HWSWAnswers: Collaboration, Organizing, Writing the Military

Allanah asked:
HWSWA Question (on the subject of tact): I love how seamless your co-written books are, especially given your different writing methods and also typically different subject matter. I wondered, have you read each other’s independent books, and if so, which are your favourites and why? I think maybe this is a question about how your writing works together, when on the surface it might seem unlikely
?

Jenny:
Favorite books of Bob’s: I still love Bodyguard of Lies and there’s an earlier one, Cut-Out, that’s great (we need to talk about that ending, though). And now I need to check out the Will Kane books.

Bob:
I read several of Jenny’s books, started with Bet Me, but mainly I followed her lead on Don’t Look Down. She wrote the first scene and I tried to mirror the voice. The big thing is that we split the writing with her taking female POV and I took male POV.

Jenny:
Bob asked me to collaborate in 2004 when we’d both had too many drinks with umbrellas in Maui.
The story of how we agreed to collaborate is here (very old blog post):

Writing in Books with Boys


There’s also a bit about meeting Bob in Maui in this blog post from 2006:

Stagnation Is the Mother of Reinvention

Why it’s seamless (thank you): Bob writes the male PoV and I write the female, and then we rewrite together. Since we’re both all about the best book possible, and we both have surprisingly little ego about who gets more page space or any other power struggles (Bob may beg to differ there), and since we both agreed that the person who owned the character got to revise that character’s dialogue no matter who had written the scene, and since we realized early on that Bob would be writing the violence and I’d be writing the Yucky Emotional Crap (YEC, Bob’s description of the romance), we had very few disagreements. About the book. We fought like rabid minks about everything else but the actual book stuff was pretty easy.

Bob:
Oh yeah. Forgot about YEC.

Jenny:
The splitting of the voices by gender was key.
I think that was a huge part of the success of the collaboration.

Bob:
Remember, we were younger and naive back then. Now we are older and wiser and tough as rocks.

Jenny:
We had NO idea of what we were getting into.

Moira asked:
I’ve been trying to think of a question for He Said She Said, because I love the conversations, and I guess I still wonder how the two of you ever managed to write your first book. Jenny does Discovery Drafts, and at that time, it sounded like Bob preferred to plan and outline first. How did you ever get that first book out without driving each other nutso with your different approaches?

Bob:
I used to plan and outline, but now I’m more of a streaming one. I have a protagonist, a setting, and throw a problem in the way. I like to kind of know what the next couple of scenes are. Today I sat down and semi-outlined the next four scenes in Shane, to get me going again. I need that because I’m getting near the end and I need to start closing out subplots and complete loops. A story raises questions as it goes and it’s my job to answer them. I’ve been stuck for a little while because I was missing a piece, but I unearthed it and did some rewriting to tighten the plot down and now can move forward again. I’ll be starting No Quarter soon, although already wrote the opening scene and while walking in the woods with Scout today started thinking of the first scenes; when each major character comes on stage and have a rough idea in my head where it will start.

Jenny:
You know, I’m trying to remember. I do remember getting to the end of the first discovery draft of Don’t Look Down and getting an e-mail from Bob that said, essentially, “We’re done,” and him getting one back from me that said, “LOLOLOLOLOLOL!” Basically, we did drive each other nuts. It wasn’t too bad when we were in different states doing everything in e-mail, but when we were together . . . . As Bob once put it: “We should never be in the same zip code.” He, as usual, was right.

I think we did the basics. For Agnes, I remember saying “I want to write about a food writer” because I’m lazy and my favorite cousin Russ Parsons was food editor for the LATimes. Instant research. Then Bob said, “I want to write about a hitman.” So I asked Russ why anybody in the food writing business would want to kill another writer, and he said, “Jenny, we don’t do that.” So Bob and I brainstormed in e-mail. He wanted to set it in the South again, and I know zip about the South but I was getting tired of writing about Ohio so I said, “Sure.” Then he made me drive down there so we could “walk the terrain” and he was right about that, too. I remember standing in front of this old mansion on the intracoastal (I think) and saying to Bob, “The gazebo will go there, and the wedding party will come down those steps . . .” and Bob saying to me, “The attack will come from the water, and the sniper will be hiding in those woods . . .”

