When Meggie suggested that I should take the story I’d started for us 18 years ago and turn it into a real book, I don’t think she meant to do it with me. And when I responded by saying she should do it with me, I honestly think it was motivated by the fact that I’m the kind of person who likes to have a “partner in crime”. The truth is I really don’t like doing much of anything by myself and if I can drag someone along with me, I will. I can’t tell you why she went along with it (I like to think it’s because she’s known me for so long and she figured this was bound to be an adventure of ceaseless wonder and excitement), but I can say that neither one of us knew what the hell we were getting ourselves into.
Writing with a partner is not easy. I don’t think it’s really any harder, per se, than writing solo, I think both ways have their ups and downs, but I do think that if you can pull it off and make it work for you the final product of writing with a partner is better. But there are two major obstacles standing in the way of achieving this.
The first hurdle of the process is that there is very little positive support for would-be team writers, as Meggie and I discovered. So what is already a difficult process full of self-doubt and questioning becomes compounded by most people being negative. You would think that in an industry that is fueled by the imaginations of its primary workers, such as in the world of fantasy writing, people would embrace the individuals who try to do things their own way. It would make sense to assume that in field where originality is worth more than gold, being able to think outside the box, or doing something your own way would be rewarded and encouraged. The logical mind would conclude it absolutely stands to reason that in the realm of the writer, there would be open arms and warm embraces awaiting anyone who dared to create in an unconventional manner.
And you would be wrong.
What Meggie and I discovered was that almost everyone said something like, “writing with a partner is twice the work for half the money”, with some people being as straight to the point as to flatly say, “don’t do it!” Despite the fact that there are plenty of books written by more than one author, and that many of them were perfectly successful (Good Omens, anybody?) It didn’t matter. People simply didn’t do things that way – not if they want to succeed – and the more we insisted it was what we really wanted to do, the more it only seemed to prove how un-serious we must be about it. At pretty much every turn, when we said we were writing a trilogy together, people would either try to talk us out of it, or politely nod their heads and plaster a wide-eyed, pained smile on their faces and say something like, “oh woooooooow, yeah, that’s really great.” To say it was discouraging would be understating things, grossly.
For a long time, I was angry about it. How dare they stand in judgement of our dreams?! At least we HAVE dreams, right? At least we’re DOING something about it! But ok wait, hold up a second. There’s a reason why they don’t think we can do it. BECAUSE IT’S FUCKING HARD!!!
If I were to show you some of the first stuff Meggie and I wrote, you would probably pat me on the head and do that obnoxious wide-eyed, pained smile thing I just described above. It wasn’t horrible, and to be honest, most people couldn’t even tell that two people had written it. Our transitions were literally seamless in that regard. But we didn’t know how to tell a story for shit!
Every fantasy writer has to learn how to tell a story at some point. It’s just how it goes, you can’t avoid it. Fantasy stories aren’t delivered like TPS Reports, with graphs and numbers and memos key people don’t get. At some point, the aspiring fantasy writer must learn the art of telling a story. This is the process where you learn how to “show, not tell”. More importantly though, this is the process where each writer (hopefully) learns how to stop writing for themselves, and how to tell the best story they’re capable of telling. It’s a complete divorcing of the ego where you surrender yourself to the Muse and focus on crafting the best story – not catering to a particular demographic, or trying to fill a market, just the pure, unadulterated essence of The Story.
Which brings us to the second roadblock on the journey to tandem-author stardom. When you’re writing with a partner, you have two egos to deal with, two personalities to keep away from the plot, and two opinions about how everything goes down. Ah, you’re starting to see why people think this impossible, aren’t you? It’s NOT though! Let me tell you!
Meggie and I spent the first year, maybe as much as eighteen months, working on learning how to work together. I had lost my copy of the original story years ago, so to me it was all relatively new again. I didn’t have as much of a problem stepping back objectively and saying, “this is good” or “that should go” because I didn’t have an emotional attachment to the story or characters the way I used to. Sure, parts of it stood out and showered me in nostalgia, but most of it I simply didn’t remember anymore. The same was not true for Meggie, however. She not only had her copy, she took it out every year or so and read it again, and then wondered what I had in store, or how I might have ended it. To her, these characters and their story was sacred. Changing it was blasphemy. But all I have to do is explain that this was written when we were 13-16, and there’s a part where a dude offers to cure this chick he just met of an evil spell…with his penis…and you can see why changes were necessary. (To be fair, she was never against changing that part…)
We had to learn how to check our egos at the door, and we spent pretty much most of our discussions in that first year-to-eighteen-months going back and forth on trivial crap that was leftover from the childhood version. Credit where it’s due, too, because I truly believe lesser people would have told me to go fuck myself where Meg struggled to let go of her attachments. I was kind of a bitch about it sometimes too, which was something I had to learn to stop doing. Pretty soon we started to see that it couldn’t be about us, though. It had to be about doing this story justice. And that process was hard, but in a way we had an advantage. We had each other there to keep one another honest and on track. I imagine solo writers may let some things slide, allowing a character or reference to make it in because it amuses them or is some kind of inside joke (this is what I tell myself every time George R.R. Martin loses me), but we couldn’t do that unless we both agreed that it wasn’t going to detract from the overall delivery. That meant most of the silly stuff that was just for us got left behind as we structured a story that we could both agree was absolutely, without a doubt, the best version of it that we could possibly craft.
Maybe you’re still thinking “this doesn’t sound so hard”. But oh, believe me, it’s is! See, there’s more to it than that. It’s not as hard when it comes to accepting that something you wrote isn’t as clever or good as you thought it was, or that your idea is in direct conflict with something you already wrote into the plot – that’s actually kinda easy to get over. You do it once or twice, and you get the hang of it. No, the hard part is when your partner has been banging out 1,000 words a day for a week solid and you haven’t even read the 2 page document they sent you two weeks ago, let alone wrote anything, because you’re blocked. That’s when it gets hard. Not having an ego allows you to step outside the situation and simply acknowledge that work is getting done. You have to focus on the part of your glass that’s still half full.
Meggie has strengths that I do not have. For example, she is amazing at keeping track of a sequence of events, and she is a stickler for details. She also comes up with beautiful pieces of detached imagery that don’t necessarily fit neatly into a scene. I am the poster child for ADHD, and have been known to do things like – and I am not exaggerating, or pointing to a single instance, this happens frequently – forget to finish sentences, down to and including not even completing the last word. On the other hand, I am much better at writing dialog than she is, and I am better at emulating different styles and speech patterns.
And if she’s writing while I’m blocked, then shit man! At least someone is still writing!
If you want to write with a partner, you need to be able to acknowledge these kinds of things, without an ego or attitude about it, and you need to work with each other to fill in one another’s gaps. I am blessed that my best friend, and the first person I wanted to work with on this, turned out to be perfectly suited to compliment my strengths and flaws. Make no mistake about it though, it still wasn’t easy. As much as we love each other, we still fought like crazy (and probably will fight again, I’m sure), and at one point we nearly went our own ways. It was still hard work. But it was work worth doing because what we’re getting out of it is better than what we would have gotten without it.
It’s not about who spends more time at the keyboard, or who comes up with more ideas, or whose ideas were the best. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you put your heads together to come up with a better story than you could have come up with on your own. THAT, my friends, is the great advantage of writing with a partner, and why I say it’s better. Because they come up with things that you would never dream, and vice versa. They supply something you cannot, and if you tried to do it alone the end result would be lacking. Not because you’re a shitty writer, or you can’t tell a story on your own, but because you’re only you. You can’t think up what they think up – you can only think up what you think up. It’s really as simple as that.