Panel Notes: Collaborating With A Family Member

I was already familiar with my co-panelists for this discussion. Michaelbrent Collings is an author with many projects both completed and in the works. Karen and Kevin Evans write together crafting stories for the Grantville Gazette. The panel had no declared moderator, so by mutual assent I was place in charge. This was fine. I enjoy moderating. The panel was tuned to discussing the particular difficulties that attend collaborating with a family member, but most of the information is applicable to any collaborative partnership. I wish you all could have been there. These notes are a mere skeleton of the useful information that was imparted. I don’t remember all the stories or how one thought connected to the next. It was a really good discussion.

We began the panel by compiling a quick list of the benefits and difficulties that attend a collaboration with a family member.

Additional eyes – most creative works involve some level of collaboration. When an editor reviews a work and makes suggestions, that is collaboration. Collaboration is necessary because no one set of eyes can detect everything. Alternate points of view strengthen a creative work.

Spending time with someone you like: Michaelbrent spoke eloquently about how much he enjoys collaborating with his father. Karen and Kevin spoke in the same strain. Creating something together can really strengthen a relationship.

Continuous creative conversation: This is a benefit that I definitely see every day. Howard and I have a dozen conversations a day where we talk about the various projects we have in process. We will never run out of things to talk about because we’ll never run out of projects.

Filling in the weaknesses: Karen is a writer who loves characterization. Kevin is a writer who loves plotting. So when Kevin is working on a story he’ll put in a note “Karen writes character stuff here.” Then Karen fills in those gaps. It works the other way as well with Karen writing “Kevin fixes plot.” Together they are able to finish projects, submit them, and succeed. Separately they were far less successful.

Differences in timing and writing speeds: Sometimes Michaelbrent is really excited about a project, but his father’s schedule is too full. Other times a project is top priority for one collaborator, but not for the other. It can get really frustrating when one partner has to wait on the other.

Spillage: Project stress and conflict can spill over into the family relationship. Creative projects inevitably create both conflict and stress. The more passionately the creators feel about the project, the more true this becomes. It can take a careful touch to keep the collaborative relationship separated from the familial relationship.

Melding Multiple processes: Howard and I have different approaches to similar tasks. This was evidenced while getting ready for LTUE. My way of packing and planning left Howard feeling like everything was disorganized. The opposite also happens. It takes time, patience, and constant communication for the partners to figure out how to work together. We each have to take turns letting go of control and trusting our collaborative partner.

Criticism and Ego: A necessary part of collaboration is telling each other when part of the project is not working right. It can be quite difficult to do this so that only the project is under discussion and not the person who created. A solid knowledge of each other is necessary to be able to criticize constructively rather than destructively.

Jealousy: This one was not mentioned during the panel, but I think it belongs here. Equal contributors are not always given equal recognition. Even without recognition it is possible for one creator to feel jealous or resentful about the path that the project is taking. Careful attention is necessary to the emotional needs of your collaboration partner.

In the next part of the panel we focused on practical and structural ways to make a collaboration work healthily.

Michaelbrent started out this section by saying that if you’re approached by a family member who wants to collaborate and you have a sinking feeling about the project, don’t do it. You should never collaborate with someone if you feel like they can not help you produce a quality project. You must be excited to work with the person. I countered this idea by suggesting that it is critical to know your goal. If the goal is a high-quality sale-able project, then Michaelbrent is absolutely correct. If the goal is to spend time with grandpa, then a very different standard applies. Then the success of the project is measured by time spent. Someone else, I’m not sure who, gave the additional suggestion that it is critical for both collaborative partners to share the same goal in relationship to the project. If one is trying to write a story for the kids and the other wants to create a slick best-selling middle grade novel, then conflict is inevitable.

Additional practical advice:
Agree upon a method of working: Michaelbrent and his father wrote a book by alternating chapters. Karen and Kevin take turns doing the drafting and revision. Howard and I make up new work processes as the project demands. We actually had some stress over our current board game project because the process had to run differently from our usual book projects. We sorted it out and onward we went. The particular method of collaboration does not matter much, so long as it satisfies both partners and it smooths out the difficulties between them. Don’t be afraid to stop a project and adjust the process if necessary.

Avoid cross communication: I can say the exact same words to three different people and have them taken in very different ways. Even the same person can take my words differently depending on time of day, what other conversations we’ve had recently, or if they’re hungry. In a collaboration, especially with a deadline looming, miscommunication happens. Extra effort is necessary to prevent as much as possible.

Listen to your collaborator as a professional: No matter what other relationship you may have, you need to be able to respect them and their creative input. If you can’t, then this is not a person with whom you should collaborate. To accomplish this it is very helpful to picture the various roles you take on as hats that you wear. Sometimes I function as Howard’s business manager, art director, wife, accountant, or graphic designer. There are times where I will speak to all of those roles in the space of a very short conversation. But because we have the roles defined it is easier to see that when the artist is frustrated with his art director it does not mean that Howard and Sandra are angry with each other as husband and wife.

We could have kept talking for a very long time, but the room was scheduled for another panel. I asked everyone to finish up by giving one quick note of caution and then telling a story about something wonderful which happened as a result of collaboration.

Michaelbrent made the point that it is critical to have creative projects that you are not doing together. There are natural emotional ups and downs attendant to any creative project. Those can be tempered if each partner has other projects in different stages.

Karen reminded us all that relationships always matter more than projects. Never get so involved with creative projects that your life disappears.

Kevin pointed out that most things are not actually life or death situations. Slowing down or missing an opportunity is not the end of the world. Other opportunities will come, and they may even be better for you because they arrive at a time when you can accept them gracefully instead of in a mad scramble.

My caution was to trust wisely. When a collaboration with a family member goes bad, it goes horribly bad. This is particularly true when there is money involved. It is a good idea to sit down at the beginning of a project to outline general responsibilities and benefits. Michaelbrent, who has been a contract lawyer, pointed out that anything written on paper and signed is a contract. He also said that complicated contracts are actually less useful than simple ones because all they do is carefully define loopholes.

The happy stories:
When Karen was a little girl she stood in a bookstore and put her finger between two books on the shelf and knew that when she wrote a book, that is where her book would be. Now she has a book and she credits her collaboration with Kevin for giving that to her.

The best way to get to know someone is to work with them on a project. Michaelbrent is endlessly grateful for the opportunities that he has had to work with both his father and his wife.

I was so busy moderating that I didn’t really have time to think through what my happy thought was until it was my chance to speak. So I started semi-at-random talking about the amazing people I’ve had the chance to meet as a result of Schlock Mercenary. Just as I wrapped up the thought, I glanced down at the table in front of me where several of our books sat and I realized that I’d just said the wrong thing.

So I stopped myself and said “But that isn’t the best part.” I held up the books and said “These are dreams made real. They could not exist without the collaboration that Howard and I share.” The moment I finished the words, I realized I was wrong again. Because the books are nice, wonderful even, but they pale in comparison to something else.

I put the books down and said “But that isn’t the best part either. The best part is standing in my kitchen with Howard and talking, swapping out hats as we talk about things and make plans for the day. It is how we collaborate on business, family, parenting, and everything else.”

That is definitely the best part, even though I’m still not sure that I’ve said it right.

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