Two is better than one, right? Well, sure — when it comes to dollars. Or doughnuts. But anyone who's ever worked on a group project knows two heads are only better than one when they're not butting up against each other.
These days, the internet offers more ways to collaborate creatively than ever before, but before you and your best friend embark on your magnum opus together, it's important to know what you're getting yourself into — and how to keep from killing each other. Here, a few old hands at the collaboration game offer their take on the process, along with a few tips for using technology to keep your creative wheels spinning smoothly.
When Florida-based singer-songwriter Chris Farren decided to put out a split 7" with Tim Kasher of Cursive and The Good Life, they chose a somewhat unconventional approach. "For this split," Farren says, "Tim would write a song and send me — over email — a set of chords and lyrics with no other info, and I would do the same. We each took the bare-bones material we'd been sent and then recorded our own versions of each others' songs, as well as our own song as we'd originally envisioned it. While the collaborative versions of the songs turned out vastly different then either of us had imagined, we were both surprised to see that they still carried the same feeling and mood each of us had in mind when we started, and oftentimes that even our phrasing matched."
"In my experience, the key to collaborating is keeping communication active and fluid. When I'm working on a project with someone, I make sure to maintain an active conversation throughout most of the day. I mostly do this over email, so I can lay out all of my ideas in list form, but I'll use text and internet chat for little details as well."
But for some stages of the process, there's no substitute for face-to-face communication. "Tools like Skype come in handy when things start to feel too rigid," Farren points out. "Going back and forth in text form can start to feel serious and humorless and I think there's something valuable in a more human interaction." That kind of human interaction doesn't need to be limited to when you're sitting at your desk. Watching a mind-blowing concert and can't wait to share what you're seeing with your collaborator? Skype's mobile app can put you instantly in touch when moments of inspiration strike on the fly.
Farren and Kasher's 7", You Be Me For Awhile, is out now on Saddle Creek. All the work was worth it, Farren says: "This is definitely one of the most interesting and exciting creative things I've done, and it was built around trusting a collaborator and being open to total misinterpretation."
After meeting in an MFA program, Young Adult writers Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian instantly became partners in creative crime, offering each other advice, first-reads, and criticism on each others' works in progress. While Han went on to write the New York Times bestselling Summer I Turned Pretty series, Vivian published several critically acclaimed novels for young people, including The List and Not That Kind of Girl.
A few years later, when Vivian moved from New York to Pittsburgh, she and Han decided that the best way to keep their friend-flame burning was to write a series of novels together. They hashed out a twisty, turny, supernatural plot, and then got to work on the three-year project of actually writing what would eventually be published by Simon & Schuster as the Burn for Burn trilogy.
While many writers collaborating on a book choose to do it in a piecemeal way, with each author writing independently and sending their sections of the story back and forth to each other, Han and Vivian wanted to work in a style that matched their friendship. "We wrote at the same time, in a shared document, while keeping a Skype window open so we could see our cursors moving around and see each other's faces while we were working," Han says. "That way, you know how the other person is really feeling about something, and it makes it less harsh when someone gives criticism. Also you can watch each other eat."
These virtual work dates were essential, Vivian adds. "When you set a common time where you both hammer on the project from wherever you are, it helps to keep both people accountable."
There are plenty of tools for accomplishing this kind of creative alchemy, but Skype offers a full, flexible range of solutions for co-creation, even if you and your partner are sitting right next to each other. Want to share files? Skype lets you seamlessly drag and drop even big files between computers. Quick text chatting? Skype can do that too. It even lets you share computer screens with each other while you walk each other through complicated processes. And if you're working with more than one collaborator, Skype makes it easy to rope up to twenty-five people into your scheming. The only thing it can't do is write that opera for you. That you'll have to do yourself — but with the right partnership and the right idea, Skype can make it easier and more effective than ever.
Bennett Madison is the author of several books for young people, including September Girls (HarperCollins 2013).
Jenny Han / Siobhan Vivian author photo by Alex Solmssen.