Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 32: Collaboration

For starters, let’s clear the air. Yes, the first episode of the new year is also the last episode of Writing Excuses Season 3. And yes, we’ll be getting Season 2 and Season 3 on CDs pretty soon here.

Collaboration! This is one of our all-time most requested topics, and we’re covering it now because we still haven’t done much actual collaborating but we want to talk about it anyway. Why? Because we each have some collaborations planned (including one for all three of us, but shhh… it’s still a secret) and it will be fun to talk about this again in a year or so and argue about all the things we got wrong this time around.

But you should still listen to what we say here in our collaborative infancy. That way you can lord it up over us when we flip-flop after having attempted to work together.

You should also pay attention when we tell you beginning writers why you should not be collaborating. And then we’ll give you some procedural tips for when you decide to collaborate anyway.

Writing Prompt: Write a story (all by yourself) about a collaboration which goes horribly, horribly wrong.

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51 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 32: Collaboration”

  1. I’d often thought about collaboration on some of the story ideas I came up with. Eventually I found someone willing to give it a go with me, but found that the other writer and I never quite saw eye-to-eye.

    I had a vision of where I wanted the story to go, a direction for the character arcs, and my partner had differing ideas. It got to the point where I thought we would be writing two entirely different books. It was originally my idea for a story so I kept the tale, shelved it until I felt I could write it better, and started something else.

    So we went our separate ways and started anew on our own new projects. If I decide to collaborate again it will have to be with someone who shares the same vision of the story with me. A way to do that would be to write the plot-outline together, even if we take different routs we’ll still get to the same destination.

  2. Nice show on collaboration, but for now I will take your advice and NOT DO IT. I know I have weak areas in my writing that I need to work on and as you said, if I were to collaborate with someone I might be inclined to take the easy way out and hand them off instead of forcing myself to do it.

    I look forward to seeing the results of any Writing Excuses team collaborations, so good luck with that project.

    I would love to read some of the manuscripts that you guys say are too weird to sell even if they are first drafts, so if you could post some of them on your websites sometime I would be grateful.

    Thank you.

  3. I’ve tried the collaboration route and it’s a lot of fun, but you’re absolutely right. It will. Not. Make things easier. It was a lot more work and it ended up petering out after only a couple of chapters.

    Actually, it would be an interesting experiment to try now that I’m not sixteen and working on a dead-end story. Hum.

    Howard: I am a terrible artist. If I really do write something and draw pictures with it, I’m sending those pictures to you as a punishment.

  4. Interesting discussion, and I love that your main piece of advice was “you probably aren’t ready yet, master your own art first.” I always felt like collaboration when you still don’t have your own voice was a dangerous idea because if you don’t have yourself figured out yet as a writer, how can you find good hook points to work with someone else.

    Out of curiosity any idea when you guys plan to publicly announce what project you are working on together? I guess I should say projectS since there’s the pair writing between Dan and Brandon and the project all three of you are working on.

  5. Hm, I think on it and I wonder, I can think of one benefit to collaborating even if you need to work on your various writing skills still. Being forced to explain things to someone else always forces you to elaborate on the whys and hows of it more completely, instead of simply thinking that you know it and stopping thinking about that part.

    Is it worth the other problems? That I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’d be better to simply have someone you bounce all the ideas off of without working together on the actual story. Hrm

  6. First of all: Holy crap, yet another Patrick Sullivan crops up. I seem to bump into my namesakes everywhere.

    Secondly: I’ve been down the collaboration road before, and you’re right. Things just get to a huge headache. Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t like the results, but I do think they could’ve been a whole lot better – perhaps I’m not naturally adept at working well with other writers. Fortunately, we had creative visions for the project that were more or less equal, and this turned out to our advantage. In the end, I suppose it’s hit-and-miss as far as the end results’ quality.

  7. that comic tip, well when I was in the 7th grade comic group I noticed that everyone wanted to be a writer (including me) but instead of just wishing I got up and start drawing..

    thing is, Its a ways way before I draw well enough and now to take up writing again is scary but I do it any ways.

