In March 2017, I got on a train in Chicago with J. Thorn, Lindsay Buroker, and Zach Bohannon. We headed south to New Orleans and within a week, we had the first draft of a novel, published a month later as American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice.
It was an amazing creative experience as well as an adventure, and I was only able to do it because I co-wrote Risen Gods with J. back in 2015 and I trust him.
I've learned so much from collaborating with other authors, and I am now incorporating co-writing with different people into my author business.
In today's article, J. Thorn goes through some of the mistakes of author collaborations and how to avoid them.
Although collaboration has been a creative mode in other arts, such as music and film, it is relatively new for novelists.
The process can be confusing and difficult, but also rewarding and fulfilling. After completing many collaborations (and failing at many as well), I’ve identified five critical mistakes that can kill a project…and ways you can avoid those traps.
1. Moving too fast
Beginning a collaboration is much like a marriage. Getting engaged on the first date is probably not a good idea. It makes sense to get to know somebody, especially in a professional environment. Beginning a project without knowing the other person is one of the most common mistakes collaborators make.
Most of my failed collaborations ended because I did not take the time to get to know the other person. We did not discuss our work styles, our preferences, or the things that we had in common or didn’t have in common. Often, the initial excitement of the collaboration will push things along too quickly. Ideas fly, and the excitement soars, but when the real work begins, people fall into their old habits. Knowing what those habits are and how they affect each writer can make a tremendous impact on whether or not the project is successful.
2. Lack of proper planning
One of the main lessons we learned from the American Demon Hunters collaboration in New Orleans was that we should have had a plan. Whether you’re are a pantser or a plotter, planning can be the difference between languishing in an unfinished project and publishing a book. Whether you call it an outline, story beats, or just rough ideas, having a plan will be instrumental in making sure all collaborators are on the same page.
When Joanna and I wrote Risen Gods, we wrote most of that story without a firm outline because there were only two of us and because I was reading what she wrote before I started my writing session on that day. With Joanna in Great Britain and me in the United States, I was always able to see where she was taking the story.
However, for most collaborations, that would be difficult to accomplish without proper planning. In New Orleans, the four of us had to stop mid-week and come up with a plan. It was simply too difficult for us to know what we were doing with the characters at any given time in the story. Ideally, spending time world building and outlining is going to clarify what everyone needs to write, and what each person's responsibilities will be.
Also, the same type of planning and preparation should be done on the marketing side so when the book is finished all collaborators are clear on what their role is in both the publishing phase and the marketing phase.
3. Underestimating how long it will take to finish
The collaboration will always take longer than you think it will. If you do not set firm deadlines for the project, you will almost certainly fall behind. Incremental deadlines, as well as a final publication deadline, will help hold everyone accountable. It is human nature to procrastinate. Therefore, not having a deadline will almost certainly stretch the project out further than it has to be.
Also, things will happen in a collaboration. There could be a technical problem, somebody could get sick, or the collaboration itself can just simply take longer than you have anticipated. Again, it is important to recognize that there will be a tremendous surge of energy at the beginning of the collaboration, but that will most certainly tail off as the hard work begins. Even solo writers call the second act of a novel the “soggy middle” because it's hard to maintain the energy and momentum you have both at the beginning of the writing process and at the end of it. And while it's hard to estimate how long it takes to publish something, if you set the deadlines further out then they need to be, and you hit them early, no one will ever complain.
4. Lack of communication
We all have egos. We are all human, and we have tendencies to want to control our environment. While this is natural, and certainly comes up in many collaborations, there is a way to get around this issue. Keeping a direct and open line of communication with your collaborators will almost certainly guarantee that you'll be able to handle roadblocks. This trust is usually born out of a prior relationship, and it is not something that just naturally happens with everyone.
