Collaborative Writing or Sisterhood Ain't for Sissies

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Collaborative Writing or Sisterhood Ain't for Sissies
by Hailey Lind

What comes to mind when you imagine an author at work? A solitary wordsmith tapping away on a clackety old typewriter in a lonely garret, perhaps wearing fingerless gloves? Much has been written about the writing process, and many of these discussions focus on the loneliness of the long-distance author. But writing doesn't have to be a solitary endeavor. After years of thinking, talking, and dreaming about writing fiction, my sister and I became published mystery novelists by blending our strengths, balancing our weaknesses and encouraging one another through the hard times. Together, we are the author known as Hailey Lind.

Our path to publication has been difficult but entertaining, full of obstacles we expected-finishing a marketable manuscript, finding an agent, pursuing a publisher-and challenges we had not anticipated-hawking one's wares at bookstores, begging for reviews and hoping they're positive, giving readings at Tupperware parties. Indeed, one might ask why (and how) we are now offering a Portrait Contest in conjunction with the release of Shooting Gallery, our second novel in the Art Lover's Mystery Series. What does a Portrait Contest have to do with fiction writing? Read on, gentle reader, read on!

Of Yankees, Southern Belles, and Apricots

There was little inkling that Carolyn and Julie would eventually form a sister-writing team. We grew up with an older sister and doting parents in Cupertino, California, a comfortable bedroom community at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay. When we were young, our neighborhood was surrounded by walnut, cherry, and apricot orchards, and one of our fondest memories is collecting the sun-ripened fruit that had fallen to the ground. Cupertino is now best known as the birthplace of Apple Computers, and now we grew up literally down the street from its first headquarters-Carolyn remembers spotting the Apple logo and thinking the Beatles had moved in! (Carolyn was a little confused.) The booming computer industry gradually replaced the orchards, and many of our classmates went on to become wildly rich. Not so the stubborn Lawes girls, who pursued careers in the fields of art, history, and the social sciences, much to the chagrin of their parents.

Dad is a Yankee from New York, a retired Navy pilot who loves motorcycles and camping. Mom is a Souther Belle, a former teacher and editor who adores reading and "bun berrying"-exploring the countryside, antique stores, and quaint tea ships. There must be something to the maxim that "opposites attract," for our parents recently celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. Our childhood was filled with stories, laughter, and really, really bad puns. We grew up surrounded by books and read constantly-anything from the "Borrowers" series to the back of cereal boxes. Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters became a particular favorite. On long family car trips we would entertain ourselves by making up our own stories.

Carolyn, four years Julie's senior, had a remarkably unhappy sojourn as an administrative assistant in the Silicon Valley. A former pianist, she has fingers and types a blue streak. She graduated from the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit college on the site of a Spanish mission . Before continuing to graduate school at the University of California at Davis. She ran away from grad school to each history at the University of Paris-VII (Jussieu), and while in France enjoyed a series of adventure at on point having lunch in an eleventh century castle with a Count and Countess (they served pizza) and cheering on the racers at Le Mans before throwing in the ex-patriot towel and going home to complete her doctorate. She is a specialist in nineteenth century American history at Old Dominion university in Norfolk, Virginia. Against all odds, Carolyn now lives in an adorable little white house with a huge yard and a picket fence, and dotes on three dogs and two cats, all of whom were rescued from the street and in dire need of a loving home. She swears she doesn't know quite how it all happened.

Julie completed a bachelor's degree in Latin American Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz, then Masters in Social Work and another in Anthropology from the State University of New York at Albany. While she was supposed to be finishing her dissertation in cultural anthropology, she worked as a tavern waitress, lived in Spain, Italy, and Mexico,, taught English to immigrants and medical anthropology to college students, spent a summer at the Florence Academy of art, and made a documentary film with the BBC about Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines, Boston, and rural Texas. She never quite got around to the PhD.

Upon moving back to California, Julie stumbled into a faux finishing project, taught herself how to glaze walls only after accepting the job, and finally established her own mural, faux finishing, and portrait studio in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. She lives with her fourteen-year-old son, a big brown mutt, an old college friend, and whatever itinerant artist or scholar is passing through and needs a room. Her son keeps her abreast of rap music and contemporary slang, but he begs her not to attempt it in mixed company- i.e., whenever his friends are within earshot.

Are we insane?

So how did a history professor and a faux finisher living on opposite sides of the country manage to write a mystery series? We're not the only writing team active today; in fact, numerous duos write under one name: PJ Parish, Charles Todd, PJ Tracy, Nero Blanc, A.E. Maxwell. Some own up to it, while others try hard not to be "outed," but surely all are subject to these frequent questions: How do you do it? Why do you do it? And the ever-popular: are you insane?

In fact, it has been a remarkably easy transition for sisters who, in real life, tend to finish each other's sentences (nobody in their right mind will play Charades with us). We start the process with a division of labor. Julie collects ideas for art forgery scams from daily art news networks. She sends them to Carolyn, and on the weekends we use free cell-phone minutes for lengthy brainstorming sessions. One sister's ideas tend to spark the other sister's imagination, and when we have a nugget of a story in place, we hang up. Indeed, one of the critical lessons we had to learn was when to stop talking and start writing. Julie retires to her computer to draft the first chapter, which she sends to Carolyn as an e-mail attachment. Despite our roots in the Silicon Valley, we're both a bit computer-phobic, but even the most committed Luddite must admit that e-mail makes it possible to maintain our bi-coastal writing relationship with a minimum of time and money spent at the post office.

