Cowriting is the island where friendships and relationships go to die.
So you find someone who loves all the things you love. Or you team-up with a long time friend, someone who you’ve been shredding apart comics and movies for years, fundamentally agreeing on everything. It’s a match made in heaven and your script is going to rock!
The reality is, no matter how much you gel with a cowriter, sooner or later one of you will want to creatively zig while the other wants to zag.
It. Is. Inevitable.
Most writer folks have a creative breaking point. That is a benchmark creative point of which they believe if the story moves beyond, it is no longer viable. In other words, a point at which they think the story becomes stupid and doesn’t work.
If either party reaches that point, irrecoverably, game over.
You might think delegating final creative control to one person will solve this problem. Maybe the guy who’s gonna put up more money or dedicated to overseeing all the actual production… This works good on paper, not so much in the real world.
In the real world, any time someone overrules what you think is correct, it builds animosity.
Even if you’re a super laid-back cat. Even if you love the word compromise. The animosity builds. The best you can hope for, is that your attitude keeps the animosity to razor thin layers. But even thin razor thin layers build up over time.
Death of a thousand cuts.
You and your cowriter are on the same page creatively, you’re both honed in on the tone, mood, voice, character development and theme of the story like Solo and Chewie doing the Kessel Run. But when you actually sit down to start writing, you say “Ok man, here’s what I’m thinking for the first six structural points of the outline…”
Your co-writer’s eyes widen, “Outline… screw that, let’s just write the script. I don’t want to waste time outlining.”
- You want to write loose, your co-writer wants to write like Alan Moore.
- You want to run Nick’s super practical, efficient script template, your buddy wants to run some bastardized screenplay hybrid.
The list goes on and on.
For many drastic writing style differences can be a deal breaker, but let’s say you suck it up and decide to deal with it. Well, what do you know, we’re back to this animosity thing. You give up the way you normally write, the way writing feels comfortable for you, to accommodate your partner.
How much do you give, how much do you take?
Maybe, the differences are small… maybe they’re huge. Maybe each day the project goes along, it becomes more and more uncomfortable to work on. Maybe the discomfort of writing in a style that doesn’t agree with you makes the project quickly lose its magic.
Most likely, in an attempt to compromise, you’ve each agreed to some stylistic changes, trying to conform a bit to each others approach. In other words, you’re both working from an uncomfortable place.
When was the last time you worked in an uncomfortable, frustrated manner and produced something you were proud of?
So after a very long night at the bar and a bottle of scotch later, you and your writing partner have squared away ALL the creative and style considerations. You even celebrate your commitment with symbolic matching tattoos (we won’t go into where you put them).
Blue skies, right baby? Ha, we haven’t even started.
Unless you’re rich and just looking to piss time away, you’re probably thinkin’ ya wana produce something with this script and make some moolah.
This project is super important to you, there is only one end goal, publication through Image. You can barely contain your excitement when you tell your cowriter, you’ve got Eric Stephenson’s ear and can’t wait to pitch.
“Image? You smokin’ crack?” your partner cries at the news. “Self publish! That’s the way to go. I don’t want to give up a percentage. Straight to the reader! Straight to the reader!”
You may be thinkin’, hell, I’ll just get the thing written and tackle the business decisions once we have a script.
That’s a great way! A great way to wind up in a totally miserable position. Experiencing a catastrophic failure late in the process doesn’t make it any less catastrophic… in fact, in many ways it’s worse.
Of course, the business end stuff, also crosses into some creative stuff… and that shit gets really fun!
You unlock this door with a key of imagination, beyond it lies a whole lotta personal stuff about your cowriter that you never knew. You’ve just crossed over into the… cowriter’s twilight zone.
You: “We need to show more boobs! Sex sells, baby!”
Your partner: “No, no. All ages. I want my sisters kid to be able to read this. Plus I don’t believe in sex. In a few decades, humanity will clone its offspring–a much more precise means of reproduction.”