Therefore, if you are friends with your collaborator or you have a professional relationship before starting the collaboration, you are much better suited to address any disagreements that may arise. It is also important to note that we cannot be inside the heads of our collaborators. It is your responsibility to let your collaborators know when something is troubling you or even when you're not feeling well. Having two or more people writing a single story is not an easy feat, and if you're not communicating during the process, you will end up with a lot of wasted time and wasted words.
5. No defined genre or outcome
Although you may think your collaborators agree about the genre of your project, you should not make that assumption. If you plan on marketing or selling your collaboration, you must address the issue of genre. It could be tempting to do a “mash up” of genres to appease all of the collaborators on the project. However, it will make it difficult for consumers to identify the product you want to sell them.
That is not to say that you cannot do genre crossovers or passion projects. However, you must realize that the way the marketplace is structured in 2017, especially on Amazon, it is difficult to sell a book that does not adhere to genre guidelines without a prior readership or fan base. And even fans of one author will not always buy the book. For example, Lindsay Buroker does not typically write in the horror or dark fantasy genre, and that made it an additional challenge selling the American Demon Hunters book to her core readership because it was not a genre her most rabid fans expected.
Collaboration is a risky venture even under the best circumstances. But creating great art is always a risk, and that should not stop you from making it. We learned a lot about ourselves and each other while in New Orleans working on American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice and I would do it again because the joint effort is always better than what could be accomplished alone.
For writers: If you’re interested in a collaborative writers retreat, visit http://theauthorcopilot.com/retreat/ for more information.
You can also find our tips in Co-writing a Book: Collaboration and Co-creation for Writers
For readers: If you want more information about the product of our New Orleans collaboration, visit http://americandemonhunters.com/ for more information.
Have you ever collaborated with another author on a book project? Please leave your thoughts and experiences below and join the conversation.
J. Thorn is a bestselling horror writer and creator of Dark Arts Theater and the Horror Writers Podcast. J is also my co-author of Risen Gods, a dark fantasy/supernatural thriller.
Jonathan Gunson says
This article stopped me in my tracks! I know all too well the painful cost of rushing in at the beginning.
You’ll be interested to hear that the advice you give to writers about collaborating applies to illustration work in exactly the same way. I employ illustrators to work on one of the children’s series I’m developing, but am acutely aware through harsh experience that such creative collaboration is indeed a ‘marriage’, and it pays to wed the right person.
Kent J McDonald says
Thanks for sharing your experience and noting the key mistakes. The first book I wrote was a non fiction collaboration. With three other people. Who all had at least 10 years more experience than I did.
Needless to say, it was definitely a learning experience. I can especially relate to the comment about egos, since mine was thoroughly crushed between the first and second drafts.
I would not trade the opportunity for anything. I learned so much, both from my co-authors and about the book writing process. What I didn’t pick up enough was how to market a book that was written as a collaboration. Part of that I think was due to the fact that we went with a publisher.
I wrote my second book by myself, and realized I missed having co authors. Primarily because I didn’t have anyone holding me responsible to get the book done in a timely fashion.
Having had the opportunity to both write individually and as a collaboration, I realized the pros and cons to both. My plan moving forward is to write some on my own and find people I’ve known for a while (point taken on the moving to fast item) to write books where they are the experts.
Meg Cowley says
Great article! I’m in the trenches of launching my first three co-written books right now. I’ve known my co-author for several years, we have similar personalities, writing styles, and subjects, and have talked about writing together before. I then found out there was this thing called ‘co-writing’ and after seeing your success and that of folks like Michael Anderle, we thought hey, why not!
I have a feeling like this serendipity might be one of the best things we could have done – we’re cowriting urban fantasy adventures (Tomb Raider + magic), so we can publish fast in a hot genre, and I think that’s going to work really well.
We meticulously planned an idea, and will be writing alternate standalone books in the series from alternate viewpoints to test the water. Our characters will cross over here and there and if we see success within the first 6 books, we’ll move from a true ‘minimally viable product’ mentality to working towards addressing our meta plot, which will require a much bigger time commitment to do the series.
