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Considering Co-Authorship? Tips, Insights & Wisdom from Women Who Have Done It Well
Contributor
Written by
The Salonniere
July 2018
Contributor
Written by
The Salonniere
July 2018

When to collaborate, and how?

by Kamy Wicoff

"Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean you can write together. We know people who had to abandon co-authoring in order to maintain their friendship. Writing is very personal. Can you stand it if someone else is messing around with your words? Do you expect to be writing every day? Will you come together after each of you has completed a designated section and compare notes? How will you resolve differences?"
--Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, coauthors of seven novels including, most recently, Uptown.

A few months ago, I received a request to take a look at a new book called Three Wishes: A True Story of Good Friends, Crushing Heartbreak, and Astonishing Luck on Our Way to Love and Motherhood.

We don't make a habit of promoting particular books on She Writes (where would we start, with all the amazing books written by the She Writers here?), but we do look for ways that She Writers' experiences can help our members write better and publish smarter. So when I saw that Three Wishes had been written by not one, not two, but three women, I knew I wanted to write about it. Or more specifically, I knew I wanted to ask these three women one obvious question: How did you DO that?

I was particularly intrigued because for me to write, I need calm, I need quiet, and, for the most part, I need to be alone. But I'd recently had the honor to meet the bestselling novel-writing team (now really, how do you do THAT?) of Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, and had whizzed through the compelling co-authored book written by sisters Lisa and Laura Ling, Somewhere Inside. These three co-author teams came to collaborate in very different ways, around very different books, and I asked all of them to tell me a little bit more about how it worked for them.

Three Way

For Pamela Ferdinand, Beth Jones, and Carey Goldberg, the decision to co-author was driven by the story they wanted to tell: three friends who found love and motherhood at points in their lives when they'd given up looking. "Every time we told our story to someone, they told us we should write a book!" Pam told me via email. And as Beth observed, "There really wouldn't have been a story without all three of us. One woman getting lucky is wonderful, and interesting. Two is surprising. Three, as we say in journalism, makes a thread."

The challenge for these three friends was preserving their distinct voices while weaving their narratives together in a compelling way. They hit upon a clever solution to this problem by constructing brief "dialogues" that opened each chapter, allowing each of their voices to be heard before the narrative was handed over to the woman writing the chapter that followed. They also followed the advice given to them by publishing experts that because having three co-authors was so unusual, they probably wouldn't be able to sell the book on a proposal. (Publishers would likely ask, "can they really pull this off?") So they wrote it start to finish first, and sold it within days to Little, Brown.

All three women edited one another, but they worked separately. "It helped that each of us was responsible for our own chapters, so we didn't have to take each other's advice, even though we usually did," Carey remembers. "Most of the time, if one of us had written something we wanted to hold onto, and the other two swore that it really didn't work, it would get cut. It can be so hard to let go of some things in a memoir, particularly if they're fueled by the desire for literary revenge. It really helped to be ganged up on."

Final words of advice for writers considering collaboration from the three women of Three Wishes? "Draw up a legal collaboration agreement that anticipates any conflicts. Even if there aren't any, it's important to treat the creative process of writing a book together as a business because that is ultimately what it becomes if the book is published." Templates for collaboration agreements can be found online.

Sisters

Laura and Lisa Ling were also compelled to collaborate by the nature of the story they wanted to tell: that of one sister, taken captive in North Korea and detained for a harrowing 140 days, and another sister, working frantically to secure her sister's release. For Laura, the decision to write the book with Lisa was an emotional one: "I wanted to write the book with Lisa because throughout my captivity, even though we were half a world away, I felt totally connected to my sister. This book is about my experience in captivity, the story I set out to cover, and Lisa's efforts to bring me home. But at its heart, it's about the bond of sisterhood and the power of siblings."

So how did they actually do it? "Lisa and I didn't read much of each other's writing until quite late in the process. We wanted to make sure we maintained our individual voices. But we physically wrote together as often as we could -- usually sitting on opposite ends of my couch with our laptops on our laps and a single blanket covering both of our legs." Laura and Lisa also took the approach, similar to the authors of Three Wishes, of writing chapters alone, and then building the book in alternating voices. "After we had each completed our first draft," Laura told me, "we interwove the stories and then looked at it as a whole."

