Are Two Heads Better Than One?

Some of the best known writers in SF and fantasy write collaboratively with one another. Every collaboration may have its own structure, the strengths of one writer balancing the limitations of the other. Sometimes the collaborators are equals; Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote some wonderful books together.

Other times, one writer (for instance, Mercedes Lackey) is the headliner, which leads one to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the lesser-known writer in the team is doing the lion’s share of the actual work. Such a collaboration can be beneficial to both writers, of course. The headliner gets some money and keeps the fans happy with a regular flow of new books, and the second banana gets a boost in his or her reputation and maybe a little advice and guidance from someone with more experience.

It would be very, very rare, however, for a professional writer to team up with an amateur. Recently I ran into a plaintive request on an Internet forum from an amateur who is hoping to find a professional to help whip his fantasy trilogy into shape. It’s a nice dream, but the truth is, the only way his book is ever going to see the light of day is if he buckles down and writes it himself.

Sure, if he’s rich enough he could probably find somebody to ghostwrite. Heck, pay me enough in advance and I’ll ghostwrite your novel! Just keep my name off the cover and don’t mention me in the Acknowledgments.

Why won’t a pro collaborate with an amateur?

First, most professional writers of fiction — no, it’s safe to say all of us — have more story ideas than we have time to write! We don’t need an amateur’s brilliant concept or outline or rough draft to give us something to work on.

Second, with shockingly few exceptions amateurs have not the faintest notion what sort of idea will form the basis for a good novel. Amateurs’ story ideas tend to be hackneyed and shopworn — some half-remembered concept borrowed from Star Trek — or so awkward and ill-formed that major surgery would be required to make the idea usable in a published book. Or, more likely, both.

Third, when it comes to drafting the actual sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, even an amateur who is happy to roll up her sleeves and write day after day will almost certainly lack the basic skills that a professional brings to the table. I’m not just talking about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, though those are part of the skill set. Amateurs don’t always understand pacing. They don’t understand characterization. They don’t understand viewpoint. Until you’ve mastered these and other skills of narrative, a professional would have to rewrite everything you write. What a horrible job!

Fourth, the amateur is quite likely to flake out rather than seeing the project through to the end. Writing ain’t always fun, folks. It can be a grind. Why would a professional take a chance on spending weeks or months working on a project without knowing whether a collaborator with zero track record is going to have the fortitude to stick with it.

And then we get to the problem (more familiar in the music industry) in which the amateur sends the pro an outline or a few chapters and then, years later, sues the pro for alleged theft of copyrighted material. Why would a professional take a chance on that?

So yeah, you’re on your own, dude. Good luck. You’ll need it. Heck, we all need it!

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