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Authors on a Train – An Uncommon Approach to Collaborative Success

A remarkable journey to better ideas and shared success

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Authors on a Train – An Uncommon Approach to Collaborative Success

By J. Thorn

Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

In the summer of 2016, I jokingly sent a tweet to Lindsay Buroker about co-writing on a train. Fast-forward to March of 2017, when we boarded the 8:05 Amtrak from Chicago to New Orleans with Joanna Penn and Zach Bohannon. That collaborative experience has changed my life.

The time spent with those talented authors and savvy business people shifted my thinking in a way that an online interaction couldn’t have. That trip and subsequent project changed the trajectory of my author career. And it is all a result of collaboration. Once I saw what was possible when working with others, I couldn’t go back to the way I had done things before.

 

 

I had successfully protected myself from success and leveraged every excuse available to me. With the dexterity of a ninja warrior, I flaunted my lone-wolf tendencies. I’m not only a severe introvert, but I am an INTJ—a rare and introspective personality type that, on paper, doesn’t play well with others.

I adored my solo projects, doing things my way and spending time alone thinking and reflecting. Although I had never been described as shy, I enjoyed being on stage, again as a lone performer without having to work with or consider anyone else’s perspective.

When we boarded the train that would take us from Chicago to New Orleans, I was still working my day job. And so was Zach. A seemingly innocent late-night dinner revealed much to both of us. Joanna boldly told Zach that he was making career decisions based on fear. Even though she was not talking directly to me, she was, because I had the same mindset as Zach.

We both had wives, families, and other responsibilities. Neither of us was in a situation with our writing where we felt comfortable taking chances. Because we had been writing as a “side hustle” on evenings and weekends, the amount of time we had to spend on our own projects left little time for us to seriously consider collaboration.

[Note from Nick: for more on how to get stacks of writing done, even if you have ZERO time, check out this article]

We both had been reluctant to formally collaborate with each other because we had felt as though our own products or brands would be sacrificed if we did so. Now, I can clearly see that concern for what it was—Resistance with a Big R, as Steven Pressfield would say.

 

 

Even though…

…Zach and I had collaborated on a small project before (American Demon Hunters—Nashville, Tennessee), we had not developed a perfect writing process from that one single novella. Each collaborative partner is different, and every collaboration with that partner is its own experience.

Also, we had another complication to overcome that brick-and-mortar partnerships do not. Zach lives in Tennessee, and I live in Ohio. Although it is not necessary to live near a business partner, it did make the beginning stages of our journey a bit more challenging. We relied heavily on Slack and Skype while using Google Docs in our drafting process. Out of all the hurdles to overcome when collaborating, geography was not insurmountable, thanks to modern technology.

We spent the week in New Orleans co-writing an American Demon Hunters novella (Sacrifice) with Joanna and Lindsay. During the trip, we had believed the experience would be a one-time event, an unusual opportunity for the four of us to get together and have some fun writing a story and then publishing it several weeks later. But as the week drew on, our mindset shifted. Zach and I had more conversations with Joanna and Lindsay, and we realized that something bigger had emerged from this experience.

 

 

Both of those ladies gave us extremely smart and practical advice which helped to move us toward where we are today. But Zach and I had a decision to make as our time in New Orleans wound down. We were about to go home to our families, our responsibilities, and our day jobs. And although neither of us had handed in our two-week notice just yet, we realized that our common, individual goals might be better accomplished by working together.

[Note from Nick: for more on working with other authors to share mutual success, check out our ultimate guide to author joint promotions right here]

We could have taken the safe path, writing and publishing our own material while still being friends and helping each other occasionally. That was the known road to becoming a full-time, independent author, and a perfectly reasonable decision to mitigate any risk at such a vulnerable moment. Going it alone, I only had to worry about my own problems.

The other option we had would have been to take the riskier play but one with more potential upside. If we could fully commit to each other and our business model, that would come with the risk of sharing not only our successes but our failures, which are all but impossible to avoid when you’re self-employed.

