How To Be Your Own Co-Author


By PJ Parrish

The most common question I get from readers is how do my sister Kelly and I manage to write books together without killing each other.  So here’s a little dramatization:

Chapter 1

The first hurricane season of 1987 season, called Alina, left the beach a mess. Ex-cop Louis Kincaid walked along the beach in front of his Captiva Island cottage, watching the shell collectors who were picking up their post-storm prizes.

KELLY: Wait a minute. You really want to open your book like that? You only have a couple pages to get readers’ attention.
ME: What’s wrong with this? It’s tight. It gives reader info. Sets the weather.
KELLY: Elmore Leonard says never open with weather.
ME: But I have to open with it. The story has to open after the hurricane because Louis is about to find something cool on the beach which gets the case going.
KELLY: I get you. But weather has to mean something. It can’t just lay there. What about the prologue you wrote where that woman dies? Can you make it relate better to that?
ME: Wait…let me try again.

Her name was Alina…

KELLY: Better. Now we think this is the dead woman.
ME: Her name was Alina. The first hurricane of the 1987 season was…
KELLY: No no…good idea but you didn’t do anything with the image. Take it another level. Treat Hurricane Alina like a human being.
{{{ME: Fingers frozen over keyboard}}}
KELLY: Don’t think. Just write.

Chapter 1

Her name was Alina. She was born during a sultry summer thunderstorm somewhere near Mali, a thing no one cared about in a place few had heard of. In Senegal, she inhaled the cool ocean breezes, and in the Cape Verde islands she found her fury. By the time she reached Hispanola, she was a killer.

The first hurricane of the 1987 season turned out to be the most deadly in decades, littering the beaches of Haiti with fishing boats and bodies. Then she slammed into the southwest coast of Florida and turned due north. Finally Alina died, drifting away as a depression somewhere over Chesapeake Bay.

And now the shell seekers were out, celebrating her wake. Louis Kincaid watched them as they walked the beach.

KELLY: Now there’s a book I’d read. It’s got a hook. It sets the tone of the book. It has atmosphere and it came from YOU.
ME: Me?
KELLY: Yeah, you. You listening to your passionate writer self but taming it with craft.

Okay, the skit is over. This is pretty much how Kelly and I work. It’s not easy having a co-author. Most writers don’t want to share their vision. Or their royalty checks. But that means you’re very alone.

How many of you feel alone? How many of you paint yourself into corners with plots? Procastinate. Lose confidence? Beat yourself up? Re-read to the point of paralysis?
My whole author persona is based on co-authorship. But something evaporates when you are going alone. You feel like your safety net is gone. You feel like you have no one you can trust to tell you the truth, the good or the bad. You alone are responsible for what is on the page. And who do you turn to when you’re at your lowest? Mother, spouse, friend? Who will push you to finish when you can’t stand looking at the Thing That Is Consuming Your Soul?

How, if you are alone, can you get beyond this? Maybe if I try to explain how it works for us, maybe you can learn to listen to your inner co-author.

It all starts with an idea. But not all ideas are created equal. How do you know when you’ve got a good idea for a book? For us, we toss around plot ideas and decide whether they work for our character Louis. Not all do. Ask your inner co-author: Is this story juicy enough? Has enough meat to carry 300 pages or is it just a short story? Is it fresh? If your hero or story is not new, is it at least a different angle? Don’t chase a trend, especially if you don’t care about it.

Inner co-author voice: Meh. I think John Sandford wrote this story ten years ago. And does the world really need another alcoholic detective with a thing for Thelonious Monk, Rooster ties and redheads in leopard leggings?  And if you even think about writing an unreliable girl book, I will never speak to you again.

Okay, so you’ve got a juicy idea and you’ve written those heavy words CHAPTER ONE. Now what? Did you start your story at a prime dramatic moment?  Or is your beginning just a lot of throat-clearing? Like, did you lard in a couple pages of your protag’s backstory? Did you open with paragraphs of scene-setting description because you didn’t really KNOW where to begin the action? And why are you wasting so much time and valuable pages on some minor character who isn’t even important to your story?

Inner co-author voice: I think you need to start over. See that little black key at the top right of your laptop — it says DEL?  Press down hard and don’t let up til your screen is clean again.  Don’t worry. It only hurts for a minute or two.  You’ll thank me in the morning.

Well now. You’re on your way. You’ve got a fresh idea and a cool protag no one has seen before. You’ve figured out the best moment to open your story. You’re ten chapters in and roaring along. Then…you hit the wall. Or the muddy middle, as I like to think of it. You’re being sucked into the sand like that poor kid in Lawrence of Arabia or sinking in a  swamp in the trunk of a ’57 Ford like Marion Crane in Psycho.  How do you make the story’s middle come alive?

