Co-Writing Dreams and Nightmares

by Michelle Gagnon

On our Open Tuesday discussion this week, someone asked about co-writing. Joe Moore is our resident expert on the subject, so he can elaborate on the positive aspects of that type of collaboration. Today I’ll outline the alternate scenario, when it doesn’t go particularly well.

I have a close friend who has always wanted to be a writer. Over drinks one night, she proposed that we work on a project together. I’d had a screenplay idea milling around the back of my mind for awhile, and it seemed like an ideal project to tackle together. After all, screenplays are shorter than novels, primarily dialogue, and can be easily divided up into individual scenes. We sat down and hashed out the plot over the course of a few days, decided which scenes each of us would tackle, and set to work.

Within a week I had most of my scenes written. My friend stalled: stuff to do around the house, she hadn’t been able to find time…understandable. A few weeks later, after I pressed again, she came back with a single scene.

And it was terrible. Really, truly, awful. All the characters sounded alike- in fact, they all sounded like her. The dialogue was clunky and forced, the jokes fell flat. It was a mess. Not unsalvagable, mind you, but rough.

Now, I don’t claim to be the best writer out there–far from it. But I suddenly realized that while I’d spent the past decade writing nearly every day, learning what worked and what didn’t, and being heavily edited by pros, she had not. The scene felt like something handed in for a freshman writing class–which, essentially, it was. It threw me, because I didn’t know how to handle it. I realized that this project wasn’t going to be a few weeks of work that I could sneak in between book deadlines, but would require months of tough conversations and editing.

In the end, we abandoned the idea.

And here’s what I came away with. If you are going to work with a collaborator, ideally it should be someone as dedicated to the craft and on roughly the same writing level as you are. At nearly every cocktail party I’ve attended in the past decade, someone declares that someday, they’re going to write a book. Most people think they’re capable of such a thing, if only they could find the time. The truth is, there are people who have worked demanding full time jobs, raised small children, and found the time. Heather Graham used to type one-handed while she cradled a baby in her other arm. Allison Brennan worked late at night after her kids had gone to bed. Khaled Hosseini worked at 5AM before his family woke up and he had to head to the hospital for work.

Given time and effort, my friend might turn out to be a great writer. The ideas she came up with during our brainstorming sessions were fantastic, things I never would have thought of. The problem was that she lacked the experience to translate those ideas, and, worse yet, didn’t have the drive to work on it every day. And without that drive, and the understanding that what we do is not easy but requires a serious dedication of time and effort (and a thick skin), it simply won’t happen.

I’m about to undertake another co-writing project on a screenplay. This time, I’ll be working with a friend who has written several scripts, and had one produced. I’ll admit to some trepidation regardless–after all, she is a friend, and nothing can strain a friendship like working together in any field. But I’m hoping that this time things will go more smoothly.

9 thoughts on “Co-Writing Dreams and Nightmares

  1. Boy did this post hit home for me. I tried co-writing once and only once. It was on a screenplay, and both my friend and I were new to the writing gig. I was the picky perfectionist, she was the let’s-get-the-thing-done-and-out-there member of the team.

    But the reason we failed wasn’t just that. We didn’t do our homework starting out–it’s one thing to hash out a plot, but it’s another to agree on goals for when, where, and how the project will be finished. She rushed too much and sacrificed quality of story, I dragged my feet too much and caused us to lose momentum.

    We limped through 2-3 screenplays over the course of a few years till we called it quits. I’m thankful we’re still good friends. She continues to pursue screenplays, I novels. She’s still a go-getter-make-it-happen. It took me 6 years to pry my hands loose from my novel and submit it to an industry professional.

    Can’t say I’ll NEVER co-write again, but it won’t be till after a LOT of discussion has taken place before hand. When the partnership is chosen carefully and well-planned, I think it must be a beautiful thing.

  2. Co-writting? I can’t get co-reading out of some people. So I would be really scared to try such a thing. I can’t even get heavy reading beta reader volunteers to get through an opening scene for me. Out of 7 people dogging me to try it, only 1 ended up reading it and giving me any feedback, let alone doing an entire book pass.

  3. I don’t ever see myself co-writing anything. I’ve seen some well known authors co-write with their children. I suspect that’s mostly about getting the child’s name on a few books so they don’t have as hard of a time developing their careers as a writer.

  4. Good luck with your new screenplay project, Michelle. Having written 5 novels with the same co-author (and am a third of the way through #6), I know firsthand the bright and dark sides of collaboration. I believe that one of the most important requirements is to make sure both writers are generally at the same level of writing skill. Writing with someone much better than you can be just as toxic as the other way around. Here’s a link to a post I did at TKZ back in 2008 that goes deeper into the subject.

  5. I don’t see myself co-writing anything, but there is a scenario that intrigues me. I’ve felt for years–and have been told by folks who should know–i tell stories better than I make them up. The writing is solid, but the plots aren’t exactly hackle raisers. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to get together with someone who comes up with superior stories but doesn’t write well enough to tell them successfully. He could write ma s detailed treatment of exactly what has to happen, then I’d actually write it up as a book. Probably a little like doing the novelization of a screenplay. That I might be able to do.

  6. Very interesting post, Michelle. So sorry it didn’t work out the first time around.

    You are so right about serious dedication of time and about working with someone at the same level of writing.
    It takes a ton of time and commitment and so much more.
    Best of luck to you on your new project. Sounds like a perfect match this time:)

  7. My wife, showing interest in my “hobby,” came up with several ideas for new stories. We brainstormed over the weekend and one of her concepts has merit as a middle grade mystery series. The trouble is I’m currently buried in my WIP and at a critical point in the story. (Who wants to stop when you’re revving up to begin the climax chapters?)

    Part of those discussions worked out the details of our collaboration: I help with the general outline and ideas, she writes the story in her own words, and then I turn it into “book form.” I’m the better storyteller, but she knows the story she wants told. So, I’ll let you know a year from now if we have a bestseller or divorce lawyers. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. I had the opposite experience–years ago, I started a novel with a writer who was much more experienced and successful, albeit in a different medium. She turned out to be too busy to work on the project, and I wound up soldiering on on my own. It got picked up by an agent, and then a major publisher, and went on to become a series. I’m glad it worked out this way, because otherwise, I always would have wondered if I would have been able to do it on my own.

  9. I agree, for me it came down to saving the friendship or finishing the screenplay- and we both voted for the friendship (which isn’t to say, Richard, that your endeavor won’t work out- there are lots of husband/wife writing teams out there, and I have yet to hear about any related stabbings…)

    Timothy- that’s exactly what some big name writers do with co-authors, but relatives and friends. Sometimes I suspect that they didn’t even bother writing part of the book, just slapped their name on it.

    I think collaboration is an interesting experience for any author- as long as certain ground rules are clarified at the outset.

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