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 How did people collaborate – actually write something together, something fairly substantial like an historical document or a novel?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!


The Ostrovo Unit

Well, the mystery surrounding the massacre of what I’m guessing was an outpost of the Ostrovo unit, has deepened. No more details via Stella Miles Franklin and nothing at all in the biography of Dr Agnes Bennett by Cecil and Celia Manson. Nothing either in a referenced work Australians and Greeks, Volume 2 by Hugh Gilchrist. But it doesn’t really matter as I’m fairly sure the event occurred towards the end of 1917 – well before my characer arrives on the scene. Still it would help my writing to understand the historical context and how such a thing happened.

Despite this slight setback, I have actually been picking up some very interesting facts and historical details along the way: information about the day to day running of the unit, the politeness and old world charm of the Serbian officers, the large numbers of  Australian women who were doing war work at the Macedonian Front. Even the odd Serbian word as well, which may prove useful if my heroine happens to fall in love with a Serbian orderly. It’s a possibility!

At the moment my girl is still on board HMAT Kanowna which has recently (October, 1917) stopped off at Durban and Cape Town. At this very moment (well today as far as  my writing goes – actually 15th November, 1917) she has just spent a few hours wandering around Sierra Leone before she must embark for the last leg of her voyage to England and a confrontation with her difficult aunt. Will post again when she arrives in London.

It’s a mystery

After posting my last blog a mystery has developed. On Saturday 13th July I spent the day at the Mitchell, after first viewing the World Press photos and the SMH Photos1440 I went carefully through A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren looking for a reference to the tragedy at the Ostrovo Unit. Nothing. Just a mention of the unit being moved. Now I know from our excellent historian Susanna De Vries’s book Heroic Australian Women in War, in a chapter on Agnes Bennett and Lilian Cooper, that the skeleton staff of the unit were massacred by the Bulgarians and our very own Miles Franklin was referenced. I am waiting for my local library to get a copy of De Vries book that features Miles Franklin – The Complete Book of Great Australian Women for more details.

In the meantime I decided to go back again yesterday to the Mitchell and had a very interesting day. I went through two old directories (1914 and 1919) of the Newcastle, Cessnock, Maitland districts and also leafed through Flora Sandes’s two autobiographies. Sandes was the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian Army. I also went through Stebbing’s At the Serbian Front in Macedonia – again no details of the massacre of the unit. The mystery deepens.

Lastly I went through the 1917 diary of Miles Franklin which proved to be fascinating – particularly descriptions of the camp. Matron was a terror evidently and the work in the kitchen exhausting. Unfortunately I ran out of time to read the 1918 diaries but am  looking forward to reading the chapter on MF in De Vries’s book and delving deeper into what happened to the unit.