The Art of Collaboration!

 

In the days before writing romances together as Stephanie Browning, Susan Brown and I wrote mysteries for middle-grade readers.

We also co-authored scripts and dabbled in a bit of television, but the following article was, in fact, our first “official” collaborative piece.  We wrote it after delivering a workshop at the Detroit Women Writers annual conference, and the rest is, as they say…history.

 

So where’s ubiquitous?

or

How to maintain the balance of power in a collaboration!

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written by Anne Stephenson

(rewritten by Susan Brown; re-edited by Anne Stephenson;

final version by Susan Brown;

last call to the editor by Anne Stephenson)

 

Not long ago, Susan and I gave a seminar about collaboration to a group of aspiring writers.  We called it, “Making Collaboration Work.”  A piece of cake.  One way or another, we’d been collaborating since we were room-mates at Ottawa’s Carleton University.  But this was formal.  We divided the research and organization, prepared the same number of handouts, planned the presentation so that we got equal time, and split the fee.

It was great.  Our audience was responsive – they laughed in all the right places, asked questions we could answer, and clapped enthusiastically at the end.

Why?  Thorough research, of course – but the real learning experience came from watching the finely-tuned dynamics of a working collaboration.  We took pot shots at each other the entire time.

When Susan discussed compatible work habits, she called me a neat-freak.  The crowd tittered.  I countered by pleasantly suggesting she use coasters for her coffee cups instead of our manuscript.  She lounged against the wall and assumed an air of long-suffering.  The audience lapped it up.

When I pointed out how important it is for each partner to receive a copy of any correspondence with agent or publisher, Susan, who forgets to mail everything that isn’t addressed to an editor, had the grace to blush.

She tried to get me on deadlines.  In collaboration deadlines are, of course, sacred.  I get writer’s block; the words don’t flow; my muse is off playing squash.  Susan gets on the phone claiming she needs Chapter Five, so she can get on with Chapter Six.  I tell her I’m still waiting for her edits on Chapter Four.

We went on to discuss how writers often have favorite phrases that grow like toadstools throughout their copy.  Susan’s characters “exchange glances” so many times they get cross-eyed, I said.  She “looked at me pointedly” and told the group how important it is to edit each other’s work with kid gloves.

Writers have such fragile egos.

We trundled through the legal jungle of what can happen to whom when one makes promises unbeknownst to the other.  Susan used several examples of possible scenarios.  In every one, I made wildly improbable promises to publishers, was killed in car crashes, skipped the country with head-earned advances, or a combination of all three.  She finished with a sweet smile and a somber warning that you must know and trust your collaborator or be left holding the bag.

I’m a reasonable person.  It was only in the interest of education that I told them the truth about ubiquitous.

Once the project is finished, I explained, one partner has to do the clean copy and send it in.  This is the position of power.  In our case, it’s Susan.  She nodded modestly.  Her computer and printer, I went on, are more sophisticated than mine, so she enters the final draft, prints it, and mails it to the publisher.

And that’s where I lost ubiquitous.  Ubiquitous is one of my favorite words.  It has tone, it has class; Susan can’t spell it without a dictionary.  I had used it to describe Miss Belcher, the teacher who lurks around every corner in our juvenile mystery, The Mad Hacker.  Throughout the entire writing and editing process, I had warded off Susan’s attempts to cut that word.

After sending the original to the publisher, she sent me my copy of the manuscript.  I was impressed.  It was beautiful – no typos, no coffee stains, no ubiquitous.

The audience loved it.

They didn’t, however, hear the last word on ubiquitous.  After the conference, Susan and I went our separate ways home.  My route passed the publisher’s office, so I decided to stop for a chat.  Susan’s computer, I explained to our editor, had inexplicably left out a word.  Could she please insert “ubiquitous” on page five?

Ah, the balancing of power…

(Postscript:  The advance copies of The Mad Hacker arrived today.  The editor blue-pencilled ubiquitous.)

So where’s ubiquitous? first appeared in Canadian Author & Bookman.

 

 

The Perfect Pitch: How to Write a Query Letter

 

I once had a creative writing student with a marketable manuscript who was absolutely convinced that no one would ever look at her work. She had no writing experience, no publishing history, and no connections. But she did have a PhD in Microbiology, a penchant for pigs in tights, and an adoring audience of preschoolers. Now I don’t know about you, but that combination alone would pique my curiosity.

And that’s what you want in a query letter.

It’s a one-shot, one-page opportunity to grab an editor’s attention and convince them that you, and your work, are worth looking at. Given the huge numbers of writers out there these days, you’re competing for a very small piece of the pie.

So make sure you are directing your query, be it email or online submission, to the appropriate editor; that the magazine and/or publishing house is the right one for you, and that your market information is up-to-date.

Pretty basic stuff, but after a year – or two – writing, editing and polishing your manuscript, even a simple mistake can lower the odds.  Nobody knows your story as well as you do, but you have to be able to describe it in one or two paragraphs and hit all the right notes:  concept, conflict and characters.

And should you have already met the editor you’re approaching at a conference or a workshop, do mention it. It never hurts to have a connection no matter how small it is.  Failing which, find an angle which makes you and what you have to offer unique.

