In this guess post, authors Heather Sellers and Dylan Landis offer an inside look at their unique collaborative writing partnership through a conversation about their roles, routines and writing process.
Do you have a writing partner? How does your process compare and contrast to Landis and Sellers’? Share your stories in the comments!
HEATHER SELLERS: This morning I wake up and pack my shiny black bag: laptop, change of clothes, glasses, pens, binder clips—a whole little office supply store and I stop by Fed Ex on Park Avenue and pick up my novel manuscript. It is hard not to say to the man at the desk that’s my novel. When he slips the pages into the brown paper sleeve, I am fairly bouncing on my toes. I walk across Union Square as I have nearly every day this December. I’m going to the office. I walk through the farmer’s market, and I want to stop and get butternut squash soup and lavender sachets, bring lunch and presents to my writing partner, but I can’t take the time. I’m late. Late for work.
She buzzes me up, takes my coat, and I unpack. Without really talking, much, if at all, we set up at her dining room table. Tea. We face each other, dueling MacBook Airs. She has her hard copy of her novel manuscript. I have mine, freshly printed, and we begin. She reads from a scene we discussed last night on the phone.
“Rainey remembers smoking in the girls’ room—”
Seven words in, I raise my hand.
DYLAN LANDIS: Heather interrupts me. “I think it’s too general. She’s not in her body. This isn’t a specific moment in time. It doesn’t fit what’s come before. I see aqua tile—is she leaning against it?”
So I rewrite on the spot. “Rainey remembers leaning against the aqua tile—”
Heather interrupts again. “Could she be sliding down it since she ends up sitting on the floor?”
Again I rewrite. “Rainey remembers sliding down the aqua tile in the girls’ room at Urban Day. She was planning her seduction of Flynn Van der Vliet.”
This is how we work: Today, like many days when Heather is in New York—she’s comes on academic breaks, though she lives and teaches in Florida —we set a timer for forty-five minutes or an hour and alternate between each other’s manuscripts. It might take us that long to get through a single-spaced page, if there are structural problems with a scene or motivational problems with a character. I do more of the reading aloud, partly because I enjoy it, and partly because Heather perceives more when her work is read to her, while I like to hear mine in my own voice. I know how it’s supposed to sound.
This morning, in our second hour, we switch over to Heather’s middle-grade novel and recalibrate a confrontation in a sinkhole. As Heather reads it again, I can see. I see that the girl doesn’t wait for several boys to plunge into the water before she flees—she gets out immediately.
Then we move to a later part in the chapter that describes the protagonist’s artwork—no longer a mural, which sounded young. Heather can’t visualize the girl’s sketchpad. “What’s she drawing instead?”
“She’s drawing two friends,” I say. I see an image of long-haired girls with big pretty eyes, like a seventh-grader might draw, and turned-out feet, and describe them.
“One of them is her,” I say. “The other is the best friend she wishes she had.” It’s a mystery to me, but I can see Heather’s work cinematically in a way that often I cannot visualize my own. I can hear her characters speak and see them act, and sometimes I can tell her what they want.
Just as mysteriously, Heather can do the same for me.
- Your short story keeps getting rejected by editors or agents
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HEATHER: I’m hard on myself —judgmental of my early drafts, and I live in constant self-doubt. But when it comes to Dylan’s book, alive in me like a fish, flawed early drafts don’t bring out that harsh critic. I see the spark on each page and it’s easy to know, very clearly, what’s working, and to help reshape what’s not. I see through the writing—as though the what’s on the page now is simply a placeholder for what’s to come. I ask a lot of questions. What if this, what if that? Pure play.
In the container of this collaboration, I’ve come to apprehend, profoundly, the layering process that is making art. I’m learning to be less devastated about my own weak writing, and I now see all the judgment and self-loathing as both dramatic and a waste of time. I call our workspace, internal or external, “the atelier.” I show up, and we get down to the business of the day—hemming or designing or taking apart and completely redrafting. When I’m not in the city, we work by telephone. We call it “Monday pages,” but in reality, the pages are sent back and forth in flurries all week. It’s hardly discussed, but if we spend one hour on my work, we will do the same on hers.
DYLAN: My writer friends ask if I’m afraid we’ll start to sound like each other on the page. I’m not and we don’t. Our voices are quite different. But we do sometimes use language that the other one offers, particularly in dialogue. Last week Heather conjured an entirely new secondary character for me—a young woman named Wanda with a full backstory, fundamentalist parents, and an overjoyed, almost manic way of talking. Wanda is into hydroponic gardening and grinds her own ink and makes her own paper and bread—I was astonished; I just sat back and listened to Heather channel her, and then I put Wanda in my novel.
