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Lessons in Collaboration

July 7, 2009

I’ve never really done much collaboration. My ex used to chide me that I don’t play well with others. I think that criticism is a little off target—I think it’s more accurate to say that having been shy all my life, I’ve just never had much experience working with others.

Not long ago I was approached by a couple of authors I met through my time here on Write Anything about working on a short story anthology. While most anthologies are simply a collection of stories with a common author or common theme, this particular project involves a series of interconnected stories, each by a different author.

I am merely one of ten authors who will, based on a set of rules, create a story that relates to the others in the collection. And even though this project involves much less collaboration than something like co-authoring a story, I’m learning a good bit about the process of collaboration.

First, there are others relying on you. It’s easy to make excuses about why you can’t write when you’re the only one relying on yourself. The kids are too noisy, I have a headache, it’s late, I’m hungry—I’ll write later. It’s much more difficult to make excuses when you have someone to answer to. Whether it be the authors who have already met heir deadlines, or the ones who are waiting for you to finish so that they can get started. Or maybe you don’t want to disappoint the editors who chose to extend you the invitation in the first place.

Second, it is more difficult to write when you can’t control your starting point. Without giving away too mush about the project, while I have wiggle room, I don’t have free reign in choosing my main character or all the events in my story. But I also can’t go back and tell the previous authors to rewrite their stories to suit me. Nor would I want to, because the goal of collaboration is to make something with a variety of influences.

And third is the corollary, that it is more freeing to write when you can’t control your starting point. If you’re like me you can obsess for weeks over the minutia of inspiration, carefully picking characters names, and layering meaning and context for the idea to be just right before getting down to the rough draft. But with a shortened timetable and having part of my story laid out for me, I have less setup to worry about.

Of course, each of these points also has cons that go along with it, but it’s difficult for me to focus on the negatives right now, because I’m writing. And that’s not something I’ve been able to say very often lately.

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Dale has always been interested in the idea of collaborating with other authors, and while he’s having a very difficult time with his story, is enjoying his first significant foray into the genre.
  1. July 7, 2009 9:55 am

    I think I have learnt the best lessons and grown the most from being part of collaborative projects.

    Because writing, by nature is a solo activity, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to “group work” … however it can be lots of fun.

    I would never have embarked on a project like Captain Juan alone … and it is threw writing with Annie and Paul I’ve gained the opportunity to write in a genre I would never have thought to write in, to write with a cast of millions – when I tend to write focused on just a few characters, to share my ideas and the ideas of others and watch them grown and flourish. It also taught me not to be precious about my characters – because technically they are not “mine” – I may be brought them into the project but they’re for everyone to play with.

    Having other people rely on you is a great incentive to write. I hit a very dry patch last year and being part of the Chapter Seven project really helped me push back into it. Still left it to the last minute (it will never change) but I, like you, had to force myself to sit and write. To enjoy the process again.

    Good luck with your writing .. I think I could almost detect a small smile in your final sentences.

  2. July 7, 2009 11:22 am

    As one of the previous writers in the project, let me second what you say. I also found it both daunting and enriching and I’m glad to have been part of that project.

  3. July 8, 2009 1:47 am

    this sounds like a great collaborative project! I’ve found that collaborative exercises can feel very artificial and set up to produce second rate work, but projects like this one are excellent and usually result in very high quality work. I’ve done a collaboration with a musician recently.

  4. July 8, 2009 12:39 pm

    Having suffered through group projects and team assignments at Uni – anything which involves a small group of people heading toward a creative goal has usually flagged a red alert with me. The dynamics of most groups will always shake down at least one show pony, one who is dragging their way through the project and at least on absent one – who only turns up for the grade at the end. I was usually the sucky one who dished out the roles and jobs, assigned timeframes and pulled it together.. and ended up doing others work as I wanted good marks. Thus is is little wonder it is with great trepidation that many people enter the world of collaborative writing – given my experience is neither unusual or specific to my region or educational experience.

    However undertaking such a project forces you to look at who you are, how you are showing up in front of others, if you are living and operating with integrity and in line with your authentic creative self.

    If you are willing to ask those questions and listen to the answers – it may serve as a very inexpensive self development course and lead you further down your creative path.

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