The Art of Collaboration
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
If you follow me on social media you may have seen me raving recently about Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. If you haven’t read it yet, go and find yourself a copy now. It is the sort of book that grabs you by the heart. I don’t remember the last time I was so invested in a pair of characters. By the time I was a quarter of the way through, I was so attached to them that I felt vulnerable wondering what trials the author would put them through (spoiler - there is lots of drama, and some difficult bits, but I came out with my heart just about intact).
There are many wonderful things about the book, but one thing I loved in particular was the collaborative relationship between Sam and Sadie as creators of games. Each of them is passionate, creative and driven as an individual, but working together is when they begin to create something wonderful. The sum of their collaboration is so much more than their individual parts. Working together their output is better than it would ever be alone. There is a passage towards the end of the book where Sadie is asked by a student what happened to make her jump from the games she was creating as a student to creating Ichigo, her first commercial success. She navel-gazes about needing to distinguish herself professionally and wanting to prove herself to her professor and the others around her. But the obvious answer is that she started to collaborate with Sam. Even Sadie seems to shy away from this answer, as if it diminishes her to give credit to someone else. But I think being inspired creatively by another person, and being able to work together to create something, is one of the best things there is and should be celebrated rather than hidden.
There are hundreds of examples of creative partnerships in music where a collaboration or band have been able to produce something that no one member could have made on their own - Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Daft Punk, Outkast to name but a few obvious examples. In cinema, it is also common to co-direct, or to establish long-running director-screenwriter or director-actor partnerships - the Coen Brothers, The Wachowski’s, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz (director and screenwriter of the Three Colours trilogy). But to credit more than one author or creator on a piece of work is far less common in the world of literature and books.
Perhaps this is because every book is a collaboration of sorts. By the time any traditionally published book hits the shelves, it is already the product of a crowd of people - the author, beta readers, the author’s agent, the editor, the copyeditor, the proofreader and many others will all have had input into what becomes the finished product. It would be impossible to pick apart what belongs to who and so the convention is to list just the author.
But for me, this iterative process is the most wonderful part of being involved in any creative project and I think it deserves celebrating. It is an essential ingredient to all of my writing and I could not do it on my own.
My first and most important collaborator is Daniel, my husband. The very idea for the books came from a writing prompt he set for me. After our first child was born, to help stave off baby-brain, Daniel used to set me prompts to turn into tiny stories, writing with one finger on an ipad while nursing the baby in the other arm. I wrote about Afghan warlords eating chicken feet in a cafe, parrots on the roof of the High Commission, Leo the lion who was actually a leopard and one day Sarah the spy whose father works in the Cabinet Office. Most of them ended in a short story, but Sarah grew legs and leapt off the page demanding a five-book series. She has been calling the shots ever since.
Every book in the series has been planned and plotted together with Daniel. Through conversations on the beach in Gabon, on Stradbroke Island in Queensland, on balconies in Vanuatu and on long road trips in Namibia we have put together the building blocks for each instalment of the story. Throwing out ideas, settings, challenges, real-world hooks on which to hang the stories and inventing secondary characters who will challenge, thwart or help Sarah on her way. I cannot imagine doing this bit on my own. Not just because Daniel brings a totally different way of seeing the world and the most outlandish ideas, but because I can’t imagine being able to make something real without thrashing it out in this way first. By discussing the story, it becomes real and takes on a life of its own outside of my head. Then (ahem) all I have to do is write it down.
After these discussions, I take away my pages of notes and turn them into a plot that works - with the necessary character arcs, beats of tension, intertwining subplots etc. In the process, I will often jettison some of the ideas that don’t work and build in new elements that are required to dramatise the overall plot direction that we have dreamt up. It goes into a spreadsheet and then back to Daniel to pick apart before I ever start writing.
The actual process of writing, putting down the words on the page, I have to do on my own. I read a fantastic Flash Fiction collaboration recently by Amy Cipolla Barnes and Sara Hill (https://reckonreview.com/mother-road/) where they fully shared the writing. They talk about the process below the story and it is an exceptional level of collaboration. But for me, I need to write and shape on my own. When I have a first draft, Daniel is the first reader and the first to give feedback on what does and doesn’t work. He’s Dutch so tells it exactly how it is which requires me to drop my defences and listen without immediately jumping in with ‘yeah, but…’. And in the end, his feedback is always essential in shaping the next draft, even if I have to let it sit for a while before I’m feeling brave enough to jump back in.
I also have a number of trusted beta readers with whom I share the early drafts when they are slightly more polished. I have had some fantastic suggestions and plot devices put forward by beta readers that have helped make the books much stronger. Jill Crawford read through an early draft of The King’s Pawn and gave invaluable feedback on where I needed to dig a little deeper or put Sarah a little more thoroughly through the wringer. Daniel Aubrey and Rose Rae have also given brilliant suggestions for how to raise the stakes when necessary. These beta readers bring to the process something that neither Daniel nor I can - distance and the ability to read the book as a reader and not as a creator. It is impossible to be objective about your own work, especially when you’ve been writing and rewriting a book for over 9 years as I did with The King’s Pawn.
All of that takes place before it even gets sent to Tom Cull, my agent, or Simon Finnie, my editor at Burning Chair - both of whom bring excellent advice about what needs fixing and where my blindspots are. Working on the development edits with Simon has been an absolute highlight of the whole process of preparing a book for publication. He is able to see the story as a reader, but also comes with suggestions as an editor for how to approach the plot holes or character weaknesses or thematic missed opportunities that still exist, even after so many people have given their input. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a crowd to give life to a book.
The best collaborations need to be complementary - each one in the partnership should bring something that the other needs. Daniel brings the ability to tackle the big picture whereas I tend to be queen of the detail. He brings the male viewpoint and Machiavellian level of scheming to some of my male characters whereas I know more of the female viewpoint and what it is to be a woman in a man’s world.
Collaboration requires enormous amounts of trust - to share something unfinished, to accept unfiltered criticism, to revisit things that aren’t working and to kill your darlings. But if you are lucky enough to find the right person, the end product can be so much richer than either one of the partners could create on their own.
So a big thank you to Daniel and to all the people who have provided input to the creation of The King’s Pawn (there is a lengthy list in the acknowledgements). And I look forward to continuing to work together and to celebrating the benefits of collaboration in the creative process. I’d love to hear from anyone who has good examples of collaboration or stories of working together on a creative project.