By Dean Robertson
11 March 2017: The first emails begin. Three months ago.
7 April 2017: The first blog. We have written seven chapters. Two months ago.
8 April-1 June: We write thirty-one more chapters, edit, re-edit, and fight over the entire thirty-eight. We abandon the project many times. We finish the novel.
13 June 2017: We publish the novel. Three months almost to the day, start to finish.
We have agreed that the novel is complete. We have almost certainly agreed, although we haven’t discussed it directly, that we will not rush to write another one together.
I am not sure where that leaves either of us in terms of long and illustrious careers as novelists. Regardless of arguments, regardless of bad feelings, regardless of the almost daily desire to quit the whole thing, we brought to this project two distinct and well-honed sets of skills, neither of which alone could have produced this book.
The blog published on April 7 described the process by which we had just written the first seven chapters. I wrote that we had written 70 pages. I didn’t make note of the word count.
The novel, put to bed, has thirty-eight chapters and 89,600 words.
From the Emails of 11-12 March 2017
A Little Dialogue with some Commentary:
Alison: “But then I do not often dream of the dead.”
Dean: “Would you please sit there and read that
sentence out loud and hear how beautiful it sounds?”
Alison: “Yes, I will start my memoirs that way.
‘I do not often dream of the dead.’
Bound to be a best seller”
Dean: “I’m thinking now I’ll start my next book, ‘A good friend once said to me, after a particularly harrowing night, ‘I do not often dream of the dead.'”
I then wrote and emailed the first paragraph which, oddly, is very little changed in the finished manuscript.
We were still at it when I received this email at 9:09 pm the same day:
Alison: “Oh my God, what a great start.
‘I do not often dream of the dead,’ the old woman repeated, a little more softly. ‘But I wonder whether they ever dream of me?’
She was, after all, a woman who had blood on her hands.'”
Dean: 340 Words. At 4:41 on the morning of the 12th, I emailed Alison 340 words.
Alison: A Plan. By 5:15 Alison emailed me a plan: a family saga, following the woman’s story, with lots of “tragedies.” And we would give the characters our pets’ names–and their personalities.
As it turns out, we needed both my plunging into the writing and Alison’s thinking ahead and crafting the structure.
Such fun. We were giddy with it.
I believe it was at that point that the first battle began. It was a battle over a basic approach to writing. It was a struggle that continued right up until we had completed the writing. I think only the last chapter we wrote was free of it.
But that was also the 340 words, and the discussion about the characters that ensued, that started the deeper and more alarming wrestling match. That was the struggle for the souls of our characters; that was the war over ownership as we discovered, developed, enhanced, and claimed one character after another, each one a battlefield. And that led, ultimately, to the final surrender to the characters themselves until I, at least, felt I was just watching them reveal themselves free of any plans or notions I had entertained about them.
I wish I could say that the lovely resolution we found after seven chapters continued, but I can’t say that. We fought almost to the end. There were times when it was nearly more than I could stand. And then suddenly, and for no apparent reason, we stopped.
And here is this book; and here is a friendship–mostly intact, possibly even enriched, certainly expanded beyond its previous borders.
I find myself contriving elaborate schemes that will allow us to write another novel together with clearly defined roles and a set of ground rules that might ward off the worst conflicts. I realize how unlikely this sounds even as I type it. I am not confident, nor am I at all sure Alison won’t just say “No,” and return with relief to her lifetime of writing fiction alone.
Meanwhile, I take away much I did not have before.
Lessons in Writing; Lessons in Friendship
1. Keep writing, no matter what. Neither conflict–even bloody warfare–nor illness, not exhaustion, the absence of ideas, nor a complete lack of inspiration or even desire is an excuse for not writing. If you are writing a book and you can’t write that, then write a book review, a blog, an email. Write notes on paper towels. Write letters. Just don’t stop writing. Best, of course, is to keep writing that book. Alison was an incredibly good model for this. She would declare herself done, done, done–no more, not one more word would she write–and within the hour she would have fired off another whole chapter. She was stockpiling chapters. She never stopped writing.
2. Be brave enough to let someone read each chapter and comment extensively. Have a conversation about it, fight for what you feel you can’t change, change everything you possibly can.
3. Be brave enough to edit your own work ruthlessly. Be as hard on yourself as you can. Your goal is better writing.
4. Be brave enough to be honest in your editing of someone else’s work; assume her goal is also better writing.
5. Be conscious and kind enough to be honest with a gentle touch.
6. At points along the way, stop and read what you’ve written out loud, listening first, then editing.
7. Be completely flexible and open to new ideas about what you have written. Nothing is holy writ. Everything is holy writ. It is a very fine line to tread–to stand firm for what you know is the right sentence, paragraph, dialogue and, at the same time, to keep your mind open to entirely new ideas about that same piece of writing.
8. Keep writing, no matter what.
1. Never give up; never walk away.
2. Be prepared to let things go. Even when you feel most strongly and long to sit down and hash it out, consider the possibility that sometimes the smart thing to do is just take a breath, stop talking about the problem, and move on to whatever it was you were doing before–in our case, writing. Or going to a movie. Even a very bad movie can provide needed relief.
3. Be prepared to keep hammering until a problem is resolved. Be willing to write endless emails, spend endless hours on the telephone, repeat yourself, weep, gnash your teeth, make a fool of yourself, do whatever unpleasantness it takes.
4. Admit when you’re wrong and apologize. Do this as quickly as you can.
5. Keep silent when the other person is wrong. Let her deal with that.
6. Let the friendship, like the characters in a novel, take the lead. It might grow into something new that you hadn’t expected at all.
7. Never forget that the basis of your friendship is love.
8. Never give up; never walk away.
Thank you, Alison, co-author and friend
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