On the Fourth of July, I wrote a blog post celebrating the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Most of what I was writing about was how collaboration is good for the writing process. Today’s post is about how collaboration is bad for the writing process.
Collaboration is a huge buzzword in the field of business management. The Harvard Business Review says that the time business leaders have devoted to collaborative activities has increased by 50% over the last two decades. And over that time, the collaborative process has taken its toll on overall productivity. As the focus shifted, only a few key players were involved and every project would have to wait for them to weigh in, creating a bottleneck. As well, these players soon became overtaxed as they were unable to do their specific duties because of time spent on other projects.
Now, what does that mean for a writer? How would a writer find themselves in a situation where they’re focusing too much on outside input?
How do writers collaborate?
First, writing is a mostly solitary task. While that “second set of eyes” is critical to the revision process, it’s not always needed in the initial stages. While many TV shows involve teams of writers even in the breaking of a story, that’s not necessary for the novelist or screenwriter. TV shows have to use large teams because they had to produce 24 hours of content every season, you do not.
As well, many episodic shows don’t rely on teams for breaking stories because they don’t need to, each episode stands alone. Even with exams, at some point, one writer has to sit down and write the whole thing out, without relying on anyone else. They would then bring their finished script for other people to go over. That’s the best way to look at collaboration.
When coming up with a new idea, keep it to yourself as much as possible. Let our conscious and subconscious mind think about it for a while and then start trying to break it. Get as far as you can before you go online or ask for help, at least on your first attempt. If you’re struggling it’s okay to ask for help, but not too quickly. The answer will usually appear if you’re patient. Asking for too much input is one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make. When you’re first creating your story, if you spend all of your time and energy looking for outside help, it hurts you in two ways.
When to not collaborate
First, it’s your story. It’s your idea and you need the be true to that. Asking for help in the nascent stages will distract you from the one thought you had in your head to begin with. And the best stories are all focused around a single idea. It’s really hard to keep true to that idea if you’re asking for input from every Tom, Dick, and Harry in your writer’s group. I’ve said before that writers groups are amazing things and will make you better, but they’re not needed for every step in the process.
Second, breaking stories is really hard and you’ll never get better at it if you don’t exercise that part of your mind. Sometimes you’ll be writing an outline and you’ll know the first second and fourth moments but have no idea about the third. You’ll know where you’re starting, where you’re ending and the first big moment, but you’re not quite sure how the MC is going to figure everything out. You’ll really struggle with this and may even begin writing before you’ve figured it out.
While you’re writing you’ll usually figure out. And if you don’t, if you’ve tried everything and can’t figure it out… still no. Go ahead and write everything, even the ending. Write every damn scene and leave that one part out. Then try three or four different ways. Then you’re allowed to take your story to an outside source for help. But not before.
The other problem with collaboration too early is creative paralysis. This is not the same thing as writer’s block because you think you’re just planning. Young fantasy writers are notoriously guilty of this crime. They spent their time building worlds and creating races, and inventing languages, but never get around to the story. Then, they bring it to their friends and they all talk about it and everyone gives their input and then they’re creating more crap to solve problems others see or others offer solutions to problems that may not even be real. And then you’ve spent two years creating a masterful universe and are nowhere close to writing the damn story.
Honestly, creative paralysis can be just as much of a problem for solo writers, so I won’t put too much on the collaborative process, but it is a problem that can be compounded by early collaboration.
The last problem with collaboration is the most difficult one to deal with: what do you when a beta reader tells you to change something you are convinced doesn’t need to change.
When do I get to be right?
First, if multiple beta readers tell you to change something, they’re right and you’re wrong. I’ve said it before: if you’re at an office party and three people tell you to sit down, you’re drunk. Give your project to people that you trust and then trust their judgment. It’s also a good way to weed out beat readers. If one reader is constantly giving you bad advice, ignore them altogether. And if someone nails it every time, they’re your go-to reader.
Second, if it’s something that you feel strongly about and your beta readers are on the fence, go with your gut. It won’t always be right, but it’s still your work and you need to be loyal to yourself above all.
And don’t be afraid to bring your beta readers into your process. Before they read something, tell them what you’re having problems with. Also, tell them what you feel is strong. Be open with them about what you think the central idea is so that they can help you and not push you in the wrong direction.
The collaborative process is just one tool in the writer’s toolbox. Don’t ignore it, but don’t rely on it too much either. Find a way to use it to your advantage.