Tea For Two

There is an adage that speaks of strength in numbers and a corresponding maxim about too many cooks spoiling the stew. While collaborative writing is not common within the fan-fiction online universe, several have made the attempt and many have proven successful ventures. Obviously the mechanics of writing remain the same, but it is the blending of diverse styles and perspectives to create a seamless product that is intriguing. The prospect of one or more people participating in a project would seem to alleviate the burden of mastering plot, characterization and story ideas; yet it also means compromise and being open to alternatives. So just how do writing pairs make it work?

Joining us today are:

T. Novan  [Something to Talk About, Henbane Horsenappings and other Obstacles, Exposure, Madam President, The Road To Glory, Soul Searching, You've Got Scrolls]

Advocate  [Connections, Castaway, Madam President, The Road to Glory, Soul Searching, You've Got Scrolls]

Lariel  [Old Warriors Never Die They Just.., Wish You Were Here.., Tender Mercies, The Gravesbury Murders, The Muses Retreat]

CN Winters  [1971, Something to Talk About, Henbane Horsenappings and other Obstacles]

Karen Surtees  [True Colours, Many Roads To Travel]

Nann Dunne (aka PruferBlue)  [True Colors, Many Roads To Travel]

Cassandra & Bik  [Incident at the Antiq**s and Eats Truck Stop series, Gabrielle's Fables, Whacked by... series]


EM: What prompted you to collaborate?

Cassandra/Bik: Left to her own imagination, I, Cassandra, would never have written anything. Bik had the idea of a free-range/warrior chicken. And I took it seriously. So we wrote our first story. Then, casting sanity to the winds, we posted it. Our other series just sort of happened - ideas that wouldn't go away or as therapy. Actually

I don't think either of us could write without the other; we have a synergy as Bik calls it.

CN: It depends... I'd been writing for quite some time when I first approached Toyna Muir and TNovan to do a project. I'd read one story from each of them and I really enjoyed their work and I wanted more people to take notice of them. Since I had a large fan base working with them seemed to be an excellent way. So I approached them both asking if they'd like to work on projects; 1971 with Tonya Muir which I had plotted out and Something to Talk About with TNovan. With Barry Marshall, whom I worked with on the UFFD, [I] had an idea of what he wanted to do with a story called Warlord. When he ran it past me I liked it and he later asked if I'd like to write it with him. Since it cast Gabby as the hero I couldn't resist.

Karen: Hmm... that isn't really a tough one, the simple answer is that I challenged PruferBlue. Nann and I had been helping each other out with our stories for some time.

We met via the internet as so many people do these days. I wrote Nann telling her I really like her work but that I thought that her plots left a lot unsaid or that could be developed. She wrote to me saying she loved my work but what about the punctuation! And I still have trouble with that stuff now. Anyway our friendship evolved around those lines. Nann looks at my stories and does the editing, I look at hers and try point out area of the plot line that require work, expanding on or even removal from the story.

Missy Good and several other writers had started the uber story craze and I commented to Nann that i wanted to do one. Nann said that she didn't think she would be able to develop a totally original story. "Rubbish" was my reply lets do one together. And that is how it started.

EM: Nann what do you say about this initial meeting?

Nann: [We] met online nearly six years ago. We both were writing Xena/Gabrielle stories and became good friends while passing our 'in progress' stories back and forth for critiquing. Kas [Karen] kept pushing me to read some of the 'uber' stories that were being written, but I in my hardheaded way, insisted that I preferred canonical Xena stories.

Then one day, Kas literally challenged me to write an uber with her. What can I say? If one of your favorite writers challenged you to write a story with her, could you turn her down? So here we are, three years and a lot of good times later, considering the possibility of writing Book Three in the True Colours series.

Lariel: [pipes in] Visits. What else do you do when you drop in on a strange bard? There's only so long you can talk about the show, after all. [chuckles]

It all started when I went travelling around the world. I had arranged to meet up with bards who I'd gotten to know through the various lists and sites we were on, and through common friends etc. Maybe my experiences as a collaborator are slightly different than other [people], because all mine have been done face to face. I can't remember who suggested it first, but I remember someone saying "...and we can write a story together when you get here!"

