Advice for Writing Collaborations

Because the Rook and Rose trilogy is a collaboration, naturally we’ve been asked many interview questions about our process. But while there’s plenty of advice out there about how writers approach the actual writing, in terms of “what software do you use?” and “how do you divvy up the story?,” there’s much less about the logistics of collaboration outside the text itself.

And yet, that may be the most important part. While it occasionally happens that you’ll be hired to work with one or more people you don’t know, most collaborations of this sort start with “two friends decide to write a thing together.” And most of the time, you would like to still be friends after the collaboration. So the care and feeding of your relationship is incredibly important, lest the project wind up wrecking that.

Long before we signed a contract for the Rook and Rose books, we signed a formal collaboration agreement (provided by Alyc’s agency — most agencies have boilerplate versions of such things). But before we got that far, we wrote the first novel on spec, to make sure we could actually do it. And before we did that, we drew up and signed our own, less formal agreement, laying out what we were doing and how we were going to do it. Which to some people sounds really awkward and off-putting; they think it’s somehow antithetical to being friends.

Au contraire. Think of this as the safety harness for your friendship — a way to make sure you agree on the task at hand, and nobody winds up with hurt feelings afterward. Because that can happen all too easily.

What follows is an annotated version of our first agreement, with key details removed. Yours doesn’t have to look like this; your collaboration may be structured differently from ours. (The formal agency agreement includes some things not mentioned here, and omits some things we did mention.) But it will give you an idea of what things you need to consider. Its language is . . . somewhat legal, in that we had Officially Not Official Legal Advice in drafting it, but it isn’t as watertight as the agency version.

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Collaboration Agreement

A Lastname (“A”) and B Lastname (“B”; and A and B collectively, the “Parties” or each separately a “Party”) hereby enter into this Collaboration Agreement (“Agreement”), effective [date].

WHEREAS the Parties wish to collaborate on a proposed fantasy novel trilogy called Rook and Rose (referred to as the “Story”).

NOW, THEREFORE, in consideration of the mutual promises and covenants contained herein, the Parties agree as follows:

1. CONTENT OF THE STORY
Rook and Rose is the tale of [omitted due to spoilers, but it’s a few lines describing the general concept of the trilogy].

Point 1 exists not because we were worried we didn’t know what we were writing, but because it’s good to lay that out at the start so that later you know what the heck this document is . . . and also because, in a worst-case scenario where your partner tries to run off with the project, you’ve got something to point to and say, “clearly what they’re doing is the thing we said we’d do together.”

2. AGREEMENT TO COLLABORATE
Neither Party will attempt to complete and publish the Story on their own, except with the explicit written permission of the other one, or in the case of long-term incapacity confirmed by a medical professional. If that happens, the non-publishing Party will be acknowledged or credited in suitable fashion as mutually agreed upon at the time of withdrawal or as decided by the non-incapacitated Party in line with industry standards (e.g. by being listed as a co-author or in the acknowledgements). If either Party withdraws from the project for any reason, they will be compensated with an amount agreed upon at the time of withdrawal or incapacitation, based on the amount of text completed plus a consideration for the developmental work done in advance of drafting.

“Long-term incapacity” = “what if my writing partner gets hit by a bus and winds up in a coma?” Or any other unexpected disaster that renders them incapable of doing their part of the work. You might decide that if that happens, the project ends; that’s a valid choice. We wanted the project to continue, hence saying here that the other party can finish it on their own. We could have been much more granular in defining here what compensation would look like (e.g. “we got one book into the trilogy before you decided to quit, so you get 1/3 of the revenue plus X amount for the concept”), but rather than go that far into the weeds, we stopped at agreeing that the withdrawn party would get some amount of credit and compensation, to be worried about later.

3. CONTRACTS
Any offer of publication or adaptation for the Story must be accepted by both Parties in order to proceed. The Parties will split the revenue from these contracts 50/50, unless otherwise mutually agreed upon at the time of contract signing. If one Party has withdrawn or become incapacitated, the other is free to sign contracts without permission from that Party. In such a case, revenue will still be shared according to the existing arrangement at the time of withdrawal or incapacitation.

The fastest way to destroy any relationship is to argue about money. Agree in advance about how you’re going to split it, and if you change your minds later, get that in writing, too. It doesn’t have to be 50/50 — if the work is divvied up such that unequal shares make sense, that’s fine — just make sure you know, so that nobody gets burned by finding out their expectations don’t match.

4. SHORT FICTION
Each Party is free to write related short fiction on their own and offer it for professional publication, provided it does not either spoil unpublished Story material or contradict details already agreed upon for the Story. The other party has right of approval over these short works, but will not unreasonably withhold this approval. All revenue from such short fiction will go to the Party who wrote it, unless the Parties collaborate on a short work, in which case the Parties will split the revenue 50/50. Both Parties are free to write noncommercial fanfiction at will, without approval, so long as it does not spoil unpublished material for the Story.

