Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ten Tips for Successful Collaboration

Other than 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've had the pleasure of collaborating with several other writers over the years, mostly on screenplays but also on a couple of books, and they have all been satisfying experiences.

Craig Wargo was the first writer I worked with on screenplays, and we wrote several during the years we worked together. In the course of our writing partnership, we came up with these tips for a successful collaborative effort as a handout for a workshop we presented at a film conference.

  • While writing fiction, both writers must have an equal understanding of the plot, the characters, and the character arc. That will avoid costly mistakes later. 
  • Both writers must have the same vision for the direction of the story. Otherwise it would be like two people trying to get to a destination while following two different maps.  
  • 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 ensures careful, well thought out criticism. 
  • Don't count words or pages, or try to measure individual input in concrete terms. You could destroy the partnership by trying to keep all things equal. 
  • Be flexible, frank, yet kind. Respect each other's talents and feelings. 
  • To get the most out of brainstorming sessions, don't stop to evaluate as you go along  - just keep the ideas flowing.   
  • Decide with each new project who is going to have the final say if you reach an impasse on a major decision. 
  • Have periodic reviews of the state of the project, as well as the partnership in general. 
  • Always let your partner know if something is coming up in your personal or business life that is going to affect the partnership. 
  • Relax, laugh a lot, and have a good time.

I continued to keep those in mind as I worked on a few screenplays, "Holding Point," "Bunker Knows," and "Broadway's Finest" with Stephen Marro, a producer/director in New York, and again when I collaborated with Gary Martin on "The Benign," a ghost story set in East Texas. The guidelines served us well, as all of those efforts were mutually pleasant and creatively satisfying.

Going into my first collaboration on a novel, the guidelines were again most helpful. When I first met Margaret Sutton and 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 awkward 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 a newspaper, as well as numerous freelance writing gigs. Margaret juggled a manufacturing business and a busy social life.

I had no social life. I had five kids. :-)

But somehow we made it, mainly because we were able to put ego aside and focus on the story.

A writing partnership that is a complement of talents is a real gift. In the two years we worked on Doubletake, I noticed that Margaret’s strengths bolstered my weaknesses and my strengths bolstered hers. Each of us brought something unique and special to the process and, now, reading through the book, I’m never sure where one of us left off writing and the other began. I couldn’t look at a chapter and tell you specifically who wrote which section. I may know who started a chapter. Margaret does have a wonderful way of setting up memorable secondary characters - the introduction of the irascible Dr. Davis is uniquely hers - but beyond that, the lines blur; which is a very good thing. Even though quilts play a central part in the plot, I’d hate to think the book resembled one.

That balance/blend of writing strengths was very evident in my other partnerships, as well. Craig was a master of characterization. Stephen was a master at unique storylines, and Gary was a master at setting a scene. One of my greatest strengths as a writer is writing good dialogue, followed closely by my ability to set up good pacing. All of these strengths coming together to create a story was an awesome experience.

I've worked on two other books with another writer, the nonfiction history books about Winnsboro, TX that I wrote with the Winnsboro Historian, Bill Jones; Images of America: Winnsboro and Reflections of Winnsboro. That process was much different from writing fiction, so we didn't need all those guidelines, but we did establish early on that we should have mutual respect. Not that it needed to be said or put on paper.

It was a given.

I've had the greatest respect for Bill and his long career as a historian and journalist, and he has had the same kind of respect for my somewhat shorter career as a journalist. Plus we can laugh a lot when working together. He does like to tell a good joke.

What about you? Have you collaborated with another writer? Was is a good or not-so-good experience? If you haven't worked with another, would you consider doing so?

Posted by Maryann Miller  You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page, read her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE


  1. I imagine both writers would have to be willing to listen and consider alternate viewpoints to be successful. Otherwise, you end up with a power struggle. But co-authoring has been quite popular these days. I enjoyed the collaboration between mother and daughter writing as PC Cast. Both of my children love to read but neither has the writing bug. James Patterson helps new writers get their start by "co-authoring." Not sure how this process works. I heard that he critiques and edits the story and having his name on the cover helps with sales.

    1. You're right about the willingness to listen. I think the process with Patterson is much like it was with Barbara Cartland. Patterson comes up with story ideas and characters and the other writer does the bulk of getting the story on paper. Then he goes through the chapters to add his touch where needed.

  2. I think collaborating would be very hard for me because I can't seem to stick to an outline or a plan. Any joint effort surely must require great organization.

    1. You say this to the most disorganized person in the world. LOL For most of these projects we started with the barest of skeletons, just setting the plot points in place. Stephen always came to me with a story idea and a couple of times I went to NY to brainstorm and get the plot points settled. Then we'd brainstorm some of the other elements, setting, character development, etc.
      Margaret and I started with just a concept and wrote the story organically as things came up via research and playing the "what if" game. Neither of us wanted an outline, and the idea of the final Doubletake, came to Margaret as we were almost finished with the book. I liked it, so we went with it.
      Saying all this because I think you could collaborate if you found the right person.

    2. I enjoyed this post, Maryann, as well as this comment where you're speaking my language. The inside of my brain looks like Fibber McGee's closet, stuffed with rusty parts and bits of brightly colored string I "might" be able to use one day. Not to mention dust bunnies and old grocery receipts.

      And yet, every once in a while I am able to reach in and pull out something worthwhile from that squirrel's midden. I believe that if I were fortunate to have found a suitable writing or critique partner, perhaps I might have successfully fished in that pond more often.

      Truth be told, I was usually the one who backed away from any such attempts at partnership. I tend to be quite skittish in my personal and business relationships until I feel 100% certain of a person. And even then, I go down in flames more often than not.

  3. I saw great similarities in your experience and mine, but I can't say because I have to save them for my post later on this month.

    I wish I had someone who knew more about screenwriting to collaborate on the one I wrote. I gave it my best shot, entered in a contest, and...nothing. I still think it would make a fun movie.

    1. Writing the screenplays is easy compared to getting them picked up for a movie. Of all the scripts I've written or worked on, only one made it to the screen. That was Stephen's BROADWAYS FINEST, and because I was just a script doctor and got paid for that, I didn't get a screen credit.

      Let's talk privately about your project and I'll be happy to help.

  4. Back in the 80s, I began working with an old friend (and wonderful writer) on a variety of projects. A screenplay we adapted from an excellent fiction novel she had written earlier was rewritten as a screenplay and optioned by a Hollywood producer (but never filmed). Like your experiences, we brought different strengths and weaknesses to all our collaborations and had jolly good time with each one. Sadly, she died before we published any of her works, but the experience of working with her was invaluable. I love your bulleted items, Maryann——they're spot on. This article is a solid keeper.

  5. So sorry you lost your writing partner. Finding someone like that to work with and have a "jolly good time" is great. My friend, Craig, died some years ago, too. I think we might have been able to push something through had he not. He was young and very energetic. LOL


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