The Author (Not Authors)

Virgina DeBerry and Donna Grant have co-authored a whopping seven novels together, with enormous success. For DeBerry and Grant, the decision to collaborate in this unusual way (very few novel-writing teams exist) was not driven by a story they could only tell together, but instead by a collaboration they had already begun as journalists and editors who "worked together seamlessly." Even for the purposes of this interview, they did not disentangle their unified authorial voice ("we say we are the author of our books, not the authors"), and true to form, they have only one She Writes profile page for the two of them. "What we do is more organic than orchestrated," they explained to me. "Almost like having two halves of the same brain, which may sound a little freaky, but it's as close as we can get to a metaphor." How does that one big DeBerry/Grant brain actually write? "We both write and/or rewrite everything that's on the page, but we have to be in the same place to do it. Sometimes we're side by side at the desktop PC and the keyboard goes back and forth between us, (sometimes) we write simultaneously -- one at the laptop, the other at the desktop, both of us writing the same section. Then we come together, read each other's work and weave them together, a sentence or two at a time." It's an incredibly intimate process and a long-standing partnership, and hasn't always made "work-life balance," in the sense most people (or most non-writers?) would understand it, possible. "At this point, our work and our friendship have become inseparable. And that's where the difficulty comes in. So much of what we do goes on in our heads whether it's convenient or not; pieces of a story, character traits or settings are always floating in there somewhere, often near the surface and often commanding attention, which means that writers, are essentially, at work all the time. When the writing process involves two people, it can make separating our work lives and our personal lives challenging." For this "author," however, writing with a partner is not a strategy or a one-time thing, but a way of being creative that speaks powerfully to them both, despite its challenges. "Don't go into this (co-authoring) thinking it will lighten the load and allow you to finish twice as fast. That may work for raising a barn, but not necessarily for writing a book. Sometimes we think it takes twice as long, but we find it fulfilling, we like the way our different perspectives help keep characters and plots fresh, and oh by the way, we have a hell of a lot of fun in the process. Our first book together, Exposures, which we wrote under the pseudonym Marie Joyce (because we are Donna Marie and Virginia Joyce and you don’t get to use your middle name for much), was an experiment to see if we could write together, if anyone would publish it, and if readers would pick it up and spend their time reading it. We were able to answer yes to those questions. So we’re still at it."

TELL US YOUR CO-AUTHORING STORY (IF YOU HAVE ONE)

Have you written with another writer? Have you thought about it? Tell us about your experiences and ask questions She Writers can help you answer.

 

* This post was originaly published in July 2010.

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Comments
  • Katherine Nyborg

    Most of my writing has been collaborative in some fashion or another, but it wasn't until recently that my friend, the immensely talented Simone Cooper, and I decided that we could write collaboratively, and be serious about having our work published. We've finished one novel that's now under consideration, and we're working on our second.

    I live in Seattle, she lives in Portland, and we do a lot of our initial draft writing via Chat and IM. We get together once or twice a month for a few days, brainstorm together, then go home and continue writing. After the first draft is done, we take turns going over each scene, revising, winnowing, polishing. We use a shared Dropbox, so all our documents are accessible to both of us as long as we have a computer and internet connection.

    For me, the three most important things I've learned about the collaborative process is 1) to have fun, 2) to trust in the process, and 3) to trust in the intention and skills of my writing partner. We both want the same thing, which is to write the absolute best story we can, and we want to do it together. With that firmly in mind, it becomes a lot easier to set aside ego. We have learned how to not take edits personally, and to trust our instincts and speak up when something isn't quite the way it needs to be. And because of that willingness to work through whatever comes up, we get to have a partner in creation, and we both find that to be extraordinarily cool.

