There is no doubt that writing is both a magical and a lonely profession. We sit at our computers – or some of us older folks at the original IBM typewriters and even others still handwrite– composing our creative works. At times we sit and stare out the window as our minds develop new twists for our stories and characters.
Often, we judge our self-worth by our daily writings. If it’s been a good day and our writing has flown from our fingers, we feel confident of our skills and our abilities. We’re sure our words are gold and will soon (we hope) make us a lot of gold. We’ve connected to the story, the character and success. On bad days we wallow in despair. No matter what we write, it’s dark, halting. Our mind fills with negative anxious thoughts about how terrible things are and believe we are hacks and will never succeed.
Many of us are introverts and prefer to write alone while others who long for the company go to places like Starbucks to write because they like the sense of people around them. Even going places often does not meet the need for contact with others. So, we consider the idea of writing with a partner.
Working with a partner has many pros and cons. I’ve worked a great one, a good one, and I’ve also worked with people whom I prefer not to talk to again. While the right co-writer can be next door or can be miles away many factors go into choosing the person who is best for you to team up with. It is great working side by side in the same room with your partner, but that’s not always possible. Distance can be tricky to overcome so you both must be willing to work at the problem.
But do you want to write with a partner? And what does that really mean to you?
In a couple of cases my agent had several projects that she wanted me to address. All seemed to have priority. Hmm. So, I agreed to pair up with the other client she had and write together. But did we write together? I guess that depends on your definition of togetherness.
A partnership or collaboration is like a marriage and at times can be more intense than one and not to be taken on lightly. Each of you have to define what it means to be a partner. A good partner understands what it means to be a writer, is accountable to you and holds you accountable for what is promised. They are someone for you to brainstorm with and someone analytically like-minded that you can talk though the crazy world that your character lives in and how you both will bring emotion and feelings into this story.
The first thing to consider is why are you seeking a partner? Some of the positives include being able to divide up the work – which should include not only the first draft but however many revision drafts needed by the producer or publishing company. It also includes editing and the costs of publicity and promotion. Something most new writers fail to consider. No, the publisher does not send us anywhere to promote the book. The effort is all ours now.
It’s crucial to consider their abilities and qualifications. Do they match or compliment yours? What are the abilities they bringing to the table that you lack?
The first time I worked with a partner was doing my Fanny Zindel series for St. Martin’s Press. Frustrated with the revisions my editor was asking for and beginning to doubt my own abilities to write the story that pounded in my head I wondered if I needed to quit. I met Ray by accident and found out that she had already published two Harlequin books, so I asked to read them. I was impressed with her style and writing ability. It wasn’t so much that I lacked anything as I knew who the character was and the story that I wanted to write, but it helped to have a different set of eyes for a possible twist or turn in the story.
We lived close by and had many interests in common. Because of her handicap, we ended up working mainly at her place with the computer monitor between us and passing the keyboard back and forth while we talked out the story. When we had questions about the story and differences of where the character would go or do, we’d outline it. If for some reason we still could not come to an agreement we visited a friend-therapist, and each presented the actions etc. from the character’s POV. Yes, our character had therapy! We kept our own personal feelings out of the discussion and put forth points only that related to Fanny and how she would act and react to events in the story.
When you work with a partner, it is their voice that drowns out your subconscious voice. Do they understand what it means to be a writer and the process of being a writer? If so their moral support should overcome your insecurities.
Next, do you like this person? Some people might push that off to the side but writing together can be extremely intense. Many new writers believe that not only is the writing easy but that it’s just a matter of writing the first draft. They’re wrong. It’s not only the first draft but as I said there are revisions, rewrites, publicity events and other things to consider. You might be working together for not only months but even years after. In fact, Ray and I went on to write a second book in the series for the publisher. She and I joked that we saw each other probably more than we saw our respective romantic partners. (Another good point for having things in common besides the writing.)
Because my first venture into partnership felt good, I was willing to try again. Because of my own success a lot of people approach me with “I have a great idea. Why don’t you write it and we’ll split the profits?” I found out the hard way that new writers have no idea of what really goes into the process of writing. They never consider what I mentioned already – revising, rewriting, promotion, or any of the business aspects of writing. Some of them don’t even want to have an agent work with them because they have no idea what the agent is really doing for them.