So that's what we did. I think it was half about "oh my god, I don't really know this person and what else can we do?", and half bard pride and ego [smiles]. Plus, they are all very good writers and I couldn't pass up an opportunity to work with them, and I'm glad that I did.

EM: Well Advocate and TN that leaves you too. How did you start collaborating?

TN: Well hmmm that's easy...I had Madam President rolling around in my brain and I had talked to different people about it. Everyone wanted me to focus on the politics of the story and that wasn't what I was after, Advocate was the only one who got it! I really enjoyed working on You've Got Scrolls and Soul Searching with her and asked to help me with MP [Madam President]. The rest, as they say, is history. But she is absolutely the best writing partner I've ever had. We think so much alike...scary ain't it, that we have very little trouble writing.

I remember a section of MP where we both went off to write two different scenes with very little discussion of the character of Lauren and when we compared the scenes we had her doing the exact same thing in mannerisms... it was totally weird, but it works so well.

Advocate: The answer to this question depends on which collaboration I've participated in. But generally it's as simple as being asked and having the free time to accept. For Castaway, Fanatic's first choice for a co-writer was too busy working on other projects to accept the invitation so Fanatic asked if I wanted to co-write. At that point, Fanatic was writing with both TN and I on different projects at the same time (Castaway and Exposure) and from that three-way association came You've Got Scrolls. In that project I had so much fun working with TN that we decided to branch off and tackle a conqueror story together ˝ Soul Searching. And so on and so on.

EM: How do you handle the distribution of dialogue, character development, and plot lines?

CN: Every situation seems to be different. With 1971 I wrote the story, dialog, etc and Tonya stepped in to give the story a certain 'feel' through deeper descriptions of setting and such.

TN and I write like a well fought tennis match - writing one into the corner so the other has to try to get out. It's one of the best ways to write with a partner, I think, because we never know what the other will send back when we get the file. We're currently working on a mystery/romance that we've had to plot out for the most part but we still manage to surprise each other I think. As for Mr. Marshall, he and I have very much the same view of the characters so it's easy to keep the plot rolling along. My strength is dialog and his is plot structure so we work well together.

Karen: [nods her head] This is where you really find out if you can work together. I already had a storyline and two basic characters that i really wanted to write about. The original work that turned into True Colours, was going to be on similar lines as the unfinished Perfect Pitch. Both of us liked the idea of having a disabled character as the uber-Xena, however after some discussion the idea of a mentally handicapped character was changed to that of the paraplegic TJ. The premise of the story was that of 'you can't judge a book by its cover'. I laid out a very very basic start, middle and ending. Then Nann and I decided which of the main characters we would like to write. Nann being the treasure that she is let me choose first and I chose TJ, that left Nann with Mare.

From that moment on everything reference the character traits, [and so on], were developed by that author. We wrote bio's that we each looked at; chatted on how the characters would interact. One of the things we were both adamant about was that they wouldn't' see each other and immediately fall in love, we wanted a little antagonism between them.

It started out with me writing a scene with TJ in it and Nann writing the previous scene, which became the beginning of the book. Nann would then write and scene and I would add to it and we slowly built up each piece of the story.

Nann: Looking back, I still marvel at how smoothly that all came together. Kas had already developed a basic plot and sketchy outlines of the two main characters, TJ Meridian and Mare Gillespie, and also just a hint of the two caretaker characters, Erin and Paula. As she [said], we each picked a main character to develop. Kas did give me first choice, but out of innate, and in this case misguided, courtesy... and being absolutely certain that she would pick Mare, I insisted that she choose first. Bummer! I am still gnashing my teeth that she picked TJ! Being 'stuck' with Mare necessitated a mighty adjustment on my part. [sighs] But Kas suggested that we each would learn more by taking a character that we didn't feel as close to. And I have to admit that she was right. Developing the Mare character helped me uncover emotions that I had squelched for years, thinking I was too 'tough' to ever let them show. I've learned that allowing your feelings to surface hurts a lot, but it makes you more human, too.