I’m taking on the role of publisher (I have more experience and also… control freak!), and we have two lead magnets to launch. One ourselves, and two in a lead generating anthology. We’ve scheduled it so we launch a book every 6 weeks. In between, we can still publish our own stuff every alternate six weeks. (Yes, going for an ambitious schedule!)
I’m really excited!! We’ve been able to plan a much bigger launch together than we have managed apart – a huge Headtalker campaign, hundreds of thousands of reach with newsletter swaps (which has been the most effective tactic for selling I’ve discovered to date), social media launches, paid promos, etc…. I think this is going to go far! I believe it can. We have great stories, with great covers and blurbs. Fingers crossed!
Do you have any more cowriting plans? 🙂
Joanna Penn says
That’s awesome 🙂 I’m currently co-writing in the sweet romance name and have a first Joanna Penn co-authored book late 2017/early 2018 – and will do more for J.F.Penn, so I am absolutely a convert. Thanks, J!
Andrè Michael Pietroschek says
I am still at rock-bottom, and only have 2 ebooks published. But I agree with your assessment that some risks are worth taking.
I wrote one story to 50% (half finished), when I noticed that I am seriously convinced the story would, from readers perspective, greatly benefit from a female co-author or female ghostwriter.
Not due me being lazy on it, but because the kind of story effects I used, and the difference in prose, not excused by me being a non-native speaker, but again for the readers pleasure: Would increase the artistic worth & entertainment value.
Still it is true: I was betrayed by fake translators, I got cheated by fake helpers, and due the years it wastes I must live with some of my self-written story having been stolen , along with credit card data & so forth. For someone who restarted at bum-shelter such are losses cutting deep.
A free contribution, for those who care: I wrote a detailed real life warning in the google community called ‘Homeless Civil Rights’.
Gippy Adams Henry says
Hi Joanna, 5/13/2020 at 10:43 p.m.
I enjoyed the information you provided here, but unfortunately my situation is not as simple as ‘a’ co-author. As an author, I am putting together a book where many others are sending me a few pages of how they are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. I want to do it as a collaboration, and our royalties for books sold will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Only one other of the people submitting their stories or write-ups is an author. The rest are not really writers, but more than willing to be a part of this book. My question is: how do I address the writers inside the book. Will this make them ‘authors.’ I hope you can help me. I value everything you teach and have been to many of your webinars. Thanks.
Joanna Penn says
You’ll have to design a contract or an agreement that sets out the terms — e.g. credit, royalties, copyright etc. But only you can decide that as the organizer. Work with a legal professional if necessary.
Sandra ori says
Well, I’m a newbie to this whole writing thing and this info. Joanna Penn, really made me realize I have a long way to go and made me identify all I’ve been missing out.
Though I’m fifteen, I want to so this! I have a passion for writing and really interested in the film industry. and I have enough confidence that I can do it and I will because doing something we enjoy doing makes it easier to do.
I’m working on my first book and I’m considering collaboration because for this book to work, I need someone to back me up on this. So, who will be my life saver?
Joanna Penn says
Hi Sandra, I’d suggest that you focus on writing more and maybe join a community for young people like https://ywp.nanowrimo.org/ or wattpad.com or something similar so you can meet more writers your age. Wishing you all the best!
I’m writting my first non-fiction book about wrapping gifts. It will be wrote by me but I want to include a section where friends bloggers and others top bloggers (which are not my friends) will answer 6-8 questions and then show a wrapping gift idea (1 photo). And of course I would send (by free) my book to them.
My question is: Do I have to pay all those bloggers or just the ones that are not my friends or all of them can do it by free because it will be just 1 page by blogger? What about if I invite 2 famous people to do the same (faq + 1 photo) Do I have to pay them? if the answer is yes… how much?
Joanna Penn says
You will need to sort out a contract that includes details on copyright, payment, rights to use their words and images etc. You are creating an intellectual property asset when you publish a book, so make sure you sort out the rights legally.