how to collaborate with another writer: a case study

One Small Step: an anthology of discoveries launched last weekend at Conflux. I’m honored to have a story (co-written with the super-talented Jo Anderton) included in it.

This was my first ever collaboration, and I thought it’d be useful to talk about how the process worked out for us.

The Setup

Last fall, Tehani Wessely, editor of the anthology, contacted Jo and me with the idea of collaborating on a short story for One Small Step. We (metaphorically) looked at each other, looked at Tehani, and said, “Sure!” After all we’ve been friends for almost a decade now (has it really been this long, Jo?) and have a lot of experience with each other’s work. Even though our styles are different, we have enough common overlap that we could (probably) handle writing a short story together.

It was also the perfect project for collaboration. Neither of us was playing in the other’s sandbox (“hey, want to write a story in my world?” “Er… no.”) nor was our canvas unlimited (“So what shall we write together?” “Uh, I dunno”). We had a theme (discoveries), a form (short story), and a deadline.

So, we got to it.

The Idea

Almost immediately, we ran into some uh… differences in our processes.

Me, I come up with an idea, then run with it. I churn out several pages to see where it’ll go. Sometimes the idea works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have lots of unfinished short stories on my hard drive. I consider them regrettable but expected casualties of my writing process.

Not so with Jo. She isn’t willing to latch on to the first shiny idea that floats by. She wanted to wait for something special, the idea that set her story senses a-tingle.

So we waited for the lightning strike (some of us more patiently than others). A week or so later, Jo emailed me a photo of an old woman huddled in a doorway with an ornate doll next to her. “I think there’s a story in this picture,” she wrote me.

By golly, she was right.

We were both fascinated by this picture and traded speculations back and forth for days. Both of us agreed that dolls were creepy (I kept having flashbacks to Child’s Play). Then I remembered Hinamatsuri, or Dolls’ Day in Japan. We put the two together and I–yes, well I did what’s natural to my style–forged ahead and wrote a bunch of snippets exploring character, plot, and setting.

I think Jo knew I was chomping at the bit, so she let me. We talked over the snippets a lot (and I learned something about Jo: she doesn’t like to write about royalty). Both of us were very excited and creeped out about what we were getting. And I really appreciated Jo’s insistence on digging deep into the idea and taking it from good to great. “Good enough” doesn’t exist in her vocabulary, and it’s a lesson I’m applying to my own writing from now on.

An Aside

I’m going to pause here to mention one very important thing: do not look at a collaboration as something that will save you time. More likely, it won’t. Jo and I could’ve probably written two stories each in the time it took us to write Sand and Seawater.

Think about it this way. When you’re writing your own story, you only have to satisfy two people: You and Your Muse. When you’re writing with someone else, there are two Yous and two Muses, and they all need to be on board. It’s bad enough keeping one pairing happy, but two…!

(Oh, and apparently, our Muses have some telepathic connection that doesn’t go through us. Now that is also creepy.)

The Actual Writing!

All right, so once we were happy with our ideas, we started writing! Luckily for us, there were two POVs, so Jo took the doll and I took the old woman. We alternated scenes, and I noticed a style difference right away. My scenes sprawl, while Jo writes tighter. Once we hammered out the plot and nailed the climax, we each went through to cut out redundant material and tighten everything up. (I may be a first-draft sprawler but I’m ruthless when wielding a red pen).

A fitting concluding scene took us a bit of back-and-forth, but I think, again, we nailed it.

Checklist For Success

I would call this a very successful collaboration. Not only did we sell the story, but:

  • We are both very proud and pleased with it.
  • This is a story that neither of us would’ve come up with on our own.
  • And–most importantly–we’re still friends. And we both see this experience as a net positive, not something to be quietly shoved into a closet and never ever done again. We’re both too much of loners to do a lot of collaboration, but who knows? In the future you might be seeing more work with both our names on it. *is deliberately vague and mysterious*

Jo has her own thoughts about our collaborative experience here (link might not work until later in the day, since she’s already gone to bed). Update: Link works!

Have you collaborated? Share your experiences!

so, what’s going on with Rainbird?

A few weeks ago, I drew back the curtains on my latest work-in-progress (and next self-published ebook).

Rainbird is a science fantasy novella that grew out of a short story I wrote last year. My protagonist, Rainbird, is both strong and vulnerable, generous and impulsive, determinedly cheerful in trying circumstances but, like everyone else, has her blind spots. The setting is the sunway, a gigantic track made from the bone of an immense dragon upon which this world’s artificial sun moves. Betrayal and love, atonement and duty are some of the themes of the story.

