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Owls, Larks and the Writing Process

What do owls and larks have to do with writing? Well, when you are two authors writing under one pen name and one of you is an owl and the other a lark, finding the perfect time for writing sessions can be challenging.

For those who are wondering what we mean by owls and larks, we are referring to people who like to stay up late (owls) and those who like to get up early (larks). It’s annoying enough if you happen to be an owl married to a lark (or vice-versa) but things really get frustrating when owls and larks try to work together.

From an owl’s point of view, larks are those annoying creatures who rise and shine with smiles on their faces and a song on their lips. Very painful for any nearby owls who can’t help wondering what the irritating lark can possibly be so cheerful about at such an ungodly hour of the day. Larks think nothing of awakening an owl just as the sun is rising, eager to relate the fantastic plot idea they had during the night. Larks have the mysterious ability to wake up with their brains fully functioning. No warm-up time seems to be required. Owls just can’t relate.

A writing lark will often fly out of bed and head straight for the computer. The bubbly, oh, so sickeningly alert lark will then proceed to check all social networking sites, email accounts, etc., and call out interesting tidbits to the owl sleeping in the next room. The enthusiasm can be overwhelming to the poor owl, who dives deeper under the blankets in a classic owl-camouflage maneuver. The oblivious lark continues to chirp, unaware that her chatter is not even being processed by the sleepy owl brain.

From a lark’s point of view, owls are those annoying creatures who stay wake half the night prowling through the house and wanting to engage in animated book discussions just as the poor lark is trying to fall asleep. How anyone can be so full of energy after being awake for so many hours is a mystery to the lark who operates on theory that people should be full of energy after a good night’s sleep not just as they are going to bed. The owl flies in the face of such drivel, hitting his stride as the midnight hour approaches. Larks often wonder what they have done to deserve such a spouse.

Owls will often grab a yellow legal pad, turning on the bedroom light and jotting down several pages of notes on an upcoming chapter, repeatedly expressing their ideas to the lark, who, by now, has wrapped a pillow around her head in a standard lark-avoidance move. The owl, oblivious to such tactics, continues to hoot, his enthusiasm wasted on the nearly but, unfortunately, not quite asleep lark.

So what are owls and larks who work together supposed to do? We don’t know about other owls and larks, but twilight is our answer. The owl is truly awake and the lark has not yet begun to get drowsy. Thorny issues of character development and sticky plot problems can only be resolved during this magical time when both the owl’s brain and the lark’s brain are still firing on all cylinders.

The owl/lark problem is an old one, addressed by many writers and artists over the years. We’ll end with our favorite commentary on the issue by the legendary Charles Shultz in his wonderful cartoon “Peanuts”:

Lucy: Physicians can learn a lot about a patient by asking what may even sound like a very simple question. Which do you prefer, a sunrise or a sunset?
Charlie Brown: Well, a sunset, I guess!
Lucy: I thought so! You’re just the type ! I might have known that! What a disappointment! People who prefer sunsets are dreamers! They always give up! They always look back instead of forward! I just might have known you weren’t a  sunrise person! Sunrisers are go-getters! They have ambition and drive! Give me a person who likes a sunrise every time! Yes, sir! I’m sorry Charlie Brown. If you prefer sunsets to sunrises, I can’t take your case. You’re hopeless! (She leaves.)
Charlie Brown: Actually, I’ve always sort of preferred noon!

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Some Are Just Looking for Their Glasses.

Sitting down to write a book isn’t as easy as, well, sitting down to write a book.

The process of getting two writers to sit down and write at the same time can be arduous. First of all, as most married folks know, getting a husband and wife to agree on what they want to do at any given moment is a feat all by itself. He suggests doing some writing before dinner. She points out that although she is a multi-tasker extraodinaire, cooking and writing simultaneously always results in a burned dinner. She suggests writing after dinner. He has a meeting, which is why he suggested writing before dinner. So they sit down to write and the dinner burns.

As any writer knows, writing is a daily activity. If writers waited for the perfect mood, they’d never write anything. Finding that idyllic place, the yeah-this-stuff-is-rolling-out-of-my-brain-just-as-fast-as-I-can-type moment, is rare. Having two people hit that high at the same time is even rarer. It’s much more common for one to be ready to write and the other not interested at all. Sort of a “not tonight, I have a headache” type of thing. This is where scheduling writing time comes in handy. It’s like making a date. You look forward to it, you prepare for it and (hopefully) you score.

And let us not forget our writing tools. Is it a plotting session? Then lined yellow pads and pencils are needed. Editing? Red pens are a must! Plus a lot of tea. And maybe something stronger if editing gets really brutal. Actual writing? Here we differ. Mary writes on a computer, Joe, the old fashioned way, long-hand on a legal pad. That makes combining scenes LOADS of fun. Deciphering Joe’s handwriting is not for the faint of heart. Not to mention having to print a half written scene from the computer, adding long-hand notations, and then transcribing the whole thing into a workable (and readable) draft. Yikes!

A place to write is important, too, and also depends on what we happen to be doing. We edit at the kitchen table because editing needs a lot of room, not only for spreading out various drafts and scenes but for ducking if someone throws something. Plotting needs atmosphere. The gazebo in summer, by the fireplace in winter. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It can be and plotting a storyline can be a lot of fun. (When you’re not banging your head on a table because you can’t figure out just how the heck you’re going to get out of the corner you’ve written yourself into, this is.) And the actual writing? We need separate spaces for this part of the job. In fact, this is so important we have another blog coming devoted just to this topic!

Finally, and most importantly, we both wear reading glasses. This is a problem, because, as anyone who wears reading glasses knows, there is a special law of physics that states that reading glasses are never left in the same spot twice. The joke in our house is that we need glasses to find our glasses. Writing sessions are often delayed as one or the other hunts for our glasses. No glasses, no writing. So we wander from room to room, wondering where we left them, wondering if someone else could have moved them, wondering if we have gnomes who come out at night and hide our glasses. And that brings us to the moral of our story. Not all those who wander are lost. Some are just looking for their glasses.

(J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday is January 3rd. His book, The Fellowship of the Ring, is the source of the “not all those who wander are lost” quote. The full quote goes: “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be the blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”)

Tolkien, apparently, never had any trouble finding his glasses.

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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