Friday, July 5, 2013

How To Co-Author A Novel--the Less Glamorous Version

Pencils textureIt's not every day that I wake up to find myself a topic for discussion on the internet, so it was really cool to open Sheena's blog and find a post in which I was featured rather prominently. 

Incredibly, Sheena Sabrina and I have been creating our "letter games" story for over a year now. It was in March of 2012 that Sabrina wrote the post thatstarted it all , and by August of 2012 I felt I knew enough to write a post about how to begin a successful writing collaboration.  I still think it is solid advice, but so far removed from where we are now that I'm glad I wrote it when I had the chance.

We're nearing the finish line--almost ready to send the completed work out to the beta readers. We finally came up with a title we all like and are chomping at the bit to begin working on the sequel.

It has not all been a bed of roses. But mostly, I find myself looking around at the beautiful thing we've created and thinking to myself, "Wow. That was a lot easier than it could have been." In spite of the naïve and haphazard way we all stumbled into this project, everyone has been professional and hardworking, our vision has remained unified, no one has morphed into a prima donna, and we've all managed to stay enthusiastic. The fabulousness of what we've done blows me away.

That said, here are 
5 things I've learned since the last time 
I wrote about collaborating:

1. Bureaucracies move more slowly than dictatorships.
one step 1
This wasn't immediately apparent. Of course, there were the inevitable times when someone was too busy to write or got writer's block, but still, the course of writing that first draft ran pretty smoothly. Editing is a different beast altogether. Major edits often require major discussion. I'm a digging-my-heels-in-the-sand kind of person. Especially here in the last third of the book, I don't want to change things that are going to cause ripples through the whole story. Sheena is a transformative kind of person. She's not afraid of experimenting with changes that might force us to start over. She wants this book to be the best it can be. Often, after causing my heart rate to skyrocket, she decides that our original idea was the best anyway, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Or we all realize the idea is amazing, and then the work to add it in doesn't seem quite so tedious. Writing with Sheena has taught me that turning everything on its ear can be awesome.

2. How to use each other's characters.
In our first draft, we really didn't use each other's characters. It ended up being an exaggerated form of "telling, not showing". It is pretty natural to shy away from using a character we didn't own and that we didn't know extremely well yet. We've completely fixed that in this second version, and the results are breath-taking. I think it is pretty rare to find three such distinct voices in one book. But we've had to learn to accept ownership of the character we've created, and to not be afraid to ask each other to change something that doesn't fit. Sabrina is fearless about this, and I mean that as a total compliment. She knows Juliette, inside and out, and whenever Sheena or I use Juliette in a scene, she tells us how Juliette would actually have reacted, and we fix it. I'm thinking of one scene in particular where someone wants to wipe Juliette's face tenderly. But Juliette wouldn't cry. She wouldn't fall into the fountain. If she had blood dripping down her face, she wouldn't sit at the fountain, she'd go get medical services, it hasn't been suggested, but I doubt she forgot to wipe her milk mustache...We'll find a reason to get that face wiped eventually, but it takes time. When Sabrina writes one of our characters into a scene, she asks us in advance how they would react. In the beginning, sometimes I didn't know. But I know Ana now, and I'm getting nearly as careful about it as Sabrina is.

It's pretty cool. I think when I write a new novel, that kind of back and forth scene creation is going to help me so much. Remembering that every character is the star of their own story and looking at each scene with that perspective in mind is going to enrich my writing permanently.

3. Characters can be quirky.
In her blog post, Sheena calls Ana an "Every Girl" sort of character, and that struck me. That's the kind of character I enjoy writing. As far as I can remember, every main character I've ever created has fit that pattern. I probably won't change. It's who I am, and there is nothing wrong with it. But I have been amazed at how much I've come to love Sam and Juliette. When I first read their character sketches, I remember being worried about it. Juliette, for example, is grumpy, and I was afraid that might make her unlikeable. Not at all! Her glow shines forth all that much more brightly against the backdrop of that character flaw. And Sam...well, Sam has a way with the ladies that I thought might make it hard to respect him. Again, I was so wrong. He's super-duper respect worthy. In the future I hope I am less afraid to let my characters be flawed.

4. Writing in a group is hard.
When writing multiple characters, timelines can be as complicated as advanced calculus.
For example, in our first draft, sometimes I would write to a spot well beyond where Sabrina (who wrote after me) needed to be, and so she would have to backtrack to tell her story. And in the beginning, Ana went first. But in the second draft, Sam goes first. As we work to clean up these timeline glitches, and as we add other subplots (that inevitably mix events up), scenes we really like don't match up any more, and it causes me untold stress. Sabrina and Sheena are calmer about it, promise me that it will all match up before we send it out, and I believe them, but it is hard to let it go.

5. Writing in a group is awesome.
For me, the best part has been always having two other people to chat with about what I'm writing. Writing is usually a lonely endeavor, and writers have to be careful about how much they talk to other people about it, even when those other people are interested. But Sheena and Sabrina are as heavily invested in this book as I am. I can pop them off an e-mail and get an incredibly knowledgeable, thoughtful and interested reply back. We can debate the finer points of how magic works, where it came from or what the cost is and they have different perspectives that broaden mine. I sometimes worry about having writing be a solitary journey again someday. But for now, I'm counting my blessings.


  1. It's true. I can add undue stress across the country by typing these four words.

    "I had an idea."


    It's been a challenge, for sure, but I think we're all really getting the hang of it now. I know I'm less afraid to say things now than I used to be, and also much less afraid to LISTEN and trust the story, and my partners. The hardest thing is releasing control of the story, but I learned SO much from working and voicing my methodology for writing. I'm truly trying to tame those darn plot bunnies.

    And don't worry, Melanie. I'm saving all my really big ideas for the sequel.

    *cue evil laughter*

  2. It looks like you guys are having too much fun. :)

    Great advice Melanie, thanks for keeping us posted.

  3. Wow! That's fascinating. I'm so glad it worked well!


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