I have a cover for this book. I’ve had it beta-read, and two more people have said “yes” to reading it for one last spit-and-polish. I’m less than ten pages away from finishing version 4 of the story.

And I’m afraid to release it.

I didn’t recognize the fear, at first. I was going great guns on my latest pass through Rainbird when I just–stopped. And I haven’t touched it for almost a week.

I told myself that it was because we got sick (true). I told myself it was because we were busy (also true). I told myself I needed to work on another project whose deadline is coming up very soon (that too).

But those reasons merely disguised the real one: fear.

Fear that it will disappoint my readers. Fear that it will be savaged by reviewers. Fear that it will sink my fledgling career. Fear that it’s not perfect. I feel that if I only hold on to it a bit longer, it will magically become so.

Times like this I need to go read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s wonderful post on perfection. I cried–or at least got teary-eyed–when I first read it. There is no such thing as a perfect story. There is no such thing as story that everyone, everywhere will love. There are just good stories that find their own fans.

As for Rainbird? I love this story. Some–not all–of my beta readers love this story. I know that I’ve done my best with it, and there is no way to make it better without tearing out its heart and turning it into something altogether different.

It’s time to kick the twin demons of Fear and Perfectionism to the curb. It’s time to get on with my copyedit so Rainbird can go seek its audience. It’s time to stop clinging and let go.

So, what’s going on with Rainbird?

It’s coming out this fall. Soon. Watch this space for the release date.

 

She’s a half-breed in hiding.

Rainbird never belonged. To one race, she’s chattel. To the other, she’s an abomination that should never have existed.

She lives on the sunway.

High above the ground, Rainbird is safe, as long as she does her job, keeps her head down, and never ever draws attention to herself.

But one act of sabotage is about to change everything.

For Rainbird. And for her world.

how the internet is changing my brain

I need to change my Internet habits.

I spend a lot of time online for both work and pleasure, and the line between the two often blurs. It’s easy for that to happen on the Internet. You get on to check reviews and samples for homeschooling curricula and, before you know it, you’re watching a video of dueling cellos while ogling pictures of steampunk-themed sand castles and it’s 1 am and five hours have gone by.

So this podcast by Michael Hyatt (via Jodi Lea Stewart) came at the right time for me. Navigating the Internet is like a balancing act and I fell off a long time ago

I’m not a scientist and I can’t discuss the latest research on how the Internet is changing our brains. But I do know that it’s had a negative impact on my brain in the following ways:

First, it’s turning me into a consumer rather than a creator. Guys, there is such a LOT of cool stuff on the Internet. Thoughtful and witty and entertaining blog posts. Gorgeous photos and awesome art. Funny memes, useful how-tos, amazing facts. I could spend hours immersing myself in other people’s words and images.

And quite frequently, I do.

But the thing is, if I’m consuming then I’m not giving myself the time or space or silence to create. And if I don’t create, if I don’t bring art from within me, I feel down and depressed.

Which leads me to another aspect of the Internet: it’s shortening my attention span. Ever notice how you surf the web? You read a short blog post, follow a link to a two-minute video, move on to a series of pictures with funny captions, then tweet or change  your FB status. You’re restless, constantly on the move, clicking links, opening and closing tabs.

If it doesn’t grab right away, if it’s not broken up with lots of white space and cute images, if it’s too difficult to get into, you move on.

And that’s filtering into other areas offline. Follow an argument through several pages of densely-written text? Phbbt. Reached a snag in my current story? I’ll just check my RSS feed for a few minutes. I wrote a paragraph? Hooray. Now I can go see if someone mentioned me on Twitter.

Uh. No. In order to write the kinds of stories I want to, I need to dig deep into myself. I need to burrow into my characters’ heads, wear their skins, feel the bite of the wind and the stench of sewage and the ache of muscle… and I can’t do that if I’m running off every ten minutes.

The Internet keeps me sedentary. I am my brain and my body (and my soul, but I’m not getting into that discussion right now). They feed each other. Ever notice how many ideas come to you when you’re doing a repetitive action, like washing dishes or sweeping the floor or–this is a big one for me–pacing a room? My muscles work, kickstart my brain, and boom! I unsnarl a plot point, a coy character starts talking, and I get a new story idea.

The Internet can cause unhealthy dependence on casual relationships. Online interactions are like a drug. Every comment on a blog post and every retweet can give a momentary high, leaving one craving more. My life, though, is not measured in blog subscribers, twitter followers or the opinions of perfect strangers. When those things take away from the real, important work of raising my children and investing in my close (on and offline) relationships, they’re taking a place that’s not meant for them.

And lastly, too much screen time makes me feel bad. If I spend too much time staring at the screen (and this includes TV and video games) I come away feeling jittery, anxious, sad, or down. And then it’s hard for me to reconnect with the world around me, with my family, with my own stories, with God.

