Maybe you live alone in a log cabin atop the Bighorn Mountains in snowy Montana. You use an old Smith-Corona Classic 12 typewriter to bang out the great American novel, slip your pages into an envelope, and saddle up the horse for the forty-mile trek to the nearest post office to send that sucker off to your publisher in the big city. If that’s your process and it works for you, feel free to disregard the rest of this article, but for the rest of us, let’s take a minute to talk about the importance of collaboration for today’s fiction author.
For years, I wrote my stories alone and didn’t discuss them with anyone. Then I finally took a deep breath and began putting myself out there. I submitted stories anywhere and everywhere and started making contacts in the industry. I joined a writing group, befriended other authors, and became active in the online writer’s community. I teamed up with a group of authors at StoryShop to write a serial in our shared ‘Chaos Gate’ storyverse. These collaborations led to three changes: I began to enjoy writing more, the quality and quantity of my stories increased, and I actually started to get published regularly and make a little money.
It might be scary to put yourself and your work out there in front of other authors, but the benefits of doing so can’t be understated, and in many cases, involving others in your creative process is just what you need.
When I say ‘collaboration’, I mean it in the broadest sense possible. It can be teaming up with another writer to co-author a story or simply sharing ideas with an editor friend you meet online.
For many authors, one of the best ways to not only improve your writing but also motivate yourself to write more, is to join a writing group. They come in all shapes and sizes. It might consist of you and two friends, or a group of a dozen strangers. It might meet twice a week to review a handful of chapters, or every two months to go over 1,000 words per author.
You can look for pre-existing groups at your school or university, libraries, bookstores, writing conventions, NaNoWriMo gatherings, etc. I’ve been part of a group for two years which I found on meetup.com and which has been invaluable.
These days, many writing groups meet online, either in a chatroom setting or group video chat, so even if you can’t find authors in your area, you can always join a virtual group.
When in doubt, start your own!
Getting the most out of a writing group experience can be tricky. You want to find a group dynamic where you’re comfortable and authors whose opinions you respect. When it’s your turn to hear your piece critiqued, listen carefully and take notes. Don’t argue; if the story isn’t standing on its own, than critical comments are justified. Focus on understanding what’s not working so that you can find a way to fix it.
Alpha & Beta Readers
You’ll hear a lot of different definitions for ‘alpha and beta readers’. Some authors might say their alpha readers are industry professionals whereas their beta readers are friends or amateur writers. Others might define alpha readers as those they meet in person and beta readers as those they chat with online.
The definition I use—and the distinction I find most important—is that alpha readers are the people who read your stories while you are in the process of writing them, and beta readers are those who read the finished drafts.
For example, I use three primary alpha readers: two authors I met at my writing group and one editor I’ve known since high school. They will read my stories chapter by chapter, and being experts in storytelling themselves, can see what I’m trying to accomplish and offer advice to help me get there. I have a larger and more diverse group of beta readers who I send complete, finished drafts. Most of these are fans of the genre, though not necessarily authors themselves. I want their input as ‘readers’. I want to know how the story makes them feel, where they got confused, where they felt disappointed.
These days, it can also be very helpful to use a ‘targeted beta reader’—also called a ‘sensitivity reader’—to make sure you respectfully and accurately represent characters or cultures in your fiction that are unlike you and your personal experiences. This doesn’t mean you simply find someone random of the same gender/sexuality/race/etc. as your character and ask them to read your manuscript. You want to find someone as specific as possible. Is your protagonist from northern India? Are they a war veteran? Do they live with a specific disability? Look for beta readers with those life experiences. If you’re having trouble finding one, there are online services that can pair authors with sensitivity readers. Many require you to pay the reader, but it can be an invaluable service and money well spent.
And now onto the capital “C” collaboration: co-authoring, where two or more authors actually write a story together.
The first thing to know if you’re thinking about taking this route: it ain’t easy. Most authors who have written both alone and in pairs would tell you that it’s actually more work, not less, to share the author’s duties. This is because of all the extra time and attention that goes into communication, creating a unified vision, delegating tasks, making sure your contributions don’t contradict one another’s work, and agreeing on rules, compensation, and who has the final say.
There are many levels and styles of co-authoring.
Sometimes, multiple authors get together to create a shared universe. They will each write their own stories that take place in that fictional world.
Other times, they write a single book together but divvy up who does what work. Maybe one partner outlines the story and the other writes the prose. Or one writes the even chapters and one writes the odd chapters. (In a case like that, you’ll need to do some extra editing passes to ensure that the tone and style of the author’s voice stays consistent throughout.) Perhaps the easiest way to co-author a single book is to each write the scenes from your own POV characters.
Don’t work with another author because you’re insecure about some aspect of your own writing and want someone else to compensate. If you’re going to co-author, do it because both you and your partner love and respect eachother's work and believe that together you can create something special and unique.
Working with Editors
Whether you’re working with a publisher or self-publishing, at some point you’re probably going to work with agents, content editors, copy editors, or publishing professionals. Think of that work as collaboration. You never want these people to be your enemies. You should all be on the same page and trying to accomplish the same goals. Even when you disagree, treat the experience like any other important relationship in your life: make sure you’re communicating your point of view clearly, really listening to what they have to say, keeping an open mind, and standing up for what you truly believe is important.
Tools for Collaborating
As discussed in the article “Tools, Habits, and Motivation”, one of the most used tools right now is Google Docs. In this free program, you can share your documents with multiple people, edit, add comments, ask questions, and even chat live, right there on the screen. It’s a great way to collaborate.
But you should experiment on which methods work best for you and your partners. Maybe you need to work face to face, by video chat, on the phone, in an email, etc. Whatever you do, remember to think about the big picture. Collaboration is about networking, motivating yourself, making connections in the industry, and becoming a better author.