How different is your writing process when you work with another author (or authors, as in your more recent collaborations)? Does anything fundamental change about how you plan (or don’t plan) the storyline, conflict, beats, etc.?
When you write by yourself, you can do anything you want, change things as you go along, writing out of chronological order, you own the world.
When you collaborate with somebody, you give all of that up, but then so does he or she. So a good rule of thumb is not to collaborate unless you’re getting something really great in return. In the case of Bob Mayer, I was getting somebody who could write male POV really well because he was male. I was getting somebody who understood action stuff because he’d been a Green Beret. And I was getting somebody who worked exactly the opposite of the way I did, so I was forced to move outside my comfort zone, always a good thing. It was worth the trade-off in power and freedom.
I generally start a book without a plan, just write to see who and what shows up to play. But if you’re collaborating, you start by negotiating a plan before you put anything on paper. In my collaborations with romance writers (The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, Dogs and Goddesses), we began with a premise, three sisters who were hiding the fact that they were witches, three strangers who were about to find out that they were part of the same triple goddess. When I collaborated with Bob, we started with characters. For Agnes and the Hitman, I said “I want to write about a food critic.” He said, “I want to write about a hit man.” Then we tried to figure out how the hell a food critic was going to meet a hit man. So in the case of the romance collabs, we started with a premise and then each came up with a character who would fit that premise; with Bob, we came up with characters and then designed a premise that would bring them together.
The next step was designing an antagonist to oppose all the protagonists. To do that we had to figure out what the protagonists wanted and why, how the antagonist would block their attempts to get those goals, and why the antagonist would do that (in pursuit of his or her own goal, of course).
Once we had that, we plotted the turning points; that is, we’d say, “At this point in the story, THIS will happen to all the protagonists.” They all started at the same place in the plot although maybe not in the same scene, they all hit and reacted to the same turning points at the same time, and they all came together at the climax to defeat the antagonist.
So lots of prep work.
Then with the romance collaborations, we’d go off and write three separate romances, keeping in touch while we wrote, writing each other’s characters into our stories wherever they’d overlap. We’d swap scenes with each other so that writers could rewrite their own characters, make sure their actions were in character and their voices stayed the same, and then at the end, we’d meet in one place with a lot of post it notes, write a slug for each scene on a post-it (we each had a different color) and then put them in chronological order on a wall, separating them into strips to show what day it was. We could see by the color if we had too many scenes about one character grouped together, so we’d do some rejiggering to even things out. And we did a lot of reading and responding to each other’s scenes, especially on Dogs and Goddesses. Then we put them all in one doc, and we read it as a complete novel, looking to see where the transitions weren’t smooth, etc. We were essentially writing three stories that interlocked instead of collaborating on one story.
With Bob, things were different because we were only writing one story for the first two books; that is, he wasn’t writing an adventure and I wasn’t writing a romance, we were writing a romantic adventure that was one plot. That required a lot more actual writing together, so we’d be swapping sixty or seventy e-mails a day, trying to keep our scenes fitting together. Wild Ride was the easiest because we did that one as parallel plots so we could write separately and then put the scenes together, but even then, we kept one master document going and kept in constant touch. We drove each other crazy, but I think we were both learning so much that neither one of us gave up.
The key to making those collaborations work was that we each had complete control over our characters. If somebody wrote a scene in which my character did or said something I knew she wouldn’t say or do, I could go in and say, “No, she’d do THIS.” And the others could do the same with the scene in which I wrote their characters. I think that’s crucial to making a collaboration work. Even though you’re cooperating with someone, you have to have your own sphere in which you have control. (For my collabs it was always character, but others split the work into different spheres. The Ellery Queen collaboration was divided into research and plotting from one man and writing from the other.) That control over your part of the collaboration and the sense that the work is divided equally are crucial to any collaborative success. The minute you start resenting each other or interfering in each other’s spheres, you’re toast.
So writing collaborations is completely different. I learned a lot on all my collaborations, but none of them were easy. Unless you have a really good reason to collaborate (and I definitely did on all of mine), stick to writing solo. It’s much, much easier.