Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Collaboration

Write1Sub1ers Simon Kewin and Dominic de Mattos recently collaborated on the creation of an 8000 word SF story for the Pill Hill press "ePocalypse" anthology. The following conversation relates their experiences, which will be of interest to any writers considering working in collaboration.

Simon : I posted a request for collaborators on my blog as the market required the collaboration of at least two writers. Why did you decide to answer the call?

Dominic : I first heard about Pill Hill Press’ call for contributions from a fellow Write1Sub1er Ellie Garratt and went to the site to take a look for myself. I thought it looked an intriguing idea – e-mails at the end of everything! I was also drawn to the idea of working with another writer, both as a learning exercise and as a way of mutual encouragement. I saw you had a number of writing credits under your belt and I thought here’s someone that could teach me a few tricks! Did you have any pre-conceived ideas about working collaboratively and if so, how did the experience differ?

Simon : My experiences of working with others – editors for instance - have been good so I figured this could be an interesting and rewarding experience. I was aware, of course, that problems could arise. These things can obviously only work if the parties involved get along. If disagreements arise and neither party is prepared to back-down or suggest a compromise then the whole thing is doomed. Fortunately it didn’t come to that! I think it’s fair to say we have different approaches to writing and to Science Fiction and that made the process pretty interesting. I certainly learned a lot. I know I could never have written the story we ended up with on my own. Which is great because it broadened my horizons but I can see how some people might get resentful of this. Did you Dom at all?

Dominic : We had a good rapport, I felt, so I never once felt undermined. I really valued the imaginative inspiration you brought to the story. My approach is very much hard sci-fi, which is grounded in scientific accuracy as far as possible (there is my engineering background coming out). This has a tendency to bog a story down, even dehumanise it, so working collaboratively with someone who could add another dimension was invaluable. Therein lies the true strength of collaborative writing, I feel. My greatest weakness as a writer is over-plotting; do you think we managed to play to our combined strengths or was it hard work compensating?

Simon : I found it worked really well having our different approaches. I can see that it might not work out for some combinations of people! I’m obviously not averse to scientific accuracy, at all, but I’m just much more interested in story and I tend to be drawn to more fantastical plot-lines and ideas that a hard sci-fi fan might grumble about. I say, let ‘em grumble!

I had some fairly off-the-wall ideas for our story when we started it but you did a good job of bringing me back down to earth and between us we arrived at a story arc we could both get excited about. Again, for some writers, that just wouldn’t work. You both have to love the type of story you’re going to write, I think. So, yes, we played to our combined strengths and I had no trouble taking account of your approach. There were a few occasions when you wanted the plot tied down in much more detail, with dates and times much clearer. And you were right to do so : for the sort of story we wrote, this was critical. You also brought a whole slew of scientific background to the story which, again, was invaluable. I must admit I didn’t always check your calculations though …

I think a vital aspect of collaboration like this is absolute honesty. Obviously you can be diplomatic, but you still have to be able to say you hate something if you do. We established up-front that we would be completely forthright. I felt fortunate because I didn’t find a whole lot to criticize in what you were writing. I imagine it could get ugly with other writers! We collaborated electronically – so far as I know we’ve never met – and I think that worked well. It’s kind of easier to be more honest when you’re not actually looking someone in the eye.

What do you think Dom? Did you have to be diplomatic at any point? Did you feel you had to rein in what you really wanted to say?

Dominic : Not at all. I found very little to comment on in your writing. But as a general rule in collaborative work, there are always courteous ways of disagreeing with someone and that, I think was the secret of our success. A good rapport, and an honest appreciation of the other’s work, meant we could steer each other along the way without offense. But I wouldn’t want people to think that collaborative writing is all about disagreements! What I will take out of this experience is the joy of bouncing ideas around and bringing a fantastic story to life out of a seething melting pot of possibilities. This was what synergy is all about – the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I was really pleased with the end result – all we have to do now is find the right showcase for it!


  1. This is fascinating - but how did you start? Did one of you write, say, the first chapter and the other continue it? or re-write with additions? Or did you first agree a plot/characters and write a version which the other dove-tailed their ideas etc. into it?

    That you both adhered to watchwords such as 'honest' and 'courteous' is illustrated by these exchanges!

  2. Sandra,

    The story happened to be epistolary : an email exchange between various characters, two main ones and a few minor ones. We decided to adopt one of the main characters each and write from that POV, sending emails back and forth. But we also allowed ourselves to suggest edits to what each other had done.

  3. A very cool concept -- and a great example of synergy, mos def.

  4. I think in a story written in their ePocalypse format, collaboration can work brilliantly--and in fact it was a requirement for the anthology. But collaborating on a story that needs to sound as if one person wrote it can be tricky, for several reasons.

    I've collaborated once, each of us writing large chunks of a fairly long story and blending them together. I would never do it again--just not right for me. I admire those who can collaborate and come out unscathed!

  5. I've never done a collaboration, but it was neat reading about your experiences with it - thanks for the great article. It's something I'd love to try someday!

  6. Fascinating post.

    This was exactly what Chris Allinotte and I did for the ePocalypse anthology. We both adopted identities and then sent emails to each other. Sometimes there were quite a few days between emails but we got there in the end. We started with a basic idea of how to begin and end it.

    After the emails were written we both went through them and made suggestions. We went through the editing process a couple of times and wrote new emails where appropriate, until we had the finished product.

    It was worth the effort as our final story was accepted!

  7. Interesting to try a short story... I've had several started-and-failed collaborations, either because I wasn't ready, or he wasn't, or circumstances really didn't help the collaboration. But a short story? Now that's a thought. And there's only about 1 person in the world I'd even dream of collaborating with after that experience. Thanks for the great article.