Art Holcomb's tips for successful collaboration with a writing partner.
What do these people have in common?
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. The Farrelly Brothers. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Joel and Ethan Coen.
All are famous screenwriting teams that went on to great success. And all are screenwriters who once made the decision that they were better together than separate.
You certainly have all thought about it. All writers have. How much easier it would be if you could write with someone else, join your talents together, and be more than the sum of your parts.
And when it is good, a collaboration can be extraordinary.
. . .But when it’s not, it’s like a thousand miles of very bad desert road.
After years of looking for a good writing partner, I recently started collaborating with acclaimed novelist Howard V. Hendrix to develop some of our individual properties together. We completed a play, “The Perfect Bracket” that has gone on to some success in national competitions and currently are developing a series of screen property.
In coming together, we each have taken our past success in our individual fields and brought those experiences to play in our new partnership. It’s not always been easy but has been a way for us to be much more productive. And along the way, we’ve learned some things about each other, about the nature of our talents and about the pleasure and pitfalls of working together.
These are our tips for a great collaboration.
Collaborate with people who can do things that you can’t
You have strength and weaknesses – so does your partner. But collaboration can’t live up to its full potential if you each are good at the same thing and have the same weaknesses. Seek out partners who complement your personal talents. The writing will go so much smoother.
Differentiate between roles
Who is going to do what and in what order? Which aspect of the writing process is each member going to be responsible for? Again, go with the strengths of each individual.
Agree to share credit equally
Someone will always have the “first” idea – this does not mean that they do not own the concept in collaboration. The best way to maintain a good working relationship is to make sure that the partners share in the credit equally. Anything else begins to look like an employer-employee relationship – if that is the case, it’s best to be up front with it for the beginning.
Collaboration is a living thing, just like any other relationship. You may go in believing that you’ve found your creative soul mate only to have is all turn to ashes somewhere around Act II. Better to commit to a single project at a time and see how it goes, reassessing at the end whether you want to do another together or not.
Decide on your collaborative process
Will you be working in the same room at the same time? Will you do one section and then pass the manuscript to your partner? Who will write the first draft, or the second? Who will have the final pass at the work? It is vital that you make the process clear to all parties before you begin in order to maximize speed and minimize confusion.
Understand the needs of your partner
Make the commitment to the project appropriate for the other person’s regular job requirements. Understand and respect each other’s writing process. Each team is different – each team must find their own rhythm.
Discuss personal goals
What kind of work do you and your partner want to do together? What do you really want to accomplish with this project? What is next?
Decide on how credits will appear early in the relationship
How will your credit be listed? X and Y vs. X&Y?. The WGA and other governing bodies have extremely strict interpretations of credit based upon exact wording. Know the difference before you decide.
Collaboration means more than just the writing partnership
You need to have a team who will work with you and who are affected by that work: Managers, Agents, Editors, First Readers, and Significant Others. Any successful professional career is really built upon these relationships. Make sure everyone is on board and on the same page!
Get it all in Writing!
Consider using the WGA collaboration agreements or have one drawn up by an intellectual property attorney. You can find a good example at: http://www.wga.org/uploadedFiles/writers_resources/contracts/collaboration.pdf
Consider brainstorming alone first, then collaborate on the execution
Creating in a group can often cause for concessions too early. It’s often best to create in your own and bring fully formed ideas to the table for discussion and compromise. Then decide which direction to go together.
Work from a general outline
At some point, your story will start evolving and it is vital that each writer agree on where the story is going. An outline helps keep everyone on tract. But keep it general and flexible – too loose an outline and there is not direction; too tight and it strangles the writer as s/he develops the work.
Constantly refine your collaboration process
Again, collaboration is a living organism. It needs nurturing and adjustments along the way to get the best out of both parties. As you go along, you will continue to adapt to each other as well as to the process. Make room for this in you partnership. Let it evolve naturally into the best, most effective process possible.
Honesty is vital
Without it, resentments develop, which are poison to such an intimate relationship. There will be times when each collaborator will feel underappreciated – often at the same time. Keep in mind that the Project and the Collaboration are equally important. Here, one cannot exist without the other. Communication is key!
Plan for conflict
Problems will naturally arise. Agree to “No Door Slamming” policy. Agree that neither of you will quit the project without giving the other party notice of what’s not working. Nip resentment in the bud as soon as possible.
Reward yourself at the appropriate stage – and celebrate the things that are within your control
Best times to celebrate:
When you agree to collaborate;
When you complete the project outline, the first draft and the final draft;
And when you send it out into the world.
Don’t wait until the screenplay is sold to celebrate. The sale is not the most important thing to a continuing partnership. The optioning of a screenplay is only the by-product of the collaboration and is always outside of your control.
Set realistic schedules and deadlines
The collaboration isn’t the only important thing going on in either writer’s day-to-day. Modern life gets in the way. Make sure you give the other partner plenty of time to get the work done. It is the best way to guarantee a continuing relationship.