Karen: The great thing was that because we each had control over our characters we could say to each other, "Nope she would do that or she wouldn't say that" and the other author would have to bow to that opinion. I'm not saying that we never wanted to yell and scream at each other about certain aspects but in the end we had decided that was the rule we had to stick to and it worked.

Plot-line wise I was really the one who said yes or no to something, Nann was terrific in that sense, because the story was originally mine she pretty much let me have free reign over it.

Nann: While Kas went full force with the backbone of the story, I worked on developing scenes for subplots. We would discuss which were feasible and how to weave them into the story in a smooth and credible fashion... this is where I learned to dread the word 'rewrite'. One big difference in writing style that we had to compensate for was that Kas has a scene all lined up in her mind before she starts to write it; she knows exactly where she is going with it. On the other hand, I just have some fuzzy idea for my scene and I let the characters work it out, so I never know precisely where it is going. I know this drove Kas crazy. I can still hear her: "Nann, tell me what is going to happen in your scene, so I can write my next one." And I would answer: "I don't know yet, Kas. The characters haven't told me." At such moments, I think it was my good fortune that there was an ocean between us.

EM: Casssandra and Bik ... how do you manage it?

Cassandra/Bik: I [Bik] come up with the initial idea for a story; actually I come up with about 20, and Cassandra ignores all but 1 or 2. Then we talk out the basic plot and characters. We do a lot of discussing of possible plot developments and characters at this stage. Some of these ideas get dropped as the story develops; but they often show up in later stories. We believe in recycling.

Cassandra writes up a preliminary plot outline, that sometimes bears little resemblance to the finished product. [She] has to see the action in her head before she writes it, sort of like a movie... [her] ability to visualize is incredible and responsible for the vividness of the stories. I am not a seer, however [I] often hear things but only some of them make it into the stories.

Cassandra does the writing, since I can't spell or write in a straight line. As each scene is completed, I give my considered opinion of it... my opinions [offered] freely are seldom considered by anyone for long but still we collaborate! [chuckles]

When the first draft is completed, we go over it together several times over a couple of weeks' time... as our busy schedules permit us to deal with the really important things in life. Our editorial meetings, as we call them, are not pretty; we read the story aloud to hear how it sounds; I [Bik] go over it word by word, and then criticize while Cassandra whines that [I'm] ripping out her heart, then changes whatever [I say]. Cassandra only whines to keep her self-respect since she knows she will change the story to suit. This system seems to work for us.

Advocate: Again this answer varies depending on who I'm working with. My most successful and rewarding collaborations have come when each writer is assigned a character and that character's development. For example, in Soul Searching TN tackled the Conqueror while I focused on Gabrielle. When I was writing a scene and wasn't certain how the Conqueror would react I went to TN, knowing that because TN had that character in her head, her first instinct would probably be the best one, the truest one. It's interesting because there have been times that we've disagreed on what a character should do or say. But we've just had to trust that the person in charge of the character is 'right' and has the overall characterization down pat. This is especially true in dialogue. Many, many scenes are role-played on Instant Messenger with each of us taking on one or more characters. I don't know exactly what my co-writer is going to say and vice versa. It makes the dialogue very real and has taken us on some unique journeys that we weren't necessarily anticipating when we started the scene. Also, we don't always work on a specific set of characters only. When I start a scene, they'll be many times where I'll write every character in that scene. So the rules aren't really rules, more like guidelines that are followed most of the time. For example, I won't role-play a love scene. That's just yucky and wrong. [grins]

Plus, working this way is just plain fun. I've never laughed so much in my life. During a scene in Madam President that I had started, I asked TN, who was writing for a minor character during the role-playing, to be a real bitch. "We're going to have an argument. Be a bitch on wheels. Make me mad enough to want to slug you," I told her. And she did! It was excellent. When I went back later to add detail and setting around the dialogue, I had to delete all this extraneous text where we had inserted our own laughing comments about how much we loved what the other was doing.

It's so important to work with a co-writer that compliments you and vice versa. For example, TN is a wonderful idea person. She's got ideas coming out of the woodwork. I tend to be more plot and character oriented. But when you put the ideas together with structure and the personalities that we both develop, IMHO, you get the best results. Not all collaborations work out so well. But if you don't bring out the best in each other, what's the point of working together?

