The Joys of Collaboration


A few weeks back, I told you about how working  with my brother-in-law and husband for two weeks of intense creative collaboration, putting together the framework for a transmedia storytelling project.

It was, in short, an awesome experience. Imagine working with a small group of people who are all excited about the same project, but all come into it with different professional backgrounds, different skillsets, and different ways of thinking. We’ve probably all heard about this sort of energized working environment, but usually in the context of startup companies.

Can writers create this type of idea-sparking meeting of the minds?

Apparently, yes. We can. Because those two weeks–although exhausting and demanding–were two of the best weeks of my life. They make me yearn to work with this sort of team on a more regular basis!

The only other place I’ve seen this sort of creative synergy is within my critique group, but never during the actual critique process. Instead, it seems to sneak in when two or three or four members start to brainstorm about how a story might play out differently, or what tidbit of backstory could bump a character’s motivation from blah to powerful.

plot_DiagramCreative sparks seem to arise most easily when a writer brings a question to the group. Sometimes that question is a half-formed plot or the first 50 pages of a manuscript. On a couple of occasions, the writer brought in a chapter-by-chapter outline and a posterboard-sized diagram of the hero’s journey. We’ve also had smaller get-togethers, where just a few of us discuss a writer’s plot problem or story world or…whatever.

I can almost hear your protests: A brainstorming session isn’t collaboration!

Isn’t it? You’re sharing ideas, testing out different possibilities–all under the influence of your co-brainstormers’ contributions. The author may have to implement the final creative vision, but shaping the story vision can be a collaborative process.


Shaping your story vision can be a collaborative process.




Most writers are familiar with critiques, but not everyone has experienced that wonderful moment when a comment triggers an avalanche of ideas. By bringing a collaborative mindset to a critique, both critique-ers and critique-ees invite creativity and inspiration to join them at the table.

A Collaborative Mindset

What makes collaboration work? Although I’m a newbie to the creative collaboration idea, the “successes” I’ve seen shared a few common elements:

1. A single project “owner”

When there’s one person who will make the final creative decisions–one project “owner”–it’s much easier to settle disagreements. That person will probably have to do the actual work of the project, too, a fact that may make it easier for others to let go of ideas that don’t resonate with the project owner.

2. A willingness to ask “What if?”

Having one project owner is important, but it’s equally important that he or she (and everyone else!) comes to the process with an open mindset. As little as possible should be set in stone. Collaboration works so well because different people can bring vastly different points of view, insights, and inspirations to the process. You have to be willing to consider even the craziest of suggestions.

Remember: The suggestions that sound most reasonable at first are probably also the most predictable. You don’t want your story to be predictable, right?

3. The ability to listen

In his TED talk “The Way of Improvisation,” Dave Morris offers this quote:

Listening is the ability to change”

– Some Wise Man

Make sure each participant is really listening to the others–not just to frame his or her next comment, but with the willingness to change opinions. Seek to change your vision of the plot, character, or story world. You might decide to change back, but don’t dismiss ideas without “trying them on” the way you might try on a costume.

4. A sense of play

Creativity flees from judgment and criticism, but it loves to play. Don a child’s playful mindset. Be silly. Pull out the play dough, silly hats, and colored markers, if it helps!

5. Diverse creative backgrounds

Working with people from different backgrounds isn’t essential to successful collaboration, but I’ve received some of my most useful feedback from people outside my field. If you only work with other writers, you might miss the insights that someone who thinks more visually might provide. A scientist, a musician, a computer programmer, an elementary school teacher–all will hear your problem differently, and have different insights as a result.

Collaboration Possibilities

By bringing a “collaboration mindset” to critiques and brainstorming sessions, we writers can dip our toes in the collaborative process. Try it out–maybe you’ll decide you like collaboration enough that you will want to explore more possibilities for collaboration. Let me know how it goes!

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