It was an accident, really. I never set out to be a collaborator (wow, every time I say that, I get a flash of feeling like I’m confessing to cooperating with an evil occupier or something). It just kind of happened. I mean, at this point in my career, I’ve got 24 finished novels either published or about to be published later this year, and fully half of them are collaborative works. Aristotle wrote that we are what repeatedly do, and therefore, I guess I am a collaborator.
That’s okay, though. Because it’s been a fun ride, and one that I’m sure isn’t over yet. But since collaboration isn’t really the norm for writers, I thought I’d talk about how fortunate I’ve been in my partners and why I think it’s worked so well. I say that because we can all imagine the difficulties that might accompany a collaborative project in the creative realm. Take a look at most musical bands. How often do they part over creative differences? And how much more frequently is there significant tension because of those same differences, just not quite badly enough to break up the band? Writing, one would suspect, is even more susceptible to that kind of conflict. After all, it is traditionally a much more solitary endeavor. So I don’t think anyone has to stretch their imagination much to come up with a collaboration horror story.
Mine weren’t, though. And it wasn’t like I just found the one perfect partner and we were perfectly simpatico and so it worked. I’ve written a dozen books with five different authors. Four men and one woman. One from New York, one from Texas, one from California, and two from my stomping grounds in the Pacific Northwest. Three of them I’ve only ever met over email, and more recently, video calls. And while they all do have in common the fact that each is an awesome human being, they are pretty different in terms of personality. So it is safe to say that while our personalities meshing was certainly a factor, I think that, logically, you can’t say it was the driving force.
So what was?
I recently interviewed all five of my collaborators (Colin Conway, Jim Wilsky, Bonnie Paulson, Eric Beetner, and Lawrence Kelter) on my podcast, Wrong Place, Write Crime (ep. 14). In having those conversations, and a number of similar talks offline, it became pretty clear to me that there were a few factors that helped our projects to be successful.
1. A good fit
Yeah, so back when I said personality wasn’t the biggest thing? Well, it isn’t…but it matters. I genuinely like each of my co-authors. Quite a lot, actually. I have coffee with some, and video chat with all of them. Those that I’ve never met in person, I am really looking forward to that day. I can’t imagine working with someone you don’t like would be rewarding or fun, much less successful. On top of that, having a friendship in place to start with helps lubricate some of the other elements below and keep any friction from developing.
2. A good idea
You’ve got to be excited to work on the project, just like any of you solo work, or it just isn’t going to fly. In my case, my co-authors brought good ideas to the table at least half the time. Maybe more, now that I think of it. We built a lot on the basic premise, but the work was worth it because it was a good idea to start with. With the potential for so many obstacles to working together already looming, it sure helps to have an idea that you’re both passionate about.
3. A good plan
If you’re a plotter, this is an easy one. If you’re a pantser or a gardener or whatever term you prefer, then this might be difficult. When two people are writing a book together, they both better have a pretty solid idea where things are headed, or things will go off track really quickly. I remember writing Blood on Blood with Jim Wilsky, in which two half-brothers are chasing down some stolen diamonds. We had a plan in place regarding when they’d eventually figure out where those lost diamonds were, but in an early chapter, Jim had a great idea about where his character could find them after interrogating one of their dad’s old cohorts. And then he found them, in that very chapter. It was a pretty cool idea, but unfortunately it trashed our plan entirely. If you’re writing solo, you can just roll with that kind of a switch, but when you’re working together, it’s a bit harder. If you take a hard left, you undo a lot of work your partner has already done.
In addition to the plan regarding the story (plot, character development, etc.), you’ve got to have a good plan regarding who is going to write what, how much of it, and in what format. Both writers have to know this up front, and that’s how it was in each case for me. It wasn’t always the same (sometimes we were each handing a single character, sometimes it was more fluid) but we were always pretty clear on what the workload would be. Speaking of which…
4. A good work ethic
Like any partnership, things have to feel equitable. I’ve been lucky, because my collaboration partners always did at least their share of the heavy lifting and sometimes more. So did I. And the thing that made it such a wonderful experience is that we both did it with a happy heart. We were eager to work on the project, and brought our best game. This is one place where I think collaboration beats solo work, hands down. When you get a chapter or segment from your partner, not only are you getting to read part of the book you’re writing for the first time, but it gets you jazzed up to write your chapter, and to do the very best you can at it (or it should—if not, maybe collaboration is not for you). Some of the most energetic, frenetic writing experiences I’ve had has been on my collaborative novels, and so having any kind of work ethic was never a problem for me, nor for my partners. But I could certainly see how terrible it would be to be partnered with someone who didn’t pull his/her weight.
This is where I guess I can be a little snarky. I mean, there’s no reason to drag your feet. You’re writing half a book (but editing a whole one), and your partner is waiting. In my experience, a rapid turnaround was the case with all five writers. Sometimes the same day.
5. A good ego
This is probably the biggest piece that lends itself to success or failure. What I’m talking about here is the ability of the individual author to subordinate his/her own ego for the good of the book. Everyone has great ideas. Everyone writes great passages. But are you willing to see those ideas or passages get the axe for the greater good? The ol’ “kill your darlings” question, right? We all face this on our own, too, but it is a slightly different dynamic in a partnership, especially if things always seem to go one writer’s way. I’ve been fortunate in my partners in this regard. All have been willing to take the hit if needed, and to hold me to the fire if it is my idea or brilliant writing that needs to be cut. Being friends helps here, and so does passion for the project. But, in the end, it has to be about the book, not the author. And if both partners are coming at it from that perspective, both as writers and editors, it’ll work. If not…well, I would expect to see blood on the walls. Not fictional blood, but real carnage.
Luckily, all of my collaboration partners did see it exactly the same way. A good example is the Jim Wilsky reference I gave you in point #3. After we talked about it, Jim quickly agreed that we had to stick to the plan and continue to build up tension and conflict before those diamonds could make an appearance. His guy simply found the diamonds too soon, and while it was an awesome passage and a great idea, it wasn’t what was best for the book. He saw that and made the change without hesitation, and without rancor. This is just one instance, but there are multiple examples of this in all twelve of my collaborations, some on my part, some on my partners’. That’s what it takes.
In the End
In the end, what? Well, in the end, you get a book that you’re proud of. And you didn’t do it alone. Eric Beetner, who I collaborated with on three novels, has aptly compared the process to getting in a room with other musicians, and I think the analogy is a solid one. There’s something magical to creating a story and telling it in a compelling way to a reader. Doing that with another writer, and feeling that joint sense of pride and accomplishment? Well, that’s another kind of magic.
Frank Zafiro is a former military linguist and police officer. He has written over two dozen novels, including twelve collaborations with five different authors. His Bricks & Cam Job series with Eric Beetner will conclude in August 2018 in The Getaway List. His Ania series with Jim Wilsky will be published throughout 2018, beginning with Blood on Blood on April 30 and concluding with Harbinger in December. He has written a pair of novels with Lawrence Kelter, including The Last Collar. He and B.R. Paulson teamed up to write The Trade-Off. His first collaboration was Some Degree of Murder with Colin Conway, who he reunited with for March 2019’s D&O release, Charlie-316. Frank’s solo work includes his River City series, beginning with Under a Raging Moon, and Stefan Kopriva mysteries, which starts with Waist Deep.
Frank lives in Redmond, Oregon with his wife. In addition to writing, he loves hockey, gaming, and is a tortured guitarist.