Collaborating: Right or Wrong

by Hazel Edwards
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2002
Is there a right or wrong way to collaborate as co-creators of scripts?

No. All partnerships are different. Collaborating on writing fiction has been described as a bit like marriage without the sex. Choosing a writing partner is a risky business, but very satisfying. Skills need to be complementary, not competitive.

We had already collaborated on a novel, a textbook and a series for Secondary students Excuse Me! Three Outrageous Plays. We knew the benefits of exchanging dialogue, using each other as a sounding board for new ideas, and forcing each other to continue working when "flat" and the energy board registered zero. Both of us enjoy writing scripts (possibly because we enjoy talking and assuming different roles) Even when we collaborated on an earlier YA novel Email Murder Mystery the dialogue came more easily.

People often ask us how collaboration works. Do we sit at the same desk? Who is the ideas person? Who is the real writer -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- really? There's no doubt that co-writing takes lots of commitment and dedication. And a very thick skin. No room for bruised egos. We knew there was no point trying to spare each other's feelings. Either something worked or it didn't. Often a sentence or a scene painstakingly and lovingly crafted by one writer would be sent into oblivion by the other. Anyway, by the time a piece had gone through half a dozen drafts, we could never be sure whose idea or phrase it had been in the first place.

Collaborating on Right or Wrong: Plays to Laugh and Think About, a collection of classroom scripts, presented certain practical problems. We live a thirty-five minute off-peak drive apart. Peak hour traffic across town takes twice as long. And realistically for this type of concentration, three-hour bursts of work are about the limit.

Generally, we do a combination of email and meeting face-to-face at least once weekly, often in cafes. But we have had the odd embarrassing moment where eavesdropping coffee drinkers have assumed our dialogue was a real conversation, rather than us acting out a scene. Trialing material matters for a play. The pacing must be right. So it needs to be read aloud.

Facts matter. Antarctica: Cool or What? was based on the research Hazel did as Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition writer-on-ice 2001 when she was awarded the Humanities berth on the polar re-supply ship to Casey Station. But normally we don't go as far as an Antarctic Base, nor get stuck in the ice in order to collect our facts. The "insect" data for Insecta had been researched earlier. As writers we knew a lot about the moral issue of copyright for the play Copyright or Wrong (Phoenix Education), but we needed to check out how a pop group recognized it. Also we were interested in making kids think about decision making. Reborn came of encouraging kids to contemplate differing philosophical and religious beliefs, and Fairy Tale Casting Agency poked mild fun at our contemporary obsession with the media. As well, there is a Teachers Resource Book which presents ideas and activities for using the plays effectively in the classroom.

What we had to do was synthesize our information into authentic settings where convincing characters spoke snappy dialogue. We knew each other's talents and weaknesses intimately. Goldie's strength lay in characterization, dialogue and description. Hazel's in plotting and ideas. But one writer tends to be over wordy, the other overly brief. One is easily distracted and has a short attention span. The other has the resilience of a mountaineer and is an obsessive worker, but sloppy about layout.

Every piece of information was carefully logged into the computer. The attached file was then emailed to the co-writer as well as being recorded on a floppy disk in case of break-down. Going on email wipes out excuses, prevents procrastination. The computer's appetite is insatiable. It demands to be fed. It won't accept excuses.

In the beginning, sometimes we crossed cyberspace together, and one draft was superimposed on the other. To eliminate the existence of a multiplicity of script versions and duplicating work, we agreed to a time-schedule. The early morning writer "fowl" would work on the current draft until "brain-dead" 2-3 hours later. Then the story draft would be emailed to the night writer "owl". The agreement was that until the next draft was emailed back, no further work was to be done. OVER TO YOU was the message. This provided a thinking break, but also a moral obligation to work when it did arrive.

Whatever arrived was modified, criticized, edited and returned. Of course there were problems. Occasionally things went "wrong with the works" and whole pages, even scenes either came out as indecipherable symbols or disappeared into cyberspace never to be recovered.

But the advantages of collaboration were amazing. Writing fiction is very time consuming. Whatever you might read about authors working in a blaze of white hot creativity is mostly untrue. Our experience is that writing is a painful, lengthy, demanding, sweaty process; much like putting together a very elaborate cake where each separate and unique layer must be integrated into the whole. All kinds of issues about the emerging scripts were better understood, as were the number of drafts it took to "get the concept right." Having a second mind to check the logic of the satires was invaluable.

We set ourselves certain parameters. Our plays had to accommodate any number of performers from ten to thirty and keep the entire class occupied whether it be with producing sound effects, finding equipment or helping with staging. As far as possible the plays had to be gender free, allow for divergent reading abilities, be topical, thought provoking, funny and lead to other classroom activities.

Thus Antarctica: Cool or What questions who is responsible for Antarctica? Insecta discovers a new and rare species and then wonders what decisions must be made to keep it safe. Copyright or Wrong reveals what happens when a song hits the charts. But who owns it? The lyricist? The band? Or the audience? In Reborn a dozen exhumans find themselves in the Waiting Room between lives. The question is, where should they go now? Finally, in the Fairy Tale Casting Agency, the actors must retrain in order to stay in business.

We have already started plotting our next selection of six classroom plays: Friends, Not Bullies. No doubt we will argue a lot, lose drafts, drink too much coffee, embarrass ourselves in cafes, bore our friends and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. Collaborating is fun.

Previous co-authored works by Alexander and Edwards include:
Articles include:

Hazel Edwards**Best known for There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake (Hodder Headline UK), which won the Leipzig Picture Book Bronze Award, and subsequent books, video, stage play Hip Hip Hippo and audio tapes based on the cake-eating hippo, Edwards also writes adult non-fiction, teacher educational material, junior and adolescent fiction and scripts. Her work has been translated into Finnish, Braille, Japanese and Chinese. She has been nominated twice for the AWGIE award for her children's original scripts and adaptations.

Stalker, a Young Adult thriller, is her most recent novel for young people. Just in Case...You Visit the Children's Court created with Michael Salmon is a new venture into factual cartoon style books. In 2000, Hazel was a writer-in-residence in Antarctica at Australia's Casey Station. You can visit her website at hazeledwards.com.

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