The key was that collaborating was really like improv: In the beginning you say yes to everything you possibly can, keeping your mitts off the other person’s character. If Bob wanted a hitman, he got a hitman, even though putting a hitman and food writer together wasn’t going to be easy. Which is one reason I think Agnes turned out so well: it wasn’t an obvious set-up.

Then, as I remember (Bob, do you remember?) we blocked out a plot so that we had the turning points and started to write. I remember we made a LOT of changes, the original plot was super complicated and involved somebody hiring Shane to kill Agnes. We had to work through that. But always the improv rule: you can’t say no to your collaborator. We negotiated a lot, but it was always about what made the story better. If I haven’t said this before, Bob’s a terrific collaborator.

Bob:
I think we meandered into turning points because I’d never used turning points before.

Jenny:
That’s because you’re a natural-born plotter.
Whereas I’m a natural-born banterer.

Bob:
Yeah. I never took a fiction writing course. My first novel was basically based on all the books I’d read.

Jenny:
After I sold my first book and realized I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I took a screenwriting course from Michael Hauge. Saved my career. Thank you, Michael!
But that’s where I learned turning points.

Bob:
I highly recommend a screenwriting course. I’ve sat in on Hague’s course.

Jenny:
I actually took it twice, once to get the info and once to remember it and see it at a deeper level. Very practical course.

Bob:
It takes a while for learning to really seep in.

Jenny:
I remember I had a choice between paying my utility bills and paying for the course. Best irresponsible decision I ever made.

Bob:
You can always burn furniture for heat and light. And eat your arm for food.

Jenny:
Have you had this anti-arm fixation for long?

Bob:
Relatively new one.

Jamaica asked:
Yes! I have a question for both you and Bob. What systems do you use to keep everything organzied while you write? (I mean early stages, not after you’ve started figuring the story out.) I’m currently working on my third novel, barf draft. I have folders labeled for each character, but also one that just says “notes” where I jot down things as I think of them, kind of stream-of conciousness. I am definitely low-tech and write all my first drafts by hand. I tried to create the story on the computer and my brain doesn’t work that way. I almost gave up, but then discovered if I write long-hand my brain will spit out a story. So fancy computer programs don’t cut it for me. Any advice on how you organize the big mess of a first draft without losing your place?
Thanks to you both! Love HWSW.

Bob:
I’ve tried a couple of those writing organization programs but they don’t work for me. I do Excel spreadsheets and binders. Even linking web pages doesn’t work. I print it out and highlight. I also tend to order a bunch of books, depending on the topic. For example, I’ve got a stack of books about the underworld (literally) of New York City for Hell of a Town about the tunnels, subways, aqueducts, etc. I bought 3 books just about the Marine Raid on Makin Island in WWII, for one small subplot in Walk on the Wild Side.
The “Story Grid” is the one thing I’ve done for every book. I keep it to one page. Each row is a scene. I fill it out as I write. But I also make notes about what to loop later– what things I introduce that need to be addressed again. We all need to figure out how our brains work. Then use external tools that make up for the ways they don’t work so great. Like grammar. The biggest thing is to externalize what’s in our heads. Externalizing it makes it real.

[Here Jenny pasted the wrong response in.]

Jenny:
NO IGNORE THAT. Wrong answer.

Bob:
When I said we were tough as rocks now, I also should mention our brains are also turning to rock.

