Writing Partnerships – How to find the right partner and what our process looks like

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The question Jessica and I get most frequently is “How do you two write together?” It’s a question I always dread, because the answer isn’t an easy one. It’s a process that we’ve developed over thirteen years (gasp!), and it’s one that’s become so ingrained that I often wonder how people write without a partner. I’m not kidding here; I truly am in awe of people who are a one-man band. Not having that second person to bounce ideas off of, to make notes, and for general support is frightening to me.

We got the “How do you two write together?” question once while at an industry party about five years ago, and I think Jess answered it best by saying, “Well, I’ve always considered myself a left foot, and Dana’s a right foot. Without the other, we tend to just walk in circles, but together, we stand up straight and move forward rather quickly.” I’ve always thought that was the best response, and most succinct, if not somewhat vague. So that’s our usual answer. But I thought I might detail our process here for those interested in working with writing partners, or for those currently working with one and looking for advice on what we consider a successful pairing.

The first advice I give anyone looking for a partner is, be choosy, VERY choosy. You’ve got to find someone with a similar personality who you can spend endless hours with without growing tired of each other. You’ve got to find someone who compliments your writing style, who excels in areas where you’re weak and vice versa, and someone with an amazing work ethic. And most importantly, look for someone with the same goals as you. If they don’t meet each and every one of these criteria, you may be setting yourself up for disaster. Or, perhaps, you’ll only do one project together and that will be that. For Jess and I, we tend to be fairly monogamous writing partners. I occasionally take solo, paid, writing jobs, but when it comes to passion projects, we’re in it together. I often tell people that I have two partners in life, my husband, and my writing partner. And it couldn’t be truer. Most people who’ve spent time with either of us, either professionally or recreationally, have met the other one. Now, this closeness might sound daunting for some folks, and I can see how these could be draw backs, but let’s discuss the pros to having a partner.

You always have someone to discuss your ideas with. You are never alone out there. When there are successes, or failures, you get to share them with someone who is in the same boat. And, most importantly for us, with two brains on one piece of work, the product comes out stronger, as long as you have similar visions and work together well. Just remember though, the quality of the product is only as strong as the partnership. If there’s division, the work won’t feel cohesive. I know for the stuff Jess and I write, even our own husbands and parents can’t tell who’s written what, and often guess wrong.

Okay, now that we’ve talked about picking a good partner and the level of commitment it requires, and the pros and cons, let’s talk about process. Here’s what Jess and I do. Most importantly, we work on ONE project at a time. If we have an idea for a future script/short story/novel, it gets filed away in our EverNote account to look at once we’ve finished what we’re currently working on. That may sound like an obvious note, but trust me, it’s easy to get tired of the same product, like a book manuscript, that you may have been working on for years in lieu of something new and exciting. Secondly, we don’t let egos get in the way. You’ve got to trust your partner and be open to their ideas. This often takes time, and can be a little awkward at first, but if you can push through this part, and take notes with an open mind, and get used to your writing partner taking a pass on your scenes, your product will be better.

Next, you need to find a writing schedule that works for both of you. Jessica and I have met every Wednesday night after work and all day on Sunday for close to nine years now. And if we’re on a deadline for paid work, or trying to get scenes out for our Betas, we up the number of days we meet. On top of that, we assign homework after our meetings. Most of the time, it’s scenes that need either a rough draft or another pass done on them. So even though we meet twice a week, we tend to work most days on our projects.

On top of that, we stay in constant contact, in case there’s an idea or question that needs to be answered, be it email, IM, or text, I don’t think a day goes by where we don’t interact at least once. Now, life happens, so if something comes up that requires missing a few days of work, or even a week, we make concessions, and we don’t make the other party feel bad about it. That’s important. The minute you let resentment creep in, it becomes a cancer to any relationship.

Jess and I have been lucky, because whenever I get slammed with work, she takes the wheel and is the alpha partner for a while, and then when she gets busy, it’s always worked out that I’ve had more time for our stuff and take the wheel for a while. But even at our busiest, I’d say that we spend at least a few minutes to several hours every day doing something. I once heard it said that writers are the only people in the world who signed up to have homework for the rest of their lives, and it’s true. Any free time we get, there’s a little voice inside our heads saying, “Isn’t there anything you can be doing right now? Writing? Updating the website? Blogging?”

The next most important thing for writing with another person is staying VERY organized. We both have subscriptions for the premium level of Dropbox, and are diligent about maintaining all of our files and versions of every document there. We love Dropbox, not only because it keeps us both on the same page, but because it’s constantly backing up all of our files. We also use EverNote to organize all of our research. And in cases where we’re working on the same document at once, we use Google Docs. Each of these pieces of productivity software uses cloud storage, so they update on both of our computers as soon as one of us adds something new. Most importantly, they’re all free downloads, and offer free accounts to start with, should you want to try them out for yourself!

When it comes to the actual writing process for our books, we start with discussing the new idea. And we take notes anytime something good comes to us, and spend weeks developing the idea and making more notes. Then we develop a detailed outline. For our novels it’s generally at 15-20 page outline, with some pictures and character details if we know them. And when we’re done we discuss which scenes we’d like to write. We divvy them up and take the scenes that seem to be calling to us, and to this point, I don’t think we’ve ever wanted to do the same scenes. Jess and I are very similar in some ways, but when it comes to writing, we have different strengths, and usually feel drawn to different scenes. I’ve got my fingers crossed that this is a streak that continues, because it works well for us.

