WRITING AS A TEAM - Originally published at Katie L Carroll, Observation Desk
TEAM EDITING - Originally published at Katie L Carroll, Observation Desk
ON YA TROPES - Originally published at Andi's Young Adult Books
REALISM IN FANTASY - Originally published at Mythical Books
TOP FIVE TIPS FOR BECOMING A BETTER WRITER - Originally published at WW4BB
How can two people write a novel together?
We get that a lot. Though it’s not a method suited for all authors, team writing can have significant benefits. Collaborative writing provides you with a built-in editor, sounding board, and cheerleader who has a deep understanding of your plot and characters. Many authors bounce ideas off friends or loved ones, but there’s only so much someone can offer if he or she doesn’t know the entire landscape of the book or series. When you feel frustrated and drained of ideas, your writing partner can provide a fresh perspective and a creative boost. For those looking to give it a shot, we’ve culled a few practical pointers from our experiences.
1. Avoid teaming up with your creative twin. Though it’s tempting to pick a writing partner with a similar style and interests identical to your own, it pays to branch out. We have some overlapping tastes, but the diversity of our interests expands the creative pool that we pull from. Erin reads a lot of YA fiction and Troy is heavily influenced by comic books and horror movies. We also complement and balance each other’s writing strengths. Troy excels at realistic dialogue and big picture stuff, like crafting interesting and relatable characters that serve as the emotional core of each book. Erin tends to focus more on world building, fleshing out the setting, and developing themes. Troy gets a rush from writing a first draft, while Erin enjoys revising and tightening the story.
The best writing partner is someone you can work with without wanting to kill, but who also brings a variety of influences and ideas to the table and thrives in the areas that don’t come naturally to you.
2. Develop a process that works for your team. Though there are countless systems for team writing, we’ll explain our process. We utilize alternating narrators and each write from a different perspective. Before beginning each book, we create a chapter by chapter outline that contains only basic notes on what we need to accomplish in terms of plot advancement and character development. That gives us a lot of breathing room when it comes to filling in the details of each chapter. Once we have a first draft, we pass it back and forth and revise it until we have something we’re both happy with (the Track Changes feature in Word is incredibly useful for team revising).
This is, of course, just one way of doing it. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, authors of the wildly popular Beautiful Creatures series, don’t use alternating narrators. They use a single narrator and co-write almost everything. That sounds incredibly daunting to us, but apparently it can be done.
3. Balance work with talk. Having lengthy conversations with someone who understands you, your writing, and the ins and outs of your project is one of the primary benefits of team writing. Time spent actually writing is crucial, but don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in exploratory discussions with your writing partner. Some of our best ideas have emerged from long talks about our characters, goals, themes, and influences. Sometimes our conversations are serious and sometimes they feel like goofing off, but they almost always lead to idea generation.
Discussions can also help ensure your team is on the same page. During one conversation, we realized that we had completely divergent ideas when it came to a particular character. The conversation put us back on the same wavelength so we could tackle some of the inconsistencies that had popped up in our manuscript.
4. Be honest. You can’t have a successful writing team unless you both learn to give and take criticism. When we began writing together, we often shied away from harsh critiques because we didn’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. But the more often you give and take criticism, the easier it gets and the better your writing gets. Our first manuscript began to improve dramatically once we got over our fear of being entirely honest with each other.
At the same time that you provide an honest critique, you can also be a cheerleader. Point out scenes, descriptions, or snippets of dialogue that you think work particularly well or had you rolling around on the floor with laughter. Sometimes we are our own harshest critics and consider canning great ideas until someone points out they’re not trash. For example, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy co-wrote Waiting For Guffman. Guest felt his performance wasn’t funny and nearly cut himself out of the film until Levy informed him that his character, Corky St. Clair, was a hilarious highlight. The comedy might not have become a classic without the two working in tandem.
As a final note, keep in mind that unless you plan on editing, proofing, designing the book layout, creating the cover art, and self-publishing the story you wrote, then you’re going to work with someone, or an entire team, at some point. Team writing provides excellent practice for the collaborative aspects of publishing.
Q. So you wrote a book, now what do you do with it? A. Edit, edit, and then when you’re done, you edit it two more times.
Writing a book is only the first act of the long process of having an idea grow into a final novel. Once the manuscript has a beginning, middle, and end (hopefully), then it’s time to go back and revise.
With the split narration technique employed in the Mad Word series, our editing process starts when we combine all of the chapters into one file. At this point, either Erin or Troy has the file and works on it before passing it off to the other. We now use the Track Changes feature of Word, which allows you to track changes (well named, isn’t it?) in the document. This tool is invaluable when editing with a partner, as it allows you to quickly see what changes and comments your partner has added to the draft. It also reminds you which of those changes you made, which can occasionally get confusing. We also save each version of the manuscript with a new date. This makes it easy to tell which version is the most recent and preserves all the old versions, in case we decide to revert back to an earlier draft of a particular scene.
