provide you with a new view on something that you thought was broken. Besides, you have nothing to lose if you have a dead story, so what’s the harm?

It can be a career booster. If you write with someone more famous than yourself, you get a bit of their fame. It could start a career, or restart a career as well.

You can fix each other’s blind spots. Two pairs of eyes are obviously better than one, this is excellent for writers because you can catch each other’s mistakes.

If you get stuck work can continue without you. This is pretty huge. The other person can keep on writing if you’re blocked. Or you can talk your problem through with the other person. Maybe ask them to do the next bit. “I can write something awful and he would fix it.” ~ One of Sean’s quotes on working with Garth Nix.

Creative Rush. You get to do brainstorming with another person. This helps you to think things through and work out the plot points.

It’s harder to deviate from the plot. If you’re working with someone else you kind of have to stick to the game plan, at least the basic one. Wild tangents are fun but they’re not always good. By being courteous to the other person you are (hopefully) keeping the story tighter.

You get to surprise your collaborator. You might write something new and awesome that you know your collaborator will love. Imagine the fun when you send it to them, and they like it! Sean also mentioned you can write in-jokes into the MS and you can laugh about them and then edit them out. Maybe.

Mythical Third Writer. You can end up with something that neither of you could do individually. The whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts, and you can get this kind of virtual third writer. A combination of the two of you, with a distinct voice.

Above all: it’s fun! It teaches you things about your writing, it motivates you to keep on writing, you get to spend lots of time with your collaborator and Sean described amazing times with Garth Nix where they just get together and eat lots of pizza and talk and it sounded awesome.

OK, so if you’re convinced and you want to collaborate, you’re gonna need some kind of idea of how to go about it. Sean gave us these guidelines that have worked for him in the past. As with anything in writing, you can probably ignore most of these and still have a collaborative success and you can probably do all of them and have a collaboration not work out.

Trust. You have to have faith in each other that you will complete the project. You have to have respect for each other’s talent. You have to believe that they can bring something worthwhile to the project. If they are all blind spot about their own writing, what are you doing with them? You have to trust the other person enough to be happy for their name to be on the finished work.

Communication. You need communication to sustain the relationship. You have to work hard at the relationship with your collaborator. Communicate about your feelings as well as how the project is going. Every collaborative relationship is different too, it’s not something that can be learned once and for all.

Interest. You both have to be invested in the work. Enjoyment, interest and love for the project are key.

Work Split. It’s not that you do half the work. When you factor in the added time communicating with the other person as well as writing and redrafting it’s more like you do 80% of the work and the other person does 80% and in the end you can expect to have about 160% of the project done.

Final Veto. One of you needs to have the right of final veto. The deal breaker if there’s an argument, or a difference of opinion. Likewise one of you gets to have the Final Rewrite. One person has to do the final pass. It’s really important that one person does this to smooth the writing into a single voice. This is the way you achieve the Mythical Third Writer.

Copies. You have to be able to keep track of who has what version of the manuscript. You have to know which copy you’re working on at any given time. Some sort of file numbering system can work. Peter Friend in the workshop suggested adding the date to the end of the file name, but you have to remember to update it each day. Compare documents in Word can be good if you forget what version you have.

Don’t be Precious. You must bear in mind that it doesn’t matter who wrote what line. You both will get the credit for the work.

Rules. Make your own rules for how it’s all going to work with your partner and then stick to those rules. Remember also that different writers have different needs, you must accept this and that there may be clashes along the way.

Professional. Be it. Meet your deadlines, agree on the pace you will write at, set out the name placement on the cover/byline and what size your names will be. As much as you can, reduce the possibilities for arguments in advance by laying this stuff out. Also who gets paid what, if you are getting paid.

Someone in the workshop, I have forgotten who, suggested that a private wiki between the two collaborators can be great for keeping track of little details in your stories/series.

After that we did a collaboration exercise where as a big group we decided on a premise and then broke into pairs to decide on the lead character’s name and how the story would play out and end. I collaborated with a lovely guy called Ryan where we decided that a previously unmentioned benefit of collaboration would be the other person could choose character names. I find it terribly hard to do and so does Ryan. Our story ended up being a heart warming tale of finding your own way in the world through serial murder, but the less said about that the better.

In the end I feel very inspired to collaborate with someone…

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6 thoughts on “Au Contraire writing workshop – Sean Williams on Collaboration

  1. How has the collaboration on the Larp gone? Did you find that you had already experienced these suggestions/ideas in that collaboration?

  2. Svend: I think I’m more open to some things through roleplaying but overall I think collaborating on a novel would be a very different experience. Heaps harder!

    Sam: Paul and I have had a dream experience, we’re totally on the same wavelength with the superhero characters and we haven’t had a single disagreement. It’s been amazing, actually.

  3. TBH the levels of collaboration on The Event were pretty low. We were all working individually but using the same setting. We did build on each other’s stuff, but we didn’t really communicate about what we were doing at all. Good fun, but not much like the stuff described above.

  4. Have done it a couple of time, but it was a couple of years ago. Stuff springboarded from IM silliness, and ended up in a googledoc getting some structure to it. There’d be notes all over the place (“This line! This line is crap! FIX IT!” and “And then between this scene and the next, a miracle occurs and it all makes sense” etc) and you’d both be typing in the same doc at the same time, fixing each others typos and generally being a pain. Piles of fun.

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