Collaboration

22 Feb

Collaboration is a tricky thing for writers and for editors yet it happens all the time.

I had plenty of experience as a playwright; in theatre, the collaborative process, especially for new plays, is quite important.

Frequently, a new play will be work-shopped with the involvement of actors, directors, even designers, all of whom had opinions — often strong ones — about the structure and text. It could be daunting for the playwright and it sometimes felt like everyone was ganging up on you. A good dramaturge — who may have opinions of their own —will usually act as a referee and a defender of the play’s interests (if not the playwright — it’s all about the work). After the workshop, the playwright will often write a new draft. Changes may be dramatic and may incorporate not only ideas but actual lines improvised by the writer. In some theatre companies, there is no single author and the final product is a collective creation.

Still, most plays, like most other creative endeavours, are primarily the work of a single author.

In poetry or prose fiction, the equivalent is the critique group where writers will comment on their colleagues’ work. The writer may come away with new perspectives and ideas but seldom with actual blocks of text. The basic rule is that it is your work and you are free to accept or reject any changes. The final decisions are all yours.

Similar rules are supposed to apply when the writer begins to work with the editor. Editors generally respect the integrity of the work and make suggestions to help it achieve the writer’s intent. Still, when an editor makes a suggestion, the writer needs to take it seriously and recognize that sometimes the editor knows better what works in a story than the author does. Contractually, the editor is not supposed to change anything without the permission of the writer. On the flip side, the editor generally has a final say when the work is ready for publication — if ever — and, so, when the writer will be paid.

While it is not uncommon for other people to have input into your work, actual formal collaboration where two or more parties share the creative process and generally have reciprocal vetoes over the others’ work is much more rare. Still, it can be done and, when it works, will often result in a stronger story than any of them could have done alone.

I’ve collaborated on two pieces with my wife over the last couple of years — one of which was published. The other was designed as a performance piece and we’ve presented it a couple of times in the last six months.

But since this is the publishing blog and not the writing one, I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

For the last year I’ve been working with my business partner, Mike Rimar, (whom I’ll encourage to blog about this separately) on an anthology called Second Contacts. It is Mike’s first crack at editing but other than a few suggestions from me to get us started, we’ve played a completely equal role in the process.

I drafted the guidelines but Mike made a number of substantive changes in them before we finally posted them. Before we even started receiving stories, we agree on a process for reviewing them as well as a system for the initial evaluation.

One of the rules we agreed on was that we each got to choice two stories, even if the other editor didn’t like them. This ensured that each of our individual visions would be reflected in the anthology. For the other stories, we had to come to a consensus, recognizing that some choices would be obvious and others would require some discussion. We also agreed that we would take, at most, two reprints — which in the end was how many we took.

As stories came in, we divided them up equally. We had agreed on some guidelines to evaluate the stories that took into account the writing, the strength of the story, the science components and the adherence to the guidelines. Every story was read by one editor and if it scored more than 65% on the guidelines (stories scoring less were rejected without a second read) was usually passed on to the other editor. The one exception to that was when stories clearly weren’t “second contact” stories — that is, they didn’t fit the stated guidelines. Then it didn’t matter how well written they were — they weren’t suitable for the anthology.

Once stories were passé don to the second editor, he had the choice to keep it for further review or, if they really didn’t like it, to reject it at that point. Since all the stories needed two yeses to get in, there was little point in keeping it if one editor didn’t want it. While it is possible we could have exercise ‘editor’s choice’ at this point, it didn’t happen at that phase.

It was clear from the start we were going to keep more stories for the final round than we would be able to actually buy. That’s not a bad situation to be in.

Once we got to the second round, we decided that the simplest way to proceed was to rank the stories in our order of preference. We then averaged the scores to come up with a consensus rank. There were stories that I ranked high and Mike ranked lower (and vice versa) and we both indicated our willingness to invoke our selection privilege — but in the end all of those stories were rated high enough on average to make the final cut.

The real argument — such as there was one — came with the last few choices. We had about 3-5 slots left based on our word count limits and about 8 stories that were roughly the same in rank. Some Mike liked more than me and some I liked — but we were agreed that all of them were worthy.

Discussions now ranged around whether these stories were too similar to one we had already chosen. We also wanted to have some variation in style and length. Stories that had a distinctive voice or a somewhat experimental style had a real advantage. In the end, we went back a forth a few times before coming up with our final choices.

The things we didn’t discuss we didn’t discuss was country of origin or seeking diversity. Both Mike and I were committed to finding the best story. While I can’t speak for Mike, I didn’t even really look at who the author was until the choices had been made.

In the end, we picked 18 stories by 19 authors (our collaboration picked one collaborative story). There were 11 Canadian writers, 4 Americans and one each from Mexico, United Kingdom, Israel and The Netherlands. There were 11 men and 8 women.

We are now in the final stage of work — the actual editing of the stories. Again we agreed on a process that allows us each have some input into the process while preserving a certain degree of individuality in the end product. In effect, we divided up the stories and each provided the other with general comments that they should consider in making their final editorial suggestions.

We will need to have some further discussions on copyedits — though it is clear that with the majority of stories coming from Canada and England, Canadian spelling with prevail.

Then, it’s a matter of writing the opening and closing essays — and we’ve already decided who will do which — and determining who does the work of putting the whole package together.

It has been an interesting process and I think we’ve both learned a bit about working together and about how to improve our own editorial processes.

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