Writing in Pairs
     Victoria Grossack

This is February, the time when many people think about couples and pairs. So in honor of the month, this month’s column is an update of one on Collaborative Writing that appeared years ago in Fiction Fix – so many years ago, in fact, that it is no longer in the archives and my last name changed in the meantime. Naturally, writing with someone else does not mean that you’re having a romance with that person – but this is an opportunity to think about working in pairs. So here’s an update of the original article.

When Two Heads Are Better than One

You’ve just finished the draft of your chapter. Now you have to put it away for at least a week. Only then will you be ready to revise. But you’re bursting with impatience. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a helpful elf came along now to correct all those problems? Some creative spirit who cares about the work as much as you do?

If you have a writing partner, this can happen!

As the saying goes: “Two heads are better than one.” But there's another, just as true: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” What makes the difference between bad soup and good writing?

Respect is the primary ingredient in a good working relationship. If you don’t have mutual regard for each other’s abilities and personalities, then you have no business collaborating. Constructive criticism is one hallmark of respect. I look forward to reading my partner’s next section; while I may find ways to enhance it, I’m sure it will be interesting. When she balks at something I’ve written, I try to understand her objections. I know she’s a smart cookie, so I had better take her comments seriously! If my partner's work needs improvement, I point it out tactfully. After all, in my next scene I may commit some basic error - I want correction but I don't want her to come charging at me.

Respect, however, needs to be balanced with honesty. One of the things we have learned to do – and we have been collaborating for a while – is to really speak up when we don’t feel that something is working. On a recent project, Alice was unhappy with the title, and rejected several versions until we came up with one that worked. We both insisted on changes to scenes that the other had written, and in some cases it took serious persuasion. Occasionally we will go to a third party for an opinion, making sure we put the case as objectively as possible. We do this because we both want our writing to be the best it can be – we don’t want our egos to get in the way.

On the other hand, I will praise Alice for sections which she has done particularly well, and she returns the compliment.

Who gets credit for shared work? Partners may handle this in various ways; in my case, both names have appeared on everything Alice and I have co-written. We have the following agreement: if it is clear who has done the greatest amount of work on something, that person's name goes first. If it's not clear, then whoever originally had the idea takes the lead spot.

Trust in your co-author's integrity is key, but it also makes sense to put your agreement in writing. Alice and I have had more glory than money, but we are careful about making sure that we’re both mentioned in contracts, particularly with agents and publishers.

When we consider actual assignments, we evaluate the work we’re thinking about taking on. This is especially important with a long-term project. We ask ourselves if we’re both ready to commit the required time and effort? Do we each have something to contribute? Do we share a similar level of excitement and enthusiasm?

Once we take on a major project, Alice and I take a methodical approach. We start with one or more general discussions after which we separate to mull things over privately. One of us will then draft an outline. Sometimes we ship this back and forth several times (e-mail is great, especially as she and I have spent so much time on different continents). We then confer again, work out a few more details, and divide the labor. With the basic structure in place, we roll up our sleeves and get to work. As one of us finishes a section, she sends it to the other. The recipient makes detailed comments and revises as needed and passes the section back. When we get to the final draft, we review everything word by word.

We have also worked out our own way to keep things from becoming confused. There's a version number at the end of the file. If one of us has a comment or a question for the other on a particular passage, we offset it in the file by using double parentheses ((like this)), often prefacing detailed comments with either “V” (for Victoria) or “A” for (Alice).

In one discussion, Alice and I talked about our strengths and weaknesses. She’s stronger on research. I have a gift with pacing and tying things together. Each of us adds polish to the other’s prose. We’ve found that capitalizing on our complementary strengths greatly improves the finished product. But we’re also learning from each other. My descriptive powers have become much better, and she’s coming up with some good plot twists.

Having another person sharing your joy and frustration is also wonderful. With many people, I don’t really want to talk about my writing; I feel as if I’m imposing. But Alice knows how I feel when we get a good review, or when the agent calls with good news, or when we have to wait because the manuscript is out there and we can do nothing but wait. More importantly, she can also enter the same imaginary world with me, for she knows the characters as well as I do.

The conversations where Alice and I really get into the collaborative groove are incredibly stimulating, sometimes lasting for hours, thrilling both of us as we work out a difficult plot point or relate a research find. There’s nothing like sharing the "aha" experience and the joy of creativity with a partner!

Thanks for joining me at this article on collaboration; if you have comments, you can e-mail me directly at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. May you have a happy Valentine’s Day with your beloved – and if you’re alone on that day, take hope in the fact that I met my rather recently acquired husband on February 15th.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.