On Collaborative Writing

I figured it would be fitting if my first post somehow pertained to Fifth Exile and Coranox. Instead of droning on about our book’s and company’s detailed history, I want to address a question that I’ve been asked a lot and talk about it from my point of view:

How did you guys work on the book together?

This question usually refers to our collaborative process, not how Tony and I met. That’s also an interesting story, but I’ll save that one for another time.

As you can imagine, writing a book is no easy feat, and while having a co-author can greatly help, it provides its own unique challenges. The biggest one is how do two people effectively write the same novel and come out with a product that doesn’t come off as schizophrenic. It was crucial for our two voices to become one, and we spent a long time planning to make it happen. That is, in part, why it took so long for our first book to come out. This was all new to us, and we needed to figure out the best way to proceed. There were missteps and changes to the process along the way, but I feel like we ultimately succeeded.

We began our story by working together to prepare a high level outline of the entire series. This outline included all key events but none of the finer details. While events were altered in the course of writing the first volume, taking the time to do the outline proved invaluable for writing the book as well as preparing for future volumes.

The outlining stage was easily the most enjoyable for me. I particularly loved tackling the story from a big picture perspective and figuring out how all the different story threads weaved together. This stage was also probably the easiest. Because we were working in such broad strokes, Tony and I were able to easily reconcile issues we had with each other’s ideas. I’m a bit fuzzy on exactly how long we spent working on the outlines. It was so long ago. We’ve been at this for eight years now. I want to say that outlining took almost as long as writing the first book, because after we finished the series outline, we had to outline individual chapters of the first book in greater detail.

Outlining the chapters was harder, because we had to begin to think of detailed specifics. It was necessary to get an idea of how each chapter started, its events, and its end. We wanted to set it up so that we could alternate writing the first draft of the chapters. I would take 1, Tony 2, and so on. To do this, it was crucial for both of us to understand how each chapter connected to the next. This is where it started to get more difficult. It became apparent some of the ideas we had said we agreed on earlier we weren’t really in agreement on. Generally, Tony and I were on the same page with the ‘what’ for an event but not always the ‘why’. We began to have a lot more discussion and disagreements on how things played out in our story. It may sound like I’m getting negative here, but that’s far from the truth. It was beneficial to have a co-author, especially one who is not afraid argue with you. By having these heated discussions, by having someone tell you that you have a bad idea, your writing becomes stronger. You end up taking the time to thoroughly think things through. I didn’t always win my arguments and neither did he. As a result, our story is much better off than if either one of us had written it alone.

Once outlining was completed, we went into the stage that I would arguably call our first big misstep. Rather than just go and write the first draft of a chapter, we started with dialogue-only for the first five or six chapters. Not only did this take us a lot of extra time, it ultimately proved detrimental. Doing screenplay-style writing ended up not helping much with the actual draft for the full chapter. Most of the dialogue from these screenplay drafts was removed or so heavily redone by the time we finished a whole chapter draft, it provided very little value. For the rest of the book we dove right into the chapter drafts.

In order to write in one voice, our master plan was each of us would write a first draft, and then, the other would edit. After the initial edit, we’d keep passing it back-and-forth for editing until it was a perfect combination of our voices. We followed this general process for the entire book, but somewhere along the way, some interesting observations and situations occurred that made us refine how we approached things.

Tony and I have extremely different writing styles. This became apparent after the drafts first few chapters. Tony uses more refined and ‘flowery’ language than I do. So, we tried to set it up so that he took more of the royals and nobles chapters, and I took more of the military. The differences though, weren’t just in the way we worded things, but in what we hoped to convey and accomplish with our writing. Tony was far superior to me with wording and narration. My writing was much rougher, and I was mostly concerned with conveying feelings, ideas, and the general pacing of things. As a result, I could hammer out a first draft of a chapter much faster than he could. Tony hated bashing something out. This post is probably a great example! It’s going to be 1000+ words and only take me an hour or two to write.

Even though the first draft he did of a chapter was far more refined than mine, it often took way too long to get a first draft from him. It was frustrating to me! I have no problem saying that. He knew I would get frustrated waiting for a draft from him! That’s not a state secret.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, I started writing most of the first drafts. Tony was infinitely more effective when I provided him with my chapter skeletons. He was able to turn my slightly polished turds into gold! Regardless of this shift in our process, we still maintained the back and forth editing. While he definitely spent more time on polishing the manuscript, the end product is an equal combination of our ideas and voices. You may read the book and try figure out who wrote what, but I guarantee you’d often be surprised at who was actually responsible for a particular section.

Despite the arguments and frustrations that surfaced along the way, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. While I’m sure Tony and I could each write our own stories successfully, I know I could not do Coranox without him and vice versa. It has also been a lot more fun to have someone to write with than writing alone. It’s fantastic to have someone to bounce ideas off of and get an honest opinion. I’m not necessarily advocating everyone who is thinking of writing should have a co-author, because a bad co-author would be worse than not having one at all. However if you can find the right person, one who is talented and can dish out and take shit, I say give it a go. Two can accomplish more than one can!

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Brent Peckham

Author, Wanderer, Mercenary

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