TN: [I agree with Advocate]. generally we just talk about what we want to do then say, "okay, you do that scene and I'll do this scene", then we read each others stuff and make minor changes and suggestions.

Lariel: [For me it] depends on who I'm writing with. For example, when I'm working with Kam [Kamouraskan], we play very much to each other's strengths. So he usually does more on the plotting side because he's better at doing that than I am... most of my stories actually have no plot [laughs]. We're working on quite a complex Conqueror [collaboration] at the moment, which involves lots of political intrigue, mystery and even a dash of mysticism and he's working through the plotting of it. I'm better at the narrative description, so I usually end up doing that side of things. It works out well for us, because that way we get a more fully rounded story.

When we wrote our first collaboration,Tender Mercies, he worked out the first couple of scenes, and dashed down the dialogue ˝ it was more like a script, really. Then he nagged me into 'writing it up', which I did and added the final scenes too. That's really turned out to be our collaborative style; he'll work on the plotting, we'll both argue over character development, he'll write rough scenes - sometimes just dialogue - and then I'll go over and flesh it out. We both write scenes, but don't tend to allocate them in advance, and sometimes either one of us can include a scene or character which wasn't in the plan, so we're not too rigid with our story arcing. And we do sometimes negotiate over who writes a scene, depending on whether we think it plays to our particular strengths, or whether we have strong feelings about it. But we do discuss all ideas, developments and direction etc together before we commit to paper; and we review and agree any significant deletions/rewrites together too.

With Temora, Archaeobard and Verrath, it was more a case of finding the initial story idea. Then sitting down together over a table and bashing them out, all fighting to get our witty lines and mad ideas across. [grins] That's why those stories have a much 'zanier' feel to them, because we were just throwing stuff into the pot. Having said that, The Muses Retreat with Kam was a bit the same, because they were just stories we dashed off really. Old Warriors was even more interesting, because that was a threesome. It was harder, because we all had different ideas etc so we had to fight for our points to a certain extent, but it all worked out in the end I think. And hardest of all was the fact that we had to finish it over email and I found that difficult to do.

EM: What kind of 'voice' do each of you bring to the story and characters?

TN: It depends on what subject we're dealing with. Voice tends to change based on what the scene or action calls for.

CN: I think all three of my collaborators and I share the same 'voice'. TN has told me that we write the Xena and Gabrielle characters very similar. In some pieces Xena is always so dark and stoic but TN and I both like to tap into the mischievous side Xena shows now and then. She's not always so serious.

Nann: I'm a laid-back, tolerant sort who pretty much respects your right to be whoever you want to be. I might even let you push me a bit if you feel a need to, but when I spring back, you better be ready to duck, literally. I tried to show some of that in Mare. I wanted her to fall in love with TJ without making TJ's disability a wrenching part of her decision. And while she understands TJ's need to be the 'boss,' Mare is a true partner and not a doormat for her. The vet has some steel in her spine and can be pushed only so far.

Karen: [Yeah,] because we each had our own main character you can see many of our individual traits in them. Mare is pretty much like Nann, caring, understanding, thoughtful, reasonable.

I on the other hand get frustrated easily, [and] have one heck of a temper... though I haven't yet descended to throwing stuff at people, and at times [I am] incredibly insecure. These are very apparent in TJ my character.

Nann: Kas is not as laid back; she has a little more 'edge' to her personality. But she is a born medic and is incredibly warm and caring toward others. And I think that shows in her development of TJ, who is vulnerable and insecure, but cares about and wants to help not only her friends, but also the townspeople. The woman is filled with love even though she, too, has an edge that sometimes scrapes against her lover and her friends.

There is another interpretation of 'voice' that has to do with an author's style of writing. When a Brit (Kas) and a Yank (Nann) attempt to write a story together, the differences in expression can be daunting. Because I have been a professional editor/proofreader for more than 25 years, Kas agreed to let me try to mingle our styles so the book would seem to be written by one author... the story is set in Texas, so an American flavor seemed advisable. I tried very hard not to lose either voice in the 'hybrid translation'. I hope I have succeeded.

