Collaborative Fiction

April 21, 2014 by Amy Groening


While writing has often been thought of as a solo pursuit, now and then I come across a fantastic collaborative piece that puts a fire in my belly to find a like-minded writer to team up with and create some amazing work of literary art that I would never be able to come up with on my own. Now, I’ve struggled through more than a few group writing projects in my life and I have developed a great admiration for writing duos who manage to pull it off (1).

Collaborative writing has gained in popularity in recent years, thanks in part to advances in internet accessibility and social media venues: email, Facebook, Skype, and other contact avenues mean that working on a shared manuscript is as simple as the click of an upload button, allowing for near-immediate access to the latest chapter of a collaborative work.

When I began my first writing collaboration, I took to the internet for advice and stumbled across Neil Gaiman’s insightful tips on how to survive collaboration, which I found especially interesting because Gaiman is known for both his unique solo writing style and his joint writing projects. This strikes at the heart of the collaborative writing issue: how does one take their own unique writing voice and blend it so seamlessly with another writer’s unique voice? Moreover, why do it at all?

The “why” is easier to answer than the “how”. Ideally, teaming up with another writer affords twice the experience, ideas, energy, and accountability as you would have writing alone. It allows you to exchange your own weaknesses for the other author’s strengths, and vice versa. For example, one of my own greatest failings is a tendency to get distracted and run out of steam(2), and I have found there’s nothing like the threat of having a writing partner calling me next Saturday and demanding to see the latest chapter of our shared novel to inspire me to actually finish said chapter.

The “how” is more complex, and for this I’ve had to delve into the back stories of some of my favourite co-written works to find a method to all this madness. While each team has their own unique way of doing things, I’ve found there are two main “routes” collaborations will take:

  1. The Split Character Approach: Common (but not limited) to juvenile fiction, and often arranged in an epistolary format, you’ll see this in works like Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, or Of Two Minds by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman. The book is told from the perspective of two main characters, who take turns narrating the chapters (or, write letters back and forth to each other); one author takes on the persona of one character, and one the other. Here, the concern of blending voices is null and void because when there are two narrators, it is expected that there will be two voices.
  2. The Blended Voices Approach: (eg. The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett, and Stephen Baxter, or Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg). Here, there is no clear separation of writing voices or perspectives; authors work together to combine their writing styles into one distinct narrative voice.

    It’s not too difficult to speculate on how the split character approach works—while there needs to be a certain amount of agreement on plot line, character motivations, etcetera, once that has been discussed, both authors can retreat to their respective writing desks and email back and forth, taking turns writing sections of the book from their characters’ perspectives(3), without having to worry quite as much about creating a collective voice. The blended voices approach takes a bit more preparation and training, since here, the voice needs to be consistent, regardless of whose turn it is to write the latest chapter. When done effectively, readers may not realize the book was written by more than one person.

    Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, for instance, began The Long Earth by combining their own plotting styles (Pratchett starts with character sketches; Baxter starts with plot graphs and spreadsheets—see this interview), and worked on their own and each others’ plans, “gluing together” bits of their writing, and editing until something more cohesive emerged. The result is not quite Terry Pratchett, and not quite Stephen Baxter, but a hybridized narrative style all its own.

    As Neil Gaiman points out in his guide to surviving collaborative projects, “Collaborations, on the whole aren’t written by (in this case) Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe. They’re written by (again, in this case) a two-headed entity called GeneandNeil. Part of it is about checking your head and ego at the door, and making the best thing you can. And part of it is about having fun making something you couldn’t make on your own.”

Footnotes

1: I should note that while most sources consider any project undertaken by more than one person to be a collaborative project, there are also those who expect a collaborative project to be a collective work of a large group of writers (a la, Caverns, an experimental novel project headed by Ken Kesey and 13 students from his creative writing class). For this particular blog post, I’ll be focusing mostly on writing duos.

2: By this I mean I haven’t finished writing a book on my own in over 13 years.

3: Sorcery and Cecilia is actually the highly polished result of Wrede’s and Stevermer’s attempt at The Letter Game, which can be a highly entertaining, if not productive, exercise for writers.

About this Contributor

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Amy Groening is a passionate storyteller with experience in blogging, newspaper reportage, and creative writing. She has an Honours degree in English Literature and is happy to be working in an industry where she can see other writers’ dreams come to life. She has a hand in many creative pursuits, including sewing, sculpture and painting, and spends an embarrassingly large amount of time at home taking photos of her cats committing random acts of feline crime.