Collaborating on a Writing Project

It’s an interesting concept and until last month one I found quite mysterious. How did people collaborate – actually write something together, something fairly substantial like an historical document or a novel? Was there always one person who did the majority of the writing?

I have previously worked on a short play with someone but it was fairly painless. They provided the initial idea and I ran with it. A few suggestions  were made and that was it. It has needless to say never seen the light of day. But what about a much larger project? Collaborative fiction for instance? In that partnership, who did the thinking and who did the writing?

Australia has a number of famous writing teams. In 1944 James McAuley and Harold Stewart collaborating as Ern Malley wrote seventeen poems in one day as a hoax against Max Harris and his magazine Angry Penguins. From the late 1920s to the late 1940s Flora Eldershaw and Marjorie Barnard (see picture above) wrote under the name of M. Barnard Eldershaw. During that time they published an impressive body of work that included 5 novels. Evidently Barnard did more of the actual writing whilst Eldershaw concentrated on development and structure of the works. Louise E Rorabacher who wrote about the collaboration stated: “that in their early collaborative novels it is impossible to distinguish their separate contributions.” The partnership worked because according to Nettie Palmer, a leading literary critic of the time: “Any difference in the characters of the two women doesn’t make for a difference in their point of view or values.”

In any fictional collaboration it is surely necessary for both authors to understand the characters they are writing about, especially their weaknesses and their passions – in essence to fully comprehend the character’s point of view and for the collaborators to agree on this fictional point of view.

And just as importantly, also, is what each collaborator wants from the project. In some instances they would be working towards a common goal – publication. In the instance of Dymphna Cusack collaborating with Florence James on Come in Spinner, the completed book was submitted and won the 1948 Daily Telegraph novel competition. Cusack also collaborated with another writer – Miles Franklin on the 1939 novel Pioneers on Parade.

In other instances one person might be commissioning another to do the writing for them, something they are unable to do themselves but have the money to finance the project. In many of these collaborations one party will pay to have writing done but the “writer” will not be acknowledged. They will remain a ghost that has collaborated silently. In arrangements of this sort the needs of both parties have to be looked at very carefully – preferably a contract drawn up with the collaboration clearly outlined. Very cut and dried of course but necessary.

Just as in good fiction a character’s point of view must be fully understood and imaginatively rendered, I have found through a painful experience last month that each collaborator’s point of view and needs must be understood. In my recent experience it happened that the other party didn’t realise that I needed to be paid on time. They also didn’t feel it necessary for communication to be both ways. With all this miscommunication and misunderstanding on such a basic level occurring – there was no hope in hell that we could collaborate on a unified point of view for our character and for the project overall. It was never going to fly.

It is now my belief that collaboration is like many forms of relationship, each person’s point of view must be understood and above all respected. Without this basic tenet, forget collaborations and relationships of any kind. They will never get off the ground!

To Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw…my sincerest admiration!


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