Lariel: I'm not sure really - you might want to ask my co-writers that. Most of the collaborations I've written have been comedy and I think there are less obvious voices there. You just have to let your mad side out - I remember Tem and I sitting in the botanical gardens, accosting passers by for the right words... she was just as daft, but she said I was better at writing it down. And Archaeobard and I photocopying a character to death in Gravesbury. Weeny Xeny had a distinct voice of her own in that story [grins].

If you read Wish You Were Here, I think it's hard to know who wrote which bit - which shows how well our styles & voices fused. I think you can spot AB and I more in Gravesbury Murders because her style is probably more quasi-serious than mine... you only have to read her other comedies to know that she goes in for straight parody more than I do. As for Kam... well, I'm a better writer than [he is] anyway. [chuckles] Seriously, when it comes to comedy I think it's hard to hear our separate voices, although he always claims that his comedy is more 'intellectual' than mine [is]. Cheek.

Advocate: [I believe that] you bring the voice of whatever character you're writing... [grins] making your characters distinct and unique is a must, IMHO. It's easier to do that when you don't write every single character or every aspect of every character. Even where I'm not the primary writer for a character, I tend to insert humor where I can, and my co-writers generously lend their talents to development where it's appropriate.

More generally though, you obviously bring your own life experiences to the table. Two or more writers mean different employment backgrounds, hobbies, families, strengths, fears, etc. So there is a very rich and varied set of backgrounds to draw from. Plus, and most importantly, it brings more than one imagination to the table. I've been stuck, totally stymied, and had a brief conversation with my co-writer only to have the floodgates open up afterward. I've had story twists that I'd thought I worked out in my head made ten times better, and I've had scenes that were merely adequate after I had worked on them, come to life with a few simple additions by my co-writer.

Cassandra: We were both second sopranos, so we're good at harmony and back-up and seldom solo! But seriously folks ˇ before the plot and characters gel, Bik comes up with ideas... then [we] discuss and argue until something captures my imagination. Once I [Cassandra] starts to 'see' the action in my head...and if you don't think it's weird having chickens and horses dancing in your head!

Bik: There's no stopping us. Once Cassandra starts seeing the story I just tinker because the story now has a life of its own. We seem to have a similar outlook on the world, so we basically bring the same voice to our works of literature.

EM: What has been the most rewarding aspect of collaborative writing?

Nann: Without a doubt, the growth of new facets of our friendship was a pearl without price. But also, I learned so much about writing from Kas. She taught me how to create 'real' characters... people who had histories, dreams, attitudes, vulnerabilities, strengths. I learned to ask what caused a particular scene; is it necessary to the story; what effect will it have later on; can the reader see, hear, feel, taste, touch along with the characters; have you painted a clear picture of the surroundings; and have you elaborated each area sufficiently, or does the reader need more. I've read many, many books on writing, but working with an exceptional writer and watching her mind in action was worth far more than reading about it in a book.

Karen: [I agree] it has been the development of my friendship with Nann. Writing together brought us closer in many ways. We learnt an awful lot about each other through the process of writing True Colours. Nann most likely knows more about me than almost any other person. We have stuck by each other in some very trying times, but in the end our friendship has endured it all.

Lariel: I think making a semi-cohesive story out of what can feel like a mess when you're writing. Everyone's trying to get their best lines in, and it's a case of give and take and it's rewarding to see what you end up with and how well it works as 'one' story. It's easier for me if it can be done in a reasonably quick 'hit' like Wish and Gravesbury... they were both written over 2 days. If it takes longer, or if there's continuous re-edits, then I lose interest. And that can be the hard part of collaborations, if both people want to polish the final product... it can go on forever. That happened with the Conqueror [collaboration]...which is almost finished now, and Old Warriors ; they just dragged on, and I got a bit fed up in the end... just wanted them done and out. But it teaches you to be patient, and to value other people's contributions, because invariably the end product is a better story for it.

But of course, meeting and working with some really talented and genuinely funny people has been one of the best parts of it. It was a great way of getting to know people as people, not just as bards, and really helped to cement budding friendships.