 

 

We had worked together…

…on a few projects before the first, aforementioned “Authors on a Train” excursion to New Orleans but had not made any of those long-standing or official. But before we had left the French Quarter on this trip, we had already committed the idea of Molten Universe Media to paper. Zach and I had decided that our path forward to the lifestyle we wanted would be most enjoyable and probable if we pursued it together.

That doesn’t mean the decision was obvious or easy for either of us. One of the most common questions we get now from people who know our story is, “How do I find a collaborative partner?” There isn’t necessarily an easy way to do this—no Tinder for writing partners, no “right swipe” quick-match technologies. However, there are things that we did that anyone can do, and these small actions will start to build relationships with people who might eventually make a strong collaborative partner for you.

Zach began listening to one of my early podcasts. He contacted me as a fan of the show. In the years that followed, we became friends. We discovered we had similar tastes in music, movies, and books. We got to know each other and the dreams we had for our family, and our lifestyle. And although I’m older than Zach, we shared a similar life stage with aligned financial and career aspirations.

 

 

Social media…

…can be a great way to begin looking for people who might be a good fit for you. For example, joining interest- or theme-based Facebook groups could be the first step. Correspond and engage in an authentic manner and you will start to make connections with like-minded people. You’ll find others in similar life stages, with similar dreams. And as you get to know people, you should start to gravitate toward those with a complementary but different skill set.

For example, Zach loves to write first drafts, and I love to revise. From the standpoint of a production process, this is a perfect co-writing match. As you get to know other writers, whether it be online or in local writer meetups, be on the lookout for others who also have similar life goals. It probably won’t happen with the first person you meet, and it might take longer than a week, but if you take some time and get to know people, you will find a collaborator.

Since our trip with Joanna and Lindsay, Zach and I have turned “Authors on a Train” into a thing. We took our first eight writers with us in November, guiding them on the same trip we took from Chicago to New Orleans via Amtrak. The ten of us spent a week together in the French Quarter, sightseeing, writing, planning, and becoming friends. By the end of the week, our attendees didn’t just have a co-writer, they had nine other collaborators.

 

 

The trip was so successful that we’re doing it again this year. The “Authors on the Train” experience has exceeded all our expectations and redefined what we thought collaboration could be, even more so than the grand ideas we had discussed over dinner with Joanna and Lindsay. And that is some of the magic that seeps into ideas when you share them with other people. Notions, hunches, and plans evolve into something brilliant that you never could have anticipated on your own.

Collaboration is more than just doing the work twice as fast or writing only half the words. In many circumstances, collaboration takes longer and requires more work from each person. But as Zach and I have seen with the titles we’ve published together for Molten Universe Media, our stories are more engaging, more interesting, and selling better than our individual titles. There really is a compound effect that occurs when two heads are into the story from the beginning.

 

 

Looking to the Future

We don’t know where our company is headed, although we know what we want to be doing. Whether it’s in novels or podcasts, or on writer’s retreats, we enjoy telling stories together. Collaborative storytelling is at the core of creation for many other forms of entertainment. It has always been the de facto standard in the music and television industries, for example. Bringing diversity of thought, ideas, and energy to a single project makes it a more meaningful and rich experience for the reader or listener.

If you continue to take the same actions, you can expect to get the same results. So, what is the first step you will take on your journey toward creative collaboration?

 

J. Thorn has published over one million words and has sold more than 170,000 books worldwide. He is a musician, podcaster, and an active member of the Horror Writers Association. For more information about J. Thorn and Zach Bohannon and the “Authors on a Train” experience, go to http://authorsonatrain.com

 

 

And now we want to hear from you! What do you think of the Authors on a Train concept? How do you collaborate with others on your writing or marketing? Leave a comment!

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J. ThornWendyEkta GargGlen FordMaryann Miller Recent comment authors
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J. Thorn
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J. Thorn

Thanks for the opportunity to guest post!

J. Thorn
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J. Thorn

Sorry, folks. For some reason I wasn’t getting comment notifications 🙁

J. Thorn
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J. Thorn

Thanks for the opportunity to guest post!

Wendy
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Wendy

Too bad my nearest Amtrak is almost 3 hours away.

