Write Start: 6 Tips for a Successful Writing Collaboration

Editor’s Note: Mimi Baird is the author of He Wanted the Moon, a book about her father, Dr. Perry Baird, who was a rising medical star in the 1930s and whose career was eventually derailed by mental illness. Mimi grew up never knowing what had happened to her father, who all but vanished from her life when she was seven years old. At the age of fifty-three, however, she began a long journey to learn about his life. This led to her discovery of a manuscript that her father had written while being held in a state mental institution outside of Boston in 1944. For Signature's Write Start series, in which authors share advice on writing, Mimi describes the process of writing her book, both alone and with her co-writer, Eve Claxton.

MIMI BAIRD: I have always written in some shape or form. At an early age I learned how to pen Christmas thank you notes and answer invitations to formal parties and balls. These skills morphed into the ability to write school and college essays, to take minutes, create memorandums and prepare grant proposals. To this day, I still write letters. But when it came to writing about my father, my approach was haphazard. I felt like a beginner.

The process started in late 1991. Driven by a long-held desire to finally unearth the true story of my father’s identity, I interviewed his friends and colleagues, requested medical records from mental institutions, unearthed baby books and scrapbooks, and read a multitude of letters written by and to my father, found in Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library. I wrote notes on torn pieces of yellow lined paper, the back of pamphlets, newsprint, and even bank deposit slips. Finally in the spring of 1994, I discovered the fifty-year-old manuscript handwritten by my father during his incarceration of 1944.

Knowing so little about my father’s past, I learned as I wrote, just following the evidence, not paying much attention to grammar or sentence structure. Since there were multiple sources of evidence, I was constantly revising, shifting from one set of scenarios to another. As incredibly valuable as my father’s memoir was, it did present many editing challenges. Because of the unusual circumstances in which he was writing, the manuscript contained numerous versions of the same scenes, it was often illegible, and its pages had fallen out of order. I stopped and started writing the book over a period of many years, but in the process, my father’s life slowly emerged.

If you have a feeling that there’s something in your past in need of clarification, my advice is to pursue that feeling, and never give up, no matter how old you are or how long it takes. And don’t be afraid to ask others for help.I finally got to a point in 2011 when I felt I could emerge from the privacy of my tiny office, and that’s when I knew that I needed an editor.

EVE CLAXTON: When Mimi and I first began working together, she had already spent twenty years gathering materials about her father. The challenge was to knit together all her sources into a unified form that would have the most relevance for a general reader.

Mimi and I had an immediate rapport that gave the work a real momentum. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t struggle through multiple drafts. There was so much material that there seemed to be an infinite number of ways we could arrange the various voices and sources. We had a period of sometimes-frustrating experimentation until, with the help of Domenica Alioto, our extraordinary editor at Crown Publishing, we hit on the book’s final form: Perry’s manuscript first, then Mimi’s account of uncovering her father’s life story.

Here are six lessons we learned from our collaboration.

1.Set guidelines for the relationship. We had an agreement on paper that outlined our collaboration in financial and legal terms. But we were also clear about our individual roles in the writing process. This was Mimi’s book and she was its author. As the co-writer, I was the intermediary between the author and the general reader – finding the story’s truest form, and taking good care of each sentence so that it would be as readable as possible. Ultimately, Mimi would always have the final word.

2. Draw up a schedule and stick to it. We made deadlines for each section of the book and spoke faithfully each Friday at four PM to discuss the week’s progress. We both have busy lives, and so this was essential to keep the writing work on an even keel.

3. Have a policy of open communication and emotional honesty. For Mimi, this was intensely personal material and as a result, she might have been inclined to hold back on intimate details, concerned that they weren’t something she wanted to share with a wider audience. Instead, she agreed to tell me everything – then we decided together what was relevant to the reader and the book.

4. Understand that a book goes through many phases and takes time to complete. Over the two years that we worked together, we both remained open to the constant changes and shifting around of the material. We felt we had one chance to get it right, and it needed to be perfect. Patience was paramount.

5. Keep asking the question: Is this relevant to the book’s overarching themes? There was so much material that we could have included in the book, but ultimately we decided to focus on Perry’s manuscript and how Mimi brought it to light. Anything superfluous to that could be culled.

6. Listen to one another and maintain a sense of humor. The material we were working on was often dark and disturbing, and so it became essential for us to let off steam. Laughing became a way of supporting each other through what might have been a very intense process. The beauty of collaborative writing is that you’re not alone and together we had many moments of joy.

Get more writing advice from Signature's Write Start series here.