Writing Excuses 15.36: Collaboration, with Shannon and Dean Hale
Key Points: How do you do collaboration? Plot together. Outline. Outline, revise, split it up, revision again. Love your collaborator. Work times? Not really. Book, then screenplay, may make the story worse, or make it better. How can you encourage better? Check your ego. Collaboration takes time. Collaboration forces you to explain why things happen, and sometimes it helps.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Collaboration.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Shannon] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] Once again, we have Shannon and Dean Hale, our awesome friends.
[Dean] I’m Shannon.
[Shannon] Opening so much…
[Dean] I’m awesome.
[Brandon] You guys collaborate quite a bit.
[Dean] Yes, we do.
[Shannon] Some would say too much.
[Dean] Ooo. Two children too much.
[Dean] But which two?
[Brandon] So, we have talked about collaboration before on the podcast, but whenever we get an opportunity to talk about collaborat… Talk with collaborators, we like to bring them on because it feels like everyone’s collaboration style is so different from every other one. Basically, we just want to know how you guys collaborate. I guess I can kind of start you on the how did it begin? What were your first collaborations like, and how did it start?
[Shannon] Besides the children.
[Dean] Yes. The actual, like, literature… Like, books.
[Shannon] The very first one, I’d been publishing novels for a while…
[Dean] First Kiss Then Tell was probably the first one.
[Shannon] Oh, that’s true. We did write… We wrote a short story about our first kiss in an anthology.
[Dean] Yeah, she was asked to do an… It was like a YA anthology about first kisses, all the different authors were asked to do it, and she wrote about our first kiss. Which I don’t think was her first kiss, really.
[Shannon] Well, it was not my first kiss. But it was my first kiss with you.
[Dean] Right. Right, exactly. Then I read it, and wrote a rebuttal. They published that, too.
[Shannon] They did. Then, our official first book was… I’d been writing novels, and I wanted to write a graphic novel. This was pretty early, most publishers were not doing graphic novels yet. But he was a lifelong comics reader, so I thought he would have a lot of insight into the medium. So we did a book called Rapunzel’s Revenge that came out in 2008.
[Dean] Nominated for an Eisner.
[Shannon] So, but now…
[Dean] [for those inaudible]
[Shannon] We’ve done…
[Shannon] 15+ together. Graphic novels, early chapter books, novels. We’ve done quite a lot.
[Dean] Everything except for one that I’ve written has been a collaboration with you.
[Shannon] Yes, you did that special picture book, all on your own.
[Shannon] So, how do we do it?
[Brandon] So, how do you do it?
[Dean] She does it.
[Shannon] So, at first it was really important that we identify who was the chief writer and who was…
[Dean] Who was…
[Shannon] The subcontractor.
[Dean] Exactly. Exactly.
[Shannon] But we had to establish who was in charge.
[Dean] The steward.
[Shannon] That was obviously me.
[Dean] Yes. That was how everything worked at home anyway.
[Dean] So we just fell right into it.
[Shannon] Yeah. But we’ve done it so much now that I think we’ve kind of ironed out the process. I would say the biggest thing that we do that is…
[Dean] Different from when you write alone.
[Shannon] Yeah, we plot together. This is… I mean when you… It’s unusual to cowrite in novels, but it’s like very common in screenwriting and in television, of course. So that kind of getting into a room with one other person or a few other people…
[Dean] And breaking the story.
[Shannon] And breaking the story is like really a healthy great way to work. I used to not like to outline, but when you collaborate, you have to outline, you have to outline completely.
[Dean] [after we made an error]
[Shannon] Or you have many errors. So we get together, we figure out the plot, we break it…
[Dean] We walk around the lake holding hands.
[Shannon] Like every time a commercial.
[Dean] Chatting plot.
[Shannon] It’s beautiful.
[Dean] It is. I love this job.
[Shannon] Actually, it’s really kind of a fun process.
[Dean] Yeah, it is.
[Shannon] We make sure we get good food, [pestering all of those]
[Dean] We’re just banging ideas out. Ideas are the most fun part of it.
