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Vintage WD: Primer for Partnership

In this article from 1948, authors Clara Spiegel and Jane Mayer give some helpful hints about what makes a lasting co-authorship.

Writer's Digest, April 1948

By Clara Spiegel and Jane Mayer who collaborate as Clare Jaynes

WD Vintage_Spiegel&Mayer 12:17

Two writers close enough to the idea of collaboration to consider it for themselves, usually react explosively. This vehemence results either from reluctance to divide the joys of creation with a lesser human or from the temptation to throw a part of its burden on anyone at all. Actually, in writing jointly, they would be doing neither, for Webster defines collaborate as "to labor together."

Collaborative writing has one great advantage. Writing, at best, is a lonely business. A writer lives for days and months, sometimes for years, with the people of his own creation. He lives with them when he is writing and when he is not writing; he rejoices with them, suffers with them, closely shares their lives. But during this entire time, no one else knows of their problems, nor even of their existence. The writer is forced to go through their experiences entirely alone. But in collaborative writing, the inherent burden of loneliness is lessened because there is always at least one other person who participates in the lives of those people who are already living in their creators' minds.

Before collaboration should be attempted, the prospective partners may spare themselves a great deal by an examination of their own and each other's personalities. The will to write is not sufficient basis for a collaboration. Even the mutual will to write together is not enough. For the fact that every seriously written work must express to some extent the opinions, philosophy, and conclusions of its creator is not altered by the circumstance of that creator being plural. Two individuals may have a single aim, but each still has his own opinions. Each has, too, his own literary goals and tastes, as well as his own style of writing. If one is terse and the other verbose, or one a realist, the other a romanticist, their combined efforts would give neither of them much satisfaction.

From the practical point of view, similar daily schedules are as necessary to joint authorship as similar tastes. A postman and a night watchman might seem extreme examples of those whose free time would always fall at different hours; yet collaboration has been tried by people with almost as dissimilar schedules, who did not realize until the effort failed that they had had almost no common free time in which to write.

But despite these facts and the fears of those who have not tried it, a sound and rewarding literary association is altogether possible for two people whose viewpoints and routines are fundamentally compatible. And when they launch their venture, they begin immediately to express a team personality of their own. Gradually, they develop their collective writing method, with the result that there are apparently as many proven collaborative techniques as there have been collaborative combinations. This may seem paradoxical at first, but on consideration, one would hardly expect that Nordoff and Hall, Addison and Steele, the Brothers Goncourt, and Frances and Richard Lockridge, to name a few, could all use the identical approach; nor that De Caillavet and de Flers or Gilbert and Sullivan would necessarily thrive with the same working scheme as Beaumont and Fletcher or George Kaufman and almost any other given dramatist. Certainly, few would dare to follow the method which Vincent Starrett's entertaining "Books Alive" ascribes to Christopher Morley and Don Marquis who once approached a publisher to ask for an advance on a collaborative novel they were going to write. Details that seemed too incidental for them to mention were that the idea of collaborating had grown out of their desire to have him treat them to lunch and that the unwritten novel was also completely unplanned. However, when he took them at face value and asked the book's theme, one of them announced that it was a "kind of Treasure Island for girls." On the basis of this, they persuaded him to part with an advance of five hundred dollars. Because Marquis frequently re-read the original Treasure Island, he made a vague outline of the plot. Together they planned their two principal characters. But somehow. after that, time passed, and their deadline approached with nothing written. Then a serious family illness prevented Marquis from working, so Morley in desperation sat down and wrote the entire novel that was to be signed with both their names. When Marquis read the manuscript, the only alteration he made was to change the word "maid" to "servant." Morley, however, on the galleys, changed the word from "servant" back to "maid." Later, when Morley finally received his advance copies of Pandora Lifts the Lid, under their joint byline, he sent one to his collaborator-in-name-only simply inscribed, "For Don Marquis, with love from the author.”

Bob Wade and Bill Miller also agree the problem in collaborative writing, as in marriage, is finding the right partner. Under the byline of Wade Miller, these two have written Deadly Weapon, Guilty Bystander, Pop Goes the Queen, Fatal Step, and Uneasy Street for Farrar, Straus.

"Finding a partner becomes ever more complicated when you reconsider that the right partner for someone else may not be the right one for you," Wade Miller says. "Dannay and Lee, who masquerade as Ellery Queen, have worked long and successfully together—but we doubt if they would be equally successful scrambled, say, with the Lockridges.

"Nor is there any tested yardstick by which a prospective partner may be measured, save one: time. We struck up our acquaintance some 16 years ago, casually decided to write a one-act play in collaboration—and have been together ever since, through newspapers, radio, and now mystery novels. Our personalities meshed as smoothly as a well-oiled zipper. Our outlooks were similar enough in the beginning to become practically identical now, our tastes and ambitions were the same—and, quite important, our abilities were equal. Few writing partnerships will work out successfully if one member of the team stands head and shoulders above the other.