You: “Our story is coming along great, but some of the dialogue is too offensive to women, minorities, the poor, lesbians, eskimos, Texans, bank executives, hippies, homeless people and people who identify as cats.”
Your partner: “Screw PC. This is real, raw! Our fans don’t want it spoon-fed!”
The list goes on and on.
Next up, is a real doozie. Having worked through everything else so far, you stop after a month to assess the project. Turns out, you’ve written 79 pages of script, a 20 page outline and 40 pages of bible material.
Whoa, good job there soldier.
Your cowriter on the other hand… ehhh, not so good. He’s delivered 5 pages of script, wrote the third act of the outline and edited only a handful of bible pages.
Yeah I’d be WTF… but maybe it’s not your cowriters fault.
Did you discuss the productivity and deadlines at the beginning? You may be single, living out of your dad’s basement, rent free, while your co-writer is living with his in-laws, 7 kids and holding down 3 jobs.
Of course, there’s always the scenario where your wonderful writing partner, is really just a spaced-out, brain dead, dreamer with no motivation to actually get the work done. Or maybe his situation changed during the project.
Of course, your written joint work agreement (actually I don’t think I have one of those posted there, but I’ll link anyway), may reflect a different workload breakdown, reflecting an ownership of the IP, other than 50:50. But even if it’s 10:90, who’s to say your partner is going to come through on his 10 in step with your 90.
Also, don’t forget your co-writer is part of this relationship to… “Dude, WTF, where is the 300 pages you should have done by now? You only delivered 275!” Oh yeah, there’s that guy too.
This is an obvious one, often overlooked. You’ve been writing for 50 years, your new cowriter, while showing tremendous potential, hasn’t written anything. Womp. Womp. Womp.
Is it really fair to expect much from him?
Isn’t it common sense, that you’re going to have a lot more work on YOUR shoulders, to guide, teach and explain along the way. Did you even take that into consideration in the writing agreement?
Does your cowriter acknowledge what you bring to the table? He may love you as a friend, but love and professional respect don’t always go hand-in-hand. People can be more ignorant than you realize.
Does your cowriter expect you to deliver a college course in writing and mold him into a professional? Will there be animosity if you don’t?
Experience is significant and a significance that usually touches on every aspect of producing a successful project.
How comfortable is the partner with a ton more experience going to be, sweeping his recommendation aside for the guy who’s never done it before? That ain’t easy. And often has dangerous consequences.
It is a rare thing that two writers come to the writing table with the exact same amount of experience.
Especially when you realize quantifying experience isn’t just overall “hours in” or “words written”. Multiple factors come into play. Who’s more experienced for a sci-fi horror mini-series?
- The guy who’s written 30 romance novels.
- The gal who’s written 1 super hero mini-series, but with critical acclaim.
- The gal who’s written 5 sci-fi mini-series, none of which gathered traction.
- The guy who’s written dozens of comics, but never sci-fi.
- The guy who write sci-fi screenplays, but doesn’t know anything about comics.
The Truth of it All
If you’re a newer writer looking to cowrite because you think it will be easier…
and keep on ROLLIN’.
Folks who haven’t done it have a very misinformed understanding of what cowriting is, and isn’t.
Don’t listen to anyone telling you otherwise, co-writing is a difficult undertaking.
Many if not most, first-time co-writing projects crash and burn. And when they burn, they burn BIG TIME.
Most of the time when a co-writing project burns, the IP is destroyed with the relationship. Caught in a place of limbo, where neither party is able to use the IP, without a big battle: legal, personal and often with pistols at 30 paces at the end. (Watch out for old-time writers, they are very good shots.)
That’s right. A bad cowriting experience isn’t just likely a stupendous waste of time, it often literally, removes the IP from your life.
Bringing a story into a cowriting situation is like sending your kid alone, out into a stormy sea, on a viking longboat. You may never see them again. Think long and hard on that one.