Inner co-author voice: There’s a bunch of cool tricks you can use! Create a rift in the team, like the three guys in Jaws.  Give one of your main characters a big secret that when revealed, sends the story in an unexpected direction. You don’t get what I mean? Go read William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.  Introduce a new character, but make darn sure they deserve to be on stage.  Better yet, kill someone off! Just don’t make it the dog.  OR…now don’t get mad at me because I know how much you hate this: STOP AND OUTLINE!  Stop yelling at me.  I know you’re a free spirit who goes where the muse leads you. But sometimes, you have to stop at the Texaco station and ask for directions. You don’t have to follow them. But the exercise of STOPPING AND THINKING AND WRITING THINGS DOWN might show you where the road begins again.

Ah, lookie here. You finished the manuscript! Seven months have gone by. Maybe seven years.  It’s time to take the baby out for a stroll and get all the ooohs and aaahs you’ve been waiting for.

Inner co-author voice: Are you nuts? You finished the first draft, Buckie! Now the hard work begins.  No, no…don’t even think about writing a query letter to Meg Ruly. Print out the whole messy thing and — stop it, just stop it. You have to do this. Print out the thing, take it to Starbucks or your favorite bar with a pencil and a bad attitude. Cross out all the stupid words, flabby dialogue, florrid descriptions.  Look for plot holes and fix them. Make your character’s motivations deeper.  Cut that dumb prologue. And while you’re at it, you use a passive voice too often.  Voice is like being good in bed. Think about that.

Whew.  You made it. You rewrote the book, at least three times. It’s 2,000 words shorter and you’ve shined it to within an inch of its life.  Now you have to send it out and get…probably ignored, very likely rejected, maybe even mauled. This is part of the process.

Inner co-author voice: Huh, you got another rejection letter? And you’re sitting there, sniffling and reading it for the hundredth time trying to find its hidden meaning. There is none. A rejection letter means 1. Your book wasn’t quite ready.  2. The editor recently accepted a manuscript too similar to yours. 3. You queried the wrong agent or editor for the genre you’re writing. 4. The agent has too many clients already. 5. The editor’s slate is too full.  So what? Query someone else and then more. Send out as many queries as you can stomach because it’s a huge waste of time to send out ONE query and wait to be asked to the prom.  Oh yeah, and while you’re waiting the eight weeks or more it takes to get an answer, start writing the next book. And remember: No one is rejecting YOU. They are rejecting your story, often for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Do. Not. Take. This. Personally.

One last thing about having an inner co-author. You really need to listen to them closely. Because they will tell you the truth. And they will keep you going when you feel like giving up and getting a job driving the cart at the airport.

Inner co-author: Don’t give up. We can do this. Have some faith. Work hard. Word harder. But when you do something well, when the words come together, pat yourself on the back. In the immortal words of Stuart Smalley. You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And doggone it, people will like your books.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

11 thoughts on “How To Be Your Own Co-Author

  1. Love this, Kris! I can see the benefits of having a writing partner. Thanks for a peek into your process. Riveting. My inner author and I aren’t speaking at the moment. All she does is harp on me, and I need a little peace to get words on the page. I feel her hovering, though. It won’t be long before she whispers, “You suck. Trash it all!” 😉

    • I think the inner co-author is not the same as the muse. The latter is usually the angel on your shoulder encouraging you to slog on thru the bad parts. The co-author is the devil, nagging you. I think you need both. But yeah, I think it’s okay to ignore the co-author once in a while. Kelly and I have learned this. 🙂

  2. Oh my! How entertaining…and instructive! I find myself in almost every line, comma, and period.

    Definitely a post to re-read when I get my mud shovel out of the shed to start slinging that flabby dialogue and florid description off the page.

    Love this post…thank you!

  3. I loved this post. As with the others I can see myself too.

    I am lucky to have a wonderful critique partner who is kind but truthful. I am still laughing at her comment regarding some scenes in my first book, partially set in Africa. I have actually been to the places I was writing about and loved describing them and the people – too much. She told me, “You have interesting to descriptions of these places, but they make the book sound more like a travel brochure than a novel.”

    Ouch. But she was right, and I still thank her.

    • Yikes. Hard critique but welcome, I am sure. There is nothing more valuable than a critique partner you can trust. Since I moved to Tallahassee from Fort Lauderdale, my critique group is the only thing I miss.

  4. Great post, as always. Thanks.
    Now, I have to go fix the weathered opening of my new novel.

    • I feel your pain. I can’t count how many books I started with the weather and had to throw it out. It’s my crutch. I still open far too many chapters with it.

  5. An entertaining post! Some of this is definitely me.

    Right now, my inner-author is re-reading and re-reading the old stuff, looking for ways to edit it before I even finish the draft. I need to duct tape her mouth shut and let me get my draft down first.

    • I went back and read chapters 1 and 2 the other day after having let them bake in the puter for weeks. I only did it to prime the pump because I was out of gas. (mixed metaphor?). I was shocked at how flabby the writing was. And I had thought it was pretty solid at the time. I found so many extraneous words to cut. Times does not heal all wounds. Sometimes, time exposes them. Which is good.

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