Posted in Co-authors, Writing Nonfiction

Collaborative writing: Advice for when a writing partner makes sense

I can hardly believe that it’s been eight years since I first wrote about my adventures in writing with a partner. As I said at the time, “I don’t play well with others.” And that has not changed. That being said, I have, indeed, collaborated on four books in my distant past, and I’m doing it once more. Recently someone asked us (my writing partner and me) how our system works. So, how does writing with a partner work? I don’t know how it is for others, but here’s what I know about it from my own experience.

First a bit of backstory.

I have always considered writing to be a solitary activity. In fact, that’s the way I like it. Perhaps it’s even clearer to say that it’s one of the things that I like most about writing. Through all of those years when I was a university professor, I observed with growing horror, the number of academics, whose very livelihood depended on their ability to publish (or perish – it’s true), who were singularly unable to pen anything on their own. In fact, it occurred to me on more than one occasion when I sat on peer review committees, reviewing others’ work, that we had already promoted someone else based on the exact same publications since both names appeared on all of them. And sometimes there was a lengthy list of authors. What this really means is that many of them wrote not a single word. They may have contributed something to the data collection, but there was certainly no writing involved. Remember publish or perish? There is nothing there that says “write or perish.” There’s a difference. Then I came along.

At this point in my writing life – post-academic career – I am proud to say that every single article and book that formed part of my upward academic ladder has only one author – me. That is, except for those four books I mentioned (which my peers at the university probably largely ignored anyway) that I wrote with one other author. That author happens to be my husband. Which is probably why that person asked us about our writing process. In fact, I believe he might have added, somewhat incredulously, “And you’re still married?” Well, yes, and very happily, I might add.

Back in 2011 when I first wrote about our collaborations, I said this: “…There are good reasons to collaborate and publish a co-authored book – such as when the knowledge and skills of more than just you are needed…” And this reason still holds true. But now I have another reason.

I’m currently collaborating on a book with my same co-writer (my husband) because there was a book he wanted to write, and he spent 45 years working as a physician while I wrote to my heart’s content. This means that his expertise in medicine coupled with my “expertise” as a writer would be the combination needed for him to write the book he has always wanted to do. Am I ghosting it for him? Not really, but I have decided that there is no need for my name to be on this cover. It’s his book.

Because it’s his book and not our book, I have had to take a slightly different approach to the process. I have been his mentor and editor, but I have to try to ensure that the ideas that are finally on the page are his, not mine. That might be easy for some people who have not written in this area before, but once upon a time, I earned some of my income as a medical writer (I have a graduate degree in a medical-communication-related discipline). So, we had come up with a process.

Like puzzle pieces, each co-author’s contribution has to fit the other co-author’s contribution to the process and content.

We began with a very detailed book proposal. I’ve been selling non-fiction based solely on proposal ever since I’ve been writing (my fiction is another story all together). This means that before we even started, we had worked through what would be in the book, how it would be organized, what approach we would take and what he wanted the style and voice to sound like. This was my blueprint.

Then, as we moved into the writing process, I fleshed out the chapters, he reviewed each one as we went along, then I took that review back and reworked each chapter. We moved through the whole book this way, with me conducting mini-interviews with him along the way to capture his experiences in specific areas, and so that it would have his voice. Once this first draft was completed, we started the whole process again. After the third iteration, we were ready for external copy-edit. And that’s where the book is now.

What would my advice be for collaborative writing? Here it is.

  1. Choose your writing partner carefully. It needs to be someone you respect and are compatible with.
  2. Ensure that you are prepared to take criticism as you move through the process.
  3. Don’t be afraid of giving constructive criticism.
  4. Be prepared to disagree.
  5. Be prepared to compromise.
  6. Be prepared to commit to clearing up each disagreement as you work. Don’t let those disagreements pile up.
  7. Write from a collaborative outline.
  8. Find a rhythm of writing/reviewing/editing that you can both agree on up front.
  9. Use this process to learn something about your own writing habits.
  10. Have a drink together on a regular basis to chew over aspects of the book that you can’t always figure out while sitting in an office in front of a computer.

I am currently being accused by my co-writer of pushing hard at this stage as we approach the end of the process so that I can return to my novel. I can’t argue with that!

The book is being copy-edited as we speak and has a September pub date.  We’ll be having a glass of our favourite champagne on that day!

