News room: The Art of Collaboration - by Bryony Sutherland

The Art of Collaboration - by Bryony Sutherland by Sarah Juckes

The One Big Book Launch event we organised in 2014 and 2015 enabled ten authors to collaborate on a book launch to remember – sharing marketing efforts, readers and book sales – and we saw how this can really work. But what about writing? Can two or more authors put their heads together to create a book?

To find out, we asked author and editor Bryony Sutherland to share her experiences working with other authors, and her advice on refining the art of collaboration.

Collaboration, for me, makes the world go round. It really does. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been a lone writer, staring at the screen into the wee small hours, waiting for inspiration to strike. I’ve also been a writer possessed, zipping through tens of thousands of words each week, not pausing for sleep or even a sandwich. (Not recommended. Definitely up the sandwich quota.) It’s wonderful to receive recognition for something you’ve achieved all on your own – that’s a special kind of accomplishment. But collaboration is a whole other level.

Starting with a friend

My writing career started with my friend, Lucy Ellis. Towards the end of our respective degrees we chanced upon the hare-brained scheme of penning biographies for a living, and as ingénues we were exceptionally lucky in that our first publishing query letter resulted in a deal. Having pocketed our advance and agreed on a subject, we were then faced with how, actually, to write together. We’d never tried that before.

In the end, our connection as friends played out across the page. Initially we sat together at a computer, taking turns to type. We’d print out and proofread separately, then regroup and hammer out a final draft that appealed to us both. That worked well until the job offers flooded in and we needed to start balancing grown-up concerns like schedules, deadlines and cash flow. For the nine books traditionally published in our names, we explored every conceivable combination from planning together and dividing up chapters, to writing entire books solo, then handing them to each other to polish. Looking back over our work, it’s nigh on impossible to tell what was written originally by my partner or by me. By the time it went to print, all text had been visited equally by both red pens.

Collaborating in the digital age

As the digital age progressed, collaboration became easier. Our most recent book together, a short ghostwritten memoir, was written entirely on Google Docs. Lucy lives an hour away, so commuting is not always an efficient use of our time. Instead we sit on Skype so we can chat freely throughout the day, and we divide up the writing into manageable chunks and work on the same document together in real time (often bickering, of course, “You do that!” – “No, you do that!”). Because we established a joint writing identity so long ago, there’s little evidence of where we join the dots and one voice meets the other. I’m sure it’s true of many husband-and-wife teams whereby the authors are so close that a type of telepathy or at least shorthand is formed. For us, we complete each other’s sentences in print as well as in conversation.

Joining forces with editors and strangers

My love of collaboration further bloomed when I discovered the joys of editing. I adore editing. I find little more creatively rewarding than taking an author’s rough diamond and polishing it to a high shine. Having had my own books edited, I am familiar with and sympathetic to the doubts writers face when handing their beloved over to a relative stranger. But I’d like my authors to know what it’s like for me, too. Because the majority of my writing is non-fiction, I am forever humbled by my fiction authors’ ideas and skills at plot weaving. Because my background lies in biography, I am perennially interested in memoir (or maybe I’m just nosy). Above all, because there is no ‘office banter’ gained sitting alone in front of a keyboard, the relationships I form with my authors mean the world to me, as does seeing their writing skills develop and their confidence soar.

Most recently I am venturing into self-publishing, collaborating with another author and editor who lives halfway round the planet. Sarah Ratliff and I have never met, but our shared passion for our topic has propelled us to pull together an anthology of non-fiction essays, gathered from writers living all over the globe. Collaborating has been a joy of intense busyness – a flurry of emails and Skype calls controlling our communication, with all work conducted via SharePoint, Google Docs, Elance and even Facebook. Throughout our journey we have met around thirty authors with wildly differing stories, each of them valid, memorable and enlightening. We have formed friendships we know will long outlast the buzz of sharing our words and worlds with each other.

Collaboration may not be for everyone, but for me it has enriched both my working and my personal life immeasurably. As words are our medium to connect, why not connect earlier in the publishing process and see what unfolds?

Bryony Sutherland is an editor specialising in memoirs and fiction… with a twist. She is also the co-author of a number of biographies with Lucy Ellis. Together they have been called ‘professional storytellers’ by The Guardian, ‘very professional’ by Film Review, ‘immensely readable’ by The Beat Goes On, ‘detailed’ by Sunday Express and ‘insightful’ by OK! Magazine.

The anthology, ‘Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide’ will be published in Summer 2015. Citing the experiences of mixed-race authors of all ages and backgrounds, from all over the world, it blends positivity, negativity, humor, pathos and realism in an enlightening exploration of what it means to be more than one ethnicity.

For more information please visit her website

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Written by
Sarah Juckes
Published on
Collaborating and Writing advice