[Shannon] For us, we’re not precious about ideas. So, for people who, like, ideas are the harder part, that might be harder. But for us, we have never-ending ideas. So it doesn’t bother me if I throw out an idea, and he’s like, “No.”
[Shannon] It’s not like I don’t have 12 more waiting.
[Dean] Right. It doesn’t bother me because I only have three.
[Shannon] Right. Whatever. You’re the idea engine. Then we outline, extensively. There are times, for example when we’re doing a graphic novel, when our outline can actually be longer than…
[Dean] The script.
[Shannon] The final book. Then, we, after we’ve outlined and revised the outline over and over again, then we split it up.
[Dean] Yeah. There are certain pieces of the story that often call to one or the other of us. Or, if during the pitch process, I’m totally behind this idea…
[Shannon] This particular idea I’m excited about.
[Dean] I can visualize it more than…
[Shannon] Or if we have different characters. So, in our Squirrel Girl novels, there are different point of view characters, so I did all of Doreen’s chapters. This is in the first draft. I wrote all of Doreen’s chapters and all of Sephia’s.
[Dean] I did the squirrels.
[Shannon] You did the squirrels and the villain. Then we both wanted to do Squirrel Girl chapters, so we split them. But then in revision, we just trade it back and forth, so… We’re not precious about it. So… We can read and add and delete and add…
[Dean] We each take credit for the best… For the funniest parts.
[Shannon] We have no idea what… Who wrote what.
[Dean] Except I did the funniest parts.
[Shannon] No, but they were probably mine.
[Dean] Oh, okay.
[Shannon] Does that clarify everything?
[Brandon] Oh, yes.
[Mary Robinette] That’s completely repeatable, too.
[Shannon] Everybody needs to take that model…
[Dan] Replicate it right across…
[Shannon] Take it home.
[Dean] It does help when you love your collaborator. I mean, when you know that whatever they’re saying, how rude and insensitive and evil it sounds, you know at the end of the day that they love you.
[Shannon] I cowrote a screenplay with Jerusha Hess, and her process was any time I said anything she didn’t like, she’d say, “That’s stupid.” It took me like a couple days to get into it, and then I was like telling her what an idiot she was in return, and it was lovely.
[Dean] Then, our next collaboration, I’d say something and she’d say, “That’s stupid.”
[Shannon] He’s like, “Whoa!”
[Brandon] So, let’s talk about that. Keeping the relationship…
[Brandon] And the work relationship, like intertwining those, how have you made that work?
[Shannon] I don’t think it’s healthy for most people what we’ve done.
[Dean] Yeah. I don’t know that it would work.
[Shannon] Honestly, the main question I get from most people is how are you guys so happily married?
[Shannon] We talk about…
[Dean] And you say, “Are we?”
[Shannon] Well, I want to keep some mystery in there.
[Dean] Right. Exactly.
[Shannon] I think… I’ve also collaborated with LeUyen Pham, the illustrator. So, there… I’ve collaborated closely with three different people. It is different when it’s your husband…
[Shannon] And you live in the same house and you have relationship outside of work. I think we’re just lucky.
[Dean] Yeah. Yeah.
[Shannon] We like and respect each other.
[Mary Robinette] Do you have… I mean, you talked about, like, go for a walk by the lake and… But do you have specific like work times and…
[Shannon] When the kids are at school.
[Mary Robinette] So, I was wondering if you had separated work and family relationship a little bit… By time or if it’s just like…
[Shannon] I mean, not really officially.
[Shannon] Yeah. No. It just… Just because logistically it’s easier when they’re out of the house.
[Dean] Yeah. Yeah, no, it’s true.
[Dean] I mean, sometimes I try to… Like, when you’re… Just this last week, you were on a heads down deadline.
[Shannon] I was working 10, 12 hours a day, which is really unusual for me.
[Dean] I’m trying to run interference with the kids, but… Oh, man.
[Shannon] He’s really bad about running interference with the kids. Let’s be honest. He’s really good at ideas, but…
[Dean] I only practiced football one year.
[Shannon] They slip past him.
