WRITING PARTNER—YES OR NO?

Posted: March 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

Not so long ago I’d have met that question with the clarity and conviction of a long rehearsed answer: NO!

The very idea of writing fiction with a partner was antithetical to everything I ever knew, learned or enjoyed about the concept of writing. Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent all alone in my room or the school cafeteria filling reams of spiral notebooks with fiction created by me, for me, without anyone but me. With nary a thought of even showing it to anyone else. I still treasure the memory of those days, writing for the pure joy of it without the hassle and ego-deflating strum and drang of agents, editors, publishers, et al. But now I tend to regard that time without the strawberry glasses of nostalgia, and the naiveté of my youthful ideas about creativity.

In 2000, after some twenty odd (very odd) years in the screenwriting vineyards of Hollywood, I moved back to the Midwest to dedicate myself full time to writing the novel. Anyone who’s ever worked the vineyards “out there” knows exactly why I did this: for the rest of you it can be summed up in that word ‘antithetical’ again. If novels mean (supposedly) total artistic freedom for the writer, the screenplay is its polar opposite. Everyone works with a partner in LaLa Land, even if they complete the first draft all alone in a closet. And most of these ‘partners’–from the studio heads right on down (the writer being the bottom)–are more than glad to remove your name from the project and take complete credit for most of what you wrote. But would-be screenwriters, take heart: considering the way most movies turn out, this can actually be a blessing. Also let’s not forget the soothing balm of money the industry usually provides. There’s gold in them Hollywood hills.

Anyway, that same year I moved away and back to my roots, Stephen (he’s the) King published On Writing and I picked it up (yes, published authors still do that—writers are never secure). The book discusses many things, perhaps the most salient being King’s work mode: find a room, shut and lock the door, turn off the TV, turn your computer from the window, park your butt in a chair and write. Also, never stop to rewrite until you’ve gone straight through to The End, and never show it to anyone in between. Given King’s ginormous and grindingly enviable success, I read this section with a small smile: that was the way I’d worked since grade school! Writing was, by God–along with music and painting and sculpture—a true art form! And art can only be achieved, even pursued, with a singular author’s singular vision, not with someone else getting in there and mucking things up with his own ideas! This is what art is. This is what I was taught art is in college. This is why the third floor of Strong Hall on the KU campus was divided in half:  Commercial Art on side, Fine Art on the other. And never the twain should meet. I, of course, pursued a degree in the latter and was damn proud of it…along with all those other poor, deluded freshman iconoclasts.

One thing I began to notice, though, around the time of my junior year, was the tendency for the commercial side to talk about money and marketing—talk about it a lot; whereas the very mention of money on the Fine Art side was tantamount to heresy. Now, I could tell you that I chose the Fine Art side originally because I was already a full-fledged elitist wrapped in a fine art banner, but the truth is, the curriculum on the Fine Art side didn’t require my taking another agonizing year of math. And what the hell, I could already draw, right? It should be a cinch.

Still, my mamma didn’t raise no stupid kids; I knew the realities of the work-a-day world around me way back in high school. A Fine Arts diploma might look great on my wall but it wasn’t going to get me job one in the real world. Which is why I headed straight for New York after school, to become a commercial illustrator, as opposed to becoming the next Jackson Pollack. Few Pollack, I knew, enjoyed wealth in their lifetime. Ah, New York! The legendary seat of publishing and magazine illustration! Never mind that magazine illustration had been moribund for years, supplanted almost exclusively by photography, and that just about the only steady work as an aspiring artist I could find was in comic books. Yet married, broke and determined to life creating something beyond kids, I hit the comic book houses. A few years of that and the next thing I learned was that writing comic books pays a hell of a lot better than drawing them. So I wrote too. It helped pay the bills. In between I sold a couple of novels to small publishers, which earned me an overall pittance compared to what the comic book companies paid a writer. But never mind, I was realizing my dream: I was a full time, working professional! I got paid to create! I was an artiste!  Maybe not with capital A, but I was creating, and I was doing it alone. By myself. No more shoe store clerk jobs for this kid!

Then I met the girl…

This is already getting long so here’s the short form: I hired this radiant beauty as a model for a photography book I was doing. And we hit it off almost immediately—in more ways than one. Did I mention we were both married to other people? You should probably know that.

