It’s All about the Story: Jackie Kessler & Caitlin Kittredge on Collaboration

Here’s the ninth interview on collaboration.  This series celebrates collaborative creativity in honor of the Shared Worlds summer camp, which challenges teenagers to build and share imaginary worlds.

Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge are big — huge! — comic book readers and collectors. They have been since their childhoods and their love of comics has shaped their writing and their visions of the world.

Together, Kessler and Kittredge co-write the Icarus Project series, which began with Black and White and continues with Shades of Gray in June 2010.  The books pit two former best friends against each other in a blend of super-heroes, humor, romance and suspense.  Fortunately, Kessler and Kittredge have managed to stay friends throughout their collaboration on the series.

Jackie Kessler writes dark fantasy and paranormal novels, including the online serial Hell to Pay from her Hell on Earth series.  Her first young adult fantasy, Hunger, written as Jackie Morse Kessler, will be released in October 2010. 

Caitlin Kittredge writes about “mages, werewolves, superheroes, steampunk monsters, fairies and demons.”  Her five book (so far) Nocturne City series, featuring a detective who is a werewolf, began with Night Life in 2008 and continues with the recent Spell Bound.

Below, Kessler and Kittredge talk about trust, communication, and having fun.

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What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing?
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Jackie Kessler: Hey, you only have to write half a book. On a more serious note, having a collaborator is like having your very own crit partner who also writes the book with you. You brainstorm the plot and the characters, and as you write it your collaborator is right there to make it better. And collaborators can complement each other’s distinct strengths and help fill in any possible weak spots. 

Caitlin and I lived on different coasts when we decided to write Black and White, so we relied on instant messaging and emails to brainstorm and pass the manuscript back and forth. Basically, we hammered out the concepts behind the two point of view characters [POV] (and who would write which character), a few of the supporting characters, and a chunk of the history/world building. We had a master synopsis to remind us of the important points. And then we wrote. Caitlin kicked it off with the prologue and chapter one; then I wrote chapter two, she wrote chapter three, and so on. At various points, we stopped to reorganize what we had, and by the end we were writing a one-sentence summary of each of the remaining chapters so we could tie everything up. The draft took us 10 weeks, start to finish.

 

Caitlin Kittredge:  Benefits are myriad.  You get another POV, you have a ready-made sounding board for ideas, the writing process a totally different experiences that forces you to think outside of your normal parameters, and you get to see what your co-author comes up with… it’s like getting a sneak peek just for yourself!  Jackie and I outline extensively via IM chat and a master synopsis, and then pass chapters back and forth, alternating our POV characters.  I think it works for us because we’re both organized to a degree, but we also don’t have a problem being total pantsers if we come up with a cool idea just chatting back and forth.  Several important twists in both Icarus books came up spur of the moment, and it was great being able to incorporate them with another person’s feedback.

 

Jackie Kessler: It works as long as the co-authors communicate with each other. Some collaborative teams have a primary and secondary relationship, where one person writes the draft and the other person revises it. Caitlin and I didn’t do that. She wrote all the Iridium chapters, and I wrote all the Jet chapters. We did, however, give each other feedback and suggested edits on the other sections. The process worked very well for us.

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How does it positively affect the final product?
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Jackie Kessler: Black and White and its sequel, Shades of Gray, were absolutely collaborative projects. Caitlin and I worked together to create a world with superheroes chock full of neuroses and emotions and history. If either of us had set out to write a superhero story solo, it would not have turned out as strong or as complete as the two books we wrote together.

 

Caitlin Kittredge:  How it affects the final product is, well, pretty large: Neither Shades of Gray or Black and White is a book I would have written on my own. Collaboration by its very nature alters your voice and finished novel — and when it’s a good relationship, you’re left with something that’s truly a unique product that couldn’t have come from either of you alone.

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Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?
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Jackie Kessler: The process would have fallen apart without communication — and without trust. You have to trust your coauthor, or it won’t work at all. And then you have to live up to that trust. Collaborating can be a blast — just make sure you and your coauthor get that it’s all about the story. Be willing to let go of some control — again, it comes down to trust — and you’ll be amazed at the result.

 

Caitlin Kittredge: If you aren’t having fun, you’re probably doing it wrong.  That’s the short answer. 

