Backstory Blog

Posted in Co-authors, Writing Nonfiction

Collaborative writing: Advice for when a writing partner makes sense

I can hardly believe that it’s been eight years since I first wrote about my adventures in writing with a partner. As I said at the time, “I don’t play well with others.” And that has not changed. That being said, I have, indeed, collaborated on four books in my distant past, and I’m doing it once more. Recently someone asked us (my writing partner and me) how our system works. So, how does writing with a partner work? I don’t know how it is for others, but here’s what I know about it from my own experience.

First a bit of backstory.

I have always considered writing to be a solitary activity. In fact, that’s the way I like it. Perhaps it’s even clearer to say that it’s one of the things that I like most about writing. Through all of those years when I was a university professor, I observed with growing horror, the number of academics, whose very livelihood depended on their ability to publish (or perish – it’s true), who were singularly unable to pen anything on their own. In fact, it occurred to me on more than one occasion when I sat on peer review committees, reviewing others’ work, that we had already promoted someone else based on the exact same publications since both names appeared on all of them. And sometimes there was a lengthy list of authors. What this really means is that many of them wrote not a single word. They may have contributed something to the data collection, but there was certainly no writing involved. Remember publish or perish? There is nothing there that says “write or perish.” There’s a difference. Then I came along.

At this point in my writing life – post-academic career – I am proud to say that every single article and book that formed part of my upward academic ladder has only one author – me. That is, except for those four books I mentioned (which my peers at the university probably largely ignored anyway) that I wrote with one other author. That author happens to be my husband. Which is probably why that person asked us about our writing process. In fact, I believe he might have added, somewhat incredulously, “And you’re still married?” Well, yes, and very happily, I might add.

Back in 2011 when I first wrote about our collaborations, I said this: “…There are good reasons to collaborate and publish a co-authored book – such as when the knowledge and skills of more than just you are needed…” And this reason still holds true. But now I have another reason.

I’m currently collaborating on a book with my same co-writer (my husband) because there was a book he wanted to write, and he spent 45 years working as a physician while I wrote to my heart’s content. This means that his expertise in medicine coupled with my “expertise” as a writer would be the combination needed for him to write the book he has always wanted to do. Am I ghosting it for him? Not really, but I have decided that there is no need for my name to be on this cover. It’s his book.

Because it’s his book and not our book, I have had to take a slightly different approach to the process. I have been his mentor and editor, but I have to try to ensure that the ideas that are finally on the page are his, not mine. That might be easy for some people who have not written in this area before, but once upon a time, I earned some of my income as a medical writer (I have a graduate degree in a medical-communication-related discipline). So, we had come up with a process.

Like puzzle pieces, each co-author’s contribution has to fit the other co-author’s contribution to the process and content.

We began with a very detailed book proposal. I’ve been selling non-fiction based solely on proposal ever since I’ve been writing (my fiction is another story all together). This means that before we even started, we had worked through what would be in the book, how it would be organized, what approach we would take and what he wanted the style and voice to sound like. This was my blueprint.

Then, as we moved into the writing process, I fleshed out the chapters, he reviewed each one as we went along, then I took that review back and reworked each chapter. We moved through the whole book this way, with me conducting mini-interviews with him along the way to capture his experiences in specific areas, and so that it would have his voice. Once this first draft was completed, we started the whole process again. After the third iteration, we were ready for external copy-edit. And that’s where the book is now.

What would my advice be for collaborative writing? Here it is.

  1. Choose your writing partner carefully. It needs to be someone you respect and are compatible with.
  2. Ensure that you are prepared to take criticism as you move through the process.
  3. Don’t be afraid of giving constructive criticism.
  4. Be prepared to disagree.
  5. Be prepared to compromise.
  6. Be prepared to commit to clearing up each disagreement as you work. Don’t let those disagreements pile up.
  7. Write from a collaborative outline.
  8. Find a rhythm of writing/reviewing/editing that you can both agree on up front.
  9. Use this process to learn something about your own writing habits.
  10. Have a drink together on a regular basis to chew over aspects of the book that you can’t always figure out while sitting in an office in front of a computer.

I am currently being accused by my co-writer of pushing hard at this stage as we approach the end of the process so that I can return to my novel. I can’t argue with that!

The book is being copy-edited as we speak and has a September pub date.  We’ll be having a glass of our favourite champagne on that day!

Advertisements
Posted in Grammar, Writing

Mourning the death of the adverb

“Think different.”  Apple ad

“Drive safe.” Everywhere

“Eat healthy.” So many ads.

“Come quick.” What everyone seems to be saying

grammar copyMost writing style gurus who mourn the passing of the adverb seem to do so on the basis that we’ve been told to eliminate adverbs and adjectives from our writing.  I, on the other hand, see the death of the adverb not as death-by-overuse, rather death-by-misuse.  In other words, the way I see it, adverbs are only dying because so many people are grammatically challenged: they seem to think an adjective will work when and adverb is required. Or you change the meaning of a sentence.

