Alex Kidwell visited us on February 24, 2012 as part of the writing team of Saxon and Kidwell. The post on that day was all about how to co-write – the ups and downs – the way it works. You can read that post here. Today, Alex is back to discuss what it was like to write a book solo. Thanks for coming back to see us, Alex!
Writing for These Four Walls
It’s two in the morning, I’ve had three cups of coffee, and I’m staring at an empty page. The cursor is blinking, each throb of that little line goading me. Daring me to fill up the screen with words, to splash verbs and nouns across the blank whiteness.
I start slow. Tentative. The first sentence falls flat and I backspace, eating the words back up, erasing all trace of them.
Again I begin. Again I erase. Searching for that first line, that opening hook, trying to find the way it all can kick-start from a jumble of ideas into a story.
It’s three in the morning and I am still here, still trying to find my way. I blindly stumble forward a few more lines, a scattered few sentences. I pause and look around the room; the cats are sleeping, the TV is flickering in the background like some modern day fire, the low hum of voices keeping me warm. Back to the screen again and I flex my fingers above the keys, letting a stream of nonsense come out while I think.
Shakespeare it is not, but I erase it carefully and continue on, slightly more confident. There is another sentence to join the few I have, another few words that add to the pile. Then a paragraph, then two.
It is three thirty and my page is full. With one last strike of the keyboard it scrolls down and a new page takes its place, cursor blinking, the empty expanse filling my screen. Waiting.
Two years ago this month, my partner, Robin Saxon, and I decided to attempt to write a book. We’d been writing together for several years but never professionally and certainly never at that length or structure. We hadn’t really read anything in gay fiction; before that moment, I wasn’t even aware there was such a genre. But we knew that was what we wanted to write, where our characters were and where our stories belonged, and so we sat down and began to write Blood Howl.
If I had realized how audacious an undertaking that was, I probably would have been more scared.
We found an absolutely fantastic publisher, the GLBT writing community welcomed us, and throughout the excruciating, nerve-wracking, confusing, and overwhelming process, we held hands and stared in awe. We were publishing a book. Throughout all the firsts, we experienced them together. Getting the contract, seeing our cover art for the first time, staying up until midnight to see our book magically appear on the New Release page – every step of the way, it was ours. The first review was really when it hit home for me; someone had read our book. Someone had stepped into our brains and walked that journey with us.
The good reviews, we celebrated together. The bad ones – and there are always bad ones – we comforted each other. I had my other half, and Robin is this dazzling, enormously talented light that I got to write alongside. We got questions all the time about how we wrote together. Since I’m frankly convinced we do share a brain, my big question was how did anyone not write with a partner. The idea of trying to do all of that alone was terrifying.
I think that I have always been a writer. Long before I learned how to structure a story I saw the world as inspiration. The theory of it, the idea, though, is so much different than the reality. If Blood Howl taught me nothing else, it showed me that I could take the vague imaginings in my head and turn them into something concrete. Without that experience, I honestly don’t think I could be where I am now.
My latest book, After the End, is not groundbreaking. It was a simple idea for a very simple story. It started as something to do in my spare time, when Robin and I weren’t working on our third book together. It turned into a kind of private journey.
When you write with a partner, you have instant feedback. You have someone to bounce ideas off of, to double check a scene with, someone to help you fill in the blanks. When you can’t think of the right word, when your structure is awkward, your partner is like your spotter, constantly keeping one hand up and ready to catch every stumble.
Alone, though, you are taking a deep breath and leaping, hoping desperately that you can fly.
Every writer is different. I’ve found that with Robin I am a vastly different author, process-wise, than I am alone. The important thing, I think, is to do what works for you. I could list my every step, I could tell you exactly what I normally do, but if that’s not your personal style then forcing yourself to replicate it will only end in frustration. What I’d like to do, though, is tell you a little bit about what I’ve learned in writing alone.
I’m not a planner when I’m alone. Robin and I together have plotting documents for our jointly written books that rival actual novel length, but for After the End and for my latest works in progress, Gumption & Gumshoes and The Women in the Water, I have a page at best. I’m an emotional writer. I have to feel every scene, every character, every line. My writing is completely covered in long rambling paragraphs, in overwrought descriptions, and long pages spent in narration about the characters’ thought processes. Without another writer there I found that too much planning made me unable to focus. I’d get too caught up in the planning and never quite got around to writing.
The lesson I learned there was know your weaknesses. Just because you find something hard, or because you don’t do well what other people seem to do effortlessly, doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. The only thing that makes a bad writer is someone who simply doesn’t write. Anything else is all part of the process. There are writers I respect and admire that go on and on about structuring your plot and doing character backstory sheets, and for many people that is absolutely the way to go. Trying that when I’m writing alone, though, is like signing the death notice for my story.
And that’s okay. I have to acknowledge that and allow for more time for edits – many times I have a brilliant idea halfway through that I run with, meaning that I might have to change the whole course of the book, add a chapter, add a character. In the original concept of After the End, for example, Brady had nothing to do with food. That developed as I wrote and I wound up going back in the editing process and completely changing the dinner party scene to reflect that.
