Resistance is Futile: Collaboration can be Fun!

Gavin Inglis’s recent post about collaborating on a Bloc event had me thinking. Collaborating on a creative project (as opposed to with occupying forces: that can really come unstuck when you find yourself on the wrong side of history) can be such a fruitful venture, why don’t people do it more often, especially writers?

Needless to say, anyone from a musical background will find the question strange. Collaboration – whether in an orchestra, a rock and roll band or a jazz quintet – is the rule, rather than the exception. Even the great lone wolves of rock such as Dylan or Van Morrison need to at least give their band an idea of what they want them to play (although in the case of the former, maybe not so much, apparently).

And the production of recorded music is almost always the result of joint working (see, e.g., Oh Mercy, one of my favourite Dylan albums, and the product of a not entirely painless collaboration between the His Bobness and Daniel Lanois, his producer, amusingly described in Chronicles).

Collaboration in the songwriting arena is, again, the norm. Lennon and McCartney famously wrote their songs separately from each other, but you can bet your bottom dollar they had a massive input on each others’ work once it was brought into the rehearsal room, even before George Martin got his hands on it.

Other pairings have had different approaches: Elton John writes the melody first, and then hands over to Bernie Taupin to come up with the lyrics. Carole King and Gerry Goffin churned stuff out in a cubby hole in the Brill Building, and at home over the piano, while King tried to get the kids to sleep at the same time.

In the context of literature, however, the romantic idea of a lone writer, hammering away at the typewriter in a garret, holds a lot of mystical power. This is my vision, my masterpiece! And a curse on any editor who dares to suggest a single comma is out of place!

The reality is, of course, that writing with someone else can produce something which is greater than the sum of each others’ creative parts. Perhaps it’s because I was playing in bands before I decided I was a writer that I’ve found collaborating on writing and other projects a natural thing to do. Or maybe I just don’t have enough decent ideas of my own.

Whichever, I have in the past collaborated with a lot of people on stuff, ranging, in the context of writing, from poems and short stories to full length books: the late, great C Bruce Hunter (Legacy of the Sacred Chalice, as well as articles and several other so far unpublished book length works) Hannu Rajaniemi, Jack Deighton (short sf stories, also both sadly unpublished so far) Jane McKie (the poetry pamphlet Head to Head) to name but a few.

Writers’ Bloc is a seething mass of collaboration. We like to liken ourselves to a band, and although the reality is actually somewhere in between the tight collective creative burst of Revolver-era Beatles and a bunch of wildly different individualists going off and doing their own things in separate corners, each show is – to a greater or lesser extent – a collaboration, and we have, in the past, even collaborated on stories together.

So what would my top tips for a successful collaboration be?

1. Collaboration is a Negotiation

Life’s a negotiation, right? Well, collaboration definitely is. The language of a commercial property deal might taste strange when describing a wonderful coming together of two or more creative types, but actually it applies just as well. You should approach it with the clear intention of being a win-win; be co-operative rather than competitive; establish what your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is. See it from the other person(s)’ point of view, but also try to take a Third Party Perspective. All that stuff.

2. What Actually is it You’re Collaborating on?

This might sound obvious, but there’s no point one of you handing over a libretto for a four-hour opera and the other one with a 90-minute film score. Is there a market in mind/Fringe show slot oven ready if you only had the material? How long, how much, how genre-specific? What’s the elevator pitch, the strap-line and the press release? Actually, in Bloc we’ve found  coming up with these three things will go a long way towards pointing you all in the same direction.

3. The Project Initiation Meeting/Thought Shower/Eight Pint Session

Okay, so you’ve decided it’s going to be a science fiction space opera, using a classic Cowboy Western plot device featuring female Bulgarian choir singing. But which classic plot – the aged sheriff strapping on his Colt 45 to drive the guys in the black hats out of town, the Bounty Hunter, or what? Which universe? Eastern or Western Bulgarian plainsong?

All of these boundaries will start to move you in one way or another, and help to focus the slow-burn of mutual creativity on the lower levels where you can really establish something unique. Sometimes, though, the first set of bonds you choose might start to chafe: the sf element really isn’t adding anything, for example, or at least it isn’t for some of you. Which leads me to the next point:

4. Is there a Grand High Pooh-Bah?

As Gavin says in his post, with two of you it’s relatively straightforward: it’s about mutual trust and respect. In Tribute to Venus Carmichael, for example, my musical joint project with Kelly Brooks, it’s pretty simple. Either the arrangement of a particular song works for both of us both, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we move on to something else: there are plenty of songs to choose from (and some new ones have been mysteriously appearing recently, TTVC fans, so stand by for news!)

In a band with four or more of you, that approach can still work. It just depends on personalities: if there’s a big lead singer/lead guitarist dynamic going on, it might mean they dictate to the others, or be at each other’s throats, or both. Cf  Jagger/Richard, the Gallagher brothers, etc., etc.

Monty Python had an interesting way of working: they tended to produce sketches in pairs, and then bring them together in the wider group. The general rule was, if someone really, really hated something, they didn’t do it. But then, the nature of Flying Circus meant the whole thing didn’t have to be totally joined up, in a making sense kind of sense. So no Grand High Pooh-bah there.

