Writing Excuses 17.19: Working in a Collaborative Environment
Key points: One part of collaboration is meetings and suggestions. One reason to collaborate is to tell stories that you just don’t have the time to tell. Sometimes the other people can bring things to the story that you can’t. One nice thing can be ideas and advice. Beware creative squabbling, making creative disagreements personal. To collaborate effectively, you have to let it go.
[Season 17, Episode 19]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Working in a Collaborative Environment.
[Brandon] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Meg] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Meg] And I’m Meg.
[Dan] We have Meg Lloyd with us today, who is one of my favorite people. Meg, tell us about yourself.
[Meg] Well, I am a storyboard artist and a screenwriter working in animation out in California. That means I’m one of the first wizards on call when it comes to making movie magic. It’s usually my job to take the scripts from the writer and then turn them into the pictures, the designs, the sets, and the camera work that will be turned over to the other departments in order to make a final animated scene.
[Dan] Cool. What are some of the things you’ve worked on that our audience might be familiar with?
[Meg] Yeah. So, some of the stuff that I’ve worked on… Well, a lot of it is still a secret because since I’m at the beginning of the process, I don’t get to talk about it until a couple of years after it’s all done and out of the way. But some of my released work includes boarding on Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous and Star Trek: Lower Decks. This week, Nickelodeon finally title dropped a show I worked on for them called Transformers: Earth Park.
[Dan] Whoa. Awesome. So, we are going to talk about creating in a collaborative environment. Whether that is authors collaborating with each other, like Brandon and I are doing, or you working in a whole company full of creatives who are constantly having to be creative together. How is… This is such a dumb question. But, how is that different from just making something on your own?
[Meg] Well, I get a lot of other people telling me what I did wrong.
[Meg] Instead of being able to gauge that for myself. One of the things is where you’re positioned on a creative project, because… I’ve directed as well as like boarded. There is a very clear chain of command. It differs from show to show on how much you’re allowed to pipe up in a meeting and make suggestions. Like, I’ve been with some directors and some heads of story that really welcomed jokes and riffs in a meeting. But I also remember with a great fear my very first job when I raised my hand and made a suggestion, and the supervising director, and then later my director, and then one of the producers pulled me aside, one by one, and said, “You can’t talk in a meeting.”
[Meg] I was like, “Whah?” Which is like a real shame, because I talk all the time.
[Dan] So conducive to the creative process, as well, is, like, telling people to shut up.
[Brandon] Yeah, I’ve… Hollywood’s this weird place where it feels like everyone knows the rules but you. I’ve been in some of those meetings too, and I’m like, “How do you know?” And it’s different in every meeting. Yeah, I don’t envy you trying to navigate some of these things, because it gets really weird.
[Meg] So, animation and just moviemaking in general is one of the biggest team projects that there is. There’s a reason why our credits are 10 minutes long. If you’re in a short schedule hi rush production like TV, you only are going to be touching an episode for a specific amount of time, and then you have to pass it down to the next person. The only thing that stops this from being an absolutely garbled game of telephone is the people who are sort of steering this ship, which would be your director and your head of story. So, a lot of times you have to gauge the water yourself, to be like, “Okay. Can I… What can I bring of my own flair?” Or what do they need me to just get done and pass on to the next person?
[Dan] Let me ask Brandon, you have recently, in the last few years, started to do a lot more collaborations.
[Dan] With me, with Jancey, with others. What prompted that decision, and kind of what got you into that frame of creative mind?
[Brandon] Yeah. So, this was kind of a very specific thing, which involves the explosion of audiobooks, and several of the audiobook producers, the companies, coming to me and saying, “Hey, Brandon. We would love some exclusive content. Is there something of yours that you can provide?” Meanwhile, I had been having various stories that I wanted to write for years that I’d never been able to get to. The one I’m doing with you, the one I’m doing with Mary Robinette, these are stories that I had outlines for. I’m like, “Someday I’m going to write this story.” Then, other demands just kept taking me away from them. These two things intersected, where I said, “Well, maybe if I brought on a friend, I can take one of these stories that I really think is really cool that I’ve wanted to tell, but I just don’t have the time for because the Cosmere’s dominating more and more of my attention.” So, for me, collaboration was a way to tell more stories that I just don’t have the time to tell.
[Dan] So, question for both of you then. Can you think of something that the collaborative process brought to a story that you hadn’t seen there or you wouldn’t have come up with on your own?
[Brandon] Well, I definitely have one, but I don’t know… I’ll go ahead and go first, then you can. The story I wrote with Mary Robinette, we’ll just bring that up because she’s one of the other cohosts. So, this is a story about a woman, who, for reasons mysterious, has murdered her husband. Right? She… A clone of her wakes up, with missing… Her whole life she remembers except the week that led to murdering her husband. The clone’s like, “I would never do that. I love my husband. Why would I ever do this?” They’re like, “Well, that’s why we brought you. Your job is to figure out why you would do this.” It’s that kind of story. Never having had a husband, Mary Robinette was able to… Like, I wouldn’t have been able to approach this from the same direction she could.
