I think most writers are collaborators in one way or another. I know I am. I’ve collaborated on a lot of different creative projects with other people. Communication, which is a primary goal of any type of writing, is of paramount importance when collaborating on a writing project. It could be argued that working with an editor could be considered a form of collaboration. The same could be said about being part of a writers’ group. Regardless, getting another person’s feedback on your written work is essential if you want to make your writing better. But what about actually writing something with another person? Does one person have to assume a dominant role? Does one have to be passive? I’d say, it depends.
My buddy Ray Lovato and I used to meet in the alley behind our houses when we were growing up and figure out stories and plots we’d use to vex the neighborhood kids. Our collaborations usually worked out well, with each of us brainstorming and bouncing ideas off one another.
One of our best collaborative efforts culminated with me ushering in a group of kinds into my basement while Ray waited in a dark closet with my mom’s dressmaking mannequin, which we christened Morgan. We’d managed to elevate Morgan’s height, put a board across the shoulders to simulate outstretched arms, and slipped my dad’s old navy overcoat and gas mask on top. As the unsuspecting kids walked down the stairs into the dimly lighted basement, Ray would burst through the closet door, and they’d scatter in sheer terror. It was collaboration at its finest.
I later wrote several stories with Ray, which we combined into an omnibus called The Incredible Adventures of Doc Atlas, as well as our recent e-book novella, Dark Haven. The process of writing together worked as smoothly as the old Morgan days. We’d bounce ideas off each other, and one of us would start writing. We’d normally work the plot out beforehand to avoid tangents, and proceed through it, scene-by-scene. Neither of us was completely dominant, and neither was totally passive. If had disagreements about a scene, we each expressed our opinion and came to an agreement. Sometimes I’d come around to his point of view, and vice versa.
When I did the books with television star Richard Belzer (Law & Order SVU) it was a bit trickier. Initially, I was a bit intimidated. I’d never worked with someone as famous as he. But, as it turned out, Richard was a joy to work with and turned out to be one of my best writing experiences. The novels were designed to be a mystery story that featured the Belz as a character in the actual plots. I’ve always considered myself sort of chameleon, capable of assuming another person’s persona and writing style. Richard had written two nonfiction books and all kinds of articles before our collaboration, so he was already an accomplished writer. We talked on the phone a lot and met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where I found out we both shared a love of animals. He brought his two dogs with him. In an interview, he later described our writing relationship as being similar to that of T.S. Elliot and Erza Pound. Together, we did two novels: I Am Not a Cop and I Am Not a Psychic.
My collaboration with my fellow Chicago area writer, Julie Hyzy, was another variation in the collaborative process. Julie had a cool series featuring Alex St. James, a news researcher for a Chicago-based television news magazine. At the conclusion of her second novel in the series, Deadly Interest, Alex bumped into my Chicago private eye, Ron Shade. I portrayed the same scene in my third Shade novel, A Final Judgment. It went over so well, and caused so many questions by our respective fans, that we decided to try writing a novel together featuring both of our series characters.
Initially, one of the problems was that both series were written in the first person. One of my mentors, Stephen Marlowe, had once written a private eye novel with Richard S. Prather called Double in Trouble. Marlowe and Prather alternated chapters, with one featuring Prather’s Shell Scott, and the next one told by Marlowe’s Chester Drum. I suggested we use this same procedure. I wrote one scene, and Julie wrote the next one. We alternated like this for the entire book, separating the POV breaks with a lion’s head for Shade’s passages and a dragonfly for those in Alex’s POV. We also had a tacit agreement that any dialogue that either of us wrote involving the other writer’s characters would be reviewed by their respective authors.
Writing this book, Dead Ringer, was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had, and turned out what I think was one of our finest efforts. I thought I’d written a dynamite climactic scene for Shade until I read the one Julie had written for Alex. She outdid me. The book was released in hardcover initially, and was recently released as an e-book by Crossroad Press. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of one of my creative efforts.
I’ve mentored other writers, acting as a benevolent editor at times, all of which I’ve found enjoyable. So I would heartily recommend giving a collaborative effort a try, if you’re thinking about it. I mention this last part with a word of caution, however. Choose your writing partner(s) carefully. In one of my previous writer’s groups we decided to do a round-robin story in which one person started the story and another member would pick it up and hand it off after they’d written a scene. It turned into a real disaster. We started out real well, all the way up until the end when one person completely dropped the ball and ended the story with a whimper instead of a bang. The group had built up a tremendous expectation of how the plot should end, and the person who wrote the final scene took these expectations and dropped them off a cliff. The result caused not only disappointment but a lot of simmering anger. To keep the peace, I wrote an alternate ending, but the experience left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
So, pick your partners carefully. If you do that, and establish a good communication between the two of you, you’ll be in for a writing experience you won’t soon forget.