Talk of collaboration is in the air lately. At Writer Unboxed, we’re not only great at supporting our fellow writers, we’re good at working with them too! Author Heather Webb’s recent post on the positives and pitfalls of collaboration immediately made me think of another WUer — our own Jan O’Hara.
Jan, a former family physician who hails from Canada, has turned collaboration into a fine art. Her first book was one in a series of interconnected novels that shared a physical world and even some characters. Her second book was part of a box set that shared a genre and a theme, as is her third book, due out in February. To me, it seems as if she’s found the perfect balance between writing alone and collaborating — she has a built-in set of writing pals, brainstorming buddies, and marketing allies, but she gets to do the actual writing herself.
I was curious what I could learn from Jan’s experiences and I thought other WUers considering collaboration might be curious about the nitty-gritty as well, so I convinced her to sit down for a long-distance chat. (If you’ve met Jan IRL, you know that wasn’t an easy task. A confirmed introvert, she’s reluctant to talk about herself. ) Here are the results.
Q: Hey Jan! Tell us about your first book — The Opposite of Frozen.
JOH: OoF is the second of twelve romances set in the Thurston Hotel in the fictitious town of Harmony, Alberta. Though the series’ novels can be read as standalones, they are also connected through secondary characters, some of whom have series-long character arcs. The premise: when their tour bus is stranded for a week in a Canadian mountain town, an injured athlete reconnects to life with the help of an attractive stowaway and 51 matchmaking retirees.
Q: How did you wind up finding a group of authors to collaborate with? How closely did you work with them? What were some of the benefits of writing your first book this way?
JOH: I knew I needed to change what I was doing with my writing. I was leaning toward self-publishing but had yet to complete a full novel, much less put it out for consumption. I was intimidated by the technical challenges on top of the writing challenges and couldn’t quite figure out how to move forward or where to begin.
I also belong to the Calgary branch of the Romance Writers of Alberta. It has a history of using group projects to help writers advance their careers and I’d always regretted not participating. So when a member, Brenda Sinclair, came out with the idea for the Thurston Hotel Series, I was immediately intrigued. She was organized, experienced, and is a person of high integrity–in other words, an ideal mentor.
Over the course of a year, our group collaborated on everything from the series title to the cover art to story composition. I had a built-in cheering section, beta readers, continuity editors, and promo partners. Others were depending on me to finish my novel for the sake of the series’ integrity. Because of this, after years of writing and feeling trapped in the Imposter Syndrome, I fought my resistance and completed a full novel.
Q: How did working with the group change you as a writer?
JOH: For one thing I learned how much analysis paralysis held me back over the years. I’ve become better at making story decisions and moving on.
I’m also more comfortable with showing vulnerability. (In medicine you work super hard to become competent and then project it, so this has been a challenge.) This is important to the writing process itself, of course. You have to be willing to be emotionally naked to get words on the page. But it’s also efficient. You can get back to the writing faster when you can admit your weaknesses and ask for help.
Q: Talk about potential drawbacks — for example, was it stifling at all to have a ‘roadmap’ to follow in terms of developing characters, plot, etc.?
JOH: I actually felt a lot of freedom in the process but part of that was due to how I structured my story. I wasn’t concerned about sharing the secondary characters or setting, but I fretted over my protagonists. Would I be required to alter them to suit the stories that followed mine? Or worse, would someone want to use them in unsavory ways? I didn’t think so, but the prospect was daunting and I was already nervous about meeting my deadline. So I just avoided conflicts altogether by having my hero and heroine arrive on a tour bus and depart before my assigned month (February) was over. In a sense, I created a self-contained world within a shared world.
As for using secondary characters that belonged to others, the group was cohesive and respectful of one another’s intellectual property. And if we hadn’t functioned that way, we all respected Brenda Sinclair and would have abided by her arbitration decisions.
Q: How did you keep track of things like physical descriptions of landmarks, character background, etc.?
JOH: At our first in-person meeting, Brenda gave us binders with material on our shared world. They were updated as required. We each provided a story synopsis and avatars for our characters. This was compiled into a document which was continually updated. We also had a Facebook group to share ongoing granular changes to plot lines or characters. One member even updated the town’s map as we discovered we needed specific elements to satisfy the story’s requirements.
Q: If someone wanted to create a similar group, what advice would you give them?