Carolyn "re-writes" the first draft, which can be somewhat of a bloodbath, and develops the humor, dialogue, and the descriptive passages. Often this involves Internet research to be sure the details are right (she once found an on-line camera through the California Department of Transportation that allowed her to count the number of toll booths on the Oakland Bay Bridge). Julie re-writes this second draft and sends it back to Carolyn, who rewrites the rewrite. Over the next weeks or months the evolving text flies back and forth so many times that neither of us can remember who wrote what, which is our goal. We want Hailey Lind to speak with a single, consistent voice.

Another advantage to partnership is that, as similar as we are in many ways, we are individuals with different temperaments and attitudes toward the writing process. When one of us gets bogged down or discouraged, more often than not the other is raring to go and energetic. And we play to our strengths: Julie, the artist, has at her fingertips a wealth of art information but has a hard time knowing when to stop ("For the love of God, get on with the story!"). Carolyn, a detail-oriented historian, catches inconsistencies but occasionally has to be reminded of the overall picture ("Hmmm- what was that story line again?").

To be sure, there are times when we wonder if we are insane-we butt heads occasionally and have been known to stubbornly reject the other's changes. But we have a long history together and a huge store of trust and good will, which helps us to work through these moments. If one sister feels strongly about something, the other will generally yield, but by and large we take great delight in the other's contributions to the story. At the end of the day, we never forget that we're sisters first and co-authors second.

Art forgery, bounty hunters, the FBI weapons room...all in a day's work

Every new author faces the challenge of finding a "hook" for a novel or series that will make it stand out from the crowd. For us, this was easy. Our protagonist, Annie Kincaid, is based on Julie's professional life running a mural and faux finishing business in the San Francisco Bay Area (though as Julie often insists, the autobiography ends there - we do not have an unrepentant art forger for a grandfather!) Furthermore, the world of art forgery and theft is full of stories much stranger than fiction. The ideas for Annie's most outrageous adventures are often "ripped from the headlines." Finally, Julie's clientele, a quirky bunch, own some of the finest homes in the Bay Area, which gives her access to the rarified, fascinating world of moneyed San Franciscans.

Carolyn had always encouraged Julie to write down some of the funny stories that arose from her work. One day Julie actually called Carolyn's bluff by writing the first chapter of a book, featuring a faux finisher named Annie Kincaid. Intrigued, Carolyn sat down and tore it apart, creating a more interesting, vivid story. A novel-writing team was born.

That original chapter was later thrown out in its entirety as we learned to write fiction, a difficult and sometimes painful process. Both of us had penned scholarly works-Carolyn wrote a book on women in New England, and Julie authored numerous articles in anthropology and social welfare. But we had a lot to lean; academic writing is an entirely different animal from commercial fiction. The hardest skill for us to learn was how to "show, not tell" the story so that it grabs the reader's attention from the start and promises a great ride for the next three-hundred pages or more. We dissected our favorite books, chapter by chapter, line by line. We researched. We went to writers' conferences.

Now that we've finished our third novel in the series, Brush with Death, (July, 2007), fiction writing has become almost second nature. Still, one complication we never anticipated was that the characters take on a life of their own. It sounds like a bunch ofi hooey-how can the author of a novel not know what her characters will do? But it's true! Annie Kincaid is very independent, and no matter how much we try to bend her to our will Annie makes her up her own mind, as when she found herself attracted to her landlord, Frank DeBenton, who wasn't supposed to be a romantic interest at all! Now she's stuck in a love triangle, and we have no idea how it will turn out. Still, we're confident Annie will let us know as soon as she makes up her mind. (We love to hear readers' thoughts on this, by the way-please feel free to weigh in at!)

Being published authors allows us remarkable latitude, a perk we hadn't anticipated. We've spoken with FBI agents, interviewed experts on art and criminal enterprise, and spent a memorable evening drinking with a real-life bounty hunter who told us hilarious stories he swore were true. We also get to ask weird and creepy questions about how to kill people - mystery writers get an odd reputation amongst law enforcement personnel!

A portrait of a contest

After spending years of sweat and tears writing, then enduring the nail-biting process of finding an agent and landing a contract from a major publisher, the newly minted author finds that her book is but one of thousands lining the bookstore shelves. Though we're lucky enough to have a great, supportive publisher, it is still up to the new author to find a way to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, most authors would rather sit at a clackety typewriter (or, more likely, a computer keyboard) for a week than spend a single hour on marketing. Still, the novelist must find a way to get her books into readers' hands.

Shortly after the release of our first novel, Feint of Art, Julie painted a reproduction of a Georges de la Tour painting -aging the canvas, just as Annie Kincaid does in our books-to attract attention at book signings. And so the Art Lover's Mystery Series Portrait Contest was born.

Writing is hard work, no two ways about it. But if you find the right person to share your voice, the collaborative writing process can be mostly enjoyable, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately fulfilling. My sister and I stumbled upon a winning recipe by writing together, about a subject we love. We hope you will give the Art Lovers Mystery Series a try.

I felt really good the rest of the day because I'd actually used one of my beloved facts.