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?


Mi5zons said...

Erin, that was an amazing answer. It's so funny you mentioned House because I was so truly disappointed. The book for me personally didn't flow. I felt the same way you did that two authors that I love would work together and for me the book didn't. It was almost as if you could tell who wrote which parts.

Being nosey how do you work out the logistics of co-authoring? I know it would depend on the style but for example with you and Dekker did you sit together? Or do you email or talk on the phone? I find this really interesting.

Thanks for taking the time to answer me. I told my husband I knew I could ask Erin because she has time for her readers and always takes the time to make us all feel important.

Chrystal Mahan said...

It seems co-authoring would be better than ghostwriting. It allows for both creative minds to be known. I like that idea. I am the visionary and the workhorse but it is hard for me to be both. For example, I have a novel I am working on with my husband. I started with a short story I wrote for my creative writing undergrad class. I could not be creative past that. He can. So, for that story I became the workhorse while he is the visionary. I have a couple of other stories that I have written, or partially written along with a synopsis of how I want the story to go. I am working with a ghostwriter to be the workhorse since becoming a grad student I just don't have the time. I do not mind sharing a co-authoring with her, but I wonder why so many writers use ghostwriters for help but do not give them any credit.

Erin Healy said...

Kristy, Ted and I worked by doing all the things you mentioned. Ted in particular is a very verbal thinker. He does most of his envisioning and decision-making aloud. So we spent hours and hours in person and on the phone, outlining ideas. I did the writing, because our voices are so different and we wanted the novel to feel unified. Ted worked like a director. In this case he was the master and I was the apprentice, so I deferred to his desires for the story, but he invited and accepted my input in shaping characters, plots, themes, and story lines.

Erin Healy said...

Chrystal, co-authoring is an arrangement in which the co-author is expected to make some level of creative contribution to the overall vision for the project. Ghostwriters are more typically hired to help communicators who are not writers. Their task is not to contribute to the substantive content of the story or message, but to organize and communicate the message in the clearest or most engaging manner, in a way that represents the idea's owner. Ghostwriters today are more likely to get credit than they were ten or twenty years ago. Generally speaking, co-authorships can be identified by an "and" between the author names, while ghostwriters get a "with" byline.

Krista Jaeger said...

A friend and I have been working on a story together for about five years on and off, and we finally decided we wanted to try and turn it into a novel (or series, considering the length XD). We are probably most like your "identical twins" concept, considering we've been writing it in a sort of forum-based post by post method, but we're unsure how to take all of these individual replies and put them into one consistent voice once we actually make our way to the end of the plot. Do you have any advice for us, by chance?

Erin Healy said...

Krista, I apologize for not seeing your post sooner. If your narrative voices are distinctive, you have a few options: (1) The task of revising the parts into a whole should fall to just one of you, to create a consistent voice. (2) Each of you could take different characters' points of view, so that the narrative voices are distinct among the cast. (3) Learn each other's voices (pet words, sentence constructions, pacing rhythms, and so on) and learn how to mimic them. Decide on the specific qualities of the voice you want for your novel--ideally qualities that represent your unique blend. If you can name the qualities of voice, it will be easier for both of you to unify and protect it. Hope that helps!

Krista Jaeger said...

Thanks! I honestly wasn't sure if you'd answer or not, since this post was so old, and I appreciate it.

We'll definitely keep what you said in mind when we start revision, and probably start discussing the process a little more fully as we get closer and closer to the end. Especially your third point, probably, since I think as we've gone on, our styles have started to meld more than we realized. It definitely helps to get advice from someone who has actually been published. Thanks so much!