Last month, bestselling author Wilbur Smith announced a £15m six-book deal with Harper Collins. The deal’s most intriguing aspect is that Smith, who has just turned 80, will outsource some of the writing process to co-authors.
Responding to very gentle questioning on the book deal from Adam Boulton (Sky’s Boulton and Co) last week, Smith talked about the many story ideas he still has in his head. He sees the co-author arrangement as a means of delivering new books to his fans at a pace they are demanding.
Smith used the example of Alexandre Dumas, who streamlined his own writing process by using Auguste Maquet as a co-author.
Other co-author arrangements have been referred to in the press since. James Patterson produces a half-dozen books a year with the help of co-authors. Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Alastair Maclean have also used co-authors. Robert Ludlum continues to produce books from the grave thanks to an official selection of authors who continue to produce books featuring his characters.
As a struggling writer whose own writing process is ripe for streamlining, I would have absolutely no qualms with considering collaboration. Particularly if a six-book, £15m deal was at stake.
The question is, what part of the writing process would it be best for me to outsource?
- Plot Outline and Characters. This is where the fun is in writing. It’s no surprise that Wilbur Smith is keeping this part to himself. So, I won’t be outsourcing it either. I need to be better at it anyway, and the only way to achieve that is to do it again and again all by myself.
- Story Writing. The hard work starts here. But a first draft is still fun. It adds a written layer to the plot outline and character development. It’s easy to see why an author with little time would choose to outsource this task, but I wouldn’t choose to do it. There’s still too much to learn by doing it yourself.
- Re-writing and Revision. In chapter 10 of Writing Fiction (Gotham Writers’ Workshop ISBN:9781408101315), Peter Selgin describes the different mental state required by a writer who is revising a draft of their work. It is, he says, like the difference between writing with your heart and your brain. Selgin says that some authors will go to great lengths to make the required mental shift, even wearing different clothes or hats for each task.
No matter how you decide to dress for it, revision is hard mental effort. It’s about seeing your way to the finished product, throwing away earlier work to get to something better.
If anything is going to be outsourced, the lazy part of me says it would have to be this. But, I would be giving away the most important part of the writing process to someone else. And the voice that emerged would not belong to me.
So, after careful consideration, I’ve decided to keep all of the writing process for myself. It’s selfish, I know, to deny others a part in it. But somehow, I don’t think there will be too many complaints.
Maybe, just maybe, if that £15m deal actually came along, I might by tempted to rethink and streamline my writing process with a much larger team.