You can’t be a control freak.  You really can’t.  Collaboration is give and take, and compromise and, well, collaboration.  It should be fun, not stressful, so if you’re somebody who has a hard time accepting input during the drafting stage, collaborating may not be for you.  If you have golden word syndrome, or simply hate crits, it’s going to be more difficult. 

Collaboration is a way to make your writing different and bigger and better and more entertaining — it shouldn’t be an ordeal that you emerge from wondering why the hell you did it in the first place.  Above all, especially if the collaborator is your friend, remember to leave the book issues with the book.  You can disagree over plot points and remain friends. I promise.

Other than that — brainstorm, communicate, and try something you normally wouldn’t solo.  Collaboration is awesome!

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

Thick Skins & Total Honesty: Matt Forbeck & Jeff Grubb on Collaboration

Here’s the eighth interview on collaboration.  This series celebrates collaborative creativity in honor of the Shared Worlds summer camp, which challenges teenagers to build and share imaginary worlds.  I should note that Matt Forbeck was integral in the creation of the Shared Worlds camp.  He has been extremely generous with his ideas and expertise since the beginning.  Many thanks, Matt!

 

Both Matt Forbeck and Jeff Grubb are legends in the gaming industry, an industry that thrives on collaboration, ingenuity, and… creative playfulness. 

 

Known as The Nicest Guy in Gaming, Matt Forbeck has done work for everyone from Atari to Wizards of the Coast.  Forbeck’s CV reads like a case study in creative diversification.  He “has designed collectible card games, role-playing games, miniatures games, board games, and logic systems for toys and has directed voiceover work and written short fiction, comic books, novels, screenplays, and computer game scripts and stories.”  Most of Forbeck’s fiction is set in shared universes, though his recent novels, Amortals and Vegas Knights (forthcoming), take place in a creator-owned setting.

 

Jeff Grubb is a master of world-building and collaborative design.  A civil engineer turned game designer and writer, Jeff Grubb has written fiction set in the Warcraft, Spellcraft, Magic: The Gathering, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Marvel universes.  (Of his novels, he is the most proud of his novels The Brothers’ War, Lord Toede and Azure Bonds, which he co-wrote with his wife, Kate Novak.)  Grubb worked on the creative teams that designed the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Al-Qadim, and Spelljammer campaign settings.  Recently, Grubb’s been playing in the Guild Wars universe at ArenaNet.

Below, Forbeck and Grubb talk about collaborating in general and on their forthcoming novel, Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon, in particular.

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What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing? How do you do it? When does it work? How does it positively affect the final product?

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Matt Forbeck:  Having worked on many games, I’m used to being part of a large team of people brought together to get a job done. However, Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon is my first collaboration on a work of fiction. ArenaNet hired me to write the book, and I wrote the first draft myself. As we worked our way through revisions, though, it became clear that this wasn’t something I could best handle on my own. The world of Guild Wars is just too big for me to get every one of the details right, and it would have taken years to become a qualified expert on it. This is doubly true since the Guild Wars 2 game still has yet to be released.

Fortunately, ArenaNet had just such an expert on tap in the form of Jeff. Of course, Jeff’s not only an unlimited font of knowledge on all things Guild Wars, he’s also a fantastic writer. I’ve known him and his work for years, and we’re both part of the same writers’ group, the Alliterates, although he’s with the hip Seattle branch while I hang with the Midwestern originals. Because of this, the collaboration worked well. The book is, I think, better than anything either of us could have created alone.

Jeff Grubb: The advantage of collaboration is that two heads are better than one, and your collaborator is guaranteed to be just as involved in the book as you are. Matt writes some of the best combat scenes I’ve seen, and the overall outline and characters are his. I’ve got the insider knowledge and deeply understand the races and histories. Together we both do dialogue well. It is a melding of strengths to produce a good final book.

I call this the book that swallowed me. I was there at the start, working out the plot with Matt and the rest of the creative staff, but in a support function — a shadowy figure pulling strings and making suggestions. As time went by, I became more and more directly involved, such that I was soon writing large sections, like the parts in the Charr territories and some of the folktales. Eventually I joined the book fully for a final draft.

This is not always the case — my work with my wife, Kate Novak, came about when I started explaining the plot to her on a drive to Milwaukee. By time we got there, I had a co-writer and one of the characters had changed gender. With Kate, we worked from a tight outline (much like with Matt), and I barreled through the first draft, and she handled the revisions. Working with Ed Greenwood on Cormyr: a Novel had a different approach — since the book broke down into present and past sections, we split the chapters, then switched up and rewrote each other.

