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Saturday, 30 July 2016

Collaborative Writing, Silence and Samurai Thinking

Reading about writing these days, one might be forgiven for thinking that we're living in some kind of Romantic revival period. The creative process is almost always cast as a kind of individual communion, with the writer alone on a mountaintop or in some flea-ridden garret, feverishly searching for the sanctum sanctorum of creativity supposedly buried deep within.

This is a bit deceptive, however - thanks to film, television and the blockbuster novel, we're living in something of a golden age for collaborative writing. This means that for writers with commercial ambitions, the ability to write collaboratively is a must-have skill. Which is all well and good, but how, when you get right down to it, do you actually do it?

Well, here's some hints and tips, garnered first hand from my time collaborating on two multiple award-winning works of fiction.


Have you ever been on a committee? Then you know the feeling of wanting to stab yourself in the eye with a fork as a tactic for escaping the endless, circular discussions that are the potential bane of any group dialogue. The strategies for avoiding this in your own writing group are simple. Nominate a leader, set times and deadlines for discussion, and institute a clear, fair and definitive decision making process. This way, your discussions can be directed, have a definite end time and a way to drag people off their hobby horses so everyone can get on with their lives.
Collaborative writing requires organisation. Gigantic whiteboards are optional.

But you don't need to just take my word for it. You'll see that my friends Tony McFadden, Kristen Prescott and Zena Shapter, all agree. You should check out their tips on collaborative writing as well - a quick cross reference will show that we all say pretty well the same stuff. Process, process, process. It's boring, I know, but when a bunch of individually prolific authors and collaborative artistes extraodinaire say so, it must be true.


Most collaborative writing efforts are going to start with a brainstorming session. If you're fortunate enough to be surrounded by some real talent, each and every member of your writing team is going to have something to say.

Remember to take time to shut the hell up.
The thing is, though, that this is iceberg time - what they say is really just the tip of an elaborate vision for the work as a whole. It is vitally important, when listening to what your fellow authors say, that you are alive to the fact of this vision. It's down to you to decode and extrapolate from the tiny fraction of their idea they are able to vocalise, and then decide whether you can accept and build on it, or if you need to pitch a different way of seeing the final product. It is impossible to attain this level of understanding if you talk incessantly, or if you are the sort of listener who's mainly thinking of what to say next. Listen actively, ask questions and, most importantly, give your whole attention to understanding both what your fellow authors are saying, and what they're leaving unsaid.


“Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done.” 

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Purpose, courage and unusual footwear are all samurai traits we should emulate.
It's very important that when you do finally settle down to write, all other considerations are simply ignored. Do not be paralysed by doubt, pay absolutely no attention to what you think of your own skills as a writer and especially do not worry about what you think of the skills of your other writers. Be unafraid of looking foolish, of writing terrible prose, of making mistakes - in short, be like the samurai: take decisive action and complete it no matter what.

If we sit around trying to think of elaborate or complicated ways to get things done, there is a very good chance that nothing will get done at all. The best way to get something finished is to just start it. It's easier said than done, I know, but also remember that being in a group represents a kind of safety net. If you're having an off day, or you're just not confident you can do what needs to be done, do it anyway - your fellow writers will catch you if you fall. Almost anything can be tweaked, prodded and edited into shape, but there is zero possibility of fixing a piece of writing which does not exist.


You'll notice that most of what I've had to say above has been about mentality. This is no accident - if you don't approach collaborative writing with the right mentality, it simply won't happen. No amount of organisation in the world can overcome an author who's in their own little world, or who tries to bring an unconquerable ego into the group. It's vital that each individual author sink, to some extent, their own individual visions and aspirations in order to favour the corporate goal.

If you'd like to have a look at the books we've produced by this method, here's some links.

Scribbles in the Dark

A Dolphin for Naia

Rider and The Hummingbird

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