Writing and editing a sci-fi/fantasy novel with another author

Posted on June 1, 2013 (Subscribe to Blog)

What are the pros and cons of collaborating on a novel? Is it easier to plot, write and edit alongside another author, or is it just one big headache? I think the answer lies entirely in who your writing partner is, how similar your tastes and skills are, and how well you get along. As it happens, I chose well.

Back in January, I posted about a sci-fi/fantasy novel that I'm writing in collaboration with another author, my good friend Brian Clopper (see the post Fractured – a free sci-fi and fantasy novel). We spit-balled the plot back in November and worked out how we would organize our writerly chores. As far as I'm concerned, both the idea for the story and our approach to writing it couldn't be any more logical for a collaborative effort. It's basically two stories running in parallel – two characters embarking on separate journeys and gradually coming together for a crucial crossover scene two-thirds of the way through the story.

We hammered out the novel in January, and almost completely by chance our word count ended up nearly identical, with 43,764 words by Brian and 44,049 by myself, totalling 87,812. Of course, those numbers will change now that we're into the editing mode, but it'll still be virtually half each.

So we wrote the first draft in January and deliberately put the book away while we worked on other things. Now we're back into the thick of it, editing and polishing and proofing with a view to publishing sometime in July. (We'd originally thought about publishing in May, but hey, things happen.)

This editing process is turning out to be really interesting. Normally, with my own books, I would read and edit as I go, rewriting much of it, straightening things up. But with Fractured, where we've written alternating chapters, I can directly edit my own text but only comment on Brian's – and vice versa. I wouldn't dream of making a single alteration to Brian's text without his knowledge, and I wouldn't want him editing mine directly either. It's just not done. So we highlight bits of text and leave comments.

We're using Google Docs, which allows us to view and edit the same manuscript online and add comments wherever we want. Everything is done dynamically and in real time; all changes and comments update immediately. So if I change a word in my chapter, it auto-saves a second later and updates the document at Brian's end also – even while he's sitting there reading it!

At one point, we happened to both be working at the same time on the same chapter. It was my chapter, and as I was writing, a comment appeared at the side of the screen. I clicked it, and the relevant text highlighted yellow. I agreed with the comment and made a change to my text – and Brian then announced in the comment panel that he could see my cursor moving on the page. He could see the text changing as I was updating it.

The mechanics behind this is both fascinating and creepy. In the old days of using a Word document on an internally networked system, only the person who opened it first could make changes; if someone else opened it, it would be in read-only mode. Makes sense, right? You can't both be editing the same document in the same file location. It's impossible! But Google Docs allows this in a surprisingly seamless way, and I haven't come across any problems yet. It's creepy, though, knowing that someone is literally watching me type. It's like having a person standing behind me as I sit working at my desk. It's really off-putting.

Luckily, we don't bump into each other much. We're often online together but in different parts of the document, kind of like sitting at desks side-by-side. The system is working really, really well, better than any other method I can think of.

So how is our actual editing going? Brilliant. We've got into a groove now. I'll go ahead and read/edit my own chapters, skipping his for the time being – so I started out working on Chapters 1, 3, 5, and 7 first while he was working on his own Chapters 2, 4, 6 and 8. Once we'd straightened up our own text, we started reading all eight chapters combined and commenting where necessary. As Brian left comments for Chapter 1, I'd make those changes and "resolve" his comments, and so on. We've been going back and forth like that for a while now, making several sweeps, backing up and re-reading the tweaked chapters, and generally smoothing things out. Working in batches of eight chapters, we've completed the first batch (1-8) and are about to complete the second batch (9-16).

Once we're completely done in this fashion, we'll most likely put the whole thing on our Kindles and read it to ourselves over a few days. I'm sure we'll make further notes about typos and inconsistencies, and then it'll be back to the manuscript again for final tweaks.

THEN the completed book will be off to beta-readers.

I'm honestly not sure that I could collaborate on a full-scale novel in this way with anyone other than Mr. Clopper. Apparently our mindsets and wavelengths are the same. We have no egos when it comes to criticism no matter how small or large; we just get it sorted in the name of the book. Everything we do is about bettering the story and the way it's written, so if that means a load of nitpicking highlights show up in what we thought were our carefully crafted chapters, then so be it – it's just stuff we need to work on some more. It's a matter-of-fact, methodical approach, and our goal is a final product that we're BOTH proud of.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but for any authors thinking about collaborating: pick your writing partner wisely. I can see a hundred ways it could go wrong otherwise. Most of all, don't ever take criticism personally. The last thing I want is someone to apologize and tiptoe around as they meekly tell me, "Sorry, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but this scene might possibly be in need of a teensy-weensy alteration, but then again, what do I know?" I'd rather just be told flatly, "Hey, mister, this doesn't work, and here's why..." so I can go fix it and move on. I'm happy to say that Brian and I are able to say it as it is and be grateful for the feedback.

I'll try to save some before-and-after examples for the next post on this subject – little snippets of the kinds of fixes we're making throughout.

Until then, I have to get back to Google Docs now. Books don't edit themselves, you know!

Oh wait. Apparently they do...

Comment by DIARMUID MACOISíN on Saturday, June 1, 2013...

This is a great post. Google Docs seems to be the perfect tool for collaboration on a book, even if it is more than a trifle weird at times! It sometimes makes me laugh to think about how technology has changed and how it now impacts our lives.

I'm eager to read 'Fractured'. It seems like such a brilliant idea, everything from the writing to the editing, it'll be interesting to see how it all turns out. Best of luck with it!

Comment by RALPH CORDEROY on Sunday, June 2, 2013...

Presumably there's a need to "agree to disagree" sometimes?

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Sunday, June 2, 2013...

Thanks, Diarmuid. Yeah, it makes me laugh to think about how we managed before the internet! I'm sure it would have been a lot more difficult to produce a novel, too, without an online group of beta readers. And thinking about printing and sending manuscripts to publishers... yuck. It's bad enough via email.

Ralph, so far we haven't had to agree to disagree. Anyway, there would more likely be a compromise than one of us doing something the other completely disagrees with.

Comment by BRIAN CLOPPER on Sunday, June 2, 2013...

And the constant email updates we get spurs us to dive in and fix things and read on. It's been a very inspiring and educational process. I feel like I am learning more this way than in any other beta reading experience so far.

It is definitely raising the standard of our editing and revising discourse. In some ways, I am looking forward to working on my next novel after this experience. I already feel it will be tighter and more on track thanks to particpating in this collaboration with Keith. The man is deft with his comments.

And don't forget the levity we sprinkle in to keep things lively. Keith has quite the funny bone!

Comment by CAREY on Tuesday, June 4, 2013...

Great post... and powerful that Google docs is so user-friendly. I can see it being a huge asset on a project like you describe. I've been considering using more cloud based stuff just for personal productivity reasons. Happy to hear that something that is free actually works that well.

Comment by RONIE MELVAR on Thursday, February 13, 2014...

Co-writing and editing a fantasy novel are definitely fun to do with another author, assuming that the writer is very imaginative and easy to work with. He or she will probably provide twists or conflicts in the story that you never thought yourself.

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