Thursday, June 25, 2009

Guests in Progress: Kendra Gahagan & Stephanie Schragger

Are two heads better than one? I’ve always been curious about what it would be like to work with another writer—someone to share your misery when the words won’t come, and someone to share your joy when the contract arrives in the mail.

I met Kendra Gahagan at the Conversations & Connections conference in April. She was a model of how to make the most out of a conference: after my panel, she came up and asked a smart question, and was interested in my answer. She told me a bit about herself and her co-writer and their project, enough to leave me feeling interested, not overwhelmed. I said that I was intrigued at the thought of co-writing, and that that might be something interesting on my blog. She took a card….

…and she followed up, with a nice email message about the conference and asked my advice about something else. I tried to help her and again mentioned the blog idea….

…and she followed up! Lucky me, because now I have an interesting piece to share with you on what it’s like to work with another writer:

Picture this: two first-time novelists sit down to start writing their manuscript together. Well, not quite together, since they live in two different cities, and not just one story, but interwoven tales of two heroines living in New York and Washington.

However daunting it seemed, writing our work of commercial women’s fiction as a team was the best idea we could have had (second only to not making our characters vampires, since it seemed like we had seen that somewhere before…). Despite being the closest of friends, we knew that crafting every sentence of the novel together would either drive us clinically insane or make the release date of our book sometime circa 2050. Instead, we decided to write in tandem – with each chapter alternating between the plot lines and cities of our characters, Alex and Sophie. It let us juxtapose the two heroines’ adventures and also transport the reader in every other chapter from the vibrant, edgy buzz of New York to the quixotic, high-powered vibe of DC. The process kept us ferociously on deadline, since a new chapter by one of us couldn’t be tackled until the previous one was finished. Verizon in-network calling became our new best friend for edit sessions and we quickly realized how much fun it was to play “unsuspecting reader” for one another by withholding the twists and turns in each chapter. What better way to see if they actually worked?

After all of our review sessions – some by phone well past midnight, others sitting side-by-side in our one-bedroom apartments – we were shocked when the chapters came together sounding like one voice throughout the novel. We felt the planets must have aligned when friends and literary editors alike told us they would have never guessed that the novel had been written by more than one author. We could only conclude that either we do share a brain (equal halves, of course), we were separated at birth (our mothers are eerily similar), or our book was simply meant to be written. We’re going with option C…and are loving every minute of it along the way.

A few tips for co-authoring a novel:

-- Try to map out a way to divide the material easily and logically, versus truly co-writing every chapter (if you want to finish it this century).

-- Don't be a "friendly" editor to your friend. You and your co-author are each other's best critic, so when reading and editing, be brutally honest!

-- Set strict deadlines. It's amazing how the simple act of writing down chapter due dates on a calendar will jump start your productivity.

~Kendra Gahagan & Stephanie Schragger

About: Kendra Gahagan and Stephanie Schragger came up with the idea for their novel at a Starbucks in Manhattan back when they lived just a subway ride apart. Stephanie is a history teacher at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn and Kendra is a documentary producer in Washington, DC. They’ve been best friends since their freshman year in college.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.