Friday, March 23, 2007

When Two Heads Are Better Than One (and We’re Not Talking About Those Heads!)

by Sophie Mouette (aka Dayle & Teresa)


Teresa and I (aka the joint writing team of Sophie Mouette) are at the tail end of a week-long writers’ retreat on the Oregon Coast, where we’ve written more than half of our current novel-length project. What better time to ramble on about our experiences with collaboration?

One caveat: There are as many ways to collaborate as there are collaborators. For example, I know at least two sets of writers who work such that one half of the team writes the rough draft and the other half fleshes out the details. That’s not how we do it, so we can’t really talk about that style of process. Everyone’s different, and every collaborative team is different.

Our method is to brainstorm our stories and novels together, tossing thoughts back and forth and building on idea and concepts until something really clicks. Then we decide who’s writing one scene or chapter, and we trade back and forth. Sometimes we can each be working on sections at the same time, but more often than not, we’re building on what the last person just wrote.


Dayle forgot to mention that our brainstorming process involves wine. Sometimes a lot of wine. We don’t necessarily endorse this for everyone, but it works for us, although sometimes it makes it hard to decipher our notes in the morning. But anyway…on to more details of how we collaborate.

For longer projects, we each have areas or characters or subplots we’re more or less in charge of. For instance, in Cat Scratch Fever, I filled in a lot of the details of how the zoo actually worked, since I’d done fundraising for an aquarium. (I swear neither the office sex nor the criminal board member was based on real life, but the sheer level of insanity…that’s 100% real.) Dayle filled in a lot of the setting since she often visits the big cat sanctuary that inspired the one in the book.

In our current work-in-progress, which involves a personal chef working for a wacky starlet, she’s in charge of pop culture details and I’m handling the food, echoing what we’re interested in. (This also gives me a great excuse to buy more cookbooks and cooking magazines as “research”.) We’ve been passing chapters back and forth full of brackets along the lines of [Dayle: celebrity name?] and [Teresa: foodie stuff here].

And sometimes things divide out in really strange ways. For instance, I’ve written every sex scene so far in this book and she’s written every scene of the plot thread involving the heroine’s dog. We haven’t figured this out yet, since I like dogs better than she does and we’re equally fond of writing sex scenes.


I didn’t forget to mention the wine; I just wanted to leave something for you to write about….

One of the biggest pluses of collaboration (other than the fact that you each have to write only half a story or book) is the ability to bounce ideas off each other. The final product is stronger and richer that way.

But there are downsides, too. We tried to avoid a good chunk of them by having a signed contract with each other. We’ve been friends for almost 20 years, but we still felt that was crucial—hopefully if we do have any disagreements, the contract will help protect our friendship. It covers issues such as “if one person stops writing partway through the book, do they get a percentage of the advance” and “how does future money get divided if one of us dies.”

There’s also scheduling and timing. We live on opposite ends of the US, so we don’t get to meet up very often. We also both have lives away from Sophie: solo writing projects, not to mention husbands, houses, friends, etc. If I’m off on one of my motorcycle jaunts, she has to wait until I return to get the next chunk of a project from me.

We’ve been lucky in that we usually agree on things, but occasionally we hit a sticking point where we each have to argue our point. Thankfully our friendship has held up through these! We try very hard to keep the love and respect at the forefront.

We also (I think) have healthy egos—not too overblown, but not too wimpy. Teresa can edit my words and make them stronger, and I can do the same for hers. If you’re too wedded to your prose, collaboration probably isn’t for you.


We’ve been collaborating long-distance since Sophie Mouette was born. When we first started writing together, Dayle was actually living in Wales, which made even scheduling a phone call interesting. At least now it’s only a three-hour time difference. Thank goodness for email.

This week has been heavenly in terms of our creative process. Instead of being on opposite sides of the country, we’ve been on opposite sides of a big table. When one of us reached a sticking point, the other was there for bouncing ideas around. We’d read bits out loud to each other, riffing off each other’s words in a way we can’t do when we’re apart. If something one of us wrote didn’t work, we could talk it through on the spot. We not only made tremendous progress on our current book (the end’s in sight!), we also started plotting two sequels and helped each other brainstorm our next solo projects. The synergy, the sense of a shared brain, has been simply amazing.