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Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?

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Jeff Grubb:  The best advice I can give to any collaboration is to hammer out the outline first. Know where you’re going with the book, so that if you’re splitting the initial writing tasks or alternating, there are no (well, fewer) surprises down the road.

Matt Forbeck:  Jeff’s right that you should have a good outline to work from, but I find that’s the case with any work of fiction. It always helps to know where you’re going before you head out, and that’s even more true when you’re traveling that road with someone else at your side.

It’s also important to keep the lines of communication open and make good use of them. You want to be sure everyone’s happy with the end results, and that’s easier to do if you make sure that you’re not working at cross purposes at any point in the process.

If you don’t have a thick skin about criticism, be sure to develop one fast. You need total honesty in a collaboration to get the best results. It doesn’t have to be brutal though. Be as kind with your own criticisms as you would want your writing partner to be with you, and hopefully you’ll receive the same kindness in return.

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

If We Didn’t Kill Each Other: Mary Buckham & Dianna Love on Collaboration

Here’s the seventh interview on collaboration.  This series celebrates collaborative creativity in honor of the Shared Worlds summer camp, which challenges teenagers to build and share imaginary worlds.

Mary Buckham and Dianna Love both write character-rich, plot-driven novels of suspense.  With Break into Fiction®: 11 Steps to Building a Story that Sells, they condense years of writing and teaching experience into an accessible and straight-forward method geared toward aspiring writers who want to “develop a budding idea into a full-fledged novel with depth, emotion, and dynamic pacing.”

Mary Buckham writes romantic-suspense novels, including The Makeover Mission and Invisible Recruit.  She co-founded WriterUniv, which offers writing classes via e-mail or newsgroup.  She gives seminars and presentations on writing throughout North America. 

New York Times Best-selling author Dianna Love writes action-adventure novels, including two Bureau of American Defense novels with Sherrilyn Kenyon.  Like Buckham, Love travels the continent giving workshops on writing.

Below, Buckham and Love talk about how they collaborated on a book despite the fact that they live across the country from each other (Washington and Georgia, respectively).

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What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing?  How do you do it?  When does it work?  How does it positively affect the final product?

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Dianna Love: I’ve had the great fortune of collaborating on both fiction and nonfiction.   In both situations, we meet and work online, and use up a lot of “any time” minutes. 

I think a collaboration works when the authors have one goal in mind – the book.  Sounds simple, but you must really trust your writing partner and your instincts at the same time, which is not easy for many writers and can damage the final product.  Trusting your writing partner’s strengths affects the final product by taking a fiction story to a whole new level and resulting in a nonfiction book like Break into Fiction® becoming the new standard in teaching writing. 

Mary Buckham: The benefit of collaborating is to challenge you to expand your writing abilities and really learn what are your strengths and your opportunities. As Dianna and I dug into analyzing stories and analyzing our own writing to create the Break into Fiction® template, teaching program and book, we had to move beyond our own world views and assumptions. That’s growth and adds immensely to any final product!

Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?

Dianna Love:  The first and foremost piece of advice I would give is not to choose a writing partner because it’s a friend or someone you’ve known a long time or someone who was “willing” to collaborate.  Both of my collaborations have come more out of accident than a decision to co-write a book.  Sherrilyn Kenyon and I were touring when the discussion of her series came up and we started talking about taking her stories to a high concept level.  I brainstormed something off the top of my head that she got excited about and asked me to co-author the series, bringing my dark/edgy thriller voice to her snarky/sarcastic signature voice.  We decided to try one book and if we didn’t kill each other, we’d try another one.  The good news is we are still best of friends. 

Mary Buckham and I met at mystery writing conference in Boise, ID in 2005 and found we both analyzed stories to determine what made some more powerful than others.  We developed the Character-Driven™ Power Plotting program we taught across the country.  We were fascinated that in addition to unpublished writers attending our retreats, we had a significant number of published authors who wanted a simple way to figure out quickly if their stories would hold up or was full of holes.  Having built the program with both plotters and pantsers (seat-of-the-pants writers) in mind, we didn’t realize what the overwhelming response would be and finally decided we had to put this in a book since we couldn’t teach everyone.  That’s how we came to publish Break into Fiction®. 

