Thursday, June 15, 2006

How to Write with a Spouse (and Not Kill Each Other)

For many years, my wife Sheri and I both wanted to write. Most of our writing ambition involved characters that would never meet, but after a few years of marriage (and six years of dating before that), something unexpected happened. We had created characters from the same “world,” and we both had stories we wanted to tell about them.

This created a real problem for us. I had finished the first draft of a story entitled The Knight of Death, a story that involved many of these shared characters and our shared reality. This led us to an interesting question: What would happen if my book got published? Would Sheri automatically be screwed and unable to use these characters and settings within books of her own for whatever copyright or other legal reasons there might be?

We posed this question to one of the literary agents speaking at the first James River Writers Conference. The lady in question was Jody Rein who runs a rather successful literary agency out of Colorado. When we asked her our aforementioned question, her reply was a rather honest, “I don’t know.” Jody did offer this bit of advice, though: since we both created it, why not just put both of our names on it? She also pointed out what a great marketing angle it would be to sell ourselves as a husband and wife team.

My wife and I took Jody’s advice to heart. After the conference, we decided to do the editing for The Knight of Death together. That way, the book would truly be a joint effort. Now prior to this point, Sheri had read the rough draft I’d done, and she hadn’t found any major problems with it. Well, once we started editing, she started finding a whole host of things that she thought didn’t make sense, a fact that left me irritably wondering where such insights were weeks before when it was just my book. Twenty pages into our “editing,” after yet another of my wife’s “brilliant ideas,” I rather angrily pointed out through grit teeth, “We aren’t editing anymore. We’re rewriting.” This was not a pretty moment in our marriage, one full of yelling, tears and even a moment where my wife went for a car ride just to get out of the house and pull herself together in private. No, I most certainly did not win the award for “Husband of the Year” in 2003.

Both of us licking our wounds, we continued our effort to rewrite The Knight of Death. I think the scene that confirmed for us how to write together involved a conversation between Knight Mikhael Bek and his sister, by way of adoption, Isabeau VanDaryn. Within this scene, Isabeau calls on Mikhael during the day as he’s asleep to confront him about his conduct which included an assault upon one of his fellow knights. Now, we had already discussed working on this scene together, the thought being I would write Mikhael’s side of the conversation and Sheri would handle Isabeau’s. Nonetheless, I was impatient and took a stab at it. All proud with my finished product, I let Sheri read it. Here is a summation of her reaction, “Isabeau wouldn’t say that…wouldn’t do that…none of it’s right.” I don’t think the “Hello” I had coming out of Isabeau’s mouth even survived. My lesson was learned. I couldn’t write the voice for this character my wife had created. That was the key to figuring things out, though.

The Knight of Death, in its finished form from that first joint effort, will never see the light of day. The experience was not a wasted one, however. We used that book to find our way to work together. When we approach a book, we essentially divide up the characters. Some of them are like Mikhael, who is basically a character only I can properly write... not merely in terms of his dialogue but his point-of-view. Likewise, Sheri has certain characters only she can write, like Isabeau. So when we write a scene in our book, the person doing the majority of the writing depends on which character’s point-of-view is best for the scene. Sometimes, it’s obvious. If none of Sheri’s characters are in the scene, then I write it. We’ve never made up a formal list. We just know who owns which character. There are a few shared characters, mind you. Although, we’ve had a few “shared characters” turn into “assigned characters” after it’s become clear one of us just can’t get the character right.

Once I’ve written a scene, I try to let Sheri get ahold of it as soon as possible. The main reason is to avoid “attachment issues.” What are attachment issues? The longer something I’ve written sits around, the more “attached” I become to that piece in its current form. The longer I have to get attached to it, the more resistant I get to any suggestions by my wife to change it. This works the other way, too. I get ahold of her work as soon as possible to touch it up where I think it’s needed.

Would that writing together was this simple, but there’s a lot of other work that goes into writing these books... work that takes place long before the first page is even written. We don’t always see these characters or settings the same. One of the principle locations in our book is VanDaryn Castle. Would you believe that my wife and I wasted the longest time debating the color of the brick? Nothing else, mind you, just the color of the brick. I saw it grey; she saw it off-white. I finally caved on this point, even though in my mind, I still see that castle in grey. One thing we agreed on was to make the castle round. Then we researched castles and realized what a logistical headache such a design would be. We kept it round, but the design of that castle nearly tested the limits of our patience.

The point is that for almost every setting, every character and every country... there’s a blue print, a profile or a map. Organizations such as the knighthood and priesthood need a detailed hierarchy. We had to build a history for this country that was once an empire, figure out how it became an empire and how that empire crumbled. We had to design our villain, figure out where he came from. When you write as a team, you can still let the story take you where it leads, but you can’t let the world be a whim. Before we ever wrote the first page, we had to profile each character, creating an origin and a basic description that included height, weight, eye color, hair color/length, scars, etc.

Even once we started writing, we found new things that need a little research or a file or a design. In one draft of a book, my wife decided to have a character given a fresh set of Iridian armor. The armor isn’t your typical medieval outfit. I’d never intended it that way. I had a drawing (which you see here) that offered the basic design. There’s a small problem with this armor. There’s no way it would ever work. More than halfway through our first draft of The Last VanDaryn, we had to completely redesign the armor for our knights. We checked armor books, searched websites that sold recreations of all sorts of armor throughout the ages. As we work our way through our second draft of TLV, we won’t need that scene, but all that research has made it easier to reference the knights' uniforms and define their actions and movements for the simple act of sitting down to relax.