[Dean] Yes. Like, what, where… Hmmm? Then I found them in your office. “Mom!”
[Shannon] Weeping at my feet. I’m like…
[Mary Robinette] But you’re so tall and they’re so tiny.
[Dean] I know. It’s hard. Slippery.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Brandon] Which is Kind of a Big Deal.
[Dean] It is. You’re right.
[Shannon] It is Kind of a Big Deal. I have a new YA novel. It is just bra… I haven’t done one in years. It’s just out. It’s about a girl named Josie Pie. She wanted to be a Broadway star, dropped out of high school to pursue Broadway, and failed spectacularly. A year later, she’s trying to figure out her life and she starts reading books and being pulled into them. Trying to figure out what’s going on…
[Brandon] Like, magically pulled into them?
[Shannon] Like magically pulled into them. So she’s trying to figure out how at the same time using this opportunity to, like, live out her truest fantasies.
[Brandon] Awesome. And this…
[Dan] Just to be clear, for listeners who didn’t get it, the actual title is…
[Shannon] Kind of a Big Deal.
[Brandon] And the release date is…
[Dean] Not sure.
[Brandon] Right around this time.
[Shannon] I have no idea. We are just… We’re having so much fun with it, even now, because we’re… We’re recording this in advance. One of the books she gets pulled into is a comic book. Which we just are getting the pages of that right now. It’s really fun.
[Dean] All the books… The fake books that you’ve made up for this are super funny. They’re like examples of a genre.
[Shannon] Yeah. So she gets pulled into a tawdry romance, a historical romance, and…
[Dean] Post-apocalyptic horror.
[Shannon] Yeah. And a YA rom-com. A horror. She gets pulled into Anne of Green Gables, that’s the only real book that I didn’t make up. A fantasy. Anyway. A nonfiction book.
[Dean] I’ve read it, it’s very good.
[Dan] Someone’s going to read this, not realize that Anne of Green Gables is real…
[Dean] That’s true.
[Dan] And encounter it like 10 years later…
[Shannon] I know. I thought of that.
[Dan] And it’s going to freak them out. It’s going to be awesome.
[Shannon] I wrote a book that was called The Goose Girl that’s based on a Grimm Brothers fairytale.
[Mary Robinette] Which I love.
[Shannon] I would get letters from people saying, “I saw this story in a book at school. You didn’t make it up. The Goose Girl’s a real story.”
[Dan] You cheated.
[Shannon] “This is plagiarism.” I’m like, “Oh, no.”
[Brandon] So, looking at some of the collaborations I’ve been involved in, a lot of mine lately have been I write a book and someone writes a screenplay of it, which is a collaboration, but a different style of collaboration.
[Shannon] Yeah. You’re not in the same room.
[Brandon] I’ve noticed that sometimes this turns into a process that makes the story much worse.
[Brandon] Let’s just say that.
[Dan] None of his screenwriters listen to our show.
[Brandon] One time…
[Mary Robinette] [garbled with him]
[Brandon] One time, I got back a screenplay, and every aspect of my story was better in a way that made me embarrassed.
[Brandon] At every turn, they took the better option that I hadn’t considered, and just leveled up the entire story to an amount where I was really excited, but also kind of embarrassed. Right? It was like, “Oh, man. They just…”
[Dan] That’s awesome.
[Brandon] So, I got to see it work, finally, right? Because that’s what’s supposed to happen in collaboration is that the things that you both bring to the table, you enhance each other’s abilities, you make up for one another’s maybe weaker areas in writing, you get something better than you could have done alone. This has happened to me in writing with Mary Robinette where we did a story together. But only once in screenplays. So I guess my question is how do you make sure it goes that direction instead of the other direction? Dan actually raised his hand on this one.
[Dan] Well, I was just going to say that you and I just did a convention last week, and we’ve collaborated on a novel. It’s still unpublished, and we did a reading from it. Which was the first time that either of us had really heard it out loud. It was astonishing to me, first of all, how well it worked, but second, how I couldn’t tell what was mine and what was yours.
