The Art of Collaboration

I’ve been collaborating for most of my professional life as a screenwriter and as a novelist. For twenty years, I wrote & produced TV shows with William Rabkin and plotted countless episodes with large writing staffs. I’ve also collaborated on over thirty books, most recently on the internationally bestselling Fox & O’Hare series with Janet Evanovich (our next book, The Chase, comes out on 2/25). So I am always interested in how other writers collaborate…and when I learned that my friends Rebecca Cantrell and James Rollins were writing together, I had to find out how their creative partnership produced the bestsellers Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood. Their answers are fascinating…and tremendously useful for any authors who are thinking about teaming up on a book.

How did you two meet? How did you decide to write a book together? Was there any initial reluctance or concerns that you had to work out first?

Rebecca: We met at the Maui Writers Conference when I took a course in thriller writing from Jim. He blurbed my first book (thanks, Jim!) and we stayed in touch off and on afterward. So, we’d already known each other for a few years when Jim called to ask me if I was interested in collaborating on a project. When I asked for details, he said it was “confidential.” Trying to trick some information out of him, I asked if he could answer yes or no questions, which brought a ten-second pause before he caved and told me everything.  Obviously he was not mean to withstand that kind of brutal interrogation! After he explained premise and the world, I said yes immediately—it was too intriguing and controversial not to.

Jim:  Yes, I would not withstand torture.  As to the genesis of this series, I was visiting the L.A. Museum of Art, where they had a Rembrandt exhibit.  I became fascinated by that Old World master’s depiction of the raising of Lazarus.  There are many oddities about that painting:  like why does everyone have such looks of horror at this miracle by Christ, why are there weapons painted above Lazarus’s tomb (according to the Bible he was merely a banker), and why in one version of the painting did Rembrandt have blood dribbling from Lazarus’s lips?  This, of course, made me think “Hmm, maybe Lazarus was actually a vampire.”  Yep, that’s how my mind works.  And that got me wondering if vampires did indeed exist during the time of Christ, how might have Christ dealt with them.  Would he have tried to save them?  How would that have changed the Church?  How might that look today?  So I created a vampiric sect of the Catholic Church, vampires who swore an oath to Christ and the Church to stop feeding on humans and to only subsist on “Christ’s blood,” which for this series, is consecrated wine, which Catholics believe does indeed transubstantiate into the physical embodiment of Christ’s blood.  Once I had this idea, a grand epic story slowly built in my head, one spanning history and delving deep into the divide between science and religion.  I knew this story was too big for me to tackle alone, especially since what was in my head was not really my wheelhouse as a writer.  I could bring my skill at twisting history and science and building elaborate action sequences, but this story needed more than that.  It needed to be richly textured and gothic in atmosphere.  Not my skill set.  But from reading Rebecca’s books, I knew she could.  So I thought, “what if we took the best of both our skills and crafted this story together?”  So I made that call that Rebecca described above.

How did you know your two voices and approaches to writing would ultimately mesh?

Rebecca: We did a lot of work before we wrote the first word, tossing samples of scenes written in different styles back and forth until we found the ones that we thought would work best for this kind of story. We wanted something that was different from our regular voices. Once we agreed on that, we wrote to those styles. To make it mesh, we edit and edit each other’s work. After we’re done with that, we edit some more.

Jim:  We definitely challenged each other.  Rebecca would push me to look deeper into characters’ motivations, while I tried to find ways to ratchet up tension and keep those action scenes taut and varied.  But, like Rebecca said, it was a learning curve in regards to finding that “style” and “voice” for the story.  Initially there was lots of debate and trials in regards to how to make all those choices fit the story.  But eventually we discovered it and ran with it.

How did you handle the plotting?

Jim:    The first thing we did was to build a “World Bible” for this world and characters.  There’s actually much more in that bible than is actually in the books, but we needed to understand this world and its characters in as much depth as possible before beginning.  This helped us have a roadmap from which to work from.  And it’s still a work in progress as we work through this third book in the series.

