Kim: It wasn’t our idea. Some journal—Sundog, I think—was running a collaboration contest, and Michelle proposed that we give it a shot. We each wrote an opening paragraph of a story and lobbed it to the other. The first of those stories has never been published—indeed, I think neither of us has submitted it anywhere for ages—though I still like it (recalling it now, I want to dust it off and send it to some journal). The second, “My Co-Worker Aldona,” is one of my favorites.
Michelle: Actually, I’d been thinking for some time about trying out collaborating, but it’s true it took the Sundog contest to motivate me to act on it. There was no question that Kim would be the writer I’d ask. Oddly enough, we didn’t actually end up submitting to the contest because by the time the deadline rolled around, our flash fictions had been accepted elsewhere (other than the one Kim mentions above that we’re less sure about).
Kim: We don’t have any. Michelle writes a few sentences and tosses it my way, I write more and toss it back. We decide when it’s done, and we edit together, sometimes as we go. We have no word count, no implicit or explicit regulation on when it’s time to lob the story to the other. Basically we toss it when we get stuck, or when we’ve handed the other person a good shoehorn in. It’s delightful anarchy.
Michelle: If there’s any rule it’s that we try to keep the momentum going by not letting a story sit for long. Often we lob a story back and forth several times in a day. Rarely do we allow a story to sit longer than a day or two.
Reasons to Do It
Kim: Because writing is lonely and isolating—one is isolated at one’s desk, isolated in one’s head. It’s much more fun to turn it into a conversation.
Because it’s fast! Solo, we each belabor a story, tweak it, tweeze it, get annoyed by it, and chuck it in a (metaphorical) drawer. Stories huddle in those drawers for years. When we’re collaborating, we run. We don’t wring our hands over a sentence: we hurl that smoking potato at the other. We wrote one of my favorites, “War,” in a day; it was accepted by Monkeybicycle the following day.
Because it’s good practice on how to adopt a different voice, try on a different style; it’s narrative dress-up.
Because it stretches us. I think we’re writing one kind of story, and then Michelle throws in some unforeseen element—a self-defense class, a book on how to fix home appliances, a surreally boring movie—and suddenly the story has morphed into something else altogether, something weird and unpredictable. The flower just became a cactus or a toucan.
Michelle: Because it’s tremendously freeing to surrender some of the control over a story’s plot and aboutness. Knowing that at Kim’s next turn she could take the story somewhere I don’t anticipate, I don’t need to concern myself too much with where the story will go. I can focus on where the story is now.
Because collaborating helps me break the bad habit of expecting too much of myself too quickly. That is, when I write a story solo, it’s tempting to sit at the computer too long, to exhaust myself to the point that when I finally walk away, I’m leaving on a low point instead of a high point. When all I have to concern myself with is the next paragraph or two, that’s a very doable task and a relatively a short time commitment. I’m much more likely to walk away from the computer feeling energized and eager to come back to the story when Kim returns it to me.
Because it’s fun.
Michelle: I feel I’ve learned so much from collaborating with Kim, but most importantly the value of writing in short bursts of an hour or so at a time, the value of keeping up the momentum by not letting a first draft sit unfinished for long (a terrible habit of mine), the value of pushing to the end before revising (another terrible habit of mine), and the value of not overthinking a first draft (terrible habit #3). I still make some of these mistakes in my own writing, but less and less so.
Kim: The best take-away for me is collaboration makes me freer and less fussy. Collaboration feels like the writing version of improvisation. It gets me out of ruts. Also, we are not at all proprietary about our parts of the story. I feel as comfortable changing a Michelle sentence as one of mine; I don’t have any sense of, “This part of the story belongs to me, this to Michelle.” In fact, I occasionally read a sentence in one of our stories and I can’t immediately remember which one of us wrote it (though if it’s about science, that’s a good clue that it’s Michelle! When I throw in something science-y—I think working with Michelle gives me the bug—there’s a good chance she’ll need to fix it. “Actually, I think you mean beakers”). Michelle and I have pretty different styles, so it’s been fascinating to me how well we blend.
Michelle: Submitting collaborative fiction can be a bit trickier—figuring who will send a story where, keeping each other updated about where stories are being considered, where they’ve been rejected.
Kim: One journal wouldn’t allow us to submit a collaborative piece, which shocked us both.
How to Find Your Collaborator
Michelle: Obviously, you want to choose someone whose writing you admire and whose instincts you trust. It’s perfectly fine, and perhaps even for the best, if you have different writing styles or preoccupations as a writer. It’s also perfectly fine to disagree some of the time, as long as you’re able to resolve those disagreements. I think that ideally you should collaborate with a writer you know fairly well, with whom you already exchange drafts. Kim and I had been exchanging work for several years before we began collaborating. We were already each other’s first readers.
Kim: What Michelle said—find a writer whose work you love and whose judgments you value. Michelle and I first “met” each other over a story: I loved her story (“Cinema Verite”), and the comments I gave her were useful. Also, find someone who has strengths you want to borrow. I’ve always admired the humor in Michelle’s stories— her writing, like Lorrie Moore’s or Amy Hempel’s, makes me laugh. And I think our collaboration stories are pretty funny, even the sad ones. She lightens me. Michelle is ninja when it comes to restructuring stories, moving around pieces. It’s like being on one of those crazy Top Chef team quickfires: we’re good together because we can lean on each other’s skills.
Michelle: I do love moving pieces around. Quite often I find the fix to a story that isn’t quite working is largely in reshuffling the pieces. And funny that Kim says I lighten her with humor. I think Kim does the same for me plenty of the time. Also, I think that working with Kim makes be a better constructor of sentences. Her sentences are always at once so elegant and sharp, like dancers wielding scissors.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (MCP 2017). Her work has recently appeared in Cream City Review, The Forge, Monkeybicycle, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, Word Riot, and many other journals.