The only other advice I’d offer is that if you have any reservation in discussing any part of the collaboration from agents to money to who does what parts to promoting…think twice about doing it.  A collaboration is very similar to picking the person you marry.  You shouldn’t go into it without a lot of thought, but once you get a good partner it can work for a lifetime.  I’m blessed with great partners who are talented writers. 

Mary Buckham: I think it’s vital to find a writing partner with the same work ethic and long range goals that you possess because there’s always stages in a project where one or the other gets called away to put out bigger fires, or one or the other could easily turn away and focus on other projects. But if you have discussed intentions, expectations, and see that the other backs up their words with their actions, then you should be in a good situation. 

Best intentions don’t get a book written. Great writings partners can and do create amazing books!

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

Like Hanging Wallpaper: Christine Matthews & Robert J. Randisi on Collaboration

Here’s the sixth interview on collaboration.  This series celebrates collaborative creativity in honor of the Shared Worlds summer camp, which challenges teenagers to build and share imaginary worlds.

Neither Christine Matthews nor Robert J. Randisi likes to collaborate.  Their second co-authored novel The Masks of Auntie Laveau, begins with one protagonist saying to the other, “’Don’t you dare bring me back to this wicked place again.’” It’s easy enough to imagine Matthews saying these very same words to Randisi.

Yet, Matthews and Randisi, who are husband and wife, have collaborated on three novels and a growing number of other projects.  That’s right.  They don’t like it, but they’ve done it, and they keep on doing it.  Why?  I’m not sure.  But they sure do it well.

Christine Matthews is the penname of Marthayn Pelegrimas, a prolific writer of speculative short fiction.  As Christine Matthews, she is the co-author with Robert J. Randisi of three mystery novels featuring Gil and Claire Hunt and the author of the story collection, Gentle Insanities and Other States of Mind.

The author of more than 540 books, Robert J. Randisi writes across the genres, though he is probably best known these days as the founding president of The Private Eye Writers of America and as the author of the Rat Pack Mysteries.

In 1982, Randisi created The Gunsmith action-western series and, under the name J. R. Roberts, has written at least a novel a month ever since.  Though he claims that no one has read every book he has written, including himself, he does point to The Ham Reporter as a personal favorite.  The Ham Reporter tells the story of Bat Masterson in the years after the legendary lawman left the Wild West to become a sports writer back East.

Below, Matthews and Randisi talk about the benefits and the pitfalls of collaborative fiction writing.

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What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing?  How do you do it?  When does it work?  How does it positively affect the final product?

Robert J. Randisi: The benefits depend on who you’re collaborating with. If you are working with someone more famous than you, then you benefit from that.  However, if you’re writing with someone less known than you, then the benefit is theirs, not yours. If you’re working with a celebrity, your benefit is their celebrity.  Their benefit is your writing skill and experience.

How you do it again depends on who you do it with.  With another writer you’ll try to split the writing 50-50. With the three books I’ve done with Christine Matthews we worked differently on each book.  Sometimes one person would just write until they got stuck, then pass it on.  Other times one person would be in charge and call the tune. Sometimes one person plots, the other writes, or both plot and one writes

It works when you respect each other’s input.

And if you respect each other’s input it positively affects the final outcome.

Christine Matthews: The obvious benefit is having to only do half the work.  Since I live and work with a writing maniac, we decided from the start that he’d have to work at my speed. We sat down to plot the book (loosely) and I started writing it.  When I hit the wall…or was just bored…I tossed it over to Bob.  Because of his photographic memory and the fact that I’m only human, I would type over his pages into my computer so I could get a feel for where he was going with the story and to edit.  When that was finished, I’d start writing from that point.  Back and forth we went until the books were done. Since our styles are so similar, we can’t tell which parts I wrote and which are his. Our two brains affected the book positively in the plotting. Sitting down and talking through the story was the most fun.

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Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?

Robert J. Randisi: First, I don’t know why you’d set out to collaborate. I’ve written with Christine Matthews because we are a couple, we live together, and I didn’t know what we could share that would be more personal. Other couples may feel the same.

But I don’t think I’ve ever known a writer who “set out” to collaborate. It’s almost like hanging wallpaper–a deal breaker for relationships.

Christine Matthews: To be honest, I don’t really see any advantage to collaborating, other than efficiency (if you work well as a team) and sharing the load. I think it can cause more problems than pleasures. Writing is a solitary endeavor…at least it should be.  So unless you have great love for your partner or an over abundance of patience… don’t.

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.