Monday, January 24, 2011

Winning a Three-Legged Non-Fiction Race!

Why collaborate on a manuscript?

Is the sum truly better than the parts?

In this case it was!

Last week I shared my experience co-authoring screenplays, and this week will look at lessons learned while collaborating with my husband Richard on Fogg in the Cockpit, a military history book that will be released world-wide by Casemate Publishing in May 2011.

First I might mention that the book is based on the diary Richard’s father kept while flying Mustangs and Thunderbolts out of England during World War II. When Richard and I disagreed on an issue, because it is his father's diary I felt Richard’s opinion should carry more weight. As I’d recently seen my first novel published, and since I also spent more time on this book than Richard, he often tried to defer to me. Most small issues were resolved in this manner, but we did have periodic debates where one of us had to persuade the other to his or her way of thinking. Unfortunately, there were two issues we discussed a number of times with no resolution. We just didn’t agree, and ultimately, one of us simply acquiesced.

We recommend you discuss how you'll resolve a major difference of opinion before you start writing. Describe that process in a memo or letter agreement, or better yet, include it in your collaboration contract. As a side note, our publisher recently complimented us for “putting together such a clean package of text and photos,” so they didn’t stumble over either of our two problem-children. Whew!

Non-fiction lends itself to collaboration. Tasks can be allocated. Research, writing, tracking down sources and supporting documents or photos, requesting releases, editing, all of it is easy to share, more so than when writing fiction.

I started Fogg in the Cockpit by transcribing Howard Fogg’s 1943/44 diary and immediately realized what a fascinating document we had. Once the transcription was complete, Richard and I decided to create a book around Howard’s words. Richard researched significant events during the War that were concurrent with Howard’s service while I worked with the Historian from the 359th Fighter Group Association, Dartmouth College, and other sources to track down photos, maps, and reports about the 359th. Richard also tended to research technical material, such as compressibility or P-51 engine specifications, while I developed a mission map and verified geographic references. We shared efforts researching other supplementary material, including pilot terminology, military abbreviations, descriptions of the aircraft used by Allied and Axis powers, and so on.

We both drafted text for the supplementary material and we both edited. We were extremely fortunate to have an enormous number of reports and photos available from the Group Historian, and Richard and I spent days studying everything and debating what to include. Since then we’ve discovered that the Historian had a few other reports we were unaware of. While we might not have used them, I do regret not being aware of those documents until very recently. Lesson learned? Keep asking your sources what else they might have!

The week before our submittal deadline Richard double-checked facts we presented in the supplementary text while I edited the entire document based on the extremely detailed Author Guidelines from Casemate – both nit-picky, time consuming tasks. I also coordinated the 116 image releases while formatting the images electronically, as Richard drafted and refined the accompanying 15 pages of captions.

I should now mention where collaboration saved us. We had a working draft before sending out queries, but Casemate wanted a bigger book, and they wanted that bigger book submitted two months after we signed the contract.

We brushed up our original draft, verified facts, finalized images, and added 121 pages in a combination of new text and excerpts from the 1944 Group Historian's Reports - all in 53 days.

It’s good to have a partner!

What if you’re the “writer” partner collaborating with an expert in some obscure field? Or you've been asked to ghost-write a story? You need a contract that describes how you'll work together, who's responsible for what, how decisions will be made, how you'll share royalties or be paid, and who gets credit for what. Be clear before you start.

Next week, when I look at collaborating on a novel, I’ll include a list of points for you to discuss with your collaborator, as well as an example of a simple collaboration letter agreement.

Janet Fogg


Anonymous said...

Fogg in the Cockpit is a collaborative project that was a book of the heart for you and Dick and evidence that love is a powerful writing potion in collaborations....and so is friendship. One who knows... Karen Lin

N. R. Williams said...

Nice post, Janet. My father was in WWII and as an only child he served in England and Ireland and helped with the orphans there. My mother's new husband was her high school sweetheart and he flew a spy plane over Japan. He had one bullet in his gun to take his own life if he was captured. God watched over them both and neither was captured.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Patricia Stoltey said...

I'd think collaborating on nonfiction might be a little easier than fiction. I'll be interested in your take on this next time.