Rebecca: The world bible might end up being longer than the books! But it’s definitely been a great resource for keeping track of things and helping to keep us on track for plotting. Which brings me to the outline (and the next question).

Do you outline? If so, how detailed do you get and how closely do you stick to it afterwards?

Rebecca: For the first book Jim had a detailed plot outline in place, which we ended up deviating from quite a bit as time went on. For subsequent books we’ve done a lot of brainstorming via email and Skype. We usually come up with the big moments of the book and the locations first, then drill down into a list of scenes. The outline changes as the book moves ahead, but we expect that.

Rebecca Cantrell
Rebecca Cantrell

Jim:   For my own books, I generally work from a pretty loose outline, but to work together, it was clear from the start that we would need more of a paved road.  I don’t know if we actually achieved that, but we at least carved out a gravel road.  We mostly stuck with it, but it did allow us some elbow room to venture off a bit from that path.  But I have to say, it’s sort of fun outlining with a partner versus doing it solo.  It was that back and forth on Skype where some of the most imaginative elements of the story were created.

How do you divvy up the writing? For instance, does one of you write the first draft and the other do revisions? Or do you trade chunks back and forth?

Rebecca: We trade chunks back and forth. I usually first draft historical scenes, love scenes, and character-oriented scenes, whereas Jim does more of the action and plot-driven scenes. But there isn’t a hard and fast rule on that.

Jim:    Exactly. There is a small love scene in book two (Innocent Blood) that I tackled (not without a lot of blushing on my part) and Rebecca cracked out some very awesome ambush scenes.  But I don’t think either of us would have been able to pull those off without going through the tempering flames of writing the first book.  We both learned a lot from one another in that first venture.  But one of the coolest things Rebecca once shared with me (and I think it highlights the success of our collaboration) is how one night she was reading a section of the book aloud to her husband and he stopped her and asked her who wrote that last paragraph she read.  She had to admit to him, “I really don’t know.”  That’s how intensive we are about editing, re-editing, and turning pages back and forth between us.

Here’s a techie question about the process…do you both work on the same operating system (eg are you both on Macs?), do you use the same software (Word?), do you share files using a Dropbox, Google Docs, etc. or do you just send email attachments back and forth?

Rebecca: I use a PC. I think Jim uses a Mac, but I’m not even sure. We email the manuscript file back and forth, using MS-Word with Track Changes and Comments.  We only have one manuscript file and we’re usually pretty good at not stomping on the other guy’s stuff by accident, although I have had to use Word’s Compare Documents feature a couple of times.

Jim:   Until this very moment, I didn’t even know there was a “Compare Documents” feature on Word.  But yes, we both use Word and I do indeed work on a Mac.

How much time do you have to write each book? How do you handle the deadline pressures?

Rebecca: About 6-9 months but we’re also writing other books at the same time. I’m pretty fast and Jim is ridiculously fast (which has made me faster because I can’t let him win), so we muddle through. We had some serious deadline pressure on a short story once and that’s where the time difference came in handy—Jim started when I was done for the day and I came back online when he was ready to go to bed, so we worked on it 24 hours a day. Crazy, I admit, but the story did get done quickly!

Jim:  I always work best (and fastest) under deadline.  The first book (while it took about 6-7 months to write) actually took us just shy of a full year to create.  Those additional months were occupied with building that World Bible, outlining, playing with styles, etc.  With that worked out, we crafted the second book slightly faster.  By the way, one other advantage in regard to having your writing partner living halfway around the globe is that difference in time zones does allow some magic to happen.  It was not uncommon for one of us to end our day by emailing a series of “problems with the story” to the other—only to awake the next morning to find solutions to those “problems” in our in-box.  It’s like having magical elves working on your project while you sleep.

