On Collaboration, Part Two

In Part Two, Rus and Jodi discuss the strengths each other brings to the project, how they feel about losing control of the core narrative and they introduce you to the characters at the center of the story.

What strengths do you see each other bringing to your writing partnership and to this project in general?

JC: Rus has passion. Rus has deep curiosity. Rus has a joy for the human condition (in all its conditions) and a zest for life that infuses everything he’s involved with. The Glass Marionette is a better project for all of this, right here at the beginning, and I know it will be the same at the end. Rus is the ultimate motivator!

Rus wants to say something when he writes. Something profound. Something important. But he’s not all serious about it and neither is his writing. What Rus writes is an extension of who he is and that’s one of his greatest strengths. There’s an inherent honesty in his writing, just by virtue of the words being his. He honours the page and the page always honours him.

Rus mad-writes (yes, this is now an official term, if it wasn’t before) and in doing so, he brings the chops to move the narrative forward quickly and to maintain momentum in real space and time. And this kicks me to step up my game and avoid procrastinating. When we get going again, we aim to bring the project to its conclusion in 10 weeks – that approximately 70K combined words in 10 weeks. I love that kind of speed and madness.

Plus, I’ll be honest, Rus is writing at the top of his game right now, and he’s pushing me to meet him where he’s at. And that’s a massive benefit for me. And for the project.

Lastly, it was Rus that brought the first list of rules to the table to discuss. He’s always got his eye on the intricate and complex natures of the characters AND the larger narrative picture. He’s the perfect balance. (I’ve joked in the past that Rus’s writing style and creative approach bridges the extremes represented in Adam’s and my writing at times).

RV: Jodi is my road-trip, let’s-go partner who always pushes me to go deeper in my thinking of story and character. I don’t believe I have ever worked with another creative who grinds into my thinking the way she does.

When I first met Jodi, she was my editor for an international writing blog. She mentored and coached me as a writer, opened my eyes to new approaches to story, and established in me the now ever-burning question: “What if?” when I write. She is the creator of my greatest plot twist in my next novel, Fossil Five. Jodi has the power to hear me out, think a little about what I am sharing, and then throw down a three-word response that blows my mind and my story. She’s that good.

I think Jodi is a more dangerous writer than I am, and that pushes me to write with greater risk. I sometimes can’t help being didactic in my writing, but Jodi’s strong sense of character and out-of-the-box thinking keeps me focused on preaching less and entertaining more.

One more thing: Jodi is a poetic writer. She uses few words to say big things. I can’t study her writing enough to learn more about how to do that. As I am writing my chapters, I am thinking about our styles: where we are alike, and where we are different. I constantly try to be more concise — like her — without compromising my style or my own voice.

Jodi makes me a better creative, both in collaborative and solo projects.

How do you feel about having no control over the core narrative direction of most of the project?

JC: Bring it on. It is an equal mix of terrifying and exciting, which for me is the sweet spot. I have always leaned toward shaping my writing around prompts, using them as keys and launch pads to propel me elsewhere, and this will be no different.

Dave Versace is an old writing friend and I’ve had the honour of having my fingers dug deep into his stories, and him in mine, so I know he’ll serve something up that pushes the narrative without breaking it. He was able to read the first few chapters to get a feel for what we were trying to create before he wrote the prompts and I trust what’s going to show up every week will raise the bar of my writing and the story, and where Rus and I will get push each other.

Interestingly, this is the most structural testing and planning I’ve ever done. I have developed the complete time line for the novel (I would die doing this with one of my own novels) to complement the mathematical sequence we decided to use. And I’ve done multiple iterations of random number testing to determine how the random nature of the prompts would work, as well as tracing possible narrative lines through those tests. I’ve become a bit of a nerd!

RV: I think it’s scary, to be honest with you, because it is entirely unconventional and unpredictable. There is great comfort in the traditional story frame, or the hero’s journey, where we (as artists) ask ourselves, “Okay- What would be a good way for our protag to cross over from the ordinary world and into Act II?” I think these things might be happening, structurally, anyway, but we can’t think like that when we have no control over the narrative direction.

Turning over the second major section of the story to a third party to provide random prompts is the very epitome of a Trust Fall. You have to be willing to really embrace the “What If?” mantra and realize that what is on the other side of this story is wholly unknown.

