Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

On Collaboration

By Barb Caffrey
©2004, Barb Caffrey

Collaboration.  It's such an ugly word, isn't it?  It's mostly a word that's used to describe war criminals, or to deride and damage political enemies (as Joseph McCarthy, then-Senator of Wisconsin, used it in the 1950s).  And it's almost never used in a positive sense, except in one instance:  when people deliberately work together to create something unique, positive, and lasting, that's collaboration without the nasty aftertaste.

For years, collaborative novels have been viewed with disdain. Eric Flint writes in his afterword to 1633: "It is one of the pieces of accepted wisdom in fiction writing that stories written in collaboration are almost invariably weaker than stories written by authors working alone.  Since I enjoy sticking my thumb in the eye of accepted wisdom, I like to think I've done it again with this book -- as well as a number of others I've written in collaboration with several different authors."

In the "Afterword," Flint argues that the "conventional wisdom" that says collaborations are weaker than solitary works may have its origin in the way people wrote novels until the advent of the portable word processor and the Internet. As Flint points out, "until the advent of computer word-processing and online communication, collaboration between authors was simply very difficult.  I can remember the days when I used to write on a typewriter, and had to spend as much time painfully retyping entire manuscripts just to incorporate a few small changes in the text, as I did writing the story in the first place.  Working under those circumstances is trying enough for an author working alone."  And adding a collaborator, Flint says, makes everything more difficult, which is probably why most authors worked alone.

Flint also points out the exceptions to this practice, saying the exceptions happened "because of special circumstances.  Two, in particular:

"The first was where one author basically did all the writing.  The input of the other author might have taken the form of developing the plot outline, or, not infrequently, simply lending his or her name to the project for marketing purposes.

"The second generally involved married couples, or people who were otherwise in position to work in very close proximity.  To use a well-known instance from the history of science fiction, just about everything written by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore after their marriage was, in fact if not in name, a collaborative work.

"Modern technology, however, eliminates all the practical problems involved with collaborative writing."  And Flint concludes his remarks by talking about the positives of collaboration -- that it can be an opportunity, not just a challenge -- and how writing in collaboration is a skill, as he puts it, "one like any other.  Some authors are hopelessly inept at it -- or simply don't want to do it at all.  Others manage it poorly; still others in a workmanlike but humdrum manner; and some -- I happen to be one of them -- do it very well."

Flint is not the only one of my favorite novelists to have written books with other authors.   Rosemary Edghill (aka eluki bes shahar) had written the acclaimed Hellflower science fiction series as well as several excellent Regency romances before she was asked by several other authors to write with them, including highly respected legends in the field such as Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Currently, with Mercedes Lackey (whom many consider to be a modern master), she has collaborated on three novels set in the same "Underhill" universe (Beyond World’s End, Spirits White as Lightning, Mad Maudlin), and a fourth due out soon (Music to my Sorrow).  She's also written X-Men tie-in books.  In recent e-mail correspondence, she said modestly that she's "done a lot of playing in other people's sandboxes for money," and that there's a difference between original collaborative work and that of working in an already established universe.  Both are difficult and challenging, she said, but ultimately rewarding.  Ms. Edghill said that two things are important to remember when you're writing a collaborative novel; "good communication is essential," and if you're writing in an already-established universe and adding to existing canon, "you have to know and respect the rules that the senior author has already set up for that universe."

Another of my favorite authors is Dave Freer, who wrote his original novel The Forlorn, then proceeded to collaborate on the wildly popular Pyramid Scheme and Rats, Bats, and Vats (among others) with Eric Flint, and then was invited to work with Lackey and Flint on Shadow of the Lion and This Rough Magic.  Freer told me in recent e-mail correspondence that he feels three things are absolutely essential to a great collaborative effort: communication, commonality of outlook, and different backgrounds and strengths among the various authors.  Freer said, "Typically, e-mails between the three of us run to [a] lot longer than the 800 page books we produce."  Now that's communication!

Freer also said that he believes that a commonality of outlook is extremely important, because if that's not present, it's almost impossible to work with someone well.  As he said, "Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey share a 'bottom up' view of the world. People, even 'unimportant' people, matter. I could never work with top-down authoritarian-only-the-bosses-matter-and-you-are-worms-who-must-obey-orders-ja. I find it bizarre that anyone should want to read this sort of thing, but there you go."

He also said that getting a great effort "requires two things -- firstly an ability to give and take, and compromise.  Otherwise, you get a weak junior author writing a bad clone of the senior author.  Secondly, you need different backgrounds and strengths."  For example, in Flint and Freer's case, Freer is "an outdoorsman who has lived most of his adult life at sea or in the wild country.  [He's] a biologist who is into danger-sports.  [He knows] a great deal about an exotic country [South Africa]."  Whereas Flint is "[a] townsman and [a] former labor-organiser.  He's an historian who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject and especially politics.  [And] he knows America and Americans -- about which I know little."