Yes, I felt a little guilty that I was using work that had come from her subconscious rather than mine. But our brains seem to be linked at the level of the basement, where the good material comes from. I have channeled the same way for her, dreaming up two young friends who now appear in a subplot of her novel.
We have many instances of overlap, which delight us. My character is Rainey Royal, Heather’s is Radley Redding. We love sharing the initials. Rainey has an absent mother and a problem father; Radley has an absent father and a problem mother. Rainey Royal compares working a sewing machine to driving a car; Radley Redding compares driving a car to working a sewing machine. Both girls have lawn chairs on their roofs. We could go on. We find it vastly amusing.
HEATHER: There’s something on every page of my novel that Dylan has contributed—patches of dialogue, a love interest, everything from tiny details to deep psychology.
Today at lunch we decide to work independently, then share. Parallel play. I tuck into my laptop and work on the images Dylan gave me about the drawing and the sinkhole. The whole section has popped into focus. It doesn’t feel like it’s mine. Or hers. It just feels true. Then I see her across the table. She’s staring, not thinking. I can feel that her brainwaves have changed. I stand, quietly, and glide past toward the kitchen. When I glance at her screen, I see tell-tale icons.
DYLAN: “Honey,” Heather says gently, “you promised me an hour without Facebook.” I am contrite. I finish my scene revision: no Facebook. It works like this: I email her the scene, then read it aloud as she reads it silently. Heather interrupts—frequently.
HEATHER: At first, I felt shy about interrupting so much, but now, we’ve been doing this so long, so intensely, with so much pleasure and so much trust, it doesn’t feel like interruption—it feels like one brain working.
DYLAN: It’s a marriage—I call Heather my writing wife—but it’s not monogamous. I have other close-readers, one a nonfiction author, all the rest novelists. The difference is that these writers take the manuscript away and critique it on their own. One I call the engineer, because I hand him work-in-progress and he gets it on the rails with two or three bold, overall comments. And one I call the watchmaker, because she’s so good at catching the finest details. What Heather and I do that’s different is revise, plot scenes, and even write sentences aloud together at the same table.
We start the day with a to-do list—what do we want to get done? Does someone have an essay, an article, that needs to be looked at? Is there a research question that must be addressed? Will we be examining our novels’ structure today, scenes, or both?
HEATHER: A short nap during an eight-hour work day can sometimes help me get unstuck. Yesterday I set the timer for a fifteen-minute nap and retreated to Dylan’s guest bedroom. I fell into that dreamy place and almost instantly, I saw a movie playing in my mind’s eye—a new ending for her novel. I didn’t move a muscle. I watched, holding my breath, hoping to sustain the drifting though I wanted to run out of the room and shout. I worried I’d forget the images. Then I slept. Somehow, when I woke, I remembered. I felt like a dog who’d found a bone long-buried—I bounded out of that bedroom fairly singing. I found a bone! See if it’s yours?
DYLAN: What Heather had seen was a complication. A radical twist. I was resistant. It would mess up the neatness of my ending. But the better part of my writer-self was thinking, That’s exactly what you want to do. Get your character up a tree. Then throw stones at her. This would be the final stone. I’m still thinking about it. I almost always do what Heather suggests.
Dylan Landis is the author of the linked short story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This and the novel Rainey Royal, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her stories and essays have appeared in the 2014 O. Henry Prize Stories, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Colorado Review, Santa Monica Review, More, Tin House and Bomb. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction and the Walter E. Dakin Fellowship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A former contributing editor to Metropolitan Home and contributor to House Beautiful, she has published six books on interior design. She taught fiction in the U.C.L.A. Extension Writers’ Program and now leads fiction and memoir writing workshops privately in New York City.
Heather Sellers is the author of the Barnes and Noble Discover award winning book of fiction, Georgia Underwater, and the memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know: a true story of family, face blindness, and forgiveness, an O, Oprah book-of-the-month club selection and Elle #1 Reader’s Choice. Her recent essays and articles have appeared Good Housekeeping, O, The London Daily Telegraph, The Sun, and The New York Times. She’s blogged for many sites, including Psychology Today and TheHuffington Post. She teaches nonfiction in the MFA program at the University of South Florida and divides her time between St. Petersburg and New York City.