Wendy
Guest
Wendy

Too bad my nearest Amtrak is almost 3 hours away.

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

Yes, Like Chris said, you can fly to Chicago. We had one writer on our trip from Sydney, Australia!

Christopher Wills
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Christopher Wills

I’m 4000 miles away in the UK.

Ekta Garg
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Ekta Garg

Love this idea, and the Amtrak station is 10 minutes from my house. But I write women’s fiction. Would I have a place on a future Authors on the Train trip?

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

Absolutely! We have writers from all walks of life and genre. Because our anthology is theme-based (New Orleans) there are many options.

Ekta Garg
Guest
Ekta Garg

Love this idea, and the Amtrak station is 10 minutes from my house. But I write women’s fiction. Would I have a place on a future Authors on the Train trip?

Glen Ford
Guest
Glen Ford

I am in the middle of a collaboration (my first) at the moment and I’m loving it. There have definitely been problems both in the tools we’re using and adjusting our way of working. But it gives me a chance to see how others work and it has definitely created a better story and characters.
It’s too bad train rides here in Canada are so expensive!
This is something that I definitely intend to repeat.

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

It really is a “bucket list” item for any writer.

Glen Ford
Guest
Glen Ford

I am in the middle of a collaboration (my first) at the moment and I’m loving it. There have definitely been problems both in the tools we’re using and adjusting our way of working. But it gives me a chance to see how others work and it has definitely created a better story and characters.
It’s too bad train rides here in Canada are so expensive!
This is something that I definitely intend to repeat.

Maryann Miller
Guest
Maryann Miller

I have collaborated before on several projects. First with my co-author of the mystery, Doubletake, then numerous times with a filmmaker in New York on scripts. I like collaborating, as we all have particular strengths when it come to the craft of writing, and blending those strengths makes for a better story. Since then, I have collaborated with the historian in a small town in Texas, producing two nonfiction books about the history of that town. That historian and I are now working on another book with yet another writer. This one about one of the first communities settled in… Read more »

Maryann Miller
Guest
Maryann Miller

I have collaborated before on several projects. First with my co-author of the mystery, Doubletake, then numerous times with a filmmaker in New York on scripts. I like collaborating, as we all have particular strengths when it come to the craft of writing, and blending those strengths makes for a better story. Since then, I have collaborated with the historian in a small town in Texas, producing two nonfiction books about the history of that town. That historian and I are now working on another book with yet another writer. This one about one of the first communities settled in… Read more »

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

I agree. It totally changes how you look at creativity.

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

“Authors in a Train” concept is a bold step for stretching one’s boundaries.
Besides, collaboration with other writers is an excellent adventure.
“Two good heads are better than one,” they say.
So, I will like to be a part of it, shortly.
You’ve been awesome, Nick.

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

We’d love to have you!
And yes, Nick is awesome.

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

“Authors in a Train” concept is a bold step for stretching one’s boundaries.
Besides, collaboration with other writers is an excellent adventure.
“Two good heads are better than one,” they say.
So, I will like to be a part of it, shortly.
You’ve been awesome, Nick.

Cheryl
Guest
Cheryl

I would love this, but — like Wendy — our nearest Amtrak is several hours away. But I greatly enjoyed traveling with you vicariously.

Cheryl
Guest
Cheryl

I would love this, but — like Wendy — our nearest Amtrak is several hours away. But I greatly enjoyed traveling with you vicariously.

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

You can always drive or fly to the nearest station.

J.M. Butler
Guest
J.M. Butler

What an intriguing article.

I have not pursued writing collaboratively because of how bad group projects went and because the couple times I have I felt silenced and ignored.

This sounds like a fascinating experience. And what an adventure! To write on a train. Thank you again for sharing.

J.M. Butler
Guest
J.M. Butler

What an intriguing article.

I have not pursued writing collaboratively because of how bad group projects went and because the couple times I have I felt silenced and ignored.

This sounds like a fascinating experience. And what an adventure! To write on a train. Thank you again for sharing.

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

My pleasure!