We worked together all day, me and this girl April, and at the end of those hard work days found we still somehow wanted to be together, still had so much to talk about. Naturally both our marriages went to hell, but even before that and after the photo book was finished I realized that if we wanted to be together, this girl and I, we were also going to have to continue working together in some fashion, because the photo books weren’t selling.

So, for the first time I went dead against everything I’d ever believed in about writing and began plotting a few comic book stories with April. I did this under a mountain of guilt. First, I couldn’t afford to pay her much, second, I feared I was betraying all my artistic “singular vision” mantras, and third, I was terrified that the work itself couldn’t possibly be as good as before when it was just me at the helm because really, folks, who’s as good as me?—but mainly because I was simply having too much fun with the work. The great thing about plotting—just verbalizing, or ‘spit balling’, really—is that you can do it walking around a lake or over hamburgers or even at the local mall. To my surprise (and probably chagrin), my readers never seemed to notice. In fact, my comic book sales improved! And it soon began to dawn on me (horror of horrors!) not only was I a complete sell-out to my artistic instincts, but some of those stories  were better because I plotted them with a partner! Can you spell ‘confusion’? ‘Depression’?

Only it’s hard to stay depressed when you’re having such a good time. Sure, falling in love was part of it, but the ideas and plots fairly flew between us, some brimming to the surface almost magically! Also, my spelling improved noticeably. Life was good. So long as I kept the serious work (novel writing) to myself, door shut and locked in solitude, TV off, butt parked.

But the thing is, April was reading my books as soon as I finished them anyway, correcting my spelling and throwing in some editing here and there. What the hell, King used his wife, didn’t he?—so did a lot of pros—and my partner had already read and liked all my published books; it’s not like I was torturing her. Exactly. And more and more (after I’d completed the book) April’s input increased. I actually began listening when she dared suggest chapter 10 or perhaps the entire ending of the novel might be improved by doing things an alternate way. Silly girl.  I tolerated her whimsies. Reminding her constantly that this was, after all, still an art.

Then this thing called digital publishing came along.

And at the same time, because I was getting paid fairly well but hardly getting rich, April suggested maybe I should slow down with the dark, depressing stand-alones and try a breezier, lighter toned style. Duh.

Only I couldn’t think of anything breezy I wanted to write about. My books were about loner guys up against the wall, running through my latest literary idea of film noir hell. But April (bless her) persisted. “EBooks are the future,” she assured me, “also you don’t have to wait years for a company’s publishing schedule and press arrangements. Also, despite what the indicia in books published by the Big 6 says, you really can hang onto most of the rights.  Also, Kindle sales are waaaay up.”

She was driving me nuts. Because she was right. “All right,” I finally shouted to the gods, “here’s the title of my new series:  ‘Mitzi Magee: Vampire Poodle!’” Fortunately she laughed. But in a good way. Unfortunately I couldn’t come up with plot one for the first book. I was completely at sea. Actually blocked for the first time. It stank. Then one day, driving up to Borders Books and encountering a “closed” sign, I got this totally brilliant idea–this just colossal, stupendous idea I was so glad I had thought of all by myself. This really terrific, Artistic idea: ah, the hell with it, let April come up with the damn plot. Or at least plot with me the way we’d been doing with the comics. What’s the big deal about plots anyway? As they say, there’s only seven original jokes. Did Hemmingway sit around and worry about plots? He did not! So! That’s what we did, adopting the same methods we used with comic writing to the new series. I mean, I’d certainly learned the old axiom “two heads are better than one” was true, at least for me, so why not?

Turns out, there’s a LOT of reasons ‘why not.’

Heads up now, before you consider working with a partner in the writing biz:

First—and I can promise you this—there will be fights.

