Thursday, April 30, 2020

On collaboration, and writing in mammoths – with Toby Bennett

Toby and I didn't quite have our book launch in Cape Town like we planned, due to The Thing I Don't Really Want to Mention, and neither of us were up to setting up webinar or something equally sophisticated. So we had a chat via Google Docs, in which we discuss how we've been collaborating on our new novel together. 

Nerine Dorman: Wow, so I believe the world wasn’t quite ready for us this year, was it, eh? Just when things were starting to get interesting, we end up in virtual house arrest. But silver linings, eh? We finished writing a novel together. And in about six months as well.

Toby Bennett: The world has never been ready, and when the device is finally finished they shall all quake before… oh… oh right, you’re talking about the book… Yes, the one solace I have is that I am able to use this time in lock down to polish The Serpent’s Quest… Before turning it over to your red pen for a final pruning – it may have bloomed a bit during my audio review, but I am having a whale of a time which is preferable to wailing all the time I suppose…

So yeah book one all but in the bag and two more to go – the dreaded obligation of a trilogy – still it is nice to be able to share the responsibility with someone… A bit like having a gym partner to spot you I guess. Yes we can have war mammoths AND terror birds! Feel that burn!

ND: Creating this world together feels almost like having part of the benefits of running a roleplaying game without having to roll any dice. To a large degree I think what’s helped us with this story is that we were able to merge our crazy ideas seamlessly. I mean, the novel sounds kinda crazy when summed up as 'ancient Egyptian elves meet Vikings on horseback with a side order of ancient Chthonic beings'.

Despite the initial plans, the writing didn’t quite pan out quite the way I expected, and it’s different with every writing partnership I’ve encountered. Back when I wrote with Carrie Clevenger, we used to swap chapter points of view. And what we’ve got going here is closer to what I know that Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck have when they wrote South and i as Frank Owen.

You and I have worked closely on laying down the foundations, but you’ve been an absolute machine knocking out the words while I’ve kinda gone in afterwards pruning, snipping, adding a bit here and there, writing a few key scenes. In a way I feel kinda guilty, but we’ve each played to our strengths in this – so it’s a win-win.

TB: Well that’s the thing, no writer is flawless at every aspect of the craft, and it’s very easy to get bogged down in a single perspective. Collaboration frees us from an individual viewpoint and allows us to offer an amalgamation of the very best each of us has to offer. Though on a side note this does require the skill of unfettering one's ego and asking “what would be best for the story?” It’s not something I would ever recommend any writer do until they are relatively comfortable with their own voice and have developed enough professional objectivity to let go while still caring.

Of course when there is synergy one can never be sure if it is a question of great minds think alike or fools never differ but there has to be a shared vision and an understanding that the work is paramount. Which I think we’ve managed.

For all the potential pitfalls, collaboration is a rare treat. I’ve done it twice now and found it to be professionally and personally rewarding. Writing is often a solitary activity and I think that writing with someone is as close as we come to the enjoyment of musicians jamming together. There’s a bit of extra effort in being mindful of the other person, but the joy of being able to share the process is thoroughly exhilarating. You often find yourself going to some unexpected places and stretching further than you might have on your own.

ND: What I’ve appreciated this far is having someone else to bounce ideas off of – someone who’s as invested in the story as I am. There are moments when I’m writing solo that I encounter tangles that often take weeks if not months to figure out, like how I hit a brick wall with my novel The Company of Birds. My editor at the time could tell me that something wasn’t working, but it wasn’t her place to tell me what I had to do to fix it.

A friend of mine who was co-writing a novel with her daughter would often go on long walks with her, and by the time they got home, would have hashed out the sticky plot points that had been bugging them. Likewise, how our video calls end up spawning mammoths and weird curve balls that I’d never have considered.

It’s like a game of tag, with each writer picking up where the other left off and running with the idea until it blooms monstrous fruit. But as you point out, it’s also about being mindful, and knowing when to step back or step in.

One of the big concerns that I do think a lot of authors have is unevenness in tone, especially if each writer has a particular style. I’d say that you and I are not that vastly different from each other. I also feel that you have a particular knack of looking into a scene and digging just that little bit deeper in terms of motivations, as well as the to-ing and fro-ing of dialogue.