I come from television, so collaborating with other writers is easy for me. But authors are a solitary lot. I know many authors who would have a very, very hard time writing with anyone else. They’ve worked hard to develop their own voice. They are used to writing alone and not having to deal with the input of anyone but, perhaps, their editor and agent. How did you reconcile your individual approaches to writing novels so that you could work together?

Rebecca: I was surprised at how easy it was. I’ve worked with teams of writers on technical documents before, so I was used to breaking things up and putting them back together, but I expected a lot more discord when it came to fiction. It helps that Jim is very easy to work with—mellow, generous, smart, and without a lot of ego. I think the work we did at the beginning to set up a world bible and the style we wanted it to be written in helped build up trust between us so that by the time we started writing the book itself we both were confident that we were working from a shared vision. Also, we communicate a lot during the process, with daily emails and weekly Skype calls, and that helps to make sure we’re both on the same page.

James Rollins
James Rollins

Jim:  And I had no background at all with working with another author.  So it was probably a steeper learning curve for me than it was for Rebecca.  One of the great tools she brought to the table, which indeed made things easier, was her organizational skills.   She is very good at making sure all elements of the story stay on point.  Also whenever some question would come up in regard to plot we had a simple solution:  we would look to the story itself.

How do you resolve disputes on plot issues? Or on the rewrites? Does one of you have the final word?

Rebecca: Again, this has been a lot easier than I expected. Because we’re both committed to the same story, we don’t tend to argue about much. There was one scene at the end of Innocent Blood where we spent a couple of hours going back and forth about what a certain character would do, but it was more about us trying to figure out what the story needed than arguing for one position or another. I would say that the story has the final word, not either one of us. I think that we end up with stories that are very different than what we would have come up with one our own and that’s good.

Jim:  Exactly.  Rather than letting ego be involved, conflicts were resolved by deciding what best suited the story.  And that one time where a critical moment of the story had the two of us on diametrically opposed opposite sides of a fence, it was debating the pros and cons of our two positions that created an entirely new scenario, a better one, one we would never have come up on our own.

Did you learn any lessons from your first collaboration that made the second one easier?

Rebecca: I think we developed shorthand of communication that helped speed things along, but it was pretty easy from the start.

Jim:   I also think that having that World Bible grow alongside the crafting of the first book gave us a great foundation from which to write that second book (and now the third).  And I agree that we have found ways to communicate much more efficiently.  We both have learned somewhat how the other thinks and writes and that helps, too.  I remember our initial forays on Skype were more tiptoeing around each other a bit, so as not to insult or come off too harsh.  Now we’re even better friends that we can forgo the niceties and get down more quickly to brass tacks.  Not that we’re harder on each other, just more real.

Has your collaboration changed the way you write novels on your own?

Rebecca: I’m faster now. Jim’s a faster writer than me and my pride forced me to keep up.  I’m also more comfortable writing action scenes than I used to be.

Jim:  I’m also much more conscious of character and the emotional inner world of those characters.  Seeing Rebecca’s approach to building character has definitely influenced my own writing.

Based on this experience, and assuming you had the time, would you collaborate with other authors?

Rebecca: Absolutely. It’s been a tremendous amount of fun!

Jim:  I wholeheartedly agree.  But I also think it still takes finding that special person who complements your own writing and is simpatico with you on a personal level.  For me, it was great (and I suspect a rare commodity) to find both of those in Rebecca.


