By Alison Daniels
The Brief History of a Writer of Fiction
I always wanted to write fiction. I remember, somewhere around the age of five, writing my own little versions of the stories of some of the great operas (as told to me by grandfather), complete with illustrations. I wrote in block lettering, stapled them together, and gave them proudly to family members.
My early efforts were all in long hand, in large, careful cursive lettering, often with pictures. During my adolescence I graduated to an old Royal manual typewriter that my father gave me. He taught me how to use it, and pretty soon I was doing 80 or so words a minute. I’d come home from school, go upstairs to my room, and bang away at one story or another. Most of my writing was imitative of favorite authors and books. I had a particular fondness for historical fiction, specifically the Tudor dynasty. Only a few manuscripts were ever completed. One time I gave a short novel to a favorite teacher (on whom I had an enormous crush) to read. He compared my style to Henry James. I tried to read Portrait of a Lady at age fifteen and found him inscrutable, so it was not exactly a compliment.
But generally, I never showed my writing to anyone. In fact, if a teacher read one of my essays aloud to the class, I would literally cover my ears so I could not hear the words. I was terribly shy about my writing, and felt that sharing it left me exposed. I loved the solitude of writing — being able to transport yourself to another world, immersed in the lives of your characters, in complete control of their destinies. I would hear characters’ conversations in my head long before I ever set them down on paper.
In retrospect, writing for me was almost an addiction – a necessary part of life. I always felt I would rather read and write than eat. That has pretty much remained the case; my happiest times are still spent in a bookstore, caressing the spines of novels, especially those from the 19th century. The majority of my early literary efforts reside with me still, packed into several cardboard boxes, stored away in the attic. Everything I ever wrote has traveled with me from place to place, and most recently from New York to Virginia. If I ever have occasion to look at it now, it is the work of a stranger.
Somewhere in my mid-twenties, after a disappointing and dispiriting attempt to get a novel published, I stopped writing fiction entirely. I became more determined to experience “real life” and instead used my writing abilities, such as they were, to earn a living in corporate communications. I didn’t have time to write for “pleasure.” I realized I didn’t have any ideas of what I would write. My previous forays into fiction had all been pretty derivative of authors I admired and I didn’t feel the same drive to be creative. So I gave up that dream, of being a full- time author, locked away with her typewriter and writing herself an alternative life. I thought that dream had been buried. But I was wrong.
Collaboration: Some Benefits
When Dean and I began our collaborative writing “experiment” I hadn’t written fiction of any kind in about thirty years. I thought it would be a fun exercise to try, especially with a friend encouraging the process. Like riding a bicycle (something I also used to do religiously and haven’t done for decades), the pure joy of just writing from your own imagination came back to me, with a vengeance. And also with a vengeance, that sense of pouring one’s heart and soul on a page and being exposed returned.
Dean and I would write our respective chapters. I would spend a few hours a day, ignoring my “paid” work so I could devote myself to these characters we were creating. I thought of storylines and sent Dean long, enthusiastic, dictatorial emails with ideas for the plot. At first we didn’t even know where the story was going, but the journey itself was what was important. Still I struggled because I was not in full control. After all, fiction was “my” thing. I was becoming obsessed by it.
My already close friendship with Dean (a friendship in which I had already marveled at her writing talent, after reading her book Looking for Lydia and her blogs), became in many ways even closer. We exchanged multiple emails. We were both proud and mystified that we were doing this together. We had a mission. We were writing a book.
Every time I completed a chapter, I would anxiously submit it to Dean via email, hoping for her approval. Just as when I was a child, I was nervous about how my work would be judged. I thought what I had done was pretty good, would she think so also? Dean would send a chapter back, and to my chagrin, her edits always rendered what I thought was decent writing into something far superior to what I had done originally. Eventually, I think I learned to “up my game” before sending anything to her. After a while, our different writing styles seemed to mesh more smoothly. I could rely on her to improve on what I had done. I could also rely on her to not just give her stamp of approval. I was trying to measure up to the abilities of my writing partner.
I was especially in awe of Dean’s descriptive passages, and I relied on her to bring the setting, the stage, to life. I never had any concept of what characters looked like, or how their apartments were decorated. But I didn’t have to worry about that. I could make them talk and think; I could animate them. And Dean would create a complete setting in which they lived and breathed and spoke my words. I liked the patter of dialogue I had written for certain characters, and I could sometimes see them conversing, as if in a movie. Most of the time, chapters flowed very easily and I was writing at a rapid pace.
