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Two Writers, One Voice, Ten Tips

WritersEveryone wants to know: How do two writers write one story? We described our journey as collaborating authors in So, How Do Two Writers Write As One? However, there must be a lot of writing partners out there for we still get many requests for more information on how to pull off the two authors/one voice trick.

It is difficult to analyze all the nuances of how we work together. A great deal of our success is personality. We, simply put, are a good fit. We also have been at this for a very long time, so each knows the way the other one thinks and what our strengths and weaknesses are. But for those who wish to have a go at writing a book with another, here are ten tips on how to go about it.

1. Be nice to each other.
The Golden Rule of writing together. If you can’t follow this rule, don’t bother because you will never get anywhere. This doesn’t mean that you must agree all the time. Some of our best story ideas came out of disagreements. Just keep the disagreements respectful. No name calling. And no yelling.

2. Be honest.
About yourself. About whether you can work with  partner. About whether you even like the way they write. About everything. If you do not like something, say so. If you like something, also say so. (It’s amazing how often that simple but wonderful piece of feedback is overlooked!)  So be honest. But don’t be mean.

3. Have weekly meetings.
Even if you are living in the same house, if you have a writing partner, you need to have at least one meeting a week to discuss your work-in-progress, read drafts, ask questions. This helps to keep both writers (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the same page.

4. Know how your book will end.
This is good advice even if you are not writing with a partner. The overall tone of the story should reflect just where the tale is heading. Also, how your characters behave and develop has a direct effect on where they end up. Both writers must be aiming at the same target.

5. Write an outline of the story.
Not every writer works with an outline, but for two writers working on one project an outline is very useful. This doesn’t mean you must rigidly adhere to the script, but having a structure will keep both writers moving in the same general direction.

6. Divide the work...
Discuss beforehand who will write what. Get out the outline (see how useful it is?) and negotiate which sections each writer will tackle. Here it is important to be nice (see tip #1) and to be honest (see tip #2). Know your writing strengths and weaknesses. In our writing, Mary is good at dialogue, Joe at description. We both love action scenes. We keep these things in mind when deciding how to divide the labor.

7.  …but don’t be rigid about it.
Dividing the labor does not necessarily mean one writer per chapter. It may mean one scene in a chapter. It may mean you BOTH write the same chapter. This usually results in a blend, taking a piece of each writer’s version of the chapter and melding it into one piece. Remember that mention above about dialogue and description? We often will take a dialogue-dominated scene by Mary and blend it with a description-rich scene by Joe. Presto! A complete chapter.

8Write separately.
Perhaps there are those who can write comfortably with another writer in the room, but it doesn’t work for us. Invariably, one writer will interrupt the other with a question, idea, or to read a passage from a draft. This can be really annoying. Also, there is nothing more damping to the flow of words than to see someone either typing furiously while you can’t even put together one sentence or to be the one typing furiously while the other is staring our the window not writing at all. (By the way, the old adage is true. A writer IS working when he is staring out the window.) Need to discuss something? See tip #3.

9. Edit each other’s work.
Painful but necessary. A great deal of the merging of two writers into one takes place during the editing process. Remember, positive feedback is just as important as pointing out errors. If your writing partner is particularly good at something or really nailed a scene let him know. And when your partner criticizes your work, try to remain objective. Discuss the critiques, don’t sulk. Use your partner’s suggestions when rewriting. What you rewrite is not set in stone. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t, but give suggestions a fair try.

10. Have fun.
If you are not enjoying the process, then it simply is not for you. We have a lot of fun collaborating on our books, so the inevitable differences of opinion and stumbling blocks are bearable. Most writers we talk with claim they could never write a story with another person. They dislike sharing creative control, they don’t want another writer editing their work, they feel inhibited about plotting aloud with someone else. So perhaps we should add an eleventh tip…


Why Husbands and Wives Should Have Separate Offices

The home office. As common in houses today as a kitchen or bath and just as necessary. Remember the days when a home office was rare? A luxury? A nice, but, gee, do we really need one type of thing? Older folks will be smiling, younger ones will be scratching their heads, unable to envision such an archaic time period, let alone imagine what life would be like there. But, yes, the home office was once a lovely little extra, stashed away in a closet or corner of the kitchen or, if you were really lucky, a spare bedroom or den.