And with that, it’s time for me to get off the computer and take my children outside to see what butterflies and dragonflies we can spot!

How is the Internet affecting your brain? What guidelines govern your Internet usage?

5 tips to help you get started

Getting started is often the hardest part of any project, whether it’s tackling that difficult scene or cleaning out the basement you’ve been tossing things willy-nilly into for the past ten years. I spend an inordinate amount of time procrastinating, especially when I’m making the transition between two very different tasks, say–for instance–wrangling my three children into bed and writing. A lot of laundry-folding and RSS feed checking goes on during that time.

Along the way, I’ve developed some tactics to help me get past the how-do-I-even-begin hump. Here are a few:

1. Warmups. Not every project lends itself to warmups, of course (I don’t know what sorts of warmups one can do before scrubbing out the bathroom–and no, I don’t really need to know if there are). But you can ease into a difficult task. No one goes into a rigorous exercise routine without stretching out their muscles. I don’t tackle a difficult piano piece without limbering up my fingers with scales, or something easier.. In the same way, writing warmups can help get you into the mood before you have to figure out how to rescue the beautiful Princess Meliandora from the Dark Lord’s impregnable fortress. I recommend freewriting.

2. Break it down. Writing a novel is a big undertaking. So is cleaning your entire house. Or starting a business. Or creating a historically accurate Marie Antoinette costume. My advice? Break the project down into manageable chunks. Don’t think of it as writing an entire novel, but as getting to that first candybar scene. Focus on one drawer instead of the entire house.

And celebrate the milestones, even if it is with a cookie or five minutes to check Twitter/Facebook/email/[insert social media of choice].

3. Give yourself a time limit. I’ve extolled the virtues of  writing in sessions of 10-20 minutes before. You can do anything for a short burst of time, whether it’s weeding or scrubbing the inside of the oven or drafting a blog post. Sometimes that short time period is enough to get you going so you can continue even when the timer beeps. Or, if you’re like me, you write super-fast in order to cram in as many words as possible before the time runs out!

4. Get support. Make your goals public. Tell your family and friends what you’re going to do. Use the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter, tell your Facebook friends you’re attacking the attic today (and that they should send in search parties if you don’t re-emerge in a few hours). Get your spouse to prod you, and your friends to harass you about your goal (in a nice we-support-you sort of way). Tell your blog readers you’ve decided to post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday–oh wait, did I say that out loud? *grin*

5. Get it on the schedule. Clear your schedule for your project. For the longest time, exercise wasn’t even in the kitchen for me, much less the back-burner. Now, with my husband working from home, I have a standing date with his iPhone to listen to a podcast while taking a brisk walk during the kids’ afternoon Quiet Time. Hire a babysitter, send the family out of the house, or go out yourself–just block that time off. Put it on the calendar, even. In pen. It makes it all the more real and official.

What about you? How do you deal with procrastination?

tools for nanowrimo

Hello, NaNo-ers! Just wanted to wish everyone participating in this delightful madness good luck. It’s a wild ride, a crazy month, a burn-your-muscles-and-make-you-sweat workout. You’re not alone though–there’s a whole community of writers ready to support you, encourage you, and drag you along by your hair, should you need it.

It’s also nice to have some tools to make reaching that 50K goal that much easier. Here are some that help me out when I have  a writing goal and a hard time getting down it.

If you’re into tracking numbers and calculating daily goals, try out WriteTrack. It’s a wordcount tool that let’s you adjust your goals as life happens. Full disclosure: My husband–2009 NaNoWriMo winner–created this as he was dissatisfied with other wordcount trackers. But 342 unbiased iguanas and 210 agreeable aardvarks think this tool is great, so you don’t just have to take my word for it. *grin*

I don’t know about you, but I like to write to music. Pandora lets me create stations to fit my every mood. From adventure music (a la Pirates of the Caribbean) to soft dreamy New Age (Secret Garden), I can have a soundtrack for every scene I write.

Sometimes though, I just don’t want to write. My body whines I’m too tired!, my brain whispers Take a break! You deserve it tonight. Starting is the hardest part of writing, and I need to fool my brain and fingers into writing. So, I use an online timer and set it for 10 (or 15, or 20) minutes. It’s only 10 minutes, I coax myself. Give me ten minutes, and then we’ll see about that episode of Numb3rs. Usually, after the timer beeps, I can persuade myself to do another session or two, or three. Before I know it, I’ve hit my target wordcount.

It’s the how-to-eat-an-elephant-principle. One bite at a time.

Do you have any tools you use for NaNo?