In fact, this whole week has been about synergy and sharing a brain. About writers sparking off writers. Our retreat wasn’t just the two of it; it was a whole beach house full of writers determined to get away from the distractions of home and write up a storm. We had private or semi-private rooms, but a lot of us ended up working in the common area, earbuds in, burning up our keyboards.

We’d help each other brainstorm through sticky spots, urge someone out for walks on the beach when she obviously needed fresh air and a fresh perspective, cheered as we each hit important milestones. We were all working in different genres (erotica to inspirational—how’s that for range?) but we all shared a common goal of getting tons of writing done, and we helped each other reach that goal. And all of us have been buzzing about how wonderful it’s been to be with people who “get it.”

I guess that’s one advantage Dayle and I have. We don’t often get the wonderful experience of being together and being surrounded by other creative people, all busily working away, but we are at least sharing the process, sharing both the highs and lows of writing.

Writing is inherently a lonely job. Face it, we spend a lot of time by ourselves, in our heads, staring at a little screen and talking to imaginary people. But when we’re “being Sophie,” at least we’re both talking to the same imaginary people.


There’s also one other thing we had to negotiate, which is unique to writing erotica, and that’s language. What slang and euphemisms for body parts and sexual acts did we like and dislike? Thankfully we both abhorred the same ones! We were lucky: I think there’s only one word she doesn’t like that I could go either way on.

This isn’t to say that one of us won’t question a particular term in a particular context. Once in a while, for example, I might use a word that, to Dayle’s ear, doesn’t fit the mood, or she might have a character say something I’m not convinced the character would say. Sometimes we hear the suggestion and say, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”; sometimes after a little discussion we’ll decide that the original wording is fine. That’s all part of the fine art of collaboration!


Collaboration has its pros and cons, and its up to every individual writer to decide whether it will work for him or her—and then there’s the challenge of finding someone with whom you click.

But when it works, it works really well. If you’ve read Cat Scratch Fever, we’d love to hear your comments about what you thought about book in terms of this little chat about collaboration. Could you tell that Sophie has two brains…?

(Cat Scratch Fever by Sophie Mouette was a 2006 Black Lace release and received a four-star review from Romantic Times.)


Portia Da Costa said...

You know, I've always thought that I wouldn't know where to start vis a vis writing in collaboration, but the way you describe it makes perfect sense. I think perhaps, I *should* write with somebody else... Having another mind to bounce ideas off that way would probably be a godsend!

Olivia Knight said...

I am a bit 'precious about my prose' so would have to find someone of a very similar bent for the kind of collaboration you describe. I have a different kind, though, through ghostwriting - and yes, having someone to talk to who also knows the imaginary people is heaven-sent! (So often when I go out, after a day's writing, I find myself sitting in silence because all my news relates to people no-one else knows and who don't exist anyway. And in any case, I can't tell them any of the news because that would spoil the story when they read it.)

One question - what made you choose a new combined name rather than use both your names for the collaborative work?

Nikki H said...

Sounds great to have someone to bounce ideas around with.

You and me, Wendy?!

Erastes said...


I've often wondered about this, I know other writers who collaborate, and I just can't get my head around it. I once started a fanfic with another writer but we never really got it off the ground, it just turned into "I write one scene from A's POV and they wrote another scene from B's POV"

I suppose I collaborate in a large extent with friends. I have a RL friend (oh yes! I do!) at work who sits opposite me and while she doesn't read my stuff (she doesn't really read anything but chick (non) lit but she enjoys the IDEA of gay historical romance and the plots) she loves hearing about the latest happenings to my latest characters. She's also very inspiring. When I was stuck in Standish she often came up with an idea that gave me plot bunnies and helped me carry on.

I also have a couple of IM buddies who are my beta readers - who are happy to chat about the latest developments - and the insight that they have into my characters (often seeing deeper than I do) helps me bounce ideas off them. I'm afraid they will all have to be satisfied with an acknowledgement on the front of the book, though!