Cassandra: As I would not be writing at all if not for Bik, the fact of writing is the most rewarding for me. Also I enjoy the characters and the adventures which they have created. I have discovered that I really like writing these stories.

Bik: Imagine getting to play around with words and stories and ideas and stuff and finding someone who likes to do the same and then finding out she really has a gift for writing. Talk about a glorious adventure!

Advocate: I guess there are really two answers to this, one personal and one 'professional'. On personal side I've made what I hope to be lifelong friends and met people who have truly made my life richer. On the 'professional' side there is nothing more rewarding than getting a scene back from your co-writer where you can really see that you're both on the same wavelength. It makes the writing process a joy.

CN: I've found so great friends along the way and I've managed to share my creative side with them and vice versa. I always have a little touch of anticipation when I see a new file in my inbox. I wonder what I've been sent now and what I can do with it.

TN: Actually for me it's just spending time with my pals. We talk about lots of other things beside the story and sometimes we get downright silly. Wait until you see some of the things we've planned for Madam President 2... all I can say is poor Dev and Lauren.

EM: One last question ... If you write both short stories and novels, which do you prefer and why?

TN: That all depends on my muse. I only do what the voices in my head tell me to do. I like both for different reasons.

CN: I can't say I have a preference. It really depends on the story. Is it something that can be told in ten pages or less or does it need 192. It's a matter of deciding if you want to delve that deeply into the characters or if they've been established already. With Xena fiction it's somewhat easy. You don't have to 'explain' where these characters have been. The readers, who are also viewers, already know. With your own creations you have to start from the ground floor and work your way up. So both have their appeal for different reasons.

Lariel: I don't tend to write novels, as I don't have the attention span or the discipline. I prefer the short story because it's easier for me to see an end; I can keep an interest in it and frankly I think it's just as challenging than a novel - maybe more so, because you're forced to be more succinct and ruthless when dealing with character, plot etc. All extraneous stuff has to come out and that's a good habit for a writer. Plus also I've found it incredibly hard to keep working on a collaboration especially if it's not a short short, and particularly if it's being worked on over email, chat etc. I work better when I can brainstorm with someone, and you can't really do that over email or in a chat room because it's harder to listen and let ideas grow. I find it so anyway.

Advocate: [Ha] This is an easy oneˇnovels. I need time to flesh out the story and the characters. It's great to really dig deeply into a character and I can only do that, anyway, if I allow myself some time and pages to play with. I enjoy reading short stories but the format is more restrictive than I generally care to work with.

Karen: I used to write short stories, which then would turn into full blown novels, mainly because I would always find some aspect of the story that could be developed, or expanded on. My characters never wanted to let me have a moment's peace.

Writing novel size stories is incredibly hard, they take a lot of time, research and work. And of course sometimes the muse just isn't there and actually getting your thoughts down on paper is impossible, you just have to keep at it and keep trying; eventually it will happen. In the end the achievement of getting True Colours published was a dream come true, the challenge and dream now is to keep it going; for all those fragments of stories flying around my head to coalesce into something others can enjoy.

Nann: I hadn't written any fiction up until six years ago when I started writing about the adventures of Xena and Gabrielle. I suppose those could be called short stories, but the characters and settings of those stories didn't need much development. When you create new characters and new settings, a novel gives you much more opportunity to flesh both out and to introduce a larger variety of challenges. To me, a short story is like an appetizer; a novel is a full-course meal.

I have a few suggestions for those who might be considering collaboration. If you love the idea of being in total control of your characters and their lives, be prepared to set some of that aside and accept a co-creator who will think differently from you on many occasions. Polish up your negotiating and compromising skills, and before you begin, establish which one of you will have the final decision when you reach an impasse. Or the book might never be completed. Good luck. [grins]

EM: Well that was truly an interesting discussion... one that has always made me wonder how two or more people can create a seamless product. I have to admit trying to figure out which writer may have written a scene or who was responsible for a character, but in the end I just sat back and enjoyed your stories. Thanks again for taking the time and as always, I encourage the readers to let these wonderfully talented writers know that you appreciate their efforts.