If you want the truth about the collaborative nature of writing, you won’t find it on a book’s front cover.
Pass over that single name, that solo creator, and flip to the back, to the acknowledgements.
Look at that list of names. Some of us may wonder if we even know that many people.
Not all of them will have had direct input on the book, but many did. A traditionally published book will have been worked over by an editor and a literary agent, for a start. The story may be radically different from the form in which it was first queried, and we writers often don’t realise quite how radical those overhauls can be if we haven’t yet got there ourselves.
Books change. They change a lot. The idea that you will produce, through your own solo genius, the One True Immaculate Manuscript which will go from your desk to a printing press without revision, is a myth. What a relief, eh?
But it doesn’t end there. There are other names; names who came before the agents and the editors. There are friends and colleagues, sometimes partners, siblings and parents; there are writing circles, courses, and critique groups. These names represent myriad conversations and collaborations: walking through the woods, thrashing out plot problems; Zoom chats to process the prospect of a massive rewrite; long text discussions of your protagonist’s motivations.
Stories are made in groups. They are sounded out, tweaked, inspired, redirected and strengthened by being played to a multitude of other minds. They are built of bits of you and bits you magpied from, or were gifted by, other people. And that’s exactly as it should be, because writing is a craft. Craftspeople have workshops. No craftsperson expects – or should expect – to produce complex, beautiful pieces alone and without input from other craftspeople, solely by drawing on some kind of internal wellspring
of mystical talent.
No-one expects this of carpenters, or stonemasons, or thatchers, or gardeners. You need some flair, sure, and love of the medium is essential, but you also need input from experts and peers, and lots of it. Yet because stories have been deemed Art, writers got stuck, somewhere in the Romantic period, in a ludicrous art/craft dichotomy which still trips us up today. We can still fall for the idea of precocious genius, of the lone artist, and feel like talking ideas through with others is somehow cheating; not what ‘proper’ writers do.
Let’s take a look at some of those ‘proper’ writers.
Here’s Sally Rooney, so often painted as the precocious solo genius du jour, in the acknowledgements to Conversations with Friends:
In writing this book I drew a great deal from conversations with my own friends, in particular Kate Oliver and Aoife Comey; I’d like to thank them both very much. Thanks also to the friends who read early drafts of the manuscript . . . and most especially to John Patrick McHugh, whose excellent feedback contributed so substantially to the book’s development.
Listen to Jennifer Egan, in the back pages of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad:
Finally, I’m grateful to a group of peers whose exceptional talents and generosity I’ve leaned on heavily, and without whom there would be no Goon Squad.
Or here’s Jane Harper, author of the phenomenally successful thriller The Dry:
To get a book published, I had to write it first, and for that I will always be indebted to my fellow writers on the Curtis Brown Creative 2014 online course. Thank you for the wisdom of your collective talent; this book almost certainly would not exist in this form without you.
Conversations with friends. A group of peers. The wisdom of your collective talent. A workshop, in other words. A craft community.
I confess that I fell for the lone genius lie myself, for a while. I felt like if I shared my work too much, or too early, it would be diluted; that it would lose its vital spark, or my vision would be disrupted before I could fully realise it. I felt like I should be able to spot and solve problems with my manuscripts myself, and come up with every last crumb of plot and character purely from my own brain. Now I know that the idea of writing an entire book without critique, without talking to my friends about its plot and its characters, or the things I’m unsure about, is shooting myself in the foot.
My work will always be stronger for their eyes, opinions, and experience. It will always be far, far easier to share and discuss as I write, than to complete a manuscript and have to epically rework it because I lost track of something important in Chapter 4 and went on merrily painting myself into a corner for the next six months. And it’s not just about spotting errors. My peers have provided me with ideas, living bits of story which I’ve stitched into my work. It’s easy to worry that this is close to plagiarism, or that you should be able to do it all yourself: nonsense. This is how we work. There’s a lovely example of this in thriller writers Holly Seddon and Gillian McAllister’s podcast Honest Authors, in which they spend a whole episode talking to Gilly’s dad Tony about how much he helps Gilly by talking through her characters. You can find it here.
Writing is a collaborative endeavour. Whether you talk your writing through with one good friend or as many trustworthy, knowledgeable people as you can get your hands on, and it’ll be the better for it. And talking about other people’s work will – bonus! – improve your own writing. It’s a win-win situation. You may worry that it’s taking up your friends’ time, but remember, if they’re writers too, they’ll soon be talking their stories through with you.
And with any luck, you’ll one day find yourself listing their names in your own acknowledgements.
Wanna find your writing team? Head to the Writers’ HQ community forums for feedback, support, beta buddies, advice, and general literary bants. And for hand-holding all the way through the novel-writing process, check out our 5-star courses: Plotstormers, The First Draft, and beyond…