I’ve been writing with Steve Mancini for over eleven years. That’s longer than many couples stay married! I still write things on my own of course (you are reading my blog, after all.) What we write together is completely distinct from what we do on our own. What we write together tends to be comedy, although we’ve tackled science fiction, alternate history and action/ adventure. My stuff tends to be a little moodier, perhaps a bit more pretentious and, no matter how hard I try to avoid it, almost always has an element of the surreal. Steve’s stuff tends to be very dark. We have, however, after all these years, rubbed off on each other. We will have a very dark (perhaps even slightly “wrong”) joke and all of our friends will assume it was Steve’s. He is the dark, quiet one, after all. Steve will say, “No, that’s Geoff’s. I wish I’d come up with it.” They then accuse him of corrupting me. And Steve, Mr. Straight Mid-Western Boy, writes the best gay humor. Really. No vested interest, I guess.
The question we get asked the most at parties, seminars and public hangings is some variation of “how do you guys write together?” It is usually asked with an air of someone trying to grasp something they don’t believe possible. Some even offer suggestions of possible processes: “Do you each write a paragraph, then put them together?” Well, no. Or, “Does one of you write, then the other edit that?” Well, sometimes. Sort of. Or, “Do you argue?” We discuss, thank you very much.
If what people are really asking is, “What is THE process of writing with a partner?” I can’t answer that. We do have our process, honed over the years, but as with every individual writer’s process, ours is uniquely our own, and, as with every individual writer’s process, is a wonderful, delightful, sometimes harrowing mystery. That being said, this is what we do, and, after several screenplays, a web based comedy story, a best selling satirical novel, a popular web show and several articles, sales pages, blurbs, press releases and forum postings, it works fairly well for us.
First, of course, comes an Idea. Some of them come fairly well-formed out of one of our heads, some of them as just a vague notion of something that might be interesting to explore, some a request for a work-for-hire project, a subject for an entire blog post in itself. Then we talk. We talk a lot, sometimes for days. We make each other giggle. (Yes, even Steve giggles sometimes, but he does it in a very manly way.) Sometimes we even piss each other off, but not too much. At some point, when the idea seems to be being fleshed out to the point of actual life, one of us (usually Steve) says, “shouldn’t we be taking notes on all this?” I grumble, then get out a yellow legal pad and we re-iterate all our ideas so I can get them down. Then I transcribe them into a file on the computer. Then we talk some more, take some more notes, etc., until it seems like a story.
At that point I go through the notes and try to put them in some sort of logical order, then open up a word processor (Final Draft for screenplays and web show scripts, WordPerfect for everything else) and start typing. Steve sits to my right, watching. We don’t talk much, it has, by this point, been talked out to the point where my fingers just know where to go. Once in a while, Steve will make a comment and it will flow out of my fingers as if I’d thought of it. Sometimes, he says, “really?” and we discuss the bit he questioned.
Steve had a writing partner before he met me and they used to argue about every word, sometimes getting less than a paragraph written in a day. When we started writing, we made an agreement and have stuck with it ever since: Unless we both love something, it doesn’t go in. It’s a rule with us. Our only rule, actually. (Besides not showing up naked.) Do we ever defend a particular joke or idea or wording? Yes, of course. One of us will make a case for it. If the other one doesn’t really mind, it goes in. If the other one hates it, it doesn’t. Simple as that. During these discussions, we’ve often come up with a “third way” that’s better then anything we’d thought of before and very different from what we were initially defending, so these discussions are very important.
The dictum to leave your ego at the door is utterly ridiculous. Who could create without an ego, without the thought that they had something to say that other people want to hear? We just know that our ego, our pride, will be better served if the piece works, rather than if “my idea” works. Often, actually, we can’t remember who came up with what after the fact. And it doesn’t matter. We did.
As we’re writing, we’ll often question a fact, or a word meaning or word usage. That’s were writing on a computer with an Internet connection is useful. We look it up. Google, Wikipedea, IMDB, dictionary.com and thesaurus.com are all a moment away. And whenever we look sometime up, we get distracted and follow odd trails into vastly unrelated subject matter. We’re artists. We like bright, shiny objects and have short attention spans.
