The Write Tip: Author Collaboration – Sharing the Canvas

By the authors of LEGEND OF THE LOST CAUSES, Brad McLelland & Louis Sylvester

We like to call ourselves “Team Lost Causes,” and we’re awfully proud of the nickname. Back in our grad school days, when we first discovered our common interest in the Wild West and dark fantasy, we talked a lot about what it would mean to collaborate on a series, and one of the things that excited us the most was the idea of constructing a giant world together as a team. We both understood that some partnerships often result in personality clashes, heated exchanges, unsatisfying drafts; but we also knew that the story in our hands was too exciting not to try. So we shook hands, turned our hats around, and got to work.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of drafting Legends presented plenty of challenges—and because we’re working on a series, it still does. Nailing the POV of our main character, fully realizing the Old West world we’re building, understanding the intricacies of a scene and how it fits into the macrocosm of the story—all of it folds together into one big, unique responsibility.

So how exactly do we do it? We’ll break it down.

THE IDEA BANK — We start by performing our own separate research into the time period and region in which we’re working (for Book 1, 1855 Missouri). We round up our plot and character ideas (which by now have filled at least three notebooks) and corral them all into an “Idea Bank” Google Doc file. We kick around in the file for a few days, perusing each other’s notes, and make deeper comments on the items we like or feel might be a reach. For example: Somewhere in the file, Brad writes, “Needs a Demogorgan.” Louis responds: “Already been done, dude.”

THE PHONE CALL — After we feel confident about our shared ideas, we hop on the phone to start planning the book’s outline. We settle in with coffee and chocolate (our longest book discussion lasted nearly six hours once), and by the time we’re done, we’ve got enough info on the page to build a solid Part One of the novel. By this point we know our characters’ motivations, their fears and struggles, and their general steps across the 1855 map. We also know the desired trajectory of the entire story, but the second and third sections of the novel remain purposefully vague, so we don’t feel overly tethered to concepts in case drafting Part One uncovers a few surprises. For example: On the phone, Brad says, “A Demogorgan might still be possible, dude.” Louis quickly responds: “For Pete’s sake, forget the Demogorgan.”

THE OUTLINE — Next we open a brand new Google Doc, label it “Working Outline,” and get to work bullet-pointing all the ideas we planned and discussed. The outline takes a few days to build, but by the time we’re done, we have a very compelling glimpse at the general framework of the book. This is the point where we both get really excited, because our characters are starting to awaken.

THE CHAPTER SWAP — Once we’re both happy with the outline’s direction, we build the master Google Doc file and Writer #1 begins drafting Chapter 1. There’s no straw-drawing or Rock-Paper-Scissors or anything; the person with the most immediate time gets the chapter. After Chapter 1 is drafted, Writer #1 then emails his partner: “OK, chapter’s done, sir. Have at it.” Writer #2 edits and reworks Chapter 1 for personal style and voice, then heads into the drafting of Chapter 2. Writer #1 may creep back into the fray from time to time, wondering why his favorite word got cut, so Writer #2 responds with his rationale or simply puts the word back in. In this fashion we complete the book, but we only write THE END when we feel each word and syllable sounds perfect to both our ears.

Perhaps our favorite metaphor for the Legends partnership is that of a painting. Imagine two painters working at the same canvas, using the same palette. Louis’s eye is obviously different from Brad’s, but we both know what we’d like the general portrait to look like, so our paint strokes work to achieve the big picture. When one accidently smudges the canvas (paints, for example, a Demogorgan when there should be a dog), the other helps to clean it up. Since we already have very similar textures in our respective writing, the book’s voice—filtered through our MC, Keech Blackwood—arrives naturally through this back-and-forth exchange.

Sure, the occasional debate arises, the concept that doesn’t jive with one but feels like a diamond to the other. But Team Lost Causes knows the big picture, and we help each other achieve it by giving constant feedback and positive reinforcement.

We know we’ve done our job if the reader doesn’t see the process, but the payoff. And we want that payoff to be the best it can be.

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