Collaborating on a Novel Across an Ocean

From November of 2010 to May of 2011, I woke almost every day excited to get to work on what I considered the last revision of my novel Chasing Sylvia Beach. On my main writing days – Friday through Monday – I’d make my cappuccino and eagerly log on to get started.

Now, I can’t say I approached all drafts of the novel with this much enthusiasm. Perhaps like me, you may have routinely experienced dread, fear and deep resentment of your project. I certainly didn’t want to do another draft.

I, like you, prefer to do something fun and hedonistic such as lie around the pool in my new swimsuit reading someone else’s work.

Instead, I found a way to write my novel that both challenged me to my creative edge and made my book better. What was the secret sauce that sparked me to leap out of bed every morning?

Writing across an ocean

I began collaborating. On the last revision of the book, I worked with a man near Paris to clear up some of the plot problems and to enhance the male characters.

It’s a long and juju-licious story how I found D and how we started working together. Suffice it to say, coming to terms with allowing someone so deeply into my project was not easy.

The language barrier was the least of our challenges. We spoke and wrote in French. I loved learning new vocabulary and practicing my French.

More challenging was his French disinclination to ever give any praise. Praise, for the French, is idle or intentional flattery that only makes the recipient soft and weak.

I also had to release my need to look good and open to suggestions and criticism.

But once I learned how to manage the emotional challenges, the play of collaborating became very fun.

The practical matters of collaborating

It took some time to get our stride with how we were going to work on the project together. A 100,000-word, thirty-three chapter novel is a big beast to manage. One big document, many chapters, hundreds of pages…how to keep it all straight?

1. Google docs We operated not only on different continents, but also on different operating systems. Him, Linux. Me, Mac.

D is a bit software obsessed and tried several different formats so each of us could share and work on the documents.

But the best solution turned out to be google docs. We were able to:

  • Share files in one consolidated place
  • See and retrieve all previous versions of the documents
  • View, edit and comment in full view of the other viewer
  • Comment in the sidebar to keep the manuscript itself cleaner
  • Easily organize and manage many files in shared folders

2. Gmail We communicated bigger conversations outside the documents easily using gmail. That’s no surprise but email was a major form of communication. I loved waking up to his notes about the book.

3. Dropbox Videos, songs, images and large written documents were all easy to share on our Dropbox folder. It’s free and easy to use.

4. Private site D built a site where he created a gallery of images. We tried to use the project management aspect of this site, but it turns out we didn’t need that. This was a great place to share a gallery of images and documents.

5. Skype We never used the video feature, but we were able to talk for hours (the longest session was nine hours). We could share links and files and look at the documents on google docs to make changes and discuss in real time.

Using these five valuable and free resources, we were able to work together across the ocean for ten months. He helped me develop the male French character in my novel, Paul. He also helped make the Nazi part a bit more menacing and exciting. He’d make suggestions, we’d brainstorm ideas, and I’d write scenes and get his feedback.


On May 16th, 2011, I woke up with my usual instinct: get up and see what D had sent during my sleep.

But no. We were done.

We are still friends and we stay in touch, but now that the project is complete, we aren’t in daily contact like we were as collaborators.

I learned so much about my writing and myself through this collaboration. The emotional challenges grew me as a person and the mechanics of partnering challenged me as a writer and businesswoman.

What about you?

There are plenty of collaboration tools out there. I’m not suggesting what we used is the best way; it’s what worked for us to drive the penultimate draft to completion.

You don’t have to be across the ocean from your collaborating partner. You could be in the next office, co-authoring a book that will push your work to a legacy state. It’s never been easier to work together to create something.

What indispensable and perhaps free tools do you use to collaborate with others? For other types of artists, what helps you collaborate with others?


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