Welcome back to the Two Navy Guys and a Novel blog series. If you’re a newbie, you can get caught up on all the episodes here. If you’ve been with us awhile, then strap in as J.R. takes us through the logistics of how we approach co-writing a novel.
To me, one of the real attractions to the WMD project was the chance to do some collaborative writing with Dave. During one of our first sessions, we talked through what each of us brought to the project:
- Writing experience – three novels published in the last year
- Experience with the book editing, publishing, and marketing processes
- Established website we could use to host the blog
- Deep experience in military and intelligence ops
- Network of subject matter experts to use as beta readers and fact-checkers
- Screenplay writing experience
So how do we come up with a writing process that plays to our strengths? To start with, let’s break the conversation into things we do together and stuff we do on our own.
Stuff We Do Together
Story Idea – We had several long bull-sessions—I mean, meetings—to nail down a story idea that we thought was compelling, but also grounded in reality. In many ways, the search for WMDs in Iraq was a defining historical event for an entire generation and a great starting point for our story.
Narrative Arc – Our next major milestone in collaborative writing was to talk through the whole story, which Dave turned into a two-page summary. Instead of characters we used terms like “hero” and “bad guy-1” for the people. We were just after the major plot points.
Timeline – Part of the goal of our project was to weave fact and fiction together. We figure we’ll have been successful if readers say to themselves, “That didn’t really happen, did it?” To get to that point we laid out a timeline of the entire story on a white board, interspersing our made-up events with real historical happenings.
Characters – We like to develop characters together, but this process is still a work in progress, and we end up adding a lot of detail as the draft takes shape. To get started, we like to “cast” our characters, by finding a picture of them from the internet or a magazine.
Story Meetings – We get together every other week for story meetings. The main purpose here is to talk through the critical elements of each scene in detail. In the course of a three-hour meeting we usually get through 6-8 chapters.
Stuff We Do On Our Own
Beats – After we’ve agreed on a scene, I put my intelligence training (analyst skills, coupled with my real-world experience in intelligence and military operations) to work in finding and synthesizing key elements we need to make our novel believable. The chapter outline I produce for Dave is a combination of research and plot. For example, we had a scene at a dock where the bad guys are smuggling weapons out of the country. I did research on the port, the area, the kind of freighter, anything that would help Dave write the scene in a convincing manner.
First Draft – Dave does the first draft on his own. We made this decision early on because we felt it would create a “voice” problem if we tried to switch writers every chapter or so. We briefly considered limiting ourselves to only two points of view and having Dave write one POV and me the other, but discarded the idea as not workable. (We might use it in the future).
Second Draft – Dave sends me first draft chapters as soon as they are done. When he writes, if he runs into something he needs to find out, he’ll [bracket] it and keep writing. I read first drafts right away to address any factual issues and make light edits, but mostly I am looking to make sure our story is staying on course with our last story meeting. I like to stay about four chapters ahead of Dave in providing outlines.
So How Is It Working So Far?
Slow start – In our first story meeting, we outlined the first eight chapters and I sent Dave the first few chapter outlines. However, by the time Dave had drafted up through chapter five, it was obvious we needed to do some more work on our character development. We ended up scrapping an entire section right at the beginning of the story in order to get back on track.
How long is the story? – Well, the truth is, we don’t really know. Our project schedule assumes 90,000 words (~300 pages), but that’s a guess. Each time we get together, the story gets a little deeper…and a little longer.
This covers our collaboration process to date, with the following progress:
- 11 chapters drafted
- 13 chapters outlined
- 21 chapters through the story meeting stage
Yes, we’re making up our collaboration process as we go along, but that’s okay. What we haven’t decided is how we plan to handle the second and third drafts. Together, separately, sequentially? When we figure it out, we’ll let you know!
As always, if you have suggestions, questions, or just want to say “hi!” you can drop a comment below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Bruns is the creator of the sci-fi series The Dream Guild Chronicles, and one half of the Two Navy Guys and a Novel blog series about co-writing the military thriller, Weapons of Mass Deception. Check out his website for a free sample of his work.