On Writing As A Team

I was going to write about SF clichés next, but it occurred to me that since Ruth and I write as a team, and that’s the exception rather than the rule, it might be worth musing a bit on what team writing is like.

When I was little I wanted to be a writer (well, also a ballerina, and a car mechanic, and the President, but that’s a different story) so I got books from the library about how to write. This was before the existence of advice on the Internet. Most of the Internet advice for writers that I’ve come across pretty much amounts to the same thing as those books anyway—write, and keep writing, and read stuff by good writers, and revise, revise, revise. But the one thing that always got me down from those books was the assurance that writing was a lonely craft. “You must sit at your desk alone, and work. You must do this every day, alone. Did we mention ALONE? No one can help you.” This advice made me a little sad—because of course I believed it, it was written in a book—but since I was a solitary sort of person anyway and I really wanted to be a writer, I didn’t let it stop me.

Then I met Ruth when I was sixteen and she was fourteen. Well, we’d known each other before then, because we grew up in the same tiny town, but that was when we started writing together. Somehow we hit on the idea of passing a spiral notebook back and forth, each writing a little bit. And it was fun! And the stories we wrote together, we thought, were wonderful and amazing and heartbreaking and we stayed up all night just to work on writing.

(I do not envy beginning writers today. Their early work is more likely than not posted somewhere on the Internet, and people are commenting on it. Or ignoring it, I’m not sure which is worse. My early work is written out longhand on a sheaf of papers ripped out of various spiral notebooks, in a box in my storage closet. Making early work is great. Sharing early work with your closest friends is great. Sharing early work with total strangers on the Internet would be less than great. I’m glad I never had to make that choice.)

In college I learned how to revise, and a bit of how to critique and be critiqued. I talked to friends about story, pacing, characterization, motif, all that good stuff. Also the occasional deconstructionism, since you can’t get away from that in college, but mostly I emerged unscathed. And Ruth and I kept writing together, and editing and critiquing each other’s stuff. This is what we do to this day.

Having a co-author is the best thing ever because the writing does not have to be lonely. Well, the actual typing in the words in the first place is still between me and my computer, but the brainstorming and the editing and everything else can be companionable. And sometimes we even pass the laptop back and forth, each writing a little bit.

Here’s a look at how this team writing works, in practice. Ruth and I have three major writing projects in the works— The Blackfeather Chronicles, written primarily by Ruth, currently ongoing on our website; Orphaned Gods, written primarily by me, nearing the end of its first draft; and the Shandor Cycle, set in the same world as The Blackfeather Chronicles, which we have been working on forever and which we split fairly evenly between us. Since the Shandor Cycle is the most team-written of them all, it gets to be the example.

(Ruth and Jessica are looking over an old file of Chapter 4.)

Jessica: Wow, we had a lot of quick scene changes. I’m not sure all these back-and-forths . . .

Ruth: We were trying to be artistic, weren’t we?

Jessica: Well, we want to keep the connection here, where he hears the scream. So we should do a scene switch there. But I don’t know that we want the rest of it to go like that. We could give the Xahrenth sections their own chapter, and the David sections their own chapter.

Ruth: This old Xahrenth stuff really doesn’t work any more. Her dad has to be there, since he’s alive now, and I want to have some more stuff about how exactly it goes when the mountains get attacked. It needs to make perfect sense, with the numbers of troops, and the times.

Jessica: Can we keep some of that scene in the tent? It had cute lines, especially Nosha’s. We’ll just have to add her dad in. And yeah, we should work out the times, exactly when different clans get hit.

(Longish discussion of travel times in mountains, with and without horses. We end up hashing out the gist of what needs to be changed for the new scenes. Ruth sits down to do some first drafting.)

Several Days Later

Ruth: Do you want to read what I wrote?

Jessica: Yes! (Reads, making the occasional spelling or punctuation edit as she goes. Finishes reading.) I like, a lot. Especially this conversation here. It’s going to be really heartbreaking, coming back to that later.

Ruth: What about this transition here? I feel like it’s too fast. Do you think we need some summary?

Jessica: Maybe. And do you mind if I do some compression in these three paragraphs here? I feel like we’ve got some redundancy and unclear wording.

Ruth: Go for it. You know I love your editing.

(Ruth adds a summary transition, and Jessica does clean-up editing and asks Ruth to clarify the wording of a couple of sentences.)

Jessica: There, I think that’s good to go. Now can you help me brainstorm the David part? I’m totally stuck. What did you like from the old version?

And so it goes on . . .

We primarily divide up the work by character. If one of Ruth’s characters has the point of view for a scene, then she does the first drafting of the scene, and vice versa. It gets a little trickier when the scene is primarily a dialogue between one of her characters and one of mine, because we each need to supply the lines for our own characters. This is the sort of scene for which we used to pass the notebook back and forth. That’s still fun to do, though we’ve discovered that we get derailed less often and produce better writing if we agree on where the scene is going and what it needs to accomplish before we begin. And even so we end up having to throw out a lot of dialogue that just doesn’t fit in the scene, however fun it was to write.

We don’t really sit down and decide which characters belong to which author. It just sort of happens. Even though The Blackfeather Chronicles are primarily Ruth’s writing, I’ve gravitated toward both Anna and Tam, and been a major contributor toward and sometimes a first drafter of scenes from their points of view. In the Shandor Cycle, we each have two main characters, and in Orphaned Gods, two of the four point of view characters is Ruth’s. So we always get to share.

I do more of the editing than Ruth does, though she’s promised to get more involved when we’re working on something other than Blackfeather. I’ve edited all three Blackfeather books so far. And when it comes to brainstorming we’re equally involved.

Ways Ruth and I differ as authors:

She first drafts much more quickly than I do. She can turn out four pages in the time it takes me to write one.
My first drafts are more polished. I tend to craft the sentences in my mind before setting them down. Ruth erases more. This was more noticeable back in the days of spiral notebooks.
I am very good at getting my characters into trouble. Ruth thinks of ways to get them out of it. Left to my own devices, I would probably write tragedies and have suicidally depressed characters. I’m glad this isn’t the case.
Ruth tends toward the flashier and larger-than-life characters, and I tend toward the more understated people. This is not a hard and fast rule, however. I’ve branched out.
Ruth’s characters often piffle. She loves clever dialogue, and is especially good at writing people whose ways of talking are unique and distinct from other characters.
I pay special attention to characters’ body language, and use a lot of speaker tags where people are doing physical motions.
Ruth likes color schemes and clothing design. When one of her characters shows up in a story, you usually find out what sort and color of clothes they are wearing within the first page of so. I usually only bother describing this if the character insists on being interested in clothes.

I’m sure team writing isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t want a co-author if it wasn’t someone I trusted implicitly, with my stories and with everything else. But having a co-author is a real blessing, and I’m so glad I came across one. We can work twice as fast, dig each other out of slumps, and brainstorm far more wacky things than any one person could ever come up with. The moral support is incredibly important, too—if you’re a writer and you can’t get a co-author, make sure you get someone to remind you to eat and to tell you your stuff is worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be that lonely out there. I think that stories grow better and better the more they’re shared.

(Written by Jessica, originally published on World of Shandor.)

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