Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
There are two aspects to collaborating, once you’ve found your team: the financial and the textual aspects of making it work. I’ve discussed the financial aspect to some degree in the blog on Royalties and Advances (September 2005), and I’ll talk about the textual aspect here.When it comes to text, schedule will seem key to your publisher. Once you’ve decided who is writing what and when, you and your team need to come up with a plan that ensures the schedule. In his articles on writing, Mike Gunderloy (http://www.larkware.com/Articles/AdviceforWritersPart7.html) describes “Loose” and “Tight” processes, where each person is solely responsible for his or her own chapters, or where the partners are used as preliminary editors. Both systems work fairly well, but I’ll tell you why I like the idea of using each other as initial editors.One of the dangers of multiple-author books is that each writer brings his or her own personality and skills to the task. Even if you portion the book out so that authors write discrete parts (say, a group of related chapters, all in a row), the tone is jarring to readers who start at one end and work their way to the other each time they get to a new author’s part. Writing in someone else’s voice is quite difficult. After a couple of decades of practice, I’m finally starting to feel like I can do it about half the time. So if your plan is to imitate one another or pick one author’s voice and try to imitate it, stop right there. Writing outside of your own voice on top of trying to be clear, comprehensive, and on schedule is really asking for some sort of miracle.The best thing to do is to analyze each other’s writing style to see what you can incorporate easily into your own. It might be something subtle, like word choices or sentence- and paragraph-length, or it might be something significant like metaphors, examples, and visual aids. (Never, never, never enter into a book contract with someone whose unedited writing you’ve never seen.) Then, when you’re writing, you can keep those things in mind and your writing will naturally bend itself a little toward the other author(s)’s style. Then, read each other’s work as you make progress on your book or article. You’ll be well-versed with the content they include that way (and you can make notes about what subjects you might be covering in greater depth), and you can tweak things to sound a little more neutral. You’ll want autonomy and so will the rest of your team, though, so don’t inflict your voice on their text, just nudge it toward neutral.One of the benefits of working this way is that the text will have been read by all members of the team several times before it goes off to the editor. You’ll deliver cleaner text, and the finished product will read with greater continuity than it could if each person behaved as if their own portion was unrelated to the rest. The end result will please your readers, and your book will sell better.If each member of the team has a distinctly different expertise, you can use that either to make sure you have coverage (which is boringly obvious), or you can take advantage of it and produce a wildly interesting book.Once upon a time, I worked on a best-selling book that had three authors. They were incredibly different in style and coverage. One wrote amazing work-horse code and his text only needed to dance attendance along side. One wrote scholarly contextual discussions of how all this neat stuff worked together and what you might build with it. The third wrote bouncy “ooh goody lookie this” explanations and code that made you want to read it no matter what his subject was. They could probably all have written the scholarly style stuff, but I’m sure sales would have suffered. A thousand-page book of discussion and exploration is just a bit over the top no matter what the subject or how fascinated by the subject the readers are. The bouncy stuff is VERY hard to imitate if you’re not a bouncy person (the others were Not At All Bouncy). The masterful code and minimalist text was really its own work of art and not something one person in a thousand could imitate.Each author took a section AND read each other’s work in order to make the book seem as if it were all leading to one final resting place, even though only the originating author actually got the last word on a given chapter. This group lasted through five editions and an author replacement (we replaced the minimalist with a semi-bouncy minimalist), so I guess they weren’t too unhappy with the arrangement. In the five years that I participated in its progress, it sold over 150,000 copies in its various incarnations. That’s nothing to sneeze at, boys and girls. Working this way means you have to plan review and response time into the schedule. Remember: Your publisher wants the text to be polished and on time and doesn’t really care about the torture it took to get you there. And you and your readers want the book to be a good read so it will sell, so it’s worth it to take the time to make it the best you can.Here’s a little list to help you analyze your potential collaborator’s voice:Describe the basic attitude of the work in a single adjective (serious, funny, meticulous, dry, pedantic, preachy, gossipy, jargon-laden, witty, fast-paced, edifying, pompous, minimal, bouncy, etc.). Read all the way through (or a complete chapter) before naming it.Did the attitude of the work stay consistent from the beginning to the end of the piece? If it changed, can you identify where?How soon can you identify the piece’s intended audience in one word? In the first sentence? The first paragraph? After the introductory paragraphs? By the end? Never?Find a longish sentence well into the piece. Count the number of words. What percentage are verbs, nouns, or adjectives? Of the verbs, how many are forms of the verb “to be” and its helpers (am, is, are, will, would, be, was, were)? How many verbs are mangled nouns (IMing, inputted, incentivise, etc.)?Of the adjectives in the long sentence you found above and its surrounding paragraph, how many are necessary to the facts being conveyed and how many contribute nothing but fluff?Is the author fond of jargon or do you find yourself missing it?What is the organizing principle to the piece? How long did it take you to figure it out? Can you tell from reading the headings and subheadings alone?Do you like reading this work, or is it just necessary to get the information out?Do you wish you wrote like this?To properly analyze someone’s work, you have to relate to the words on the page more than their content. It’s not really hard to do—just read a few paragraphs-worth of their information and put it away. Now write your own version. Do you find yourself using some of the same turns of phrase? Is yours more focused or less? Do you like your work better, or do you find that they really said it right?You don’t need to do anything with this information. Having thought it through, the work you read will affect your work, much the same as a bay leaf flavors the soup. You don’t have to eat it to know it has been for a visit.