Writing with someone else is tricky. Most writers have their own toys, their own ideas, and they like to write in their own way. How do you keep the other person from being an intrusion rather than a partner? How do you find another person to write with at all? As a kick-off to a panel Edgar-winning author Steven Womack and Wayne McDaniel will be leading on “Collaboration” at Killer Nashville this year, Steve tells his story of working with a collaborator, how the process came to be, and what he learned from the experience. It’s excellent advice and couldn’t be timelier. Several of you have told me you are thinking of working with someone else and I’m about to start a detective series with another author myself. I love Steve Womack. I’ve known him for almost 20 years. He’s one of the best writers on the planet. He’s bright with a strong dry wit and, when I’m old with Alzheimer’s, I’ll still be remembering Steve’s wonderful fictional Private Investigator Harry James Denton until the day I die. I’ve just started his new book Resurrection Bay; the first page hooked me. You’ll definitely see a review in our Killer Nashville Book of the Day series.
So, let’s get started. Here’s Steve. Happy Reading! And best of luck to you in your collaborations.
The writing life is a lonely life. Writers sit in a room alone, stare at a blank screen, and
live inside their heads while they try to create a world and characters that don’t exist and yet will feel completely real.
No wonder we’re all bats#!+ crazy…
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Almost by chance, I’ve found a way to combat the solitary aspects of this process. Before I go into detail, though, I need to deliver a little of what is known in the screenwriting trade as backstory.
About three years ago, I found myself at a bit of a crossroads. I was between books, teaching full-time and Chairing a department, saddled with whopping child support payments and health insurance premiums and was, frankly, tired and discouraged. Nothing was really ringing my bell, and while I knew I’d never completely give up writing, I was definitely in a trough.
Then an email arrived in my inbox from my former agent Nancy Yost. She had a friend who knew a guy who was trying to write a novel, was having some struggles with it, and was looking for a collaborator. She had no financial interest in the deal, she added. She was just trying to do someone a favor.
Was I interested?
For a moment, I almost said, “no.” I’d collaborated on a novel about ten years ago and while it was a good experience, it was a hell of a lot of work and the book never sold. Then, almost on a lark, I said “Sure, put us together.”
So Nancy introduced me to Wayne McDaniel, a screenwriter in New York City. Wayne explained that he’d written a spec screenplay called Resurrection Bay, which was loosely based on and inspired by Robert Hansen, Alaska’s most famous serial killer. The script had been optioned by Lawrence Bender, an A-list producer with a long list of credits, including a few movies directed by that handsome young feller Quentin Tarantino.
As Wayne related the story, the project was moving forward. He’d gotten notes and was in rewrites when, out of the blue, a package arrived in Bender’s office. It was the script to Inglourious Basterds.
“There went my movie,” Wayne said. The script to Resurrection Bay, like so many others in this business, disappeared into the black hole of development hell.
Wayne’s agent recommended he write a novelization of the screenplay and sell that, thereby putting the script back in play. Not a bad strategy, except, as Wayne explained to me, he’d never written a novel and was finding it a challenge.
We talked, made nice, and he sent me the script and what he had of the novel. The script was dynamite; the partial novel manuscript was good, but I could see where it could use some help. Plus, it needed to be finished…
To cut to the chase, we made a deal (Wayne very generously brought me into the project as a full partner), went to work, and a year-and-a-half later, took the manuscript to market. Resurrection Bay was sold to Midnight Ink and will be published in June 2014. The experience of working with Wayne on this book was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had professionally. In fact, we’ve become friends and are already considering another collaboration.
So what did I learn from this? How do you make a literary collaboration work? Three things:
No. 1: Check your ego at the door. A literary collaboration is an equal partnership. Sometimes your idea is the best; other times it’s not. Either way, you can’t let it get to you. As Queen Elsa sang in Frozen: Let it go!
No. 2: A literary collaboration is like any other partnership—including marriage—in that the ability to listen is vital. When your partner is pitching you a scene, an idea, a plot twist, an off-the-wall suggestion that on the surface doesn’t make a lick of sense, then listen. And hope your partner does the same for you.
No. 3: Keep your perspective. It’s not about you and it’s not about your collaborator. It’s about the project, so remember that every bit of thought, effort, creativity and energy must, above all else, serve the story. If you do that, then you’ll serve the reader as well.
Wayne and I are waiting to see what happens with Resurrection Bay. Like all parents, we’re sending our baby out into the world with the highest of hopes.
But here’s the odd part: unlike most parents, Wayne and I have never actually met each other, never even been in the same room together. When he gets down here in August for Killer Nashville, we’ll all get to meet him for the first time.
Steven Womack began his first novel when he was eighteen-years-old. A short eighteen years later, he finally sold one. His first published novel, Murphy’s Fault, was the only debut mystery on the 1990 New York Times Notable Book List. Since then, he has published ten more novels, winning an Edgar Award for Dead Folks’ Blues and a Shamus Award for Murder Manual. His latest novel, written in collaboration with New York City-based screenwriter Wayne McDaniel, is Resurrection Bay, published in June 2014 by Midnight Ink Books.
A scriptwriter as well, Womack also co-wrote the screenplays for Proudheart, which was nominated for the CableAce Award, and Volcano: Fire On the Mountain, an ABC television movie that was one of the most-watched television movies of the year.
Womack lives in Nashville with his writer-wife, Shalynn Ford Womack, and teaches screenwriting at The Film School of Watkins College of Art, Design & Film. Visit his website at www.stevenwomack.com