Saturday, December 29, 2012

Getting in Bed with your Co-Writer, Part 2

Two of our favorite collaborative-writing authors are Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the duo who created The Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, and multiple other page-turning thrillers. But they live half a continent apart.
How do they do it? You’ll have to ask them. But we suspect they use an electronic version of “transom writing.” Transoms are those windows over doors that open for ventilation. You’ve seen them; they’re in virtually every schoolhouse across the nation. In transom writing, each author writes a passage and then passes it on to the co-writer, who then takes responsibility for writing the next section. They exchange drafts back and forth like circulating air through a transom. It’s a kind of turn writing. Preston and Child co-author some books and individually author others. And they do it all well. Still, in their collaborative projects, we can spot now and then a subtle change of voices among chapters – a shift in favorite vocabulary and rhythms of syntax. That’s what tells us they’re turn writing.
We don’t do that.
We’re a lot more intimate in our approach.
Our readers tell us they can’t detect any shift in voice in our writing. That’s because there isn’t any:

Kym and Mark sit on the bed, crouched over a laptop. Mark types as they talk.
            Pleasance stood atop the Pyramid of Kukulcán, hoping to – 
– escape the sticky mid-summer –
 – swelter.
Yeah, I like that. And then how ‘bout, Trying to ignore the sweat that pooled at her bosom.
No, change that to between her breasts.
                        Mark deletes and retypes.
                                                            KYM (CONT’D)
                                    And we need to describe the jungle before we get to the sweaty breasts.
                        Mark moves the cursor to the end of the first sentence.
                                    The Yucatán jungle stretched in all directions, islands of –
                                    – stone ruins occasionally interrupting the monotonous green –
                                    – of dwarfed cedar and chakah trees.
                        They give each other a high five.
                                                                                                                                    FADE OUT

Okay, that may not have been exactly the way we wrote that particular passage from our latest novel, All Plucked Up: Book Two of the Silverville Saga, but it’s how we co-author – one of us starts a sentence and the other finishes it. Plus, Mark is dyslexic and Kym catches misspellings as we go along. (We’re doing it right now as we type this article.) In our case, Mark is the typist because Kym can’t use the touch pad on the laptop. It’s all pretty efficient except when one of our six house cats jumps on the keyboard. There’s nothing transom-like in the way we compose at the sentence level. And this technique allows us to test out loud as we go along just how naturally the words flow on the page.
We’d be the first to admit that this is probably not the fastest way to write for most people. But it works for us because we like to write together, and we decide up front on a project that we both feel passionate about. The biggest challenge, of course, is to find or block out regular periods of time when we’re both available. Kym is an early-morning person (she’s up before the sun) while Mark isn’t even coherent until 11 a.m. Our best compromise falls mid day, and we plan accordingly.
It also helps that we both have equally twisted senses of humor. In our first novel, The Silverville Swindle, we have a scene where the sheriffs of two counties meet to decide jurisdiction over unidentified human remains found more or less straddling the line:

“It’s not Silver County’s problem,” Carl said at last.
“Wait a minute!” the other sheriff objected. “You guys found as many bones on your side as we did.”
“C’mon, Andy, you’ve got the skull,” Carl said. “That officially gives you more bone mass than we have.”
“Yeah, but you guys have the teeth.”
“We don’t know for sure those dentures are that fellow’s teeth. Maybe somebody was out here hiking and dropped them.” Carl looked pretty satisfied with his deduction.
“Oh man, that ain’t right. We had to bury one earlier this spring. You haven’t had one in a couple of years.”
They argued back and forth for several minutes . . .

To us, this scene was a howl to write, and we were having too much fun to worry much about whether or not readers would agree. We enjoy this type of book, and we hoped the same kind of readers would discover our novel. More important to us was writing true to what we thought was funny.
The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did with Silverville. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. The scene above – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, nearly all of the situations in our book happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.
For instance, we inserted an anecdote where townsfolk flee from an apparently rabid dog with a frothing mouth. That dog, in reality, was Kym’s childhood pet. “Roscoe” had helped himself to a meringue pie cooling on someone’s front steps. The dog scared the wits out of the neighborhood until the cook discovered her empty pie plate.
Another scene in the book has a real sense of authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business:
Buford gawked at the open shelves neatly stacked with rows of embalming fluid bottles, instruments, and linens. He’d never been in the room long enough before to get a close look at the mysterious equipment kept there. Picking up a cardboard box, he plucked out a small pink disc that was shaped like half a hollow marble.
“What are these?”
Howard dropped his towel into a hamper. “They’re eye cups. We stick them under the eyelids after someone dies.” Then he added, “So the eyes won’t sink.”
Buford took two of the little cups and raised them to his own eyes, squinting to hold them in place like two plastic monocles. “Like this?”
He heard the door open behind him and turned, blindly, in that direction.
“Buford, what are you doing in here?”
Opening his eyes, Buford felt the cups slide down his cheeks toward the floor. Denton stood with his hands on his hips, and he didn’t look pleased.

Of course, Mark never played with eye caps. (At least he never got caught.)
The advantage should be obvious – two heads mean two sets of experiences. It also means two sets of critical eyes because we each bring to the Writing Bed individual strengths that mitigate the individual weaknesses. Kym’s journalism background makes her succinct to a fault. Mark, on the other hand, comes from the halls of academia and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere between these two extremes is the point we shoot for using each other's complementary strengths. 
[This is an excerpt from an article by Mark and Kym that was published in an anthology entitled An Elevated View: Colorado Writers on Writing, by Seven Oaks Publishing. To get your hands on this excellent collection of writing advice, see the link on our blog to their Website.]


  1. Reminds me a bit of the scenes from When Harry Met Sally when the older couples sit side-by-side, completing each other's sentences as they tell a story. I bet it's fun to play off each other's ideas and build on them.

  2. We were lucky, Julie: We knew already that we could work together without bloodying the floor -- put out a co-produced magazine then a weekly paper and then built house together without going through divorce proceedings. Oh yeah, and co-wrote several articles that gave us an inkling that we could probably write something longer together as well!