Guest post: Lisa Soem on co-writing a book without killing each other

Today I’m pleased to welcome Very Special Guest Star Line and Orbit co-author Lisa to the blog-like object. She’s going to talk about our book and how we made it happen. EVERYONE PAY ATTENTION BECAUSE SHE IS AWESOME


LineandOrbitHi all!

Lisa here, Sunny’s lurking-in-the-shadows co-author on the forthcoming Line and Orbit. Sunny is far better at marketing and interneting than I, so I’ve been mostly clinging to their coattails throughout the entire publication process and watching them work. When they offered me a guest spot on their blog, I was hard-pressed to find a topic I thought would be interesting for you guys. But, after explaining the book to my mother (and, eventually, I’ll probably have to explain it to the Priest and Rosary Altar Society in my home town, as that’s who she’s recommended it to), I realized that the fact that we’ve written and published a book together is, in and of itself, kind of unusual.

Co-authored books aren’t regulars on the best sellers, especially in fiction. From what I can remember of my Borders days, the only examples that jump out at me are when authors like James Patterson work with lesser-known co-authors, an arrangement that’s certainly facilitated by Patterson’s NYT top ten history.

So, basically, in the words of momma-Soem, how does all that work?

Well, Sunny and I met up as players in a large online Role-Playing Game (RPG). RPGs take on a lot of forms, but this one in particular was a community of players voicing characters from various fiction outlets – TV, movies, books, etc. Basically, say, I wanted to play Snooki from the Jersey shore (not exactly allowed by the rules of our old RPG, since you had to play human characters, but you get the idea). Let’s say Sunny’s character was Snape. [note from Sunny: I SWEAR THIS IS NOT ACTUALLY WHO WE PLAYED OKAY] One of us would make the first post, the other would frame a response in a comment on the post, and a conversation between the characters will have started.

[Start Scene]

Snooki (me): Snooki was sitting on the beach with a Nalgene full of RedBull and Vodka and smearing canola oil over her chest and ample thighs.

“Oh my god,” she said heavily, “I like, seriously cannot believe the swim suit you’re wearing!”

Snape (Sunny): Snape looked at the foul creature, a wretched being of probable Gremlin descent that had never soiled any Bestiary he’d seen.

His lip twitched and he raised his wand. “Avada Kedavra.”

[End Scene]

Aside from giving the authors the satisfaction of dispatching those that besmirch the proud NJ name, this style of RPG makes the construction of conversations and events equal responsibilities for both players. It’s really good for building your dialogue skills. Your wording gets more realistic, you start to convey a lot of information and emotion with fewer words.

The other major benefit of playing this form is that it is entirely character driven. Hang-ups like world building and plot points take backseat to how you think your character would respond to certain events, be they mundane or extraordinary. How does your character talk to their lovers? Is it the same way they talk to friends? Frenimes? Sometimes when I’m stuck in a story, it’s because I know I want my character to reach this One Amazing Scene, but the character is shuffling her feet around going, uh, nope, sorry, that’s not me.

When we did plan our plots out a head of the time, Sunny and I would sit down and basically have conversations like this:

Me: Our characters are too happy, let’s fuck them up somehow.

Sunny: Okay! How about Drama-Lama III from Character’s A’s past shows up and fucks shit up?

Me: Oh man, totally, Character B would totally react like XYZ!

Sunny: And Character A would be all D: D: D: We should have the main fight scene at the beach, what do we need to accomplish to get them there?

Me: Well, first we should blah, blah, blah…

This kind of planning and development set the stage for how we’d write L&O. One day, Sunny messaged me and said, “We should write a novel! This is the rough sketch of the world I had in mind. Who should our characters be?” And I fell all over myself, because that kind of opening is like being able to build the Colosseum and design it down to the filigreed borders on the bathroom stalls. It can be as huge and as finished as you want it to be, and there’s always room for expansion. Sunny has mentioned before that L&O used to be a lot longer; so much of that was trivia about our universe. The tattoos the Bideshi wear have their own storied tradition, Kae and Lock’s history is fully fleshed out, Ixchel and the customs of the Aalims are established. There’s just not enough room in every story for all the things we’ve dreamed up.

(but that is what shorts and sequels are for, hm?)