In the initial pass through of the manuscript, we mostly look for global issues (although we’re always on the lookout for typos). We look for inconsistencies in the timeline and the flow of each chapter and scene break. It’s not unusual for a first draft to have one narrator’s story progressing over two weeks in the course of three chapters, and the other narrator only two days. Once we notice a timeline issue we decide which version flows best (or brainstorm a third route), and how to rework one of the narrations to fit. The final version usually includes tweaks to both narrators’ chapters. Similarly, one chapter will often flow directly into the next with a continued scene, and we must make the change in narration consistent. For instance, in Perfection, a character passes out at the end of one of Max’s chapters and Troy wrote a few more paragraphs of Max being concerned. Meanwhile, Erin had written Astrid’s following chapter picking up immediately as the character passes out. This made the transition somewhat jarring, so we cut the last few paragraphs of the Max chapter.
During this stage, we sometimes combine extremely minor characters who only have one or two lines. This beefs up the presence of more important characters and makes the story less confusing for readers to keep track of.
We use Track Changes to leave copious amount of notes for each other about things we love or aren’t fond of. Once these kinks are mostly worked out, we pass the manuscript back and forth for another round of deeper edits to tackle those notes. Sometimes these notes are as simple as one of us asking about a character’s motivations, but they can also be rewrite suggestions or telling Troy that his writing sucks (just teasing you, Erin) pointing out inconsistencies.
Once we’re past the global editing stage, we move on to more minute details, such as tweaking dialogue, changing passive verbs to active ones, and deleting repetitive language. Though it can be tedious, we find the best way to tackle this level of editing is to examine each sentence and consider how it could be made stronger. We think about whether it could be made sharper, cleaner, and clearer, or whether it could benefit from a more dynamic verb or more descriptive adjectives. Fancy prose can be fun, but if you consistently use very “purple” verbiage, you risk pulling your reader out of the story. We use the sentence-by-sentence editing stage to try to strike a balance with the language we choose.
Writing with a partner can be particularly helpful during the editing process, but we also sometimes use beta readers. A fresh pair of eyes can often clue you into issues you didn’t even know existed in your manuscript. And though we welcome general feedback from beta readers, we also provide them with a few focus questions to keep in mind while reading. Specific feedback from beta readers is essential when we’re concerned about whether a particular world-building concept is presented clearly or whether a character comes off as three-dimensional.
On a final note, although editing is a crucial part of the writing process, it can be incredibly stressful. We’re hard on ourselves (and each other), but we also know when to set the manuscript aside and take a break. Just as with a first draft, a little distance from a frustrating project can rejuvenate you and give your brain time to refocus.
Let’s face it. YA lit has grown into a juggernaut in the past five years. Successful series like The Hunger Games and Twilight have inspired thousands of aspiring writers (including Team Mad World) to throw their hats into the YA ring. A veritable avalanche of both traditionally published and indie published YA books has come crashing down on the marketplace. Now, the natives are getting restless. Although the YA boom is relatively still young, readers and bloggers are already complaining that clichés abound and tropes are overused. The truth is, they’re not wrong. Here’s our take on the “big three” and how we’ve chosen to handle them in the Mad World series.
1. Weak/Klutzy/Milquetoast Female Protag. You know the type. Maybe she’s the new girl in school, eking her way through life while dealing with supersecret unresolved trauma. She’s a mousy, shy violet who, despite her astounding un-specialness, manages to attract the attention of the most drool-worthy guy residing in her area code.
Team Mad World despises this trope, though without it, we probably never would have started writing Mad World. We created Astrid, our female MC, in response to the weak female MCs that seemed to be popping up on every bookstore shelf. Astrid’s damaged, but she doesn’t let that turn her into a dishrag waiting to be saved by a hottie. She’s smart, compassionate, capable...and also more than a little snarky and judgmental. Every character has to have flaws, but the flaw doesn’t have to be an all-consuming cloak of feminine passivity.
To be fair, the Mad World series does include a character who wraps herself up in many of these unfortunate stereotypes. We initially created her as a counterpoint to Astrid, but as the series progresses, she begins to come into her own. And her transformation isn’t attributable to a hottie who saves her, but to her own realization that she’s a person who’s not to be trifled with.
2. Overly-Simplistic Dystopian Regime. We started writing the Mad World series about a year before the dystopian craze was in full swing. But as Hunger Games imitators began flying off the shelves, we couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the thoughtful subtlety and world building of books like The Giver.