  8. I’m glad for this episode. It reassured me that I was doing the right thing in being vaguely confused by the amount of interest and entirely uninterested myself in collaboration. It seems to be the focus of at least every other amateur writer I meet.

    Also, I was amused at Howard kicking ass with the writing prompts.

  9. Collaberation is something I had thought about but I know that I would want (almost) full control of the story.

    There are times when some help seems to be needed, but usually just someone to bounce ideas off of gets me going again.

    Now if I was foolish enough to try a graphic novel, I’d HAVE to have an artist. Otherwise I’d have to use stick figures and they would be terrible.


  10. Great podcast! I’ve had some friends approach me about doing collaborations (mainly an “I’ll write, you draw!” format) and I have a hard time explaining why I’m currently not too keen on the idea. I’m not sure if it’s a common occurrence, but the last time I tried a collab, it felt more like I was doing most of the work–coming up with the storyline, characters, penciling and inking…which was not ideal, at all. =( If anything, I would have liked to have tried establishing some level of ground rules, as you guys mentioned…or have some way to balance out the workload.

    Anyway, I found this episode reassuring, and I definitely want to be a stronger storyteller so the next time I try it, (probably not in the near future) I’ll have a better idea of how to make it work.

    Thanks for the advice!

  11. I think I would really dislike collaboration on a novel. I do, however, love having someone to bounce ideas off of, who shares my style. My brother fits that mold quite nicely.

  12. This was a needed episode. I spent years leaning on an idea my friend and I had been working on. When I met Brandon at a signing and got some advice in person, I decided I needed to make more tangible goals and set a simple, small goal of 500 words per day. I soon found myself capable of more than 1500 words per day most days, and this upset my friend. Despite years of ironing out the setting and plot, he was actually upset that I was making progression.

    We ended up having a falling out, and despite 10 years of friendship, I haven’t heard from him in a year. I really think it was a silly thing, but it all would have been a little bit easier if I’d set off to write my ideas on my own in the first place.

    I’ve spent that year since dealing with so many fears about whether I’m “good enough” to write on my own before something Dan said in a Writing Excuses episode hit me really hard;

    “Don’t be afraid to write a bad book.”

    Now I’ve participated in Nanowrimo and I’m on my way to developing good writing habits that fit into my own life, aiming to make that transition into semi-pro. I hope that friend, wherever he is, is making progress too – and maybe one day we’ll make contact and finish that collaboration, but waiting around to finish that story before becoming semi-pro writers on our own was silly.

  13. I listened to this episode this morning on the way to work, and remembered something I was hoping you’d bring up.

    When H. Beam Piper died in 1964, he left his trilogy about Fuzzies unfinished. When I discovered them in the early 80’s (while still in high school), I discovered that the trilogy had not one, not two, but THREE “final books.”

    Apparently, both Ardath Mayhar and William Tuning wrote “final chapters” of the Fuzzy series, either going by notes that Piper left or extrapolating from what was publicly available (the other two novels). (I’m not sure which.)

    Then, his family discovered the completed manuscript for the third novel that Piper had apparently finished before his death. And it was also published.

    I’ve read all three.

    There could not BE three more vastly different versions if they had sat down and tried.

    It just underscores the point you guys make quite a bit about how two writers–or three, in this case–with the same basic idea–even with the same general outline–can come up with stories that are vastly different in the final execution.

  14. Jake and James had been the best of friends since childhood. They played together, went to school together–worked together. Jake was a journalist. James and Engineer. They were both creative individuals, and often found the other to be reliable aids to their own flaws.

    One day, James came Jake and said he wanted to write a military fiction novel–the two of them together. Jake though it was a great idea. They spent several nights coming up with characters, conflict and plot. After a while though, things started to get out of hand. Jake began to notice that James’ engineer mindset made things too linear. He couldn’t see the shear genius of Jake’s own ideas. How could he not know that Jake was always right?

    After weeks of arguing Jake knew what had to be done. He must save the work–even at great sacrifice. So he called James and invited him over for dinner and coffee. James readily accepted, after-all Jake was a good cook, and who didn’t like coffee?

