The Last Sunset, the fourth book in The Cowboy and the Vampire Collection, won an IPPY medal for horror in 2017. In response, we were invited to contribute a column in the magazine Independent Publisher. Our column posted January 10, and here it is reprited in all its glory.
Ten Writing Tips Curated from Epic Arguments
We’ve been writing together for 17 years, about the same amount of time we’ve been a couple. The two are definitely related. We wrote our first book — The Cowboy and the Vampire: A Very Unusual Romance — in 1999 to see if we could refocus, or at least constructively channel, some of the dysfunctional energy that had already broken us apart once. It worked, and we’ve got the emotional scars, and books, to prove it.
We wrote three more books in The Cowboy and Vampire Collection (the latest was a silver IPPY medalist in horror) and, most recently, we’ve branched out to a new alt-history book — Bonnie and Clyde: Resurrection Road.
But just because we’ve been productive doesn’t mean we don’t still fight about writing. Here’s a Top 10 list of our most memorable writing fights and actual, applicable lessons extracted from each.
1) Punctuation. We literally fought about the overuse of em dashes once, and whether they were too masculine — especially compared to the more feminine semi-colon. Ridiculous. And a good reminder to create and maintain a style guide to track usage decisions while writing (“said Clyde,” vs. “Clyde said”) and avoid, well, limit future arguments.
2) Hair length. Writing with a partner means twice the opportunity to introduce continuity errors. As we neared the final draft of our fourth book, we got into a heated discussion about our heroine’s hair length. She had shaved it off in book three, and now it was too long or too short in alternating chapters. The solution? Create detailed character sketches, including physical descriptions and personality quirks, and update as you go.
3) Candy. Our new book is set in the 1930s and in an early scene one of the main characters was popping candy that hadn’t been invented yet, which we didn’t pick up until near the last line edit, a time already fraught with tension. The lesson here is to undertake the requisite research on your setting’s era before writing begins — the customs, the slang, the cars, the style of dress and the candy (like Choward’s Violet Mints).
4) Social obligations. Successful writers tend to guard their time jealously. When you are in the groove of writing, especially if you have day jobs, or kids (or both), social obligations can seem like an intrusion. Especially if your partner scheduled something and forgot to tell you. It’s tempting, but probably not healthy, to skip all the happy hours and brunches and weddings (funerals get an exception). Keep some unstructured time on your calendar, and share your calendar with your significant other.
5) Stick to the plot. Along with writing fiction, we both have decades of professional communications and journalism experience, which means we are capable of churning out a lot of words on deadline. One little deviation from the plot can launch three chapters into some dead end alley that will take a week and some awkward conversations to unravel. That’s why we spend so much time working on our initial plot line. The first one we did was sketched out in crayon on the back of a placemat in a truck stop in Madras, Oregon. Now, we’re more sophisticated and use color markers.
6) I thought you were going to write that? One of the unique aspects of writing as a team is it’s easy to “accidentally” skip over difficult sections. Easy, but unfair, and something our neighbors have probably hears us “discussing.” We’re pretty strict about setting writing goals so there are never any surprises along the way.
7) Why did you write that? This is purely hypothetical, but let’s say one person is writing half a story about the metaphysical underpinnings of shared consciousness and another is writing a modern day western, merging it into a seamless voice can be challenging. We found a sweet spot between the two, eventually, but it’s a good reminder to identify your target audience in advance (we’ve even developed avatars with characteristics we want to keep in mind), and then write for them. Otherwise, you might just be writing for yourself — and you’ll have to buy an awful lot of your own books to make it onto the best-seller list.
8) No, it’s your turn to market! Marketing is the worst part of being a writer; it’s not the poverty, the social isolation, or the crippling insecurity mixed with narcissism — it’s trying to get your book in front of a reading audience with short attention spans and endless choices. If there’s one reliable source of petty, snippy fights, it’s tiredly contemplating yet another blog post or ad design or review pitch. But it’s vital. So start the marketing plan before the book. The single biggest impediment to writing is ignoring the marketing side — talk to people who have done it before, come up with a budget and a plan.
9) Who have you been reading? Scale back on the fiction you read while writing because it’s too easy to let the style of other writers, especially great writers, slip into your own writing. Ordinarily that might not seem like a bad thing, but splashes of other authors showing up throughout your book is like seeing a few touch ups by Pollock on a Rembrandt. At one point in our first book, the cowboys and vampires suddenly, inexplicably started experiencing some odd flourishes from Dostoevsky and Wilkie Collins. There’s a double lesson here: avail yourself of an excellent editor.
10) Who drank all the gin/whiskey? It’s probably a good idea to stock up on a couple bottles before you start. Because you’re not leaving the house for a while.
If that didn’t scare you off, nothing will. Hopefully the tips will prove useful and, if you’re writing with your romantic partner, hopefully you have forgiving neighbors who don’t mind “passionate” discussions about em dashes at two in the morning. With five books under our collective belts, and another under way, it’s fair to say that writing together has been a great experience. We’re twice as productive, we always have access to an editor/critic, and we can take turns being depressed and apathetic, knowing the other can take over the motivation and blind optimism to keep plowing ahead.
Clark Hays and Kathleen McFall have written five books together, so far: The four-book series The Cowboy and the Vampire, and book one of a new series, Bonnie and Clyde: Resurrection Road. They live in Portland, Oregon, and they have very understanding neighbors.