While this is scary, this is incredibly essential to strengthen our skills as writers and creatives. It’s so easy to write formulaic fiction (and I certainly still do this in other works I create), but taking this ultimate Trust Fall helps us to be better, even with the more predictable stuff. It gives us the confidence to step out of our comfort zone and write a little more dangerously, which is what I think this generation of readers is really looking for anyway.

What can you tell us about your characters at this point?

JC: My focus character is Will, former uni student, in his early 20’s who is something of the product of the losses he’s suffered. His Dad, a semi-famous novelist and poet, is AWOL leaving his mother to languish in abject poverty, awaiting his return. He’s lost his best friend to suicide and two months earlier, his girlfriend in a horrific murder. Will wants a better life, and for a while he thought he had it. But inside he’s perpetually on the run. What from, I’m not sure. Perhaps the guilt of what he thinks he’s done (or not done). More possibly, an inability to find peace with his regrets and face the parts of himself he doesn’t really like. I guess the question is, like many of us, is Will strong enough to face his most vulnerable aspects, face his regrets, and come out of it a better person.

RV: Wainwright is a pre-middle-aged guy who carries with him his own regrets, like anybody else. He has his small group of friends (most of whom know very little about his past), and he spends a little too much time living in the past. He lives life cautiously, and usually for the sake of others, and tries not to get too involved with anything that might shift his daily routine of work, time with friends, a little late-night tv, and sleep.

Wainwright finds himself in the middle of an experiment that he never asked to join. Once he is involved, though, he is intrigued by the possibilities of how the outcome might change his past — and he hopes his present — in ways previously imagined.

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On Collaboration, Part One

In part one, Jodi and Rus discuss the challenges of writing collaboratively, the pros and cons of doing it over vast distances of space and time, and how to deal with parameters and disagreements. Click here for the blurb or project description.

What is the biggest challenge in writing collaboratively with another writer, in contrast with working solo on an original story?

JC: My biggest challenge is letting go of my inherent caution. Solo, I jump, usually without a parachute or safety net, and simply trust where I am being lead by the characters. And if it all ends up a hot mess, I only have myself to blame. Plus, there is always the next draft to sort it out.

In collab settings, I find myself double or triple thinking the merits of where a character is going (is it me? is it them?) when I want to follow organically as they messily fumble their way through the narrative unfolding in my head. But I worry I might have the character do something misaligned with how their creator envisaged them. Or that I’ve missed something fundamental about their inner self and motivation.

So I pull myself up and go for the safer option, even though I’m burning to do the exact opposite.

It’s been a long process of learning to take on board my own advice to ‘write dangerously’ and take big risks.

RV: You have to be a Madman kind of writer who is free to shift a little to the left or right of the basic story. It’s also about incredible respect for your partner. S/he’s an equal, and their ideas are just as valuable as mine. In this right, there is no singular ownership of the story or its outcome.

I think of collab writing as the Olympic sport, Curling. Here we are, two or three writers, feverishly brushing the plot along to its destination. We know we’re heading in that direction, but the efforts that each of us brings determines the path.

I also think that collaborative writing forces you to to stay focused on the art and craft of writing, not editing and publishing. It boxes away those later essentials and allows us to just play, have some serious fun with words and story, and challenge each other in ways we would have never been challenged by going solo.

What are the pros and cons of working collaboratively with a writer that you’ve never met, and who lives halfway around the world?

CONS

JC: Time zone differences… We have a wonderful phrase: ‘good even-morn’ which generally covers where each of us is at the start or end of the day. Being separated by 14 hours means our general daily lives are misaligned when we’re trying to line up times to meet.

However the time difference has the capacity to work to our advantage. It’s like having access to an extra half a day in every 24-hour period (and seriously, who doesn’t want more time in a day?). I’m  lucky to be self employed which means I am able to be flexible with meeting times. If Rus was in the UK, it would be much more difficult.

Propinquity… Being on opposite sides of the world we can’t meet up for a coffee or beer and work through things in person. This is par the course for me though. Even Adam (my Australian writing partner) lives in a different state to me (which goes to summer time and we end up an hour out of whack for half the year!). Perhaps in the planning stages, things might have moved quicker if we’d been able to meet up in person, or perhaps we’d just have got side-tracked talking about other things and the actual progress of the project would have unfolded at the exact same pace.

RV: The biggest con is not being able to meet up and collaborate in person. There are times when I wonder if there would be any limits at all to our collaborative storytelling, but I know that our other life responsibilities would reign that in quite a bit. It does make me treasure more the face-to-face time I have here in the US with other writers.

