Collaborative Writing – Partnering Up

Posted by on Oct 22, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

On the surface, it would seem that writing with a partner would be incredibly easy. Taken purely in terms of math, you should get 100% of the results by doing 50% of the work. But it never really turns out that way, does it? There are two ways this tends to happen. The first and best situation is when you and another writer come up with an idea together. You’re both passionate about the concept and can’t wait to get started. The second situation is when you were roped into a project based on someone else’s idea – something they themselves can see clearly but “don’t know quite how to write it,” or “need someone to help them with the specifics.” I’ll deal with this situation in a later blog.

Writing with a partner based on a shared idea seems like a dream. You have someone to bounce your ideas off of, someone to point out when you’re flying off in the wrong direction, etc. But there are, in fact, pitfalls to this type of partnership. Basically, the main problem is that until we get a more reliable brain-to-brain interface, you and your partner are inevitably going to see the same story a bit differently. Everyone is distinct. Each of us tends to find varying aspects of any story more appealing than other aspects. You may have come up with the concept together, but inevitably one person is going to want to steer the story in a direction that the other person doesn’t want it to go.

Last year, my good friend Adam and I were talking about how due to emerging technology, many shows in the future are going to be partially or completely viewer driven. As we talked, we decided to experiment and come up with a web series whereby the audience would be given choices each week – choices such as who lives, who dies, and what new characters are brought onto the show, etc. The writers would then take that data and incorporate the viewer feedback into the next episode.

This was the origin of our idea. All we needed from that point was uh, everything – a plot, a world, characters, stuff for the characters to say – ya know, minor details like that. So Adam and I sat down at the El Campesino Mexican Grille one afternoon and started shooting ideas back and forth. What we came up with was an alternate reality where the richest people in society have figured out a way to make themselves indestructible immortals. But there’s a side effect. The immortality formula gives them an insatiable craving for human flesh. They’re basically good looking, intelligent and totally unbeatable zompires who like to dine on the rest of us. It was meant to mirror the state of our current society but in a more intense, visceral way. Instead of the ultra wealthy doing crappy things like buying off government officials and raising tuition to keep us in debt if we decide to get educated, they actually just go ahead and bite through our necks. Which is nice because unlike our current reality, at least they’re direct about it.

The story takes place in an office setting where regular people go about their everyday lives. The twist is that the office where they work is the headquarters of the world’s largest body parts exporter, Human Supply Company. At this point, we knew we had a great setup. Both of us were incredibly excited and couldn’t wait to get started. What roadblocks could we possibly run into?

Well, it turned out that even though we were both very experienced writers, (he got his MFA from the well known and well respected program at UCLA) we approached the story in a very different way. I tend to slowly cultivate my characters and see how the story evolves through subtle bits of interaction. Adam is a fountain of images and big ideas that he’s annoyed about having to whittle down into individual scenes. In the first couple weeks, we butted heads a lot because he was talking about things that weren’t going to happen for ten episodes and I was being so nuanced that he felt the story wasn’t reaching its full potential.

So how did it come together into something we both ended up very proud of? We used a few very easy principles that you can also use when writing with a partner.

1) Figure out each of your specific talents and divide the tasks accordingly. Like I mentioned earlier, we found out that Adam was better at the overall concepts and I was better at creating characters and writing dialogue. So that’s how we set it up. He’d have an idea and I’d build the scene. He was constantly working out where the story was going and I was tasked with getting the characters to his destination. That way, we weren’t accidentally squashing each other’s ideas in the times we were off working on the project by ourselves.

2) Don’t be afraid to raise doubts. A lot of days, Adam would call me and go, “Ok, what if the Kershaw family has a death blimp? Cause that would show how powerful they are. And they’ve got this laser on it and they’re constantly melting people for fun.” During the first week or two, I’d respond. “Uh, ok. I’ll see if I can maybe…uh…I can work it in on page uh……” But the more we collaborated, I learned that he knew damn well that half his ideas were brilliant and half were crap. He just didn’t know which were which. This leads me to point number three.

3) Clearly explain why the other person’s ideas will work or not work. Later on in the project, my answer to the death blimp scenario was more like, “Well that’s a cool idea, but there isn’t room to cram that in if we want to quickly establish the background relationships among all of the main characters. Also, aren’t we filming this ourselves? Where are we going to get a blimp?” To which there’d be a moment of silence. “Ok then, how about they have these tigers…..” If the other person doesn’t clearly know why their ideas are being rejected in the context of the story, they’re just going to get frustrated. Consequently, they also have to know exactly why their awesome ideas are awesome so they’ll keep coming up with more.

4) Drink Beer. Beer is awesome and helps get ideas flowing. Also, when you’re writing with a partner, it helps eliminate the sad realization that you’re drinking alone – again.

Anyway, as with most things in life, the real key is communication. Don’t be vague. You should always be talking about “Well, here’s how I see the story going,” and the other person should answer with, “Well, here’s how I see the story going.” A lot of times they’ll be headed down similar paths, but if you don’t have that conversation on a consistent basis, you may just find that your stories have wandered miles away from each other. Then either someone needs to retreat or you’ll be forced to unsuccessfully cram your stories together into a poop omelet that you’ll attempt to convince each other is actually pretty tasty when it clearly isn’t.

So in conclusion, writing with a partner can be an awesome experience as long as you’re willing to give and take a bit. And in a bit of shameless self-promotion, you can see what Adam and I came up with by checking out the first episode of Human Supply here.

Also if you really like it, wish the rest of the pilot could get filmed, and have an extra $25,000 lying around that you don’t know what to do with…..

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