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Co-Writing; or, Cohabitating a Literary Mind

I was recently asked whether I’d ever consider collaborating with another author. I’ve had to give it some serious thought and, to be honest, I’m still thinking about it because of previous experiences. One, in particular, still stands out though many years have gone by.

Sometime in either 2004 or 2005, what had been an extremely close ten-year friendship came to an abrupt, unresolved, and unsettling close.  Peter (not his real name) was my best friend at that time, and for about six of those ten years we spent our time online together in roleplaying chat rooms (where we met) telling first the respective stories of our characters and then bringing our characters together as they, just like we, became as inseparable as two people can be with hundreds of miles between them.

Though some of the details of the initial conversation have escaped me over time, I do recall that at some point Peter spoke of wanting to write and then self-publish a debut novel based upon the characters he portrayed in the chat room.  Though much of what his characters were doing at that point depended somewhat heavily on mine, I was sure that he had a plan to work around that and make the story his own.  I was surprised and flattered when he stated that he wanted a cluster of my characters to have a place within the book, therefore giving me credit as a co-author.  He then gave me an overview of what he had in mind.

I was hesitant.  Peter had very grand ideas for his characters, which was fine…but, he also had equally-involved ideas for my characters – some of which I didn’t agree with.  He was also in a rush to publish his novel, choosing to do so with a vanity publisher rather than try to get an agent or go through a standard publishing house.  After all, the options for self-publishing that are available now hadn’t yet been conceived then. His insistence upon sticking to a very narrow timeframe would give me little time to craft the storyline for my characters that I felt the readers deserved.

Allow me to interject some things to make this clear: I knew that Peter wanted to write a novel. I knew that he wanted to include my characters.  I thought that this would be a collaborative effort and that I would have creative control over how much or little my characters were used, and the manner that they were used.

That was most definitely not the case.

Peter completed the initial draft of the novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  He then asked me to read it because he wanted my approval before sending it to press.  I did read it, but I could not approve it.  To help rush the process along, Peter took entire blocks of material from short stories I’d written and shared over the last couple of years; considering them to be my contribution to the work that would earn me credit as co-author.  He patched the stories together, writing around and throughout to piece the novel together.  Essentially, my work were bits of fabric, his was the thread, and he was determined to make a patchwork quilt.

There were sections vital to his story for which I had no previously-written material, and he seemed to need my characters to follow a certain direction.  It was then that he took control of my characters to get those sections completed to his satisfaction.  Despite having professed his love for my characters for many years, he essentially changed vital aspects of their personalities and who I’d crafted them to be to suit his story.  They spoke to one another in a way I never showcased.  Their interactions, thoughts, patterns of speech…were not the same.  He had them doing things I would never have considered, because it fit the story he wanted to tell.  I was basically reading a novel comprised of strangers, and when I voiced my concerns they weren’t met with what felt like simmering annoyance.

I was confused and very hurt.  Because he was in such a hurry to publish, his version of my characters would be the first the world would see.  I was faced with a choice: Should I hurriedly publish a novel of my own to salvage these characters, particularly since my plan was to have an entire book series written about them?  Should I embrace the true title of co-author and take full control of each section in which my characters were used?

In the end, I chose neither of those.  The latter wasn’t really an option.  He wanted his story to be told a certain way and, in his eyes, the ability to do so demanded that my characters be written a certain way.  I also didn’t want to crank out what likely would have been a disastrous debut novel – all because he was planning to publish in less than a month.

My decision to speak plainly regarding my feelings about the book and use of my characters was essentially the beginning of the end of our friendship.  He wasn’t at all happy that I wasn’t pleased by the results.  He wanted to honor the characters that he’d grown to love while also putting his mark on them, but it just wasn’t going to work as-is.

I knew that he’d put a lot of work into the sections he wrote, and I was very aware of the fast-approaching deadline to publish.  Based on that, I decided that I would remove myself from the co-author position he wanted me to have. I also didn’t ask him to omit the sections he’d borrowed from my work. I hadn’t planned to use any of that in my own novel anyway – it was all written in fun and as a creative exercise and he, thankfully, hadn’t used any of the material that I did and still do plan to incorporate into my own finished work.  I did, however, request that he remove all the names and likenesses of all of my characters from his novel.  I didn’t feel that there was any other choice.

He asked me more than once, “Are you done?” and I told him I was done discussing the book and the presence of my characters in it.  Looking back, I think he was asking if I was done with him.  Well, he was obviously done with me.  I guess, in his mind, I became one of the people who didn’t believe in him – the ones he used to tell me he dealt with in high school and beyond. 

I have two versions of the novel.  There’s the one he printed and bound himself at a Kinko’s, the way it was originally envisioned and with the names of my characters still in place.  The second I purchased in secret after our friendship ended and he made the changes I requested.  Though he no longer wanted to speak because doing so was likely a reminder of the rejection he felt from me, I still wanted him to succeed and I wanted to contribute to his book sales in some way.

I also still have all of the original source material; the short stories that I wrote so many years ago that ended up as a catalyst for all of this. There’s no reason I shouldn’t, since I wrote them and they are the foundation of characters that have been a part of my life for over twenty years. For so long I’ve set aside the possibility of finally giving them their own story. Each time I began work on it, my thoughts returned to the issue of Peter as if his shadow had been cast over my characters.

But, that’s not entirely fair – not to my characters and not to him – and though I haven’t solidified a publication date for the novel that will introduce this particular band of troublemakers, it is on the horizon.

So…would I ever again consider a co-author’s chair? Maybe. It would likely be best, though, to do so with an entirely new set of characters belonging neither to me nor to the other author. Prior affinity seems to be taboo.