I’m not a stickler for precise grammar in every instance if breaking the rule adds to the meaning: sentence fragments, for example, can be used for effect. Really. And beginning a sentence with a conjunction…well, sometimes it works given the pacing you’re looking for. (How about that preposition ending a sentence there?) However, when a grammatical mistake seems to muddy the meaning – making it impossible to avoid miscommunication – then it needs to be fixed.

Here’s are some particularly egregious examples that illustrate the trend:

  1. When Apple started using as an advertising tagline the exhortation: “Think different,” precisely what did they mean? Did they mean that our thinking should be different?  If so, then it should say think differently.  If they mean that the thoughts that we think should be different from previous thoughts, then that is a nuance of difference.  They should have said, “Think different thoughts,”  or maybe even, “Think something different,” different then being the adjective modifying “something.” There is a difference between the thinking process being different and the outcome – the thoughts – being different.  Although I’d accede to the fact that these two may be related.  And, oh, it just sounds bad. Not badly.
  2. Then there’s the “Drive safe” exhortation. If one more person says that to me as I leave somewhere to get into my car, I just might smack that person. The advice is for me to “drive safely,” or just shut up.
  3. And what about the “eat healthy” catchphrase? Isn’t there something missing here? Eat healthy what? Eat a healthy dinner? Snack? Oh, or do you mean to heat healthily in general? The meaning is as clear as mud.

Every day I mourn a little when I hear those radio advertisements that are rife with grammatical errors – and the loss of the adverb seems to be the most common. Is it really so difficult to figure out what you want to say and then say it clearly? NOT clear!

Posted in Writing, Writing books

Fact & Fiction: The perils & pleasures of writing in multiple genres

I am a hybrid writer – in more ways than one. These days the term hybrid – when applied to writers – often refers to those who have published via the traditional publishing route as well as taken matters into their own hands and self-published. That’s a recent moniker. I’ve been a hybrid writer for years – I write across genres and have been doing this almost since the beginning. It has its ups and its downs.CCI04232015

I started my writing career as a medical writer. Skills honed in that genre took me into medical communication which morphed into communication in general – most of my distant past work has been writing about health and corporate communication.

But, I’m a writer. I am not a content creator. I am not a dabbler. To me this means that I can use my skills to write anything that takes my fancy. With a secret adolescent desire to be a novelist percolating in my adult brain, I decided to move into creative non-fiction and wrote a memoir. I then realized that my extensive experience in doing background research on a variety of subjects could be put to good use if I tried my hand at writing in a genre that I loved to read: historical fiction.

As it turns out, meticulous research skills, honed in the areas of non-fiction, have been enormously useful to me in moving into historical fiction. Story-telling is also a strength that many of us have – it’s a skill that is important both to non-fiction (creative or otherwise) as well as to fiction writers.

option-1Another way I think about the concept of “writing across genres” is the notion that there are discrete categories of writing and to create a mash-up, to use the current parlance, is to create a cross-genre genre. Make sense?

My interests in strong female characters, whether they are real people whose lives I’m writing about or historical figures woven into the fabric of a novel, also led me to an interest in contemporary women’s fiction. But traditional chick lit, with all of that entertaining silliness (not to mention their dumb covers) isn’t really my strong point, so I mashed up my interest in travel writing and chick lit to write a novel that is a bit chick lit that also presupposes a certain level of intelligence in the reader – and that includes a serious dose of a foreign setting that was researched thoroughly by both visiting the place and doing background digging. So what have I learned?

I have learned that there is a significant degree of pleasure for me to write in areas that use both my talents and my interests. I truly believe that this cross-writing has improved my writing overall. But it comes at something of a price – at least it is a price if you believe what it seems most everyone else is writing online about changing genres.2013 raven front cover copy

The loudest argument against this kind of movement seems to come from those for whom the main objective of writing is to sell books rather than to write them. I wonder what Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Daphne DuMaurier (my personal favourite) or even J.K. Rowling would have written if they had focused on what they thought readers wanted rather than on what they were compelled to write? Maybe nothing.

The new digital universe means that everyone of us can be a “published” writer. But the truth is that no matter what motivates us to write, most (almost all) will never make a living from that effort. Just accept that and keep writing.

As far as I’m concerned, focusing on continually improving your writing and pursuing the kind of writing that you want, regardless of how many different genres you choose, are the two elements of a happy writer. If the work is meant to become wildly successful, with a little effort in promoting to interested readers (no other desperate writers) it may indeed be successful. Even that “50 Shades of…” writer didn’t set out to please readers first. She set out to please herself.

Here’s to writers pleasing themselves!