Jenny:
So true.
So to answer the question, my system is REALLY loose. I write the first discovery draft and just throw the files into a folder with the book title or protagonist’s name on it. When I’ve got more than half of a discovery draft done, I block out acts, the four (usually) sections of the story and sort those into folders called “Nita 1,” “Nita 2,” and so on. I also have folders called “Nita Notes” (tables, lists, charts, etc.), “Nita Collage” (images and composites), Nita Cuts (things I’ve lopped out in rewrites so I can find them if I need them back). And “Nita Pieces” which are random snippets I’ve written while doing other things like paying bills or reading the news or whatever that I don’t want to interrupt just because I thought of something for the book. The insides of those folders are a disorganized mess, but at least I’ve got that.

Bob:
My main rule: write it down. What’s in my head is mush. Writing makes it real.

Jenny:
I make lots of notes which I immediately lose. The worst thing that ever happened to my organization was the invention of the Post-It app for desktops.

Bob:
I love Excel spreadsheets. When I learned I could do tabs, it was a major breakthrough. Then I learned I could color code. Even better. I’m slow, but I get there eventually.

Jenny:
I still have not mastered Excel. It’s too . . . organized.

Bob:
There are like boxes, And columns. And rows. I try to keep everything on one page though, for viewing and printing purposes.
On a screen. On a thing called a computer.

Jenny:
You know you can get the same boxes with Word tables. That’s friendlier.

Bob:
Oh no. Don’t make me try something new. Never. I’ve been flying my drone for a week and thought the camera wasn’t so great until yesterday I realized I hadn’t taken the protective plastic cover off the lens.

Jenny:
I’d laugh but that is so something I’d do.

Moira asked:
Also, I want to know about the jeep accident in the deep South. That sounds interesting.

Bob:
What Jeep accident? The jeep that magically appeared in Don’t Look Down after Shane flew in?

Jenny:
No, that was the jeep fairy in Don’t Look Down. This is the one where you fell asleep and drove into a tree in Georgia. Which you told me about late one night as you were yawning and driving me through Florida.

Ask us about the tour we did in his ancient Explorer in Florida January 2006 (hot and damp) when the air conditioning wasn’t working and the heater would come on occasionally just for the hell of it. Think musty, mildewed Florida with a cranky Green Beret. I even wrote a blog post about it:

Rerun: He Wrote She Wrote: On the Road with Bob and Moot, January 20, 2006

Bob:
Oh. I fell asleep and ran off the road and rolled my Jeep in the Okefenokee Swamp. I also blew out a tire in the Rockies one time.

Jenny:
Bob Mayer: Do not go on road trips with him.

Bob:
Scout likes them.

Jenny:
Remember when you drove me through NYC and Yonkers on the way to Boston? Somewhere I have a blog post on that, too. “Watch it, lady, I’m drivin’ here!” That and your rant about Elizabeth Bishop. Good times.

Bob:
Oh yeah. The Barnes and Noble that I knew where it was but couldn’t find it.

Jenny:
Looked for it for ages and then when we found it, he said, “Oh, yeah, we used to come here all the time when I was a kid.”

Bob:
This was before GPS. Before printed maps. We were actually in a horse and buggy if I remember rightly. With Tom Hanks.

Jenny:
I don’t remember Hanks, but I remember the buggy part.

Sure Thing wrote:
What gets you stuck in? I think Bryce Courtenay called it “bum glue” – figuratively glue your bum to the chair and write. Jenny has at length lamented her, “Ooh shiny new idea” issue. But how have both of you learned to stick to an idea and see it to the end?

Jenny:
Obviously, I have no good advice on this. Bob?
Ask me how to start a book, I have ten of those.

Bob:
I finish every book I start. For the last letter of Myers-Briggs, I am a J. That means I like getting to the finish. I used to run marathons so I’m in it for the long haul. I just thought of a new nonfiction book to go along with my Survival Guide today, but I put those ideas in a folder. Right now I know I have to finish a good draft of Shane for Beta readers and then get No Quarter done by end of May.

