Friday, January 6, 2017

Doing a Solo Thing Together (the Art of Collaboration), Part I

Writing is solitary business, for the most part. Sure, writers love to get coffee and talk shop. We also flock to conferences, and hang out at bookstores, and cruise the online writing society. But the overwhelming majority of the time, the writing itself happens when we're alone. Flying solo. It isn't until later that first readers, editors, etc. get a crack at the work.

Collaborative novels aren't necessarily extraordinary, but they are the anomaly. I've published a total of twenty-one novels (if you count The Last Collar, coming January 23rd from Down & Out Books, and I do). Of those, eight of them are collaborations. That's more than a third, so you could safely argue that a significant part of my writing career is based upon collaboration.

Since that is the case, for the next few blog posts, I'm going to discuss my experiences in collaboration, and some things for writers to consider when deciding if a collaborative novel is for you, and things that might help make the project a success.

For Part I, we start a little background.

I didn't plan to have a third of my catalog be collaborative works. Then again, in my law enforcement career, I never planned on taking a leadership path. In both cases, things just sort of happened, and once they did, I resolved to do my best at it.

My first collaborative novel was Some Degree of Murder, with Colin Conway. Colin and I were both cops at the time, and discovered each other as writing simpaticos in 2004. We read each others' work, did critical edits, encouraged each other, did all of the things that writers can do to help each other out. Having a good writing friend really spurred me along, and it was around that time that I pulled out my earlier draft of Under a Raging Moon and started revising it (ultimately published in 2006 by Wolfmont Press).

Colin and I decided to try writing a book together, set in my River City universe, which was really just a thinly disguised Spokane. To distance it from the River City novels, we set it in 2005, ten years after the events in Under a Raging Moon. We kicked around some ideas for a while, ultimately settling on an infrequently used format - the dual first person narrative. He wrote the character of Virgil Kelley, and I wrote the character of Detective John Tower. We wrote both characters in the first person, alternating chapters from Virgil to Tower and back again. I'd never seen this before, so I thought we were being pretty inventive. We weren't necessarily, but the format wasn't commonplace. It worked well (I'll talk about the pros and cons in a later post), and this was a structure that I would eventually use with three other co-authors.

Once we mapped out a general direction for the book, we started writing one chapter at a time. I remember being excited every time I'd get a new Virgil chapter, and then I'd charge into writing another Tower chapter. Even though we both knew the compass direction we were headed, the events the came out as we knocked out the individual chapters was like getting to read a book as I was writing it. Each of us surprised the other on more than one occasion.

Near the end of the novel, we knew there had to be a confrontation chapter, in which both POVs alternated within a single chaper. So we sat at a coffee shop inside Auntie's Bookstore with a laptop, each writing a passage before pushing the computer back across the table to the other guy. We didn't say word, just wrote. It was like a game of crime fiction chess, and the end result was a satisfying, tense chapter.

That's one of the advantages of writing with this structure -- each writer is going to lobby for his or her character. It keeps both of you honest.

Some Degree of Murder was a pretty bloated novel in its first draft, and not publishable. I know this not only because I still have that draft, but because multiple publishers turned it down. A few were interested but wanted it re-written in the style that was trendy at the time -- a first person detective hero, and a third person antagonist. But we saw SDoM as a novel that operated in the gray. It didn't have a protagonist and an antagonist, per se...Virgil and Tower were each that to the other, and changing the format would destroy that dichotomy.

The version we published years later received a significant culling, and is much tighter as a result. That's another advantage to collaboration -- two sets of editing eyes, before you even go outside the author(s).

My experience with Colin made me very open to trying collaboration again, so when Jim Wilsky, a short story master, wanted to make his foray into novels, we decided to give it a go. Using the same dual first person narrative as in SDoM, we cranked out Blood on Blood. By the time we got to the end, we realized that the story wasn't over, even though our two characters were finished with their respective arcs. We used the story thread of a secondary character, Ania Kozak, to take us to Vegas, where two new characters filled the pages of Queen of Diamonds. Ultimately, Ania led us to the west coast in Closing the Circle, with a third pair of characters narrating the end of her story arc.

I had such a great time with Jim that when Eric Beetner and I struck up an online friendship, it was no surprise that it led to the idea of working together. He was experienced in doing so already, so our work ran even more smoothly than I'd experienced in the past. We had a blast with The Backlist, starring two hitmen -- the caustic Bricks and hapless Cam. Much like with my other partners, waiting for a Cam chapter to come back from Eric was full of anticipation, and the guy made me laugh out loud more than once during the writing of that book.We liked the characters so much, we went at it again in The Short List, and we're currently approaching the finish line on book three, tentatively titled The Wild, Wild List.

The Backlist was the first time I wrote a novel in the first person from the perspective of a female character. I'd done third person POV work in my River City series, writing a lot of scenes featuring Officer Katie MacLeod, but nothing in the first person. I probably would have tried it eventually, but I know only having to pull it off for half a novel and with the support of a fellow writer no doubt hastened my decision. As a result, when Bonnie R. Paulson said she wanted to make her foray into crime fiction in a joint venture, I suggested a twist -- she write a male lead, and I write a female one. Bonnie quickly agreed, and the result was The Trade Off, a gritty story that explores the cost of human trafficking. I wrote the character of "Gus" MacIntyre, an undercover police detective.

As we neared the end of The Trade Off, Bonnie and I had a discussion (it was more like an argument, though without any anger or vitriol) about the very same thing Jim Wilsky and I argued about on more than one occasion during the Ania series....who, if anyone should die. Those are tricky conversations, because as writers, we all get attached to our characters, and although this isn't what people mean when they say you must kill your darlings, it isn't far off the mark. More on this in later posts.

Another type of collaboration I have been involved in is boxed sets, and it was by participating in one of these that I met Lawrence Kelter. Larry proposed we work together, and by this time, the idea was an easy one for me to say yes to. The harder part was that Larry wanted to deviate from the dual first person narrative format that I was so comfortable with. I was a little hesitant, because this was the formula that had worked for me, and it was definitely my comfort zone. As we'll talk about a little later, it had some distinct advantages that I liked. But as we worked out some of the early ideas about character and plot and settled on a single first person narrative, I agreed to give it a shot.

My biggest concern was that writing in the first person is an intimate experience. The narrator is essentially having a one on one with the reader, and voice in the first person is very pronounced. I worried that the chapters I wrote would have one voice, and Larry's chapters another. This had been a good thing in the dual narrative but would be disastrous in a single narrative.

I shouldn't have worried, though. By the time The Last Collar was finished, I was hard pressed to pick out the chapters or passages that I wrote versus Larry's. Some of this is because we didn't go chapter by chapter, but chunk by chunk. And part of it was also because we both had a active hand in editing as we went and after the draft (this, by the way, is another issue we'll need to touch on in the posts to come). In any event, the voice was seamless and my fears groundless.

My experience with Larry was as positive as with all my other co-authors. In fact, we are hard at work on another crime novel together, tentatively titled Fallen City. I'm actually enjoying this one even more than The Last Collar, which is a tough act to follow.

So that's been my experience in collaborating thus far. Eight books (ten, if you count WIPs), five different authors. Four men, one woman. Two local, one New York, one L.A, one Texas. Pretty good range to draw upon for the next post, which will discuss the pros and cons of collaborating...stay tuned.

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