Can Writers Stay Friends When the Partnership Sinks?

I've known Marcus (not his real name) since middle school. We met in a D&D group and our friendship has lasted into adulthood. The main source of our bond is that we're both writers. And nerds. Over the years, as we've each sought to write and publish our own work, we've provided mutual support, encouragement, and criticism.

A couple of years ago, I had an idea for a novel that was exactly what I wanted to put into the world. I told it to Marcus, who loved it. In fact, he loved it so much, he kept hinting that we should collaborate on it. 

I rejected this idea outright. The few times Marcus and I tried to collaborate on short stories in high school, we fought. None of them were ever finished.

However, as the story idea kept growing and evolving, I found myself emailing back and forth with Marcus. Each time he added something new and better to the idea I'd sent him; that creative volley was fueling my inspiration to a tremendous degree.

Plot structure has always been one of my biggest weaknesses. I feel at ease with character development, dialogue, and scene structure, but the connective tissue of my plot is where everything unravels and readers lose interest. My rejections from agents and publishers always run along the lines of, "We really like your writing, but the story just didn't work for us."

So, I finally suggested to Marcus: "Why don't we write this together?" And thus, a partnership was born.

At first, the collaboration went smoothly. We hammered out the plot and developed our characters and themes, and we crafted a chapter outline so that we could both be writing at the same time. The plan was to write alternate chapters, send them to one another for review, and then trade back and forth while working on the next round of chapters.

To paraphrase General Custer, "Boy, it sure seemed like a good idea at the time."

I confess, the first misstep was mine. I was smitten with the story and characters, probably too much so. This was my dream novel; the one I'd longed for when my previous efforts stumbled toward completion, always knowing in the back of my mind that something wasn't working. In my overzealous excitement, I worried that Marcus wouldn't hear the characters speak the same way I did, and we'd end up butting heads over the voices of our protagonists. 

So, instead of writing just the first chapter as we had agreed, I went ahead and wrote the first three, each of which introduced one of our major characters. In hindsight, we probably should have crafted an exercise wherein we wrote a short story or standalone scene with our characters to establish their voices. 

As you might imagine, Marcus wasn't overjoyed. He felt like I was ramming my vision down his throat, and instead of offering a side-by-side collaboration, I was telling him, "Follow my lead and do it just like this." However, instead of sharing these feelings with me at the time, Marcus proceeded to revise the first three chapters, then send them back to me.

I want to be delicate about this: in no way do I fancy myself some kind of prose magician, conjuring effortless tone poems with the merest flicker of finger-strokes across my enchanted keyboard. (See what I mean?) I'm aware of my strengths and weaknesses. 

But, by any reasonable measure, Marcus's edits were... not good. My dialogue might not have won any awards, but instead of enriching it, Marcus took lines that I thought genuinely funny or engaging and crushed the juice right out of them. His replacement jokes were puns (always bad). He slashed whole swaths of my descriptive writing and replaced them with giant splashes of purple prose. I cringed at his self-conscious cleverness, which I found achingly smarmy. 

He gave our characters cute little phrases I'd heard him utter countless times—"stuffed like a goose," "poke the bear," “hey diddle-diddle, fuck my fiddle"—none of which read any funnier in the novel than they'd sounded coming from his lips. And every character, no matter their race, sex, or nationality, spoke exactly like Marcus.

In terms of a writing partnership, this was like waking up from a one-night stand to discover your Tinder hook-up is a not-too-distant cousin.

At the same time, Marcus sent me the first chapter he'd written. His prose seemed to grasp at being profound and evocative, but constantly fell short. You could see him straining for effect, time and again, without actually earning it. It was bloated with over-the-top descriptions and just about every adjective in the dictionary.

I tried to offer constructive criticism without outright advising Marcus to stop gobbling thesaurus pages for breakfast. Keeping the prose simple seemed the best way to move forward. Let's just lay down the basic story, I suggested, and we'll work on embellishments in the second draft. I hoped that by then he'd see this kind of writing was not only unnecessary but also bloated, turgid, unwieldy, tumescent, and perhaps a touch redundant. 

We exchanged our notes via the "track changes" feature in Word. When I sent Marcus's chapter back to him, there were literally two brief paragraphs that weren't encased in blocks of color. The comment tabs were so voluminous, they filled the margin of the page from top to bottom and required extra pages to complete.

Meanwhile, Marcus's notes on my next chapter were astoundingly sparse. A couple of suggestions for word choices, a joke that didn't work for him, and one paragraph of description I'd fumbled through, which he, quite correctly, didn’t feel came together.

After I sent Marcus my notes, he spent a few days revising his second chapter. What I got back was trimmer and more readable—but that was the best I could say. The dialogue was never better than functional, and some of it was still painfully bad. I yearned to inject his chapter with conflict, vitality, suspense, and humor.

I just hoped Marcus would develop his flow as we went along, the way I could feel my chapters becoming stronger, more limber, as I warmed up. But the next chapter Marcus sent had all the problems of his previous one, plus a couple of new hiccups. He attempted a romantic scene that consisted entirely of the female character assuring the male character that one day the world would see just how amazing he really was, which only she had realized so far. 

Fearing that I was suffering from runaway ego and simply couldn't see Marcus's skill—while quite possibly over-valuing my own—I shared pages with writer/editor friends. In each case, they confirmed what I'd been feeling. An editor friend laughed so hard at his love scene that she accidentally peed a little, right in the restaurant. 

I can't tell you how we made it all the way through an entire draft, but somehow we reached the final chapter. It was mine to write, and I did so with a heavy heart, missing the elation I usually feel at reaching the elusive finish line. I dreaded the work that lay ahead of us. How could we hope to merge two such conflicting voices into a cohesive narrative?

What's more, this story I'd once dearly cherished had turned to black ash. I’d fallen out of love with the characters, who were so wildly inconsistent from chapter to chapter that I no longer felt like I had the slightest idea who any of them really were. The cohesive plot we'd y structured—the most fruitful part of our collaboration —felt like a mechanism whose gears ground and churned without reason. 

Worst of all, at least from a personal standpoint, was the way our partnership affected our longtime friendship. When Marcus and I met over coffee, there were so many unspoken feelings, we must have looked to other patrons like an old married couple just waiting for one person to finally give in and say the dreaded word: "Divorce." Ultimately, that seemed like the only option—we had to end the collaboration to save the friendship.

Luckily, fate intervened on both our behalves. I'd suggested a cooldown period, putting our draft on the back burner for a few months so we could tackle the revisions with fresh perspective.

But a funny thing happened: In the process of a monumentally unhappy writing experience, Marcus and I had each developed separate ideas that excited us so much more than the book we were grinding out. A few months after our agreed-upon cooldown, we were each well into other novels we were writing by ourselves, with a passion and fervor that had been missing in our collaborative effort.

Two years later, that first draft has never been taken off the back burner. Marcus broaches the subject occasionally, and I've deflected his questions by saying I'm still way too busy with my own solo projects. We haven't dared a no-holds-barred autopsy to expose our true feelings about our collaboration, but we've each touched on how disappointing the experience was and acknowledged that the partnership simply didn't click the way we'd hoped.

Luckily, our friendship survived. 

In the end, I'm sure I made just as many mistakes as Marcus did. And, despite the amount of time we spent on a novel that is essentially useless, I don't regret the experience. For one thing, I learned a lot about plotting from Marcus. I'm in the outline stage of my next novel, devising the plot by myself—and doing a much better job than I ever managed before our ill-fated partnership.

“Andrea McConnell” is the pen name of a writer too polite to share this true story under their own name. :)