Writing with Others: Easier Said than Done

I often see in online groups and even offline a few people asking for partners to co-write a story with. Most of these callings I find laughable. Why would anyone write somebody else’s story? Isn’t the whole point being able to write your own story? Giving life to your own characters and ventilating your own fantasies? Still, I can tell you with all honesty that writing with others can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience.  So I would like to speak a little bit about that.

TurimI was actually writing with somebody else much sooner than I was writing at all. If you read some of my posts, like this one, you will know that my first bouts of inspiration happened when I was very young and was playing with my brother. We would build our own stories and our own characters and play out the battles and the pursuits we were imagining. After that, I started writing my own stories and I would not share this process until many years later. On a few occasions, I happened to engage with other writers in a sort of cadavre exquis exercise: one of those where someone starts to write a story and then somebody else continues it and passes to a third person and so on – so in the end, you have a story written by many parties. I even did that in Torino, Italy, when I was representing my country in the Bi-Annual Fair of Young Creators of Europe and the Mediterranean in ‘97 – us writers ended up reading the whole strange text on stage for an audience with music and everything; it was very interesting. These exercises, though, even if interesting, never ended up creating a good story or even a good narrative. And there was always someone who made the whole text even weirder one way or the other – making a strange poem instead of narrating, or a deus ex machina of some sort. And it was obvious it would be so, as people write a lot with their feelings, their own style, their ideas, and never quite ‘fit’ into another person just like that.

For years I never thought I’d have the time to write with other people. I wanted to write my own stuff – imagine my own stories, fly with my characters, write as I pleased. How would I have the time to develop stories with other people when I had so many of my own to work with? That changed, however, when I started writing screenplays.

1_czQLmfQh0RlXbI5BI8KAjAScriptwriting is probably the most technical kind of fiction writing there is. Everything you do in a script is full of consequences for a lot of people. For instance, if you write a scene where two people are having a conversation in a car as they cross the Golden Gate bridge you must really have a very good reason for that, or it will never be made – no-one will close or simulate the Golden Gate bridge for a movie scene where two people just talk to each other, it’s just crazy expensive. And everything in a script must be in its right place – if you’re writing a sit-com, be sure to have a joke every other minute. Everything you do, every scene, every detail, has loads of consequences for the producers, for the director and the photography and the wardrobe and the actors, etc. So… it’s technical. Curiously enough, that makes it easier to co-write: because your writing style and your ‘feelings’ about this or that matter less.

Also, you can do an outline or not when you are writing a book, but when you’re screenwriting, fuggedaboudit!, you need to outline, period. So I was in my late 20’s when I had my first real experience with co-writing. And it was a lot of fun! A friend of mine and I decided to write a romantic comedy and we worked several hours every Monday night on it. When you’re outlining with a friend, especially comedy, it’s a blast. You can have hours and hours brainstorming about funny things and building the characters and the story from scratch. And then you can start writing it scene by scene and it’s even funnier and more joyful. And then you can invite a group of friends over and make a reading of the script and laugh and drink and then commiserate together for having written a lousy script. Oh, the good ol’ times.

I ended up doing a lot more of that later on, especially after my 40th birthday as I was invited to co-write a script that was produced and then invited to do more stuff in co-writing. I had a lot of good experiences screenwriting with somebody else or even in a group. I think that in some cases it’s really the best thing to do – and it presses you to write more and faster and with more quality. It’s a really good experience. But it can also be frustrating. And I am very skeptical about partnerships in writing books, even though there seems to be a lot of them that actually work. This said, I think some things should happen for a writing partnership to succeed.

maxresdefaultFirst of all, I don’t believe you can simply invite a random person, a random writer, to write with you. I don’t believe you can simply go online and ask somebody to write with you. The chances of that being rewarding seem to me very thin. A co-writer must be someone you connect with, someone you trust and, hopefully, someone you really know. Both minds and hearts must be able to integrate the others. Because, don’t forget, when you write fiction you are giving life to your fantasies. It’s only natural that the other person’s fantasies are different – but they must be compatible. You must both be able to get a kick from the same story. Hopefully, you should like the same kinds of stories and the same genres. Maybe even have the same references. You should also be keen to outline. Outlining is the easiest, most engaging and most crucial part of a writing partnership, in my experience.  Only when you have completely agreed on what the story will be, in my view, will you be ready to write. And you must have the same work ethic – it’s important that neither one feels cheated, working harder than the other – or there will be complications.

Second, it’s not easy when someone comes up with the story and one of you comes in to help write it. I was once hired by a film producer to help a director develop a script he was writing and I almost went mad when the guy started every single session by announcing he had changed the names of the main characters. Aaarrgggh!! My best experiences co-writing were the ones where both of us built the story together and owned the story together.

Thirdly, be able to compromise upwards. What do I mean by that? A rule of thumb I had with a director I worked for years was: we only committed to a plot point or an important item in the story when both of us fully agreed with it. If one of us was not sure, we kept working to find a better solution. Compromise upwards – compromise to get the best possible solution. Don’t compromise downwards, accepting something you don’t really like – it will most likely bite you in the behind going forwards or, at least, will diminish the pleasure and the stamina in the process and the work.

Fourth, the three pillars of person-to-person communication are essential. These are: 1)Active Listening – always try to listen carefully, willingly and actively to your partner – really understand what he/she is saying, not just the words but the meaning. 2)Empathy – always put yourself in his/her shoes and go to the core of what he/she is communicating; put yourself in the character’s shoes as well and promote that positioning with your partner, role-play if necessary. 3) Assertiveness – be able to convey as clearly as you can what you really think – don’t be passive or submissive, don’t be aggressive, don’t manipulate – tell it as it is in a way the other person is able to hear and integrate. If you don’t do this it is likely the communication will break sooner or later and all the work will be worthless.

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So there… These are my two cents on this subject. I guess many times people will be in a position where it is not possible to have all the best conditions met: if you are part of a writer’s room for a TV-series or if you were hired by someone to co-write or ghost-write a book you may not have the say I profess. Still, I hope this text and these ideas are useful and can help you develop good partnerships. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

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