Marie likes to write related short stories, but collaborating on something that small doesn’t always make sense. And both of us like writing fanfiction, so we included that as well. In hindsight, defining a 50/50 split here wasn’t the best choice — it probably should have been “as agreed upon at the time,” a la Point 2 above — but oh well. We’re still free to write out a new agreement that says “this supercedes what we said before” if we have to.

5. PROGRESS OF WORK
Once drafting begins, the Parties will aim to write a minimum of five thousand words per week. This number is non-binding and can be revised by mutual agreement of the Parties at any time.

This wound up being wildly below our actual rate, which averaged more like 10K a week for the first book. But the point wasn’t for it to be an accurate estimate; the point was for it to be a threshold. One of the hardest things with a collaboration is judging when it’s okay for you to say to your partner, “we have a problem.” By setting our threshold at 5K, we set an agreed-upon trigger condition. If we’d fallen below that pace, then it wouldn’t have been personal feelings alone that made one party raise the issue; it would simply have been the course we agreed upon back when we were both level-headed. This does a lot to protect people from feeling hurt. So the question to ask yourself here isn’t “how much do we think we can do?,” but rather “at below what point am I going to feel disappointed/irritated/angry?”

6. EDITING
Responsibility for revising the Story will be shared between the Parties unless otherwise agreed in writing. The Parties may decide to divide the final stages such as copy-editing between the Parties or assign such stages to only one Party for streamlining.

We honestly had no idea how we wanted to divvy this part up, because neither of us had ever done this kind of collaboration before. (Marie had worked on a Serial Box project, but those are structured differently.) As it happens, we wound up sharing all stages except page proofing, but again — you can do it however you like. Just make sure you think about it in advance. And make sure that whatever you agree on, it doesn’t result in one person feeling like the monetary split doesn’t reflect the work they’ve put in . . . or if it does, then revise the split.

7. COMMUNICATION
The Parties will communicate at least once a week about the Story and their progress on it. If a complication related to health, other work obligations, travel, natural disaster, et al. prevents one of the Parties from working on the Story, that Party will inform the other Party as soon as is reasonably possible if such complication will substantially delay forward progress.

Once again, this is about protecting your relationship. You have to communicate. We cannot stress this enough. Life may intervene; that happens. But you’ve got to warn your partner that you’re sick, out of town, slammed by the day job, or whatever it is that’s going to slow you down. Don’t just vanish off the face of the planet. If you do, well, once again there’s an agreed-upon trigger condition for saying “dude, where are you?”

8. PROTECTION OF MATERIAL
Neither Party will attempt to delete the draft of the Story or related documents such as the Archivos story catalogue without the explicit written permission of the other Party. Upon receipt of written permission, there will be a waiting period of at least thirty days before any materials are deleted or destroyed. This does not apply to deletions made in the course of normal editing.

This goes back to the “worst-case scenario” thing. You don’t want one person deciding in a fit of pique that the whole thing sucks and so they’re gonna get rid of it . . . much less them doing so as revenge for a falling-out you two have had. Even if your agreement says you’re not allowed to use that material on your own, it’s still joint property, and nobody gets to burn it down without prior consultation and a cooldown period to think about what you’re doing.

(The reference to Archivos reflects the fact that we were testing out that service at the time for tracking our world and story information. We wound up not using it in the long term, but that’s why the phrasing here is “such as.” Any reasonable person or judge would look at our private wiki and say this point clearly applies to that material as well.)

9. REPRESENTATION
Each Party will be represented by an agent of their choosing during any contract negotiations.

Our agents wound up collaborating on the representation of this series, but we might have decided to work with just one or the other, or to get a joint agent for the project — that happens.

10. ASSIGNMENT
Any references in this Agreement to a Party in the context of negotiations, approvals, and other matters unrelated to drafting and revision may be construed as referring to that Party’s literary executor if applicable.

If you’ve been hit by a bus, somebody else has to be empowered to make decisions for you, so your partner isn’t left up a creek. It was easier to put in a line here about how the executor can take care of that, than to specify “or their designated representative” everywhere else in the agreement.

11. MEDIATION
If the Parties reach a point where they cannot come to agreement with each other on some aspect of the Story, progress on the work, acceptance of a contract, or any other issue, they will seek out a third party mutually agreed upon to mediate between them.

Your pre-work agreement can’t cover all eventualities. This is a pointer toward what to do if normal communications break down. We haven’t hit that point, and hopefully never will . . . but contracts are about covering your bases, including — maybe especially — the unlikely ones.

12. WITHDRAWAL
Neither party will be considered to have withdrawn from this Agreement unless such withdrawal is in writing except in the case of long-term incapacitation as discussed above.

This is communication again. Nobody should assume anything; get it in writing, unless the person in question can’t write anymore.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the Parties hereto have caused this Collaboration Agreement to be executed as of the date set forth above.

And then we signed it and got to work!

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Your agreement doesn’t have to look like this one, but we heartily encourage people to write out something, to head off at the pass situations where one person feels like the other isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, while the other feels put-upon like they’re being asked to do more than they signed on for. Being clear about baseline expectations is a safety net for your friendship, so you can relax and enjoy the fun of working together!