So basically, we started playing in the same sandbox. Or, in this case, the same Google Doc titled “SPACE NOMADS!!”. At the very beginning, we divided our two leads between us, Sunny took Adam, I took Lock. As we filled our cast list and had more complex relationships developing, we moved fluidly between the characters, but I’d still ping Sunny for reassurance once in a while for how I was having Adam react in a certain scene. I think one of the more amazing things about our writing relationship is that we never clashed majorly on how a character acted. Lock and Adam were basically dudes we both knew pretty well, mutual friends that we knew inside an out.

The benefit of our history in RPGs was also one of the most frustrating aspects of getting through L&O. We had our world, we had our characters, but the over arching story arc wasn’t one of the first things we planned out. We had landmarks we had to hit, but the in-betweens were nebulous areas that were easy to get lost in. Sunny basically had the experience of catching me hanging pictures in the foyer when we hadn’t even put walls up in the dining room yet. One of the symptoms of this was all the fat we trimmed to get to our final manuscript. The final story is a tight, well-constructed plot, but it didn’t start out that way. Another minor glitch is that we didn’t always have seamless handoffs between scenes, so one of us would end up completing a scene that the other had planned on doing themselves. It didn’t really affect the outcome of the story, but it made the actual writing of it a bit bumpier.

With the drop date of L&O fast approaching, Sunny and I are already working on the as yet-untitled sequel. We learned a lot with L&O, which makes Book II both more and less intimidating. We know it’s going to take a while, and that now we have some standard to meet a second time, but we’ve also solved some of the things that laid us up the first time around. Before we wrote even one sentence, we had a conversation that included a lot of flailing but nonetheless plotted out what every chapter needed to do between Chapter One and The End. We know who is coming in where, which of us will be doing which chapters, what the major plot lines are, and what threads we’ll leave unfinished at the end (Book III, anyone?).

So, how did Sunny and I write a book together? I don’t really know. We’ve got complementary strengths and weaknesses, we didn’t get territorial, and we managed to have a lot of fun. I will say that this book would never, ever have seen the light of day without Sunny tirelessly courting publishers, working re-drafts, and editing while I did the equivalent of playing with a bouncy ball in the corner. They rock. Looking forward to another glorious 150,000 words.


PS. If anyone has specific questions, we’d be happy to answer in comments! Lay ‘em on us.

8 thoughts on “Guest post: Lisa Soem on co-writing a book without killing each other

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  1. This is fascinating. I can’t wait for this book!

    I’m in the early stages of co-writing a comic with friends, so I’m really curious about your process. Did you do this whole thing in text (docs and chats), or did phone calls/skype/meeting IRL play into your collaborative process? How long did the whole process take – was it comparable to writing a novel solo, you think, or did working with another person make it a longer process? How did you handle revision as a team?

    And a question specifically for Sunny: What made you decide to co-write a novel with Lisa? It was obviously a fantastic decision, and you two work really well together, but how did you know it was an idea worth pursuing?

  2. Such a great post. I’ve been curious about the actual writing process of this project for a while, so this proved to be an enlightening read. I have so many questions to ask, but at the same time I’m not sure the answers can be expressed… if that makes any sense.

    But I suppose my main question is this: how did you manage to solidify a cohesive, coherent narrative style and voice? And did you use any specific writing tools like Scrivener to organize your chapters and thoughts?

    Congrats, ladies!

  3. @ Theo: (Leaving the first part of the question to Lisa) Pretty much how she describes it here. We were already doing pan-fandom LJ RP together and really enjoying the process of writing off each other, and I wanted to do a novel anyway but was unsure about my ability to take on such a big project alone, and mostly it just sounded like a fun idea. Total impulse that’s worked out wonderfully. 😀

    @ Dee: I’d love to see what my co-author has to say about this, but for me it actually was sort of a concern early on. Not in the sense of “I’m worried about this” but more in the sense of “I wonder how this will eventually work in the end”. I think a lot of what ended up smoothing out the edges was editing, particularly trimming. Lisa has more of a lush, descriptive voice than mine which tends to be more spare and action-driven, and with everything tightened up, the two styles actually pretty much flowed seamlessly together. In fact, going back through the book now, I often can’t remember which parts are hers and which are mine, which I totally didn’t expect.

