Q&A: Writing [Collaboration]
Time once again for a couple of questions and answers. This time out, we’ll cover two related ones on a topic that often gets raised for us. As you’ll see, these questions are ones only a handful of writers could really address. No wonder they are among the top three we’re always asked.
- What is the collaborative process like for you? How do you divide the work? *
This above all other questions is the one we get asked most of all, though there are couple others close in rank. It’s likely because collaborative spouses are rarer than any other types of collaborators. It’s not a static thing where we really have a certain way of doing it. In part, since we’ve been doing most everything together throughout our lives, it came about somewhat naturally. Even so, we are rather different in our story-making and story-telling. We put that difference to advantage wherever we can.
We each have a different focus, which is probably influenced by our particular emphases in college, even though we took most of the same courses as English majors. JC’s emphasis for his MA was creative prose, with some work in editing, publishing, and electronic publishing. Barb’s emphasis was in composition and rhetoric, though she hung out with J.C. and other literary fiction writers as well. But we’ve both dabbled in each other’s arenas during and after college in our teaching years. Our collaborative process has also had its evolutionary side, as it has changed further over time. All writers evolve as writers, but we’ve had extra layers required by our evolution as a duo.
J.C. is… was… is what’s called a "perfect drafter." He’ll often labor over a sentence or a paragraph or even a chapter until it's perfect. Of course, nothing is ever perfect, so he’s had to learn when to let go when it’s “good enough.” Sometimes that’s when he finds Barb staring at him with her disapproving fairy glare… and a bucket full of fairy dust with which to douse him.
Barb is more of a “binge drafter,” which means that once she starts, she doesn’t stop — even when she should. That may seem like a great thing, and we’ve heard many a writer nod their head at this mention. Unless of course it goes on for four, five, six hours without a pause. After that, her brain is fried and so are her eyes. More likely, she hears that awful dragon stomping down the hallway, and she’s startled out of obsession by J.C.’s rumble and fiery expletives.
Fortunately, things have changed over time, and our processes lean a little more towards each other’s, sans our individual bad habits.
Our typical start for the “story-making” end of the process is to create an outline together. We get along fairly well, but this is probably the only time where we might argue over plot points. J.C. gets huffy and scorches some furniture, and Barb has to zap him into a toad until he cools down. Of course he’s not opposed to pushing his point, no matter what form he ends up in. But we create an 70 to 90 page single-spaced, chapter-by-chapter outline before we ever start writing, the “story-telling.” Sometimes those outlines get even longer. And sometimes its more organic, where somewhere along the way we realize we’ve been doing a bit more than taking notes in that outline file. And the “rendering,” or drafting, phase truly begins.
We break it down by scene and character point of view as well, which usually has already started along the way in the outline. We also keep word processor files, spreadsheets, and databases filled with notes on history, culture, religion, languages, politics, etc., related to our world. There are also character details and sketches to help both of us stay in sync. Lastly, we also keep every version, especially the final version of a manuscript handy for searching as needed. But this doesn’t mean the outline is written in stone.
As we work on the draft, we have been known to change plot points along the way. Barb takes the lead on drafting where J.C., for the most part, generates the larger and smaller structure of things by book, series, and saga. J.C comes behind Barb, and then Barb behind J.C., in a [re]writing round-robin until we both feel the draft is “ready.” By that point, and more so in later phases, even people who know us well can't tell who wrote what. Well, except for our daughter, Jaclyn, who can sometimes spot us individually inside a scene, dialogue, or character moment. But even she gets it wrong now and then, like a few steamy, sultry moments that J.C. wrote, and a couple of quick and vicious ones that Barb scripted.
These days, we still work up an extensive narrative outline, and if anything, they’ve gotten longer. For as the saga moves forward, it has more history, and the levels upon levels of detail keep growing. Some days, we can’t imagine any lone writer taking on this many layers of both story-making and story-telling as is found in the Noble Dead saga.
* Based on material from an interview in Italics, 3/2003
- Your bio in S1B1: Dhampir says you've written together before, though that was your first-novel length collaboration. In what ways was the writing of a novel different than shorter works?
Really, the process for collaborating on short fiction is not too different except that we put less initial planning into those few projects we did before our first novel together. Most writers work from some type of outline when writing larger works. And in some ways, we’ve had to expand on that concept as well.
We did a fun short story called “De Chirco's Pests” for the hardback anthology Rat Tales, edited by Jon Gustafson and published by Pulphouse  in Oregon. Every story was to start with the same line: "There were rats in the soufflé again."
We tossed the initial idea around and then started writing, taking that line to a ridiculously literal level. And we talked a lot, sort of like a verbal form of brainstorming and outlining.
We’ve always done this as well as anything else related to starting a new story. Not just in developing the book outlines, plot and world in which we write, but also about the characters. We’ll even gossip about them behind their backs.
You have to get involved in your story, or the readers won’t. And we just like doing that kind of socializing like anything else — together.