It’s not All Gloom and Doom
Obviously, lots of fiction is written by more than one person. Clearly it can be done. Successful cowriting comes from a proper attitude and planning, based on a few really simple concepts.
1) It’s not yours.
The minute you go into a cowriter relationship, make peace with the fact, that the baby you’re working on IS NO LONGER YOURS. It is a shared creation. Independent like a kid, but unlike a kid (who ultimately has their own say), the other party has as much to say about how the story develops and executes as you do.
You have to be ok, with the story becoming something other than YOU intend. That it’s going out into the world LESS PREPARED and LESS PUT TOGETHER than you would like.
You have to be in the mindset that it’s ok to produce something you’re not totally happy or agree with.
As a writer, you will likely find this very hard.
But this truth alone will likely make or break your cowriting projects.
It’s hard enough to pull the junk out of your brain and write something yourself. WHAT!? You think it gets easier to do with TWO DIFFERENT brains? Get outta here.
- If you are NOT a good communicator, do not consider cowriting.
- If you don’t have patience to go along with your communication, do not consider cowriting.
- If you are not willing to accept responsibilities for your mistakes, and correct them, to admit when you’re wrong and someone else is right, do not consider cowriting.
- If you are easily offended by someone communication or lack there of, do not consider cowriting.
Communicate as much as humanly possible with your cowriter, especially at the beginning. Try to do things in person or voice, because email is often misconstrued.
The bit about animosity building is real. No matter what you do, having your ideas repeatedly shot down or trumped hurts. But if you take the time to communicate at the beginning, define all the variables as much as possible, get everything in writing, so both parties are as clear as possible, you will minimize any animosity… and likely reach the end of the project, before anyone has a meltdown.
Focus as much on communication as you do on the writing and you are half-way to the finish line.
Pro Tip: When things start to go bad during a co-write relationship, pause and talk. Be cool, but let your partner what’s going on. Don’t bury it in your gut and wait till you reach an explosive critical mass and explode. In a garden, you have to constantly pull weeds. If you don’t, if you walk away for a few weeks, the weeds will take over and likely choked out the vegetables–garden dead (or requiring simply too much effort to make it viable).
You may reach your own unique and specific process as part of your cowriting agreement, but as a general rule, focus on supporting each other. Work to flesh out the story, by asking questions and encouraging your partner to refine and polish what he’s already written… or even, explore a new idea or direction.
Avoid rewriting each other.
When you rewrite someone’s material, you’re in essence saying, “what you just wrote is no good, I’ll write it better.”
If you have to rewrite your partner, give them a heads up… you may even want to ask their permission. This is a true show of collaborative respect. If you value someone in your project, you don’t talk over them, you talk with them.
Pro tip: When it comes to everything outside of dialogue, NEVER rewrite someone for diction and sentence structure alone. Only rewrite if you’re changing the essence or direction of the story.
The diction and sentence structure of a panel description or outline text, has little bearing on what the reader sees, so rewriting that is really just changing your partner’s voice to your own preference. If it’s really bugging you, or you think the instructions of the script will improve dramatically with the change, point it out one time as a suggestion for your cowriter to consider moving forward… and then leave it alone.
The most successful cowriting projects are ones where both writers build off each other.
I’ve always equated story development as being a paleontologist or archeologist, digging up dinosaur bones or searching for lost treasure. If you’re doing it with a pal, and start to uncover a fossil or treasure, you don’t push him out of the way and dig alone…
You pass them a bigger brush, get the water sprayer, adjust the lighting for them… ready to take over as soon as they need a break or help.
Ultimately, cowriting is a slipper slope, because when a project goes too far out of your comfort zone, you can wind up producing a project that you’ve mentally, physically and spiritually disowned. A testament to value of finding not just a really really good writer but a really good cowriter. It can be done, but as the knight said to Indy, “Choose wisely” ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.