Writing with a Distant Partner
This is a guest post we did for another site:
Writing Duck Blood Soup – Frank Hofer of The Brothers Hofer with edits helpfully provided by James
How do you write a novel when your writing partner is two time zones and 1500 miles away? That was the first question we had when Jim suggested that we try our hand at writing a fantasy novel. We had just concluded our ill-fated attempt at writing humor. Our fans were each other and a couple of friends. We knew that our web site would never be The Onion but we were having a good time and got some practice writing something other than technical documents.
After a few weeks of no posts, Jim asked me how I planned to continue being creative and suggested writing either a fantasy or a science fiction novel. I agreed to work with him under the condition that we didn’t write “sword and sorcery.” I wanted a society with a late 18th or early 19th century level of technology with a blending of science, engineering, and magic. Since I didn’t know anything about steam punk at the time, I coined the phrase “muskets and magic” for our effort.
Once we had a technology time period, we needed a story. Giants versus gun wielding soldiers seemed like a good starting point.
We needed some people in our story of course. Harry Potter was really big at the time, and I always felt that Hermione Granger was not only underutilized, but should have been the real hero of the series. To me, she seemed smarter, more rational and level headed, and overall a better wizard than Harry Potter. With that in mind, Jeunelux was born. She would be the first of many strong, independent female characters, including women in combat roles, as a head of state, and a general in the army.
A couple of years after we finished the first draft of Duck Blood Soup I finally got around to reading Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy – The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass and realized that Lyra was the female character that I wanted Hermione to be. My Jeunelux and Pullman’s Lyra had a lot in common.
Our initial plot ideas were discussed through email, but we knew that we needed a better methods to actually write the book. The physical challenges of remote writers wasn’t that big of a deal. We are both computer nerds so setting up a secure FTP site to keep our work was pretty simple. Microsoft Word with change tracking enabled allowed both of us to see the edits the other made. We also added notes between brackets so that they would be easy to find.
The interpersonal challenges could have been an issue but were not because of our professional backgrounds. I spent a dozen years flying satellites so I came from a culture where it is not only expected but required for people to critique and correct your work. When a multi-million dollar satellite’s health and mission depend upon being right all the time, you either welcome people checking and correcting your work or you don’t last long in the business.
Jim and I both worked in software development environments where other engineers comment on your designs, point out problems, tear apart your work and insist on changes. While writing Duck Blood Soup we got in to our professional software development mind set – nothing said is personal, we want to write the best novel we possibly can, and we must be critical of both our own and each other’s work. If something wasn’t right, or wasn’t consistent, or seemed cliché, flag it to be fixed. If you insist on having a big ego, writing with someone will never work.
The software development mindset also helped with the overall book creation. We would have very general guidelines for chapters; this is what has happened going into the chapter, that is what the output of the chapter should be, anything else is just implementation details. After a chapter was written by one author, the other would “refactor” it by pointing out problem areas or suggesting different ways to accomplish the desired result. Passing chapters back and forth also allowed us to sound like a single author. The reader really doesn’t know who initially wrote what chapter or concentrated on particular characters.
For example, we wanted to look at different aspects of the magical creatures we used. Since Giants are common in fantasy novels, we would make sure that ours were unique. And when one author added blood suckers, the other pointed out that their ethics needed to be defined along with their special powers. Each time one of us came up with a species, the other would always ask, what is special, what hasn’t this been done before?
The professional attitudes and communications skills we developed over the years in our “paying jobs” were really put to use when we wrote Duck Blood Soup. Putting our project ahead of ourselves gave us something we can point to with pride.