A Matter of Trust — The Art of Collaboration by A.J. Llewellyn

Occasionally authors write articles on the site on different topics they believe would be of interest to their colleagues, and the following post from A.J. Llewellyn is one such essay.


I have, I would say, had the terrific good fortune of having one of the most amazing writing partnerships I know of. Ever since the divine and deeply talented D.J. Manly approached me to write a story together, my career took a turn down a road I can only describe as less traveled and utterly astonishing.

We’ve penned almost 50 books together (and counting) but why is it that some partnerships work and some don’t?

If you are thinking of a collaboration there are some rules you should take into consideration. I’m no expert by any means but ever since I was approached by one of the pioneers — and one of the most highly regarded authors — in the genre of M/M, I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.

I’ve thought long and hard about this subject for a variety of reasons, mostly because both D.J. and I are asked to collaborate with many authors. I’ve dipped my toes in the pool a few more times than D.J. but after the stories I’ve heard, it comes down to this: A Matter of Trust.

I trust D.J. in ways I cannot describe to friends and family. I trust his instincts, his talents, his taste and his judgment. He is an ethical person and writer. We talk about our characters and they are real to us. To discuss Stride and Zero, Rallus and Knox, or Matt and Thomas…they live in our heads, weaving their webs, their magic keeping us in their grip. Their stories demand to be told and these are conversations I cherish and could never, ever have with another living soul.

Recently, one of our publishing houses was rocked by a total catastrophe. A very successful, best-selling author was discovered to have plagiarized one of her OWN books, a collaborative effort with another author.

The plagiarist, let’s call her Sue, not only lost all her publishing contracts with two houses but both her real name and variety of pen-names have been disseminated to publishers everywhere. She will be lucky to publish anything after this. What was shocking was that she lifted whole sex scenes from previously published works and merely changed the names. She was exposed by one of her own fans.

I don’t feel sorry for her, nor do I buy her crappy excuse of “a photographic memory.” I feel sorry for her co-author, let’s call her Jenny, whose entire backlist of 30 joint titles (including paperbacks) has been removed from publication.

30 books is more than most authors produce in their lifetime and these were Jenny’s hottest books…her calling card, if you will. She also told me the sex scenes were hers. Her plagiarizing co-star had peppered yahoo groups for months with wild tales of illnesses and calamities. Jenny patiently waited through this so they could honor their contracts, only to discover that Sue had signed a deal elsewhere and was strip-mining their very popular works.

Poor Jenny learned about all of this and felt devastated and betrayed — and rightly so. Every author I know with a backlist depends and survives on them. Those quarterly payments from our publishers and third-party sellers are our backbone. Not only that, but according to the email Jenny sent out to all her readers and co-authors, Sue has never bothered to respond to calls or emails. No apologies…nothing. Jenny also feels smeared by her former co-author’s activities.

Like I said, writing with somebody else is a matter of trust. So, in no special order, here are some suggestions if you’re considering a partnership.

1. You must like your fellow co-author’s work. Forget about reviews, I am talking about their actual work. In the weeks after Phantom Lover, my first-ever M/M novel, was published, I floundered in a sea of uncertainty. I had no idea if the book was selling, if people liked it…I had nobody to talk to. Out of the blue, a writer/reviewer contacted me and said she loved the book. I was so flattered when she asked me to co-write that I said yes. We nutted out an idea. She told me she lived in the Caribbean but had overused Jamaica as a locale in her works. Fine by me. I love exotic places and suggested Turks and Caicos since I’d just been there covering a boxing match and my character was a boxer.

She asked me where and what Turks and Caicos was. If she really lived in the Caribbean she’d know that it’s one of the smallest but one of the most popular, unblemished islands…right? I was beginning to panic.

Then she started the ball rolling. I’d never collaborated on a novel before and learned that she would write from one character’s POV and I, from the other.

And then I read her pages. They were simply awful. I couldn’t believe it. I wrote my portion, gently pointing out major plot holes in her stuff. She didn’t take it well and said she’d fix it later. Later? When?

The pages we exchanged got worse and worse. It was becoming too stressful and from reviews I was reading, I learned that realism was not this author’s strongest suit. I quietly purchased and read one of her books and knew I’d made a big mistake. I should have done that first. I stopped the collaboration.

2. Beware of authors who have a problem with hot sex and expect you to spice up their prose. Some authors have a problem with sex, straight or gay. You cannot write successfully with somebody who abhors gay sex but wants to cash in on what they think is a hot $$$ wave. You will be miserable. I tried helping a friend out, again, early in my career, but when she blanched at the sight of my first blowjob scene, I worried. The couple hadn’t even started having anal sex yet. What bothered me about this partnership going south was that I loved this author as a writer and a person. She apparently thinks I just write porn and expected to write the story herself and have me insert, quote, unquote, “the dirty bits.”

Another partnership bit the dust, but thankfully, our friendship prevailed. Sometimes that’s more important than even the best story idea…

3. Be willing to be flexible. Now we are getting to the actual collaboration. I am not telling tales out of school by relating this to you: when D.J. Manly first approached me about working together, I said yes. Of course. I was so excited to be working with one of the most astonishing authors in the world that I wondered whether virgin sacrifices might be involved. Living in Los Angeles, I figured finding one might take some time. Once the emails went back and forth, we fixed on an idea of two writers meeting online, falling in love and meeting in person at a writer’s conference. The catch was that both men are gay but one writes as a woman, confusing the heck out of the other guy…until they see each other.

D.J. started the ball rolling. He wrote from Thomas’s POV and I loved what he wrote. I read everything but could not get a handle on the name of Marcus, who was my guy. I felt I needed to change it and after my two previous, very bad experiences, asked if I could change it to Matt, expecting an explosion of anger. D.J. said of course, and our Black Point series was born. Names are a funny thing. I loved everything D.J. did and he set up our story with his usual humor and style. I can’t think of Matt and Thomas being with anybody else and I am glad our readers love them.

4. Be prepared to help one another if one of you attempts to jump the shark. This is a serious point. In our second book together, Back to Black Point, I wrote a scene that D.J. felt the readers would hate. It involved cheating on the part of the secondary couple, Ryan and Cole. I was disappointed since I thought it was a provocative scene that would work. He felt strongly that we shouldn’t do it and thank God I listened. He was absolutely right.

Similarly, he killed off a character in our second successful series together, Blood Eclipse. I felt strongly that the character should survive and he agreed. Both times, we talked and listened and I feel this is why we adore writing together. We both have a love for story. We are passionately committed to our characters. I am often shocked at things D.J. does to our characters and, I’ve learned, vice versa. I introduced an array of angelic children to the Blood Eclipse series thinking the children will lead the way…D.J. read the scene where I left off and had his character open the door and cut off all their heads with a sword!

I still haven’t gotten over that one…lol. It was not how I saw it going, but in hindsight, what he did was perfect. That is the magic of a collaboration. You should be able to surprise each other. We have a lot of children in our stories and I always tease him about not killing off the kids. When I pitched the idea for the sixth Black Point book — Black Point Forever — to D.J., I told him about my friends’ fight to save their baby. Many gay and blended families have children via surrogates and often have no real idea of medical history. Their baby needed bone marrow and it was a heart-breaking journey.

It was, I think, the perfect ending to Matt and Thomas’s love story, that the one man who could threaten their union — Thomas’s ex lover, Daniel — was the only person in the world whose blood type was perfect for Baby Rose. The original idea had been mine, but the solution was pure D.J. Again, that’s why I love what I do. Your work should fit together and should not necessarily be formulaic.

And Baby Rose survived! No sword for the baby!

5. Be prepared to have each other’s back. We trust each other, I’ve already established that but the one area that is crucial is in dealing with an editor, publisher or cover artist. There was one time we got a cover I liked, but D.J. hated. This is a partnership so I backed him up the whole way and he fought for a change. He was absolutely right. The second cover we got was fantastic!

Similarly, we had an unusual situation with an editor who worked on both our individual and joint titles. For some reason, she decided to revisit our Black Point series — after they were published, mind you — and said that Matt and Thomas’s niece, Daphne, was too advanced for a two-year old. I was astonished. Daphne is based on my own niece who inspired the character. D.J. and I talked and he backed me up completely. The editor commented that a two-year old would not play with Lego, but Duplo. Duplo didn’t exist when I was a kid and Alina, my little niece, plays with Lego! Not all kids are the same. And I’ve learned kids today grow up faster than they did 20 years ago (when our sweet editor had her tiny bundles of mischief). They are way more advanced. I mention this because the issue became contentious, but D.J. and I stood strong. We back each other up, always. We even check with one another on covers etc. before responding to the artist or publisher. A partner does this. United you stand — remember that.

6. Don’t count your chickens…yet. If you enter into a collaboration with another author, it is a good idea to wait until contracts have been signed and the book is finished before you announce it anywhere. This is just good business. You have no idea, until you write with someone what their life is like, what their process is, how long they take, do they need a lot of hand-holding? Endless phone conversations? Do they need every paragraph applauded? Believe it or not, I worked with a writer I admire enormously in an attempt to collaborate but I couldn’t handle listening to the daily dramas of divorce, kids, illness, etc. etc. If you have the time to devote to somebody producing a minimal amount of work with a huge amount of angst, this might be ideal for you. However, until you start working with somebody, you just don’t know what their method is. So wait, before you blog!

And finally, I must say I’ve had four successful collaborations with other authors and have been most fortunate. I have highlighted my work with D.J. because we’ve written so many books together but I already adore working with my new co-author, Serena Yates. D.J. and I have a series of anthologies with her and once again, we have another wonderful author we love and trust.

I can only advise you to look before you leap, and when you do, go with both feet and have fun. If it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth it.

Aloha oe,



  • Hi Norma, Cleon and Blaine,
    thank you for your comments. I have had a staggering amount of emails about this post. Some authors have shared their horror stories, Some have asked who the plagiarizing author is but in fact the story I related was never made public but was shared amongst the authors for the publisher’s site. Only one yahoo group covered the case and that was the betrayed author who let her readers know what was going on… Regardless of who the offender was, she did a terrible thing. The betrayed author is now bouncing back stronger than ever and even has a new and exciting writing partnership. I mention this because I think it’s important to stress this: Just because you get your heart broken doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t fall in love again. It’s the same as a writing partnership, but just as in love, a creative collaboration can be fantastIc or – not. What I wrote here was from the heart and I hope if and when you do collaborate, keep some of my suggestions in mind. But most of all Just write!!

  • Thank you so much for posting this, AJ. It is a good reminder of what can work, and why, and why it might not.

    I think I was very lucky to have worked with you and DJ on the Stealing My Heart anthology, that showed me how you guys work. All your points about liking the other person’s work, and being able to trust them got tested, in a way, on that project. At least for me. So by the time we started talking about our first book togehter, I was pretty sure we’d be okay. As far as I am concerned I was totally lucky (and still am!!!!) to get to work with you. The surprises in the storyline alone when the book comes back from you are worth it, never mind the working together and creating something that is different and better than I could have done on my own. That, for me, is the ‘magic’ of a collaboration.

    From the bottom of my heart: thank you for being a fantastic writing partner. You have spoiled me to the point where I am not even sure I’d even want to try working with someone else. :smile:

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