Years ago, I had resisted using a computer, preferring the rhythm and discipline of the typewriter, first a manual, then an IBM Selectric. But writing on a laptop became so much more liberating. With a typewriter, you started at the beginning and kept writing till the end. This required having your thought process well defined before you even began in order to avoid crumpling up reams of paper and starting from scratch.
With a laptop, you can begin anywhere, and bring it together later, you can move passages around, and even the entire structure of the manuscript can be reorganized. We wrote chapters out of sequence and fitted them in later. You can verify your ideas by doing a quick Google search – extremely important when you are setting some parts of your novel in the past and don’t want to be anachronistic. You can save and return later, you can copy and paste and begin an alternate version, you can review and edit as you go. I never had writer’s block. I just kept going. I was transported to another time and place, and at the end, I had produced pages and pages that had resided only in my head before.
With a laptop, you can edit so much more easily. Editing is a snap. And it’s so easy to be an editor – even as you have been editing yourself, you can insert your own comments into your writing partner’s work, as if playing schoolteacher to a student’s essay.
Collaboration: Some Difficulties
And there’s the rub with a writing collaboration. You must share control of your characters and your story. You can easily edit someone else, but you must always accept that you too will be edited. You must accept that your edits may not be accepted, or will be ignored. You may think you’ve written a perfectly good paragraph, only to find it being highlighted for deletion.
Being edited was something I thought I had gotten used to. Once, a colleague of mine had to edit an article I had written – it was maybe six or seven pages, and needed to be one or two. I almost burst into tears at the dismantling of all my prose, all those words which obviously were quite unnecessary. I had failed; I hadn’t gotten it perfect the first time. But I learned to take editing less personally and become more capable of accepting revisions to what I had done. As well as to know instinctively when something had to go. Or so I thought.
On more than one occasion, I argued with Dean over the way I felt she was reinterpreting the way a character spoke. Wasn’t dialogue what I did best? I was disappointed when she didn’t accept one of my ideas for a storyline. I wanted the heroine to be more romantic; she wanted her to be more matter of fact. My writing style is more florid, more – I hate to admit – Harlequin romance. I had once written a complete historical romance, modeled after Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind. I wanted love stories! I relished the idea of soap opera-like melodrama. All of the characters needed a romantic life, and I kept inserting it. Dean advocated for less of that. She preferred a more literary approach. I didn’t have much sympathy for the main female character; in fact often disliked her and I obnoxiously criticized the way she was being written. Too often, obnoxious became my middle name. As much as I loved the writing partnership, the inspiration of it, the way it challenged me to be less lazy with my choices, I also chafed against losing control. There were many spirited arguments and shouting matches (one sided, as I was the only one raising my voice). Then calm, then discipline, then writing together to develop a work we would both feel satisfied with, even proud of.
THE END (Cue MGM Lion)
And now we have written this book, and I am undergoing withdrawal symptoms. I hated to say we were done. In fact, I proposed more chapters after we completed the first draft, feeling we had not done justice to certain characters. In the final editing process, Dean, as always, reworded and polished. I resented that she was so often right. Wasn’t I the one who had always written fiction? But thankfully we are never too old to learn.
Writing is a solitary occupation. It’s also very personal. You put your own thoughts and dreams and motivations and flaws into your characters, and you end up advocating for them as if they are real people. You want them to behave as you would behave, or perhaps it is you who wants to behave like them. It seems completely crazy, but Dean and I would argue over what a character would or wouldn’t do, or how he or she should speak. Another good friend, whom I had asked to read the manuscript, asked me questions about why the characters did what they were doing. I defended their actions as if I was a part of their family. In fact, the characters did become part of my extended family, as did my collaborator, Dean.
The end result is that I believe, for better or worse, the characters live and are separate and distinct people of whom we both became very fond.
Writing a book with Dean has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. It also tested the limits of true friendship in a way that can only happen when you are sharing something so personal. It is as raw as therapy.
Now, thanks to the infinite wonders of technology, we have a relatively painless and inexpensive way to share what we have done, rather than putting the manuscript into a cardboard box to be stored in an attic. It doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it, or likes it. It is done.
And I am realizing a childhood dream these days. I am still a writer, and now I am a co-author. When I relocated to Virginia a couple of years ago, I didn’t know Dean. Now I cannot imagine my life without her friendship, her wisdom, her humor, her support, her common sense. Dean and I have shared an adventure that was sometimes rocky but also exhilarating – and so much fun.