PROS

JC: The Age of the Internet negates just about everything in the phrase “on the other side of the world” and means that you can have a close, awesome friend without having ever met them in person. It can also mean that you find like-minded people to throw words around with. I’ve found both in Rus.

It means I have this gorgeous, juicy friendship founded on deep respect for each other as individuals and fellow creatives, and over the years we’ve been able to share the joy and curiosity of the human experience in all its facets. And all that gets poured into what we write. Perhaps we are able to write more dangerously because we have a world apart to cushion those explorations.

Another pro with collab writing in general – regardless of your partner’s location – you get to share the boring bits around. The building of the website. Writing the copy for it. Constructing blurbs. Working out how to do publicity (and then sharing it between you, hopefully reaching twice the number of people). You also have built into what you write, a first reader, a cheer squad and someone to grow an idea into something far more fabulous than you could have done alone.

RV: Our cons are definitely our pros. There are some days where I feel as if we are working 24/7, around-the-clock shiftwork that keeps the story moving. How many mornings have I awakened to gifts of new chapters, new ideas, new edits? While one sleeps, the other writes. Then, in our few hours of shared awake time, we collaborate, hold our brainstorming and workshop sessions. We’d never be able to get this much work done if we were both on the same sleep schedule.

How do you establish parameters and work through creative disagreements?

ESTABLISHING PARAMETERS

JC: In the beginning, Rus came to me and said let’s write. I said yes. Quite honestly, it can be as simple as that.

I found a photo of a glass marionette post by Angela Meyer on Instagram and we were both intrigued with it as a metaphor and a concept. We developed a bit of an idea around it, based on having no control over the narrative, of giving someone else the narrative strings.

On the solstice we both sat down to write, and I’ll be honest, I had no bloody idea what I was going to do. Several hours earlier I’d decided to nab a character from ‘24’ to use as my protagonist and hoped I wouldn’t let Rus down. I felt well over my head.

Over a fortnight and a bit, we winged it for almost 13K before we sat down to decide what we were going to do with what we had written, so we could decide what we would write next.

From there, it was a process of trial and error. A process of suggestion, discussion, disruption, refinement, rinse and repeat over the space of a fortnight, each iteration a further refinement until the operational parameters were pinned down to 13 rules. It was through the establishment of those rules that we got a deeper understanding of what we had written, what we wanted to write and how we wanted to get there.

It’s the perfect place to be writing the next stage of the serial from.

DISAGREEMENTS

JC: Well, I don’t think I’ll ever disagree with Rus. I’m all about changing the perspective and changing it again and again until we are both seeing the same thing. That’s not disagreeing, that creative problem solving at it’s finest.

During the editing process, perhaps it’s open-handed combat over the best word choice, but during the early, raw creative process of putting down a serial, it’s about deep trust and letting go. Of supporting each other to build and expand and grow the best possible story. And you do that by checking the ego in at the door to focus on what we’ve agreed to create together.

RV: I don’t know if I would ever call them “disagreements.” In collaborating with Jodi on projects such as these, we don’t come to the table with singular determined directions or strict beginnings, middles, or ends to a story. Instead, we are driven more by a “what if?” mentality, playing off of each other’s creativity and products and then jumping in with an enormous amount of trust and respect.

I think what does happen is that we flesh out ideas in a give-and-take mode, where one might offer a plot suggestion or direction, and depending on how the other one reacts, we pursue it or abandon it. Maybe that’s because neither of us feels like we “own” the story exclusively. It isn’t Jodi’s story, and it isn’t mine.

JC: One could suggest, we are owned by the story!

RV: Imagine this…two people are in a shared space (I’m so against locked rooms, so let’s imagine an open forest). Between us, we discuss creative options for a new story. As we throw those ideas and options into the forest, an incredible thing happens where the ideas begin to swirl around us, shape-shifting here and there, until a certain form begins to emerge. Soon, that form becomes the story, and our shared ideas feed into its growth and livelihood. It’s a shared energy that manifests into its own creation. Neither of us can lay claim to any one part of it; the creative manifestation exists because of that very fact.

The parameters then begin to define themselves. We have faith and trust in that new energy; we believe our role is to continue to put our own creative energy into it as we move onward into — and eventually beyond — the forest.

In Part Two, published later this week, Jodi and Rus discuss the strengths each other brings to the project, how they feel about losing control of the core narrative and they introduce you to the characters at the center of the story.