|With apologies to DC and Marvel.|
When Gwen and I show our books to other authors, the first questions we get asked are: “You wrote a book together? How did you plot it?”
Creative types often have problems working together. It’s like another cook in your kitchen or, worse, a boss that tries to micromanage you. You have your creative process, and they have theirs. This is true for even authors who married other authors; sometimes the choice comes down to writing separately vs. divorce.
Yet, it can happen. Richard Levinson and William Link created great television together: Columbo, Ellery Queen, Murder, She Wrote, and many other popular shows. Sometimes they devised plots together (often under the pen name ‘Ted Leighton’) which scriptwriters would turn into a television episode. Charles and the Caroline Todd created two long-running series of mystery novels together. James Patterson also co-writes, but he takes a top-down approach: he creates the characters and a detailed plot, which is then taken over by other writers.
In our case, short stories are relatively easy. We discuss what should happen, and then one of us begins writing. We take turns. I remember, while writing one story, saying to Gwen, “You need to invent something,” because we’d hit the point where Professor Pettijohn needed to reveal his latest invention. Then, we had to figure out how to use it within the story. Dialogue is a breeze. It’s fun to write, and Gwen suggests comebacks I can play off of. It's great fun to have another imagination to build a story with. The sum is greater than the halves.
Writing novels, though, is a bigger challenge. One of our biggest roadblocks: writing style. Gwen is a true plotter, while I am a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of the pants). When Gwen sits down to write, she lays out her plot, then starts at the beginning of the book and produces the ensuing material in a linear fashion. She inserts scenes only when the story demands it.
I don’t do well with beginnings, since story openings invite a lot of second-guessing and, frankly, procrastination. Instead, I write the scenes that are the clearest in my head. It’s like a spider web: I fill the space between the scenes with the stuff that should precede or follow them. As a result, it can take me as long as 30,000 words to figure out what a novel is really about and force it into a logical chronology. Short stories are so much easier.
So, clashes ensue. We come up with the characters together, including ‘the crime before the crime’ and who the killer is. Gwen let me choose the poison in our first two novels because I love that sort of thing. I was the one who started Murder on the Mullet Express because she was working on Concealed in Ash. I mentally formed a crude sequence of events for the first part of the novel and wrote the scenes I had the strongest ideas for. Then, Gwen took over for a while and added more background to my work, plus she added the scenes between the scenes. So far, no problem.
I got back into the novel after editing a couple of anthologies, read over the previous text to reorient myself, and added further scenes. This was when the trouble started. I have this unfortunate habit of writing the scene where the killer was revealed to give myself a goalpost for the in-between narrative. Then, I wrote some critical clue discovery scenes between it and where Gwen left off.
This was a big mistake. Gwen started writing at the first gap and, through organic process, revealed a big clue that I’d set later in the book. I was unhappy that she hadn’t looked ahead, while she felt that certain clues would be discovered sooner with the technology available at the time. Then, I had a spark of an idea of how future trouble could be created with the information she’d changed. We discussed the new plot twist, and I removed and retooled the conflicting scenes as necessary. After that, I made sure to run ideas by her before I wrote them.
Gwen and I finished the book by using yWriter (which we no longer have) to coordinate the plot and firm up the chronology (which days the train ran, when court was open for arraignments, etc.). Even then, details cropped up that required retrofitting other scenes and adding new narrative.
I did the final edits to sand down the bumps. Some chapters needed more work than others. Once the text was smoothed out, though, we had a pretty good product. Readers seem to appreciate the cultural details and the plot twists that started as accidents. It took longer to write than the sequel, but how else were we supposed to learn?
For Murder at the Million Dollar Pier, we created a master plot. We also agreed that if one of us makes changes to the novel's plot, it needs to be changed accordingly in the master plot. This has reduced clashes and made it easier to see where the characters should go next, so we're using the same method in writing our third novel, Ybor City Blues. May all disharmony exist on the page, not between the authors.