On Collaboration

- by Laura Resnick

typewriterWhether or not a writer enjoys collaborating on projects with other writers tends to be a very individual thing.

I co-wrote three science fiction/fantasy short stories with my friend, romance writer Kathy Chwedyk. In each case, I accepted an invitation into a themed short story anthology, then realized I couldn’t think of a story. (I’ve been in about sixty themed short story anthologies; and every so often, I stare at a blank screen and realize I shouldn’t have said “yes.” But I don’t like to back out of a contract.)

Kathy happened to be doing research on ancient Mesopotamia at the time, a background about which I knew nothing but which I thought would be a rich setting for the (very) vague story idea I had in mind. Thus we co-wrote “Qadishtu” for Warrior Enchantresses (DAW Books, 1998). After that, over the next year or two, I twice more said “yes” to short story anthologies when I should have said “no,” and I again asked Kathy to co-write something with me.

After the third story we delivered, though, we gave up. The experience was fine, our friendship remained intact, and we’d found co-writing three stories a rather interesting experience… but “rather interesting” was as far as our enthusiasm went. We’d had no problems or tension working together, but we both found co-writing a lot harder than writing alone, without commensurate rewards to make the extra effort worthwhile.

My reaction to collaboration (which Kathy echoed) was that it doubled the work I had to do, without increasing the quality, quantity, or satisfaction of the results. Even with a friend I communicated well with, and on a short project, I found collaboration cumbersome and laborious. I didn’t hate it, but it was soon clear to me that I prefer writing alone.

Although I outline books before I write them, and although I have a climax in mind for a short story when I start writing it, my writing is process-based. Apart from some (very) vague ideas I’ve got in mind when I sit down at the keyboard, IQuestions find out what’s going to happen by wrestling with the story as it unfolds on the page. And I’m confused, incoherent, and bewildered until I reach a point where I’m done wrestling with it, until I’ve finally figured it all out in excruciating detail, polished all the text, revised it thirty times, and now it’s carved in stone.

I don’t have a period of articulate clarity about my story ideas or intentions between the inchoate mess that I can’t even picture in my own mind… and the material that’s suddenly so finished that the whole story will fall apart if someone changes something.

That isn’t a process which a collaborator can really participate in.

A collaborator can’t hear what you’re not even thinking yet about the work-in-progress, never mind saying aloud in cogent language; and a collaborator can’t co-write a finished, final story that you’ll kill her for altering.

Blog1There’s a channel of sharing and communication needed between collaborators that relies on each partner having phases of clarity in the ongoing work that I almost never have until after the work is all done. Kathy and I managed to articulate our ideas for each other while co-writing those short stories, but we both found it tough and laborious to do so. And we both agreed we’d never want to co-write a novel, it would just be too exhausting to maintain that kind of process for the length of a book.

Since then, I’ve done very few collaborative projects in fiction, including a round-robin novel. I wrote chapter six of that book, and I found the challenge of trying to continue a story coherently that was started by five other authors so mind-boggling, I’d rather eat ground glass than be in another round-robin novel!

Interestingly, I’ve worked collaboratively on various non-fiction and business projects (ex. a group research paper in graduate school, various articles in journalism, reports and documents in administrative matters) without difficulty.Notepad1 Probably because the work, in those instances, was about collecting, collating, organizing, and conveying information, rather than about creating and telling a story; and—for me, at least—that sort of writing doesn’t feel so strained in a collaborative effort.

One comments

  1. Sounds pretty hard to me, as well. I’d have to have some amazing chemistry with someone for this to work.