When I give publishing advice, I often include at least one bulletpoint that emphasizes the importance of collaboration. This is due to a job I had about seven years ago that taught me more about collaboration than anything before or since.
I was an assistant at a production company that developed programming for children. I was hired to assist the general manager of the office, but in a six-person company, you find yourself wearing many hats. As time passed, I was promoted to Development Associate. Someone else was hired to answer the phones and I got invited into the conference room for the development meetings. We had a new VP of development, and a slate of show ideas to work on.
I learned so much from being part of that team and attending those meetings.
First and foremost, I learned that formulating a creative idea is not like forming a perfect ball of clay. It’s more like pushing a boulder up a hillside full of obstacles. The ball of clay must be protected and held sacred, away from the hands of other people. The boulder just needs to get up the hill, and whether that means somebody pushes alongside you, or runs ahead and helps clear debris from your path, or calls to you to show you an easier route, the idea is the same: ideas can flourish with more than one creative force.
During these meetings, which lasted hours and hours and were exhausting and exhilarating, we discussed everything from characters to plotlines. We used the term “stupid chip” as a sort of “poker chip” for contributions we were unsure of–“I’m going to throw out a stupid chip–what if the mother is an alien?”
The environment was completely open, completely honest, completely collaborative, and completely safe. Everyone had the interests of the project in mind, and even if an idea was completely batted down, it wasn’t because it was a dumb or bad idea–it was just not the right one at the right moment.
I learned from these meetings that if you invest yourself in something, you earn the right to critique it honestly. And I learned that taking and applying criticism is often the easiest and fastest way to make something better.
I also learned, by going back a few years later and reading pitches that I absolutely poured myself into, that I would have sworn at the time were perfect and finished (we pushed the boulder up the hill and it arrived at the top a perfect clay sphere!), that nothing is finished. You will always look back at your previous work and see room for improvement.
So by opening yourself up to that criticism in the moment, you can make changes that will strengthen and maybe even help to sell your work, and save yourself the fun of looking back on it years later and wondering why you didn’t recognize what was staring you in the face.
I’m not saying you need to take critique from every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street, or you need to subjugate what you think for what someone else thinks. I’m just saying that after you spend enough time listening to what other people have to say and really taking the time to envision things from another perspective, your work will grow.
If you are a writer looking to sell your book, you must prepare yourself for the honest opinions of the other very important players in the process–your agent. Your editor. Even the sales and marketing people may weigh in on certain aspects.
And a funny thing happens when you regularly practive hearing and digesting other people’s opinions about your work–the sting goes away. That ouchie “She doesn’t like my writing!” becomes, “She really has a point about the character here.” I learned that it’s fine to pick and choose from suggestions, but if you respect someone and you really–really really–don’t see where they’re coming from, you’d better step back and take another look with fresher eyes.
Don’t go into the process prepared to bow down. You, the writer, are still a very important cog in the machine.
Just go into it prepared to listen. Because you are not the ONLY cog in the machine. A one-cogged machine probably wouldn’t get the job done very efficiently.
This is what I learned from my development team–trust, investment, honesty, and consideration.
So, DE, RH, AD, and KH… thank you. You were the mentors who taught me to collaborate.
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