Pictured: My writing partner and I at the 1997 Academy Awards.
Last week, I recommended taking on a writing partner to someone having trouble with story ideas. You can check that entry out here. I received a lot of comments and questions about the ins and outs of writing partnerships, so I'm devoting today's post entirely to that subject. I speak from experience here, I have had a writing partner for two years. I'd like to give you a completely honest look at how the two of us write, warts and all, and the pros and cons of being in a partnership.
My writing partner Sonny and I met while Pages at NBC. As a Page, I wrote a play that I was really happy with. I did a read-through with my friends that went really well, and I nearly got the show produced in New York. And then Garden State came out, and had roughly the same premise. Damn you, Braff! Months later, Sonny was unhappy at his job, called me at 3AM, and asked if I'd like to write a television pilot about our experiences as Pages with him. We embarked on a lot of hung-over Saturday morning writing sessions with no pressure, no deadlines, and frequent breaks for pizza and episodes of Undeclared on DVD.
That lack of stress changed pretty quickly once our script was enthusiastically received. The next thing we knew, we were flying out to Los Angeles a couple of times a month and signing with agents. Once agents entered the fray, we quit our (well) paying gigs in New York and made the trip to La La Land. Now, we weren't writing for fun, we were writing to survive. This put a lot more pressure on us as a writing partnership and even as friends. We worked through it fairly quickly, but this is why it is a good idea to discuss details and "rules" of your partnership early on, even if you're good pals and it's an awkward conversation. Sonny and I never did this, so when we had to bring up issues down the line, things got strained. Below are five major points I learned from the issues (formerly) in my partnership:
1) Be on time, with everything.
If you're supposed to meet online at 10AM, be online at 10AM. If you're supposed to have your half of Act One done by Thursday night, make sure it's done.
2) Let things go.
This was a hard one for me to learn. Let's say Sonny was late, I held in my frustration until I finally started exploding over every little thing. It's rarely something major that causes friction, just an accumulation of nitpicks. Talk problems out as they arise, and then move on fast.
3) Take some time to be friends.
This was something we forgot in my partnership. We were great friends in New York, constantly going to movies, bars, hanging out. The second we locked into "Work Mode," we stopped doing anything as friends. If you don't nurture the friendship portion, the work portion will suffer. I sound like Dr. Phil here.
4) Don't let your personal matters affect your work.
One of us (hint: not me) had a major relationship crisis and went completely off the grid for a good three months. And this was a crucial three months. I resented that a lot of the workload shifted to me while he freaked out. If you write alone, it's not a big problem to take a few months off to "get your shit together." In a partnership, things go sour pretty quickly when one party can't be counted on. From that experience, we have learned to bottle our outside emotions into "anger balls" at the pits of our stomachs.
5) Be nice.
I had never written with another person, and found it a difficult adjustment. I tended to say things like "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard." Not good. You can break each other's balls (or...ovaries?), but constructive criticism is key, no matter how long the two of you work together. You can be honest, but don't be brutal.
Are there cons to being in a partnership? Certainly. Two biggies:
1) At his excellent blog on writing, Ken Levine says "A good partnership is like a marriage, except you give up half your money before you get divorced." A partnership splits the salary. If Sonny and I write a screenplay and it sells for $500,000, we each get $250,000. Actually, we don't even get that, because our agent takes a percentage and our manager takes another percentage and then taxes and hookers...So, while the amount of money scripts sell for might seem outrageous, just know that the final check is never as impressive.
2) If you guys "break up," you can't use your writing samples anymore. You'll basically be starting from scratch. When a partnership splits up, it can be every bit as messy as a divorce. So choose your partner wisely.
It took about a year of trial and error, but my writing partnership is working like a well-oiled machine. We've got our "process" down to a science. Before starting a project, we meet up and discuss every detail. Then we write an outline by e-mailing pieces to each other until we've got the whole pie. Then we split up the work load ("OK, you take Act One and I'll take Act Two."). When we're finished, we swap and re-write each other's acts, punching up dialogue, cutting stuff that doesn't need to be there, adding our own bits. When we've got each other's acts how we want them, we move on to the next portion. That's not the only way to write, but for us it moves a lot faster than two people sitting side-by-side at a computer, haggling over every line.
A writing partnership truly is like a marriage, with all the good and bad that implies. It took us a while, but Sonny and I have fully embraced the partnership. It really does help to have someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to call you out when something isn't working, someone to laugh at your jokes. It's also a tremendous motivator. Neither one of you may want to wake up on a Sunday morning and get to work, but you have to get out of bed if another person is waiting for you. And should you become a success, a writing partner is a great thing to have in a meeting. Some of the interviews we go on are with big-time, important people, and if one of us gets nervous or tongue-tied, the other steps in. You have someone to share in your triumphs, which makes them all the sweeter. You also have someone to share in your disasters, which makes them all the easier.
The Interview Series continues next Wednesday with Nancy Oliver, writer of the terrific new film Lars and the Real Girl and an ex-writer for Six Feet Under. Until then, hit me up with questions and comments here or at my personal site.
See you next week!