By Hildy Silverman
Sharing story creation and developmental duties with a writing partner might seem daunting, given that we authors tend to invest a certain amount of ego (to put it mildly) into our work. Writing alone, we can be possessive of our characters and staunch in our plans for their adventures. Yet co-authors must be willing to let some “darlings” die in order to successfully create a truly collaborative work—otherwise, hurt feelings and anger could ruin a promising authorial partnership.
In a previous post on this blog, Gareth L. Powell addressed the nuts and bolts of working with a co-author. Rather than rehashing his excellent advice, I am going to focus on the challenges of collaborating, and provide suggestions on how to proactively avoid bruised egos and hurt feelings.
Tip #1: Try before you buy (in)
Whether the other author is a longtime friend or merely a professional colleague, make sure you know what you are getting into before committing to a collaborative project. Read two or more stories they have written previously to discover whether they have a compatible style with yours and the fundamental skills to write at a professional level. You don’t necessarily have to love everything about their style, but you should not be so turned off that you cannot imagine finding common ground to create something new. You definitely should not find their work a chore to read as you mentally correct their every mistake.
Tip #2: Road test
Before you commit to the partnership (and to your editor), try writing a little something together. Mutually decide on a prompt for a short piece and write it the way you plan to approach the actual project. This can help you proactively assess the following:
- Is your partner able to stick to an agreed-upon schedule?
- Do they overly criticize your sections?
- Do they reject your critiques out of hand?
- Does your mutual use of dialogue, descriptors, plot progression, and other story elements mesh well enough to make the final work seamless to readers?
This exercise will allow you to experience firsthand how your partnership would work—or not—before committing to an actual deliverable.
Tips #3: A singular vision
Once you have agreed to work together, it’s time to discuss your planned story. I recommend assembling a roadmap that includes an outline with plot milestones and character sheets.
A character sheet should include:
- Physical description
- Relevant backstory
- Developmental arc
- Way of speaking (dialect, accent, style, etc.)
Once you have reached an accord, keep your roadmap handy while actually writing. This will help you keep track of the fundamentals and make writing consistent story elements easier.
That said, it is important to remain flexible. For example, outlines should be treated as guides and not stone-carved edicts. If you come up with a better idea for the plot or character development, discuss it with your partner first. Similarly, be willing to hear your partner out should they come up with new concepts for your tale.
Tip #4: Set a schedule—and stick to it
When you are ready to start writing, agree to a timeline of deliverables. Use the due date to your editor as a starting point and then work backward to create a reasonable schedule. Include deadlines for receiving edits from your partner and vice-versa. Set expectations. Should work or life events disrupt your ability to meet a deadline, inform your partner immediately.
Have a contingency plan in place should an emergency make it impossible for one of you to continue with the project. This may seem like overplanning, but catastrophes happen, and it is better to be over-prepared than taken by surprise. If one of you finds themselves unable to continue the project, the other should be prepared to take over and finish it. Neither of you wants your professional reputation damaged because you failed to deliver your story.
Tip #5: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Once your collaboration is in progress, avoid friction by being respectful of one another. When you review the portions of the story written by your collaborator, you might discover issues that need addressing. Perhaps they included a plot point you find offensive. Or when writing a character you created, they have the character say something that doesn’t make sense given their background.
Whatever the issue, remember to keep your critiques constructive. Avoid feedback like, “What the hell are you doing here?” or “You made her sound stupid!” Instead, focus on constructive criticism: e.g., “I’m not sure this is believable–let’s discuss,” or “Since she is a Harvard grad, she should say it like this…”
Tip #6: Collaboration beyond the writing phase
Your collaboration should not end once your story is published. Market and promote as the dynamic duo you have become! Here are a few ideas for mutual promotion:
- Arrange to appear on panels or hold joint readings at the same cons
- Appear and sign together at bookstores and festivals
- Schedule dual interviews on podcasts
- Jointly agree on a social media promo schedule and share each other’s relevant posts
You both worked hard on your story together. Why not strive to make it a huge success together, too?
Hildy Silverman writes in multiple genres. Her novella, Invasive Species, was released in 2023 as part of the Systema Paradoxa Cryptid Crate series (pub., E-Spec Books). She is a member of the Crazy 8 Press authors consortium, through which she and Russ Colchamiro have co-authored a series of short stories for the Phenomenons anthologies. Her story, “The Six Million Dollar Mermaid,” was a finalist for the WSFA Small Press award. From 2005-2018, Hildy was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Space and Time, a venerable magazine of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. She is a past president of the Garden State Horror Writers. For more about Hildy, please visit hildysilverman.com.