    When James arrived, Jake poured him a cup.

    “It’s almond brew,” Jake said. “I think you’ll like it.”

    They ate dinner and after a while James fell asleep on an easy chair. Jake smiled. The cyanide had worked like a charm. He grabbed his deceased friend and drug him out the door and into the woods behind his house. After several minutes work, he had refilled the hole dug by the creek. Jake wiped the sweat off his forehead and headed back to his house. It was time to get back to work on the book. For the first time in a while, he could relax. No one but the county sheriff lived near him, and he wouldn’t say anything. He still owed Jake a favor after having been caught poaching on his property. Besides, Sheriff Rickman had never liked James anyway.

    “At last! My robot zombie Nazi idea can go off without a hitch,” Jake said. He laughed long into the night.

    Oh wait, was this writing prompt supposed to be a fiction? ;)

  15. When I said “horribly, horribly wrong” I seriously did not expect it to end in murder. Congratulations on achieving “surprising yet inevitable.”

  16. It worries me a little that Howard called this “inevitable”.

    Brandon, Dan, I’d watch your backs.

    “They won’t let me write a darn thing”–I mean, he even has a motive!

  17. A collaboration between Brandon, Howard, and Dan? Somehow, I get this picture in my mind that it’s going to be a graphic novel about a serial killer with rule-based magic powers…IN SPACE!!!

    Seriously, though, is it a graphic novel?

  18. Thank you Howard.

    The sad think is, James and I really do plot on each other all the time (though we never actually go through with it).

  19. Great notes and advice. I’ve never collaborated with anyone in writing, and yet think I can totally agree that it would be very difficult. After all I find it hard enough to collaborate with myself! I’m sure most people can relate on works that have been in process for a while, that they sometimes forget details already written and end up changing things — with sometimes detrimental results or wasted time on a duplicative effort.

  20. I just thought I’d throw in a success story. My wife recently collaborated on a non-fiction book.

    The entire project was done using Google Docs. They used a spreadsheet to plan their book and track progress. And separate text documents for each chapter. They also used Google Talk to chat when they were both online and email when they weren’t.

    Their book was accepted for publication and will come out in July.

    By they way, my wife and her co-author have never met in person before. The entire writing and editing processes were done online and some over the phone. They are planning on meeting for the first time at their book launch party.

    So, it can work.

  21. Howard, I completely agree with you advice to aspiring web-comic writers. I’ve been approached several times by writers wanting to start a web-comic and as soon as they find out I have a drawing/painting background they ask me to draw their web-comic for them.

    I just say no.

    I did collaborate on a children’s book. Actually several of them. What the writers didn’t understand at first is that it would take me about ten times as long to draw/ink/scan/color/design than it would take for them to write and edit. And I draw fairly quickly. There was about one illustration for every fifteen words. Many arguments followed until the writers got it through their heads that drawing and writing happen at very different speeds. (It did take forcing some of them to try illustrating on their own.) Thankfully for the me the job was salaried and not base on how many illustrations I could draw compared to how many stories the writer’s could write.

  22. Oh, so I finally remembered why I wasn’t interested in collaborating. Interestingly enough, it was because of precisely the points you raise here.

    I’d previously worked together modding a game with someone else, and we were both decidedly amateur game designers. We’d essentially run around putting out each others’ fires half the time.

    Eventually my partner got tired of working on our project, so I started putting out my own fires. The project and my learning both went faster, although it still wasn’t really all that great. Lesson learned. ;)

  23. For anyone who is interested I have 20 invitations available to send out for Google Wave (the program Howard mentioned)–one of the perks of being a tech news journalist. It’s a pretty neat little program for chatting and coordinated projects. If you want to try it out, just give the word and an email address I can send the invite to.

  24. I haven’t used the collaborative features of either program yet, but I always liked Adobe Buzzword (though I haven’t used it in a while) better than Google Docs. The interface has always been nicer. Now that I look back into it, the service is now called acrobat.com, and it has the added features of creating pdf files and video conferencing while editing . I’m going to have to look back into using this program again.

