When you look at the arts, there are some that clearly, obviously require the talents of multiple people to produce. Movies, for instance, need not only writers but actors, camera operators, prop and costume people, and on and on – last time I went to one, the credits rolled on for nearly five minutes.
At the other end of the scale are things like painting, where one person can theoretically do the whole job themselves (though very few painters today stretch their own canvases or grind their own pigments).
And then there’s writing.
We’ll set aside the problems of production and distribution for now; the Internet is changing that part drastically. But I will point out that for the last century or two, even so-called self-publication didn’t mean you set your own type, printed your own galleys, and bound each copy of your book by hand.
Writing is in many ways a solitary activity; when push comes to shove, it’s just me at the keyboard typing. Even when one is collaborating, you can’t type four-hands the way you can play a piano duet side-by-side at the same piano keyboard. But writers have always talked to each other over tea, over coffee, over beer and wine, from afternoon to the wee hours of the morning, and in letters when they couldn’t get together in person. The Inklings and the Algonquin Club and the Bloomsbury Group were none of them the first of their kind.
Nevertheless, the myth that most non-writers (and far too many writers) believe is that books are an act of singular creativity; they spring from the head of their author in true and pristine condition, and whatever minor changes occur afterwards are mere refinements of the author’s vision. Yes, some people really believe this. A professor of literature at the local university once told a friend of mine rather condescendingly that editors never asked for substantive changes in a manuscript, and therefore they never needed to discuss what changes might have been requested for marketing reasons vs. which were made for artistic ones.
In fact, every editor I have ever had has asked for changes to the manuscript – nothing ever goes straight to copy-edit. Furthermore, most of those changes have not been for marketing reasons (or if they were, the editors were clever enough to come up with good, solid artistic reasons for asking for the changes). I don’t always do everything the editor asks, or do it the way he suggests, if he makes a suggestion. In the current work-in-production, for instance, the editor wanted the opening scenes rearranged in a certain order; unfortunately, this would have required me to change the timing on several key events that were pretty much nailed to the floor, either in previous books or by the weather (settlers did not pick up and move in the middle of winter in Minnesota).
So I did something else, which fixed the pacing-and-tension problems (I hope) without playing hob with timing-and-plausibility, and I got the email yesterday saying they liked it, and we’re good to go to copyedit. The point is, I think the changes were good ones.
And I wasn’t just working on the problems my editor pointed out. My new crit group had a few things to say, too, and while I couldn’t address everything (since, again, some things were nailed down in earlier books), there was still quite a bit to chew over. And that’s not even counting the comments made by a variety of first-readers, long before things ever got to this point, or the discussions with friends about plot points before anything at all was ever written down.
There are also plenty of people whose contributions are more indirect but no less necessary. These are the ones who answer questions about castle construction or the development of guns; who loan out obscure books on British slang in 1811 or the development of railroads; who drag one out to dinner or over to watch a movie just before one’s brain starts racing around and around the squirrel cage.
The books might still happen without all of this support, but they wouldn’t happen nearly as fast and they wouldn’t be nearly as good. It’s an odd sort of teamwork – I’m the one doing the writing and trying to make everything fit coherently, but it would be disingenuous to ignore just how much everyone else is a part of the process. Yet it’s not something you can break down into discrete parts – you can’t say George put the wheels on, Janet did the upholstery, and Gene and Jennifer painted the trim.
I can’t point at a paragraph and say, “Lois wrote that bit,” because she didn’t; I wrote it. Even if I say “Beth or David or Carol gave me that idea” or “I put that bit in for Rosemary or Pamela or Caroline,” it’s never as pure and simple as it sounds. Yes, Lois or Carol or David gave me that idea, sort of, but I worked out how to write it and fit it in, and it changed along the way. Yet it wouldn’t have gone that way if it hadn’t been for that talk we had.
It’s more than just support, but it’s not the kind of influence my English teachers talked about when I was in school. It’s both more collaborative and less; most of these people aren’t trying to write parts of my book, they’re just joining a conversation about it. But that stimulus from outside my head is sort of like binocular vision for ideas – it’s part of what lets me get a clear picture of what the story needs to be. It’s possible to get along without it, just as one can still see even if one is wearing a patch over one eye; but without two points of view, one loses depth perception.