Episode 10: Co-authoring disagreements


FOLLOW ON APPLE PODCASTS . FOLLOW ON SPOTIFY . FOLLOW ON OVERCAST . FOLLOW ON PODCAST ADDICT


Season 3, Episode 10: Co-authoring disagreements

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

My friends, we’ve reached the end of the season! I hope you’ve enjoyed listening, and you’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ll see you again when season four launches, and I’ve got some fantastic guest episodes to keep you company in the meantime, but we don’t have to be apart while you wait! I hope you’ll join me on my other podcast, Pub Dates, where you’ll find me the first and third Thursday of every month. So many of you are there already, and Kate and I are enjoying hearing from you so much.

For now, this is Season 3, Episode 10: Co-authoring disagreements.

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is by far the most frequently asked question we get about co-authoring. I can’t even list all the people it came from, because there are too many. Here it is: What do you do when you and your co-author can’t agree on what should happen in your story?

Ha! Kate, you are not kidding. This is also by far the most frequent question I get at my live events, and of course what people are really asking is whether I’ve ever had a fight with Meg, or Jay, or Ryan.

The answer—perhaps disappointingly—is no, I never have. But there are very good reasons for that, and I’m going to talk about them today, because the approaches we use will work for you, too, whether you’re writing on your own, or with someone else.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember this: You should be co-authoring with someone because you love what they do. You enjoy their writing, their ideas, their voice, their heart-breaking chapters and their jokes. You’re writing with them because you want their voice in the same story as yours – so the aim is never to drown them out. If you do that, you might as well be writing on your own after all.

Back in 2010, I went to the World Science Fiction Convention here in Melbourne. I was with Meg Spooner, with whom I would go on to write These Broken Stars, This Shattered World, Their Fractured Light, Unearthed, Undying, The Other Side of the Sky and Beyond the End of the World. Plus our eighth book, which we’re working on now.

Meg and I thought we might like to write something together, but we were scared we’d have a fight, and it would impact our friendship. So we attended a panel on co-authoring with our ears wide open for advice. At that panel we saw a couple of amazing authors – Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman – speaking about writing together. Now, Ellen and Delia hadn’t just managed to write together, they’d managed to stay married while they did it, so Meg and I figured they were as smart as it got on this subject.

We asked them how we could avoid conflict, and explained our concerns. They both looked at us like we’d asked a surprising question. Their answer was simple: You just don’t let conflict get in the way. You care more about your co-author than you do about anything else in the process, including that particular idea you’re so attached to, and the rest will take care of itself.

They were right. Meg and I call them our Story Godmothers – we went on to write together because of that advice, and we still buy them lunch when we’re in New York, to say thank you. And over the years I’ve learned that if each of you is concerned with making sure you’ve really heard and understood what the other person thinks should happen next with the story, you won’t have any trouble finding solutions that work for both of you.

Let me say that again, because it’s what this whole episode is about: If you focus on making sure you’ve heard and understood the other person, then you’ll always find a solution you can both agree on.

This advice sounds so simple that it’s easy to coast past, so I want to talk about what understanding really means for a moment.

Before I was an author, I used to work as a mediator, bringing together parties who were in conflict, and helping them find a solution that worked for both of them. One of the ways I did that was by helping them surface what the conflict was really about. I worked in high-value finance disputes, but I’m going to use an example today that I often used when teaching this subject.

So let’s talk about Laura, who’s bought a second hand car from a dealership. Two weeks later, it doesn’t start one morning. It’s just dead, and Laura’s day becomes a cascading disaster as one thing after another goes wrong as a result of her having no car. She’s furious.

She complains to the dealer, who we’ll call Mike. By the time she has a free second to  call him, she’s highly stressed. The argument escalates – a LOT – and they end up working with a mediator, because after some time they’ve reached the point where they can’t communicate without yelling.

Laura’s demanding a whole new car and has left one star reviews all over the internet. She says Mike’s dealership license should be revoked. Mike insists she broke the car herself, and it’s nothing to do with him. He now refuses to discuss fixing it, and is talking about taking out a restraining order because of Laura’s phone calls.