    Jake, I would love to try out Google wave. You can contact me at portiriszine[AT]gmail[DOT]com. Thanks.

  25. Heh, I was thinking of doing a collaboration years ago with my friend (I’d write one character and he’d write another) Now I know why that bad idea never happened.

    Incidentally, I am currently using Google wave for school. And I’m also working on a collaboration Video Game (which I’m thinking about bringing up Google Wave for)

  26. I sent an invite to mjwhitehead@mjwhitehead.com. I hope that worked. If not, then just wait for it to come out of Google labs into the beta phase. It’s pretty cool, but I think its main practical purpose will eventually be with colleges and universities for email and class/project coordination.

  27. I got your invite, jake. Everything redirects to the “me” address, anyway. ;) It definitely looks pretty cool, although as of yet none of my contacts have been online with me simultaneously.

  28. So, yeah. This episode came out on the exact same day that I finished my first book (Yay!) that just so happens to be a collaboration. I actually agree with the guys that in most circumstances collaborating for new writers is a bad idea. You have to be on very good terms with your collaborator enough so that when you have a showdown over a subject you can recover from it quickly enough to keep working. And it does take a lot more time than writing by yourself.

    I will say that it is an interesting learning experience. The thing I liked about collaborating is that both of us had our own styles and they worked to complement each other. We mostly worked using the separate characters method but there were a few characters that we both wrote scenes for. This created a pretty dynamic cast. Going into revision there will probably be even further blending of styles as we both go in and work on scenes that the other has written.

    Is collaboration for everyone – absolutely not. Can it work – yes, in the right circumstances. Even though this is the first book that my friend and I have completed, we’ve both done writing outside of this project. We spent time working on our styles separately and took what we learned and applied it to the collaboration.

    And on the note of having completed my first book, I wanted to thank the writing excuses team. These podcasts have really inspired me and pushed me to test the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of. In honor of the last episode of the third season, I applaud you with a standing ovation.

  29. In response to your comics writing prompt: Did that! A little over four years ago, and the day before yesterday I published my 500th page (note to all the people who say they can’t draw: don’t let artists fool you. There’s no magical secret and anyone can learn how).

    Since starting my webcomic, I’ve had several experiences of collaborating, with varying degrees of success. Twice I’ve collaborated with friends who were going to draw comics I’d written; the first attempt ended in a row, and the second one ended because we weren’t in reliable or frequent enough contact to keep things going. I’ve also participated in a number of cross-comic events (eg. Halloween Cameo Capers and the ‘Crossover Wars’, where unbeknownst to Howard I technically collaborated with him), and I’ve found the answer there is to know from an early stage what I’m supposed to be doing, make sure it will make sense (ie. I’ll end up with something of value whatever happens) regardless of what anyone else does or fails to do, stick to my guns and do my part. This, of course, only works if each writer is telling different stories within the same universe and has relatively free license to borrow from his partners, but it’s left me with some excellent material.

    The last time I tried writing prose in collaboration (with my sister), we ended up with incredibly high-quality, nuanced work, because we subject each other to extremely intense scrutiny, but we only managed to write about a paragraph every two hours, and so gave up after about the first page.

  30. I have a friend that really wants to do a musical, and he wants me to collaborate with him to do it. He is a musician, but not a writer, and I am a writer, but not a musician, so I guess that falls more into the kind of collboration that Howard talks about. But in any case, I have found it to be really difficult, more than twice as much work for several reasons. #1 I am not as forceful as this other person, which means that we lose elements of the story because this person does not like it very much. #2 I can’t make any major decisions without consulting, which adds problem number 1 back into the situation. #3 It is hard to work out schedules. In the end, we both decided that this was not the right time to do it.