TB: You are far too kind, but I’m a writer so I will take ANY validation! Tone is certainly an issue, but one that I think can be resolved by having each writer review the work. Right now, I am doing an audio read through The Serpent’s Quest and you’d be amazed how many things I am catching – little inconsistencies in tone and story from both of us that seem more stark now that the first book is real and the shape of things better set (We recently started focusing on the northern continent of our world and those changes are having little effect on details in The Serpent’s Quest).

Once I have finished the audio review you’ll get the chance to go through it, which means the tone and language in each scene should be nicely sanded down so no one can see the seams…

I don’t think I can overstate the usefulness of having another brain helping you spark on a story. The big bad in book two got a whole lot nastier and more credible to me when you mentioned a parallel with Alexander the Great – I’d always know there was a schism between our main character, Kelbrin, and his traitorous protege, Dugan, but I suddenly saw how the cracks in their relationship might have developed as Dugan took on the ways of the Abrassian necromancers that Kelbrin had helped him overthrow (many Greeks murmured that Alexander was changed after his conquest of Persia).

It’s the little details that fill out a story and add richness – so two heads really are better than one. I guess what anyone contemplating this kind of project would be interested in is process. The first and most obvious requirement is good communication (stay in touch and share those documents!). I’m typically more comfortable with letting a story unravel as it occurs to me, but in this case the work requires us to be quite specific about where the story will go.

With collaboration one needs a well established framework, preferably with set scenes and events that can be assigned to each writer. Naturally nothing is carved in stone, and the narrative can evolve, but I’d say it’s worth taking the time to get the scaffolding in place.

As I mentioned, new details are already coming up as book two starts to solidify, but we basically know the entire arc of our story and have mapped out the big events already. I’m thinking that will pay off and let us work together better. Know who handles what, and of course the double review process allows each of us to shape every scene to the shared vision we laid out. Oh, also, in case anyone doesn’t know this one, always have a shared map and glossary for reference.

ND: Having that bigger-picture view most certainly helps. I don’t know why the Alexander the Great thing only occurred to me much later. So many villains are hampered by the ‘let’s be evil for evil’s sake’ so I feel it’s absolutely vital that we give Dugan sufficient motivation for doing what it is he’s doing. If we look at all the great empires of the past, in many cases each emperor had their motivations.

For some it was simply a need to expand borders to reclaim previously lost territory – an act within itself that can lead to further expansion once the machinery goes into action. In other cases, for instance the Scramble for Africa, we can see it as a sort of arms race and a quest for raw materials. For instance, the British Empire annexing the Cape Colony from the Dutch to also keep it out of the hands of the French. Dugan starts out, I believe, with the earnest desire to rid his world of the corruption posed by a powerful, corrupt city-state, but good intentions are not necessary enough to keep one from being corrupted in turn.

As authors, we can take lessons from historical events. In terms of collaborating, I’m really appreciating the fact that we can hammer out these details together. It also helps that as individuals, we share a lot of common ground in terms of our personal philosophical world views – so we riff off each other quite a bit. And the best part is that now when I dive in for formal edits, so much of the structural work has been done. We’re playing off of each other’s strengths, which I think will give us a massive advantage by the time we start querying.

TB: Ah, querying, when we find out if the gatekeepers see what we see… joy! Win or lose at that particular game I’m proud of the work we’re doing. I’m not sure what the literary world is going to look like post Covid-19. It wasn’t exactly going gangbusters to start with, but I think that just about the most exciting thing that any of us can do is share our dreams – it’s the reason any writer puts ink on paper (or pixel on screen). Surely the natural progression of that need to reach others must be mingling visions with someone who can dream with you.

I don’t mean to wax too poetic, but there are times when I think the ivory walls of the skull may be the true prison for all of us, the impulses we get from the outside, the only antidote to crippling solipsism… but that may just be a moth of lockdown talking. In either case I look forward to continuing Hetephes and Kelbrin’s journey and I hope that others are keen to come along for the ride. I mean come on, war, betrayal, intrigue and mad gods who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Certainly it’s a good idea for anyone who wants to take the plunge with us to take a deep breath now because I have every intention of letting up till we reach a gasping, bloody conclusion! WAR MAMMOTHS, HO!

ND: Don’t forget the dragons.

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Pick up Toby Bennett’s fantasy novel The Music Box, or Nerine Dorman’s science fiction novel Sing down the Stars.

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