Amy B Wells
Guest
Amy B Wells

Group writing is tricky. I’ve been part of a critique group, but the differing levels of commitment made it difficult to keep it together. And we were all at various stages in our writing careers, some published, some not, etc. I would love to find a critique partner who is on the same wave length as I am.

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

I’m not a big fan of critique partners. That’s very different than collaboration. You definitely have to find the right partner.

Amy B Wells
Guest
Amy B Wells

Group writing is tricky. I’ve been part of a critique group, but the differing levels of commitment made it difficult to keep it together. And we were all at various stages in our writing careers, some published, some not, etc. I would love to find a critique partner who is on the same wave length as I am.

Sophie
Guest
Sophie

My one and only collaboration was a mixed experience. On the one hand, we ended up with a very twisted story that neither of us could have predicted because we sat back and let it develop of its own accord as a co-NaNoWri-Mo project. On the other, it’s never progressed past that first draft because I was more committed to finishing than my co-author, so I am still to this day waiting for a few final pieces from him before that first draft can be edited. I do have permission to just take the whole thing and polish it myself,… Read more »

Sophie
Guest
Sophie

My one and only collaboration was a mixed experience. On the one hand, we ended up with a very twisted story that neither of us could have predicted because we sat back and let it develop of its own accord as a co-NaNoWri-Mo project. On the other, it’s never progressed past that first draft because I was more committed to finishing than my co-author, so I am still to this day waiting for a few final pieces from him before that first draft can be edited. I do have permission to just take the whole thing and polish it myself,… Read more »

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

That is definitely a concern. For every successful collaboration I’ve had, I’ve had at least 6 that failed. But that’s true in life. Nobody starts dating and expects never to get a broken heart 😉

Christopher Wills
Guest
Christopher Wills

I was there (I’m the old guy in the pink t-shirt) and I had a great time. Learnt loads, made friends and completely reinvigorated my developing writing career. A week in New Orleans with two expert coaches to guide me in my writing, what more could one want? I learnt and practiced collaboration with the help of two experts; J Thorn and Zack Bohannon, and we published a short story book “Dark Shadows: Vampires and Ghosts of New Orleans,” from of our collaborations. Wow.

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

Yes. The handsome guy 😉
Thanks, Chris!

Christopher Wills
Guest
Christopher Wills

I was there (I’m the old guy in the pink t-shirt) and I had a great time. Learnt loads, made friends and completely reinvigorated my developing writing career. A week in New Orleans with two expert coaches to guide me in my writing, what more could one want? I learnt and practiced collaboration with the help of two experts; J Thorn and Zack Bohannon, and we published a short story book “Dark Shadows: Vampires and Ghosts of New Orleans,” from of our collaborations. Wow.

Tracy Krauss
Guest
Tracy Krauss

This is inspiring, to say the least. I have worked on a few collaborations and found each experience – although unique – to be such a time of growth and very motivating. Your article reminds me of what that was like and makes me want to pursue collaboration again. thanks!

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

You should, Tracy. I think its worth it even when some projects fail.

Tracy Krauss
Guest
Tracy Krauss

This is inspiring, to say the least. I have worked on a few collaborations and found each experience – although unique – to be such a time of growth and very motivating. Your article reminds me of what that was like and makes me want to pursue collaboration again. thanks!

jill
Guest
jill

It was a brilliant experience and I love this write-up about it all. Thanks again to J and Zach for an unforgettable experience. Also, I sold more books since then although I’m not sure whether there is a connection or not! Jill 🙂

jill
Guest
jill

It was a brilliant experience and I love this write-up about it all. Thanks again to J and Zach for an unforgettable experience. Also, I sold more books since then although I’m not sure whether there is a connection or not! Jill 🙂

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

That’s great to hear Jill! It was so great to spend a week with you in New Orleans 😉

Cameron Coral
Guest
Cameron Coral

Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing your collaboration journey, J Thorn! I’m looking forward to my own co-writing adventure later this year when I hop on that train with you and Zach!

Cameron Coral
Guest
Cameron Coral

Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing your collaboration journey, J Thorn! I’m looking forward to my own co-writing adventure later this year when I hop on that train with you and Zach!

J. Thorn
Guest
J. Thorn

Right on!

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