"But, ask our friends, how do you ever agree on all the many, many details that go to make up a book? After 16 years, we think so much alike that our wives complain our conversations consist entirely of unfinished sentences. Yet even twins don't see eye to eye all the time. When disagreements arise, we look at the question in every possible light, decide on the correct solution together, and carry it out together. As a result, we've never had a serious argument."

Whatever system any team arrives at is ultimately a matter of choice and workability between the partners themselves. Among the many known methods, some provide that one partner conceives the characters and the other the descriptive passages; one writes the dialogue, the other the action; or when the work is once planned, the members write alternating chapters. In the one which we use, the entire product is integrated from its inception, planned by both, worked out by both, and written by both.

The major purpose in any writing effort is toward the perfection of the finished product, and in collaborative writing, especially, the ego must be altogether submerged to this aim. For although it is dangerously easy to become enchanted with the music, wit, or profound thought in your own written words, it is not so easy to be similarly fascinated by the wit, music, et cetera of someone else. And, believe us, it is even less easy to discover by that someone's spoken opinion or written comment that one of your own superb passages strikes him as overwritten or unrealized or just plain tripe. In this event, there is nothing for you to do but control your outrage, for subjectivity and hurt feelings can well be the cause of complete disruption in what might otherwise have been a successful writing team. Your recourse then is to go back mentally to the beginning and remember that you chose to work with your partner because you held his opinions in equal respect to your own and that you still hold them so. You must believe that he chose to work with you for the same reason, and you must know that his comments, when adverse, are not occasioned by any envy of your skill, but by a genuine concern for the standards at which you are both aiming. Again just as you must believe in what you write, you must believe in what your partner writes; and just as you believe in the integrity with which you revise his contributions to your joint effort, you must believe in the integrity with which he corrects yours. You must both accept this mutual criticism as a form of editing and understand that by applying it early and conscientiously, you may be able to rid your work of flaws which at a later period would have become a permanent part of the story.

It may be argued that a writer working alone can discuss his unfinished book or story successfully with his family or friends. Yet many a writer has discovered to his loss that by so doing, some of what he intended to write had escaped him. Having said it briefly and amongst the externalities of a life unrelated to it, he can no longer write it with the tension and outflow it should have had. Having possibly not formed his ideas completely, he may let them be warped and changed by uninformed suggestions. Perhaps, too, the most well-intentioned criticisms may shake his confidence in his line of thought or character development, so that he considers what some outsider has advised, becomes unsure, and sometimes is not even able to complete the story.

The perennial question asked over and over of collaborative writers is "How do you two work together?" Somehow the inference is usually that the process must be something secret. We have answered this particular question innumerable times, seriously or facetiously, briefly or at length, but nine times out of ten, any explanation elicits only a bewildered, "I still don't see how you work together."

To us, the process seems very simple, for the technique of collaboration which we have found most satisfactory is one of complete coordination of effort. We do not know if an entirely similar scheme has been used by other writing teams or not, for our way of working evolved through a long period of search for a system suitable to our abilities and aims.

We began with the basic necessity of time in which to write. Our time, because of our families, was during those hours of the day when our husbands were at their offices, and our children were at school. As the children have grown older, the free hours have lengthened; but even when time was curtailed, we found it most satisfactory to work away from home.

When it comes to the actual writing method, our system starts, where any author's must, with an idea. But because there are two of us, we add frequent, regular, lengthy talk to meditation. This is so that, as our idea develops, our thoughts on the subject are always held within the same framework.

Perhaps, since all Clare Jaynes' stories and novels evolve in the same way, it would make for the most clarity to limit the discussion of procedure to our latest novel published by Random House. This Eager Heart began when, out of many potential themes, we settled on the one then most interesting to us. This was that a marriage will never survive its crisis unless both the husband and wife understand the impact of those external and internal forces that affect the other. From this thesis, the book began to grow through six months of concentrated talk about what Mac and Kay, the husband and wife, were like, what early forces in their lives and their parents' lives had made them so, why they belonged in a small town in Montana, what was their economic, moral, and social status, and, of course, what were their problems.

At the end of those six months of five working days a week, we began to put all this on paper in outline form. There were summaries of each character's appearance, background, schooling, personality, habits, gestures, speech mannerisms, routine daily activities, et cetera. There was a plot outline written separately to see if it would stand up as plot alone. There were maps of our imaginary town of Sumner and its surrounding ranch country, and floor plans of the stores, offices, and homes in which our characters would move. These rough sketches seem to us an essential when two writers are working together, for to avoid discrepancies, each must see all physical aspects of the setting exactly as the other does.

The next step was an outline that dove-tailed characters into action, and the next a check-up to determine if our people reacted consistently and in character to their situations and if all the situations were ones in which such characters could become involved.

With this completed, we were at the point which every writer, be he one alone or six together, dreads equally, the Period of the Great Blank Page. At this time, if at no other, it is an advantage to have a collaborator. You know that there in the same room with you is another human being with qualms and suffering equal to your own, with your identical problem and your identical hope. You feel if he can start to write, you can too, and so eventually you do.