In our house, the office evolved right along with the rest of American home offices. Our first “office” (if we can apply that term to such a modest space) was in our kitchen. It was just a desk with a computer on it, stuffed in a corner and we had to sidle around it to get to the back door. This wasn’t really conducive to writing. For one thing, the traffic in the kitchen was annoying. It was an eye opener how often our family was in search of something to eat. It certainly explained the grocery bills! For another, boiling pots and a hot oven raised the humidity and temperature to a point that the printer, over-taxed from the strain of trying to push out steam-cooked pieces of paper, spit out its gears at us one day and expired.

A move from that two bedroom condo to a three bedroom ranch provided us with our first real office. How wonderful, we thought. An entire room dedicated to an office. No more traffic, no more humidity, no more manuscripts stained by tomato sauce or grape juice. We were in home office heaven. Until we both tried to exist in this same space, that is.

The first problem was that Joe was running his business from the same office. Trying to get any writing done during business hours was not only frustrating but painful. Imagine trying to write a scene where the main characters are dancing together for the first time. You can hear music  playing, see the room, brilliant and sparkling, feel the motion of the dancers, while, in the background, an angry man is shouting into a phone at a supply house because his orders are two weeks late and his customers are rioting.

Another problem was that we only had one computer and three people vying for it, one of whom was a teenager. A typical evening: Husband sits down, determined to please his wife, who is suffering from eyestrain trying to read his handwriting, and actually write a chapter on the computer. (He always writes on a yellow legal pad. See previous blog.) Aforementioned wife comes in and asks if she can quickly check her email. She proceeds to check two email accounts, her Facebook page, their joint Facebook author page, the blog stats, and all book and play sales reports for the day. Husband hangs around for a few moments but decides to go get a snack when wife gets annoyed at him for reading over her shoulder. He comes back just as wife is finishing and sits down again. Teenage daughter bops into the room and reminds him that she has an English paper that she needs to finish. Dad asks how long she will need the computer. She replies an hour or two. Dad sighs and goes in search of a yellow legal pad.

Then there was the issue of writing preferences. Joe is what we call a social writer. He shares as he goes along, reading bits of newly written scenes out-loud and reading over his wife’s shoulder while she writes and offering comments and critiques. Mary is a private writer. A don’t-read-my-stuff-until-I-want-you-to writer. An I’m-trying-to-think-will-you-please-be-quiet writer. An if-you-don’t-stop-reading-over-my-shoulder-I’m-going-to-kill-you writer. You can see how things can get a bit tense.

Even office organization was a problem. Mary likes a neat, orderly writing environment. A place for everything and everything in its place. Simple. Clean. Efficient. Joe loves an office that requires a team of archaeologists to discover where that last scene he wrote is. His theory is out of chaos comes order. It was like Felix and Oscar sharing a room. It became apparent that we had to have separate spaces or end up in home office counseling.

So now we each have our own office. Mary’s is in a very nice finished corner of the basement, tastefully outfitted, organized, and peaceful. A veritable home office oasis and far enough away from Joe’s office that irate phone calls cannot be heard. Joe’s office is in the extra bedroom, filled with gadgets, satisfyingly messy, and totally comfortable (if you’re a guy).

We always respect each other’s space, not out of any special consideration for the other, we must admit, but for good practical reasons. Mary never leaves her stuff in Joe’s office because she knows she’ll never find it again. Joe never leaves his stuff in Mary’s office because he knows she’ll throw it out.

So, How Do Two Authors Write as One?

It’s the question we are asked most frequently. How do two people write one book? How do we create the plot? Write the chapters? Achieve one voice? And (the most frequently asked question of all) how do a husband and wife manage to do all this without killing each other?