  31. The very first story I ever tried to write was a collaboration. My friend and I developed the world together, had no problems when it came to deciding what to cut and what to keep. How ever it was slow going, and we realized how crappy we were at writing.
    Several years later I’m now writing a story based in that same world, but with different characters, different problems ect. 64,000 words done and so many left to write :P

  32. I’ve collaborated with my brother several times, and it’s always worked out great. But I’ve found that there are a couple of things that need to happen for the right results to come through.
    1) One or both of the people need prior experience in writing. In our case, it was me. I had already written several books before and knew a lot about the basic mechanics of story building.
    2) One person has to have a little more control over the situation. Again, this was me. I’m older, I read more, I’ve written more, and I’ve done a lot more study of literature than my brother.
    3) Each person needs a well defined role in the partnership. I do the actual writing, while Joe comes up with most of the ideas for the plot and world building when we’ve worked together. There are times when I have suggestions on a character or a plot device, and Joe does the actual editing. So he has a say on the writing, and I have a say in the story building, but it’s important not to over step your boundaries.
    4) Both parties have to trust one another. I know my brother, and he knows me, and we are very open about what we do or don’t like, which means that if either of us has a problem with the other’s idea, we speak up.
    5) Communication. If you have different ideas, you have to be able to communicate why you like your idea, and the potential problems you see in the other person’s idea. When my brother and I do this, we usually come to a compromise that satisfies both our wishes.
    6) Know when to give in to the other person. My brother rarely ever says, “Hey, Jame, this idea you have here . . . well, it stinks and I think we should do something different,” but because he so infrequently objects to my ideas, when ever he does have a problem I immediately concede to him.
    7) Both people have to have similar ideas. My brother and I think a lot alike, and often come to the same conclusions even if left to our own devices. So, naturally we work well together because we think so much alike already.
    It’s hard to find someone who you can easily meet all of these requirements with, and still make a story that is any good. I’ll admit that most of the stories my brother and I have written together wouldn’t interest most other people, but the most important thing is working together and enjoying the process of seeing a joint idea come into shape.

  33. I’ve recently started up a collaborative podcast fiction project with several different podcast authors. We’re creating a setting bible and eventual novel to podcast probably next year.

    It’s not at the stage where I want to start publicizing all that we plan on doing, but I wanted to mention it here because we’re using google wave for our brainstorming sessions and will use google docs for the more formal documentation.

    It’s been fun so far, although Wave needs more features to make it truly great.

  34. New listener here. My boyfriend recommended this podcast to me yesterday and then I was listening to some episodes while working last night.

    This is actually the first episode I listened too, as my curiosity was peaked when footnotes said that this is a big ‘no’ for newbies to writing.

    I have to say that I agree a lot with what was said, but at the same time there’s always exceptions. I started writing in the sixth grade, and it was a collaboration with my best friend. We started writing the series just for fun. In fact, when we started it, I’m not sure that we even knew that it was going to turn into a series. But the reason that this collaboration worked for us as newbies was because we were just doing it for fun. Really, I think that ‘fun’ is the keyword when newbies do a collaboration. If the collab is just for fun/practice, there is no pressure. At least, that’s the way it works for me.

    I still collab with her, seven years later, as well as two other friends I’ve acquired. I also RP (the written word) with people from around the world. Collabs have helped me greatly in improving my own personal writing, because it allows me to see the mistakes that others are making, as well as see how others do things really well, such as one RPer I know who does an amazing job with villains.

    In the end, though, it really depends what kind of person you are, what type of collaboration you try to do, and (in my opinion) when you start trying to do collaborations.

    I can work pretty well with other people (as stupid as some of them can be), because of my years of collaborating and my years of RPing. If I had never done a collaboration before, however, and tried to do one now, I don’t think that I could do it very well. My writing process would have developed differently, making it harder for these collabs to go on.

    Also, the only type of collab I can do is where we each control our own characters. I can’t even write with my own outlines (hence why I write my essays for school first and then create an outline because we have to have one), so I could never write with an outline someone else gives me. Like I said, it depends on what kind of writer you are.

    I could go on and on about this, as it’s a part of writing that I feel like I actually know what I’m talking about, but… I think that I’ve put my two cents in.

    Anyways, just want to say that I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard!