The Bloc show with John Lemke and Poppy Ackroyd at last year’s Book Festival Unbound was a bit different. We had to come up with a bunch of words which all made some sort of sense in the overall story arc, to be performed alongside/over the top of music by two different composers which we’d just been given, comprising a series of tracks with fairly gnomic labels like ‘Dorothea II.’ Actually, now I write it that way, it makes me shudder to think we even thought of attempting it.

So we, like, totally needed a Grand High Pooh-Bah to pull it all together. The music was just great, and highly suggestive, but it suggested different things to each of us, so the Project Initiation Meetings (there was more than one) involved a lot of ideas, many of which went off in several directions at once. Gavin was a really excellent Grand High Pooh-Bah. All the same:

5. Accept You Must Bend to the Collective Hive Mind Sometimes

I actually found the project initiation sessions quite difficult. I tend to come up with lots of ideas, some of which I kind of know right away are crap, some of which I get quite attached to. I also have a fault of Just Wanting To Crack On, which will sometimes lead me to think: that’ll do fine. Let’s crack on. Others in Bloc tend to be better at holding off a final decision and letting the flavours stew for a bit.

6. First Draft is only ever First Draft

The first draft bit is the bit I really like: that moment of creation, of converting a tune in your head into something that, on the first run through in the rehearsal room, sounds pretty damn good; that moment when the words on the page start to flow until you reach a full stop and think, actually, I think I’m still going to love that tomorrow.

However, the second draft is usually where your collaborators will come in: has what you’ve created off in your corner part of the overall tapestry, or does it stick out like a camper van parked next to Harold getting one in the eye at Hastings? Hive mind, remember. Grand Pooh-bah may make a Ruling. You may not like it. Negotiate.

7. Getting the Soyuz off the Runway

Ok, so we’re at second, third, or twentieth draft stage (depending whether you’re collaborating with a whole crew of Completer Finishers – did I mention Belbin’s Team Roles is also a useful analysis of how your fellow creators might operate?). If you haven’t done so already, now would be a good time to think about how you’re going to make the project fly. In Bloc, to keep the Soviet analogy going, we sometimes refer to this as getting the Soyuz off the runway.

Which of you is going to persuade the Methil Ladies Singers to act as your East Bulgarian Undead Choir (we jettisoned the sf idea, remember, and followed the current industry standard advice of putting a zombie in it)? That Hammond organ solo the lead singer can just hear in his head but hasn’t a Scooby how to play – which of you is still on speaking terms with the Hammond organ guy in the last band? And which of you took the compromising pictures of the Festival Director at the fetish club with someone else’s wife? (To be clear, that’s not how we got the Book Festival gig. Honest.)

8. Keep a Bolt-Hole

By which I mean, it’s sometimes handy to keep a project all of your own simmering on another ring while all of this is going on. So when the Methil Ladies Singers are giving the atonal East Bulgarian Death Chant a good seeing to, you can always think of the book-long sequence of poems about Fife’s transportation infrastructure you’ve been tinkering with for a while now, and get that warm glow creatives get when they’re thinking about that sort of thing.

9. Plan, Do, Review

Or in other words, like all projects the logical paradigm is to follow a three stroke cycle of planning it, doing it, and then sitting down afterwards and seeing if you want to do it all again. If you do, is it with the same people, or is it time to have that chat with the rhythm guitarist? Have you now remembered why the Hammond organ guy was in the last band, and not this one? Would you go to Kelty rather than Methil for your zombies next time?

Don’t wait too long to do the review stage. Like childbirth (I imagine) the awful pain you went through at the time recedes and is replaced by a warm, fuzzy memory of an event/gig/best-selling novel that makes all the participants up for more.

10. There’s Always the Door

If you do collaborate, the worst thing, the very worst thing, you can do is go along with it when you’re really not happy, and then disown it when it finally sees the light of day: ‘well, to be honest, it was all really Colin and Clarissa’s thing, I was looking more for the Western Bulgarian vibe, or maybe even a bit of Albanian, but (rolls eyes long-sufferingly) you know what they’re like…’

Don’t be so pathetic and passive-aggressive. If you don’t want to put your name to it, don’t then (and don’t lay claim to any of the royalties neither, when Bulgarian Zombies – the Musical! takes off on Broadway).

To be fair, this has never happened to me – but I have seen people walking away from joint projects, and I have always respected them for it.

A few years ago, Hannu, Gav and I were both involved in some meetings about an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with a group of people, some of whom we knew, some of whom were new to us. It was all quite exciting initially, particularly as it looked as if there might be some money in it, and people from as far away as London and Birmingham were making the trip to talk to us.

Then, one by one, everyone walked away. I remember one participant telling another (without any apparent rancour) ‘you’re a very rude man.’

A few months later, Gav assembled a crack team (and me) to produce something with ARG-ish elements to it for the City of Literature’s campaign. The thing that made it work especially well, I think, apart from Gav’s gentle Grand Pooh-Bah-ing, was the fact that we had disparate talents around the creative arts, so that the whole thing had a rounded, transmedia element to it that a bunch of poets could never have managed by themselves.

It was called Hunt the Poem and it was really rather good. Have a look – it’s still up there. I would work with all of those guys again in an instant. And that’s not just the warm fuzzy glow talking, either!


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