By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd
First comes foreplay: we begin to brainstorm, teasing out seductive story lines to see if there’s something that we both want to spend time developing. And we’ve been doing this long enough that we already have a pretty good idea of what turns on our partner. As the passion for our story builds, we become excited as character and plot flesh out. We then get into the rhythm of storytelling, thrusting ideas from our sweaty little brains deep into the body of our tale. The heat finally culminates in an orgasmic release when we write the words “The End.”
But before you rush out to find a co-writer, remember that not everyone is going to be a willing (or a satisfactory) partner. The chemistry has to work. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to find someone who’s good in bed, but rather someone who possesses similar mental, emotional, and professional writing compatibilities. One of the greatest advantages to co-writing is that two minds are always better than one when it comes to solving problems and bouncing ideas off one another. One person can temper the other. A plot point may not sound as workable when it’s verbalized to a co-author.
Of course, everyone engages in some level of co-writing to get that story into print. Even adamant solitary writers. Agents, editors, and publishers are all going to give their two cents’ worth, and you’re going to want to listen to at least some of it. Once your work reaches the hands of readers, and you develop an audience, you’ll want to consider what works for them so they continue to support your habit. That doesn’t mean that you sacrifice the integrity of your writing, but you’ll want to tailor your books to sell. A good friend of ours had a collection of short stories accepted by a university press, but after they insisted on drastic changes, he withdrew the collection. In this case, the two failed to strike a satisfactory partnership. When he finally found the right press for his words, did they suggest changes? Sure, but they were ones he thought improved the overall work.
In yet another situation, a publisher paired a different friend of ours, a well-published science fiction author, with an aeronautics specialist. The specialist focused meticulously on the science while our friend just wanted to tell a good tale. Inflated egos weighed heavily on the whole project, and we listened to our friend complain for a year as the book trudged toward publication.
As in all forms of co-writing, ego has to go out the window. No drama queens or kings allowed. If you’re going to partner up with another author for that next book, you both must feel free to offer ideas the other can shoot down or spin in a different direction. Ideally, neither party takes offense. Both authors must possess similar work ethics, demonstrate a willingness to meet deadlines, and stay on task. Think of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the writing duo who created The Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, and multiple other page-turning thrillers. And they live half a continent apart.
How do they do it? You’ll have to ask them. But we suspect they use an electronic version of “transom writing.” Transoms are those windows over doors that open for ventilation. You’ve seen them; they’re in virtually every schoolhouse across the nation. In transom writing, each author writes a passage and then passes it on to the co-writer, who then takes responsibility for writing the next section. They exchange drafts back and forth like circulating air through a transom. It’s a kind of turn writing. Preston and Child co-author some books and individually author others. And they do it all well. Still, in their collaborative projects, we can spot now and then a subtle change of voices among chapters – a shift in favorite vocabulary and rhythms of syntax. That’s what tells us they’re turn writing.
We don’t do that.
We’re a lot more intimate in our approach.
Our readers tell us they can’t detect any shift in voice in our writing. That’s because there isn’t any:
Kym and Mark sit on the bed, crouched over a laptop. Mark types as they talk.
Pleasance stood atop the Pyramid of Kukulcán, hoping to –
– escape the sticky mid-summer –
Yeah, I like that. And then how ‘bout, Trying to ignore the sweat that pooled at her bosom.
No, change that to between her breasts.
Mark deletes and retypes.
And we need to describe the jungle before we get to the sweaty breasts.
Mark moves the cursor to the end of the first sentence.
The Yucatán jungle stretched in all directions, islands of –
– stone ruins occasionally interrupting the monotonous green –
– of dwarfed cedar and chakah trees.
They give each other a high five.
Okay, that may not have been exactly the way we wrote that particular passage from our novel, All Plucked Up, but it’s how we co-author – one of us starts a sentence and the other finishes it. Plus, Mark is dyslexic and Kym catches misspellings as we go along. (We’re doing it right now as we type this article.) In our case, Mark is the typist because Kym can’t use the touch pad on the laptop. It’s all pretty efficient except when one of our six house cats jumps on the keyboard. There’s nothing transom-like in the way we compose at the sentence level. And this technique allows us to test out loud as we go along just how naturally the words flow on the page.
We’d be the first to admit that this is probably not the fastest way to write for most people. But it works for us because we like to write together, and we decide up front on a project that we both feel passionate about. The biggest challenge, of course, is to find or block out regular periods of time when we’re both available. Kym is an early-morning person (she’s up before the sun) while Mark isn’t even coherent until 11 a.m. Our best compromise falls mid day, and we plan accordingly.
It also helps that we both have equally twisted senses of humor. In our first novel for the same Silverville Saga Series, Little Greed Men, we have a scene where the sheriffs of two counties meet to decide jurisdiction over unidentified human remains found more or less straddling the line:
“It’s not Silver County’s problem,” Carl said at last.
“Wait a minute!” the other sheriff objected. “You guys found as many bones on your side as we did.”
“C’mon, Andy, you’ve got the skull,” Carl said. “That officially gives you more bone mass than we have.”
“Yeah, but you guys have the teeth.”
“We don’t know for sure those dentures are that fellow’s teeth. Maybe somebody was out here hiking and dropped them.” Carl looked pretty satisfied with his deduction.
“Oh man, that ain’t right. We had to bury one earlier this spring. You haven’t had one in a couple of years.”
They argued back and forth for several minutes . . .
To us, this scene was a howl to write, and we were having too much fun to worry much about whether or not readers would agree. We enjoy this type of book, and we hoped the same kind of readers would discover our novel. More important to us was writing true to what we thought was funny.
The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did with the Silverville Saga Series. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. The scene above – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, nearly all of the situations in our book happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.
For instance, 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.
Another scene in the book has a real sense of authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business:
Buford gawked at the open shelves neatly stacked with rows of embalming fluid bottles, instruments, and linens. He’d never been in the room long enough before to get a close look at the mysterious equipment kept there. Picking up a cardboard box, he plucked out a small pink disc that was shaped like half a hollow marble.
“What are these?”
Howard dropped his towel into a hamper. “They’re eye cups. We stick them under the eyelids after someone dies.” Then he added, “So the eyes won’t sink.”
Buford took two of the little cups and raised them to his own eyes, squinting to hold them in place like two plastic monocles. “Like this?”
He heard the door open behind him and turned, blindly, in that direction.
“Buford, what are you doing in here?”
Opening his eyes, Buford felt the cups slide down his cheeks toward the floor. Denton stood with his hands on his hips, and he didn’t look pleased.
Of course, Mark never played with eye caps. (At least he never got caught.)
The 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. 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.
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.