It’s that time of the week when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.
Q: Have you ever co-written a book with a writing partner? Are you aware of any special considerations when pitching a book with multiple authors to a publisher/agent?
A: I’ve had two experiences writing a book with another person, and they were both very, very different experiences. One of them was a work-for-hire gig I got writing YA novels and film/television proposals with/for a guy out in L.A. He would have an idea, call me up, and say, “Jenny, what do you think about a detective show, but with the works of Edgar Allen Poe.” And I would say something along the lines of, “That show already exists, it’s called The Following and it sucks.” And he would say, “Yes, I know, but ours would be much better.” We would plan out the plot and details together on the phone or via email, then I would do the actual writing, and he would pay me for it.
The second experience I had was with a friend of mine who has such a great idea for a YA novel, but she was unsure of how to get started or put it all together. So, we agreed to write the book together…and she wrote the entire thing in like a week. Gripped by that enthusiasm of writing her first book, she was able to barrel through the rough draft. I, on the other hand, am a much, much slower writer, and my pace proved frustrating to her as I went through and basically edited, tweaked, and expanded what she’d already written. When a year had passed after her finishing that first draft, and when I was still working on it, we called it quits on the project. There weren’t any hard feelings because we communicated with each other over what was going on, but it was disappointing to us both to have put such a huge amount of work into the project only to abandon it.
So, what have these experiences taught me?
Well, in the first case, something horrible happened. The guy died. Because his health had been failing for a while, we didn’t have a lot of open projects. But we did have a YA novel that had been contracted with a publisher, written, and turned in that never released, and there was a television treatment that he’d contracted me to write but never paid me for, and for a while I wasn’t sure if that meant I owned it or he owned it or would I be stealing it if I used it myself, etc. And the last thing you want to do is approach a grieving family and be like, “Hi, we’ve never met and you’ve just experienced a terrible tragedy, but can you clear up a rights issue real, real quick?” So, I would say that my number one piece of advice on this is when it’s time to approach publishers, agents when you’re getting ready to sign things, have an understanding with your writing partner about what either of you does if the worst happens.
In the second case, it’s pretty clear that we just were not going to be a good fit from the moment I realized my writing partner could finish writing an entire novel in a few days. At that point, I should have really said, “Wow, you work a lot faster than me, and this doesn’t really leave me a lot to do with the project.” If I’d done that, then I wouldn’t have ended up rewriting huge chunks of her work just because I was at a loss for what to do, and she wouldn’t have gotten the impression that I thought her work was bad, and neither of us would have walked away from the experience disappointed. So, my number two piece of advice is that you have to be realistic about the project, deadlines, goals, and you have to communicate with each other honestly and know when to call it before you waste a bunch of each others’ time.
As for pitching, I’ve always heard that it’s the same as pitching as one person. You just tailor your query letter so it’s clear that it’s two people writing this book, two people seeking representation, two people who are going to be contracted. And if you self-publish, you need to work out how royalties will be handled and split.
Q: I’m always interested in the processes of different writers. Are you a plotter? Or do you start a story and see where it takes you? If the former, what sort of tools do you use to plot a novel? Do you write in a linear fashion (beginning to middle to end) or do you jump from scene to scene?
A: I’ve talked in previous columns about how I outline and stuff, so I’m just going to tackle the second part of this question, because I find it super interesting when people talk about it. When I first started writing, I would jump from scene to scene, all out of order. “Oh, it’s going to be so cool when this happens, I’m going to write it right now.” And then I would end up with a loose collection of scenes with nothing connecting them, get bored, and wander away. It’s like I’d written all the good parts or shown all the funniest jokes in the trailer. I wasn’t interested in the rest of it. So, when I sat down to really, honest-to-god write my first novel (Blood Ties Book One: The Turning), I followed everyone’s advice and started writing from the beginning, straight on through to the end. It was the first time I’d ever finished a manuscript, and within a year I had a contract. So, I was like, obviously, this is the only way it can be done, and I wrote that way for a really, really long time.
In the last few years, as I’ve struggled with burnout on and off from keeping up a blog and writing books and maintaining an online presence, I’ve relaxed those rules a little bit. Every now and then, I’ll get an idea for a scene for a book that I have planned, but I haven’t written yet. I’ll go into Google Docs, make a new document with a title like “FOR PENNY BOOK 3” and then write down the small snippet of a scene I had in my head. Now that I’m writing that book, of course, I’m having to go on a hellish Easter egg hunt for all the “FOR PENNY BOOK 3” files I made, but when I find them I can just plug them in, do some tweaking to make them fit seamlessly, and go from there.
I’ve also started thinking of my books in like, four chapter sections. Maybe I’ll hop ahead and write the sex scene that I know will be in chapter fifteen when I get bored or stuck on something in chapter thirteen. Then maybe I get bored with the sex scene and make a jump back to finish that little spot in chapter twelve. That’s really helped me get work done on days where staring at a problem scene isn’t upping my word count.
That said, going back and filling in all the little gaps when you do that? Not fun in the slightest, and sometimes I feel like I’m dragging those sections out to assure myself that I’m not rushing. Which means that when I go in and edit, I have to cut stuff that’s repetitive or just long-winded.
But here’s the good news: you can experiment. There was a recent episode of Rick and Morty in which Rick, trapped in a body assembled from a pickle and parts of slaughtered sewer rats and cockroaches (if you haven’t watched the show, I highly recommend it. It’s nihilistic Doctor Who on bath salts), attends family therapy, where the therapist points out that Rick uses his intelligence as an excuse for avoiding the tedium of having emotions and connections to others. One particular quote really stuck with me: “There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work.” I’ve been using that over and over while I’ve been writing. There is no way I can do this so wrong I might die. That’s really the worst case scenario, isn’t it? So, experiment. If you’re blocked, try writing a different scene. If you end up having to abandon one of those scenes, save it for another project. You never know when it might come in handy. And remember, there’s no way to do it so wrong that you might die.
Bonus Question: So there is a continuity error in The Boss series and it really bothers me. (Spoilers ahead). In book one, Gabriella reveals to Sophie that she’s starting her own fashion magazine online, called Mode. Later, Sophie and Deja start their own fashion magazine, also called Mode. Did Gabriella give the name to Deja to help support her new venture? It’s eating me up inside.
A: Prepare yourself for a disappointing response: it’s just a continuity error. I forgot that I used Mode as the name of Gabriella’s magazine because there were two books between The Boss and The Ex and I associated Gabriella with Porteras so much that I forgot that I’d given her new magazine a name. And it has bugged me ever since I first noticed it.
Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!