Project Collaboration: A Story of Love and Disappointment

When I started as an English major at University of Pittsburgh, I found myself constantly banging my head against the wall trying to scratch out “great stories.” For anyone who may not know, Pitt possesses a wonderful English department with many very talented professors, and (nearly) all of the fiction creative writing professors have an accomplished background in “literary fiction.” Of course, the professors, in turn, asked their students to write literary fiction–every syllabus I received said “No Matrix. No Lord of the Rings. No Twilight.” But, writing a short story that somehow demonstrates a “truth” in Life is quite the daunting task for an 18 year old. I’m not saying teenagers can’t provide insight into life (just read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), but producing powerful work usually requires some degree of lifelong turbulence or self awareness. Since most of us do not have these traits at 18–or, at most, a self awareness of an immediate need to drink beer and talk to the opposite sex–many of my colleagues decided that collaboration would serve as the best course of action for incorporating broader experience, knowledge, and talent.

The idea of collaborating on a novel, essay, or collection of poetry appears ideal. Collaboration seemingly implies less work for each individual involved, since rudimentary Math would insist that 100% of product responsibility spread across two people means both individuals need only expend 50% effort. Additionally, more people implies a greater mix of talent and knowledge. Finally, less work and more talent should mean greater creative output and decidedly less stress involved in the entire project. On top of all these benefits, most discussions of collaboration meant brainstorming over drinks or other pleasure-inducing substances that makes the negative connotations associated with “work” seem like the complaint of stuffy, downer colleagues inclined to spend all their waking hours confined to dingy apartments illuminated by the incandescent blaze of a laptop screen.

Unfortunately, most of the immediate appeal associated with collaboration evaporates when collaborating writers recycle their beer cans and sit down to work. While I’m certain that most collaborative projects do not progress in the exact same way, I’ll share the several steps in the pattern I’ve noticed in my (failed) collaborative projects.

1. “LET’S DO THIS!!!!”:

All collaborators have an initial excitement for the project. We all take home our notes on what we want to accomplish and sit down to work. Some people might post on Facebook something like, “OMG so excited for this book I’m starting with Lance. This will be awesome!!!” followed by a smattering of likes and comments. “What will it be about?” “It’s this awesome commentary on the natural environment in space that follows a space pirate captain who has a change of heart.” “I ALWAYS KNEW YOU GUYS WOULD WRITE SOMETHING GREAT, CAN’T WAIT TO READ.” “Lance, this is your grandmother. Why is your friend commenting on my page? Tell your Mom I said hi and want her to come to dinner next Tuesday.”

2. “It’s fine, it’s fine. I, uh, trust him/her.”:

A few days in, some messages are exchanged or (back when Facebook hadn’t quite exploded in popularity) collaborators meet up to discuss progress. Collaborators have not made the same amount of progress, or one of the collaborators has second thoughts about their contribution. Without the haze of beer or simple excitement, space pirates attacking a moon colony seems cliche. A REALLY fresh idea would be anthropomorphic wildebeests attacking the colony. Easy change, just hit Ctrl + F and replace every instance of “pirate” with “wildebeest.” No one is willing to create a sense of acrimony this early in the project, so everyone shrugs and figures it will all work out.

3. “What the hell? Stop changing stuff and actually put some words on the page!”

A week in, maybe two, collaborators discuss the project again and find that not everyone is on the same page. Either someone is doing far more writing than the other, or someone keeps changing their ideas without notifying the other collaborators. Someone refuses to read e-mails. Now the story begins with an Animal Farm homage followed by an anthropomorphic Long Moo Silver enacting Treasure Island in space. “Why the hell is everyone an animal?” “I hated where this is going, so I stopped writing early on.” “I say we just scrap the idea and go back to brainstorming again.” “No, I posted all of this on Facebook. Let’s just keep writing and we’ll pan everything out in editing.”

4.  “Meh. I’m thinking the whole animal-humans in space thing sucks. I’m into vampire love triangles, now.”

Editing? Edit when? No one is keeping to the same schedule. Someone tries to suddenly “get serious” and set deadlines. The other collaborator(s) takes offense that the other writer wants to be “the leader” and it’s not “a democracy anymore” and “Fuck this story because it SUCKS ANYWAY.” “Yeah? Well I’ve been hooking up with your girlfriend/boyfriend behind your back!” “RAAAWWRRR”

Granted, some of the above is exaggerated,–and somewhat off-topic, moving from literary fiction to… fantasy?–but the pattern of initial excitement descending into disappointment and fighting has followed nearly every single failed attempt of collaboration I’ve experienced. I asked a few colleagues about this pattern and, for the most part, I’ve received a general affirmation of the above recreation of events; collaborative projects are never as easy or brilliant as they seem, and they only tend to work out if the collaborators adopt a thick skin, stick to a pre-approved plan, and maintain the same work ethic as their colleagues.

If you still intend to collaborate with an individual on a project, here’s a quick list of things to do to get the ball rolling:

1. Do not collaborate with someone lazy, obnoxious, abrasive, apathetic, constantly drunk, undergoing a major operation in the near future, or Nigerian Princes that e-mail you about money transfers. Basically, avoid people you don’t like to spend a lot of time with. No amount of talent will make up for an awful working relationship.

2. Set ground rules about accountability and plan out which author will handle a certain part of the book writing or publishing. Write it down, and make a schedule you both agree on.

3. If you’re still talking to each other after coming up with a plan of action, make sure that you both set time aside to regularly meet in person. Always have the same notes, and stay in regular contact about your project.

4. If you should find that your partner went through all of these stated tips and still ends up trying to trash your project, then continue on the project yourself, anyway. No matter what your collaborative partner might say, they do not have a stake in YOUR story if they won’t work on it with you. No one just randomly speaks a thought about a story and suddenly own that story. Don’t let the failed collaboration stop you from developing your idea on your own.

Collaborative projects can be awesome. I’m currently collaborating on Prairie Gold, and it’s really a blast. But, always keep in mind that sometimes a story, an essay, or a poem can only be told in your own voice. Sometimes, unilateral creative freedom in a story is definitely worth all the work.