05 February 2024

The Fine Art of Collaboration

For some writers, collaboration is a fact of life; for others, it's a rare gift. I’m in the second category. I’m awestruck at the harmonious working relationship of writing duos who turn out seamless works, whether they’re bestselling series like the historical mysteries of Charles Todd and his mother Caroline (the other half of author Charles Todd until her death in 2021) or one-offs like the Edgar-nominated short story "Blind-Sided" (2021) by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken and James A. Hearn.

I've participated in a number of musical collaborations, starting in high school, when a friend and I achieved fame for presenting our parody of Hamlet to the tune of folksong "Putting on the Style," with guitars, in numerous English classes. For years afterwards, when I met someone who'd attended my very large high school, they'd say, "Ohh, you're the one who wrote "Hamlet!"

In the noughties, as Brits call the first decade of the present century, I took part in several songwriting workshops led by legendary singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, whose work defies classification, though he's received a couple of Grammy nominations in the contemporary folk category. Jimmie and the other members of his original band, the Flatlanders, hail from Lubbock, Texas, along with Buddy Holly and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. In a long career, he's learned a lot about creative collaboration. In his workshops, he makes songwriters work in groups. He believes the creative group process mirrors the process in the individual writer's head. As he put it, the dialogue in one case and the monologue in the other both go, "That's brilliant! No, that's stupid!" In my case, since I didn't get to pick the people, the group process ended in tears a few times. But I think he's right about how the process works.

Between 2010 and 2012, I had the great joy of collaborating with my friend Ray Korona on an album of songs that I'd written over the course of half a century. It's called Outrageous Older Woman. I produced the album, Ray co-produced and acted as sound engineer, and we collected a tremendously gifted array of backup singers and musicians to create an album of my music that sounded the way I'd heard it only in my wildest dreams. We spent many, many hours in Ray's basement recording studio in New Jersey, and every hour was a happy one. Ten years after Ray's untimely death from cancer, I still cherish a moment when we got exactly the sound we wanted for a solo passage from a fingerstyle guitarist (think Chet Atkins or Ricky Skaggs) after auditioning four different musicians for the descriptor "a git-tar picker who had lightning in his hands" in a song about a country music band. Ray and I exchanged a look of delight and perfect satisfaction that still warms my heart when I remember it. There's nothing like that "Got it!" moment in a good collaboration.

I've never collaborated on a pure writing project, as opposed to lyrics. Like the late Parnell Hall, I would have sold out and said yes to big bestseller Stuart Woods, if I’d gotten the call, or to James Patterson, like everyone else. Bestsellers aside, I’d do my best if invited to collaborate with a writer I respect and trust on a publishable project. But no one’s ever asked. I've had a handful of brilliant editors and quite a few bad ones, and I tend to trust my own judgment over that of most other writers. I hate writing by committee, and while I may dream occasionally of the perfect writing partner, I'm unlikely to encounter one.

My most recent collaboration was with fellow SleuthSayer and multi-talented writer, graphic artist, tech wiz, etc, my friend Leigh Lundin. After reading my post on my adventures checking out my DNA, Leigh had the bright idea of creating a cartoon that riffed on them. He thought it up and did all the work. I got to critique both the artwork ("My complexion isn't green." "Can you make the angry woman thinner?") and the text ("It's funnier if you mention the DNA." "No hyphen in storyteller.") as Leigh patiently produced one version after another. We were both busy with other projects, so it took more than a year, but we finally achieved our "Got it!" moment. Here's the result:


  1. Oh, I love that!
    The only collaboration I ever did was I wrote lyrics for a Southern rock'n'roll band called "Fantasy's Hand" back in the early 70s. That was fun.

  2. And now you're doing another, Eve, on the music for the Murder, Neat trailer.

  3. Great post, Liz. I love collaborating, but I've never written anything with someone else.

    In theater, I directed 20 productions and produced six or seven others. My job as a producer was to find designers and builders and technicians who could help the director convey the story to the audience the most effectively. As a director, I always wanted input from those designers so we could make the story more vivid. Working with the actors was always about bringing out the truth and humanity in the characters onstage.

    I was a musician in two shows, too, both for the same music director, who always had a "fairly" clear idea what he wanted, but was flexible. I ended up playing a 12-string guitar for Titania's lullaby in A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Later, that same director wrote a rock musical and I became the guitarist. He only had bare-bones songs, but the bass player, drummer, writer/keyboard player and I jammed on the songs for several hours (weekends, maybe?) to come up with the final arrangements. Sastisfying and lots of fun.

    1. Steve, I played Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet my freshman year in college, and I never had more fun in my life, besides still remembering big chunks of the play even now. Doing theater is always collaboration, and that's part of what makes it so appealing—and such a fertile ground for murder, as many mystery authors have found.

  4. Love it! (the cartoons) My first two novels were collaborations. It was fun, and just enough to keep me writing those first longer works. Knowing someone else was keen to read my next chapter was great. We did a chapter by chapter switch-up, working from a loose outline. After 18 books, I don't think I would do a collaboration now. I write pretty humorous stuff with a known humour style now, so it would be hard to find someone with the same loopy outlook, to make the work seamless. Fun column, Liz!

  5. Thanks, Melodie. Maybe there's a pair of identical twins somewhere who share a sense of humor to the nth degree. But maybe not.

  6. Great post! Love the Flatlanders. When I was in college, we used to run around West Texas listening to a lot of those type bands. Susan Gibson, who wrote Wide Open Spaces, was big out there at the time (she was still in The Groobies). I feel like truly great work isn't usually produced in a vacuum, but at the same time it's just so hard to find the right team because all of those elements need to be there. Plus, so many personalities and writing styles and life situations. Hoping to do something collaborative in the future too but you can't really rush that kind of thing.

  7. According to Jimmie, that area and Lubbock in particular was a creative Petri dish for an amazing number of gifted misfits. I've heard the reunited Flatlanders in person a couple of times, and they still rock.

  8. It was fun. When I got to thinking about a long line of storytellers, Liz’s scenes came to mind. Her ancestry dates back to Adam and Eve. Why wouldn’t her lineage include lots of storytellers?

    As Liz said, it took time, lots of time. It’s hard to tell, but every element is vector, even the Colosseum, which took ages to build. We created a simplistic (and flexible) color palette, especially for clothes.

    Well past the halfway mark, projects reared their heads and I had to break for them. A couple of times I resized frames to accommodate new ideas. The only constants were Little Liz and poor, hapless Naked Man. Naked because I had to drape different clothes on them for each scene. Each had detachable arms to facilitate dressing them.

    There are a few non-obvious in-jokes. For example, in each panel, Little Liz is using a tablet. It’s hard to tell in lower-res graphics, but Modern Liz’s tablet is an iPad. The Hebrew in the middle panel actually reads something like, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    I didn’t know if Grownup Liz might stick the comic strip on her fridge with a magnet, but I wondered if a few generations from now, Liz CXIV might unearth the cartoon and think, Hey! I come from a long line of storytellers!

  9. Leigh, I was actually thinking of getting a big high-res version printed and framing it. Hey, ya made me famous, like Betty Boop and Little Orphan Annie!


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