Togetherness, writer style

I’m posting a day early because I’m traveling tomorrow and may not have a chance.

On November 7, 2012, Kate Phillips wrote, I love writing, and I have a couple of friends who I email some stories so they can give me feedback. Sometimes my friend will say that something doesn’t make sense or is weird, when I disagree. I can’t tell if this is because it really is weird, or if it’s just their opinion.


Sometimes my friends also want something to be going in a totally different direction. My friend really wants the book to say it’s by her too, but I’m not sure about that.


How can you tell when you are co-writing and when they are just giving you ideas? I feel like if we really are co-writing, and if she is really doing half the writing, that it should say it is written by her as well.


Have you ever co-written a story?


When you are just in the beginning of a story who do you consult? I know I should have a professional editor edit it before I try to get it published, but I’m not sure who I should talk to before than.


Do you have any tips about co-writing?

And Michelle Dyck wrote along the same lines, ...I second Kate Phillips’s request for tips on co-writing. My brother and I are going to coauthor a book someday soon, so any advice on that would be good.

Let’s start with co-writing, which I have never done, but which sounds appealing for the pure fun of it. Writing can feel lonely, and having a friend to share the burden is mighty attractive.

Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin’s two co-written books, P.S. Longer Letter Later and Snail Mail, No More, are epistolary novels in which one character writes to the other, so there are two POV’s. Paula Danziger wrote one, and Ann Martin wrote the other. I’d guess that the two discussed the direction of each novel before they started and as they went along, but then the actual writing was separate.

Other writing pairs I’ve spoken to also have a clear division of labor. The one who’s better at plotting writes an outline and the other fills in with deathless prose. Back to the outliner for edits and back to the writer for the polish. It’s a collaboration, but the two still write at separate desks, possibly many miles apart, and each contributes according to his or her strengths. There may be circumstances where two writers sit together and hash out every sentence, but I don’t know of them. I hope blog readers will chime in with your own co-writing experiences.

If you’re going to try co-writing, I’d suggest thinking about which tasks each of you is best at: ideas, outlining, writing great sentences, dialogue, revision. Then divide the labor. And if your relationship with your co-writer is important, I’d devise some rules for when things get heated, like time apart, like no name calling, and you may not punch your co-writer in the nose! You might decide in advance that friendship is more important than story, and you’ll abandon the story if you seem on the way to becoming enemies. There are plenty of stories out there and not an unlimited supply of friends or brothers.

As for what qualifies someone to be a co-writer, I’d say equality, meaning that you’ve both put in, relatively, the same level of effort. If your friends are just commenting from the sidelines and you’re doing all the heavy lifting, the story belongs to you, and your pals may get an acknowledgment, or, if you’re feeling kind, a dedication.

At the moment I have only one writing buddy, but my preference is for two. If they agree about an aspect of my story, I have to take that seriously. But if they disagree I need to consider both points of view and then take my pick. As I keep writing, the truth may make itself known to me anyway. The proposed direction either bears fruit or it doesn’t.

If your friends are urging you to take your story down an entirely different path than the one you had in mind, maybe they should be writing their own stories. And I don’t like it that they’re making you feel bad and lost. Writing is hard enough without hecklers. We need voices in our heads that are approving, that appreciate us, and love what we write. We also want to be able to take criticism and to be usefully self-critical, but that criticism needs to be specific and constructive.

I do consider all criticism that comes in about whatever I’m working on. No one is a perfect writer, no matter how long she’s been at it. The lot of a writer is perpetual learning, which is one of the best things about our calling: eternal growth. If a criticism surprises me and helps me see in a new way, hooray!

When I’m just starting a story, I may mention what I’m up to and some of my ideas to my editor. I may drop a word or two to friends. Then again I may not say anything to anybody. I may simply start. It’s just me and my computer at that point. It’s too early to get anyone else involved substantively. You certainly don’t need a professional editor at the beginning. Fundamentally, when we write, we have to please ourselves.

Some writers, when they’ve finished a draft and taken it as far as they can in revision, do hire a freelance editor to help make the book as good as it can be. But others rely on critique groups, which is a sort of barter system. I go over your story and you go over mine. No money changes hands. And critique groups can help all the way through a manuscript, not just at the end. I went the critique group route during the nine years it took me to get published. Plus classes and reading books about writing.

Here are three prompts:

• Sleeping Beauty is beautiful because a fairy made her so. She sings prettily, is witty, etc., because of fairy gifts. She’s defined by what the fairies gave her. They come to her christening, but she doesn’t even get a name. She doesn’t want to sleep for a hundred years and awaken to the kiss of a future prince. In your story, send her on a quest to reclaim herself, the self the fairies didn’t allow to flower, the self she never got a chance to know. In the process, she hopes to escape the long sleep.

• Sam is spending the summer with his aunt and uncle and their daughter Tulip, who is his age. Sam is there so he can go to mural camp. This year’s project is to create a mural about a local civilization that faded out a thousand years earlier. Sam’s section of mural features a native girl who helped her family make pottery. He begins having vivid and menacing dreams about this girl and his own cousin Tulip. Take it from there.

• James, Tara, and Penny form a critique group. Tara is writing away, but James is blocked, and Penny keeps revising the same chapter again and again. Write one of their meetings.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I went to a writing conference where I got to meet Tracy and Laura Hickman, who are a husband and wife writing team (they wrote Bronze Canticles, which I haven't read, but I have read Dragonlance books that Tracy Hickman wrote with Margaret Weis and really enjoyed those). They said that most of the time one of them is the idea person and the other one is the wordsmith.

