Strangers in the Writeby Neil Marr
The Internet Writing Journal, December-January 2001
Tim Field lives in Oxford, England. My home base is more than a thousand miles away close to Monaco on the French Riviera. We have never met. Yet our first co-authored book is released in January 2001!
Tim and I reckon we are pioneers -- probably even the first - to employ a new technique -- e-co-authorship!
We're both widely published writers in our own right, but a chance meeting on the Internet early in 2000 spawned an idea which has resulted in a hard-hitting book of which we are both proud.
No guidelines existed for such e-cooperation so we learned the hard way by trial and error. We'd like to share the experience with others who might benefit from this tremendous form of literary co-operation.
The tips you'll find listed later in this article comprise the first published guide as to how you can succeed using the system we've painstakingly developed over the past twelve months.
I've been an international journalist for 35 years and freelance editor for the past five. Tim is an academic with more letters for degrees and honourary doctorates after his name than I have in the spelling of my own. Another first! Never before have a hard-bitten hack and a boffin of such international reputation worked so closely to produce a complex, multi-levelled work like this.
Back in the late sixties I came across my first case of bully-related child suicide. The story haunted me and, three years ago, I began intensive and expensive research into the subject. I couldn't find a publisher for the finished book. Par for the course ... but I wasn't for giving up just yet.
In the opening days of the new millennium, I decided to make one last ditch bid before scrapping the 80,000-word piece and hit the Net. Within minutes, I had an email from Tim, who's considered a world expert on bullying (his honourary doctorates were awarded in recognition of his anti-bullying work, lecturing and writing in the field. His earlier book Bully in Sight is already regarded as a textbook).
By email, we agreed the book should be co-authored with Tim's expert opinion and experience enhancing the investigative journalism on which my original MSS was based.
A complex book, as you can imagine, but made much less complex through our revolutionary e-team system than had we been working face to face across the same desk.
The system saved massive costs, reduced to almost zero the possibility of flashes of egoism or dispute so common in a face-to-face writing environment and made all communication between us clear and to the point. No time -- not a word -- has been wasted along the way.
And there's a side benefit. We've become close pals as well as colleagues. So much so that our follow up book is already in the pipeline.
Don't forget, we've never met and have spoken by telephone only twice ... to exchange birthday greetings!
Already, some of you might be saying: "What a lonely way to work ... not for me!" You'd be wrong. In thirty five years as a pro writer, I've never felt so closely connected to a co-worker. Tim feels the same way.
So, let's get down to the nitty gritty and explain the system and the pitfalls to avoid.
- Have your MSS draft or at least the bones of your project in mind. If you have tried and failed to find a traditional publisher, hit the Web and search every site germane to your subject (fiction or non fiction).
- Put out a proposal by direct email to ALL these sites, then sit back and wait. If you're as lucky as I was you won't have to wait long.
- Screen replies for those who you feel can complement your work and whose enthusiasm shines through. If you're a professional writer, look for professional success in your potential partner. Respond immediately, asking what your maybe-co-author feels he has to offer, what work time he's willing to dedicate to meeting your deadlines and how adaptable he would be to an adjustment of writing style on each side to ensure a book which is a smooth read rather than a bitty piece where each author can be easily identified by a reader.
- Exchange detailed email proposals on structure and content at this stage BEFORE reaching a final decision.
- Make a deal early on to apportion research costs and other sundry expenses and agree to a royalties split. Then, don't mention them again!
- Cross-edit each other's input and never be afraid of disagreeing with or opening discussion on ANY point.
- Whoever instigated the project, always treat the other guy as though he were boss. Take all suggestions seriously. Two minds on the same job can be tremendously effective.
- Don't forget that, although you might be half a world apart geographically, you have the closest relationship any writer can hope for. Make sure your professional mails are tempered by personal notes so that you learn about each other as human beings ... this not only cements a friendship, it helps in discovering your partner's strengths, interests and special skills. Also how each of you expect to be treated -- with formality or, in our case, friendly, jokey informality whenever the subject in question allows it. Even your wives and kids become tied up in the e-magic of the partnership. (My wife, Skovia, and Tim exchange greetings in French!)
- Should a disagreement arise over any point in the book, put it aside until there's another point on which you are so in tune it is safe to bring up the earlier disagreement in an atmosphere of mutual respect and excitement.
- Keep in e-touch regularly -- daily if possible -- it keeps up the momentum and denies the possibility of laziness or falling behind. On difficult passages, Tim and I have often exchanged a dozen emails a day.
- When the book is complete, use (by email) impartial professional proof readers who are not part of the authorship team and personally proof read, proof read and proof read again until you go to the publisher and tell him to get cracking.
- At no stage of the process should any one partner forcefully take the upper hand, although it will quickly become apparent that each has special skills in particular areas, which should be recognised, appreciated and exploited to mutual benefit.
- Make no move -- media interviews or even a short informal article like this one -- without the full agreement of your partner. Tim's made several subtle changes in this piece for instance.
- Wherever possible, reply to emails by return and by inserting your comments throughout the originals. This makes for foolproof feedback.
- Save ALL emails for reference.
- Occasionally send updated versions of the MSS with latest page numbering. Wipe or store elsewhere older versions. This system makes for easy reference without the risk of confusion (i.e.: UPDATE C PAGE 44 LINE 6 - "MR GREEN" SHOULD READ "MR GREENE" (FINAL E).
- Never allow yourself to be angry or express disagreement in salty terms. Your partner will have off-days, too. All writers are egoists. Keep those emails on hold, sleep on them. You'll often find that your teammate was spot on after all.
- Trust your partner implicitly but never feel shy about double checking a statistic, historical fact, spelling etc. We can all be guilty of slips and typos. A good partner will never object to a failsafe.
- When you're tired, sick or blocked, don't try to hide it. Tell your partner. He'll understand and he'll help. Likewise, if your partner's taking his kids fishing for the week (you know their names and birthdays by now), don't bother him with ANY contact. Slog away solo and have some worthwhile material ready for him when he's back at his desk.
- On the day your book goes to print, send each other an online e-drink ... and already be working on your second project!
One tiny problem we thought we might have was signings. Not a bit of it! We've had stickers printed for the inside front cover, I sign mine with a message and send them back to Tim who adds his signature and greetings and the printer slips them into place. In UK bookstores, Tim will add his signature to my pre-signed label and I'll add mine to his for signings in other European countries.
This is just a simple guide to painless and successful e-co-authorship. If anyone out there has worked this way and would like to add their own tips or let us know of any snags they've come across, we'd be glad to hear from you.
Bullycide - Death at Playtime, can be ordered through Amazon.com.
** Neil Marr is based near Monaco on the French Riviera. A professional international journalist for thirty five years (staff and freelance on the biggest publications in the world), he became a freelance book editor five years ago, has contributed to, ghost-written and co-authored several novels and non-fiction books. His major 300-page work, Bullycide - Death at Playtime which will be released in January, 2001, combines his investigative journalist and novelist skills. He's in his fifties and shares four grown children and a granddaughter with his lady, Skovia. Neil Marr can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Co-author Tim Field lives near Oxford in England and provided the academic input to Bullycide. He too is in his fifties and is considered a world expert in the field of bullying. He's founder of the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and author of the groundbreaking book, Bully in Sight. He's webmaster of non-commercial Bully Online and is in regular demand for radio, TV and print media interviews and lectures and publishes widely on his subject. He has been awarded two honorary doctorates for his work in the field. Tim Field can be reached by email at: email@example.com.