Friday, January 08, 2010

Collaboration

by Barbara D'Amato

It was going to be so easy. My writing group, Mark Zubro, Jeanne Dams, and I, had been working together for many years, critiquing each other's work, getting together about every two weeks. Then, in December 2003, Mark sent us an email suggesting that we write a collaborative novel. His idea had some good guys "find a disk that has the minute-to-minute election results of the next United States election."

Vote fraud was everywhere on the news. You will remember, of course, there was a bit of a tiff about the presidential election.

It takes me a year to eighteen months to write a book. I thought with three of us working on it, how long could it take? Ten months, maybe?

More like six years.

The result, FOOLPROOF, is just out from Forge, December 2009. Of course, some of the elapsed time was taken up by finding a publisher and the editing process, then ARC-shipping, and final printing. But the writing was at least four years.

It came out like this:

The morning of 9/11, Brenda Grant and Daniel Henderson met to pick up coffee for their office mates before going to their software firm in the World Trade Center. That casual act saved them, even as their friends and Brenda's fiance were killed. Establishing their own software security firm, they can't forget how helpless they felt, and they form a secret division of their very successful company committed to sniffing out global terrorists. When a college friend of Brenda's is killed on the way to an appointment with her, they begin to see the edge of an international plot to seize the presidency by rigging the results of the forthcoming election.

Why did it take so long to write? Mostly the challenge of melding different ideas, dealing with diverging plot lines, and presenting and abandoning characters. Call it negotiation. We would each, separately, come up with scenes. Then we'd get together, use some, enlarge some, delete some entirely.

It isn't easy, and yet there have been wonderful, famous collaborations--the Ellery Queen team, the Emma Lathen combo for instance. Among writers working regularly as a team today are Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child [Fever Dream, Cemetery Dance] and Charles Todd [Charles Todd and his mother Caroline Todd]. It's both a surprise and a delight that they seem to do it so effortlessly.

We had promised ourselves early on that if the book was getting in the way of our friendship we would simply stop. Fortunately, that didn't happen. But I had an earlier collaboration many years ago that ended when the other writer simply didn't send in any work. And I've heard of many that broke up over disagreements--or as my son says, "they ended in tears."

Collaboration has many things to recommend it. You receive the richness of another person's expertise and another's sensibilities.

If you are thinking of co-writing a book, here are some suggestions.

Part of the reason it worked for us was that we were old hands at getting a book together. Mark has published twenty-one books, Jeanne fifteen. We are way past the stage where we think our every phrase is gold and nobody should edit us. My advice, if you undertake a collaboration with a new writer--be very clear about who is going to make the final decisions.

If you are more of a writer than a researcher, collaborating with a researcher can work. Charles Todd recently said that he loves the reseach part.

Also, it's like working with a contractor on home improvements. Allow way more time than you could ever imagine you will need.

19 comments:

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Great post, Barb. And the book sounds terrific.

My first published work was actually a humor book I wrote with my friend John Warner. A publisher basically came to us in the summer of 2000 and suggested that, if George Bush won the election, we should write the first comedy book about him. Of course, no one knew if he would be president for more than a month after the election and John and I weren't going to do any work until we knew we were getting paid for it. The day the Supreme Court ruled, we got word from our publisher that the book was due in three weeks.

Also, it was a cartoon book and we didn't want to split the meager advance with an illustrator, so we had told them I could draw.

Despite the fact we were both working day jobs, I don't remember John and I having a single fight. So what I took away from it was, if you want a book collaboration to be successful, force yourself to write it in 19 days.

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, what a wonderful story. Can't wait to see what you did with FoolProof. I thought it would be fun for the Outfit to do a kind of rigmarole book, but I don't see having the patience for a 6-year project! Also--it shows how fast the landscape around you is moving--hard to write something timely. NO wonder people write so many historical novels these days

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you both.
I realized that one of the less important reasons it took so long was that we would burst into gales of laughter when one of us had come up with a particularly infelicitous phrase. My husband came out of his office a couple of times to see what was wrong because we were laughing so hard.

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