What the Other Guy Does
I said earlier that there are many, many ways of collaborating, and there are.
There’s taking what somebody else knows all about but has no writing skills; you get him to talk about whatever it is or give you a rough draft of what he has to say and you make it good. (I did something like that for Ian Ballantine with a couple of early novels that had originally been written by someone else, Turn the Tigers Loose and The God of Channel One.)
There’s the kind where one partner is thought to have the better ideas so he writes a sort of outline of the story and the other fellow fleshes it out. (Which I did for a number of not very good stories with Cyril Kornbluth and for two, not that much better, with Isaac Asimov — those two are still available for anyone who really, really wants to read them in Isaac’s book The Early Asimov.)
Actually, I rather like taking someone else’s draft and making it publishable. The nine or so books that I wrote with Jack Williamson were done more or less that way. The first of them, Undersea Fleet, he gave to me as a jumble of notes and scenes. He had worked over the material a dozen different ways without ever having it jell into a novel, so he turned it over to me to get a fresh view on it.
The other eight books we did were mostly written on purpose as collaborations, bearing in mind that Jack lived in New Mexico and I in either New Jersey or Illinois. Although we traveled together now and then, we rarely sat down to write together. What we did was to exchange letters over a period of, usually, some months, talking about something we’d like to see in the book — perhaps a new scientific theory (we got a lot of mileage out of the steady-state hypothesis until it was proved wrong). And when we’d thought up all the complications and implications we could Jack, bless his soul, would sit down and write a complete first draft and mail it to me. Then I would do a lot of work on it and we’d give it to the publisher.
The absolute best collaboration technique I’ve come across was the one I used when writing with Cyril Kornbluth, and we discovered it by accident. The way it worked, Cyril would come out to our house on the river in Red Bank, New Jersey, where we kept a room for him on the third floor with his own bath, bed and typewriter. Then he and I would have dinner, and he would have a drink or two while I had coffee, and we’d chat about what we’d like to see in the new book — characters, situations, settings, whatever interested one of us. When we thought we had enough to start writing we’d flip a coin. The loser would go upstairs to his typewriter and write the first four pages. Then he’d come down and say, “You’re on!” And the other guy would go up and write the next four, and so on, turn and about, until we got to the page that said “The End.”
At this point we had a whole book, though not a truly finished product. Somebody, usually me, had to go over that manuscript and fix errors, incongruities and infelicities, maybe add some explanations and transitions and stuff and do a little polish, and then we’d give it to the publisher.
There was only one thing wrong with this system. It worked fine with Cyril, and not at all with any other writer in the world. I know this because I tried with several, including several really good ones, and that sort of telepathy that kept the two of us on message without ever explicating exactly what the message was never materialized.
Except with one writer whom I had never thought of.