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Sorry for not posting much, and the likelihood is that will continue–I normally don’t travel that frequently, but this year is hectic. (Relatedly, I will definitely be in New Orleans, Cocoa Beach, Chicago, Iowa City and Madison over the next few months in case anyone wants to meet up.)

Anyway, I know there was a recent post here about collaboration, and I’ve recently considered starting a couple new collaborations, so I thought I’d talk a bit about my collaboration experiences.

I started writing collaborative work in my dark fanfic days (the fanfic was dark, not the days). Now technically this was role playing, rather than fanfic, so this may not apply to other people’s experiences, etc, etc. However, in the group where I was involved, there was a standard collaboration method.

1) You and your co-writer would go into instant messaging or a private chat room.

2) You would each write out your character’s dialogue, along with whatever reactions they were having. “He lit a cigarette. Damn things. But it was compulsive. ‘No, I’ve never thought about going into command. Why do you ask?’ He struggled to keep his voice light. He surveyed the room, checking to see if their conversation had been overheard.”

3) Your partner does the same. “She coughed after inhaling the annoying ensign’s smoke. ‘Do you have to smoke that?’ she asked, waving it away. ‘I’m sure it’s not allowed in here. Anyway, my point is–I heard there’s an opening for a weapon’s specialist on the bridge.’ She leaned forward, giving him a significant look.”

3) This goes on for pages, and pages, and pages.

4) You mash it all up into one unreadable mess.

5) The good taste fairies cry.

Now, I was aware–and theoretically other people were aware–that this very clever method of ours created horrible slogs. But it was fun to do, and one of the benefits of fanfic is (or was) that you could really sort of just screw the reader when you wanted to. I mean, they’re your “shipmates”–you may suck, but they’re stuck on your mailing list anyway. You’ve got to be good if you want praise and attention (and by good here, I mean various shades of readable), but if you’re willing to forego that, then whatever. You can produce whatever you want. There’s no editor to discern whether or not it gets disseminated. You have a captive audience.

(I think fanfic is a truly awesome way for socially oriented writers to generate their million words of crap. You can experiment and see what works, and what doesn’t, all while receiving disproportionately positive feedback.)

Anyway, this was a fun collaboration method, but one that generated generally poor work–and while much of that was because of the inferior writing, a goodly chunk was for another, important reason. It was Not Done to ever cut anything. I mean, you could trim your bit, but even if you did, the other person’s bit would still be at maximum verbosity. No single person would ever have included so many tags about what their character was doing and thinking around every line of dialogue–but start up a collaboration, and suddenly both players would be spitting out three useless sentences per snippet. Also, one rarely cut out conversational deadweight–if the characters had a side chat about, say, tribbles, then the side-chat about tribbles remained.

These early experiences may account for my aversion to what seems to be a very popular collaboration technique for competent writers–which is for one person to write a few paragraphs on a story, and then pass it back to the first.

Now, I have tried that. My poor, doomed collaboration partners and I never produced a usable story from it. Either someone would wash out and go do something else (which seems to be a problem with any collaboration method) or the story would stall after having produced twenty pages of mildly interesting, elegantly written prose in which nothing happened ever.

The technique definitely works for others, though. Here’s a story which I recall being told was written that way. (If it wasn’t, maybe one of the authors will come and correct me.)

There are a bunch of other ways to collaborate, of course. There are the “broken story” methods. e.g. someone hands off a failed draft of their work to someone else. Or someone hands off a dead short story start to see if the other person can revive it. Or both participants discuss the project as a whole, and then one person writes it up and sends the broken first draft to the second person instead of rewriting it themselves.

These methods seem to have a problem with crystallization. If one person’s draft crystallizes into a form that has a certain kind of polish–not necessarily a final form, but one that’s no longer pliable–then the collaboration gets awkward, and may have to end at that point, even if the other partner’s not satisfied with the result.

My favorite method of collaboration is to do careful pre-writing work that I’d normally find irritating–to talk out the themes, to talk out the actions and the characters, and finally to create a scene by scene outline. Then I like to divvy up the scenes, with one person writing up the even numbers, and the other person writing up the odd.

This could lead to inconsistent style, though I haven’t had that problem with any of my collaborations–in my experience, one of the partners can go through the draft and clean up any problematic stylistic differences. (Or leave them in if there’s some way that the styles are working interestingly together, such as if the alternating scenes are from alternating points of view.) This probably works best if both writers have a similar style, or are working in an agreed-on style, such as very simple prose or a pastiche of some other writer.

For me, this technique has been the most successful for producing stories that are shaped like stories and that reflect the storytelling interests of both collaborators.

Have you had different experiences with the techniques I list? What techniques do you use? Did you once write embarrassing collaborative fanfic? Spill!

