Collaborating on a writing project is vastly different from working by yourself.  It’s been said that no novel is ever written entirely by one person and that is true.  No matter how seasoned the writer, we all need to stop at some point and seek advice from others, and if nothing else, writers depend on other people for inspiration.  But all in all, writing is a pretty solitary venture; one that you suddenly realize has engulfed you for hours and sometimes days at a time, and only when the phone rings or someone stops by do you become aware of the time that has passed.  For the most part, I am okay with this.  I don’t mind spending time alone.  Even as a kid, I seemed to require substantial allotments of alone time, so this is nothing strenuous to me.

     So writing with someone, in terms of a 50/50 effort, is a unique experience.  First you have to be sure of the person you’re writing with.  It’s natural to become possessive of your work and overly sensitive to criticism, so the relationship between two writers of the same project needs to be professional.  As I write this, I am about 30,000 words into an alternating chapter-style collaboration with my friend and mentor Kim Williams-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, Love and Loathing, and the three-part series of Hey, Ranger! books for children.  So far, so good.  Kim was an integral component of my last (and first) full length novel (which is still in the hands of a literary agent I met at a writing conference – no word yet, although I did receive an e-mail from her saying she has received it and, due to the holidays, is a little behind schedule).  So when Kim introduced me to the idea of collaborating, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  I still have a lot to learn and it felt like the next natural step.  I figured it would be an oppurtunity to work one on one, side by side, quite literally, with someone who has not only the education, but experience in the world of publishing. 

     The first thing we had to do was decide which story we wanted to tell.  We both have a vast mental backlog of pending storylines, so it was just a matter of choosing the one that we both felt would most equally utilize our strengths and most effectively blend our voices.  Our first choice was a Gothic-era supernatural thriller.  I made it clear very early on that whatever we wrote together would need to fall into the “creep-factor” category to some degree, as experience has shown me that this is where my style naturally flows.  She agreed and we began.

     I hit a brick wall right off.  I don’t know as much about the Gothic era as I thought, and this became embarrassingly apparent as soon as I sat down to write.  Unfortunately, even when you’re writing fiction, there must be truth in your story.  If it doesn’t feel like the truth, readers sense this and they do not like it one bit.  So we had two choices:  I could spend several months emerged in the world of Gothic history, or… we could write something else, something contemporary.  What it came down to was scheduling.  I had just sent my first manuscript to the agent and Kim was in the revision process of a finalized work, so neither of us were wanting to put off beginning this project for several months, as it is important, (due to the expected dozens of rejections a writer will acquire and the fact that most literary agents demand sole viewing rights to your book), to have more than one manuscript out there circulating at all times.

     So, we settled on what we currently refer to as “Project: Evil Heart,” a kind of he said/she said thriller that, thanks to me, has become more horror and gore than anything, hee hee.  This is the kind of story that I will not be urging my mother to read.  In fact, when I think about that, I cringe.  I have no doubt that Kim and I will both be clobbered by all kinds of criticism when it is complete.  But that is a risk we are both willing to take.

     One thing I didn’t expect when collaborating are all the little differences of understanding.  When my character walks into the same restaurant as Kim’s, it’s interesting to see how different it looks.  To a point, this works.  Our characters are very different from each other, so they are not going to see things the same way, however, there are certain facts that need to be in synch.  If the restaurant has dividers between booths, for example, this can’t change.  If the waiter is a blond guy, no unexplained dye job is going to satisfy the reader it’s the same dude.  This can become challenging.

    Another thing I naively overlooked is the amount of time she and I would spend together.  Our goal is to have this baby ready to be looked at by June 15th of 2011.  That gives us, as of today, just over three months.  We began in January and are just about to the half-way mark so we’re doing pretty good, but there isn’t a lot of time to dilly-dally.   So she and I meet twice a week and not a day goes by without several phone calls or e-mails on the topic.  Right now, Kim is in Las Vegas, and I am stuck on a plot problem.  I need to know if her character answers the phone when mine calls, and if not, why… so I am waiting for her reply to my e-mail and hoping I’m not disrupting her business out-of-state.  These are the challenges.  But I have no complaints.  Our egos are such that we can collaborate with our claws sheathed and our tongues civil.  We have yet to get into even one of the brawls I anticipated when we first began this (well, she did angrily hurl a sizable bag of gummy  bears at my head once, but that had nothing to do with writing… and I deserved it).

    Within the next chapter or two, our characters will meet face to face and this will multiply the time Kim and I spend together.  Then it will literally become a side-by-side enterprise, and it is my hope and belief that we will continue in the same vein of professionalism, respect and allowance of expression that we have thus far. 

     Also, this has been a strain on the people around us.  I am, for the most part, very lucky to be surrounded by a supportive and understanding network of friends and family.  There are those folks though, who take it personally and I don’t know what to say to them except, “I’m sorry.”  There just isn’t any way to do this without sacrificing a hell of a lot of my time.  Those who will understand and accept this, I suppose, are the true friends.  The others will inevitably fall away, bitterly perhaps, but I can’t control their responses.  That’s their bag. 

     Overall, I would say the pros far outweigh the cons.  This is, after all, everything I ever wanted.  Of course, it would be great to be published and that is my ultimate goal, but I try not to get wrapped up in that.  The real joy of this though, is the process, the creativity, the expression.  I need to understand the business side of this, sure, but ultimately, I would rather be at home, “bloodletting” as I’ve come to term it, than twiddling my thumbs waiting for an agent to call, or networking in some hotel somewhere at a writing conference.  But that is a different blog topic entirely.

     As for collaborating, I think it can be done… and well, under the right circumstances.  I am lucky to have had as much opportunity to learn and grow as both a writer and an individual as I have.  Aside from being my mentor and co-writer, Kim is also my friend.  It’s impossible after all, to spend this much time with a person without either loving or hating them to some degree.  It is my sincere hope that this relationship will continue for many years to come.  Not many people have the opportunities I have received. 

     I don’t take that for granted. 

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Comments
  1. Linda Bennett says:

    Jared, I do love reading your blog. I do wish for you everything you want, desire & need to fulfill your goal.
    You are correct in supposing that the friends that understand are indeed true friends. I pray that you will be a success and get published ( for a selfish reason), I want to read your books. lol! ♥ ya my friend.

  2. Kim Justesen says:

    My philosophy is “Walk softly and carry a big bag of gummy bears.”

    You know how I feel about you – and about this process. I gain every bit as much from you as you claim to get from me. This is truly just a lot of fun for me, and I look forward to doing this again and again. Thanks for trusting me – really.

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