JOH: I wrote an article on the detailed pros and cons of a writing cooperative, and how they might be structured to best effect. In essence, it helps to work in a high-trust situation with people you know to have a professional mindset. Have clearly established goals and boundaries, and keep them formalized in a contract. It also helps to have a definitive group leader and a process by which to settle disputes.
Q: What did you take away from this collaboration?
JOH: That I can write stories that make me proud, and that are enjoyed by at least some critics and readers. I cannot tell you how much this means to me.
Also, that I’m capable of learning the business aspects of writing, albeit at a slower rate than some.
Lastly, there’s deep satisfaction to be had in completing a book to the best of my ability. It’s worth all the moments of insecurity and head-banging frustration.
Q: Your next two books are a little different. You’ve gained some editorial control in the sense that you can write whatever story you want so long as it fits into the theme or genre, correct?
JOH: That is correct.
In 2017 I participated in the Tropical Tryst boxed set. We were given expectations around the word count and level of sensuality. Other than that, the only restriction on the story was that it had to be a contemporary romance set in a tropical locale. (Cold and Hottie takes place in Jamaica.)
Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures, which comes out in February 2019 in the Illicit boxed set, has a similar setup except that it’s centered around the theme of the forbidden.
Q: What was it like going from working so closely with a group to being more independent?
It’s freeing to write without external expectations. I’m about 70% of the way through my first solo novel and I think it’s going to be the bomb. That said, I’m a ditherer on my own. I really do better with the momentum afforded by deadlines. Hence, the decision to temporarily set aside my solo project to participate in the Illicit boxed set.
Q: How were the themes chosen — was it a group effort? Does having a theme make it easier or harder to create the story you want?
JOH: In the romance world, some authors become so enamored of author collectives that they effectively become boxed set packagers. They come up with a marketable concept and look for collaborators, either by reaching out privately or through Facebook groups. If a writer doesn’t feel comfortable with the boxed set’s premise, then they simply wouldn’t apply.
As for creating the story I want, I’m crossing my fingers here, but thus far my brain is willing to cooperate. It actually prefers limitations because they reduce some of the analysis paralysis. I adore the challenge of finding a story that fits the theme, but that is also true to my voice.
Q: When working with a group, how do you divvy up marketing efforts, publicity, etc. in terms of time and cost? Does being part of the group make those efforts easier or more complicated, and why?
JOH: This varies according to the group, but if you’re with people who have done this before, they tend to have a proven process:
- Before you are allowed to be part of the boxed set, you are screened for eligibility. For example, do you have a social media presence? What size is your newsletter audience? Are you capable of writing the appropriate story with appropriate skill? By beginning with people who have already demonstrated the qualities you need to harness, the chances of cohesion and success are better.
- There is a buy-in fee. Usually the packager takes a percentage of the pooled money, which is their compensation for being the organizer, but most is reserved for promotion and cover art, etc. You can imagine how much more effective it is to pool resources in this way.
- The organizer often takes on specific duties, like ad buys. Others might volunteer to make graphics or videos, according to their competencies. But everyone is expected to participate in promotional efforts, like sharing on social media.
Q: With a group like this, is someone in charge of making sure everyone pulls their weight, or is it just the honor system?
JOH: It depends a bit on the group and its goals. The Thurston Hotel group was more about getting everyone writing and published, especially the four of us who were debut authors at the time. We were more laissez-faire about promotion.
My other collaborations have had more expectations around the business-y end of things. Accordingly, the group leaders or their deputies set micro-goals and remind authors of the group’s expectations. That said, if people don’t do their fair share, there’s not much that can be done in the short term. (In the long term, I imagine the non-participants’ reputation will precede them and they’ll run out of collaborative opportunities.)
Q: Do you have any sense or evidence regarding whether being a part of the group has expanded your audience?
JOH: I know it has, though it would be difficult to quantify the extent to which this is true. Readers have told me they found me via collaborations and I see the resulting connections in my books’ also-boughts.
Q: What’s the one thing you wished you’d known before you’d started writing with a group?
JOH: That if you pick well and have realistic expectations, it’s worth it, even for an extreme introvert. I have two — nearly three — novels written that wouldn’t have even come into existence without collaboration.
Now it’s your turn. Have you considered collaborating recently? And are there questions you’d like Jan to answer about her experience? Feel free to leave them in the comments.