Jenny:
Bob is Focused and Goal Oriented.
Wait a second, I’m trying to find where I am in the questions.

Bob:
Military stuff for me next

Jenny:
Thank god one of us is focused.

Cate asked:
Military stuff for Bob, because I sometimes ghostwrite military heroes:
– What are some common reasons people decide to leave the military/not reenlist?
– What are some jokes/ stereotypes that different branches of the military have about each other?
– Are there any characteristics/ perspectives/ habits that military people might hang onto after they’ve left the military?

Bob:
I left the Army because they were promoting me out of the jobs I liked. I enjoyed being with the troops, on the ground. After leading three different platoons and commanding an A-Team, the next step in Special Forces for me was a B-Team leader—commanding 6 A-Teams. But since SF operates at the A-Team level, you’re basically a logistics person and intermediary..

I’m not sure about the jokes any more. I used to say Seals brains turned to mush at the high water mark. Marines are always fun to joke about, as long as there isn’t a Marine around. The Air Force is considered the cushy service. The joke is when they start a new base, they put the golf course and O’Club in first, and then ask for more funds for the airstrip.

Habits: being on time is a big one for me, especially given West Point ran like a clock compared to the real Army. For people in Special Ops, we tend to be a bit paranoid.

Jenny:
I was an Air Force wife once. I learned nothing about military, but I can testify to Bob’s paranoia.

Tune in tomorrow for the rest of this week’s questions. Or not. Up to you.

+9

11 thoughts on “HWSWAnswers: Collaboration, Organizing, Writing the Military

  1. The one thing I inherited from my military dad was a pathological need to be on time, or preferably, early. “15 minutes early is on time. On time is late.” It’s almost physically painful for me to be late to something. I carry a book with my everywhere so I can just read while I wait for others.

    1. Does this hold for dinner invitations? I have known to not let guests in to the house until the time I requested they arrive since I am usually working on some fiddly bits of cooking and cannot be interrupted and my husband is usually still getting dressed and can’t answer the door. In my defense I am easily distracted. My sister says it’s the easiest way to tell I never had children since I get derailed by interruptions.

      1. Oh my husband and I will sit in the car or walk around the block. He also has the punctual gene. We won’t foist ourselves on people before the invitation time. We might even try to be “late” because most hosts are counting on a 15, 20 minute cushion. But we’re usually just killing time nearby.

        Although some friends who know as well just tell us to come whenever and put us to work Having kids actually helped slow us done enough with enough distractions that we sometimes are right on time.:-)

  2. I had to go look up the Elizabeth Bishop story, because I just read an amazing biography of her and she’s always been one of my favorite poets. However, I totally agree with Bob that it’s crazy to say that she “changed the course of American culture”, since hardly anyone knows about her! I love many things about her work, but having a sweeping effect on American culture is not one of them; I would say any influence she had was pretty subtle.

    As someone with family members who’ve been in the Army Reserves and Marines, I can say the Air Force comments are pretty accurate. Another common theme is frustration with the bureaucracy and leadership higher up.

  3. My dad was in the Navy in the early 60s and getting any kind of story out of him is like pulling teeth.

    A high-school bestie who went to the Air Force Academy told a good story about coming out, after ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ went away. It was basically ‘so guys there’s this’ and everybody saying ‘yeah we figured whatever.’ 🙂

    1. My dad was in the army in WW2, then an interpreter for the War Crimes Commission, and then was forced to interpret for defendants at the Dachau trials, like the B…. of Buchenwald.

      He never ever reminisced about the army itself although he did have a wonderful story about being quartered in a castle with two old caregivers who complimented him on his German (my dad was a German Jewish refugee who left the country Dec 1939 which is a whole different set of stories.) He told them he had lived in Berlin, they said so had they, and asked where he had lived, he told them, asked where they had lived, and when they answered he said “Then I arrest you” because that area was where German generals lived. Sure enough it was a German general and his personal servant hiding out in his family castle….