Actually, there should be fights. If there aren’t, you’re completely abandoning the “singular vision” ethic, and I don’t advocate anyone doing that. Every novel (unless you’re Faulkner and I don’t think we need worry about that here, right?) needs a strong narrative thread, a clearly accessible vision, a “voice,” if you will. But with a partner, you must constantly fight the dilemma of anything that sounds even vaguely homogenized (unless that’s somehow inherent to the plot—and I can think of few instances).  The challenge then, to me, of writing with a partner was even greater than writing in total singularity. A partner must trust you the same way you trust yourself, and vice versa. I’m not sure you need to be in love to enjoy the mysteries of a writing partnership, but you must, absolutely must, trust and—even more importantly—respect the person you’re partnering with. Because sooner or later, just like any marriage, you’re going to have to compromise.  My then-girlfriend and now-wife, April Campbell Jones, and I share that kind of symbiosis. She can fake my “style” (whatever that is) almost without faking it. I still do the majority of the Word Smithing–setting the story or novel down in type–after April and I, working in tandem, sort out the plot. When the actual writing is finished, I do a polish or two and give it to April. She does the editing and her own rewrite or two. We think the results read pretty seamlessly, but you may have your own particular modus operandi, it doesn’t matter. The point is to embrace the other guy’s ideas instead of shunning them immediately out of guilt or ego–and to create a terrific and, hopefully, more balanced end product. If it helps you to think that what you’re doing is pure, lowbrow commercial craft, go with it. Whatever works. The trick is learning that compromise can be a good thing, that your way is not always THE way. And really, at the end of the day (a phrase clearly over-used which I’m still guilty of), if you line up twelve different people to read your book, at least one or two of them are going detest it, no matter how many people did or didn’t labor over it. Which is why some writers employ the method of multiple private submissions to friends or family before sending their child out into the world. But that’s another topic.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking: yes-yes, but what about this Art you keep prattling about?

I’ve thought about that too…thought a lot about it. And most of my original ideas about the “singular vision” still hold true. Yes, writing can be an art—perhaps one of the very few things we have that actually qualifies, so perhaps, for you, it should remain a singular principled pursuit. But consider this: what is Art? What is it really? So-called “singular vision” aside, artists begin the same way we all begin life, by collecting (stealing?) the sights and sounds of the world and others around us. Copying is a natural progression toward learning to go your own way. My question is: do any of us really ever go completely our own way? Those of us in the arts don’t suddenly reach a point in life where we turn off the filters and stop absorbing the world out there. Ray Bradbury has advocated that it’s better to read not at all than read bad writing. Others believe, with the right attitude, you can learn something from anything. But does anyone really write alone? Is it even possible? You didn’t, after all, invent the alphabet, but as a writer you’re lost without it. Mere mechanics?  Maybe. Certainly what we do with that alphabet is the important thing. Still, for me at least, more and more the line between Art and Craft has become increasingly blurred over the years. What was taught with sober confidence yesterday can seem laughably naïve today. And though the glow of nostalgia may persist for personal pleasure, I’ll never be that ten-year-old kid with the reams of spiral notebooks again. A dead shadow from a life that will someday die altogether.

To my mind, experimenting on the page is the only way to grow as a writer. Perhaps experimenting, within reason, with our work habits can be another form of growth. One warning: I’ve suggested that having a writing partner can be fun. It can. I’ve always said that it can even improve the work. It can. Now here’s what it won’t do: it won’t make the art/craft of writing any easier. Nor should it. In fact, a partnership, for some, will make writing so much more a trial it becomes counterproductive, and that’s always a mistake. Partnering is not right for every project. Somethings must come from our own hearts alone, even if born crippled. An art professor of mine once said something I’ve never forgotten: we had a late night class together and I was filled with malaise one particular evening. He looked over my shoulder at my sketch but didn’t offer the usual support or advice. He said, “You’ve worked that thing to death, but you don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself.” I confessed I wasn’t. He said, “Then go home. Try again tomorrow.” I was astounded. “Why?” I asked incredulous. “Because,” he said, “art should–above all–always be fun.”

With that I’ll leave you with a few real quotes that help explain why I love words so much and why I consider them one of the most important creations of mankind. Have fun.

“I never said actors are cattle…I said actors should be treated like cattle.”

                                                               Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 on the set of Vertigo

“I never said you should learn politics…I said you should learn parlor tricks.”

                                                               Harvey Kurtzman, 1954, Mad parody of Pogo

“I never said I was a libertarian…I said I was a libertine.”

                                                              Me. But only once. I think.

 

 

 

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