Working with a co-author provides opportunities that working alone can never match. There’s twice the energy and the inspiration. Your partner provides built-in accountability. You can even converse in character.
The problem with pens, though, is that only one person can use one at a time. And as soon as another person comes into the picture, there’s the potential for confusion and crossed purposes. So how do you make sure that you and your co-author are producing work that will come together cohesively in the final product?
Recently I decided to write a play with my good friend Doug. I’ve worked with Doug as an actor, director, stage manager, and playwright throughout the past five years, but never as a co-author. So for the first three weeks of the project we devoted our time to planning and sketching the play in its entirety. The time was well-spent, since our first draft is now smoothly under way.
If you’re working with a co-author, here are five things you need in your playbook:
1. Story Arcs
Every story has plot and subplot. You can see this clearly in procedural dramas, where solving the case is the plot of each episode, and character relationships form the subplot. Usually another story altogether develops over the course of an entire season.
Deciding what stories we wanted to tell before-hand allowed us to effectively create a scene list where those plots unfolded smoothly, consistently, and side-by-side.
No matter what you’re writing, every piece has a point it’s trying to prove. It can be as simple as “True love never dies,” as general as “Truth, justice, and the American way,” or as complex as the layers of meaning in a Christopher Nolan movie. Decide together what your piece says about the world and the people in it.
Your thesis answers the question, “Why did this happen?” If your dialogue or descriptions seem directionless or out of place, ask yourself if they provide essential support to your thesis; if they don’t, mark them for rewrites. A clear thesis statement provides direction for the piece and helps weed out unnecessary or self-indulgent writing.
Doug and I worked together in the situation we’re writing about, so we have common experiences to draw on. That experience allowed us to effectively divide the stage into four settings early on: the Apartment, the Car, the Floor, and the Back. (If you can’t tell already, our working title is “Retail.”)
In our case this step is really simple, but for some projects this step could as complex as building an entire world. Sometimes that’s the whole point, in fact. But the work is worth it.
Clearly defining the world your characters live in not only helps you avoid confusion and continuity errors, but also provides consistency in the way your characters interact. Speaking of . . .
The most exciting and compelling portion of any story are the characters. The runaway success of Downton Abbey, for example, is often attributed to its widely varied and imminently human ensemble cast. Conventional wisdom says that when you can hear your characters’ voices in your head, you know them well enough to write them. But co-authors must both hear the same voice.
Start by writing clear and detailed descriptions. Don’t be afraid to borrow characteristics from people you have known, especially if you and your coauthor both knew them pretty well. Try evaluating all of your characters against a common trait – we asked how each of our characters defined success. Give your characters names that express a key trait (preferably not ones that start with the same letter). Then, write your characters into simple scenarios: for example, we used a business meeting, a performance review, and a tough customer. When you both think of the same type of things for your characters to say, you’re on the right track.
5. Clear Expectations
If you’ve done steps 1-4 well enough, you should both be able to write any given scene such that it contains specific moments and accomplishes certain objectives with predictable reactions from your characters. Your next goal is to cobble together that first “Frankenstein” draft – bits and pieces of both your unique writing styles sewn together to make a complete work. It doesn’t have to be elegant yet, it just has to lurch all the way to its conclusion (perhaps with outstretched green arms). You can edit for style and consistency later, but for now just get it all on paper.
That’s where step 5 comes in. Take the time to clearly state your expectations about the writing process, including:
- How often you’ll meet (on- or off-line),
- Which scenes each of you will write,
- Deadlines for that writing to be accomplished,
- Logistics for managing revisions, and
- Who will do the final editing.
Did I miss anything? Let us know in the comments what works for you as a co-author, and follow The Spare Room Project all this week for more help for co-authors.