People go into collaborations for different reasons…and each project, and each co-author, is a different situation. Sometimes, two or more writers collaborate because they came up with a brilliant idea in the bar at three in the morning…and next day, it still looks brilliant and fun. Sometimes, the collaboration springs out of something that began as a mutual writing exercise. Sometimes, two friends discover they’re working on very similar projects and decide to share. Sometimes, one of the writers is trying to cheer up the other, or help them out of a hole. Sometimes, two writers find that they work much, much more effectively when they toss ideas back and forth between them and then dash to the computer to get something down than they do trying to crank stuff out on their own.
Similarly, there lots of different methods for collaborating. One that works well for a lot of people is “I write my characters; you write your characters,” in which each writer comes up with some characters, they decide mutually on which ones will be the central viewpoints, and then they work out (in advance or as they go along) which scenes will be from which viewpoint. The writer who has that character writes the scene.
Another one is to have one viewpoint character, and switch writers at the end of every scene or chapter. I heard once that this is how Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth worked, with one writer spending his chapter getting the hero into a terrible fix and leaving him on a cliffhanger, and the other writer then having to write him out of the mess. I don’t know if that’s true, but it would certainly explain the plot-pattern in some of their collaborations.
I’ve also known collaborations where one writer does one type of writing – all the dialog, say – and the other puts in all the action or the narrative. This works really really well when each writer is playing to a particularly strong point, but it requires a whole lot of trust in each other.
Yet another collaboration style is the one where one writer does the prep work and a detailed outline, the second writer comes up with a first draft, and the first writer does the rewrite and polish. This is especially common in the sort of commercial collaboration wherein a publisher matches up a new, up-and-coming writer with one who’s more experienced and who has a large following, in hopes of boosting the newer writer’s audience, but there are other collaborative partnerships that just naturally fall into this pattern.
And there’s the one where both writers are in the same room, with one looking over the other’s shoulder, switching places whenever the one at the computer gets stuck or the one watching can’t stand it any more. It doesn’t seem to be common (since it requires both writers to be in the same place), but I know at least one set of roommates who work this way, and I’ve seen several folks do this to produce short stories while at a convention.
There is no one right way to collaborate with someone; there is only what works for a given pair of collaborators. I’ve worked on several, and each of them was different. For the Kate and Cecy books, Caroline wrote Kate (and later Thomas), and I wrote Cecy (and later James); we didn’t talk much about plot and the only editing of each other’s writing we did was for typos and consistency. Because they were in letter format, we were essentially doing the “you write your characters, I’ll write mine” method, plus the switch-writers/viewpoints-at-the-end-of-each-chapter method. The big advantage of working like this was that there was never any problem with the characters all sounding alike, or with one of us not really “getting” the other’s characters well enough to write them from the inside.
For two other collaborations (each with a different author), we picked a viewpoint character, then one of us wrote until we got stuck (which was sometimes in mid-sentence); then we handed it off to the other person. The next writer would go over the previous writer’s work, editing and making changes, then go on until they got stuck, whereupon they’d hand it back. The editing-and-revision pass kept the viewpoint character’s characterization and the overall style remarkably consistent, even though, as I said, sometimes we switched writers in mid-chapter, mid-scene, or mid-sentence.
Another collaboration I worked on involved you-write-your-characters-I’ll-write-mine, but with lots and lots of joint plot-planninig and a lot more editing of each other’s chapters than Caroline and I did.
In each case, I don’t think the results would have been nearly as good if we hadn’t worked the way we did. Trying to write Kate and Cecy with lots of plot-planning and each of us editing the other would have a) killed the books dead (Caroline is the sort of writer who cannot discuss her work in advance of writing it without killing it), and b) probably smoothed out the voice and style more than was appropriate for an epistolary novel. Trying to write a single-viewpoint collaboration without editing each other would likely have made it lumpy and inconsistent in style, voice, and quite possible stuff-that-happens (also, in both cases, there really wasn’t anybody else either of us wanted to write. It was that character’s story, and nobody else’s).
All of the successful collaborations I’m familiar with have been ones in which both of the writers were having a tremendously good time. The Fun Quotient isn’t a guarantee that the project will get finished, much less reach professional publication - I’ve had loads of fun working on each and every collaboration, but the three Kate and Cecy books. are the only ones that ended up published, and only one of the others made it to any sort of ending.
Since this post got awfully long, I’m splitting it into two parts. So more random thoughts about collaborating next time.