We actually divvy up about half of the outline, where one of us will generally start at the beginning of the manuscript and the other jumps to somewhere in the middle. For the rough draft, we will read each other as we go along and offer notes and suggestions that we’ll address then. And we always find new things that weren’t in the outline as we’re in the writing process that we have to impart to the other, so that it’s set up or resolved in the other’s part of the manuscript. When the person writing the first part catches up to the person in the middle, we stop, go back and clean up our work. For us that means a few polish passes, one to fix any notes we’ve had along the way, and another to clean up grammar, style and flow. Then we swap our scenes and re-write each other.

Now, when I say re-write, not every word is re-written. It’s just a pass that each of us do on each other’s work. Sometimes it’s nominal, sometimes it’s extensive. The important thing is to discuss this with your partner if it’s going to be a big re-write and give them a chance to agree/disagree with the big changes you have in mind and a chance to do the revision themselves if they want. At this point, we usually have about 100 to 150 pages written that we refer to as our rough draft, even though it’s had at least 5 passes on it at this point. This is where we start our beta process.

We have a handful of amazing people that we trust and whose notes and thoughts are very important to us. Some are writers themselves, or editors, proofreaders, fans of the YA genre who’ve read it all, etc… Most bring different perspectives on our work and give us a great idea of what needs to be looked at with more scrutiny. After we’ve given them a week or two heads up that pages will be coming, we generally spend a full day doing yet another polish pass on the first 20-30 pages. Whoever did the first pass on the pages is generally the one to do this, but the other will read and proof it as well, while continuing to move forward on the manuscript. Then the Beta process begins. We stay on a strict weekly schedule and send 20-30 pages out every Sunday evening, along with a questionnaire with specific questions that point out areas we have concerns over. We PDF our pages for computer readers, and we make Kindle, Nook & iPad versions for people who like eReaders, and send the questionnaire out as a Rich Text File for those who don’t have MS Word. (We’ll be posting another blog showing how to quickly turn any word doc into a readable Kindle/iPad/Nook file that your readers can use, should you want to do the same in your own Beta process.)

The reason we don’t finish the book before starting the Beta process is to give ourselves a ticking clock. We finish projects MUCH faster when we have people waiting on us, and if we were to take our time and finish the book before starting the Betas, I have no idea how much longer it would take us to finish a polished rough draft. The excitement that our Betas have shown us in the past is also a vital tool that helps us stay motivated and passionate about the project.

As the betas are getting their chapters, whomever had the first section tends to jump over the middle section and start writing ahead of that, and when the middle section person catches up to them, they tend to jump over and write through the end, all while going back and doing as many clean up passes as possible on the pages that will go out to the Betas on Sunday evenings.

Because we start with at least a one hundred page cushion, it’s easy to keep up with the Beta Train at first, but after about three weeks, it becomes a real labor of love, and… quite stressful. But because we’re both respectful of deadlines and encouraging to each other, we manage to just stay in front of the train until the last chapters go out.

Then we take a week off. Sometimes a week and a few days… just to breathe.

Each week after the Beta chapters go out, we get notes and questionnaires back. We love these. It’s exciting to see what the very first readers think, and encourages us to keep on our weekly deadline. After initially reading the questionnaires and discussing them, we put them all on file and consider their thoughts for our next pass.

From the questionnaires, and our own new notes, we compile a HUGE notes document of all the changes we plan on making, and make a plan on how to tackle the changes. The first type of note we address are all the copyediting notes by Judy Bogdanove, who is the most amazing grammarian we know, so we’re working with a clean draft. Then, we break the other notes up, and plug away at them. Now, as a general rule for us, re-writing takes two to three times longer to do than the rough draft. Not only are we applying story notes, but we do countless passes, looking for cuts to pare down the word count, changes to the flow, adjusting character arcs, and grammar fixes, etc…

Once we’ve finally put the manuscript back together with all of the notes done, we both do our own passes over the text, sometimes two or three, and finally come to a final new product. This goes off to our copyeditor, Kristin Walters… who is CRUCIAL to our process. She examines the content in every way imaginable, and catches any plot error, typographical error, you name it. Once she’s done, we get the full document back with her changes and notes, and we actually sit together and go through all of her notes, and do yet another pass to address them… we consider this version our “second draft.”

Think we’re done? Nope.

Then we Kindle-ize the book and re-read it… for any new typos or errors that may have popped up while we were addressing the last few notes. And once those are done… it goes off to get a test print, known as an Advanced Reading Copy, or ARC…. which we get to read again, to catch any last errors before it’s made public.

This basic structure of passing scenes back and forth for notes and polish passes is how we write everything, from scripts, to novel manuscripts, to short stories. It’s worked amazingly well for us through the years, and hopefully, you’ll be able to get something useful out of it as well. Just remember, through every step of writing your projects with a partner, keep the channels for communication open and don’t allow resentment to creep in, because at the end of the day, you’re in it together.

I’m sure there will eventually be a follow up to this post with the millions of little things that I’ve left out, so be sure to scroll up and enter your email in the “Subscribe to this blog” field and click subscribe, so that you’ll see our future blog posts. Also, while you’re there, click the “Like” button to follow us on Facebook, where we post daily, and “Follow” us on Twitter.

Also, feel free to comment below with your own experiences and any tips you may have! Just because this is how it works for us, doesn’t mean it’s that way for everyone. We want to know your processes as well!

Happy writing!

Dana Melton
½ of Kirby Howell

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this insight, our writers group is working on a collaboration project at the moment. A lot of work and organising but also a lot of fun.
    Must say, you two make an adorable team!

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