The Mail I Get

Author Joel Goldman
Author Joel Goldman

I didn’t get this email…my good friend Joel Goldman did. But it was so wonderful, that I had to share it with you, typos and all:

Hi Joel… I pulled up best suspense thrillers on Amazon & you jack Davis books pooped up… I was really getting intoJacks stories, planning on contining thru all your novels… Just as I have thru Jack Reacher… But alas, you make some dumbass comment about Fox News in The Dead Man & you just lost a customer…. MSNBC??? You are as biased and diluted as some of the criminals in you novels… Good luck to you with those blinders on… Oh yeah… Make no mistake… I’m well educated, female, self employed, buy my own insurance & undoudtedly make a comparable income to yours… Put that in you liberal MSNBC cigar & smoke it… Hope your getting consistently laid with that small penis…

2014 Edgar Award Nominees

Lee Goldberg with Edgar Award nominee William Kent Krueger and author Libby Fischer Hellman
Lee Goldberg with Edgar Award nominee William Kent Krueger and author Libby Fischer Hellman

Today the Mystery Writers of America announced their 2014 Edgar Award nominees, honoring terrific mysteries published 2013.  It’s great to see so many of my friends on the list!


Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook (Grove Atlantic – The Mysterious Press)
The Humans by Matt Haig (Simon & Schuster)
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin (Hachette Book Group – Reagan Arthur Books)
Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy (Penguin Group USA – Dutton Books)


The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton)
Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Alfred A. Knopf)
Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman (Minotaur Books)
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (Simon & Schuster – Scribner)
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (HarperCollins Publishers)


The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow Paperbacks)
Almost Criminal by E. R. Brown (Dundurn)
Joe Victim by Paul Cleave (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)
Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime)
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood (Penguin Group USA – Penguin Books)
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey (Amazon Publishing – Thomas and Mercer)

Edgar Award nominee Marcus Sakey, Lee Goldberg, Sean Chercover and Ann Voss Peterson
Edgar Award nominee Marcus Sakey, Lee Goldberg, Sean Chercover and Ann Voss Peterson


Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins (Crown Trade Group)
Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal by Michael D’Antonio (Thomas Dunne Books)
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber (Grand Central Publishing – Twelve)
The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and the Medics Behind Nazi Lines by Cate Lineberry (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown and Company)
The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower (Minotaur Books)


Maigret, Simenon and France: Social Dimensions of the Novels and Stories by Bill Alder (McFarland & Company)
America is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture by Erik Dussere (Oxford University Press)
Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing by Justin Gifford (Temple University Press)
Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett (St. Martin’s Press)
Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction by Melissa Schaub (Palgrave Macmillan)


“The Terminal” – Kwik Krimes by Reed Farrel Coleman (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)
“So Long, Chief” – Strand Magazine by Max Allan Collins & Mickey Spillane (The Strand)
“The Caston Private Lending Library & Book Depository” – Bibliomysteries by John Connolly (Mysterious)
“There are Roads in the Water” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Tina Corey (Dell Magazines)
“There That Morning Sun Does Down” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Tim L. Williams (Dell Magazines)

BEST JUVENILEMAC-with-lee-goldberg-phil-proctor-600

Strike Three, You’re Dead by Josh Berk (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne (Penguin Young Readers Group – Dial)
P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man by Caroline Lawrence  (Penguin Young Readers Group – Putnam Juvenile)
Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Disney Publishing Worldwide – Disney-Hyperion)
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)


All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry (Penguin Young Readers Group – Viking Juvenile)
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy (Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (Penguin Young Readers Group – Razorbill)
Ketchup Clouds by Amanda Pitcher (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)


“Episode 3” – LutherTeleplay by Neil Cross (BBC Worldwide)
“Episode 1” – The Fall, Teleplay by Allan Cubitt (Netflix)
“Legitimate Rape” – Law & Order: SVU, Teleplay by Kevin Fox & Peter Blauner (NBC Universal)
 “Variations Under Domestication” – Orphan Black, Teleplay by Will Pascoe (BBC Worldwide)
“Pilot” – The Following Teleplay by Kevin Williamson (Fox/Warner Bros. Television)


“That Wentworth Letter” – Criminal Element’s Malfeasance Occasional By Jeff Soloway (St. Martin’s Press)


Robert Crais
Carolyn Hart


Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Michigan

* * * * * *

(Presented at MWA’s Agents & