Collaborating with Cussler

Our guest today is New York Times bestselling author, Paul Kemprecos. Paul is the co-author with Clive Cussler of eight NUMA Files books. Before collaborating with Cussler, he had written six underwater private detective books set on Cape Cod. His first book won a Shamus Award for best original paperback. He and his wife live on Cape Cod

Kemprecos, Paul People often ask me about the nuts and bolts of my collaboration with Clive Cussler. I must admit I’m as mystified about the process as when we started writing the NUMA Files series around ten years ago at a time only a few fiction writers were working together. Clive still kids me about making the jump from a regional Cape Cod private eye to world-wide thriller-adventure novels but at the time it was a daunting proposition. And still is.

I decided from the first not try to be another Cussler. The Grandmaster of Adventure is several inches taller than I am, so there was no way I could fill his shoes. And we had differing backgrounds and styles of writing. I would simply write the best adventure story I could, keeping the tone–whatever that is–similar to that of the Pitt novels.

Clive sent me the bios of the NUMA Special Assignments Team and it was up to me to flesh them out as believable characters. Then we were off and running on the book that would become Serpent.

serpentWith a cast of characters in place, next there had to be a story line. Clive suggested having the lost continent of Atlantis found under Antarctic ice. I gathered some material and was digging through the pile when he called and said he was going to use his suggested story line in the Dirk Pitt novel that would become Atlantis Found. He had another idea: a conspiracy to keep secret contact with America that pre-dated Columbus. It was pretty sketchy, but I said I would see what I could do. I said I had been thinking of using the Andrea Doria sinking in one of my PI novels and thought that the collision with the Stockholm that led to the sinking of the Italian luxury liner might be a good way to start a NUMA File. The collision could have been a deliberate act I suggested. He thought that was a good idea and suggested that the ship was sunk to hide an object on board that would unravel the conspiracy. Start writing, he said.

I sat down with some books and a diagram of the Doria and the prologue turned out surprisingly well. Clive said it was great and told me to keep going. I knocked off another hundred pages. This time Clive called to say the second batch of pages I had sent kinda stunk. I agreed with him, and said I was badly in need of some guidance. A few weeks later I flew out to Scottsdale, Arizon where Cussler lives. I was convinced that I had gotten in over my head with the NUMA Files, but we spent a couple of days going back and forth and carved out the plot and characters that would put Serpent on the best-seller lists.

medusa This is pretty much the template we have followed in our collaboration, right down to our latest book, Medusa. I run some concepts by him. He says yes, no or maybe and offers suggestions. I start writing, get into trouble about half way through the manuscript, then I fly out to have a story conference that sets things straight and head home to write the rest of the book. He hasn’t called recently to say something stinks, usually saying it indirectly by hinting I might want to come at something a different way. We’ve worked together long enough for me to pick up on his suggestions, however subtle they may be. I’ve learned to trust his instincts even if they run counter to my own. When he keeps returning to a subject it usually means this is a good thing to keep in the story.

Every writing duo comes at the task in its own way. Some write alternating chapters. Or one person works on story while the other does the actual writing and they meet somewhere in the middle. James Patterson said at a Thrillerfest talk that he writes long outlines for others who do the actual writing.

I think that whatever way works is the right way. Clive and I have a loose arrangement, but we are on the same creative wavelength. I will never be the story-teller Clive is. And he says I’m a better writer than he is. Even so, when we get into our Good-Guy, Bad-Guy discussions, we are talking the same language.

I guess it works. Medusa was scheduled to come in at number two today, June 2, on The New York Times bestseller list.

Have you ever collaborated with another author, and if so, how do you approach the task? If you haven’t, do you think you could? And as a reader, how do you feel about books written by two writers as opposed to single authors?

Watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo,  Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

7 thoughts on “Collaborating with Cussler

  1. Welcome to the Kill Zone, Paul! I started the first novel in my series as a collaboration, but my co-writer was too busy to focus on the work, and she dropped out. When collaboration is successful, as in your case, I would think that it would be a great way to go. It could feel like a very small, intense writing group. As collaborators, you can keep each other going, help each other break through creative logjams, and avoid dead alleys. Having a collaborator would help me avoid procrastination or spending too much time doing “research”!

  2. Thanks for joining us today, Paul! I’m currently collaborating on a screenplay for the first time, and it has been at times quite daunting. I wish we’d done a better job at the beginning of outlining who was responsible for what. Hopefully it will all come together in the end.
    Congrats on making the list again!

  3. Thanks for giving us an inside look into your writing partnership with Mr. Cussler. I hope you realize how envious we all are of your collaboration. Clive Cussler was one of my biggest inspirations in becoming a writer. His career is one few can match. And you’re a lucky guy to be a part of it. And well deserved, I might add.

    I’m finishing up my fifth thriller with Lynn Sholes so I know what it’s like to write fiction with a co-writer. It’s a tremendous advantage to have another person you can rely on who has such a deeply vested interest in the work. Having done it for so long, I sometimes wonder how an individual can complete a novel on their own. The ability to brainstorm is one of the biggest advantages. One of us will always have a solution to a plotting problem or character goal. Personally, I enjoy working with a co-writer. And it appears that you do, too. Congratulations on a successful partnership. And thanks for stopping by TKZ. See you at ThrillerFest!

  4. Paul thanks for blogging here. Great post.

    I don’t want to sound like a jerk, or invite a firestorm, even though there’s no way to ask this without touching a raw nerve, but that certainly isn’t my intent. I think people, who like the books by a “better known” author and a “lesser” known (but often no less talented) collaborating author invariably wonder how much of the actual work the “better known” author actually does. I always wonder why an established author needs any other author unless the other author provides most of the actual work.

    I’ve been told by an author who works with a HUGE name that the Huge Name starts with throwing out a few ideas, some possible character additions, and the lesser known author writes the book’s first draft and sends it to Mr. Huge, who says, “Very Good.” Then it appears on stands with Huge’s name splashed on the top and Mr. Not As Huge’s name in type that could pass for fine print in a credit card offer.

    What I am saying, I hope, is that very often the collaborator’s talent is larger than Huge’s, but Huge gets the credit.

    I suppose ideally, the collaborators should be equal and offer something (a strength) the other doesn’t have, and vice versa.
    And I’m sure that talent working with talent is less lonely, if that is the right word.

    Paul, that said, you and Clive write great books together, and I had the pleasure of speaking on the same program at a National Kidney Foundation event in Denver years ago. What a genuinely nice and personable men he was.

  5. Good to see you here, Paul. And for all of you coming, or thinking of coming, to Thrillerfest, don’t miss Saturday afternoon’s centerpiece — a roast of Clive Cussler by his co-writers (including Paul). Of course, then Clive will get this chance at them, so I wouldn’t be getting too cocky if I were those fellows…

  6. Hi Kathryn: Thanks for the post. This is my first blog so I’m trying to get the hang of things. Too bad your co-writer didn’t work out. Maybe someone will pop up in the future if you still want to go that route. As we all know, writing is pretty much of a head game. When I’m writing, I constantly have to remind myself I’ve done this before! Even though months may pass before I run something by Clive, it’s comforting to know I can do it.

    Thanks, Michelle. And good luck with your screenplay. I did a screenplay once with a friend and had the same experience. Since he was the more familiar with the form-or so I thought-I let him take the lead. Bad move. Screenplay could have been much better. I agree that setting out the rules ahead of time makes sense.

    Thanks for the nice words, Joe. I truly feel fortunate working with Clive. I’ve learned so much about the genre. If I go solo on a non-NUMA Files it will take some getting used to.

    Hi John. People often ask me why Clive’s name is so big on the jacket compared to mine. I usually explain that a writer’s name is like a label, and that people will pick up his or her book because they are familiar with the work. Collaboration may have been inevitable because the the demands of the publishing biz for a constant stream of huge sellers. I did about a book a year for the first few and found the ordeal exhausting and less than satisfying creatively. Clive had been pumping them out far longer when I came on board and I am amazed that he was able to produce as much as he has-and is still doing it.

    Speaking of da biz, nice to see my editor here Neil. Clive has already told me that we’d better come loaded for bear, because he’s going to roast the roasters. He’ll probably have a hard time, because we co-writers are practically without blemish, but it should be great fun. Hope to see everybody there.

  7. Hi Paul – thanks for stopping by at TKA. It was great to hear more about your collaboration with Clive Cussler.

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