      But no songs… no fond or ironic stories of the army. I don’t think he thought he was military or identified with it. He was there for a mission.

  4. Bob’s memory about the stereotypical Air Farce Base matches mine. It goes, “What’s the difference between the Air Farce and the Navy?” (Guess which I was in.) The answer follows these guidelines:

    The Armed Services committees convince congress we need a new Air Farce Base and a new Navy Base. Congress appropriates $100,000,000.00 each and sets the wheels in motion. Both services acquire, for comparable cost, sufficient property for their projects. At stage 1, the AF builds the O Club, Golf Course, Athletic fields, and senior officer housing. The Navy builds piers and service roads and storage buildings and repair shops, and starts on a power plant. The money runs out for both, and they turn back to congress to beg for more. Congress appropriates an additional $150,000,000.00 to finish the projects. At Stage 2, the AF completes office housing, enlisted housing, the AFB Hospital, enlisted clubs and NCO clubs, builds a traffic control tower, and plows up a lot of land where someday might reside a landing strip. The Navy finishes their power plant, which not only powers the base but generates distilled water, a necessity for ships. More repair buildings, administrative buildings, officer housing, the Navy Exchange and Commissary. There are already ships at the piers, doing their thing.
    At this point, both services go back to congress. The AF gets another $100,000,000.00 to actually build the air strip and noise abatement to keep surrounding civilians happy. The Navy base is fully functional, so congress votes another $1,000,000.00 for landscaping and a supplement to “Basic Allowance for Quarters” since there is insufficient housing on base.

  5. I have another story of inter-service rivalry, although technically, it’s intraservice rivalry. See, Marines started as Sailors With Guns. They climbed the rigging and shot at enemy sailors. More and more, they were sent ashore to shoot at enemies up close. It got so they were giving themselves airs and dressing like sojers instead of sailors with guns. Nobody wanted to argue with them – they had guns!

    Anyway, a sailor and a marine, against the odds, were friends, and were patronizing a tacky bar well away from the base (fewer witnesses) when the sailor had to use the tacky outhouse behind the tacky bar. On his way back inside, he spied a kid squatting and stuffing dogsh… er, dog waste in a sock with twigs attached. He asked the kid what he was doing. “I’m making a Marine.” was the reply. Laughing out loud, he ran into the bar and dragged his friend the Marine out to bear witness. “Ask him what he’s doing!” So the Marine says, “Whatcha doin’?” The kid says “Making a Marine.” Sailor boy is ready to roll on the deck, he’s laughing so loud. And smirking. I’m sure he was smirking. So the Marine asks, “Why aren’t you building a sailor?” The kid rolls his eyes and answers, “There ain’t nearly enough dog waste for that!”

  6. My dad was a US army infantryman during the war (II, that was) and he was in a very song-oriented branch of the army — 10th Mountain Division as a ski instructor, then mountaineer in the Italian Alps.

    My mom was in the WAACs in the Philippines and had a brother high up in the air transport division of the Air Force as well.

    End result was that when we went on family vacations, singing would start in the car and inevitably one of them would start, either with “Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail…” (my dad) or “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…” (my mom) and the other would find a way to intersperse their own anthem into the mix, with the kids yodeling and doing the rhythm on the floor with our flip flops.

    Never sure if it was a competition or just nostalgic recollection, or both.

    I am jinx and my parents wore army boots

  7. My Dad was a gunnery instructor during WWII who taught members of all services about amphibious landings. Over the years he had a lot to say about the friends he made in midshipman’s school (with whom he stayed close until they died), but all he said about the other services was who had the best food. I guess that since he was on ships for months at a time, the freshness of provisions was a crucial issue.

    He was on an admiral’s staff for a while, which must have helped his opinion of the food in the navy, but he said that the marines had the best food. If he had other opinions about the differences between the different branches of the service, he didn’t share them with his kids.

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