Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing (Part Two)

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddThis is the second in a three-part installment on strategies we’ve found successful as collaborative writers. In the first part, we discussed things to look for in a compatible partner. In this part, we’ll explore examples of how that plays out in practice.

Duo-writing isn’t for everyone, but one clear advantage should be obvious – two heads mean two sets of experiences. It also means two sets of critical eyes because we each bring to the “Writing Bed” individual strengths that mitigate the individual weaknesses.

The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did when we wrote our paranormal comedy-adventure series, the Silverville Saga. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. As you’ll recall at the end of the previous post, we cited an example of a scene where sheriff investigators and coroners from adjoining counties come together at the county line to decide who has to take possession of a decomposed corpse. That event – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, many of the situations in our first and second books from the series happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.

For instance, in the first book, Little Greed Men, we inserted an anecdote where townsfolk flee from an apparently rabid dog with a frothing mouth. That dog, in reality, was Kym’s childhood pet. “Roscoe” had helped himself to a meringue pie cooling on someone’s front steps. The dog scared the wits out of the neighborhood until the cook discovered her empty pie plate.

The other scene from that same book we cited last time – the one in the embalming room – draws authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business. But writers contribute more than real-life experiences to a collaborative project. In our case, Kym’s journalism background makes her succinct to a fault. Mark, on the other hand, comes from the halls of academia and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere between these two extremes is the point we shoot for using each other’s complementary strengths.

Kym has a keen ear for dialog: she can hear the way different characters should talk, and the result is a distinct voice for each. Mark’s characters all tend to talk just like Mark. But Mark bravely jumps right into a scene while Kym endlessly stares at the screen waiting for the right words to come. Kym constantly plays devil’s advocate when it comes to defending the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If she can’t buy it, she won’t let it happen. Mark, on the other hand, happily plows through a scenario with little regard to where it comes from or where it’s going. That has its advantages, though. Mark, being a college professor and natural nerd, is  never at a loss for how to phrase things. But he tends to embellish, sometimes inserting too much literary texture (that’s the poet in him coming through). Kym champions a more nonintrusive voice, constantly reminding Mark of the kinds of books we both like to read.

Above all else, we prefer escapism – mysteries by John Sanford, Sarah Paretsky, Greg Iles, and Val McDermid; thrillers by Preston and Child, of course, but also those by John Case, Andrew Klavan, Dan Brown, Nelson DeMille, and Michael Crichton; warped fantasies (no dragons or elves) by Jonathan Carroll, Christopher Moore, Mario Acevedo, and Ramsey Campbell; sci-fi by Connie Willis, Charles Sheffield, Cordwainer Smith, John Barnes, Orson Scott Card, and Cory Doctorow. These lists could go on and on.

Okay, we do sometimes read something a little more high-brow. We like Laurie Wagner Buyer, Annie Proulx, Anita Diamant, Sara Gruen, Stacy Richter, Lorrie Moore. And yes, we even read the Pushcarts to keep our pulse on up-and-coming authors.

We read a lot because we think it helps our writing. And we’re shameless when it comes to stealing techniques that impress us. John Case gave The Genesis Code a twist in the final sentence of the book. We liked it so well that we added a final-sentence twist to Little Greed Men – or we thought we had, until the editors read it. Days before our novel went to press, we ate lunch with the publishers to pitch them the sequel. When the conversation came back to the first book, they asked if we planned to reveal the hidden identity of one of the major characters. We thought we had through implied exposition along the way as well as in our original final sentence. They didn’t get it. We rushed home and rewrote the last two paragraphs and final sentence, making that character’s identity unmistakable. It’s a decision we’ve never regretted, and almost all of our readers tell us they didn’t expect that ending. “Oh yeah,” one reader told us, “there were hints throughout the book. I just didn’t put it together until the end.”

Here’s a perfect example of what rigid writing can do to the quality of a story. We just knew the ambiguity at the end of Little Greed Men was enough to clue in our readers. We were wrong. We’ve been wrong about lots of things in our co-writing endeavors
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Several years ago, we wanted to tell an alternate history about Ankh-sen-amun, the wife of King Tut. We read lots of books, did tons of research, and then sat down to outline the story arc. We wrote extensive summaries for twenty-two carefully crafted chapters, and thought to ourselves, “Man, this book is going to write itself!” While this may work for some writers, the strategy completely killed our passion for the project. We remained steadfast and followed our outline to every detail. By six chapters, we’d gotten pretty bored. We hadn’t allowed the characters any voice in where the story was going. We all became miserable, and that manuscript still sits in a drawer at Chapter Six.

What’s become more workable for us is to create a broad-stroke outline that gives us the flexibility to still listen to our characters along the way. They may not always want to go where we had originally planned, and we’ve discovered we’d best listen to them.

