Why is a song collaborative in ways a story is not?

WriterWhen musicians create a song, each of them takes their own instrument and creates a part that will support the song as a whole. Writing, however, is usually a single person sitting alone at a keyboard. Why is that, exactly?

You might say that a story is a single person’s vision, their message that they want to get across. You could equally say the same about a band. Songs usually have some sort of message, even if it’s as simple as “I love you.”

So, is it complexity that hinders collaboration? Does the added complexity of a novel mean that it’s unlikely that multiple authors will agree on the direction it’s taking?

If that’s the case, then how do movies and plays work? While they’re written by only one or two people, they easily involve a hundred people in their filming or staging.

I think the traditional vision of a single author of a novel being the only way that works is worth a revisit. Different authors are skilled at different things. Some excel at snappy dialogue, some have amazing, convoluted twists and plans, some create multi-layered characters and some create descriptions that you can reach out and touch. Why not use all of these skills to create the best possible novel?

It would require a director. Just like a film, it needs someone who has the final say. If you put things to a vote, you’re likely to cause arguments. Obviously this director needs to take input from the experts, but after hearing everyone’s arguments, the director needs to make a decision so everyone can move forward.

What would the roles on this book look like? Here are a few ideas:

1. The director – The person with the initial idea for the story. They come up with a saleable and interesting idea that would make a good book. They then guide this idea through every stage of the process, honing everyone’s ideas to match their vision;

2. The world-builder – The person who builds a world around the initial idea. They decide the rules of the world where the story will take place. They create the maps and descriptions of the animals, plants and structures of the world;

3. The character builder – The person who decides what people best fit the story. They create character sheets with pictures and descriptions of how the people react to different situations;

4. The outliner – The person who takes the idea, the characters and the world and makes a story out of them all. They come up with a plot, in broad strokes. Everything that happens within the story is outlined and described;

5. The dialoguer – They take the outline, along with the other documents, and write all of the dialogue for the story. They leave gaps with comments where the description will go;

6. The describer – They take the dialogue documents and fill in the descriptions of everything. They describe the people and places in the world;

7. The rewriter – The book is now mostly complete, but someone has to rewrite it so that the voice is consistent. They take the dialogue and descriptions of the previous two experts and smooth them out, giving them a consistent tone;

8. The polisher – The polisher takes the rewritten work and fixes any problems they find with logic, consistency, etc. They produce a polished book, ready for editing;

9. The editor – Already a vital part of any book. They go over the book and help fix any problems with it;

10. The cover artist – Also already part of any book. They create a unique cover for the book;

11. The marketer – An expert in crafting a good book description and getting the word out there about the new book.

So, what problems would this approach have? Well, the number one problem would have to be the complexity of the writing. It would take a lot of organisation on the director’s part to make sure the book stays on track.

The second biggest problem would be royalties. If you write a book alone, you get all of the money earned through royalties. With so many collaborators, you would have to decide the percentage split between each person.

However, something to consider is that with so many people, each person’s time invested would be less, so the reduced royalty might well cover that. You would need to have rock solid contracts, though. If the book became hugely successful, then legal battles may ensue.

Personally, I’d love to try an experiment like this. It may be an unmitigated disaster, but why are we sticking to the same model? In these modern times, we have unprecedented possibilities for collaboration. We can work on things together and communicate anywhere in the world. Why are we letting ourselves be constrained by the limitations of ink and paper?


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