Whenever I imagine my future novels sitting on a bookshelf, I see my full name on the spine.
Mine and mine alone.
Ever since I decided to stop being a mere dabbler and strategically strive to write publishable stories—so many years ago—one thing has remained true: I’ve been on my own.
Don’t get me wrong. I do have a support system, which includes friends and family members who have been fans since before anyone had any right to be, fellow writers who help me to steer clear of plot pitfalls and characterization crises, and casual acquaintances who express (feign?) interest when I wax enthusiastic about my literary life.
I also have an agent to help and advise me on the business side of things. Someday, I hope to count an editor and other publishing professionals within my circle of assistance.
But as far as weaving a strong narrative from the first word to the final phrase, that burden falls entirely to me.
Most of the time, I prefer it that way. I work at my own pace, focus on whichever priority ranks highest at the moment, and deal with each and every consequence as I choose. When I fail, I have no one else to blame; when I succeed, there are no other egos with which to share the boost. For good or for ill, it’s my story.
I answer to no one. In these subsets of reality, I get to play god.
All that changed unexpectedly when was still in college and met a fellow English major at a pizza joint near campus. We both had a penchant for sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Each of us had our own novels in the works. Yet we thought it would be fun to try to build a new world together. We came to that lunch meeting with a few notes from a prior conversation and decided to map out a few storylines, the magic system, some mythology, and our central characters.
The plan was for each of us to develop his own plot that would eventually intertwine with the other’s before the book was through. Bouncing ideas off of another writer and commiserating about obstacles that have tripped up in the past was a breath of fresh air to someone who had spent so much of his writing time sitting squarely in front of a computer screen.
There I was—away from keyboard, out in the real world, creating something with the help of a second brain.
Sadly, the project fizzled almost immediately thereafter. I went back to my apartment to crank out the beginnings of a complicated, half-immortal anti-hero. I even wrote a chapter that introduced a group of odd (obligatory?) traveling companions. But I haven’t touched that project since then because, in the end, it was only half mine. I had no interest in writing the other guy’s side of the story, which left me with a partial, underdeveloped plot. The magical realm of Elkinra was ruined ’ere it ever truly lived.
Fortunately, I still had a solo work-in-progress on which to focus. So I returned to a book that was one hundred percent mine. The experience left me feeling a little annoyed and completely convinced that writing collaborations were for suckers. I didn’t need anyone tripping me up or distracting me from a world that would exist as long as I wanted it to.
Onward. Full speed ahead. Alone.
At least until my wife offhandedly broached the notion of our writing a children’s book together.
Back when we had two small children, it was easy to put her off. Later, I half-heartedly committed to it—but on the condition that we wait until after I got to a good place in my current (real?) writing project. Years passed, and I finally ran out of excuses. Harboring more than a little skepticism, I was ready to get it over with—prepared for a repeat trip down the sad, short cul-de-sac that is collaborative writing.
I won’t lie: There were some growing pains. When you’re used to playing god, it’s not easy to invite another person into the pantheon. Our approaches were very different, in no small part because I had a pre-established approach. Whereas she had dabbled in writing on and off throughout the years, I was the novelist in the family.
Of course, neither of us knew much about writing a children’s novel.
The first lesson I had to learn was to let go. Even though I prefer to create an outline before jumping into the first draft, we had only a couple of chats in the way of preparation before starting Chapter 1. Likewise, I resisted the urge to create character profiles. In short, this chronic planner took a turn for the spontaneous.
What started out as a one-sided war for control—from major plot points to minor word choices—eventually became a smattering of sporadic battles for bigger-picture issues. I didn’t really have a choice except to tone it down. Without compromise, we never would have gotten anywhere.
Co-writing the first draft of The Pajamazon Amazon vs. The Goofers Twofers forced me to reevaluate what I knew about writing—and what I thought I knew about collaborating. The chapter book started out as a side project, at best a diversion from my more “serious writing.”
If nothing ever comes of it, so be it, I had thought. At least we can say we tried…
Now as we embark on the editing phase of the project—and as the collaboration takes on new facets with our seven-year-old daughter assigned as illustrator and our five-year-old son serving as a “beta reader”—I realize that not only has sharing the reigns with another writer made this manuscript better, but also it has made writing itself a lot more fun.
I expect I’ll always work alone on most of my novels, but there is something undeniably liberating about having the chance to share success and blame alike with someone else. This collaboration also means I have more time to share one of my favorite pastimes with someone I care deeply about, transcending beyond our former reader/writer relationship.
What started as a dubious experiment—from my pessimistic perspective, anyway—has become a worthwhile writing exercise that might prove to be a publishable work in its own right. Now when I think of my future books on the shelf, I wouldn’t be the least bit disappointed if I saw another name—my wife’s name—next to mine.
And even if The Pajamazon Amazon doesn’t become the Harry Potter of chapter books, I’m confident this writing collaboration will have a happy ending.