  • Miranda C. Spencer

    I come at this from a different angle as a ghostwriter -- collaboration is the name of my game! Except that the balance-of-power is a bit different. Ultimately the client has the final say on my work and suggestions, but oftentimes (since I tend to work with newbies) they accept my material because they view me as "the expert." As I said in my "How She Does It," though, eventually who is who starts to become fuzzy because of the Vulcan Mind Meld that occurs when I the ghostwriter get to the point where I'm in the writer's head, thinking and editing in their voice. But it sounds like Donna and Virginia have a Mind Meld unlike any other...I'm impressed and awed, even.

    That said, I do have a friend who asked me to help her write a children's book, and I think that personal-level writing collaboration is going to be a bit more difficult, especially since we're both such strong-minded women! But when the time comes, I think I'll defer to her since she had the original idea...

  • Linda Ribordy

    I am Diane Turners co-author and I can only add what a delightful journey this has been. She's a good friend and this has been such fun. We always say its about the journey not the where it ends. We have a blog about the book, which is titled After Ellie. [email protected] The first two chapters are there, but they have been extensively rewritten since then and I will try and get the new chapters posted. Tell us what you think...

  • Diane Turner

    My good friend and I are currently collaborating on a full-length novel. We generally agree on most things - plot, character, edits - and have managed to maintain our friendship in the process (we laugh a lot). It hasn't been all flowers and light, however. We don't always agree on what should be cut and what should stay and structure. We created a loose outline, then each chose parts to write, which we put together like a picture puzzle - probably not the most efficient method, we've discovered, but we've managed to create a singular voice. We never write together, though we are both appreciative of the others work. We get testy with one another at times, disagree on edits at other times, but all in all, I think we have learned some valuable lessons about the creative process and each other. I think we'd both do it again.

  • Christina Brandon

    Great idea for a post. I'm currently in the midst of a collaboration project myself. My partner and I are mostly on the same page when it comes to character, plot, etc. and I think we're doing a good job of creating a unifying voice. Except we did not follow Anna's advice-- talking about deadlines and editing before writing!

    This was obviously a huge mistake because my partner and I both have very different writing habits-- I'm goal-oriented and need deadlines, he just "goes with the flow." It's frustrating because I feel like I'm carrying this project on my own now.

    Anyway, this post has given me some ideas on what we can talk about and (hopefully!) we'll be able to improve our collaborative process. Thanks again!

  • sara parker

    My best friend from high school and i are talking about writing a book together, alternating chapters of our experiences growing up in a beach town on the 80's, separately, then together, and where we grew from there. it will be based on our memories, but fictionalized so we can fill in the memory blanks :)

  • I liked the way the story in Three Wishes was intertwined; each chapter was about one woman, but also about her friends and they jumped off from each other and meshed quite well.

