Writing with a partner

In honor of the release of Toto’s Tale, I thought I would write something about my experience working with a partner. I’m hardly an expert on the subject. Toto’s Tale is my first partner project since I was assigned to write a paragraph with the long-haired boy in my creative writing class in 1983.

Even today, I still remember how we fussed over that paragraph, and kept discussing and refining our words until we had it just right. The finished product was much stronger than anything either of us would have written on our own. But working closely with a partner on a paragraph is one thing-–working together on an entire novel is something else.
If Meg and I had tackled every paragraph of our book that way, we’d still be in chapter two. At best.

In the case of Toto’s Tale, we really had to take a different approach. For starters, it was extremely difficult to find the time when both of us could sit down and work on the project at the same time. When we began, Meg was in about 2nd grade and we worked together on the bleachers during her brother’s basketball practices. I carried a notepad and a copy of L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and we went through the story chapter by chapter deciding what would be in our version. And then we’d each suggest sentences.

This took forever and most of it ended up in the “delete” file anyway during rewrites. But it gave us a start.

Initially, we stuck to the plot of the already-written book, so that gave us a huge crutch to lean on. A crutch can be a helpful, often essential tool. But it also holds you back. The story really started to grow as we moved away from Baum’s story and started to build our own.

We chose certain episodes to delete and others to expand on. We created our own characters for those expanded scenes. In our early discussions, Meg figured out something that would prove to be a key theme in our book. When the witch sends out wolves to attack Dorothy, Meg realized that Toto would be able to talk to them.

Communication gradually became one of the most important aspects of the story. Toto can understand most of what Dorothy and the others say in human speech, but he misunderstands some of what he hears. He understands other creatures such as wolves quite clearly. But Dorothy cannot speak Toto’s language at all and he thinks she doesn’t understand him. I thought this would resonate well with readers, especially kids who often feel like the adults in their lives don’t understand them. I’m sure my kids—and my dogs—often feel this way. And to a certain extent, they’re right.

In any case, it was Meg’s early observation that brought all this to light. So taking time to discuss the story with your partner is probably just as important as making time to write it.

When basketball season was over, it wasn’t always easy for us to sit down to do the actual writing together. Sometimes we’d both sit at my computer and Meg would slowly back out of the room because she was bored. Only one person can type at a time, after all, and since I was the better typist, guess who was at “the controls” most of the time? So this method, writing together, stopped working for us fairly early on in the process.

What did work was discussing and plotting together. Then I would write out scenes, but they’d be scenes full of holes. Often I left out descriptions and let Meg fill those in later. She’s much more creative than I am. And it was not just her ideas, but the way she expressed them. This procedure seemed to work pretty well for us, so that’s how we completed the rest of the book and the rewrites of the beginning.

I sometimes had to remind myself that just because I had more experience, that did not necessarily make my choices superior to hers. Often I could phrase something better, but not always. And many times her choice of words was better. So it was essential to make time to get her input and to respect it.

When it came time to work with our editor, we worked together in real time using a shared document program. Often our sessions would take place while Meg was in school, but we scheduled a few sessions later in the day so she could be included in the process, this time sitting at a computer in the living room while I sat in my office and our editor worked from her office in Texas.

Just as with that paragraph in my creative writing class long ago, this partnership experience resulted in a product that was much stronger than anything I could have written on my own. Meg’s insight and creativity were absolutely invaluable.

We definitely want to write more together and have discussed some ideas. Her schedule is even busier now that it was when we wrote Toto’s Tale, however, so we will have to be very disciplined in carving out time to work together. Because the together time was the key. I can see that again in just the few minutes we’ve spent brainstorming together about the next book. Her suggestions pointed to the big picture that I was missing. Now I’m wondering if I’ll ever be able to write another book by myself!

Until next time…

–k

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