The answer: it ain’t easy! At first, actually, it was easy. When Joe was in college he had a great idea for a story. He met Mary, who loved to write. We met twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, to plot the book and flesh out the characters. We decided to write alternate chapters, Joe chapter one, Mary chapter two and so on. And it worked great for awhile. Then we hit a major stumbling block. We got married.

Who would have thought that living at the same address would put such a crimp in our writing? But it did. We were managing a household. We acquired two cats. Three years later the baby arrived. It’s not that we were busier than when we were in college. We both had carried full course loads, worked full-time, and pursued other activities, yet we managed to make time for our writing sessions twice a week for three years without fail.

After our daughter was born, we realized that living in the same house made us feel we could write any old time. We saw each other every day. We didn’t need to schedule our writing sessions anymore! We could work on the book whenever we wished. And pigs would fly, too. Lesson number one: The truth was, we DID need to schedule time for writing.

So schedule we did. The baby was amazingly cooperative. She would sit with us during these sessions and watch us carefully as if she were attending a lecture on how to write. (Maybe she was. She taught herself to read at age four and at age sixteen is thinking of writing her own book. But that’s another blog.) We came up with some great new plot ideas and decided to rewrite the entire story.

Plotting, by the way, has never been a problem for us, married or not. We’re both very visual and think of our book chapters as scenes in a movie, which is probably why those who have read Time’s Edge say it would be great on the big screen. The rule of our plotting sessions are simple: Anything goes. There is no nay-saying, no buts, no critiques. Plotting, for us, is simply brainstorming at its finest. Every idea is written down, every scene saved. No idea is rejected at this point, even if it doesn’t seem to fit into the story. Our motto is you never know when something will be useful.

And the actual writing? When we first began writing together, we approached the division of labor in a very orderly, business-like way. We would take our outline and each write every other chapter. Neat. Orderly. Simple. However, there was a shift after we married. Perhaps we felt less shy about expressing our writing preferences. Perhaps the change in the plot altered how we viewed the process. Perhaps there was no reason other than the longing we had to write certain chapters. Mary was coveting the humorous party scene where the characters overindulge in wine and the party becomes a little too merry. Joe was lusting after the space battle.

So the negotiations began. I’ll trade you the space battle for the party scene. The meeting-the-monster chapter for the lost-in-the-maze part. The descriptions of the Galactic Armed Forces base? Yawn. It’s yours. The kissing stuff? Yuck. You can have it. We soon discovered that, for the most part, we each weren’t writing entire chapters anymore. Joe would begin a chapter, Mary would finish it. Mary would write a scene and Joe would pick it up and run with it.

Yes, we know the next question: What about the scenes we both want to write? Well, we both write them. Yes, we sit down and each write our own version of the same scene. This works very well for us. Sometimes one version is a clear winner (no smugness allowed). Most of the time, though, we blend the two. A snippet of dialogue from this one, a chunk of description from that one. An enlightened cooperation, you might say.

Now on to editing. This is the toughest part of being a writing team. We have to criticize without being mean (the phrase “this sucks” has been banned from our writing sessions) and without dragging in other things going on in our lives. (“You can’t have the heroine climb to the top of a seven-story building to rescue the baby space alien. She’s afraid of heights.” “Sorry, I forgot.” “Yeah, just like you keep forgetting to fix the bathroom sink.”)

We also have to try and not take critiques personally. This is the hardest part of all. Ask any writer. Criticism can be painful even when it falls under the term “constructive”. Now try to imagine criticism of your writing by your significant other. Ouch! Or you get really, really pissed off. To make matters worse, we’re both perfectionists so editing can be brutal. A person attending one of our book talks once asked Joe how he goes about editing Mary’s work. “From a safe distance,” he replied.

In spite of all this, we manged to produce Time’s Edge, the first book in the Time’s Edge series. It won a Tassy Walden Award from the Shoreline Arts Alliance of Connecticut and was published in the Fall of 2010. We have since published five books in the series: Time’s Edge, Time’s Secret, Time’s Illusion, Time’s Rebels, and Time’s Warriors. We are currently working on Time’s Guardians. It will be available in 2015 if we don’t kill each other during the editing process.

See also: Two Writers, One Voice, Ten Tips


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