    As far as friends wanting credit, I agree with Ms. Levine; they need to be putting in an amount of effort that's comparable to yours. Just because you bounce ideas off someone or ask them to give you feedback doesn't make them a co-author.

    I also think critique groups are amazing! Not only do they help you through the entire process, they give you other writers to talk to about things no one else gets, like the fact that there are fictional people living in your head. I love mine!

  2. Thank you, Mrs. Levine! Good things to keep in mind for that future book my brother and I want to write. We plan to write from two distinct POV's, and we're already dreaming up bits and pieces of the plot. (It'll be a lot of fun, I'm hoping.) Thanks again!

  3. Great post!!!!
    Now I was wondering where you get your prompts from. Are they ideas that you either don't want to or don't have to time to flesh out? I've noticed that most of them contain references to Fairy Tales; perhaps your favorites; the ones that make you wonder….
    And I was wondering what your inspiration was for Ella Enchanted. There are over 200 traditional Cinderella tales, and about as many 'modern' takes. Is there a reason that you thought your version might stand out?
    And here's one last question:
    What does one do when they put together an outline, pacifically a fairytaleish outline and suddenly discover that quite by mistake you have practically re-done the Disney version, or that the plot has been so overdone that it because embarrassingly predictable? I've have read some books that where when the heroine meets the hero, its in a fairy tale setting, and you know automatically that he is a prince in disguise and that they will get married(The Ordinary Princess by M. Kay and The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. On the flip side of that coin, I've found that when the girl in question does not become a princess or does not get married to a prince then I'm disappointed,(Spindle's End by Robin McKinley, and I am most likely never to read that book again, even though I enjoyed it immensely until I got to the ending.

    • The prompts arise out of the post. They're free for anyone to use, including me, because everyone will take the ideas in different directions.

      About ELLA, you might check out my posts under the label "my books." And for your last question, look at the label "Originality."

  4. I was wondering, do you know how to check if a book can be retold (it has no copyright)? My friend liked The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan, but they seemed to be books you can't retell.

    • It's REALLY complicated, yes, most of it has to do with copyright, so technically both of the books are in the public domain,BUT if your friend likes the Judy Garland movie, tell her to be careful,1. it's not all based on the book and 2. MGM (the company that made it) has copyright on many images in the film, like the ruby slippers… Which were originally silver…

  5. Both books are in the public domain in the U.S., which means you can do what you like with them. I don't know about in other countries. Movies and theatrical productions based on the books are probably still protected by copyright, so take your inspiration from the books.

  6. I was just looking over some of my old books on my bookshelf, when I came across Becareful What You Wish For. I noticed that one of my favourite stories were written by you, Gail. Great story!!!!

  7. Mrs. Levine, Great post! I may actually need it soon. However, my question is not related. I have written myself into a corner. (That seems to happen with annoyingly frequency.) I am writing from the POV of a forty year old. Problem? I'm fourteen. I'm not exactly sure how to make her sound, um…old, I guess. I mean, a forty year old would be expected to sound different from a fourteen year old, and I'm not sure I'm pulling it off. Can anyone help? Is there any way to sound older. I'll explain the story line a little bit. See, Mondra (The forty year old) is plotting to rebel against and evil, mangy, tyrant, (Seriously, I have come to a point where I myself hate him passionately, so, to me, there are not enough vile synonyms to use.) Anyhow, Mondra is reserved and secretive, she is also kind of serene,(I guess you could call it that). She was born of noble parents, and so that is sort of where that comes from. She also has a very commanding presence, which I am also finding hard to portray, and is a powerful speaker. In other words, really hard to write up. If anyone can help, I will be EXTREMELEY grateful. Really I will. Thanks.

    • Hmm, that IS a toughie. All I can think of off the top of my head is this:
      1. Try watching/listening to real life people who possess some of Mondra's qualities (age, aspects of her personality, etc.). Maybe you can pick up some ideas.
      2. Does she HAVE to be forty? Obviously, it would be a ton of work to change something as big as an MC's age when you're partway through a story, but… They do say to write what you know. You may have to decide whether you want to try to pull this off, or make her closer to your own age. (On a side note, my brother is restarting his novel. His 3 MC's were adults, but he's rewriting the book with them as teens. So it IS possible to switch. It's just a lot of work.)
      Anyway, that's my two cents. I'm sure there are a lot more ideas out there!

    • I'm with Michelle Dyck's number two. I think that age difference is an enormous stretch. If Mondra has to be forty, maybe you can come up with some reason for her to be much younger in her thoughts and feelings, like, I don't know, some brain disorder, or she was in a coma for twenty-five years.

    • I don't think that will work. She has to be forty. It's because she HAS to train in a military school for almost twenty years, and when she was younger she was taught for more than a decade at riding and stuff (Her parents were planning the rebellion before her, and they were going to have her continue their work once they were gone). So yah, she has to be forty. Kind annoying.

    • Sorry, I posted my, umm, post, before remembering to say thank you, because to answer my question you had to do some thinking on it, and I am REALLY grateful, I just don't think I can use the advise for Mondra. However, I really like the idea of having one of my characters be in a coma for nearly ten years. That could work out really well for The heroin in one of my Sleeping Beauty books. That is a really interesting quirk to the story. I'll have to think on it. See, I kinda wanted it to be a non-magical story, so a coma is a good idea.

    • So your character has to go to military school for at least 20 yrs right? How about this, as soon as she was born she was sent to that school, and she learned riding and stuff there. Would that work?

    • I like Bibliophile's idea. That way Mondra would only be in her early twenties at the time of your story, and she'd probably still possess some youthful qualities and thought processes.
      Hopefully you can figure out something that works for you, Elise!

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