Ink-Stained Scribe

Collaboration, Hold the Drama

Skrybbi and I in High School
When the potential for creative rights and credit and--squirm in your seat with me, now--money is involved, it can be dangerous to collaborate with your friends, but my girls and I have managed to do it with no hurt feelings thus far. I did some thinking, and I came up with the five steps my friends and I always use to collaborate...without drama.

These steps are: Discover, develop, delegate, discuss, and decide. I'll go into them a little more in a moment, but first...

Adryn, Raven, Skrybbi, Mica? Sorry, guys: I'm blowing our secret.


Renfaire circa 2001
Our "misspent youth" happened in another world--okay, a BILLION other worlds--facilitated by single-minded collaborative storytelling with my friends. We created stories, which we wrote or role-played back and forth as our various characters (I know, I know, we never stopped pretending. Shut up).

Usually, one person came up with a character, world, or story idea and spilled their guts to at least one other, who obligingly made a character. Plot situations spun out from notebooks passed in hallways at school, or from evenings in Adryn's back yard, smacking each other with sticks.

Luckily, Adryn's parents found this perfectly normal. Bless.

Me, 15, dressed as a character.

We had an understanding that the original creator retained "first rights to write", even if other people contributed to plot and world-building. I don't think we actually considered collaborating on the writing (with intent to publish) until we were a bit older. Spinning a real story out of those scattered scenes, those million-and-five ways the characters could reach their goal, or have their first kiss, or fail to, is a lot more work than just tossing out another PWP iteration over gmail, but we've started doing just that.

This is how we served up collaborations--hold the drama.

We didn't set up these rules beforehand. Looking back, I just realized that this is how it panned out, every time.

Whose brainchild was it? Who was the *first* one to discover the idea? IE, who feels the most ownership over the "concept"?

This doesn't always necessarily mean anything in the end, but if there's a disagreement later on, it's good to establish from the get-go who will walk away with the "rights to write" the idea. Also, if the story makes you as rich and famous as you think, people will ask you this anyway. Sometimes, there *isn't* one person whose idea a story originally was, or you can't remember. In those cases, I guess you'll have to battle to the death.

How did the concept take shape? Was one person facilitating the development? Did you develop the story equally, or mostly-equally? Decide how that affects your perceptions of ownership, credit, and your expectations.

Decide what work is going to be done by whom. Are you outlining together? Are you taking turns on chapters, or character POVs? Is one person writing the rough draft, and the other revising and fleshing out weak areas? Again, decide how that affects credit and expectations.

This is the sticky conversation, the one you will probably avoid until the fun world-building part is over and it's time to get to the grind. This is the time when doubt sets in and you wonder, "just how is this going to pan out?" It's important to honestly discuss your expectations, desires, and, yes, your feelings. Your feelings are important, because they will reflect on your collaborator.

Be honest--if it's your brain-child and you want the credit, say so. If you're writing the rough draft, but are uncomfortable with the collaborator changing any of a certain character's actions or dialog, mention it. If you feel like you're doing the lion's share of the work, and therefore would want more of the income (after all, it's your hours going into the page), you can't be shy in expressing this. If you have doubts about the other person's reliability in keeping up their end, you have to bring it up as a legitimate fear.

The alternative is getting to the query stage and realizing that you both had wildly different expectations of work, credit, and cash. Now, everyone hates to be petty and bring money into it, especially if you're collaborating with a friend, but it's important to have a discussion early on about what you intend to do, even if that discussion only comes down to: we will see who put what into the story when it's ready to submit, and then decide what's fair.

Given the discussion, now is the time to decide whether or not you feel all right with the terms of the collaboration. I will give you two examples of collaborations, the feelings I had when developing and discussing, and how we made our decisions.


In Which We Collaborated

Me with Adryn, Japan 2008
Steam Kids ( with Adryn)
  • Discover: The original concept came from a dream Adryn had.
  • Develop: We developed it in almost 50/50, but I deferred to her because the original concept was hers, and I owe it to her to stay true to that.
(Adryn and I recorded ourselves developing a world from her concept, and you can listen here:Pendragon Variety Xtra: Worldbuilding_)
  • Delegate: I am under oath not to describe the exact delegation of work, but it actually created a bit of an expectation difference when got to the discussion point. But to be brief, I felt uneasy about the relative balance of work to compensation and accreditation.
  • Discuss: I expressed my concerns to Adryn. She expressed her feelings and fears to me. Yes, the discussion was hard, and we both felt petty at times. There were many projections of "If this happened, I would feel this". Our expectations were not the same, but we got on the same page with each other, at least. We deferred credit and payment decisions until the work was ready for submission, so we could ensure that both of us felt we got the amounts we deserved.
  • Decide: I decided to go ahead with this collaboration because the story has such potential, and because I love working with Adryn, and ultimately, I trusted that she would do everything she could to make the story awesome. I think it was the same for her. I honestly am not unhappy with the delegation of work. I think the biggest tension comes from us both being unpublished writers who are looking for that first publication credit to slap into our query letters.

*In the event that Adryn and I had decided to halt the collaboration, I'm sure we would have come to an agreement--I could let her have the story, since it was mostly her idea. Or, she might decide to let me write it, since I'm the more prolific.

In Which We Declined to Collaborate
Me with Raven, Japan 2009
Children of Zero (Raven)

  • Discover - The original idea was Raven's. (Yes, I do come up with ideas, I swear. I just never want to share them. Bwahahahaahaha.)

  • Develop - Raven had a VERY specific image of what she wanted for the story, so she did most of the development. Raven's stories are usually like this, so it was an expectation. I developed one POV character and one secondary (but very important) character, and made a lot of suggestions that helped shape the world.

  • Delegate - We'd talked about doing a back-and-forth writing exercise, she writes a scene, then I write a scene.

  • Discuss - as we were discussing credit, Raven confessed that she didn't want to share credit for the story, which I understand completely considering that it was her idea, her vision, and she developed most of it. I suggested a byline that read "By Raven Wei, with Lauren Harris". For various reasons, mostly involving her dislike for double-authored books (esp. when she knows neither author), she really didn't want that either. She wanted to know if I was okay with her completely rewriting my parts, since she saw our online collaboration less like writing a book together, and more like a brainstorm that paralleled her real writing. We do a lot of text-based RPGs, and I think the communication broke down because I assumed we were writing with intent to publish, and I guess Raven assumed we were writing as an RPG, but trying to get through a full story plot to help her figure it out. While I am happy for her to use my characters, I didn't want to get tied to an RPG that required me to write a full scene a week if my scenes were going to be rewritten into her story, and I wasn't going to get more than an acknowledgement. Of course, Raven totally understood this...because apparently, she had thought I was just being insanely generous before. *lol* This is why discussion is important.

  • Decide: I decided to bow out of the collaboration and let Raven have her story, which is what I think she really wanted anyway. The reason I had stepped in in the first place was as an accountability partner--scene for scene. There were no hard feelings at all with this collaboration.

What do you do when you decide not to collaborate?

I love collaborating with my friends, and Raven and I both want to come up with something we can collaborate on, because we've always wanted to write together. If in the end, the two of you can't come to a happy agreement, remember that it's better to walk away from a story idea than to cause drama over it.

One key thing to remember, which might let you walk away with a lighter heart, is: THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE STORIES. :D

Don't let a flirty little story skirt cause a fight between you and a good friend or colleague. You will have more great ideas. You will write more stories, and so will they. If you want to collaborate with them, you will--when you find the right balance or the right story, which makes you both happy.

Have you ever collaborated with a friend? How did it go? What were the problems you faced, and the rewards?