Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Collaborations can improve a writer’s work a lot. They can be fun. They can take some of the loneliness out of writing. They can also be murder.

I wrote a number of short stories in collaboration with my husband. Most of them were a light, amusing series about a pair of Norwegian-American police detectives working in a fictional Minnesota town we called Hedeby. Our collaboration was so close that to this day I’d be hard put to tell you which of us came up with the idea for any particular story or scene in a story, or who wrote what. On the other hand, the worst quarrel of our marriage was over one of those stories. Our writing techniques are very different, so our approach to our stories was different -- and each of us thought the other was wrong or at least incomprehensible.

Gail and I wrote six novels of the Dame Frevisse medieval mystery series in collaboration. After I’d decided I’d had enough, she continued the series alone, very successfully, a rarity in collaborations.

I don’t think you have to be married or be close friends to write a collaboration, but you should each understand and respect what the other brings to the writing.

I don’t think there are any rules for writing in collaboration. Some write alternate chapters, some have one writing while the other edits and re-writes, some have one coming up with the plot while the other writes it, some take turns at the keyboard while the other stands behind shouting encouragement. Whatever works.

Gail and I found that for us what worked best was not to have all three of us -- Gail, me, and the manuscript -- in the room at the same time until the deadline was upon us and there was no time for lengthy discussions over a particular turn of phrase or plot point. We also found it worked best if we sat down together at the start and did a detailed outline of the story. Once we agreed on it, there was to be no deviation from it by one without first consulting with the other. What remains amazing to me to this day is how we managed to stick to that outline. I have found that now I am writing stories alone again that my synopsis, approved by my editor, is often swiftly deviated from when I get into the actual writing of the novel.

What was wonderful about the collaborations was the appearance of a “third voice;” that is, the story was told not in my or my husband’s voice, and not in Gail’s style or my own, but in a new and often better voice. Finding that new and better voice is what makes collaborations worthwhile.


Linda O. Johnston said...

Collaborations seem like a great idea, Monica. I certainly appreciate receiving input from critiquers I trust, and having someone right beside you to help and revise sounds wonderful. On the other hand, I suspect my usual situation with a co-writer would be most like you had with your husband!

Monica Ferris said...

Writing can be a very intimate affair, and having someone right there saying, "No, no, no, not like that, like this!" can make for strong, um, reactions. LOL

signlady217 said...

My husband and I have a very difficult time trying to work together on projects. (You should be a fly on the wall when we hang wallpaper! Not!) We have several couple friends that work together every day, and I don't know how they do it. We'd probably kill each other! Even in the kitchen trying to cook; if one of us is in there the other usually has to leave. And it's not that one way is right or better, it's just different. But it's in the trying to explain that difference where we start to fuss. We've managed 24 years, though, so I guess we must be doing something right! :)

Monica Ferris said...

"And it's not that one way is right or better, it's just different." That's exactly right, Signlady! Perhaps that's why the quarrels can get so heated; one feels the other is calling him "wrong," when he knows he isn't.

Betty Hechtman said...

I can't imagine collaborating with my husband on a story. Great that you didn't murder each other.