January 30th, 2015

The Art of Collaboration

David Teague and Marisa de los Santos

Note from Orly: Last September, I was at a local SCBWI conference. The keynote speaker was David Teague. David was discussing his new middle-grade release Saving Lucas Biggs, co-written with Marisa de los Santos. Marisa was at another writing event that day but had taped some remarks to accompany David’s address. It was fascinating! Not only did you have two authors with different approaches coming together on a project, but they were husband and wife. Can you smell the potential conflicts? So when the WITS gals decided January would be our process month, I had to get David and Marisa to contribute.

Here’s what they had to say:

LucasBiggs_jkt_des1In writing a novel together, we became superb outliners, if we do say so ourselves. Both our books—Saving Lucas Biggs and the forthcoming Connect The Stars—are told by two narrators, in each case a 13-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. The girls, Margaret O’Malley and Audrey Alcott, are voiced by Marisa. The boys, Josh Garrett and Aaron Archer, are voiced by David. In each book, the characters narrate their own chapters, and take turns telling the stories as the plots unfold. It’s also how we wrote the books: one chapter at a time, each handing the manuscript off to the other at chapter’s end.

So we both had our own “territory.” There was rarely if ever a case where we both worked on the same scene or the same sentence, because each of us had our own set of story and character tasks to fulfill, and our own space in which to fulfill them.

Also, we had the added plot dimension of time travel to contend with in Saving Lucas Biggs and a mystery to unravel in Connect the Stars.

Each of us had to know where we were in the story at all times, for both our sakes.

So David went from being a somewhat unfocused plotter (a scattershot approach involving post-its on a whiteboard, notecards, electronic notecards, notebooks from Walgreens full of “inspirations,” etc.) to a disciplined one. And Marisa went from being an avowed pantser to a devoted plotter, even now, outside our collaborations, in her solo work.

The collaboration couldn’t have worked any other way. It’s one thing to paint yourself into a plot corner and have to retrace your steps. It’s another thing to paint your writing partner into a corner—she can’t retrace your steps, because she wasn’t there when you took them. So we needed to be able to start one another in the proper place once a week, when the chapter hand-offs occurred, because we also wrote these books fast—proposal to galley in under a year each.

What we did was start by writing a twenty-page treatment for each book, devoting about five hundred words to each chapter. We tried to account for every single plot point in the storyline. We wrote complete sentences, complete paragraphs, complete actions. We tried to be as disciplined as possible about making the outline comprehensive and readable as a stand-alone document—no shortcuts or placeholders re: plot events.

Obviously, here and there, one or the other of us strayed a bit in the execution of the outline, because in telling a story, you have to, but spending a month of brainstorming and trying to anticipate every single plot complication paid off in the end: we wrote more efficiently once we actually started composing.

And we doubt if any of the aforementioned is particularly surprising—mostly it seems like common sense. Writing solo is a disorderly process. Writing with a partner tends toward the chaotic. Introducing into it every command and control structure known to humankind only makes sense.

But here are the things that really opened our eyes in all this:

As fiction writers know, it’s not enough to keep track of plot development. Character has to develop systematically, too. So not only did each of us need to know what our own narrator was thinking, looking at, capable of, incapable of, ready to say or to accomplish, or not ready to say or to accomplish at any given point in the story, we also needed to know the same things about our partner’s narrator.

And so we had to learn to speak in our partner’s voice. We needed to be able to enunciate the words of our partner’s character convincingly in our own narrator’s telling. This description is getting complicated. Much like the process itself.

Each of us learned to see through the eyes of our counterpart’s narrator, and act as he or she would act, and speak as her or she would speak.

We became ventriloquists.

It was great—in some ways, more eye-opening than any writing experience either of us has had to date.

And it all came from the outline—once we realized that we not only needed to know what would happen at every turn, but also how our characters would accomplish every turn, and perhaps more than anything, how each would describe it all.

Collaborating also ratcheted up discipline levels. Knowing that one’s esteemed writing partner will not only be reading a chapter immediately upon its completion, but also depending on its quality to go ahead with his or her own work kept us both honest.

