>> Monday, August 3, 2009

I was reminded this weekend of both the advantages and disadvantages of collaboration. People who read “my” fiction (at least “my” novels – my shorts stories are all solo work) are probably aware that I write in collaboration with my husband.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. I’ve been writing fiction since I was in high school, long before I ran across my husband. And, although I started small (poetry and short stories), I’ve been working on novels since the nineties at least, including first drafts of at least two novels before I left my first husband.

One of those is still a draft (only so many hours in the day, y’know) and one is my most “finished” novel, currently under review by a potential publisher. If that doesn’t pan out, I’ll be using that novel to troll for an agent. But I digress.

That novel, though it was originally written solo, is a collaboration and my husband’s name is on it. Why? Because I found myself working on new projects with my husband, even before he was my husband, because he was a good influence on my creativity and because he had good ideas and (more importantly) could spot something that just wasn’t right.

So, as I picked up my imperfect draft of the novel that would become Curse of the Jenri, I tried to get Lee to work on it with me. It started badly. There are some fairly dark passages involving child abuse and/or rape and, at one point, killing children. Lee was completely turned off by these, disgusted and dismayed. Lee is not into the dark except literally. His first reaction was that the novel was complete crap and should just be scrapped. It should be noted that this reaction is not among those I list as “constructive criticism” – which is not, admittedly, his strong suit.

However, at this point, his opinion had already become extremely valuable to me. After all, I read a number of my favorite books to Lee and, to date, hadn’t read a favorite of my own that he had been unwilling to finish. If he was unwilling to finish my novel, clearly it wasn’t good enough.

But I didn’t give up and Lee has a wonderful/awful capacity to argue often viciously over something but absorb what I say and think about it, even change his mind. When I’m thinking clearly, I often state my case and back off, even if his reaction is extreme, so he can think about it. Often, we can reach a reasonable compromise that way. (It has a bad side effect in that, when I first tell him an idea, he often doesn’t react one way or the other, but thinks about it and decides he hates it. I often don’t realize that he’s against it until I’m committed to it. This is not limited to writing and many a firm “family plan” has been derailed at the last minute by Lee’s “I never thought it was a good idea anyway.”)

In the case of that first novel, the problem turned out not to be the entire manuscript but a few key places, including a beginning that sounded too much like a short story (which it literally was originally – Lee was right) and scenes that were so dark and had so little background that protagonists were hard to identify with. First, I shined a great deal of light into those dark corners, then, when that left me unsatisfied, we toned back the light, but added a reprieve. That worked for both of us (mostly). We also fleshed out some side characters and shored up my weak spot (plot). But the novel was a better one (in both our opinions) than it was before. That’s what makes the collaboration worthwhile.

Of course, if I’m not at my most objective, I may not be so smart and often worry something to death rather than back off. Writing fiction is not an objective business.

Now, let me be clear. I consider Lee a collaborator, a partner, but, I’m the one really writing. Lee listens, discusses, brainstorms, criticizes, provides inspiration and has the same veto power I do (on works we do together), but the nuts and bolts, the conversations, the actual words and syntax come from me. I write it. I edit it. I polish it. He listens to each version along the way (and usually laughs in the right places). For every hour he spends on one of our novels, I spend forty or more writing and rewriting.

So, this weekend (which had a number of other stressors including some issues regarding my daughter and my recently deceased uncle as well as a debilitating earache/vertigo for my husband) was one of the situations. My second novel, the one I’m working on rewriting before, hopefully, being at the polishing stage, needed, I felt, more excitement and some tension holdovers to carry into the sequel. The whole situation felt to benign. So, I added a predator attack sequence. Lee, hearing only the first three paragraphs, decided he hated it.

As I’d rewritten/added more than twenty pages (and felt like it solved a problem that was nagging me) this weekend, I felt like all that effort was wasted. I pushed harder than I should have, but eventually backed off. Let it sit. Good move. Lee had heard why I felt the scene was needed, understood and even became comfortable with it. Instead of needing to excise it entirely, we talked over options that didn’t take away any of what I needed the scene to do but removed the sense of the illogical that was nagging Lee.

And the book will be better for it. Lee gets equal credit because the novel is better because he's involved, even if the actual process can be painful. Collaboration isn’t always pretty or neat. It’s often filled full with disagreements and emotional rivalry and strife (especially when it coincides with romance). But all of that doesn’t matter as long as you never lose sight of the real relationship, what’s really important.

And, if the end result is beautiful, the ugliness of creation doesn’t really matter.


  • The Mother

    I depend on my husband's eye, too. It's invaluable to get a second opinion, especially one with a different perspective.

    The down side? Sex scenes mean he can't keep his hands to himself for a week. I guess that means they're good.

  • Stephanie B

    Yes, I'm familiar with that reaction myself.

  • flit

    I holped too this time! You said! LOL

    too much work on essay...I am now officially refusing to write English good.

  • Stephanie B

    You did indeed. A wonderful accoutrement to anyone in a collaboration is a friend to bitch to who also has good ideas.

  • Patricia Rockwell

    I rely on my hubby as my primary editor--not really a collaborator, although that would be wonderful if he were interested, but he's not. He's a much better writer than I am and he's got a great ear for dialogue. You're lucky to have that kind of relationship. I'm jealous.

  • Jeff King

    my wife and children offer no help on the creative side... they only can help with editing, they either don't care enough about my writing or realy don't know how to fix it...

    so i am looking for a stranger to look at my work to get a nut and bolts type of view, so i know what to fix, add, remove, shorten, trash or leave alone. i am glad you have someone close to you to help you see the good and bad points in your writting. best of luck.

  • Matt

    I've never been so humbled until I let others critique my novel. How dare they not like it all!!??

    It was also the best thing ever...helped in so many ways. Now to finish the damn thing.

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