Thanks guys! it was interesting to see how you work - and wine - yes! The great enabler!

Jeremy Edwards said...

Your collaborative post here gives fascinating insights into your collaborative process! The degree of detail you provide really makes the mechanism concrete. One thing I'm wondering: You touched a little bit on the issue of word choice . . . . Now, would you describe the narratorial "voice" of Sophie Mouette as distinct to some degree from that of either of you as solo authors? And when you trade sections back and forth, is it a challenge to make sure that the continuity of narratorial style is seamless? If I were collaborating with someone on a work of fiction, I would think that would be one of the biggest challenges. It's obvious from your success that the two of you are able to accomplish this triumphantly; but I'm wondering if it's an aspect you have to make a lot of conscious effort to address, or if you just have enough of a "feel" that you both automatically write in the same Sophie voice.

Alison Tyler said...

I've tried collaborating a few times... sometimes with success and sometimes not. Thomas Roche and I have worked on a few books together (not joint writing, but joint editing). The funny part of working on His/Hers with him, was that I've actually forgotten which stories he wrote and which ones I did. Our voices became pretty much interchangeable.

What a fabulous post!

Gwen Masters said...

I've tried collaboration only once before, for a short story. It turned out well, but I'm ready to try something bigger than that. It's intimidating to think about, but you both make it seem like such a smooth, fun ride!


TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

Why a fresh pseudonym? Let me see how much I can remember of the reasoning while I'm insufficiently caffeinated. Partly because we as a team sound different than we do as individuals and we liked the idea of Sophie having her own brand name. Partly because it looks and sounds less clunky than "Andrea Dale and Teresa Noelle Roberts" (or vice versa, but that's neatly alphabetical).

Dayle, please add your 2 cents.

May said...

I can totally see how you guys can write a book together.

Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer's collaboration started when he told her that they should write a book together because they speak with the same cadence.

That said, the idea of me collaborating with someone else? Give me hives.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

We used a combined name because the length of both names would be too clunky. As I've mentioned before, I use a pseudonym for my erotica mainly because I've published enough SF/F stories that I didn't want people to be confused. Plus, I started writing erotica in the 80s and 90s, selling to places that required pseudonyms. It's not about ego for me. It's about this being my job. If I have bad sales under one name, I have no problem switching!

Oddly, I'd come up with the name "Sophie Mouette" 'way back then, so when we were discussing pseudonyms, I tossed it out, and it just seemed right.

Is Sophie's voice different from either of us individually? Yes and no. Certainly there's some blending, there are instances when I tweak Teresa's sections and she tweaks mine. But for the most part, our writing styles are similar enough that it doesn't take a lot of massaging. (Of the text, people. Of the text!) There are times when I read back over something and I can't tell you which one of us wrote it. The same is even more true of myself and my other coauthor.

Our current WIP, Out of the Frying Pan, probably has the most conscious use of voice, but primarily because we're writing in a new voice. We're calling it Jenny Crusie meets Emma Holly. It's funny and breathless and madcap, but also very, very sexy and spicy. So that took a little more work, making sure we both had a handle on the tone.

I'm really curious to know if anyone who's read Cat Scratch Fever could tell that two people wrote it!

Kate Pearce said...

I can't imagine collaborating with anyone. My ideas are so deep down in my subconscious that even I don't know how to get at them sometimes. God help anyone who wanted sense out of me.

I admire you two for working it out so harmoniously. The thing I like best is that you only have to write half a book!

femmegyrl said...

this was fascinaating, makes me want to find myself a writing partner.
thank you both!

Sabrina Luna said...

Thx Ladies --interesting post. :) I have a few read-thru partners when I get to a "I'm stuck" or "How does this work?" point as well as when I finished & I'm there for my author-friends too. Two people writing though, never tried it. Maybe one day I will. ;)

Nikki Magennis said...

Fascinating post, girls! I've always wondered how it worked.

I suspect I'm too much of a control freak to co-write, but it might be interesting to try one day. The thing that strikes me as very important is finding someone who shares a similar wavelength - which you guys seem to have done. Bravo!