It’s All about the Story: Jackie Kessler & Caitlin Kittredge on Collaboration

Here’s the ninth interview on collaboration.  This series celebrates collaborative creativity in honor of the Shared Worlds summer camp, which challenges teenagers to build and share imaginary worlds.

Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge are big — huge! — comic book readers and collectors. They have been since their childhoods and their love of comics has shaped their writing and their visions of the world.

Together, Kessler and Kittredge co-write the Icarus Project series, which began with Black and White and continues with Shades of Gray in June 2010.  The books pit two former best friends against each other in a blend of super-heroes, humor, romance and suspense.  Fortunately, Kessler and Kittredge have managed to stay friends throughout their collaboration on the series.

Jackie Kessler writes dark fantasy and paranormal novels, including the online serial Hell to Pay from her Hell on Earth series.  Her first young adult fantasy, Hunger, written as Jackie Morse Kessler, will be released in October 2010. 

Caitlin Kittredge writes about “mages, werewolves, superheroes, steampunk monsters, fairies and demons.”  Her five book (so far) Nocturne City series, featuring a detective who is a werewolf, began with Night Life in 2008 and continues with the recent Spell Bound.

Below, Kessler and Kittredge talk about trust, communication, and having fun.


What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing?
Jackie Kessler: Hey, you only have to write half a book. On a more serious note, having a collaborator is like having your very own crit partner who also writes the book with you. You brainstorm the plot and the characters, and as you write it your collaborator is right there to make it better. And collaborators can complement each other’s distinct strengths and help fill in any possible weak spots. 

Caitlin and I lived on different coasts when we decided to write Black and White, so we relied on instant messaging and emails to brainstorm and pass the manuscript back and forth. Basically, we hammered out the concepts behind the two point of view characters [POV] (and who would write which character), a few of the supporting characters, and a chunk of the history/world building. We had a master synopsis to remind us of the important points. And then we wrote. Caitlin kicked it off with the prologue and chapter one; then I wrote chapter two, she wrote chapter three, and so on. At various points, we stopped to reorganize what we had, and by the end we were writing a one-sentence summary of each of the remaining chapters so we could tie everything up. The draft took us 10 weeks, start to finish.


Caitlin Kittredge:  Benefits are myriad.  You get another POV, you have a ready-made sounding board for ideas, the writing process a totally different experiences that forces you to think outside of your normal parameters, and you get to see what your co-author comes up with… it’s like getting a sneak peek just for yourself!  Jackie and I outline extensively via IM chat and a master synopsis, and then pass chapters back and forth, alternating our POV characters.  I think it works for us because we’re both organized to a degree, but we also don’t have a problem being total pantsers if we come up with a cool idea just chatting back and forth.  Several important twists in both Icarus books came up spur of the moment, and it was great being able to incorporate them with another person’s feedback.


Jackie Kessler: It works as long as the co-authors communicate with each other. Some collaborative teams have a primary and secondary relationship, where one person writes the draft and the other person revises it. Caitlin and I didn’t do that. She wrote all the Iridium chapters, and I wrote all the Jet chapters. We did, however, give each other feedback and suggested edits on the other sections. The process worked very well for us.

How does it positively affect the final product?
Jackie Kessler: Black and White and its sequel, Shades of Gray, were absolutely collaborative projects. Caitlin and I worked together to create a world with superheroes chock full of neuroses and emotions and history. If either of us had set out to write a superhero story solo, it would not have turned out as strong or as complete as the two books we wrote together.


Caitlin Kittredge:  How it affects the final product is, well, pretty large: Neither Shades of Gray or Black and White is a book I would have written on my own. Collaboration by its very nature alters your voice and finished novel — and when it’s a good relationship, you’re left with something that’s truly a unique product that couldn’t have come from either of you alone.

Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?
Jackie Kessler: The process would have fallen apart without communication — and without trust. You have to trust your coauthor, or it won’t work at all. And then you have to live up to that trust. Collaborating can be a blast — just make sure you and your coauthor get that it’s all about the story. Be willing to let go of some control — again, it comes down to trust — and you’ll be amazed at the result.


Caitlin Kittredge: If you aren’t having fun, you’re probably doing it wrong.  That’s the short answer. 

You can’t be a control freak.  You really can’t.  Collaboration is give and take, and compromise and, well, collaboration.  It should be fun, not stressful, so if you’re somebody who has a hard time accepting input during the drafting stage, collaborating may not be for you.  If you have golden word syndrome, or simply hate crits, it’s going to be more difficult. 

Collaboration is a way to make your writing different and bigger and better and more entertaining — it shouldn’t be an ordeal that you emerge from wondering why the hell you did it in the first place.  Above all, especially if the collaborator is your friend, remember to leave the book issues with the book.  You can disagree over plot points and remain friends. I promise.

Other than that — brainstorm, communicate, and try something you normally wouldn’t solo.  Collaboration is awesome!


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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