Collaboration and Resistance

If you haven’t done so already, check out our new section describing the Mercia ‘verse!

As we noted on our “About” page, a friend once told us that we were “unicorns,” since married couples who collaborate effectively as writers are supposedly so rare as to almost be mythical creatures. Not to toot our own (single, magical) horn, but I do think we work particularly well together.

My students just finished up their group essays (a required assignment for entry-level composition classes), and as always, some of the groups worked together better than others. Some of the students seem to have become fast friends. Some of them aren’t even talking to each other anymore. So this got me thinking about why some collaborations work and some don’t.

Why do some people so fiercely resist collaborative writing? I rarely see such visceral negative reactions in my students—such grimacing and groaning, such eye-rolling and head-smacking—as when I announce the group essay. I suppose the reason is that, by the time students get to college, they have all worked together in groups dozens of times in school, and they have all gotten burned at least once.

There are two basic problems that most students complain about: the slackers who contribute very little to the group, and the dictators who take over and push everyone around. Both of these problems arise from a lack of preparation and a lack of clearly defined boundaries.

One: Preparation

We outline obsessively, so this makes it easy for us to divide up the work. Since we started our latest revision of the Quartet, we’ve actually been making detailed outlines together. This means that S knows exactly what I’m supposed to be writing in my scene.

If I’m writing a chapter where Susan meets John at the market and jokes with him about George, S can write a scene that takes place later in time and know for certain that 1) Susan and John have met, 2) they like each other, and 3) they have a shared inside joke about their mutual friend, George. I, in turn, know that S is depending on me to convey that information so she can build on it in her scene. If I wrote a scene instead where Susan met John, argued with him, and ran off in a huff, S would be annoyed with me, and justifiably so.

This leads us to the issue of….

Two: Boundaries

We don’t just co-write novels. We also write solo works set in a shared world. This means we absolutely have to make sure we discuss what we can and can’t do with that world and the characters in it.

For example, I once wrote a story about a rather lonely middle-aged woman who eventually finds love and starts a family. Sometime after that, S started writing a series of crime novels set in the Myrcia ‘verse. She asked if she could include the heroine from my previous novel. I agreed immediately, of course. But she also made sure to ask what she was allowed to do with the character.

Frankly, it would have annoyed me to have the happy ending of my story undone simply in order to “raise the stakes” for S’s detective character. So I asked S to please not kill the character or her family. And S, being the excellent collaborator that she is, readily agreed to respect my wishes.

So how do collaborators achieve unicorn status? Work out ahead of time what you’re going to do. And perhaps more importantly, discuss what you’re not allowed to do.

J

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