A few years ago, a friend and I got this idea in our heads that we’d write a story in portions back and forth to each other. One story. He’d start. We got technical and planned on sharing a Google document, each of us using a different color. “See where it goes,” we thought. “Oh, and you can’t change what the other person wrote or degrade him to his face.” Good rule.
Off we went to write the first collaborative National Book Award winner…
…He never started.
About a month later, I remembered our brilliant idea and wrote a few paragraphs about a guy on a train in a suede suit holding a brief case handcuffed to his wrist. Some woman started flirting with him (I was hoping my friend wouldn’t talk too much about her during his session because I wanted to make her an infamous con artist intent on stealing the brief case. And maybe his jacket for some extra spite).
Well, that scheme got a little sidetracked when I saw the next portion my friend sent me. The man in the suede suite (a different color now) had pulled a gun on my infamous con artist who, rather obstinately, claimed to be the mother of four and an obsessive gardener to boot. I got the six-paragraph story back with train cops bursting in to find the madman in an oddly deep philosophical debate with the woman about the ethics of train robberies.
I was more than a little tempted to bring in Nancy Drew and various Boxcar Kids to sort everything out. Scooby could make a surprise cameo in the sequel if I didn’t like where that one went either.
I realized collaborative fiction is a little worse than playing a game of telephone with preschoolers. It’s not easy to salvage a story that swings so far from your idea of where things should properly go. This was especially true in my case, since I was clearly taking the National Book Award more seriously than my friend. Our collaborative writing career was probably over. (I think one of us came back a few weeks later and concluded our epic adventure with cow-snatching aliens disguised as train robbers). Everyone died. Thanks for reading.
The crazy thing is, authors actually do this. And sometimes it really works! If you’ve ever read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you know what I mean. The seamlessness of their style and humor is extremely entertaining. Like all partnerships, collaborative writing needs to be taken seriously and probably be planned out (preferably not in a Google doc).
It was an interesting experiment while it lasted, but I learned how selfish I am as a writer sometimes – how set I am in my ways. I immediately wanted to control the project, and I began taking it entirely too seriously before my dreams were crushed.
I sometime wonder if that’s not dissimilar to what it’s like to have an editor. Apart from the micro-edits, I worry occasionally about what said editor might want to do to my stories or how he or she might wish to change my characters. I’m sure he or she would never sabotage the plot so much as to turn my perfect train con-woman scene into a guns out philosophy duel, but I don’t have to worry about that at this stage. Right now, as I try to get there, my writing remains blissfully my own. But I don’t suppose there’s any harm in bracing myself for a future editor to come along with the red pen.
I’ve never been quite sure how to realistically imagine the writer’s relationship with the editor. I’ve heard so many different accounts that cover a broad range of emotions from gratitude to whatever the mother of four might have felt toward the man wearing suede.
I’m no expert, but I think there’s a skill to sharing your work, whether it’s to collaborate on the first draft or the fifth. Or even just to share by reading to others who took no part in the writing process, but turn the story in their minds and, therefore, change it. I have a hunch that there’s a learned skill to exposing your writing to others and having the grace to allow them to make it better.
…I should wind up here before the philosophy leads to revolvers.