[Dan] She has had a husband, but you have not.
[Brandon] I have not.
[Brandon] So, she was able… Like, in the mindset of a woman in her… She’s in her 30s. Mary Robinette isn’t, but she has been a woman in her 30s, which I never have been. As a writer, we’re trained to get in the heads of people that aren’t like ourselves. That’s what we do. That’s one of the main things. But in this specific case, I knew I couldn’t write this story as well as she could, and that she would bring certain things to it that I could never approach. Lo and behold, when I read the story, I’m like, “Those are the things.” I could point to them. Say, this is what Mary Robinette brought, that I didn’t even know I was missing. Otherwise, I could have maybe faked it.
[Dan] Yeah. A lot of times we just don’t know what we don’t know.
[Dan] What’s the name of that story, if people want to go look at it?
[Brandon] It’s called The Original.
[Dan] The Original.
[Meg] Something that’s been really hard during the pandemic is working all alone at my house with my cats who don’t know the first thing about moviemaking.
[Meg] Because I usually get to do it at a studio with all of my friends who are very good at making movies and TV. So I really like working in a collaborative environment with other artists because when you just get stuck on something, it’s really easy to reach over and be like, “Hey. What’s wrong with this picture?” They can, like, literally tell you, “Oh, your composition’s off.” You need to like lower your camera, or fill it out, or all these other jargon thing that I could fire off 50 times in a row.
[Meg] It’s very fun because at the storyboarding level, we’re all on even footing, we’re all like this portion of the team is we’re [off and days?] Oh, wait. Am I allowed to sing copyrighted…
[Dan] You are totally allowed to sing copyrighted things.
[Meg] Probably not. So one of the things I value the most out of collaboration is building elements of trust with the artists that you know and admire. That it’s easy to ask for advice and it doesn’t feel like they’re criticizing you when they give you ideas and feedback.
[Dan] Yeah. That’s something that I’ve seen with Brandon as we worked together on Apocalypse Guard and now on Dark One. We know each other very well, we know each other’s creative process very well, and we know each other’s strengths very well. So it’s easy for me when he says, “Hey, the ending to this absolutely doesn’t work.” I can think, “Yeah. You’re right. It doesn’t. You’re better at endings than I am.” That’s one of the reasons why we work so well together.
[Brandon] Yeah. You shore up one another’s weaknesses. Right? Like, Dan is really good at voice. The reason I went and brought him onto Apocalypse Guard, which we haven’t released yet, but we’re going to…
[Brandon] Is the voice was broken. Dan’s the best person I know when it comes to writing narrative voice for a character. So I went to Dan and said, “Dan. Help.” In that specific case, because the book was broken and I’d pulled it from the publisher because I couldn’t get it fixed. Now the ending of that one was also broken. So Dan fixed the voice, but Dan’s like, “I don’t do endings.”
[Dan] I mean, I do, just… Technically. But…
[Brandon] You have lots of really great endings.
[Dan] What I don’t do are Brandon Sanderson endings.
[Dan] Which are distinctly different in flavor. So, to make sure that works. We’re actually… Now, we forgot to tell you this in our intro. We are currently at LTUE.
[Dan] That was very hesitant cheering. We actually read from… An excerpt from Apocalypse Guard at this con two years ago.
[Brandon] Two years ago.
[Dan] It’s still not published.
[Brandon] Still not published. This is my fault, not Dan’s.
[Brandon] Dan kicked it back to me and said, “I fixed the voice. The ending’s still broken. You need to fix that.” I’m like, “I do.”
[Brandon] But the whole point is I don’t have time to work on things anymore.
[Dan] Yeah. Which makes it tricky.
[Brandon] Which makes it tricky. But we will find a time.
[Dan] Okay. Now, Meg, we did not prep you in any way for this, but we do want to do a thing of the week in the middle. This can be something of yours you’ve worked on. It doesn’t have to be a book. It could be a book you’ve read by somebody else. It could be whatever you want to recommend for people to go out and see.
[Meg] Okay. It has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but I deeply enjoyed Arcane on Netflix.
[Meg] I mentioned before about how TV schedules are so crunched. They had five years to do their storyboards for their episodes. I only get six weeks at a time per episode. So I was both blown away by the artistry and also incredibly jealous of like the flexible creativity everyone showed. I would check out Arcane. It’s an animated series inspired by the League of Legends videogame, and it’s on Netflix now.
[Brandon] They cheated though. Right?