At any rate, all three things being present causes an "additive" effect which, Freer says, helps the book get better.  In a great collaborative effort, the strengths of each author are evident in the book, and they cancel out each other's individual weaknesses.  This allows them to write better and more interesting books.

Even authors with a great deal of time in the field, such as Larry Niven, have collaborated on books which received great acclaim.  Niven, in his books N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind, gave credit to his co-authors over the years (most specifically Jerry Pournelle), and said that although he wasn’t sure why, sometimes a collaboration causes a spark between two (or more) authors that results in a better book.

The example that Niven gave was that of his first collaboration with Stephen Barnes; in Barnes' words, "[he] asked me whether I'd be interested at looking at a story he'd tried to write ten years before and hadn't been able to complete to his satisfaction."  Barnes did that and was able to fix the story, and that was the start of a beautiful collaborative friendship.

The fact is, collaborating on a novel is an entirely different skill from writing your own; I know this because I've done both and they're not the same animal.  Let me try to explain.

First, writing anything isn't easy.  There has to be some sort of plan, whether it be tentative or otherwise.  The basic shape of the plot (or story, if it's nonfiction), from first genesis to completion, should remain consistent, yet flexible enough to allow for adaptation and/or revision.  And then, there's the characterization, the dialogue, the subplots ... whew!  Just thinking about it all is more difficult than doing it!

So, when you're writing on your own, you can write and come up with ideas as you have them within time constraints.  Your vision may allow for others to comment via the "first reader" method, where you offer the story to others for critique.  Or you can keep it totally private.  It's up to you.

But that all changes in a collaboration, because it's not solely your vision anymore.  It's between you and your collaborator(s) as to what your novel is going to look like, and everything is open for discussion.

What prompted my husband Michael and me to make a stab at it was a speech made by Eric Flint at a small, public gathering in Chicago, Illinois in the middle of 2002.  Flint had collaborated with more than one author and done so successfully; more importantly, he'd managed to collaborate with two authors at once, Dave Freer and Mercedes Lackey, and we knew that they had widely disparate styles -- perhaps as far apart, stylistically, as our own.

We listened carefully to what Flint had to say; he, too, extolled the value of communication, and explained the collaborative process as he saw it for Shadow of the Lion.  This helped us immeasurably. We started our novel Elfy in September of 2002 and finished it in ten months.  Note that if we hadn't been aware that several of our favorite authors had written very good collaborative novels and hadn't asked the questions about the process along the way, I doubt we'd ever have started to write Elfy.

Which brings us back full circle to Flint's "Afterword to 1633," quoted at length at the beginning of this article.  Dave Freer put what Flint said earlier more succinctly in e-mail correspondence, when he told me, "Collaboration without communication isn't collaboration.  It's using name recognition to sell an inferior product."  But he also said that "Good collaborators achieve critical mass, and start a chain reaction and produce some explosive tales."  In other words, collaboration can work quite well if the participants are engaged, involved, and willing to communicate, compromise, and continue to work at it.  Just take a good look at Shadow of the Lion or Mad Maudlin.

The only practical piece of advice that I, an unpublished fiction writer, can give you if you're attempting a collaborative novel is this:  Have fun. Enjoy what you are doing. And remember that it's a shared world, a shared goal, and a shared story -- but that also means you have someone else to celebrate with, once you're done.


Books mentioned in this article:

Butterfly and Hellflower (the Hellflower trilogy), by eluki bes shahar  ISBN: 1568650485

Beyond World’s End, by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill  ISBN: 0671318551

Spirits White as Lightning, by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill  ISBN: 0743436083

Mad Maudlin, by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill  ISBN: 0743471431

Time’s Arrow: X-Men and Spiderman, by Tom Defalco and eluki bes shahar  ISBN: 0425165000

The Forlorn, by Dave Freer  ISBN: 0671578316

Pyramid Scheme, by Dave Freer and Eric Flint  ISBN: 0743435923

Rats, Bats and Vats,  by Dave Freer and Eric Flint  ISBN: 0671318284

Shadow of the Lion, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer  ISBN: 0743471474

This Rough Magic, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer  ISBN: 0743471490

1633, by Eric Flint and David Weber  ISBN: 0743471555

N-Space, by Larry Niven  ISBN: 0812510011

Playgrounds of the Mind, by Larry Niven  ISBN: 0812516958