Photo credit: Jen Brown Photography
As every author will loudly, repeatedly attest (until you shuffle out of earshot), it’s quite difficult to write books. Beyond putting pen to paper, there are proposals, cover drafts, promotional events, edits, and a veritable slew of emails to field along the way. The four of us were thrust into the book publishing world somewhat unexpectedly at the top of 2018 when we cowrote a satirical piece called “New Erotica for Feminists” that ran on McSweeney’s
— and promptly went very viral. The situation quickly escalated from us writing 12 joke vignettes together to us suddenly getting the chance to write a whole book together. In three months. While each also worked full time.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t die (somehow) while doing so, and our book New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay
came out in November 2018 on Plume Books, a Penguin Random House imprint here in the U.S., and Sceptre Books, a Hachette imprint in the UK. We even had the honor of being included at #4 in Vulture
’s 10 Best Comedy Books of 2018! And let’s face it, anytime one can land three rungs down from David Sedaris
on any list, that’s a career highlight.
At book signings, author talks, and events, people always ask us a version of the question, “How do the four of you manage to collaborate so cohesively? That seems... unusual and scary.” And from the outside, we can imagine that’s true! Writers tend to be introverted, stubborn creatures who don’t want to cede creative control, or even, say, talk to other humans. Before the four of us founded or began editing the humor and satire site for women writers, The Belladonna
, we weren’t prone to working (at least, in humor writing) with others ourselves. But our collaboration has absolutely, undeniably been the signature spice in our Colonel’s Secret Recipe, which has made for a richer career path and outcome than any of us had experienced alone. In addition to the book, we’ve now shared bylines in McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The Billfold, Electric Literature
, and more.
Are you ready to tiptoe into a pool of creative collaborations? Here are the pillars of our own creative cooperation that make our shared projects possible and productive:
Find collaborators who you trust and like to be around, who make you better, and who round out your skills.
If you have someone who is good at generating ideas, they should lead brainstorming sessions, while someone naturally organized can help keep everyone on track. In short: play to each other’s strengths. The four of us sort of naturally sorted into our roles over time, but a more formal structure may work better for other groups up front. If all goes well, you’ll be spending a lot of time in your collaboration, so it’s important to genuinely like each other and be honest about where you each excel — and where you could use a little assist.
Next, create some ground rules and processes.
It was crucial that we created and refined our processes together, figuring out what would work best for everyone. To write the book, we created a Google doc and broke down the sections we’d decided on together, then got writing. Often, someone would just write the kernel of an idea in the doc or would start a vignette, taking it as far as they could at that moment. We all agreed that, just as we did in the original piece, we each trusted the skill and trained eye of the others in editing the vignettes and punching them up. Almost every vignette in the book was touched and shaped at points by all four of us, and we invariably found that each other’s points of view brought more humor and nuance to each piece.
It helped that New Erotica for Feminists
wasn’t our first time working together. When we started The Belladonna
, we figured out routines and tools that would keep everyone accountable and would maximize productivity. As we launched, email and text both got a little overwhelming, so we moved to Google Chat for the bulk of our day-to-day communication. Having an easy way to huddle in real time from various locations (Caitlin and Carrie live in Brooklyn, Fiona in Queens, and Brooke in Columbus, Ohio) helped us avoid bottlenecks and miscommunications. In fact, the first time all four of us were ever under the same roof together was the weekend we finished the book when we got together to read the entire manuscript aloud and polish each vignette. It turns out the Internet can be useful for more than creating Game of Thrones
memes! Who knew?
Be kind and professional.
Work disputes out quickly. You may be noticing a theme here, but communication really is key. If a group member is frustrated or just feeling as though things are “off,” it’s important to discuss the issue before it escalates. The way it’s discussed is also important. Don’t accuse others or read too much into their motives. Approach the topic the way you’d like it to be approached with you. At The Belladonna
, we try to make our rejections kind, professional, and constructive; we try to do the same in our interactions with each other as editors and collaborators. It may help at the start of a writing collaboration to do a prenup of sorts — how will disputes over edits be resolved? What is each person’s preferred method of getting feedback? Just knowing that a collaborator prefers written words they can digest slowly versus hearing critical feedback face-to-face can prevent blow-ups growing forward.
Edit until everyone is happy.
Creative differences of opinion didn’t happen often, but they did pop up. No one agrees 100 percent of the time (and it would be creepy if they did). So, if someone wasn’t happy with a line or vignette and we couldn’t figure out a satisfactory solution, we’d simply cut it. It didn’t feel fair to us to ask someone in the group to have their name on a book that included something they truly didn’t stand behind. You may find the process of editing with a collaborator to be challenging at first — all of a sudden you have to provide a rationale for why EVERYTHING is there! But honestly, you should be doing that when you write solo as well, and having nowhere to hide when it came to making sure our jokes worked ended up making the whole book much funnier as a whole. If you followed step two, you’re already speaking to each other nicely and honestly and resolving disputes kindly and promptly, so getting down to the nitty gritty edits is the next step. Right?
Share the load and pick up the slack during hard days or seasons.
This doesn’t mean that people are off the hook in terms of ongoing responsibilities over time, but we’ve all had personal or job circumstances (we all work full time) where we have needed others to carry some of our work weight for a day, week, or even a bit longer. The key here is to say you need help and directly ask who can jump in. (With four people, we’ve found there’s generally always someone who has some time to spare at that particular moment.) It all goes back to good communication — if you ask someone to help and they do, then you feel extra-motivated to help them in the future when they need to step away to focus on, ya know, LIFE. If everyone in a collaboration wants the project to succeed and move forward, then helping your creative partners balance all the elements of their lives only works to your benefit in the long run.
So, is that all it takes to find your ideal creative partner(s)? Not necessarily. We don’t recommend grabbing any stranger off the street and trying to cowrite a novel (actually, that could be kind of interesting, let us know if you do this, this is a writing podcast we would subscribe to). There’s a sort of lovely magic beyond listicles and formulas in how we interact and overlap as individuals, and that can mean the difference between two people being good collaborators and truly epic creative partners. But once you feel that spark, these steps can help provide the shape, structure, and empathy to fuel some of the best work of your life. So find a friend (or three) and get writing!
÷ ÷ ÷
Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer
are writers and humorists, and the authors of the satire book New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay
. They are also the founders and editors of The Belladonna
, a satire site “by women and non-binary writers, for everyone”.