If we’d known beforehand that YA Dystopian was going to be all the rage, we might have steered away from including a “regime” in the Mad World series. But we’ve managed to avoid the now tired cliché of an all-powerful evil empire of merciless adults by populating our regime with three-dimensional characters driven by complex motivations. Those behind the Mad World regime don’t always agree with each other and sometimes get tangled up in their own bureaucracy. We’ve also added a layer of historical fiction by tying the regime’s history to real events and historical figures. By giving our regime a realistic context, we’ve made it less simplistic and more believable.
3. The Love Triangle. Girl meets boy and it’s love at first sight. But wait...there’s another boy. A boy she didn’t notice at first because he’s the dark, smoldering, polar opposite of boy number one. Who will she choose?
This kind of hetero-centric love triangle truly has been done to death. Very rarely can it carry a plot and even when it’s served up as a side dish, it feels like a distraction from the main course.
But readers love love, and lust, especially when it parades itself as love. We don’t want to get all Freudian, but these two complex emotions are often at the core of human behavior, particularly hormonal teenage behavior. Writers will never be able to kill the love triangle. Thus, our best option is to subvert it. We’ve buried a love triangle deep within the Mad World series. It’s so atypical that most readers probably won’t even see it until it’s standing right in front of them in all its unexpected glory.
Well-crafted fantasy series have something in common – they feel real. Even if the story takes place in deep space, or magic and bizarre characters pop up at every twist and turn, readers will be able to relate if the world building is thoughtful and rooted in internal logic. With the Mad World series, we strive to keep the story grounded in reality. What better way to draw our readers into the madness?
With the first novel, Wakefield, we worked hard to craft a realistic setting. The main characters meet at a residential treatment facility for teens with psychiatric issues and, through their eyes, readers learn the ins and outs of institutional life. By allowing our characters to navigate and explore an environment entrenched in gritty realism, we provide readers with a way to relate to them and get to know them deeply. We hope that when paranormal elements begin to surface in Wakefield, readers experience them as a logical extension of the setting.
While Wakefield is grounded by the setting, the sequels explore the mythology behind the series, which we’ve steeped in real-world history. As a storyteller, the more realistic questions you ask yourself, the more immersive the world can feel. For instance, if something paranormal were really happening in the world in, say 1852, would U.S. President Millard Fillmore know about it? How would he handle it? By drawing connections to the world around us, we hope to create a richer tapestry for our Mad World characters to live in.
Team Mad World has been at this for more than five years, and though we know we’ll never be Faulkner, we can see our writing grow stronger with each book in the series. No tip list will work as a magic wand for every aspiring writer, but here are a few pointers that have helped us improve our craft.
1. Write...a lot. Erin used to wait for huge chunks of downtime before even thinking about writing. But if you have a full time job and a family, that’s probably not going to work for you. Stop waiting for the perfect moment. Sitting in Starbucks with your laptop for a long afternoon to work on your novel will not make it more interesting. Think about writing and actually engage in writing whenever you have time. Troy writes every day (even when he has the flu!), and Erin takes advantage of any free minute she can snag and bangs out a few paragraphs on her phone.
2. Follow the rules in moderation. Anyone who frequents writer’s blogs and forums knows “the rules.” Show, don’t tell. Don’t use adverbs. Limit your adjectives. Avoid purple prose, deus ex machina, Mary Sues, and MacGuffins. All of the infamous writer’s rules serve a valid purpose, but if you try to adhere to all of them, by the book, all the time, you’ll drive yourself crazy and slow down your writing momentum. To the extent that you can, let go of them during your first draft and let your story flow. You’ll have plenty of time to incorporate the rules when you revise. And remember that you don’t have to follow all the rules to the letter all the time. For example, if you engage in showing throughout an entire novel, you’ll exhaust yourself and your reader. Telling can be a useful tool when it’s done well.
3. Revise, revise, revise. When you sit down to take a second look at your first draft, gently remind yourself that you can do better. Dissect your plot and characters first, looking for holes and weaknesses. Then go after your prose, keeping in mind that almost every sentence can be improved with stronger verbs, imagery, and word choices.
4. Let honest readers read your writing. Moms can make great beta readers, but they’re also moms. If you don’t have a friend or family member who can be brutally honest with you, find an avid reader who doesn’t know you that well and ask for his or her honest opinion about your characters, plot, and writing style. Other writers can make great beta readers, too.
5. Learn how to handle critique. You can’t possibly make every reader happy. Though it’s important to be open to good critique, don’t set aside what you value about your writing because of a review or a comment on Goodreads. With the Mad World series, some reviewers have commented on the pacing of Wakefield and referred to the non-paranormal content as “filler.” Though we’ve tried to pick up the pace with the sequels by adding some much needed action, the exploration of teenage minds and relationship dynamics isn’t filler to us. Regardless of whether every reader “gets it,” we view those YA Contemporary moments as an integral part of the story and one of the elements that sets Mad World apart from the bulk of the YA Paranormal pack.