Even more honest than we already were.

And lest it be lost in all this, the process of writing with an astonishingly talented partner was spectacularly fun.

Your turn, WITS readers—anyone have experience collaborating on a project? Did you have to change as a writer?

About David and Marisa
santoteague author photo colorMarisa de los Santos has published three New York Times bestselling novels for adults, Love Walked In, Belong to Me, and Falling Together. Her fourth book, The Precious One, comes out in March. David Teague is the author of the picture book Franklin’s Big Dreams and the forthcoming The Red Hat. The middle-grades novel  Saving Lucas Biggs is their first joint venture, and their second collaboration, Connect the Stars, will appear in September 2015.  Married for over twenty years, Marisa and David live with their two children, Charles and Annabel, in Wilmington, Delaware.

You can find them online at: https://www.facebook.com/dteagueauthor and https://www.facebook.com/marisa.delossantos.writer

13 comments to The Art of Collaboration

  • Wow. Kudos to both of you! I got hives just reading this! As an unrepentant pantser with authority issues, this would just never work for me. My husband went into business for himself years ago, and friends asked us if we were going to work together. My answer was, I’d rather stay married.

    Although, I do think that each having their own POV character is the only way it would work – and you’d be assured perfect voices of each.

    Fascinating blog, and well done, you two!

    I’m still never doing it!

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    I’m fascinated by the idea of writing with a partner and love hearing how you guys did it. I’m a huge fan of your individual work and the collaboration, so it’s especially interesting to see the behind the scenes.

    Thank you for blogging with us!!

  • Laura: the novels, we managed to accomplish. Finding a mutual acceptable thermostat setting, we’re still working on . . .

  • DIANE Feaganes

    I had the pleasure of hearing David’s presentation with Maria’s remarks and it was fascinating! I also spent some time with David as he critiqued a manuscript I was working on. I was struggling with the developing relationship between my female 13 year old protagonist and antagonist. While I won’t be collaborating with anyone but myself (maybe this won’t even be possible!), David agreed that an every other chapter approach might very well work for me. I’m now completing my outline and I think this is going to work. I’ve enjoyed reading Saving Lucas Biggs and especially meeting David. Now it’s time to meet the challenge!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Oh Diane, how fabulous!
      I have a MG that I’m working on with the every other chapter structure as well. It’s actually quite fun. How often do you really get to let out a second personality without feeling like you should be locked up? Maybe I shouldn’t have typed that out loud … I won’t be opening the door today. 😉
      Thanks for stopping by and good luck with the manuscript!

  • Diane–that is awesome news. I’m really looking forward to seeing where your novel goes now!

  • Now I want to go out and recruit a collaborator!

  • This was fascinating. I’m a social creature so I think I’d love collaborating. Although writing is such an “I’m in charge” endeavor. How did you two work THAT out?

  • Jenny–we were “in charge” of our own chapters–but deferred to the plot points in our outline when writing them. The outline itself–we really brainstormed together. The thing is, when you’re outlining, everything is potential, not actual. So outlining was a fairly smooth process. Compromise was easier in the abstract, I guess you could say, in designing the shape of the story, before it came time to write. And then when it did come time to write, well, the outline had final authority . . .

  • crush11

    Hi – I’m Alisa and my husband and I write mystery fiction under the pen name Clifford Rush. I really enjoyed hearing about your process. It’s very different from ours, but it’s great to hear about other couples working together. Thanks for sharing.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Oh, Alisa, I’m intrigued. Do you write alternating chapters/characters the way David and Marisa do or collaborate on the entire thing? I’d love to hear more about your process if you’re willing to share. 🙂

  • crush11

    Hi Orly- Your web site is great. I look forward to reading one of your books. As far as the Clifford Rush process, we do more of an overall collaboration. Here’s a blog post from last summer that shares some of our process. Thanks for asking.

    http://www.cliffordrush.com/2014/07/israeli-in-metcalf-cade-trilogy/