As readers of this blog know, recently there have been three -- three, count 'em -- three new series set in zoos. The first to appear was Death Roll, a dual effort by Marilyn Victor and Michael Allan Mallory. Their experience brings up a question: How do friends write a book together and remain friends?
About the authors
Michael Allan Mallory works with computers in the information technology field, which allows him to support his cats in the lavish lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed. Writing exercises the other part of his brain and allows him to make use of his degree in English literature. An avid animal lover, he’s interested in the welfare of wildlife and the conservation of animals. Michael is a member of Mystery Writers of America and the American Association of Zookeepers.
An animal lover since she could walk, Marilyn Victor is a zoo volunteer and fosters everything from dogs to rats for an animal rescue group located in the Twin Cities. At the moment she shares her home with an over-indulged Bichon Frise and is hoping to soon add a pair of cockatiels to the family. She is currently serving as president of the Minneapolis/St. Paul chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit them at http://www.blogger.com/www.snakejones.com
Marilyn: Although we’d been friends for over fifteen years when we began writing Death Roll, we’d never written together. It was new territory. At the time there were no other zoo mysteries on the shelves and we were excited to leverage my experience as a docent at the Minnesota Zoo.
Michael: In fact, our only previous collaboration had been disastrous: tennis. We stunk. When most people play tennis they try to best the other player with some out of reach shot. Not us. We were so bad we could barely get the ball back and forth across the net. Our one goal was to volley as many times as we could without missing, so we wouldn’t have to keep starting over. This meant hitting the ball so the other player actually had a decent chance of sending it back over the net, keeping the game alive.
Marilyn: Which pretty much describes the way we write together. With Death Roll we worked out the premise, major characters and created a general outline. Then one of us took the lead, wrote a few chapters and lobbed—er, e-mailed them to the other, who added some spin, put in more body English and sent it back across the net. We moved on to the next chapters until we reached the end. After the novel was completed, we went over it again to smooth out the rough edges and fill in any holes.
Michael: A big advantage of a writing partner is having that second person who can suggest things you might not see. One of our favorite examples of this occurs in the last half of Death Roll when our protagonist, zookeeper Snake Jones, is at the local police station trying to view the evidence against a friend who has been arrested for murder. We didn’t know quite how this scene was going to play out or how we were going to resolve an issue regarding the murder. However, in the second draft, Marilyn added photographs of the crime scene in the evidence folder, realizing there would be some. It then occurred to me that we could use those photos to provide key information about the crime, as well as illustrate Snake’s knowledge of wildlife behavior, further establishing her character. Two in one!
Marilyn: Another advantage of a collaborator comes when one partner runs out of gas. Both of us at one time or other have tossed up our hands and said, “Here, you take it! See what you can do with this mess.” A fresh set of eyes can make a difference.
Michael: Ah, difference. Yes, there are differences. The biggest challenge of a writing partner comes when your ideas don’t mesh together, and one person wants to go one way with the story and the other wants to go somewhere else. We’ve both mounted spirited defenses for our version of the story or how a certain character ought to behave, sometimes winning, sometimes compromising. Flexibility is the key to a successful and harmonious collaboration. In our case, though we both cared deeply about Death Roll, our friendship mattered to us more, which meant egos had to be put on a leash.
Marilyn: Even when our beautiful words were mercilessly slashed by the other, we knew it was for the good of the project. And that’s what makes the collaboration successful, that both of us care more about the quality of the end product rather than whose words made it so. Take this blog entry. After writing and re-writing, I couldn’t tell you who wrote what.
Michael: Haven’t got a clue.