    What tools did we use? Just shared Google docs. We’re fantastically disorganized. We had one for notes and then another for the draft itself, which we eventually had to split into four docs because it got so incredibly damn long. This time around we have three separate documents in a shared Dropbox folder: one for the actual draft, one for the novel outline, and one for assorted notes and details to bear in mind. But I feel like we’re still not all THAT much more organized than we were in the beginning. Crazy.

  4. @Theo Good luck with your project! I’ve got rose tinted glasses, given our writing experience, but patience and a willingness to be totally excited by your partner’s ideas go a long way. Given our history with RPGs, it was actually easier for me to express the ideas I had in chat, rather than talking verbally over the phone/net. Most of our original idea building was saved chat logs that we c/p’d into google docs and then expanded on later. I can’t even say how long the writing took start-to-finish. Google docs won’t tell me when we made the docs, but email says 2009, which, holy shit, was my 2nd year of grad school. How time flies! Anyway, it was about a year from our first flailings at each other to when we had the first final draft. After that followed a lot of editing, shopping around, waiting on editors, and so on. So, be prepared, publication takes a lot longer than writing apparently.

    The timing was actually probably one of the biggest conflicts we faced during the writing. Sunny’s a lot more disciplined and can sit down and reliably bang out x-many words when needed. During most of the writing, I was in my 2nd year of grad school, in which one exists as an entity of fragmented nerves and sleep deprivation. So, I was much less reliable in how fast I was writing, not to mention the quality I was churning out (esp when I was trying to stagger through a scene at 1am in 20 minutes). So that took a lot more communication. Without me mucking around, Sunny could probably have finished a lot earlier. Like I said, that was probably one of the biggest complications we had the first time around, but with Book II in the works, we’ve installed safe guards against getting too held up because of that. Because we’ve planned out our chapters and plot much more thoroughly this time around, we’re able to work out of order and around each other to a certain extent. It definitely gives us some much needed leeway.

    Revision was somewhat straight forward as a team. I mean, the majority of it was trimming fat, so that meant deleting a lot of scenes that I loved. That was probably the most painful part of editing down, but we talked through all the cuts and most conversations went along the line of “I love this, but it doesn’t advance the plot.” Which was pretty self-evident if you took a step back to look at the story as a whole, but there are scenes in the scrap heap that I miss terribly (But! Perhaps they’ll resurface as out-takes after the book drops, so keep your eyes peeled!). I think what made making the cuts easier is that no one’s scenes were favored over the others. Sure, we cut some of my scenes, but we cut Sunny’s too. It wasn’t a competition to see who got more of their own sentences in the book. It was just to make it a better, tighter book.

    So, a strong sense of partnership was really important for getting through everything without it becoming a blood bath. I highly recommend it!


    @Dee I worried about it too! The dialog, at least, was pretty seamless. We both had a firm grasp on how our characters talked, what kind of slang and verbal ticks they had, etc, so that was fairly consistent between scenes. Like Sunny, I don’t really remember who wrote which parts of the book. I think I did a lot of Big Descriptions of New, Fantastic Landscapes, so maybe I naturally picked up the things I like to write. So where you’d expect flowerier language I got to take a little rein. Sunny, on the other hand, wrote most of the steamy bits because whooo-eeeh, they’ve got a knack for it. I leave it in capable hands.

    There was one scene in particular that we cut both because it wasn’t really necessary but also because I kind of switched voices from the toned down writing I used mostly for L&O and over to something more self-indulgent (It was a scene with Kae and Leila and god almighty, how much he loves her is always a gut punch to me, so I’ve always got to be mindful when I’m writing scenes with them, lest I start to think of myself as Lord Byron). It might resurface later as a editing-room-floor sneak peak, but that’s the only stand-out to me as where our writing styles were different enough to be a problem.

    thanks so much for the questions, guys! This bout of navel gazing has been fun. Feel free to ask away, I’ll keep checking back if any more Qs surface.


    Bonus: All this talk of our beginnings has me pawing through our notes folder on the old google doc. Enjoy the following excerpt so you have an idea of what Sunny put up with during the planning stages:

    Sunny: !!
    Sunny: WHAT
    Lisa: these mostly came while i was saying the rosary this morning
    Lisa: and while i was in the shower
    Lisa: so
    Lisa: the virgin mary likes the gay porn
    Sunny: aaahahah
    Sunny: I KNEW IT

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