Writing with Two Heads

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Recently, Mark Alpert posted a blog about The Writing Buddy and how writing can be a lonely occupation. There are few methods of getting around that situation. If you want to write fiction, it’s usually a one-man show. Fortunately for me, I have a solution—a cowriter.

One of the most frequently asked questions  Lynn Sholes and I get is “How is it possible for two people to write fiction together?” The answer is, it ain’t easy. At least it 2heads8wasn’t at first. Collaboration on non-fiction is somewhat easier to understand. In general, with non-fiction, the “facts” usually already exist and the collaborators’ job is to organize them into a readable document that has a beginning, middle and end. A good outline and knowledge of the subject matter along with professional writing skills may be all the authors need.

But with fiction, nothing exists. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Fiction is a product of an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by actual facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in their head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel together?

I can’t speak for the handful of other writing teams out there (including TKZ’s own PJ Parrish), but Lynn and I have managed to complete 6 thrillers together because of a number of reasons.

First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write.

Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve.

Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something.

Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over 10 years in a weekly writers critique group.

Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them.

Sixth, we agree on the same message/theme in each book.

Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise.

And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job? We talk, and talk, and talk. Once a day we conference call, brainstorm, tell and retell each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in-sync as possible. Then one of us will declare they have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, enough of which to create the first draft.

We write very slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to write our first book. It took three years of hard work before we melted our voices together. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, even I can’t always remember what I wrote and what she wrote. I rely on my co-writer so much that I’ve come to wonder how individuals can possibly write a book on their own.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split any money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you could as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

One of the pluses is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our spouses, family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

Lynn and I are approaching the mid-point of our seventh thriller together (THE SHIELD, the follow-up to THE BLADE). I’ve found that creating the first draft of a chapter is just as exciting as getting a new chapter from her and seeing where the story has gone. I guess the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers.

One last note: I haven’t seen Lynn in person in over 5 years since we live hundreds of miles apart. That seems to be something that mystifies everyone.

So, now that you know how we write together, do you think you could ever collaborate on a novel? Or is writing fiction too private an experience. Do you believe two heads are better than one or would you rather not have anyone sticking their nose in your work?

————–
THE BLADE is full-throttle thriller writing.” David Morrell

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Co-Writing Dreams and Nightmares

by Michelle Gagnon

On our Open Tuesday discussion this week, someone asked about co-writing. Joe Moore is our resident expert on the subject, so he can elaborate on the positive aspects of that type of collaboration. Today I’ll outline the alternate scenario, when it doesn’t go particularly well.

I have a close friend who has always wanted to be a writer. Over drinks one night, she proposed that we work on a project together. I’d had a screenplay idea milling around the back of my mind for awhile, and it seemed like an ideal project to tackle together. After all, screenplays are shorter than novels, primarily dialogue, and can be easily divided up into individual scenes. We sat down and hashed out the plot over the course of a few days, decided which scenes each of us would tackle, and set to work.

Within a week I had most of my scenes written. My friend stalled: stuff to do around the house, she hadn’t been able to find time…understandable. A few weeks later, after I pressed again, she came back with a single scene.

And it was terrible. Really, truly, awful. All the characters sounded alike- in fact, they all sounded like her. The dialogue was clunky and forced, the jokes fell flat. It was a mess. Not unsalvagable, mind you, but rough.

Now, I don’t claim to be the best writer out there–far from it. But I suddenly realized that while I’d spent the past decade writing nearly every day, learning what worked and what didn’t, and being heavily edited by pros, she had not. The scene felt like something handed in for a freshman writing class–which, essentially, it was. It threw me, because I didn’t know how to handle it. I realized that this project wasn’t going to be a few weeks of work that I could sneak in between book deadlines, but would require months of tough conversations and editing.

In the end, we abandoned the idea.

And here’s what I came away with. If you are going to work with a collaborator, ideally it should be someone as dedicated to the craft and on roughly the same writing level as you are. At nearly every cocktail party I’ve attended in the past decade, someone declares that someday, they’re going to write a book. Most people think they’re capable of such a thing, if only they could find the time. The truth is, there are people who have worked demanding full time jobs, raised small children, and found the time. Heather Graham used to type one-handed while she cradled a baby in her other arm. Allison Brennan worked late at night after her kids had gone to bed. Khaled Hosseini worked at 5AM before his family woke up and he had to head to the hospital for work.

Given time and effort, my friend might turn out to be a great writer. The ideas she came up with during our brainstorming sessions were fantastic, things I never would have thought of. The problem was that she lacked the experience to translate those ideas, and, worse yet, didn’t have the drive to work on it every day. And without that drive, and the understanding that what we do is not easy but requires a serious dedication of time and effort (and a thick skin), it simply won’t happen.

I’m about to undertake another co-writing project on a screenplay. This time, I’ll be working with a friend who has written several scripts, and had one produced. I’ll admit to some trepidation regardless–after all, she is a friend, and nothing can strain a friendship like working together in any field. But I’m hoping that this time things will go more smoothly.

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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.

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Two heads are better than one

by Joe Moore

2heads One of the most frequently asked questions Lynn Sholes and I get is “How is it possible for two people to write fiction together?” The answer is, it ain’t easy. At least it wasn’t at first. Collaboration on non-fiction is somewhat easier to understand. In general, with non-fiction, the “facts” usually already exist and the collaborators’ job is to organize them into a readable document that has a beginning, middle and end. A good outline and knowledge of the subject matter along with professional writing skills may be all the authors need.

But with fiction, nothing exists. It’s all smoke and mirrors (a great title of a great thriller by my fellow KillZone blogger, John Ramsey Miller, by the way). Fiction is a product of an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by actual facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in their head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel?

I can’t speak for the handful of other writing teams out there, but Lynn and I have managed to complete 4 thrillers together because of a number of reasons. First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write. Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve. Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something. Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over 10 years in a weekly writers critique group. Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them. Sixth, we agree on the same message in each book. Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise. And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job. We talk, and talk, and talk. At least once a day we conference call, brainstorming and telling and retelling each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in sync as possible. Then one of us will declare they have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, and create the first draft.

We write very slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to write our first book. It took three years of hard work before we melted our voices together. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, even I can’t always remember what I wrote and what she wrote. I rely on my co-writer so much that I’ve come to wonder how individuals can possibly write a book on their own.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split any money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you could as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

One of the pluses is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

Lynn and I are approaching the mid-point of our fifth thriller together. I’ve found that creating the first draft of a chapter is just as exciting as getting a new chapter from her and seeing where the story has gone. I guess the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers.

So, now that you know how we write together, do you think you could ever collaborate on a novel? Or is writing fiction too private an experience. Do you believe two heads are better than one or would you rather not have anyone sticking their nose in your work?

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