James D. Macdonald is the award-winning author of over forty fantasy and science fiction novels, including his most recent work, Lincoln's Sword. I recently chatted with Jim about his frequent collaborations with co-author Debra Doyle, as well as his work in educating writers about publishing scams.
You’ve had a pretty amazing career as a fantasy author. Can you tell us how you got started in the genre?
I got started in the genre by reading an awful lot of fantasy when I was young. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the Chronicles of Prydain, pretty much every word that Robert E. Howard ever wrote, Tolkien, and endless others. My father had been reading and collecting science fiction since the ‘thirties, so we had the house filled with fantasy and science fiction.
So, fast forward a few years. I was a young sailor, with a girlfriend in Philadelphia, a bookish young lady. We wrote letters to one another all the time. Often, those letters included bits of fantasy story titled “Yet another scene.” It was sort-of medieval gritty with romantic undercurrents. Nothing coherent, just scenes.
Fast forward a few more years. I was married to that young lady, I was still a sailor, but we (Doyle, for it was she) and I had written and published one short story (a werewolf story, “Bad Blood,” which is currently available in e-book format). We wrote two young-adult science fiction novels under a group pseudonym. Then the nice folks who had packaged that YA SF series (Planet Builders, by “Robyn Tallis,” if anyone remembers it–pitched as “Sweet Valley High in Space”) asked if we would like to write a middle-grades fantasy series. “By golly,” we said. “We could do that,” and pulled out all the scenes from Yet Another Scene. This became the Circle of Magic series. With that, we were on our way.
You’ve collaborated with Debra Doyle on over forty novels. Tell us about how your collaboration works.
The way we divide the writing is like this: I write a “strong outline” (what anyone else might call a first draft), which generally comes to around 3/4 of the length of the finished book. I sketch out scenes, dialog, and descriptions, although often the dialog will read “Doyle does this part.”
Debra takes this, and goes through and re-writes the book, though when she comes to action scenes she often writes “Macdonald does this part.” And so we pass the drafts back and forth, writing and re-writing, and adding (or subtracting, or moving) scenes as seems good to us. I tend to edit on hardcopy; Doyle usually edits on-screen. Sometimes we act out scenes in our kitchen. Sometimes we gossip about our characters’ personal lives. (Once, our elder daughter, walking in on such a conversation, asked, “Is this someone I know, or is it someone from one of your books again?”)
When we’re at a place where we’re both happy with the book, we go through, page by page, marking up that physical page, handing it off to the other person, marking it up, handing it back, until we’re both happy with it. Then we take the next physical page and repeat the process.
In the final analysis, I get final cut on what happens, Doyle gets final cut on how we say it. That is, I have the plot, she has the words.
You’ve also written books on your own. How different is the process when writing by yourself, as opposed to working with a partner.
I find writing with a partner much easier. Doyle does all the hard parts. (If you ask Doyle, she’ll tell you that I do all the hard parts. It works for us: The rocks in my head match the holes in hers….)
When I write on my own I find that I write much shorter than when I write with Doyle. I’m also far too telegraphic. In editing, my editor keeps asking me to “explain more” and not to clip the ending, but rather to play it out.
When I’m writing on my own, I also tend to write scenes out-of-order, as they occur to me, rather than telling a coherent story. That makes the process of second-drafting more interesting, as I have to play jigsaw puzzle with the bits.
To read the second part of this interview, see this post.
Thanks to Mystic Scribes
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