We loved the movie, Romancing the Stone, about an author (played by Kathleen Turner) in search of a relationship that could match her novel series’ protagonist. Eventually she found her love (Played by Michael Douglass – gee, imagine that), but falling in love wasn’t easy.

We both tend to fall in love with our mouthiest, out most opinionated and pushy characters, but we don’t always relate to them in the same way. And certainly not like Kathleen Turner’s character did. And the process of encountering characters who take over our stories has really challenged Mark’s notion of how characters come about from the unconscious.

Our experience has produced characters who seem to have emerged at the same time for us both. Take Denton Fine in The Silverville Swindle. He was a nice enough guy from the start – so nice we got bored with him. Originally, we’d tagged Denton as our protagonist, but he turned out to be a little too white-bread for our taste. Same with our real-life friends. If they’re not quirky and eccentric, they don’t make our lunch-date list for long.

Pleasance Pantiwycke, from All Plucked Up, on the other hand, always makes our A-list for lunch. She’s a risk-taker and a slob, a black-marketeer and former female professional wrestler. Who wouldn’t enjoy her conversation? It only took a few pages for her to take over the sequel and become our protagonist.

Switch gears to Skippy from our first novel. She’s the only prominent female in the story, and one would think that Kym would empathize with her personality. Not so. Kym didn’t like spending time with her at all. Getting inside a woman’s head has always been more difficult for Kym, who finds it much easier to relate to men. Ironically, Mark got along with her just fine. This character serves as the main love interest for Billy, the story’s protagonist. We talked at length about how far their intimacy should go and decided, in the end, that it wouldn’t go far at all.

Here’s why: Several years ago, we’d bought a book on how to write erotica, hoping to make scads of money on the romance book wagon. We sat down and drafted out a torrid love scene, but it was simply too embarrassing to put into words. At least our words. “Love shaft” and “hot tunnel of passion” seemed like ridiculous and corny expressions that readers of the genre expected. We know it sells; we just couldn’t do it. When it came to shaping the relationship between Skippy and Billy, we offered a lukewarm story arc, and our editors cried foul. Either consummate that relationship or back it off, they said. We backed off and left it up to the imagination of the readers. For two authors that insist that co-writing is like good sex, we still can’t figure out why we can’t pen erotica.

Billy, don’t ask us why, turned into a protagonist that readers tend to like. We made him a cheat and a conman, and neither one of us really cared much for him. He was central, as the story unfolded, and we got stuck with him. He was also a cast member whose characteristics came from a sleazy guy we both knew years ago. We’re not naming names, but he always used to hit on Kym. Which brings us to where we find our characters. Most are composites of personality types of people everyone knows: Grady, the curmudgeon rancher; Buford, the self-interested town promoter; Howard, the endearing village simpleton – all Silverville Swindle cast members. Maybe it’s telling that we were most attached to Howard and easily crawled inside his head:

Howard liked to pedal. He didn’t have to think about anything else – just push the right foot down and then push the left foot down. Sometimes he went so slow that his bike would wobble, but then he’d stand up on his pedals and pump until he sped up fast enough that it felt like flying.

In some ways, it reminded him of massaging limbs. Whenever he helped Mr. Fine embalm bodies, Howard’s job was to squeeze the arms and legs so the blood could come out and the embalming fluid could go in. At least, that’s what Mr. Fine said it was for. First the right leg, and then the left leg. Just like pedaling.

Howard looks at the world in a very simple way that makes sense to the child in all of us, and it was soothing to write from his perspective, taking everything at face value.

Buford is modeled after a specific person, but again we’re not naming names. It’s been interesting to us to watch our community try to guess his real identity. No one ever has, and probably won’t. Buford and all of our characters emerge from some weird shared consciousness where we meet and get to know the folks who live within the city limits of Silverville and the environs.

But that’s not the strangest part of co-writing. Next time we’ll talk about those characters we didn’t know could exist when you’re a writing duo – those that somehow mysteriously leap from our collective minds and take over our stories…

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Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.

You can learn more about Kym and Mark and their books at the website and blog. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing (Part Two)

  1. Patricia Stoltey

    Thanks for another great post, Mark and Kym. I used to think I’d never be able to collaborate with anyone on a book, but recently realized that my critique group operates a lot like the two of you — when we start brainstorming ideas and suggestions for each other, it gets a little chaotic but the ideas just keep coming. One of our favorite lines is, “I’m stealing that one.” I think any two of us could get together and form a great writing team.

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  2. Julie Luek

    Buford.. Buford.. hmmmm…. now I’m going to be watching who you two hang out with very closely.

    I really enjoy reading how you two feed off of each other. I’d like to be a fly on the wall (with a video camera) during those brain-storming sessions. I think it would be a fun way to write.

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