The Rules of Collaboration

I’m currently working on my sixth collaboration I’ve been fortunate to be a part of. These include three novels I’ve cowritten with musicians based on their songs, two novelizations based on screenplays, and one memoir. Each project has been completely different, but they’ve taught me some things about partnering with people on books. The following are ten rules I have when collaborating with musicians, filmmakers, pastors, or leaders (who I will simply refer to as the “artist”): 

#1. Know what the artist wants. 


Every project is different and every person has a unique reason why they want a book written. My first goal with every collaboration is to get to the heart of what the artist truly wants (a well told story, a ministry tool, another way to expand their brand). 

#2. Communicate that this book belongs to the artist. 


It’s been good to have so many of my own books under my belt, because this could be difficult if that wasn’t the case. The story and the final product belong to the artist, regardless of the amount of time and energy I’ve put into it. 

#3. Figure out the best way to communicate with the artist. 


In all six cases of collaborations (and the others I’ve done preliminary work with preparing for possible collaborations), it’s been obvious that every artist is different. Some want to be involved and some don’t want to be involved whatsoever. Some like daily communication and some don’t communicate. This might seem strange, but the people I’m working with are busy people. I always want to know the best and most effective way to work with them (what they want and what they don’t want). 

#4. The artist is the boss. 


That’s the bottom line. What they say goes. I might write the most beautiful and powerful chapter I’ve ever written in my life. If they don’t like it, it gets cut. My goal is to make sure they love what I’ve done. 

#5. Take what the artist values and incorporate that into the book. 


One priority is to try to make sure the book reflects the artist. This can be done in obvious ways (a storyline, for instance) but also in subtle ways. Sometimes I need to dive into their world for a while and figure out what that world is like. Obviously, I pick this up when working with them, but I also do this by extensive research. This can help, regardless of whether I’m writing a novel or a memoir or a nonfiction work. 

#6. Know the artist’s audience. 


Once again, this can help when working on a project. I have such a diverse range of novels that I don’t ever consider my own personal audience as any one “type” of people. But with each book I’ve collaborated on, I’ve been able to see a very definitive audience for the artist. This helps me shape the kind of story I’m telling. 

#7. Don’t try to do something new or different. 


This is the artist’s book and not mine. My goal is to produce a book that they are proud of and that is a good representation of them. This is not my chance to try some wild, creative idea I’ve been wanting to do for years. This isn’t about me. 

#8. Do what I do best. 


At the same time, I need to do what I do best. I was asked to work for these people for a reason. Part of that is taking chances and writing somewhat unconventional stories. Doing a unique thing with structure or voice or style. I don’t want to be clever for clever’s sake, but at the same time I need to give it my all. 

#9. I’m a caretaker of the artist’s vision. 


Each collaboration I’ve done has been a great opportunity to help expand the artist’s message and brand. For a novel like Paper Angels cowritten with Jimmy Wayne (pictured above), I was able to frame a story around his song while also putting some storylines and themes inside it that mean a lot to him. For a novelization like Home Run, I’m expanding the story but still remaining true to their message. 

#10. I have to respect the artist. It’s impossible to put my heart and soul in a project when I don’t have that. 


Every artist I’ve worked with has been different. Some I’ve gotten to know very well while others have been more of a business relationship. But each collaboration I’ve done, I’ve held a great amount of respect for the artist. A recent possible collaboration I spent half a year doing preliminary work on broke down at the end because I lost all respect for this artist. The thought of spending a year or more of my life working with them was too much. I couldn’t do it. 

I still admire how Mark Schultz manages to tell heartfelt stories in his songs. Jimmy Wayne has shown me how to give back and how to be a better person while also becoming a great friend. The Home Run family (including those in Celebrate Recovery) have adopted me–I love their ministry and message. Keifer and Shawna Thompson of Thompson Square are a down-to-earth couple whose hard work finally paid off. And Mac and Mary Owen–well, I love every single thing about this couple. 

I’ve been fortunate to have been asked to collaborate with all of these fine people. My hope is to continue with collaborations, whether it’s future books with these people or ones with artists I’ve never even heard of. I’m a fast learner. And I feel I can tell any type of story as long as it means something to me. 

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