Thursday, February 22, 2018

Collaboration - Ten Tips to Make it Work

Other than a marriage and parenting, I can’t think of anything else that is more difficult for two people to share than one writing project.  But when it’s done right, when everything works, the results are amazing. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with several people on stories for books and screenplays, and the primary benefit that I saw in doing that was the blend of artistic strengths that produced a better story. Not to mention the extra nod to discipline when having to report to another live person about your writing progress.

My first partnership was with Margaret Sutton on the mystery Doubletake. When we decided to write a book together, all I could think of was “The Odd Couple.” Not that either of us matched the personality types of Felix and Oscar, but we certainly were as opposite as opposite could get. How could a humor columnist who was known as the Erma Bombeck of Plano, Texas and an entrepreneur whose writing credentials included invoices, business letters, and a single sale to Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine turn out anything even remotely appealing to fans of hard-boiled crime fiction?

Finding our way from that brash beginning to the publication of Doubletake, a police procedural featuring a female homicide detective, was a most interesting journey. I juggled five young children and a weekly deadline at the newspaper. Margaret juggled a manufacturing business and a busy social life. But somehow we made it.

The first thing we realized was how much research we needed to do. Collectively, we knew zip about law enforcement – speeding tickets not withstanding - and we had no clue how the criminal mind works. Honest, we didn’t. We were lucky in that we both had connections to people in law enforcement, and those people were happy to help us get it right.  Police officers really do hate it when authors don't get it right.

After an initial period of research and outlining the story, we each chose sections to write. Usually, that was determined by who came up with the original idea for that part of the plot, and I was sometimes amazed at how effortless that process could be. Our plan was to meet once a week and trade chapters. We each would then add our touch to the other’s work, hoping the end result would be a smooth blend.

Margaret was the epitome of tact when she read my first attempt to get into the killer’s mind. It was… well, how should I put this…so nice. But what did she expect from a mom? She put the pages down and suggested that perhaps the killer wouldn’t be thinking in terms of “Gosh, Golly, Gee.” Maybe he’d go for something with a little harder edge. When I told her I didn’t know about harder edges, she took me out back and made me use words I’d never even heard before. She made me say them over and over until they could come out without making me stammer or blush.

When collaborating, it really helps to have a sense of humor. When egos tended to get a bit sensitive, we found laughing beat arguing and Margaret took that to heart. It became a personal challenge to come up with a bigger and better practical joke to play on me the next time I came to her office to work. Don’t even ask me about the fake puke on the stack of manuscript pages I’d spent weeks typing. (Yes, this all started long before computers and printers.)

A writing partnership that is a complement of talents is a real gift.  I found that true again when I next partnered with Craig Wargo to write scripts and produce a film in Dallas, as well as when I started working with Stephen Marro, a director in New York. Both of them were amazing in their ability to come up with unique characters and story ideas and visuals. I was better at structure, pacing, and dialogue, and there was always a sense of thrilling excitement when those elements came together to create a terrific story.

More recently, I have collaborated with Bill Jones, the Winnsboro Historian, on two nonfiction books: Images of America, Winnsboro and Reflections of Winnsboro. Each collaboration has worked well because I rely on some basic guidelines for a writing partnership that Craig and I developed. Even though that was many moons ago, the guidelines still apply.

1. When writing fiction, both writers must have an equal understanding of the characters. That will avoid potential mistakes in continuity of character traits and motivations.

2. Both writers must have the same vision for the direction of the story. Otherwise it would be like two people trying to follow the same map, but taking two different roads.

3. One writer should not object to a scene, character, or the way something is written without first being able to clarify why they object, and secondly having an alternative ready to offer. This insures careful, well thought out criticism.

4. Don't count words or pages written by each partner, or try to measure individual input in concrete terms. You could destroy the partnership by trying to keep those things equal. NOTE: In my partnerships, I tended to produce more pages, as I was the one with the typewriter and later the computer. But the contributions of the others during story and character development more than balanced the input value.

5. Be flexible, frank, yet kind. Respect each other's talent and feelings.

6. To get the most out of brainstorming sessions don't stop to evaluate as you go along. Just keep the ideas flowing.

7. Decide with each new project who is going to have final say. Establishing that before you start helps if you reach an impasse on a major decision. In most cases that may be the person who first came up with the story idea.

8. Have periodic reviews of the state of the project as well as the partnership in general. Are both parties still enthused, happy, and eager to keep going? What, if anything, needs to change.

9. Always let your partner know if something is coming up in your personal or business life that is going to affect the partnership.

10. Relax, laugh a lot, and have a good time.
Maryann Miller won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann and all of her stories at her Amazon Author Page  * Website   * Blog  and follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Margaret likes to remain more of a mystery. 


  1. The ten tips emphasize the need to lay down specific ground rules that keep the project moving forward in a congenial, positive environment. Disagreements and ruffled feathers over the issues you've addressed can undermine what could otherwise be a great story. Also, the details you've included about your collaboration with Margaret Sutton lay down a well defined path for the effective blending of different personalities, ideas, and talents. This was particularly interesting to me as I prepare to embark on a joint project with another writer. Finally, you've shown that ego has no place in a collaboration because it's about the good of the story, not the promotion of one writer over the other. Thank you for sharing this, Maryann. You've helped me through the initial phase of creating guidelines for a well-oiled, productive partnership.

    1. Glad you found the advice and tips helpful, Linda. I have discovered in my many years in the writing business that bringing too much ego to any aspect of it, is hazardous to success. We have to put that aside to work well with an editor, as well as any other writer we may want to work with.

      I had the misfortune some time ago to be editing for a small online publisher and ran into problems with one author. She did not want to accept any of my suggested changes, defending every thing that needed to be fixed with ego-centered rationalizations. I finally had to tell the publisher I could not finish the edit. The one and only time that has happened, thank goodness.

  2. I imagine co-authoring is more challenging than marriage. It is hard enough hearing critique from friends. Having a partner X-out your darlings must be brutal. :)

    1. It can be if you don't bring a huge ego to the table. As I said to Linda in my response to her comment, being able to put the egos aside makes a huge difference.

  3. Some of the same things you mention about collaborating on writing a book, pertain to critiquing. My CP and I write nothing alike, but we feed off opposite strengths. We can sometimes be too forthright, but we don't get all bent out of shape, so ego doesn't come into play. Great post, Maryann. Will be struggling with a screenplay soon. I've written one but I need to do a better job.

    1. Thanks, Polly. Glad you liked the post and found it helpful.

      For your screenplay endeavor, you might want to consider getting a book, "Making a Good Script Great" by Linda Seger. After I used the Syd Field books to do my first screenplay, I found this book a year or so later and it was quite helpful for later scripts. Then, of course, working with Stephen Marro and taking a class with Joe Camp, helped immensely, too. :-)

  4. Great tips, Maryann. Now let me disappear. Or not.

    1. Thanks, Dani. So, to where are you disappearing? We like you here. :-)

  5. I loved your stories about collaborating, and the tips are great! I've not tried the "two people writing one book" route, but I can see it would definitely have advantages, if you partner with the right person and agree on the ground rules...

    1. Ann, it is important to find the right person and make sure your talents complement each other, as well as making sure your egos will not clash. My long-time collaborator for film projects always said we needed to check our egos at the door.


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