  35. I think Google Wave has the potential of being a great collaboration tool. So far, I haven’t been collaborating with other people, but I’ve been using it to work on documents. I do like to use it to keep a history of what changes I’ve made. I consider it a collaboration with my past self, current self, and future self.

  36. The fact that collaboration adds work is an important aspect of software development.

    “Assigning more programmers to a project running behind schedule will make it even later.”

    If you have n people working together on something there are n(n − 1) / 2 communications channels to deal with (one for each pair of people), I think this explains why you rarely see books with more than 2 authors, since a story is really hard to chop up into bits that can be assembled later. (It’s not easy to do this in software either, but it can be done, mainly by heavily limiting how different parts can interact, which is not really an option for a story…)

  37. Okay, I just listened to this one. I know a little bit about collaboration. I’ve got 1 book published and 4 more sold. So I’ve written a few books. (and the Writing Excuses guys liked the first one!) I say that to point out that I know the process needed to write a book. It normally takes me about 6 months to write a book.

    I’m also currently working on a collaboration. We’re 95% done with the first book in a 3 book series.

    That said, it wasn’t twice as much work. I’d say that the collaboration was 3 times more work. If it wasn’t such a darn good book, we would’ve bagged it a long time ago! Collaborating is a serious pain in the rear, and we did the easiest kind (alternating characters).

    I totally agree with the contents of this podcast. The guys nailed it.

  38. Okay, I’m only 12 months late to the party.

    I love this podcast, and find the tips and tricks to be right on the money. However, I do have to take an exception to the idea that collaboration is not good. I think collaboration can be fantastic, as long as you set your expectations correctly.

    Imagine I’m trying to build a house. I know everything there is about framing a house, but nothing about plumbing. I hook up with my friend Alfonzo who is a plumber extraordinaire. By the time we’re done, we have a well framed house with a working toilet, shower, and sink. The foundation is cracked the roof leaks, and pretty much everything else is crap, but now I know a little more about plumbing, and Alfonzo knows a little more about framing. We haven’t built a functional house, but we’ve learned.

    Treat collaborative writing collaboration the same way. If you collaborate expecting to produce a perfect book, you’re going to be disappointed. And as the three gentlemen said, don’t go in thinking the writing will be easier. But by all means, when you’re learning the craft, collaborate every chance you get, as long as you have the time. Learn from other writers’ strengths and weaknesses. Brandon says don’t collaborate to make up for a skill, learn that skill yourself. I say collaborate so you CAN learn the skill. If you have a writing friend who writes wonderful dialogue, and she’s willing to collaborate, by all means, collaborate and use that opportunity to polish the skill yourself. And if you’re very good at world building, when you have to explain the ins and outs to another person, you start thinking critical about the skill you already have.

    Collaboration leads to more writing, more work, and more critical thinking, ALL of which are important when you’re learning the craft.

  39. @ Marion “A Year Late” Jensen: Your metaphor is flawed. Badly.

    Building a house isn’t collaboration. It’s a group project, and it’s common practice for it to ALWAYS be a group project. And building a house the way you describe is a HORRIBLE WAY TO DO IT. If you want to learn to build a house, get a job with a contractor and start learning how to build a house.

    Collaboration on writing, on the other hand, is not common practice. It’s rare, and it’s even rarer for it to work well. This is why we usually warn new writers away from it. If you want to learn from another writer while you write your book, there’s a better way to do it : Join a writer’s group with that writer, and critique each other’s work.

    It’s possible that the two of you will realize you’ve got synergy happening, and should be jointly working on the same book. It’s more likely that you’ll be glad your projects are your own, and that all you’re required to accept from the other person is some advice, rather than a late chapter that completely breaks the world you so carefully built.

    In short, collaboration is probably the WORST way for a new writer do more writing and more critical thinking. Socialize, converse, and critique with other writers, absolutely, but don’t expect a joint project to fly. You’ll hobble yourself.

  40. I know I’m over two years late here, but I can’t help asking, whatever happened to that collaboration project you guys were taking about?

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