Neither His nor Hers: Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller on Collaboration

Here’s the tenth and final 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.

Marcia Muller‘s first novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, introduced the world to the private detective Sharon Cone.  Muller has written more than 35 novels and seven short story collections.  Her most recent novels, Burn Out and Locked In, both feature McCone – a female private investigator who cleared trail for the likes of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.  Muller received the honor of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) in 2005.

Also a MWA Grand Master, Bill Pronzini is best known for detective fiction, though he writes mysteries and westerns as well.  He has edited or co-edited more than 100 anthologies.  Pronzini’s Nameless detective series began with The Snatch in 1971 and continued last year with Schemers.  The 35th novel in the series, Betrayers, is due out in July 2010.

Over the years, Pronzini has collaborated with John Lutz, Collin Wilcox, and Marcia Muller, among others.  Together, Pronzini and Muller have co-written Beyond the Grave, The Lighthouse, and Double.  Below they talk about collaboration and that unique third voice that is neither his nor hers.


What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing?  How do you do it?  When does it work?  How does it positively affect the final product?



Bill Pronzini: I’ve collaborated with a number of different writers over the years, including my wife, Marcia Muller, and have generally found the experiences to be highly rewarding.  For one thing, collaboration eases the loneliness of the long-distance writer.  For another, it’s easier for two heads to work out a fictional plot progression than it is for one.  And for a third, it allows two individuals to create a “third voice” when blending of the styles and visions of each.  No collaborative novel or short story in which I’ve been involved reads the same as it would have if I’d written it solo, or if my partner had written it solo.  In some cases, when the collaboration has worked at its best, the third voice is superior to both mine and my partner’s.

As to the mechanics of collaboration, it all depends on the individuals involved.  Some prefer a single method; I’ve done the deed in just about every way imaginable, depending on who I was working with and on what type of project.  Alternate pages, chapters, and sections.   Alternate drafts of an entire manuscript.  Series fiction in which my partner and I established a storyline and then each wrote the sections dealing with our individual characters.  In most cases, whether writing series or non-series fiction, the plot has to be worked out ahead of time; but on a few occasions, as literary exercises, friends and I have written short stories without anything other than the simplest of situations in mind:  one member of the team writing a single page and leaving the other to carry on, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, on the next page.   But I wouldn’t recommend this method; while it has led to a few published stories, it has also led to some unsalable time-wasters.

Marcia Muller: I have had only one collaborator–my husband, Bill Pronzini.  However, our three collaborative novels and numerous short stories encompass the full range of the types of collaboration.  Double is an example of alternating chapters using established series characters, in this case Bill’s “Nameless” detective and my Sharon McCone.  Beyond the Grave also uses series characters (John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter), but in alternating sections.  In The Lighthouse, we utilize a third-person voice which is neither his nor mine.  The latter was particularly challenging because we were traveling into previously uncharted territory.  The stories are a mixture of all three approaches.


Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?


Marcia Muller: Collaborating is a real pleasure for us:  it stimulates ideas, makes the writing easier (but not easy, never easy), makes working time less lonely.  Trust is a necessity, as is compromise.  We gladly cede control over a project to whomever wishes to hold the reins.  Advice for would-be collaborators:  make sure you have resolved the above issues before you begin, and be willing to resolve differences again and again.

Bill Pronzini: Two pieces of advice for potential collaborators:  First, trust is a must.  If you don’t have complete trust in your partner’s skills, instincts, vision, etc., chances are there’ll be conflicts that will hamper and affect the quality of the work.  And second, a corollary to the trust issue:  Before beginning a joint project, make sure you and your partner are willing to compromise on any differences of opinion that might crop up, and then decide on which of you will have the final say once the work is completed or nearing completion and stick to that decision.  No collaboration can be successful when both partners end up fighting over control of the finished product.


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.