[Brandon] When you have League of Legends money, which Riot did, and they just said, “We’re going to make our own show, and you’re going to publish it.” People are just like, “Okay. We don’t have to pay any money for it. Do what you want.” So they just… They spent through the roof, and just made the cool thing that they wanted to make, because they wanted to make a cool thing. It’s off a budget that no one would ever pay for that.
[Brandon] Except for the people who are like, “We don’t have to care. We have League of Legends money.”
[Brandon] So, it shows. It’s… The music in that show, and just how they integrate the music original songs by big bands and thing. It’s just really cool.
[Meg] [Provo loco], Imagine Dragons.
[Dan] Now, kind of germane to our discussion, usually when someone roles in with a ton of money and says I’m going to make whatever I want to make and screw you all, it often turns into a very self-indulgent kind of piece of nonsense. It didn’t in this case because they were willing to listen to each other. They didn’t have to listen to Netflix, but they listened to each other and said, “Okay. Let’s tone down these things. Let’s make sure that everything lands as perfectly as possible.”
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s what made it work. Right? Like, League of Legends is… Has the advantage that it’s not one person rolling in with a bunch of money, thinking they know how to tell a story and then not doing it. It’s a videogame company, which is another big collaborative environment where everyone knows and understands they need to collaborate, deciding to make something together and therefore being willing to collaborate to make it good.
[Dan] Yeah. So, Meg, let’s ask then, what are some of the pitfalls of collaboration? How can it go wrong, and how can we avoid those things going wrong?
[Meg] It’s very easy to disagree over creative thing. Because all creativity starts internally, and it’s very hard to make it something external from yourself. I think the biggest pitfall is… I don’t want to say infighting, because that sounds way more dramatic than it is. But…
[Meg] Yeah. Taking a creative disagreement and making it feel personal. Sometimes you just have to take one or two steps back from what you’re making. It’s almost like you have to shut the feelings… Turn down the volume on the feelings part of your brain in order to talk things through with someone. I don’t think great art comes from argument. Great art can become an argument. But if you’re not enjoying your collaborative process, you will forever look back on the thing you made with the same negative feelings that were stewing while you created it.
[Dan] Brandon, do you have any collaborative pitfalls?
[Brandon] I mean, that’s a really…
[Dan] Juicy stories about when you and I went at each other?
[Brandon] Good one. Well, yeah.
[Dan] We don’t, actually.
[Brandon] [garbled] The first thing I had to do in order to collaborate effectively was I had to let go. Right? The first of these I did was The Original, which I pitched earlier. This was an interesting experience for me because I had had the story in my head for years. I had been planning to write it, I had an outline, and I just could not find the time, couldn’t justify it. For whatever reason, it was never the right project to do. Then I thought of this, and then there was a moment that I’m like, “But if I do that, I don’t get to write it.” That actually is… It’s… Painful is the wrong term, but there is something there where it’s like giving the other person permission to let it be theirs, too. This is a different kind of collaboration, because I have a thing and I’m giving it to someone else. But I think this is a really important thing. If… Our mutual friend, Kevin J. Anderson, once tells the story of collaborating… I’ll leave out the other collaborator. But Kevin was going to write with another author. He wrote with this author, and he came up with something really cool, and he gave it to the other author. The other author’s like, “Nope.” Put it aside and wrote it again from scratch. Kevin’s like, “Why did you bring on a collaborator if you’re just going to do this?” The other author’s like, “I realized that I just can’t let go. I know how this story’s supposed to go in my head. You can’t do it because it’s not in your head. I just have to do it my way.” So you have to be excited by the prospect of what the other person’s going to bring, not expect the other person to do the things the way that you exactly would do them.
[Dan] Exactly. I would add to that, that clear definitions of responsibility or domain have also helped a lot. If you know that it is one person’s job to do the outline, and a different person’s job to do the first draft, or however it is that you divide things up… The way that Brandon and I are like, “Well, you are going to do this ending, and you’re going to do this other part.” Then we know that we’re less likely to step on each other’s toes.
[Meg] It’s very enamoring to think of the idea of a solo, solitary creator that’s an absolute genius. Everyone else around them is… If we’re talking about filmmaking, that you have a director who’s just head and shoulders above everyone else, and everyone on the team just bows to their will. There’s no way that a single person can create every aspect of a movie themselves. Even if they have a say in everything that goes on, there’s no way they can fabricate all the costumes, there’s no way they can location scout all of the places. So the idea of a genius solo creator on a collaborative project is a myth. Because they’re not a creator, they’re a dictator.
[Dan] Exactly. That is a great note to end on. Meg, what homework can you give to our listeners?
[Meg] Listen, you’re going to have to find a buddy.
[Meg] So, your homework is to find one of your friends and pull up an old idea that maybe you haven’t been able to get off the ground, or the nugget of a new idea you’re not sure which direction to take it. It’s to sit down with them and talk it over. Figure out with them what the next step on your story is going to be.
[Dan] There you go. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.