How did we get from a car that wouldn’t start to here? One of the mediator’s jobs is to help both Mike and Laura figure out what’s going on and what they need, to articulate that, and then craft a solution that addresses it.

Laura’s well within her rights to be angry that her car died after just two weeks. But from the moment she got on the phone to Mike, she was at eleven. She didn’t even give him a chance to understand what was going on before she was yelling. From there it’s escalated to the one-star reviews, and extremely frequent phone calls.

Why is this happening? Why did she go to eleven immediately? Turns out that she had a bad experience when she bought the car, so she was already mad before this whole thing went down. Despite the fact that it was her car, Mike’s new staff member kept talking to Laura’s husband the whole time during the purchase, asking him questions, showing him the features. Laura felt disrespected and frustrated, but ultimately still bought from Mike’s dealership, because she could get a better price there than anywhere else. Still, that resentment didn’t just vanish, and when the car didn’t turn over one morning – on the worst of all possible mornings, one when she had a meeting at work she’d been preparing for for months – her resentment at that sexist new staff member was ready and waiting to explode.

Mike has a different story – he sold a car at a real discount, cheaper than he would have liked to, because his new staff member made a promise he shouldn’t have, and Mike felt he should honour it. He did Laura a favour on her trade-in and on the price of the new car. Obviously something’s gone wrong with it that should be fixed, but one morning he picked up the phone, and Laura just started screaming at him. He says it’s not reasonable to expect him to interact with this kind of behaviour in the course of doing his job.

Now, a skilled mediator will help everyone figure out what’s really going on – that Laura was ready to shout before the car ever died, that Mike already felt like he’d done a lot for her.

Perhaps now, Mike hears about his staff member’s behaviour, and actually agrees with Laura that this isn’t how it should have happened. He’s as frustrated as she is, and he says he’ll discuss it with his staff member, retrain them. He agrees it’s his responsibility to provide that training, and make sure his staff behave professionally. He also hears about how disastrous the breakdown was for Laura, and learns she wasn’t just screaming for nothing – he understands how she must have been feeling after the way her day went.

Perhaps Laura learns that the reason she got a good price was that the staff member made promises he shouldn’t have, wanting to get his first sale, and Mike did a good deed by honouring them. Perhaps she learns Mike’s actually a pretty decent guy, and when she sees his reaction to how his new staff member behaved, she understands that Mike himself has plenty of respect for his customers.

Laura’s someone who’s got every right to be angry about how she was treated. Mike’s someone who deserves the chance to fix the car, without the assumption he’d refuse, or all those one-star reviews.

The most likely solution to something like this would be an apology on both sides, a handshake, and a loan car while Laura’s car was repaired – plus some training for the new staff member. Perhaps Laura even gets a chance to talk to him, and explain why she didn’t love his approach. She’d most likely modify or take down her reviews. This might sound a little too easy, but the truth is that outcomes like this are normal when a skilled mediator is involved.

But why am I telling you all this, and what does it have to do with co-authoring?

Well, until those real motivations were uncovered, there was no way to solve for them. Laura and Mike might have gone to court, which would have cost everyone money, and only resulted in Mike being obliged to fix her car. Neither of them ever would have understood what was going on for the other person or how this escalated in the way it did, or felt good about the outcome. The sexist staff member and the one star reviews would be there to this day, and everyone would be out a lot of money. When they communicated, they got to a place they both felt good about.

When it comes to figuring out what to do next with a story, the approach really doesn’t change – though hopefully nobody’s at an eleven, shouting and screaming, you still need to figure out why you have different ideas about what should happen next.

For our example, let’s say one author wants to put in an action scene next, and the other wants to stop and let the characters have a conversation.

What’s the going-to-court solution? You just pick one, and it gets the job done, but maybe it misses out on some opportunities. Maybe one of you is frustrated at not being heard, but sits on it – a little more ready to fight next time.

