Can You Leave Your Writer’s Ego at the Door?

In producing the iconic musical collaboration We Are the World in 1985Quincy Jones is said to have posted this sign at the entry to the studio:

Check Your Ego at the Door

With megastars like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner squeezed onto one stage, sharing mics, and offered a paltry one or two solo lines, you might expect a few displays of spoiled celebrity.

But there weren’t any. Not one.

According to Quincy, all the artists in the room had only one focus: to raise money to feed the starving children in Africa. I found that to be both admirable … and highly suspect.

So when a writer I barely knew invited me to join a historical fiction collaboration — already seven chapters in the bank — I had my doubts.

For one thing, I’m no Tina Turner. (I’m not even LaToya Jackson.)

For another, musicians have a long tradition of successful (if tumultuous) collaborations. But we novelists and short story writers and poets — we’re lone wolves. Or Bengal tigers. Or aardvarks. We don’t hum a few bars and see if it rocks. We don’t riff off this or harmonize that.

We don’t share. Not until we’re done.

Collaborative fiction writing takes a ton of patience, communication, and humility. You will either come out with something better than what any individual could do, or something so watered down it’s not palatable. I think the trick is finding the right people to work together.

~Bent Willows co-author Saoirse

The other thing about us Bengal tigers, and aardvarks, and fiction writers is that we’re also insatiably curious.

I was dying to know how it worked! Could I really check my ego? Could I find a whole new layer of angst and art inside me? Could we — really — produce something magical together?

If you’re thinking about doing some world-building with other fiction writers, consider these factors:

Whose vision is it?

Any successful joint creation has a strong leader with a vision and a commitment to authentic collaboration. The writing itself — the work — must become everyone’s top priority.

If your leader is strong, if they captivate you with the vision, if they demonstrate integrity — then you will feel safe enough to release your attachment to getting the credit, or the ego strokes, or the top score.

A skilled captain will know the difference between compromise and collaboration:

Collaboration avoids the transactional nature of compromise. It transcends egos when everyone agrees on what’s best for this project. When a compromise is made, people may feel that the decision is somewhat sub-par. When collaborating, however, everyone is truly behind the decision because that’s what’s best for the common goal. ~ Bent Willows creator and co-author Eric Griggs

Will the project stretch your capabilities?

If you have written yourself into a genre corner, a collaboration is an excellent exercise for breaking you out. If you’ve been writing memoir, or thrillers, or fantasy … if your keyboard automatically stops at 900 words … if your poetic imagery has become predictable … a collaboration may ignite your muse again.

Find a theme or topic completely outside your experience. What will you have to learn? How much research will you have to do? Do you mind feeling stupid? (Wait. You’re a writer. Feeling stupid is your daily reality.)

Do you trust the other writers?

Not with your bank PINs or that bottle of 1964 Glenlivet, but with your words. You’re going to send your little darlings out there, naked and unprotected. These other writers — are they doing the same? Is everyone at the same level of engagement?

Are you willing to commit to the process?

You can’t crank out content at 4am and expect to publish at 8am. Your drafts will be picked apart, upended and rebuilt. And you will have to participate — honorably— in doing the same with another writer’s words. Do you have the time (and intestinal fortitude) to withstand the journey?

The only difficulty I had was timing. Whomever you’re working with may be ready, whereas you may have 10 other irons in the fire.

~Bent Willows co-author Chloe Cuthbert

Be prepared to fall in love.

With your character. With the other writers. And with someone you may not have seen for a while.

The creative writer in you.


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