The number one question we get asked as a couple who writes is: “How do you write together?” Answer: “I’m the left hand, he’s the right.”
A joke, obviously, based on the idea that writing is the endeavor of solitary genius by a guy in a nubby sweater, well-lit by a window, with glasses perched on his nose as his fingers jab at the hefty typewriter with the tips of his lonely fingers.
Maybe it has happened that way, though. Maybe once the ink dried on Jane Austen’s quill-scribbled manuscript she rose from her tea table and chucked it on the mail coach for her publisher who printed it as-is. Surely Shakespeare never got any critiques from his actors, who all happily recited each line as assigned. And the Greek playwrights? They invented comedy and tragedy. No one existed to gainsay them.
Of course none of this true. Anyone who wants to get their story out of their brain and onto a professionally published page will get feedback, critiques, editing, and then will make the suggested changes. Otherwise what you’re doing is nothing more than literary onanism.
This is not an analogy I would share (in person) with the friends and family who ask us how we write together—because ick—but it holds up well. You can only get great at sex by practicing it with someone else. Listening, responding, understanding that the move that gives one person ecstasy is going to make someone else recoil. If you’re intent on being self-important, selfish and sensitive about your partner’s corrections, suggestions or desires you might as well go back to flying solo, hoping someone else out there might like to watch.
I used to think writing a story was a solitary activity, too. I saw it in movies, after all, like Romancing the Stone, when the agent of romance novelist Joan Wilder cries over the perfection of her manuscript. It happened more recently on television, in The Crown, when Michael Shea turned in a literary magnum opus that was sent to potential publishers without a demand that he cut a quarter million words.
Usually I just read the parts of a book that come between Chapter 1 and The End. Then Mike and I published a short story on Kindle, in which you, yourself, create the entire package cover to cover. I began to examine the books I’ve read. There’s a lot more than just story in there. Table of Contents, Index, Notes, Pronunciation Key, Maps, Acknowledgements.
I’d never given much thought to the last one, other than as a place to mention people who helped with research, or gave the author the space and support to write. I was shocked once to find that an author had used it to thank a small group of other authors I knew who had told her, “do this different,” or “what if this happens, instead.”
It had never occurred to me that a professional writer would take that kind of help. There was that ego of mine, that belief that it can’t really be mine if it isn’t done by me from conception to execution. My narcissistic brain taunts me: “What kind of fraud are you? A ghost-writer, incomplete, inadequate. Why can’t you do this on your own?”
No one does. Everyone who makes a career of writing has many partners: critique groups, beta readers, editors, agents, publishers. They all suggest changes that it would be foolish to ignore because they are outside your egotistical brain that is interested only in pleasing itself. They are asking you to please them.
The question remains unanswered so far, though. “How do you write together?”
If it’s just a matter of mechanics, Mike and I don’t sit side by side on a keyboard to perform a beautifully choreographed duet. We talk: on walks, or at the grocery store or a restaurant (pre-pandemic); interrupting a TV show we’re watching; driving somewhere.
Or I get an idea and write a scene. Mike looks at it and adds or changes something, usually to add drama. Then he writes a scene and I rearrange the sentences, correct his eccentric grammar, tone down the drama. It’s actually great to not be limited by my own imagination and experience. It makes the storytelling more like real life, which isn’t perfectly mapped out and expected.
Our best work happens when we weave both of our scenes together, and we throw our fists in the air and shout our celebratory cry: “M.J. Ortmeier!”
So the answer to the question: “How do you write together,” would be: “No one writes alone.”
Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!