How did bestselling authors Steve Berry and M.J. Rose come to collaborate and co-write their exciting new project? Well, read on to find out how it all came together and their tips for co-writing as a duo… and living to tell about it!
A Guest Post by Steve Berry & M.J. Rose
We were talking one day and decided that Cassiopeia Vitt deserved her own adventures, separate and apart from Cotton Malone, Steve’s popular main series character.
We released the first novella—The Museum of Mysteries—last year and set it in a region of southern France we both had visited. That story revolved around an ancient trunk of alchemical formulas that proved extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. This new novella is about the discovery of an ancient illuminated manuscript—a Book of Hours—found at the site where Cassiopeia is building an authentic French castle using materials and techniques from the 13th century. Cassiopeia is a firm believer that history has to be seen to be understood, but she’s about to get much more than an eyeful. And now, we’re currently working on the next Cassiopeia Vitt adventure, coming in the summer of 2020!
So, in the meantime, here are some of our best co-writing tips:
1. It helps to have different strengths and something in common.
We each bring something different to each other’s work, but we also have a shared passion for history. The novella begins with an archaeological discovery of an ancient illuminated manuscript—a Book of Hours—found at the site where Cassiopeia Vitt is building an authentic French castle using materials and techniques from the 13th century. Talk about history. As for our individual strengths, Steve writes tight, fast-paced plots. M.J. is more atmospheric in her novels, focusing on a sense of place and a psychological insight into the characters. The Lake of Learning is a melding of these two styles.
2. Come up with a plan.
Some collaborators write every sentence together in person, or on the phone, or in a program like Google Docs. Others, alternate chapters. Some each write a different character. What we do is outline the story together. For this one we had a fairly detailed chapter by chapter outline that encompassed each of the character’s arcs. We knew who everyone was and what their role in the story would be. Then M.J. writes the first draft. What she produced was missing quite a bit of the Cathar history and the details of their religion. Steve had studied all that before (for a novel he never wrote) so he edited and added to produce the second draft. This back and forth goes on a couple of times until we have the finished product. In fact, these answers were produced following the same formula!
3. Are you compatible?
You’re not getting married here, but you are creating something complicated together. So it helps to be compatible in writing styles and in how you handle give and take. Having done other collaborations, we agree that it’s difficult to have a successful collaboration if you have totally different ways of working. Oil and water just make a mess here. For instance, if one never outlines and the other always does, it’s going to be hard to make things work. And you have to be able to handle criticism. You have to be honest and open with each other about what you’re writing. Collaborations can end friendships as fast as it strengthens them. Luckily for us, we both can handle negativism.
4. Once you’ve written it – forget you wrote it.
“I” has no business in conversations about a collaboration. Ego has to be left at home.
When we talk about the story, when we go over the action, descriptions, and dialog we never point out which one of us thought up what, or wrote what. Every word. Every idea belongs to us both. If your ego can’t take sharing, then collaboration isn’t for you. In fact, when M.J. was reading Steve’s second draft of The Lake of Learning, she called and heaped praise upon him for the changes he’d added to a page in a particular scene, making it so much better. Steve laughed and told her that he hadn’t changed a word. In fact, all those words were hers’. But she’d thought he had!
5. Never start with a “No”
When you are brainstorming, writing, or editing it helps to also forget the word ‘no’. Listen to each other’s ideas. And don’t jump in with negation before you really think through what your partner is saying. Both need to feel free to come up with crazy, unworkable ideas as well as wonderful concepts that make total sense. You need a safe space for each other to be creative and do your best work.
In The Lake of Learning, when we were outlining, Steve threw out an idea about how the final scene would play out. M.J. though it sounded impossible — we won’t give it away… but it’s not a traditional end at all! Playing by the rules, M.J. didn’t shoot the idea down. Instead, she gave it some time. When she finally reached that scene in the first draft, she realized that Steve’s idea would work, though originally she couldn’t imagine how it ever could. So we hope you’ll enjoy it too!
About Steve Berry
Steve Berry is the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of nineteen novels. History lies at the heart of every novel. Steve was born and raised in Georgia, graduating from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University. He was a trial lawyer for 30 years and held elective office for 14 of those years. He is a founding member of International Thriller Writers—a group of nearly 6,000 thriller writers from around the world—and served three years as its co-president.
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About M.J. Rose
M.J. Rose grew up in New York City. She believes mystery and magic are all around us but we are too often too busy to notice. Therefore, books that exaggerate mystery and magic draw attention to it and remind us to look for it and revel in it. In 1998, her first novel Lip Service was the first e-book and the first self-published novel chosen by the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club. As well, it was the first e-book to go on to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house.
Rose graduated from Syracuse University and spent the ’80s in advertising. She was the Creative Director of Rosenfeld Sirowitz and Lawson and she has a commercial in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.
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