Is it hard to write a book? Yep. But writing a book WITH someone else? That seems infinitely harder.
We talked with Wise Ink authors Jennifer Rock and Michael Voss about how they pulled this off for their hysterical first novel, B.S. Incorporated, and what they've learned writing the second installment!
What makes a great writing partnership?
Mike: Respect for the other person's talent and perspective is critically important. As is trust. Your partner will see things in your prose that you can't see, so it's really important to give each other the freedom to build on an idea, take it in a different direction, or possibly even nix it altogether. When you trust that your partner has the story's best interest at heart, it's much easier to make those trade-offs. In our current manuscript, Jennifer wrote a scene in which one of our protagonists struggles to make sense of her father's passing. I saw some opportunities to give it more emotional wallop and Jennifer happily let me take another pass at it. She read my edits and spotted a few lines that came across as heavy-handed. She dialed those back a touch, and now we feel like we really deepened that character's POV in all the right ways.
Jennifer: I read someplace there's one important rule in finding a writing or business partner: Choose someone you wouldn't mind being stuck with in an airport for four hours. And for me -- wow, that's a very short list :). There's something to be said for building a partnership with someone who has similar interests, work styles and temperament -- because you're going to spend an extraordinary amount of time together, inventing characters and rehashing plotlines and creating unwritten backstories. You better make sure your writing partner is someone who can happily go as deep in the details as you can. And find a partner who is willing to learn and listen, and can build on all the things you say and think, and invites you to do the same with their ideas. Or you will strangle each other before the first chapter is written.
Lots of people SAY they want to write a book together, but when it comes down to getting the words on the page they struggle. How do you suggest authors handle the "back and forth" of actually writing the book?
Mike: This is probably the most common question we get in media interviews and at book signings. It took us a while to refine our process, but we now feel as if we have it down. We start by mapping out the entire story arc for the book, including the arcs of individual characters and sub-plots. From there we break the story into three acts, and determine which elements of each arc fit into each act (e.g., in Act I we meet "Joe" and learn about his background, in Act II we'll learn that Joe is hiding a big secret, and in Act III that secret will be revealed and resolved). Then we split the first act into chapters and determine the sequence for planting all the seeds that will grow throughout the subsequent chapters/acts. When we know what needs to happen in a set of chapters, we'll divvy up the first-draft assignments: Jennifer takes chapters 1 and 3, Mike writes 2 and 4.
Jennifer: When we finish our first drafts, we flip it to the other person to make edits (tracking every change). Then we review the edited version together and make any final decisions before considering it final and adding it to the working manuscript. We continue that process to the end. That way, we both touch every word. People often ask if I write all the female perspectives and Mike writes for the male characters, but I think our characters are much better, stronger and more real because we both write for all of them. It's funny -- sometimes I'll pull a quote out of the first book and say "that's hilarious!" -- and Mike will remind me that I wrote that part. We can't honestly tell who wrote what anymore. That was a long journey to go from having Mike's style and my style to creating "our" writing style.
We can't imagine it's always been an easy journey.... would you be willing to share any of your partnership struggles? How did you overcome them?
Mike: We've definitely had some struggles along the way. Our very first manuscript was 167,000 words - or twice as long as it needed to be. That happened in part because we were not disciplined enough to make the hard choices we should have made early on. Stripping out 70,000 words - and one major character - forced some uncomfortable conversations. It's really difficult to hear your partner say that something you wrote is not strong enough to make the cut, or that readers won't find it funny, or that it's just poorly written - and equally difficult to deliver that message to someone who has been working just as hard as you to achieve your shared dream. We tiptoed around that kind of honest feedback early on, and it resulted in a lot of painstaking manuscript surgery later. But over time we developed that trust we mentioned earlier and learned to make hard choices before getting too far down the road.
Jennifer: Ooh boy. Yes, we had struggles. With the first book, before we had a good shared writing process, we'd argue over how I'd rip my way through the first draft of a few chapters, then twiddle my thumbs waiting for Mike to finish writing a few pages. We took 100 steps back and spent a lot of time talking about how we each approach writing. My first draft is like painting a room with a roller -- get the big spaces filled in and see what the color looks like in the daylight. Mike paints his first draft with a watercolor brush -- amazing attention to the finer details. Once we realized that, we figured out how to respect each other's thinking and approaches, and give each other space to do our best work. Honesty and communication. That's how you overcome any partnership struggles.
You're actively drafting your second book now. How is that process going versus the first book?
Mike: Like a dream. :) We were learning as we wrote the first time around, so the process is much more efficient and enjoyable now. The biggest key, in my mind, is that we're so much clearer on what our shared voice sounds like. Our first drafts are much closer to what they need to be, and we have a better eye for making edits that punch up the prose, deepen a character's POV or strengthen the story. (Props to Laura Zats and our other editors for teaching us some of these tips.)
Jennifer: The first book took us six years! The second took us about nine months -- and that's even introducing a host of new characters and settings into the crazy little corporate world we created. We learned so much about planning and outlining. For the first book, we wrote our last chapter 10 or 11 times (including writing the last page while it was going to the printer!). On the second book, we always knew what the last page would be. I think that's the difference in process: It's like on the first book we had just a compass. This time, we created a map.
Look for B.S. Incorporated at rockandvossbooks.com!