Which leads into something else I discovered: know your ending. I realize that sounds contradictory, but I believe there’s a difference between plotting out every chapter – which is what Robin and I do for our joint books and what works for a lot of writers, both in teams or singly – and simply knowing where your story is going. You have to know the destination, I think, in order for the journey to be productive. Everything that I’ve written, I’ve known the last scene before I’ve written the first word. Maybe you’re more in detail than that. Maybe less so. In any case, it’s enormously helpful to have a clear direction you want to take the story in.
The best advice I was ever given, and what is so much more important when you’re writing alone, is to write with fire, edit with ice. When you write, it should be like really great sex. You should be passionate, you should be carried away. Let your process take over, don’t stop to think, don’t hesitate to try something new, to push yourself further. The best sex is the kind you have because you need to. Because the ache, the desire, becomes something uncontrollable. Whether it’s with a familiar partner or someone new, you let your inhibitions go and you fall into the moment completely.
Write like that. Take that story, that idea, that character, and give them all of you. Dig down deep and find those words; don’t stop to examine them in the mirror, don’t turn on a harsh light and find every flaw. There’s time for that later. In that first glut of writing let yourself go completely.
And when it’s all done, that’s when you go back. That’s when you let yourself be critical, freeze away anything that doesn’t fit, refine and tighten until it’s perfect. But remember that you can’t edit what isn’t written yet. Without that fire, there’s no story to refine. The worst thing you will ever put down on the page is better than nothing at all. When you write alone, I’ve found, it’s so much easier to talk yourself out of things. You’re there by yourself, the clicking of keys keeping you company, and you start to doubt. You start to wonder. So many times I’ve had to take a deep breath, roll my shoulders, take a drink, and plow onward.
Don’t be afraid. Writing is scary. Writing alone is terrifying. I can’t tell you how many times I ran to Robin to try and explain what I was going to do, to get a second opinion, because I didn’t trust myself. And every time I got the same advice – just write it. Just get it down on paper. These are your characters, your story, your world, and you’ll know if something isn’t working. Even if you’re afraid you won’t, judging an idea before it’s done is terribly hard. Write it, see how it turns out, and when it’s done, that’s when you can ask for that all important second look. Revisions are always possible, but you have to be willing to put the words down first.
Read. Watch. Listen. When I write with Robin, we bring both of our lifetimes of experiences in. We have twice as much to draw from, twice as many emotional references. Alone, you have only yourself. Which means you need to make your mind and your experience as wide as possible. I know of no better way to do that than to absorb as much as you can. Read – especially, I think, outside of your chosen genre. Listen to music, try new kinds and styles, find new artists. Watch television. Maybe that’s a shocking thing to say, but I’ll admit fully to being a pop culture junkie. I watch everything and I learn about writing believable characters, about dialogue, I try and imagine how I’d describe a perfect visual.
Watch people. Watch movies. Watch everything around you. Read the news, read blogs, get as much of the world in your mind as possible. Think about everything. As authors, we’re artists reimagining the entire scope of human experience. I honestly believe you can only do that if you’re willing to keep stepping outside of what you know, keep thinking about what you’re seeing and hearing and reading, keep talking to people. Everything is inspiration, after all. You never know what will spark your next idea.
The last thing I’ve learned from branching out into solo writing is that you can do it. I tell myself that over and over, every time the blank page mocks me, every time I think there’s no possible way I can finish what I’ve started. Or when I can’t start at all. I can do it. I can take those characters in my head, those voices only I have heard, that story only I can see, and I can turn it into something to be shared.
Start. Just start. Writing alone, writing with a partner, writing in a huge group – it doesn’t matter. This is the single most important thing anyone ever told me. Start writing.
It’s a lonely thing, to write alone. It isolates you at times, it drives you crazy, it makes you doubt. But it’s also completely wonderful.
Thank you so much to the wonderful faculty here at Romance University. I always love stopping by. If anyone has any questions about anything at all, I’m more than happy to oblige.
What do you think about the solitary pursuit of writing? Have you ever co-written a book? Thought about it?
On Friday, Harlequin Superromance author, Emmie Dark, pays us a return visit.
After Quinn O’Malley loses his partner of ten years, Aaron, to cancer, he withdraws from everything. In a single tragic moment, he goes from an artist with a loving partner and a future to an uninspired comic book store owner who barely exists. He hides behind a shield of grief, refusing to let Aaron go. He feels guilty for even trying to imagine a life apart from what he’d had.
The charming party planner Quinn’s best friend insists he meet on a blind date isn’t someone he’s ready for. Brady Banner walks into Quinn’s small frozen world and turns everything upside down. For years, Quinn has focused on endings, but as Brady begins to thaw his existence, Quinn realizes that one moment can do more than stop a life—it can also start a new one.
You can visit Alex on Facebook, Twitter, and blogspot.
- Writing as a Team by Robin Saxon & Alex Kidwell
- Discussing Foodie Romance with Kimberly Kincaid
- Robin Covington Places in the Fab Five
- Congratulations to RU’s Robin Covington on Her Sale!!
- Toot Your Horns – Carrie and Robin!