Once, a friend at work had an idea. Because we were friends and I was intrigued with what he said, I agreed to help him with it. Having been though the writing process many times, I failed to realize he knew nothing of the process – outlining, developing characters, twists, etc. I jumped in full feet into the cement as I wrote a pilot and bible. My friend loved it and so did my agent who set up several network meetings. But then the execs wanted some changes. My friend had no idea what to do and I was up to my ears in current deadlines. No money being offered and there was no guarantee that it would sell afterwards. Then my friend insisted he would receive 50% of whatever we made! I realized then I had made a big mistake by not writing out a contact before we started writing and in California, at least, it’s assumed 50-50 unless there is a written contract. So, we came to a standstill. Yes, it was his original idea, but I had run with it and developed it and done all the work for it as well as getting the meetings and pitching it. No one will buy it until we have a signed contract so it’s in limbo right now and by now my passion for the project has faded.
As a member of MWA and a forensic nurse, I was continually asked medical questions especially about poisons. It became obvious that all the information was written in medicalese and difficult for the ordinary reader to understand. As a nurse, part of our job is to translate what the doctor says into plain English for the patient to comprehend. When a novice asked for help and suggested that I write a book on poisons, I considered it. Already on several deadlines of my own, I asked if she wanted to help and we would split the work. Not only did I not check out her previous writings – one short story – but failed to consider that without her having medical knowledge, she would not understand much of the research. I ended up rewriting many of her chapters, which were both passive and inaccurate, and was floored when she refused to work with our editor’s comments, help with the indexing or doing any promotional work. Needless to say our future relationship – even we were asked to do a second edition of the book – was strained.
Working at distance with several other partners also became awkward for me. Again, it came to the definition of what is a partner and how does one work with partners?
One distance partner worked moderately well. A young adult problem novel about a girl in a psychiatric hospital – based on my own experiences started many, many years ago, had been rejected numerous times not necessarily because of the writing but because those books were not selling then. Now my agent told me it was of interest to publishers. Again, I was on another deadline, and while I had not vetted this particular person, I took my agent’s word for it that she was a good writer. In many respects this was not a real partnership since she took the 100 page outline I had written along with the 5 completed chapters. Smoothing them out and adding a few twists, she polished and finished the book as well as helped promote it. I would have liked to see it while in progress but I let my agent handle things and it turned out fine.
Two other long-distance partners had no real conception of what partnering was. In one case, we had decided on a dual storyline. He would write the historical parts while I did the modern interweaving. Unsure of his own ability, I had to practically pull teeth to get him to show me his drafts. He finally decided the story was not worth the effort. The partner who followed for this story was a multi-award-winning self-published writer, but she had no idea how to be a partner. After much prodding and procrastination on her part, she wrote the whole book without showing me any drafts or asking any questions of how I wanted or liked what she was doing. No matter how many times I or my agent asked she would give excuses and say she would send the material…and never did. In the end, the person who hired us decided the story she created was not right for them.
Then there was the partner who worked with a friend of mine. She took my friend’s idea and characters and ran with it, writing a TV pilot BUT left my friend’s name off the credits. Then she copyrighted it under her name ONLY and sold it -under her name ONLY without giving my friend any credit for her idea or her work! Alas, my friend had not written up a contract between them before hand and relied on verbal agreements.
Things to Question
Even if a friend or an agent introduced you, this partner could still be a flake. Collaboration is like a marriage. You’ll spend a lot of time with them. Are they really “writing savvy?” Ask for referrals. Are they punctual? Responsible?
Spell out goals before you actually start writing and put it in a contract. Be clear about your personal expectations. Write out what each of you want from the project. Be specific as you can. How many hours a week will you work and how will you handle life emergencies? Who will take the lead? What will you do when there are questions about the story? Will you have a third party to assess as we did? How will credit, backend percentages shared, who will be the point person for contacts and what is the lowest you will accept for a sale?