[Brandon] Right. I…
[Shannon] I thought that’s what…
[Brandon] You doing a reading of that chapter made me think, “That book’s way better than I remember it being.”
[Brandon] It’s gotta be Dan’s influence. But I can’t figure out what was Dan’s influence. It made me really excited about… I have to dig into it and fix part of it, but… Yeah. So. Collaboration can be energizing and it can be exciting, and when I got the screenplay back, I’m like, “Wow.” Again, how do we make sure that collaborations go that way?
[Shannon] You have to check your ego, first of all.
[Dean] That’s true. Definitely.
[Shannon] You can’t be remembering this was my piece and this was your piece and you can’t touch my peace. I just don’t think it works that way.
[Dean] Yeah. Well, you can’t be precious about anything. Like, I’ll think, “Oh, I’ve got this awesome idea, and I still believe it’s awesome.” But you’re like, “It just doesn’t fit for the story.” I have to be like, “Yeah. All right.”
[Shannon] He’ll send me pages and then I will see the heart of what he’s trying to go for and I will delete 75% of it…
[Dean] She’s the screenwriter in this case.
[Shannon] And then add a few more sentences. He’ll get it back and go, “This is exactly what I was trying to do.”
[Dean] It’s so awesome. I’ll be like… I’ll feel like it’s my work, but suddenly, like, better.
[Dean] That’s, I guess, what it is. But…
[Shannon] But I would say collaboration takes longer than doing it by yourself. So you don’t… I think people often think, “Oh, there’s two people, so you only have to work half the time.” But it actually takes more work. So the benefit of it, as you were saying, Brandon, is that synergy that comes from two different people and you’re wrestling out something together.
[Dean] You get more edit passes, because I go through and see what you’ve done, and then you go through and undo whatever I’ve done, and I go through and try to redo it.
[Shannon] I have a couple friends who collaborate and they said never they get to the point where they can’t… They often agree, but if they each have an idea of what should happen and they can’t agree, then they have committed to throw out both of those ideas and come up with a third option. But we actually don’t really get there. We…
[Dean] No, I back off way too early.
[Shannon] We pitch to each other a lot, and, like, and really try to explain why we want to go that particular way. But often, in the process… What’s great about collaboration, too, is that you’re forced to explain…
[Dean] Why this is awesome.
[Shannon] This is what… Why this should happen, and sometimes when you’re explaining, you realize…
[Shannon] Actually, it’s not that great. But sometimes when you’re explaining, you realize, “Oh, it is that great, and in fact…
[Dean] Even better…
[Shannon] Even talking about it is giving me more ideas about a way to expand it.” So it is… It’s a totally different kind of writing. I don’t think it would… I actually really enjoy writing novels on my own, as well, so I don’t think it’s the only thing I need to do. But for certain books, I’m always like, “Oh, this would be better if I do it with Dean.”
[Dean] Well, I love having an early reader. Like, sometimes when I feel like I can’t… I feel like I don’t know where to go, like what tack to take, I know that I can write for you. So I will insert a joke in there that I know is not going to be in the final one.
[Shannon] And I’m like, “Ha ha, that’s funny.”
[Dean] It’s a gift for you.
[Shannon] Delete, delete, delete.
[Dean] I need to give you something to do.
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time for this podcast. We want to thank Shannon and Dean who have been here to record some awesome episodes with us. We’re going to leave with Dean giving us some homework.
[Dean] All right. So this is a thing that I do with my kids. I collaborate with my children, and with my wife. That was named Picture Word by one of my kids, I’m not sure which one. What we do is we just get a single piece of paper, and we fold it into four so that we’ve got four separate like pages. We sit down and we draw pictures on each page. We’re telling a story. It’s like a picture book or a graphic novel. But you only draw the pictures. Then you pass it to the next person. They, sight unseen, draw… Or write the words that are supposed to go with that picture. Or you flip it. Or you start down and you write… You write the title, The Egg. You don’t put any pictures on the next page. The Egg had something in it. Then whoever it is, the kid who’s next, draws the picture that is related to that. You end up getting a story that neither one of you really thought was going to happen.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.