And what happens if we ask the person who wants the action scene why they want it? Perhaps they explain that they’ve been looking at the pacing of the story, and they think there have been a lot of quiet moments lately, and the story needs something big and dramatic, to remind the reader of the life and death stakes, and give them some of the thrills they were promised when they picked up the book. Sounds valid to me.

And what about the person who wants the conversation? Well, perhaps they’re looking at a big revelation that just took place. They know that the characters need a moment to reflect on it, because otherwise the big, noble gesture one of them makes next won’t make much sense. The reader won’t see how it’s a response to that revelation. Perhaps the characters even need to declare their love, because they won’t have another chance before the grand finale. This also sounds pretty valid to me.

So the solution – as my co-author Meg Spooner likes to say – isn’t Option A, the action scene, or Option B, the conversation. It’s Secret Option C.

Perhaps the characters go through that action scene together, and declare their love as they think they’re about to die. Perhaps they do have a conversation, but to give it a sense of pace, it’s a stand-up fight, a shouting match. Perhaps they talk during a scary action sequence. These days, Meg and I literally say to each other ‘okay, we have to Secret Option C this’, and we stop what we’re doing to communicate and brainstorm.

When we were working on Illuminae, Jay and I like to say that the closest we came to a disagreement was about the finale to Obsidio – which, incidentally, is now one of our favourite things we’ve ever written. We were in a lengthy debate about the fate of a particular character, and eventually – because this isn’t our first rodeo – we worked our way around to excavating for the reasons we both felt so strongly.

As soon as I really thought about why I didn’t think we should kill off this person, and explained why, he instantly agreed – and then we set about looking for ways to create the same tension that the death would have caused. The solution we came up with was even better. It always is.

Here’s another interesting fact about mediated outcomes versus court outcomes: when it comes to the parties sticking to the agreement in the long term, and feeling satisfied with it, mediated outcomes are miles ahead. The people involved have ownership of the outcome, and it reflects what they actually need, after all. They had a chance to be heard. And the same is true in all disagreements, whether it’s a fight between family members, or a debate about plot between co-authors. When you find a solution that really does what you need, and you craft it yourself, it’ll outlast an unwilling capitulation every time.

There’s always going to be an approach that will deal with what everyone wants, and that will genuinely make the story richer – but unless you excavate for the reasons behind your ideas, you’re not going to know what problems you’re actually trying to solve. And the more you do it, the better you get at it, until it’s a natural part of your process, and you really don’t disagree – you just spark brainstorming sessions.

So there you have it – the reason I’ve co-authored fifteen books, and never had a fight. We figure out why we’ve got different approaches, what’s really underneath those ideas, and then we look for our secret option C. And, like I said, the secret here is that you can apply this approach to more than your writing. It works in the rest of your life as well.

Well, my friends, that’s it for season three!

Thank you so much for joining me this season. It’s such a pleasure to make this podcast for you, and I really appreciate all you do to support it. I don’t accept any advertising because I want this podcast to be available as a free educational resource, and some schools and universities aren’t able to use podcasts that play ads. That means I cover all the costs of the podcast myself – which is one of many reasons I appreciate your help in making sure it gets to anyone and everyone who wants to learn more about writing. One of the great pleasures of the last few years has been hearing from schools and universities using the podcast as a part of their teaching, and hearing from solo authors who are treating it as a class all on their own.

As ever, if you’ve got a moment to leave a rating and review for the podcast wherever you listen, it makes a huge difference to discoverability. If there’s an episode you think a friend would like, or a teacher could use, please pass it on – and make sure you’re subscribed, so you don’t miss season four, and the excellent guests I’ll have on before then. And don’t forget, I’ll see you over at Pub Dates!

In the meantime, you can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for season four of the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, author of the upcoming novel Nightbirds. You can find her online at katejarmstrong.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


Have a Question?

You can submit your question using the form using the form on the main podcast page — if you’re stuck on one aspect of your work, or you’re wondering how your favourite author pulled something off, we’d love to hear from you!


Return to the main podcast page