Be brief, be professional, include all your contact information and other details, like word count and series potential, list any publishing credits you may have, then close with a hook — and wait.

If you haven’t heard back after a reasonable amount of time (opinions vary on what constitutes a “reasonable amount of time” from six weeks to six months), find a way to remind the editor who you are and what your project is.

Case in point: I had written a query letter to a major publisher and received a request to submit a synopsis and the first three chapters of my novel. Which I did. I was also keen to establish a relationship and keep the process moving so I followed up with an email about six weeks later.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

“While I realize it’s a bit soon for a response to the first three chapters of Remember This, I thought I should let you know (were you to request the complete manuscript) that I’ll be in the U.K. until early April, visiting family and walking in the footsteps of my latest main character, thirty-year-old silver expert Gillian Maxwell.”

I went on to “pitch” my new story in the second and third paragraphs with a reference back to the book currently under review. I didn’t sell that original submission, but this second letter prompted another reply and another request.

And as soon as I finish that manuscript, I’ll be on to the next.

Good luck with yours!

How to stall like a pro…

 

This was the morning I was planning to print out a partial first draft of my romantic thriller. I’m 25,000 words in, and feeling good even though I know I need to cut at least 5,000 words before moving on. Some scenes start too late, others ramble, and I have one secondary character who is so strong, she needs to be cut down to size. The good news is…my main characters are riffing off each other well, the emotional tension is building, and my convoluted plotline is, at long last, beginning to make sense.

So then why am I writing this piece?

Because there’s another manuscript out there sitting on an editor’s desk waiting to be read, and it’s driving me crazy. And while I know I should be plowing ahead on my work-in-progress, I’m starting to get antsy. Checking my inbox, messing about on the internet, doing the laundry….

It’s a pattern I’ve never outgrown.

And probably never will, so, here’s the plan. I’m going to take little miss bossy from my WIP and give her a book of her own because, when it comes to romance, three’s a crowd. And if the aforementioned editor, the one who’s going to call any minute now, is interested in one book, she may be interested in three.

Okay, now I’m thinking series. And, unlike mystery and detective stories, in the world of romance, the main characters only get one book. They may play a secondary role in another, but a new hero and heroine will take centre stage, and then they, too, will move on.

The rules apply whether it’s a contemporary romance set in a small town like Cedar Cove (see Debbie Macomber’s award-winning series), or a Regency-era quartet like Sarah Maclean’s “Rule of Scandals.”  Because, when it comes to relationships, the possibilities are endless!

As for me…I think my new plan has potential, the laundry is done, and those 5,000 words I need to lose from my WIP may just find their way into another book…with little miss bossy in the starring role.

And with a little luck, my phone will ring tomorrow!

 

 

Revenge might be sweet…but me? Not so much!

 

I think the die was cast the day my Latin teacher suggested I translate Caesar’s Gallic Wars at home. They called it “independent study,” but when she wrote “goodbye, little Miss Sweet-n-Sour” in my high-school year book, I knew it to be true.

I had crossed her personal Rubicon once too often.

Which pretty well sums up the driving force behind the mystery shorts I write. Whether it’s a serial bride in Bitter End, a honky-tonk piano player in Oscar Chump! or even a slightly-psycho claims adjuster in Bermuda Short, once someone crosses their line in the sand, they’re all about revenge.

Ironically, when I first thought about bringing these stories together, I wasn’t sure what connected them. Louise Tellier Hannington Brown had been racking up her assets the old-fashioned way while Oscar Chump kept his in his closet, and as for Carolann Gravelle, no sooner did she find true love than she lost it again.

So she bided her time, made her plans, and flew to Bermuda two days after her former lover and his new bride.

…Had it been any other Tuesday, she would have been at her desk in suburban Toronto, processing death claims for Parkwood Life and Casualty. But not today. Today, she was flying first class “drinking champagne and dreaming about death and dismemberment amidst the bougainvillea.”

Poor Carolann. But lucky me!

I had just returned from Bermuda, with the sights and sounds of the island still fresh in my mind, when there was a call for submissions to Cold Blood IV, part of a long-running anthology edited by Peter Sellers, and published by Mosaic Press. They were looking for original stories and dangling a huge carrot…the book would be launched at Bouchercon, the international convention for mystery writers, to be held in Toronto the following autumn.

Talk about motivation.

And then there’s Oscar Chump, a small-town mystery with a fifties’ feel. For years, all I had was the title and the lyrics from a 1956 rock-and-roll song by Jim Lowe continually playing in my head. He kept asking “Green Door, what’s that secret you’re keeping?”   I had no idea, so I asked Oscar Chump. I’m pretty sure the secret I came up with wasn’t exactly the answer Jim Lowe had in mind, but I had my story.

We’ll file that one under writer’s revenge.

And while divorce does turn deadly in Bitter End, I swear this one’s total fiction. Except for maybe the odd bit about sailing (I had a part interest in a twenty-one-foot Shark at the time), and an article I had recently read about forensic accountants searching for the hidden assets of a deposed dictator. In my short story, the assets are, shall we say, far more personal…and it definitely ends with a twist!

I remain, yours sincerely, “Little Miss Sweet-n-Sour”

Author of Revenge With A Twist, & other stories