Then there’s the most daunting thing of all: veto power. A scene isn’t done until we both agree it’s done. I had a chapter where Sheri decided it just didn’t work. The castle (one other than VanDaryn Castle) needed more description. There were details about the castle in the first draft that I’d left out. The conversation didn’t work. I went through this scene about five times. I changed a character, replacing him with an entirely new one. I even wrote up a profile for the jerk, and in the end, Sheri felt he didn’t work at all and had me change him back to the original character. She had me freaking furious, and I let her know it, too. The most frustrating thing of all was that she was right and she couldn’t do anything to help. Every character in the scene belonged to me. She simply couldn’t write this scene.

Ironically, we recently worked on a chapter where the shoe was on the other foot... an interrogation scene. After three vetoes, I had her ready to run me through with a sword. She finally demanded I try writing it, and I did. To do it, I still relied on the dialogue she’d already given her designated character. I just reordered it and completely reworked the wording of the interrogator (my skills as a 911 operator served me well, too). Even then, I could only take the scene so far. The scene was from her character’s point-of-view, and only Sheri could finish it. Our writers group recently critiqued this scene, and I can’t tell you how relieved we were when it fared well.

You might think after reading all this, “What the hell is the benefit of writing as a team with all that extra work?” The greatest benefit is that I can never lower my guard as a writer. My first editor is right there waiting to grab me by the scruff of my “wildcat” neck and throw me back to the keyboard to start over if I screw up. Working with Sheri pushes me to do better every time I write. I can’t tell you how excited I get when I write something I not only know in my heart is good but manages to surprise Sheri with something she wasn’t expecting. There’s also the benefit of brainstorming. Every time we finish a scene, the next question is always the same: So what’s next? Sometimes the answer is an easy one, but other times, it’s not so simple. We bat ideas back and forth, and in the end, we sometimes come up with a real gem. We did that just this week. We had hit a point in the book where I just didn’t know what to do next that wouldn’t make the plot lag, and the solution we found left me dancing around the office like an idiot. There are other benefits. Small a thing as it is, my description of clothing sucks. Sheri’s much better at it. When I hit such a point in a scene, I’ll often leave a comment in parenthesis such as “(cool dress to be described by my oh-so-lovely-wife).” My worst fear is to accidentally leave that in a rough draft we send to an agent or publisher.

There’s one benefit I haven’t mentioned that doesn’t affect the book. This reality we’ve created is a child of our marriage. Over the years, I’ve seen people who’ve been married less time than we have who have nothing to talk about with each other. Yes, we have our children and our jobs, but our writing gives us a unique reason to talk almost constantly. Our creative spirit keeps us close and with something new always to be found. It’s not just a devotion to our story, but a commitment to each other.

I know some of the Lair’s readers have long wondered about how my wife and I write together. I hope this answers most of their questions. You might be interested to know just how curious I am to learn how other writing teams manage this. Do they do it as we do, or have they found some other system? What would they think of our method? I’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting another writing team to find out, but I can’t tell you how much I hope to one day.


DesLily said...

wow, really good post Bill.. I totally enjoyed reading about how you work together and how it came about. I'm glad no one got killed in the process lol.

It obviously can't be like this if the two writing together aren't married though lol.. it would be interesting to hear more stories like this about others who write together, married or not.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Pat, that's part of what fascinates me about writing teams. Sheri and I live together, so it's easy access. How people do this that live in different places and aren't related, I can't imagine.

Patrick said...

Great post, Bill. I wrote about one part of what you said over at 'Willoughby.'

I'm still fascinated about how you and Sheri work together without "killing each other." I admire both of you for your ability to talk things through so well!

angie said...

I second the "Wow!" I can only sort of relate. My husband and I sometimes work together on radio theater scripts, though mostly it's just me saying stuff like "that character would never say/do that," or "that's not funny, find a different joke." He helps me sometimes when I'm brainstorming the "what next," and I can totally relate to the tension & disagreements that can come out of those sessions! Still, it helps a lot to talk things out & get them clear in my head AND sometimes he comes up with the perfect thing.

Anyway, just stopped by because I *finally* got a chance to check out your story in Spinetingler. OMG, I literally laughed out loud at the end. Really, really nicely done (though my husband was disturbed at how easily/cheaply Winn was bribed). Also, thanks for the URL for the html stuff - very helpful & FREE! I just read that comment yesterday - duh! But thanks & again, great short fic.!

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Thanks, Patrick! And believe me. Somedays, it's a very near thing, but it has gotten easier the longer we've done it.

Angie, really glad that link came in handy! That html guide has been like my online bible for years. Pretty handy. And glad you and your husband enjoyed "Unstuffed." hehe My whole perception of "Winnie the Pooh" is warped. I'm convinced that Eeyore is the "Hannibal Lecter" of the Hundred Acre Wood. And yet, Eeyore is my favorite character. Hmmm...

Sandra Ruttan said...

This is excellent. Every time my husband tries to get involved in my writing, I feel my back go up. I just don't think we could survive two gemini's, ergo four personalities, arguing over plot and character. One gemini with two personalities is enough.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Sandra, what's depressing is that I thought after all this, I'd have a thick skin for most any criticism, making us well-prepared to receive comments from editors and agents. A while back, I realized that wasn't the case. I'm still gonna be gritting my teeth and forcing down the curse words as I go, "Sure thing. I see what you're talking about."

H.E.Eigler said...

Bill this was a facinating post! All the best to you and Sheri and the book!!