Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How Can Co-Authoring Work?

Because I've co-authored two novels with Ted Dekker (Kiss, Burn), people often ask me how the collaborative process works. Isn't writing a deeply personal endeavor? Is it really possible for writers to share ownership of their "babies"?

Co-authorship isn't for just anyone, but it can and does work. These are the most common types of writing partnerships that I've encountered during my editorial career:

The Identical Twins: Both authors are equally involved in the entire process of writing, from concept to research to execution to revision to editing. They might write alternating chapters or different characters' points of view. I see this type of collaboration most often among friends who are seeking publication for the first time. This is the most rare type of partnership, though it's how many non-writers (and solo writers) think the typical co-author pair works. It's rare because such partners need to have unusual problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills--not in storytelling, but in working together. It's also rare because it's the most difficult way to get a manuscript that has "one voice."

The Visionary and the Workhorse: One author develops the big-picture concept; the other helps to flesh out the story and then puts it on paper. This type of collaboration works best for storytellers who see their stories as products for consumers rather than as works of literature. James Patterson has built an empire on his story brand, which is so well defined that he can delegate the actual storytelling to other writers. He's prolific, and perhaps he's overpublished, but he is also the leading model of profitable collaborative storytelling today. This type of partnership is also common in Christian publishing, an industry whose messengers aren't necessarily writers. It's more prevalent in non-fiction than in fiction, and yet . . . Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, anyone?

The Yin and the Yang: Sometimes authors pair up because they each have a strong, complementary contribution to make to the storytelling. William Cutrer and Sandra Glahn's medical thrillers come to mind: Both have dramatic flair. Sandy has great writing skills and Bill has the M.D.

The Master and the Apprentice: I'm not the only novelist who got her start by writing stories with an established author. Even Ted Dekker wrote stories with Bill Bright. T. Davis Bunn wrote stories with Jeanette Oke. There are many examples. In this kind of partnership one writer submits to the other's veteran skills, even if both authors are contributing to the story as a whole.

Co-authorship isn't always a great idea. Remember House, which Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker did together? How could it not have worked? These men are smart, they're gifted, they're best-sellers. They share important values and write compatible genres. We tried the Identical Twins approach with them. It quickly fell apart, and by the time we were done with that book, everyone involved needed therapy. Why? In my opinion  Frank and Ted have incompatible creative processes. They are humble, respectful, cooperative. But the way they each create, develop, and write a story is so divergent that trying to blend the two caused almost insurmountable challenges.

If you're thinking about co-authoring a book with someone, consider these aspects before you jump in:

  • Why co-author? What is the goal of your partnership? What can you do together that you can't do solo? Make this your joint mission statement.
  • What does your creative self need to produce your best work? What does your partner need? Are your needs complementary or at odds?
  • What will your process look like?
  • How will you divide the labor? Who will "own" specific responsibilities?
  • How will you solve creative disputes when they arise? (They will arise.)
  • How will you achieve continuity of voice and style in the writing?

Co-authors out there: What partnership models have worked for you? What advice would you give to authors who are thinking about pairing up?