On the Road

© 2010 Leslie Lee

I never imagined how much I would learn by collaborating on a story.  What’s even more surprising is that I’ve never met my co-writer, Carolyn Chang, in person.  We met through an online Science Fiction writing class.

There’s a cliché that says the window to the soul is through the eyes, but I think if you really want to get to know another person, read what she writes. The only sense you are using is your mind. All you know about the person you are engaging with is what you see on the written page. The stories she writes and the feedback she provides reveals how that person thinks and tells you what’s important to her. It’s mind-to-mind communication.

That was the first thing that made me respect Carolyn.  Her humor and values came through in her stories.  Here was a lady who questioned the status quo, who valued independent thought over political correctness, and who wrote about this subject with a sardonic humor that was also poignant.  Her imagination amazed and inspired me. She was able to create whole other worlds effortlessly, and her characters were unique and funny. Carolyn’s perceptive questions about my stories revealed unexplored vistas. Latent ideas lying dormant deep in my consciousness rose to the surface, opened new windows of opportunity.  I respected her intelligence, and found her commitment to the craft inspiring.

Our in-class, on-line discussions soon evolved into an email friendship.  When I jokingly sent her my Myers-Briggs personality result with the note: “Now you’ll really know me,” she informed me that she really would because shared the identical personality type. This pleased and surprised us both, and we developed an affectionate nick-name for each other—mind-twin.

I enjoyed getting to know Carolyn, especially because our lives are so different.  Even though I’ve traveled to a few countries, California has always been my home. I’ve lived in the same house for nineteen years, with my husband, our now sixteen-year-old daughter and our dog. I work part-time at College of Marin, and spend my free time with my family, writing, reading, and exercising. Carolyn is an ex-pat from Michigan, and is married to a Dutch man. She’s lived in Amsterdam for the last thirteen years.  Carolyn juggles two young children, ages three and five, with a career in international banking. Last year she shared her trials with driving lessons, and how different the laws were in the Netherlands.  I cheered when she passed the exam and obtained her Dutch license. On weekends she takes walks into the local forest (where I imagine little elves and gnomes live), or she and her family ride into town for dinner via a “box Bike” (a  giant three-wheeler with a big box in front large enough to hold four small children or a week’s groceries).  For all the plethora of Mexican restaurants where I live, there is only one decent Mexican restaurant in Amsterdam.  I cannot imagine living in a city where Mexican food is so limited.

One day Carolyn emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on a story with her. I mentally shrugged, “Why not?” I truly had no expectations that it would be anything more than a friendly exercise, something that would dissipate from disinterest and/or lack of agreement. Our initial explorations, though, soon developed into the following process.

We free-wrote paragraphs or scenes, letting our imaginations flow, without either internal or external editing.  This method allowed us to be as creative as possible. It was also a lot of fun! Both Carolyn and I found ourselves anxiously awaiting the next email to see how the other person continued the story. We each found it rewarding to write a scene that would evoke an emotion from our partner, to leave her in a horrible position and see how she would write herself out of it. Carolyn expressed this sentiment well: “I couldn’t wait for those emails from you to see where you’d take it next and what cliff hanger you’d leave me with.  I would really laugh out loud with where you’d hand over the scene to me – sort of like dangling me over a deep hole and seeing if I’d make my way back to solid ground.  Hah!  I loved it!  It really pushed my creativity and I also WANTED to surprise you or make you laugh – to pull some emotion from you.  It helped me be a better writer.”

If one of us felt that a scene was not working, we would stop and discuss plot ideas, setting or character development, and we’d save the scene for possible use elsewhere.

When we edited our work, we suggested changes using different colored fonts (so we could tell who was writing what), and we inserted comments on the side-bar so we could discuss the rationale behind our recommendations.  While we respected each other’s feelings and point of view, our ultimate goal was the quality and integrity of the story, so our communication was always open and honest.

If we still disagreed even after inserting our comments, the next phase was an email debate. This has become one of my favorite parts about collaborating with another writer, because it is where I learn and grow. I discovered that when you defend your writing to another person through analysis, you raise your awareness of what you are doing to a new level. Conscious intent replaces “because it is cool”. I learned that “cool” needs to be grounded in logic, in setting, in character, in the world you’ve created for your story, or the whole thing falls apart. It’s important to set one’s ego aside, and focus on the story. In addition, being flexible, and being able to negotiate and to compromise are crucial strategies for successful collaboration.

I encourage you to try collaborative writing—it’s an adventure you won’t regret.

LeeLeslie and Carolyn’s short story, “Cloud Monsters” was published by Aurora Press, in their anthology, Novus Creatures.  Leslie’s short story, “Tattoo”, has been nominated for the 2010 Pushcart Anthology by Liquid Imagination Magazine. Carolyn Chang is the creator of the website: stuckonmystory.com, a website that helps writers develop their plots and discuss current fiction. She is also a slush pile editor at Abandoned Towers Magazine (abandonedtowers.com). Leslie Lee and Carolyn Chang also have a novelette and short story in progress.