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Starting Your Collaboration Off On The Right Foot

Once you’ve decided to proceed with a collaboration, there are things you can do to get it started on the right foot: choosing your first project, setting expectations for how you’ll work together, and onboarding your collaborator.

Having good working habits that keep you productive is even more important when you’re collaborating, because your partner is depending on you to do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it.

Onboarding a New Collaborator

The onboarding process will be unique to your partnership — and it’s possible that each of you will be onboarding the other, if neither of you is taking the lead in this collaboration. 

Here are some activities that might be part of your onboarding process:

Training. Is this collaboration taking one or both of you into a new genre? Or is one of your reasons for joining forces that you want to learn certain things from each other? Or maybe it makes sense to take a class or read a craft book together, so you’re starting with a shared vocabulary.

Sharing references and resources. Do you love the Hero’s Journey or Michael Hauge’s Six Stages? Is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style your go-to for resolving grammatical questions?

Also, what about custom resources, like a story bible template, a production checklist, or relevant research? A spreadsheet for tracking word count or noting what stage each project is in? An accountability app where you can high-five each other for hitting your daily goal? 

Establishing or explaining roles and responsibilities. The clearer you can be about who’s responsible for what, the better, especially when you’re bringing a new collaborator into a group. One of the most common sources of hurt feelings in a collaboration is when one person steps on another’s toes, often without meaning to or realizing it until the hurt feelings have had a chance to solidify. Clear roles also help to avoid duplicated efforts, which not only slow down the collaboration, but also have the potential to create hurt feelings.  

Brainstorming your first project. Maybe you’re both experienced authors, but your big challenge is figuring out how to sync your working styles. For you, the best onboarding might be digging into the work and working out the kinks right away.

Bonding over great stories. Watch a movie or read a book in tandem and get to know one another by discussing or analyzing the work. You could choose something in the genre you’re considering writing in together and use it as a way to get on the same page about genre expectations. Or choose something that one of you loves and wants to share with the other, to understand each other’s storytelling aesthetic better.

Setting weekly goals or milestones. As you’re getting to know each other’s working styles and rhythms, it might make sense to track progress in small chunks and do accountability check-ins, to make sure that you’re noticing issues and addressing them while they’re still small. 

Setting up shared workspaces or tools. Will you communicate through email, Slack or Discord? Will you share files through Dropbox, Google Drive, or some other cloud storage service? Will you collaborate in a writing environment like Campfire Blaze or Plottr, or share timelines in Aeon? Is Google Docs your go-to for passing a draft back and forth? Do you want to track project tasks in an app like Notion, Trello or Asana?

Signing a collaboration agreement. Is this collaboration part of an established studio offering set terms, or do these terms need to be negotiated? If you’ve decided that it’s time to formalize the relationship with a contract, crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s might also be part of the onboarding process. 

Starting a podcast to see if you’ll still like each other after a few dozen episodes. Just kidding! Although it did work for Dave and me, when we brought Johnny on board.

If you’re joining an existing collaboration, it’ll be awkward for a little while as the established relationships expand to include new ones. Trust might take longer to establish with one partner than with the other (especially if the first partner is Dave). 

Be respectful of the way others are already used to working, and do a lot of listening and asking questions while you’re discovering who you are as a team. But don’t feel like your relationship with your new collaborators has to work exactly the way their existing process does — if something doesn’t work for you, say so politely and work with your new partners to figure out how your strengths and habits can become part of the workflow. 

Collaboration Agreements

Trust takes years to establish, seconds to break, and forever to repair. It’s always worth the time to build this right from the beginning. And at some point early on in a commercial collaboration, meaning any partnership where money will be made, a contract is required.

You’re probably asking yourself, when do I need a contract?

The answer is, as soon as you need one. 

But even if it’s not time for a contract, you still need to have a frank conversation about things like revenue sharing, who owns what rights, etc., before you should really start working together.

We’ve talked on our podcast about how the three of us didn’t even have contracts with each other for the first several years we did business together. And we didn’t have contracts to hand out for more than a year after we opened our studio to new authors because we were doing things that had never been done and the fine print on that was incredibly complicated to get right. That required a tremendous amount of trust, and it might not be right for you to grant that much latitude in your partnerships. 

At the moment, we have contracts with every writer in our studio. But we’ve been operating in faith on a project that may lead to our first sitcom. Putting a contract in place still feels premature; we prefer to nurture the relationship right now. You might need something right away, or you might want to wait a bit longer. 

It only matters what feels right to you and your collaborator. If you’re not comfortable moving forward without a contract but your collaborator is reluctant to sign one, or if you’re feeling offended that they want to talk to a lawyer first, talk about why each of you feels that way and what you’re worried about. You might even want to talk about worst-case scenarios, and ask about past experiences that might be driving the desire for a contract (or to avoid one). 

If you do decide it’s time for a formal agreement, what kinds of things might it cover?

1. Who will own the copyright? Will it be joint intellectual property, or be assigned to one of the collaborators? Will your collaboration include a business that will own the copyright? Will all rights in the work be joint, or will they be divided between you?

2. How will revenue from the work be split? Will the percentages be different depending on what each person contributes, or different for the various versions of the work in different media?

3. What do you intend to create together? If the work becomes something else, how will you decide what happens to it? 

4. How will responsibilities be shared? Who makes which decisions? Who outlines, who writes, who edits, and who publishes? Where does the buck stop during each part of the production process? 

5. If one of you doesn’t do what you’ve agreed to do, what options does the other have? If the agreement is terminated, what happens to the work that’s been done so far?

6. Who will pay expenses, and if they’ll be split, how will they be split? Will it vary by project? Which expenses should be covered under the collaboration and which will be the responsibility of the individuals? 