At some point on these random wanderings, one of us (usually Steve) will say we need to focus and we get back to the project at hand, but along the way, we’ve often discovered some delightful thing that we can add to the plot or turn into a new joke or have become an entire conversation between the characters as a wonderful metaphor for what they’re really trying to say. (Free tip: Oblique dialogue is often much more satisfying, and will involve the reader much more deeply. And often make him laugh. Free tip #2: Too much of it will make your reader want to hit you.) We remind each other that the random wanderings work whenever one of us (usually me) wants to get all rigorous and hidebound.
Sometimes we will get frustrated, as a new passage starts flowing, because the “perfect word” isn’t readily at hand, which leads to the question, is there a “The Perfect Word?” I say yes. Sort of. We have spent hours in the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus and on thesaurus.com looking for an elusive word that one or both of us knows is out there. (We use the original Roget’s format, not the stupid dictionary type format. Feh! Whose idea was that?) Often we will come up with a fairly good compromise word, sometimes one that is spot on. Sometimes we will be disappointed and can’t find anything better than the one we initially came up with, but my thought is that the right word can make or break a thought, a bit of dialogue, an entire paragraph.
“The Perfect Word” isn’t a new word, or, necessarily, even a big, impressive one. It’s simply the word the most expresses the idea at hand.
I said we only have one hard and fast rule. We actually have two. Steve and I are artists, and as such, like a drop or a dram or two. He’s more partial to Beer, I to a nice Canadian or Irish whiskey. When we first started working together, this fancy figured heavily in our friendship. We tried writing with a beer nearby (it’s only a beer!) It really, really didn’t work. We quickly became fuzzy and what we produced wasn’t the sharp stuff we love. We made an agreement fairly quickly that no drinking happens until the writing session was over. Even the early idea chats were included in that; they’re as or more important then the actual typing it all out.
Of course, we still liked our dram. Often, after a nice writing session, I’d sort of notice Steve wasn’t right there. Then a cold can of beer would suddenly appear by the keyboard. “Oh,” I’d say. “I guess we’re done.” Steve would answer, “It fell into my hand!” I never objected much. (I would, of course, finish typing the thought I’d been in the middle of before we opened the cans, toasted to our genius and sipped.) Now, of course, we both drink only rarely and almost never after working. We’re older. Eleven years is longer than you might imagine. I’m in my mid fifties and Steve’s in his mid-to-late forties. The effects of a beer or several or a shot or several are much harsher and last much longer. Give me a nice glass of ice water with a slice of lemon in it and I’m perfectly happy.
We treat writing as a job. We always have. This is key, I think. We write after work for several hours at least four nights a week and one full day on the weekend, with rare exceptions. The full day can involve the roasting of a slab of animal flesh over a charcoal fire or a walk around the block to clear our heads, but the focus is writing, and even while we’re roasting or walking we’re talking and thinking and, really, working. Is it work? Yes. Is it the best work in the world? Yes.
What he have together, we know, is magic. Early on, we had a large potential falling out. I was very angry with Steve. And he was angry at me for being angry at him. In what friendship/ partnership/ relationship does this not happen? I brooded for about a week, barely talking to him, which is odd for two people who write together every day. Then I started thinking about what we were creating together, how special that was, how unusual, and how important and realized that was much more important than any (perhaps imagined? Possibly misunderstood, definitely overblown) slight I may have suffered. We made up. We talked about it and agreed that what we have is more important than either one of us individually. Friendships, partnerships are often ruined over such things, but what we had and have is magic and is worth the effort to communicate.
It can even be miraculous, sometimes, not to be too hyperbolic. But it’s not impossible. Obviously. Other writers can model what we do, adjust it to their own lives and create their own miraculous partnerships. I invite and encourage you to do so.
Geoff Hoff is co-author of the best selling satirical novel Weeping Willow: Welcome to River Bend
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