I went to a movie I had been excited to see and was sorely disappointed. The story was thin, the plot holes deep and characterization shallow. When I saw four writers credited for the script, I realized why the movie never gelled. Odd slices of brilliance had flashed and fizzled in a jumble of visions, styles and pressure to perform.
Which leads me to the question of the day: How do creative partnerships thrive and turn out one saleable, seamless product? To answer that question, I joined Scott Gordon, a superior court judge and author, who partnered with Alex Abella, a seasoned nonfiction writer, to publish Shadow Enemies: Hitlerâ€™s Secret Plot against the United States and Debra L. Martin who teams with her brother, David W. Small, on the Rule of Otharia fantasy books. Then I threw in my two cents because my son and I partnered on two book-to-screen adaptation projects.
The plan: Does there have to be one?
Rebecca: Our plan was to adapt my books for the screen.* The project turned out to be more intricate than I ever imagined. While the skeleton of the story was there, a screenplay was completely different from a novel format. I had to lean on Alexâ€™s expertise but first I had to acknowledge that, in this arena, he knew better than I did. I wrote the first draft then we sat for hours at the kitchen table going over every line, stage direction and piece of dialogue until we got it right.
Scott: We started from a solid foundation of factual material and a subject that intrigued both of us. Alex and I shared research responsibilities. Once we had all the information we could gather, we locked ourselves in the law library (with gallons of Diet Coke) and came out only when we had a very detailed outline. Alex used his amazing narrative skills to describe how Hitlerâ€™s spies were recruited, trained and landed in full Nazi uniforms on our shores. Because of my legal background, I picked up the story as it traveled through the court system, the presidential politics and military tribunal. We definitely played to our strengths.
Deb: Luckily, my brother and I share a love of the fantasy genre and specifically of psi powers (i.e. telepathy, etc.) so we had a focus. The planning process was extensive and time consuming. We had to share our individual visions for the book and combine them so that we could build the characters and the fictional society from the ground up. For us planning and immersing ourselves in all the details were critical before we ever began to write.
Execution: Two people/one voice
Rebecca: Because we were working in visuals, voice wasnâ€™t as big a factor as it would have been for a novel. This project was about pacing. Our age difference really got in the way, not our talents. When we were working on our romantic comedy my sensibilities were from the Carey Grant era and his were aligned with The Hangover. With our psychological thriller I had already created a wonderful villain in the book and plot points that I thought were chilling. Alex kicked them up ten notches so those same points became gruesome. I can honestly say, he made both projects thrilling while he acknowledged my expertise in characterization and plot trajectory.
Scott: Because we had divided the subject matter so specifically, we each wrote our sections. When it was time to edit, we were extremely diligent. Through that process, there seemed to come a melding of both our voices resulting in what you called a â€˜seamless third voiceâ€™.
Deb: We thought we could each write a chapter and then put them together. That plan was a disaster. Our success as co-authors came after much practice and creating detailed outlines not just for the book, but for each chapter. Still, we werenâ€™t rigid and were always open to a chapter that was enhanced beyond the outline. I also continually edited as we went along. Then we both do a full edit, let the project sit and edit once more before publication. That smoothed out snags.
Rough Patches: Keeping the relationship sane & productive
Rebecca: If a mother and son could get divorced, we would have been after the first project. I would get upset because the source material was mine and I thought it was perfect. Alex, also thought it was perfect â€“ for a different time and audience. The second time we worked together we laid out ground rules for resolving disagreements: stop working, reference sections of the source material that bothered us and offer alternative language until we found common ground.
Scott: What? Authors can have creative differences? Seriously, rough patches are a given when you have two authors and one project. I think our disagreements helped the creative process. We had to pull back, think of the project and be frank and direct. The process of hashing out our differences in viewpoints and style made the book richer.
Deb: Dave lives in California and I live in Boston, so when we got together, we worked extremely hard during our in-person visits. But there was one 14-hour editing session that disintegrated into raised voices and ego kicking. Suddenly, we started to laugh and called it a night. The next morning we came to a great compromise for the scene. Now we realize that you have to leave your ego at the door and work for the good of the story.
So, if you’re still thinking about teaming up, go for it. Before you do, make sure youâ€™re a good match. Be civil, be honest, be clear about the purpose of the project, iron out the combined vision and recognize each otherâ€™s strengths and weaknesses. If you need a little inspiration pick up Shadow Enemies or Quest for Nobility in the Rule of Otharia series and see how two teams of pros turned out their impeccable books. And when my script becomes a movie, youâ€™re all invited to join me and my partner for the premier – we’ll buy the popcorn.
*One script is in development, one is with producers and new books are always in the pipeline.