Working with other writers

In the last two articles I’ve given solid advice about sending work out for feedback and how to accept work to offer feedback on.  This week I’m going to talk about working with other writers.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this, lets take a brief look at what The Writer gets to do.  They get to build.  They can build it all from scratch or recycle one or more points from other sources.  They literally get to be the creator of it all if they choose to be.   They decide what the world looks like, who the characters are, what side of the bed they wake up on, the trials and tribulations that they encounter, the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, and the ugly too.   In short, The Writer has total control.

Writers — plural —  have less control.  Even in a rare pairing where two writers know each other so well they fit well, there are conflicts between the creative forces.  Its part of the beast, all that potential to build and craft a story usually ends up with someone getting emotionally invested in a specific Point-Of-View and when two of these POVs become mutually exclusive, there is friction.  In well run groups, someone backs down.   When there are more than two writers collaborating on a project, this gets progressively more and more complicated.  If you have ever read a compendium of short stories by two dozen authors, you will have seen that while the universe and theme might stay consistent, the storyline typically jumps all over the place.

The pitfalls observed, lets look at the benefits.  First and foremost, you have your Beta Readers built in.  You really can’t be a successful writer if your not also an avid reader.  You cannot hope to be part of a collaborative project if you won’t read what the others write.  Second, you have someone who can help you with the hard parts, or even perhaps a specialist or two that can offer parts of the story you cannot manage.   Writers may not have total control of the work, but its often times a means to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.   One writer works on their strengths and leaves off where they are weak, and the other (or others) do likewise.  It sounds like a wonderful way to put out a really great story right?   Its not.  It works a lot like a marriage.  And how many of those end in divorce?  But if you do your part to make things work, the creative crucible can produce really intense results.

So why would you agree to commit to such madness.  You might be invited to it by someone who’s work you respect.  You might get to collaborate with friends.  Or, perhaps you get invited to continue where another writer left off, most notably after their death.  In future articles I’ll discuss working with another writer’s Intellectual Property with permission (under license or contract) or without (Fan Fiction).  For the rest of this article lets assume your partners are still alive and an active part of the project.

You’ve chosen a literary partner that you can get along with.  You have the story idea, where you do you get started?  Its a really good question, and there is no ‘right’ answer.  Pitch in and between the lot of you figure out where your creative processes are leading you and try and leave the other(s) alone for the first draft.  Plot it out first?  Just grab a hook and start writing and fit it all together later?  Establish a world and a setting before crying Havoc! and let slip the dogs of literature?  Some common ground rules are crucial, but I can’t offer you a ready made framework for your project.  There is hope, because you and your partner(s) are all intelligent enough to write stories, I’m sure you can settle on ground rules.  While some plotting might be unavoidable, its a good idea to plot together, but write apart.  When your stuck go back to the group, but don’t depend on the group to do your work for you.   And please don’t spend so much time in the group that you don’t leave enough time for your work.

In other words, Its every bit as important to close the door to your writing partners until you complete ‘first draft’ of each section.  After you’ve finished a draft of a section, that’s when its time to swap with your partner and read theirs as they read yours.  Unlike the solo writer, you will need to swap sections a little more often, so that both of you know the project isn’t falling apart.  This leads us to the next point.

Who is the Editor?  Your group needs to understand that with several different writers, an Editor will be necessary and that editor could be one of the writers, or might be someone holding themselves apart from the writers in order to be above the literary bickering.  The Editor, becomes the final word on what parts of the work stay, which go, and who gets their way.   Remember that sometimes you’ll be the one that wins these little spats and sometimes you wont be.  You agreed to work together to craft a story and it has the potential to be something great…  Just try and remember that when your feeling picked on.

Alright, the drafts are in, the Editor has put things into a cohesive story, and its time to start sending it out for an outside read.  Everything that I said two weeks ago still applies.  For that matter everything I said last week does to.  The difference is that there are more people to report to on what the Beta Reader finds.  However, one big difference is that with an Editor on the project already, there should be far fewer problems with the story.

For this next section, I need to apply a disclaimer:  I am not a lawyer, Accountant, or any sort of privileged advice professional.  I cannot give legal or money advice.  The rights of a collaborative project are tied up in interesting ways.  If the work of one specific writer can be reasonably separated from the whole,  then that writer may be able to claim independent rights to those parts (Example: A report writes for a newspaper under a byline.  Anything under that byline they can lay independent claim to).  If the work of one specific writer can not be reasonable separated from the whole, then that writer cannot claim independent rights to the work. (Example: Brian Sanderson took the mountains of source material, dictated tapes, partially written scenes, and other sundry and miscellany that Robert Jordan left behind after his death and finished the Wheel of Time for us.  In those books, it is mostly impossible for the reader to figure out where Jordan’s work ends and Sanderson’s begins.  Those books must show both writers in the credits.  You should already have an idea of what a partnership will bring you.  Set the terms at the beginning and stick to them.  That aside, make sure you know what your rights to the project and any future work will be after the project ends.  Do set these details down before you get started and make sure its in writing.

As far as dealing with a project partner that stops being active, or worse, dies, is where you need to get real legal advice based on the laws of the State(s) and terms involved in your specific situation.

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