So, three people have asked me about collaboration, specifically my collaboration with Daniel on the Expanse series, in the last couple days. I thought it might be nice to explain the origin of James Corey and his project The Expanse.
First off, the obvious answer. Daniel and I are collaborating on this project because we actually want to. We’ve been friends longer than we’ve been writing partners. His family hangs out at my house, my wife and I hang out at his. We would see each other fairly often even if we didn’t have a joint project. I mention this, because the first piece of advice I’d give to someone considering a collaboration is that you should probably like the person you are about to work with.
How it all came about is a bit more complex. In my spare time, I’m a game designer. By which I mean I spend a fair amount of time developing settings for role playing games, and then convincing other people to try them out. I had a space opera setting I’d been developing over a three year period, while running the game in a play-by-post format on a friend’s forum. The player reaction had been quite positive, and I decided to try and run a game in that setting with my live group. The initial group consisted of a few people from the New Mexico writer’s mafia, including my boss George, along with our friends Melinda and Ian and Chip, and my wife. That group played as the crew of a tramp steamer in space who get caught up in a solar system wide war, and everyone seemed to have a good time with it.
At about that time, Daniel and his wife were exploring the idea of getting back into gaming, and I offered to run a different game for them in the same setting. In that game, they were playing cops on a space station carved into the asteroid Ceres.
After our first session, I let Daniel take a look at the giant volume of notes I had on the setting. He immediately said, “This needs to be a book. You’ve already done all the heavy lifting with this world-building. Now you just need to write the story.”
At first, his idea was to write the entire first draft with me narrating the events of the story, then going over his draft and making edits. But after our first session working together, I knew that wasn’t going to work. As I watched him working on the prologue, my fingers were itching to get at the keyboard. I immediately changed the deal, and said I’d only do the book if I wrote half. I’d only written half a dozen short stories, and sold two of them, so I wasn’t on Daniel’s level as a professional writer by any means. But I knew I’d never be able to sit back and let him tell my story without getting my hands dirty too.
As the book had two protagonists in alternating chapters, it was fairly simple to split up. I wrote all of the chapters from one POV, he wrote all the chapters from the other.
We meet about once a week to talk about the next two chapters we’re working on. We work from a simple outline of the story, so each week we know, at a sort of single sentence level, what needs to happen in those chapters. We flesh that simple outline out, discussing the chapter at a scene by scene level, concentrating especially on those things that need to happen to make sure the subsequent chapters have sufficient foundation.
Once that’s finished, we retire to the living room and play Xbox until Daniel has to leave to pick his daughter up from school (the awful backbreaking drudgery of the professional writer, right?).
Over the course of the week, we write the chapters we discussed. At the next meeting, we exchange our chapters and do a read and first pass edit of the other person’s work. Daniel winds up adding a lot of sensory detail to my sections. My eyes tend to glaze over when reading descriptive detail, so I have a hard time remembering to add it in my own work. And when I edit Daniel’s sections, my most common edits are to details that keep the technology, if not plausible, at least consistent. Though, that is only in general. I’ve made prose changes to some of Daniel’s stuff, and he’s caught me in more than one inconsistency and fixed it.
The details are not that important, but what is important about this process is that each of us has to turn in a chapter to the other person, and then be okay with that person making changes to it. We discuss anything that’s significant, but even so, we rewrite each other pretty much every week. If you can’t handle someone rewriting your stuff, then collaborating is probably not for you.
I think there are two things absolutely essential for this sort of collaboration to work: One. you both have to be working on the same project. Not just the same book or story, but the same artistic goal. If I wanted nothing but action, and Daniel wanted nothing but economics, and we kept rewriting each other to replace one for the other we’d never get anywhere. And two, you have to work with someone you trust. You have to believe that they have the talent and the craft to write good prose, and to have useful suggestions about your writing. If you don’t trust them, the process will be very painful.
When we began the project, our consensus was that we were writing old fashion space science fiction with a deeply sentimental heart. Every time we lose our way, we just have to remember our mission statement, and we get back on track. If we didn’t agree utterly on what that mission was, the project would falter and die as we tried to pull it in two different directions.
We’re getting close to halfway done with our second monster space opera novel. And 250,000 words into our joint venture, things seem to be stronger than ever. After finishing Leviathan Wakes, our shared reaction seemed to be, “This is a pretty good book. I hope we get to write a lot more of these.”