Working from our final outline, one of us wrote the first episode of Chapter One, the other of us the second episode of the same chapter. We did this simultaneously, writing in longhand and with our lines very far apart to facilitate first revisions. The revisions began as soon as the episodes were finished, each of us correcting the other's work by means of brackets and interlinear insertions. Then we traded papers to approve or re-revise the revisions. We repeated the process until the manuscript became too illegible, and then typed it. From then on, all further versions of this part were in typescript. From then on too, we forgot irretrievably which of us had done which part of the original script It is this forgetting and the mutuality of goal which makes certain that any finished product is not the work of either or both of us, but is instead the work of Clare Jaynes.

When these first episodes were typed, we went on to write the rest of the chapter, revised it, wrote Chapter Two the same way, revised it by itself, revised it with Chapter One, wrote part of Chapter Three, and revised it separately and then with all that had preceded it. Thus, after about a year of writing, we had the first draft of the whole book which had already been revised some five or six times and was now ready to be revised again as a unit.

The final revision is the ultimate test of a collaboration. Until this last reading, either partner may retain the hope that a favorite bit of dialogue will appear in print, that a comma can be substituted for a particular period, or that a certain description may be omitted altogether. But finally, before the book goes to the publisher, both must agree on every detail. Our plan for definite decision is to proceed on the premise that if one of us feels there is something wrong with a passage, something is wrong with it. But it is up to the one who senses the error to explain her own objections. In doing this honestly, intelligently, and without emotion, she clarifies both her own thinking on the subject and that of the other partner as well. The result is that the source of the difficulty is reached, each understands the issue better, and the collaborators remain agreeable and friendly.

Houston Branch and Frank Waters, who have successfully collaborated on two novels (River Lady, published by Farrar and Rinehart and now being produced as a technicolor motion picture by Universal-International, and Diamond Head, to be published April 15th by Farrar Straus) describe their literary partnership: "One of us has written nearly one hundred original stories for the movies. The other has written six novels and two nonfiction books. Both of us are stubbornly set and highly individualistic in our manner of working. One develops an idea by means of story structure, plot; the other by character. One strives for pace; the other for fullness. One aims at effect by the accurate detail achieved by competent research; the other by the impressionistic mood. And to add to these differences, we live a thousand miles apart. Thus, to sit down and work together from scratch would be impossible; we would never finish the first page.

“Our current Diamond Head is a good example of the immense effort required. The story of the little-known Confederate raider, the Shenandoah, laid in the time of the Civil War, and against such diverse backgrounds as Richmond, the whaling port of New Bedford, cosmopolitan London, the tropical island of Hawaii, under the old monarchy, and the Arctic, it required over forty books for research, the investigation of old archives and visits to a dozen museums throughout the United States. To do all this research, as well as the writing, would have required of one man at least five years' work. And he probably would have been bogged down by the sheer abundance of his material. But getting together in the fall, and again next summer in a little log cabin high on Lobo Mountain in northern New Mexico, we were able to steer our course through 58,000 miles of sea, through every ocean in the world, and to circumnavigate the globe—interrupted only by the cry of coyotes behind the fringe of pines. "The book was finished in March after two years' work and brought to California. Here came the real test of collaboration—a complete agreement on the manuscript, page by page, with all necessary revisions, omissions, and additions. And again, months later, after receiving suggestions from the publisher for more changes.

"But the creative work had been done; we were no longer writers. We were, or tried to be, purely objective readers with the single desire to eliminate every incident, descriptive paragraph, and phrase that did not hold attention and contribute to the flow and effect of the whole. At such a time the publisher, if he is the right publisher, enters into the collaboration. "By the time we received galley proofs, we had produced a book that neither one of us could have produced separately. Indeed, it seemed not ours at all. Rather a complete narrative that stood confidently on its own feet."

It is important for any team that such an attitude exist when the work is finished. Because when it is finished, the financial rewards begin. Many people think that because two have written together, each will be paid in advances, royalties, and subsidiary rights what each would have earned by producing the same work alone. This is not true. The book or story earns according to what it is and not according to how many minds went into its making. Thus, for each of the team, the money is only half what it would be had he written the book alone, and the merged endeavor eventually becomes the split profit. Even the author's copies of the book, given to him by the publisher upon publication, are the same in quantity for two as they would be for one. Fortunately, publishers seem to think in even numbers, so there is no question while dividing the spoils of tearing a book in half. But even if there were, two people who have worked together for so long to produce that book should be able to overcome any problems which might arise from the business end of their partnership. For, after all, they are well aware of what they have already done. They know that they have been able to spend six hours a day for two or more years shut up in a room with one other person. Each has been able to put up with his partner's chair tilting, pencil chewing, teeth grinding, and general lack of self-awareness while in the throes of creating. Each has been able to read an illegible handwriting, argue reasonably and without temper, fiercely defend a point of view and relinquish it when proven wrong, cover fatigue with reserves of energy, and discouragement with good humor. They have done all this for love of the craft they have chosen and for love of the product they were creating. They have seen a thought become a book, and they know it is the best book they could have written at the moment. They are exhausted and happy and ready to start over again. And if they are at all like us, they would heartily recommend collaboration.

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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