  • Hi, I'm Rachel! I write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I've won the Nebula Award twice, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and some other things. My seventy or so short stories are available around the internet as well as in print, and many of them are in my latest collection, How the World Became Quiet. I have a masters degree in fiction from the University of Iowa. I have five cats. I like my cats, but strongly suggest one stops at three. Or two. Excuse me, I have to go take care of cats.

6 thoughts on “Coll-ab-o-ration

  1. Hi Rachel,

    My first story collection, Amazing Adult Fantasy (forthcoming this November) is fan-fiction, of a sort. (Experimental fan fiction, perhaps.) I think of fan-fiction as collaborative to begin with, since you start with a property “outside” yourself, then do something with it. The stories in AAF are fairly deformative—I took great liberties with my subjects—but they’re still written with one eye on another writer’s (or writers’) creation. (And read against that, as well.)

    One of the stories in my second collection (“Distress,” unpublished) is a collaboration with another writer. She wrote a complete first draft, then I took a go at it, then passed it back to her, and so on. I took care to try to imitate her style—the one she originally wrote it in—but I also took out the things (language things) that I didn’t like. And I also shaped it more in terms of a plot; she had suggested more the overall nature and tone. It worked out well as a collaboration because the end result was like nothing either one of us would have written idividually. As to whether it’s a good story that’s of course for others to decide, as always.

    That collaborative story was also an homage to the late Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda—so that was another constraint, then, too. Homage and fan-fiction not be so very far apart, in the final equation.

    Best of luck with all of your traveling!


    1. Adam,

      When I was first getting to know and dig you, I started reading some of your work online, and I shared your Trek-informed piece from Feathertale w/ Rachel.

      This is funny and relevant to this conversation because the fan fiction community Rachel and I were both once a part of was Trek-related. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone.

      1. Yes, this is deeply secret, and not at all given away by my “bridge” reference. ;-)

        1. Man, you guys should have said this sooner! We could have been having some ST viewing parties…

          In my spare time I’ve been sewing an admiral’s uniform based on the one Riker wears in the final Next Gen episode… I hope to have it done in time for AWP. Gonna dye my hair and beard gray, and everything!

  2. I collaborate with visual artists, but don’t collaborate very much at all with other writers–the reason I got out of music and into writing in the first place was because I didn’t want to have to rely on other people so much.

    But I love how you describe the fanfic community style and its benefits. I don’t come from that world but I really respond to it. (Said the guy who writes stories about Jennifer Love Hewitt.) “Socially-oriented writers!” That’s a really different idea then we’re used to, of the person alone with their typewriter, right? As fanfic continues to grow in popularity and as the internet changes our ideas about ownership of artistic credit, this type of collaboration will probably become the norm. Stories will have lots of different fingerprints on them and no one will mind.

  3. This is heading off in another direction, but related: I hear a lot of small press writers saying that they feel excluded or apart from much of the culture. That their only readers are other writers. The thing I always wonder is, why don’t they try collaborating with people other than other writers? Especially more mainstream artists?

    For example, comics are quite popular with younger readers. Why not, if you’re a poet, team up with a comics artists and make some poetic comics? You’ll have to do something a bit different sure, but the end result might be very cool (as well as potentially more read).

    Philip Glass offers an inspiring precedent. He was making pretty weird music in the late 60s—stuff that interested other musicians, and artists, but not the kind of thing most people wanted to listen to on the radio.


    But he didn’t just make that stuff. He also worked with Sesame Street:


    And also with pop musicians like Paul Simon:


    See also Paul Simon’s song “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” on his 1983 album “Hearts and Bones” (which, besides Sesame Street, is the first place I heard Philip Glass.)

    Paul Simon! Can you imagine anyone more mainstream in 1983 than Paul Simon? It’s like…I dunno…Ben Marcus collaborating with Stephanie Meyer! Can we even imagine something like that? (And if not, why not?)

    And Glass’s efforts led a lot of people back to his work. I’m sure he felt compromised at times, but he stayed open-minded about it, and now a lot of people listen to that 1960s and 70s stuff. They had stepping stones to bring them back to it.

    People are rather clever all over the place—they just need to be able to make some sense of what they see and hear. Once they can contextualize things, even weirdo experimental art, they often like them.

    From the Wikipedia: “Glass counts many artists among his friends and collaborators, including visual artists (Richard Serra, Chuck Close), writers (Doris Lessing, David Henry Hwang, Allen Ginsberg), film and theatre directors (including Errol Morris, Robert Wilson, JoAnne Akalaitis, Godfrey Reggio, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Hampton, Bernard Rose, and many others), choreographers (Lucinda Childs, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp), and musicians and composers (Ravi Shankar, David Byrne, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, Foday Musa Suso, Laurie Anderson, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon, Joan LaBarbara, Arthur Russell, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Roberto Carnevale, Patti Smith, Aphex Twin, Lisa Bielawa, and John Moran). Among recent collaborators are Glass’s fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, Stephen T. Colbert[citation needed], and poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen.”

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