Validate your partner and make sure that partner is at your level of writing. Consider carefully if this partner is up to par and can meet your standards. Do some legwork on their past sales and their past writing. Have they worked with partners before? Is this person established or a wanna be? Lack of experience doesn’t mean a reason to reject someone, but it’s crucial to match skill sets, an understanding of the industry, the genre, and what it takes to sell an item.
Will financial contributions be equal? This includes costs for printing, postage, registration, gas travel, going to and from meetings, research, etc. If you are better off than your partner should expenses be taken off the top of any sale? Again, this should be in the contract. An unequal exchange can cause resentment – the slacker puts it off to your generosity, time, and wealth. If the story is written on spec, you need to know that you both have the time to invest later into selling the project. Keep all your receipts. Keep it business.
You might want to read any feedback they’ve received from other’s notes and be sure to read samples of their work – which I sadly did not. Another method is to collaborate on a scene and verify chemistry and vision shared for the story. You do not want to be doing the heavy lifting, carrying the weight of someone whose craft level is less than yours. The result will be your personal voice, vision, energy is compromised or your “light” is diminished due to your partner’s psychic vampirism. If anything, choose someone a bit ahead of your skill set and contact level to pull you up.
How sensitive are they to feedback and criticism? Establish rules of communication beforehand.
A novice who doesn’t understand the industry might expect a quick and lucrative sale without realizing how drastically You might want to read any feedback they’ve received from other’s notes and be sure to read samples of their work – which I did not. Another method is to collaborate on a scene and verify chemistry and vision shared for the story. You do not want to be doing the heavy lifting, carrying the weight of someone whose craft level is less than yours. The result will be your personal voice, vision, energy is compromised or your “light” is diminished due to your partner’s psychic vampirism. If anything, choose someone a bit ahead of your skill set and contact level to pull you up.
The novice often does not know or understand how the industry has changed. Very few writers these days get the money they think they deserve or might have achieved in past years. When Mary Higgins Clark signed a million dollar contact it made the news because it is news. The average writer these days is lucky to get an advance and even luckier to get public relations done for them. As I said before most of us do our own PR.
Do you and your partner understand the story in the same way? Do you understand the character’s goals, motives, flaws and desires in the same way? Feel the same way about the theme and messages in the story? Do you love their story – I mean are you passionate about it? Or do they love yours? Consider you might be living with it for years of rewriting. (Make sure that is in your contract.)
Should you work with a partner and then decide to later write alone again, you have to consider that as a partner you cannot take all the credit for the story have as the solo writer. How will your ego handle this? Some of us insist that this great line, the essence of the script is your creation. It also means that if you do split up, you’ll return to square one as if you have never published or produced on your own. They will only see you as a part of a team and doubt your wonderful voice with your partner can be repeated by you alone. One idea might be to write the partnership under a different name.
If you decide to write with a partner its about trust. You have to trust in their writing ability; trust they’ll show up, trust they’ll respect your writing and that you both aspire for greatness. You have to be willing to soldier on and see the same potential in them that they see in you.
What if they procrastinate and don’t do the chapters that they have promised? Setting deadlines gets you both working. Often when I work alone, it’s a lot easier to push deadlines especially if you have no accountability. When you promised your partner a draft it’s a lot harder to push it off and admitting that you have let them down. A realistic deadline keeps you moving forward but also remember that life often intrudes, too. It means that you must show up when you and your partner agree and be ready to work. Procrastination is a solo indulgence. When you work with a partner you have accountability.
You might want to consider a possible probation period of one month working together. Agree to a payment off for time used if you decide not to move ahead.
Bad signs –
Are they chronically late? I often try to juggle too many things at once and it is something I have to be aware of.
Do you constantly argue about every point? Do you process your main character’s POV
Does your partner constantly take calls and texts from other people in your writing time? Writing time needs to be special.
How deep does the partner’s passion for the project run? Is she realistic about time frame to set up and sell the project once you are satisfied with the polished draft? It might take 10 drafts before you and the editor or producer are satisfied.
Lastly, if this is a potential romantic partner be aware that dating or sleeping with your partner is a different scenario than writing with one. Bear in mind that a writing relationship – if it goes sour – can destroy any friendship or romantic possibilities. Use a safe word if things get heavy and out of the writing conversation.
A partnership can work out…if you do your homework. Good luck.