in Writing

Tag Team Fiction and You — Will it Work? (thoughts on collaberative writing)

> Has anyone ever co-written a novel/play? Can you tell me your experience?
> Do you split the writing 50/50. What if one author writes considerably more,
> does the rights of the work belong to both authors? I tried to research online
> but could not find any information. I decided to co-write a play with a friend
> and wanted to get all the details together before venturing into this project.
> I’ve always written alone and wanted to find out more about co-writing.
> Any advice is appreciated.

Greetings,

You’re referring to Collaborative Fiction, an interesting scenario as far as writing processes go.

Collaborative writing efforts work well for film/television/plays but when it comes to novels I’ve only seen it work with genres like Science Fiction, Fantasy, and etc. As far as I can tell this is because these are genres where authors can continue to expand upon the “known” universe, adding other characters and incorporating events into what’s considered a “canon timeline” (dunno if that’s a real term but canon referring to what’s been deemed as “official” — read up on Canon fiction for a better explanation). A perfect example of a collaborative work are the Star Wars novels that accompanied the movies. In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was the good guy, Darth Vader was the bad guy, and Princess Leia was the Women’s-Lib version of a Damsel in Distress and potentially Luke’s love interest. Because of the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, it was revealed that Vader was Luke’s father and that Leia had fallen in love with Han Solo. In “Return of the Jedi”, it became known that Leia was also Vader’s daughter, Luke kills Vader, and the Empire is no more. Now, if someone came along after the fact and wrote a novel that was meant to take place after “Return” and wanted to have Vader come back from the dead and fall in love with Leia, aside from the fact that it wouldn’t make sense and Lucasfilm would never authorize it, such a work would not be considered canon in the Star Wars universe because it was already written that Vader was Leia’s father and when Vader died he reverted to being a good Jedi in the afterlife.

Anyway, I spelled all that out to say that in order for a collaborative effort to work, there have to be set boundaries between you and your partner on the creative side. Whatever you write — names, people, events, etc — all become canon. Same goes for what your partner writes. And to make matters even trickier, you and your partner have to keep up with each other’s work in order to know what hasn’t been written so you don’t break continuity by writing something that goes against what’s already canon.

Let’s say you’ve created the character John Doe and he’s happily married to Jane Doe, his high school sweetheart, and you’ve established those characters and these facts across several chapters. John and Jane as a married couple are now canon in the story, even if they eventually get divorced their marriage is still considered canon in that novel’s timeline. Now, if your partner came along and wrote that Jane was actually a transsexual axe-murderer named Jim, this wouldn’t work. Yes, technically the partner could write it but such a radical shift would (1) mess up the flow of things, (2) go against what was considered canon by what you had already established with John and Jane, and (3) it would break the unwritten author/reader contract, destroying the Suspension of Belief, and more than likely turn them off from wanting to read/watch any further.

What happens when continuity and canon is not established? Chaotic writing that steps on its own toes, leading to a lot of frustration, and at its worst you’ll have a mess of a story that no one will be happy with.

As far as copyright goes, the Form TX (for literary works) that gets sent to the Library of Congress doesn’t recognize fractions of ownership based on the amount of work. I believe this means that the ownership would be equally split between the number of applicants listed with the registration.

My experience with collaborative fiction has been to write installments for a piece of serial fiction about Jamal Washington, a 20 year-old Black kid from Queensbridge, NYC, and his quest to eventually become CEO of his own company. Before me there were two authors who took turns writing the installments. One sistah was pretty consistent with her style, the other was all over the map. Outside of a few character names there was no sense of connection between the storylines, especially after the all-over-the-place writer was finished with her latest installment. When I took it over it was a continuity nightmare, so much in fact that it took me a month just to read through all of the other sections and figure out how to put together a storyline to go from there and bring it all home. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just delete everything that had been previously written. I ended up having to put together a way out series of story twists to not only tie in things from past installments but also enable me to get rid of unrealistic/2-dimensional characters and dead-end events by systematically writing them out of the plot. I posted my first installment in May of 2006. It is now March and the story has just about stabilized to where I can turn it over to another writer who can take the story and my notes and take the story forward.

Will I ever engage in collaborative writing again? Only in screenwriting and even then for something like a series. For anything literary I’m flying solo. I know my pace and my writing style and meshing it with someone else’s work brings alot of headaches.

Hope this helps… Good luck with it.