My partner, Sayantani, and I figured out this collaboration thing as we went along. We had no idea how to collaborate on a work of fiction; but, we did know we had a story to tell. And we trusted each other. We also both have a firm faith in The Story as a valuable, effective, healing, teaching necessity. So between our belief in our story and each other, and our excitement to jump into a project together…we just started writing.
Our process, after two years of working together, now looks something like this:
1. Brainstorm. This is where we would talk on the phone, Skype, or (when we were lucky enough to be in the same room) sprawl across the couch and fling popcorn kernels at each other. (OK – I admit it. I think the popcorn flinging was really when her son and I were watching a movie together on that couch…but you get the picture.)
2. Agree on “homework.” We each took responsibility for a hunk of the plot. After we’d been at this for a while, we usually broke up the assignments by chapter. She’d work on 7 while I worked on 8, for example.
3. Write. Accomplish the goal. Create the action. Do the art. (Need more explanation? Nah…)
4. Swap. I’d send Sayantani my chapter. She, in turn, would send hers to me. We’d read through.
5. Edit. We would read the other’s work looking for things like plot points, character consistency details, dialog…anything that we felt in our gut that should be different. We would “track changes” in Microsoft Word as we worked, so we could always go back and see the original text as well as the edits.
6. Rinse. Repeat. Or Swap and Edit again. Now we would have our original chapters back, with edits from the other writer. We’d edit some more, this time approving or clarifying and making more of our own changes. (This could go on for a long time, let me tell you! I’m not exaggerating when I say there are some chapters that we probably swapped more than a dozen times over the course of the project.)
7. Put it to bed. This became our phrase for when we were both ready to accept all changes in a chapter and call it done….for that moment in time. Usually, this would entail tacking it on to the end of a longer manuscript file in preparation for a longer read-through and … yes… another edit cycle.
As we moved through the process, we would catch each other's bad habits and strengthen each other's work. Always. I can’t remember a single instance where the chapter we were working on was weaker or less enticing after a few rounds of edits.
Here’s another thing: I also can’t tell you now who wrote what. Our styles blended so well over the weeks and months, neither one of us can identify chapters or paragraphs that were written by our own hands. Probably because we collaborated so thoroughly—and our process grew organically-- there isn’t any part of the novel now that we haven’t both touched. Can’t get more collaborative than that.