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Posted in Co-authors, Collaborative writing, health care ethics, Writing books

To collaborate or not to collaborate…that is the question

They say that there is strength in numbers.  And if you read a CV of just about any academic around (but it’s not reading that I recommend unless you’re an insomniac), you’ll be struck with the extent to which the books and papers they list as their accomplishments are penned by groups – occasionally rather large groups.  My CV is probably shorter than some, but my list of publications is just that – mine. No one else got tenured or promoted based on the same list of publications.  As I said, they’re mine.

My first co-authored book

A colleague recently suggested that I form a committee to work on a report.  This is what I told him: “I don’t play well with others.”  And the very notion of writing a report by committee – well, let’s just say that I value my time and my sanity, and the little bits of both it would take for me to make nice with the collaborators just are not worth the effort – usually.

If you peer very closely at the descriptions of four of my past books, though, you will, in fact, see that I have on those occasions actually worked with someone else.  I have “collaborated.”  That someone with whom I worked was my husband, and we’re still married.  So, it can work.  But when is a writing collaboration a good idea?

And before you jump to the conclusion that collaborative writing only works in non-fiction, there have, in fact, been novels penned by duos (think: Emma Mclaughlin and Nicola Kraus of Nanny Diaries fame).  The co-authors’ names, however, are sometimes combined into one so that the reader thinks the book has one single author.  Think Judith Michael.   Browse through an online bookstore in the non-fiction sections some time and you’ll see plenty of co-authored books.  Then, if you browse a textbook site, you’ll see an even higher percentage.

There are good reasons to collaborate and publish a co-authored book – such as when the knowledge and skills of more than just you are needed.   There are also reasons that it’s not such a good idea.  One problem relates to the ownership of “the good  idea.”  Every book starts with an idea.  Does a co-authored book originate in the mind of only one of the authors (in which case it will always be her baby and she’ll feel that sense of ownership), or does it come about as a double brainwave?  I can only answer this in my case.

It all started in the very earliest years of our marriage when my husband and I used to go out every Friday night.  It was nothing fancy; it was just a chef’s salad and a carafe of house wine at a harbourfront watering hole.  But sitting there gazing out the window at the harbour lights, sipping a glass of mediocre wine that at the end of a long week tasted like the finest French vintage,  engendered in us a kind of romantic notion of leaving a legacy.  What better way, we thought, than to write a book together. We had compatible – if not equivalent – backgrounds.  I had a graduate degree in health education/communication and he was a physician.  Surely there was a common ground we could explore together. When we hit upon it, it was a Eureka moment – a collaborative one.  I can truly say that neither of us owned the idea. It was ours.

My husband was the chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Canadian Medical Association for ten years, a post he vacated shortly after we married.  I had studied ethics and written about ethics in health care.  He no longer had to stay on message as it were.  He could have personal opinions again.  It was golden.  We’d be the ones to simplify complex ethics issues in health care for everyone.  The public would be smitten and they would see the wisdom in our ideas.  Well… it’s a long story.

But…

This was in fact the subject of our first book.  However, it didn’t come together exactly as we had planned.  You know the old saying: if you want to make God laugh, just tell her your plans.  That was what sort of happened in our case.

As you know, I had developed these incredible book proposal writing skills (no self-promotion here – at all), so I took charge of the book proposal writing.  We put our two perspectives on the topic together and mined our individual knowledge to come up with what we thought was a well-rounded approach to helping the average, interested reader to understand the ins and outs of ethical dilemmas in modern health care.  At the same time, we decided that the same research could be recycled into another book aimed at a different audience.  We’d also write a textbook – an interdisciplinary textbook for all kinds of health professions students, and it would be a book that they would actually read, but that would be for later.  It would be unlike some of the ethics tomes we had to slog through as students.  But our idea was to be sure that the book for the general public – the trade book – would be published first.

I have but a fuzzy memory of how it all came about, but after pitching our ideas to suitable publishers, one small publisher in Toronto was interested in the textbook idea and offered us a contract.  So Healthcare Ethics was born.

Then the real work began.  At least four evenings a week, after our very young son had gone to bed, we’d hole up in our home office and work.  We’d discuss the organization, content, references etc of the book.  Art, my husband the doctor, would keep notes that he added to each day se he saw patients in the office.  We’d talk about each chunk of the book as a team and then I’d write it.  I think that collaborations work best when you are really clear about each person’s skills.  That realization needs to begin with an honest determination of your own skills.  So, I’d write and then it went back to  him.  He’d make copious and substantive notes and I’d rewrite.  This process happened a few times for each chunk of the material until we had a draft we were happy about.

In  the end, the publisher was really happy with the book and we had found our  writing rhythm.  This was the first of four books we would write together (and we’re working on a fifth all these  years later).  The most important lesson we learned is that you have to really like and respect the person you’re working with.