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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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