There’s no “I” in Team: And Other Lessons in Partnership
This weekend during a break in the action at our workshop, I was asked to discuss the business of writing partnerships. I have been meaning to have this as a blog topic, and hopefully generate some feedback from those who have worked with a writing partner — or are thinking about it.
I am lucky in that all my experiences with my writing partners have been outstanding. I dedicate both Cat! books to my better halves because without them I’d be nowhere mon frere, and everything I’ve learned, I learned from them. But here are some points you might wish to chime in on about the joys and pitfalls of life the ampersand (&) lane:
FORMING A TEAM
The benefits of partnership pays off for me (with a beard!) and Colby Carr.
I have gotten into partnerships in many ways, but it’s always about the same thing: the desire to create a better story than I can create on my own! I think it’s important to admire your writing partner, and to find someone who’s a better writer in some way than you are. Like in tennis, you always learn more from stronger players. And all my partners have been my better in some area; their strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa. This is how I got to work with the brilliant C. David Stephens, whose chops as a horror maven far exceeded mine — thanks to his expertise he gained writing the classic Cabin by the Lake. Many ask about the business arrangement I recommend. In my experience, I have never had a formal agreement with any partner. I have always worked on a handshake basis, split it all 50/50, and learned to bow to all manner “whose name goes first” type controversies, because in the end it really doesn’t matter.
DAY TO DAY
My best writing experiences have followed a daily routine and that holds true for partnerships as well. Either Colby Carr comes over to my house, or I go over to Howard Burkons’ house, or I fly to Tracey Jackson’s beach retreat in Sag Harbor, or Jim Haggin and I meet every day in his or my office in Santa Barbara. We keep banker’s hours, do our work, then take breaks. Time away from each other is a good thing! In terms of the actual work, my best results have come from the “overwriting” process, meaning that he or I will write the rough draft of a scene, the other guy will come in and overwrite, and on and on until we get it right. We usually start each script blocking it out. (Somewhere there is a photo of me standing in front of The Board for Nuclear Family pointing out the scenes of the story Jim Haggin and I had come up with.) And amazingly, some of the biggest breakthroughs have happened at lunch while we were taking a time-out from the morning session — this is how Colby Carr and I figured out the Mr. Macintosh device in Blank Check, over lunch at “The Eurotrash Cafe.” Thanks Ute!
LIFE AS AN AMPERSAND
I have always gotten into my partnerships liking the person I was about to work with, and I always came away from the partnerships the same way. My friendship with these folks is paramount, and I personally would rather not play than to have a knock-down-drag-out fight over a script, business point, or other disagreement. My motto has always been “It’s just movies,” and no quibble point is worth bad blood in my opinion. I’ve always felt a certain amount of pride connected with being part of a team. And there is a bunker mentality that helps me weather a storm better, knowing that a partner has my back. Usually, they are the only ones who, when we come out of a meeting and an executive has punctured our balloon, really understands why it hurts.
I’m serious about the “No I in Team” rule. That’s one Colby Carr and I always stuck to and it really helps. We made it a rule never to say “When I wrote this scene…” or “When I came up with this idea…” — not only because it made our team look unharmonious, but it tended to make the other guy defensive about getting his “I” in the next sentence. We literally stuck to “we” every time we discussed our script in a meeting. This goes for gossip, too. There is nothing that worries me more than when a writer “off the record” downplays his partner or tells tales out of school. If you’re in the partnership, be in it.
On the credits of a movie, you may or may not know, there are two ways to link more than one writer. “Written by X AND Y” means that two separate writers took a whack at the script. “Written by X & Y” means it’s a team, both artistically and business-wise. This also is how the WGA divvies up residual payments. An “&” indicates one entity. Thus Written by X AND Y & Z shows that X will get 50% of residuals and Y & Z will get the other 50%. Not a small point.
I recommend it! Partnerships are wonderful. Just make sure you enjoy it, don’t fight tooth and nail over a plot point to the extent that actual blood is spilled, and like any relationship, try not to get mean in the heat of an argument or make it so personal that you can’t take back what you said. But for me, there’s magic in partnerships, 1 + 1 often = 100 and the joy of creating that much more special when shared!