  • Sarah Irving

    Thanks Kamy, for this excellent post. As another example of how co-operation on a book can work, I'd like to share my own experience with Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, published earlier this year.
    The situation which I found myself in is, I suspect, one that might quite commonly give rise to some form of collaboration on a written project, in that I saw the potential for a book in someone else's story. I was a reasonably experienced professional writer which the idea came up, but the central individual was already a talented writer who just didn't have the confidence or experience to turn their online writings into a book.
    This came about because my friend and fellow activist Sharyn was one of the people who set up the FreeGaza boat project – the precursor to the flotilla which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish aid activists when their boats were attacked by Israeli forces recently. Although that flotilla had been joined by big boats funded by governments and NGOs, the first few boats which broke the Gaza blockade in summer 2008 were tiny vessels with just a few people – journalists, parliamentarians, peace activists etc – onboard. Sharyn was one of them, and as a result she spent five months in Gaza, including during the intensity of the 22-day 'Operation Cast Lead' Israeli aerial bombardment and re-invasion of Gaza over New Year 2008/9. She wrote an amazingly powerful blog of her experiences working with ambulances and observing the horrors of the attack, and eventually returned home in summer 2009.
    I'd already written most of one book by this point and had a contract for that and a generally good relationship with Pluto, a long-established political press based in London (distributed in the US by Macmillan). I was convinced that Sharyn's blog would make a great book, and they agreed. But Sharyn herself wasn't confident that she could turn her web writings and personal emails into a book, and so we ended up agreeing to work together. We did a certain amount of discussing and negotiation (over food and wine in several instances) and came up with a rough division of labour. Sharyn would take the 90,000 or so words she'd already written and start doing some general cutting – removing repetitions, establishing where it was and wasn't safe to reveal the identities of Palestinian friends and colleagues, and writing up her notes from some of the most intense periods of the aerial bombardment and ground attack, which she'd never actually had time to comprehensively post. This included the most dramatic central scene of the book, where the hospital in Gaza city which she had been based in was set on fire by white phosphorus shells.
    My jobs emerged as follows:
    - I would continue the cutting process, which entailed getting the overall wordcount down to 60-65,000 words, by looking with a less intimately involved eye at which stories and incidents didn't work in isolation or didn't add to the overall narrative, and finding ways to refine bits of text which, blog-style, were able to refer at will to previous events or incidental thoughts;
    - I would also write up a number of 'boxes out'. In blogs, factual statements can be backed up, or references explained, using links to articles or websites. But this is, of course, impossible in a book and Sharyn didn't feel confident undertaking factual research about issues such as 'the laws of war' or the outcomes of the UN enquiry into the Israeli attack, so where it seemed necessary to make the story clear, I wrote up 'fact boxes'. Sharyn also didn't feel confident about writing the fairly historical introduction which set the foundation of the Free Gaza boat project and her own involvement in Palestine into context, so I did that too;
    - more nebulous, but probably most vital, was my role in convincing Sharyn that she had something important to say, that turning her blogs into a book would take the things she had seen to a wider audience, and that the quality of her writing made it worth the several months of cutting and shaping it took to create the finished piece. I had experience of dealing with publishers and the press, and I don't think Sharyn would have wanted to deal with that whole aspect of the process on her own.

    I was pretty nervous about taking on the project to start with. We were friends and had worked together politically, but we didn't know each other that well and I was aware that we could come out of the process hating each other. Actually, both creating the book itself and the book events and press work which followed publication have gone amazingly smoothly, and I don't think we've every really had a proper argument about it. I think it helped a lot that we had a clear sense of each other's skills and abilities: I respected Sharyn as an amazingly lyrical, simple, honest writer who moves her readership to tears. She respected my confidence in approaching a publisher to start with and my much more prosaic skills of research, structure and editing, working out how to cut a third from the length of a story, whilst re-writing or selecting the vital sections to convey the key feelings and events. Laying out clear workplans and making sure that all our expectations of each other were talked through and agreed stage-by-stage also helped a lot, as did making sure that as much as possible of that negotiation went on in casual settings – curry restaurants and shisha cafes mainly. I don't think it's something that I'd do with many other people, but this time I think it worked pretty well for both of us.

  • Anna Leahy

    I'm a big fan of collaboration, and pleased that this article presents a variety of approaches. I agree that it's really important to talk about how the process will work. (I've never had a legal agreement, but that seems like a good idea for a book-length project.) In my experience, it's especially good to have a sense of how your collaborators treat deadlines and editing. It's not as much about everyone doing exactly the same amount of work as it is about creating something together that can't be done individually.

    I've been cultivating what I call the "conversation essay," which is formatted like an interview, but reads as a conversation about a topic. See "Good Counsel" in the latest issue of Mid-American Review or the piece on the emerging poet in Bookslut (http://www.bookslut.com/features/2009_01_013859.php). It's a great form for focusing on a particular topic, while including several viewpoints, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Also, it breaks the writing into very manageable chunks as the draft file makes its rounds and grows.

    My current collaboration is Lofty Ambitions, a blog I co-write with my husband about aviation, science, and writing as a couple (http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com). It's been great fun, and we have one post up already about our collaborative writing experience--about a nerd date night of sorts. But creating a single voice is a challenge, so we often draft together, working through sentences aloud. I've also collaborated on scholarly articles, and that allows me to write about areas I couldn't cover on my own.