7. How will accounting for the collaboration be handled? Who will handle collecting and distributing revenue and paying ongoing expenses?

8. Can either of you create derivative works (for example, taking a character from a joint series and writing an offshoot as a solo project) based on the stories you’ve written together?

9. What happens to the joint work if one of you dies? Not fun to think about, but crucial to figure out in advance.

10. If one of you wants to terminate the agreement, what happens to the joint work? How will you resolve disagreements about who gets what?

While you can google “collaboration agreement” and find templates online, talking to a lawyer about how to memorialize the things you’ve already agreed on is a smart thing to do. Each collaboration will be unique, and what’s right for someone else won’t necessarily be right for your situation. 

If it feels too soon (or too expensive) to bring a lawyer into the relationship, it doesn’t hurt to write an informal summary of what you plan to do together in plain English. This can be as simple as an email that spells out what each person has agreed to do: 

       •        Bob will outline each book with Joe’s input. 

       •        Joe will write the draft. 

       •        Bob will revise the book and will have final say on editorial changes. 

       •        Cover cost will be split 50-50, but Bob will pay for the proofreader.

This isn’t the same as a legal contract, of course, but having a written reminder of what you’ve each agreed to do can sometimes make it easier to resolve disagreements before they’re serious enough for Judge Judy.

Choosing Your First Project

Even if you feel like you know each other pretty well and have established a baseline of trust to build on, it’s a good idea to choose a first project that’s small enough to be executed relatively quickly — a month or less — so you can see how the full collaboration cycle will work and identify sticking points that need some lubrication.

Here are some guidelines for getting started:

Decide the purpose of the project. Is your collaboration about building a bridge between your existing audiences? Or are you going after a new audience together? Is one of you bringing the other into an existing world that you’re going to share from this point forward? 

Choose something that you can afford to fail at. If a deadline is missed, if your collaborator has a sudden change of circumstances, or if it turns out that you’ve underestimated how much work it’s going to take to get your new partner up to speed, you might need to write this low-stakes project off as a learning experience. Taking the pressure off makes it easier to give and receive feedback, to ask for help, and to learn new skillsets. It also gives you more room for conversation, so you can save the relationship if it turns out that you’ve made a mistake in choosing your collaborator.

What could you create together that would be useful to you both, but that you can both live without if it doesn’t work?

Set clear parameters for the story. What tone are you going for? Is sex, swearing, or violence okay? Does it matter if the story turns out to be 10K shorter than planned, or 30K longer? Who’s your audience, and what do you want them to come away from the story with? If this story is a crossover — which we definitely do not recommend for a first project, unless you’re both experienced authors with a high baseline of trust — are there rules for writing your characters that your partner needs to respect? Or places that you’d never take your audience that your partner should know about? Given your respective strengths and weaknesses, are there any elements that your partner should leave for you to handle? 

Where are the gaps between your visions for the story, and how can you close those gaps?

Negotiate working expectations. Set deadlines or flexible milestones, and let your collaborator know what you’re expecting for the outcome of each one. Do you want to see your partner’s raw first draft of chapter one as soon as it’s finished, or do you want them to do whatever editing they think it needs before they pass it to you? Do you want your partner to touch base with you before they deviate from the outline you’ve agreed upon, or would you rather they run with the inspiration when it strikes? How long should each person wait to ask for help if they get stuck?

How often will you check in with each other with status updates? Is a quick text good enough, or do you want weekly Zoom meetings? When should your partner not expect a quick reply and when can they count on you to be available? Should they ping you on Slack when they send you a file, in case you miss the email or Dropbox notification? When there’s a decision to be made, would you prefer a long, thoughtful email or a phone call where you can take a walk while you problem-solve? How will you handle it if one person turns in work that doesn’t meet the other person’s standards?

Where are your work habits incompatible with your collaborator’s, and how could you work together more smoothly?

If something goes wrong, don’t just solve the story problem, look for the process tweak. Would it have helped to have figured out more of the character’s backstory during the outlining process? Was the outline too detailed, or not detailed enough? Did you underestimate how much research your partner would need to feel comfortable writing scenes set in a Renaissance castle? Did you not factor enough wiggle room into the schedule, in case your partner’s kid got the flu and needed extra attention? Does it turn out that your partner’s standards for an edited scene are different than yours, and would a checklist or splitting responsibilities throughout the revision process help? Did your partner lose a half-day’s work because a shared file got overwritten? 

How could you make things go smoother by tweaking one or both person’s creative process?

Once the project is complete, find the takeaways that will help you do better in the future. It’s important that you both be completely honest as you discuss what went well, what made each of you anxious or uncomfortable, what surprised you, and what you learned about each other’s creative habits and needs. If you had a miscommunication, what did each person experience and why? Did you just need to clarify terms, or were there assumptions on either side that need to be discussed? How do each of you feel about the way the story turned out, and what would each of you like to do better in the future? Did each of you feel like your strengths were being used well? What would you like to handle differently next time?

Whether you’re looking forward to finding your rhythm as a team or you’ve decided to part ways, you’ll still come away with deeper insight into who you are as a creator.

If you decide to part ways, do it with candor and manners. Whether you’re not compatible in working style, artistic vision, skillsets, or some other way, be sure to thank the other person for doing the experiment with you, and to appreciate them for the time and energy they brought to the project. If working together brought up a clash of values or beliefs, agree to disagree and let it go — which is much easier to do when you were working on a low-stakes project where failure was an option.

You don’t have to justify your reason beyond I don’t feel like we’re a good fit, if that’s what you feel comfortable saying. But don’t be tempted to waffle, or to ghost the other person and hope that they get the message if the collaboration was difficult. Pay them the respect of a clear no before you move on. 

See you next Wednesday!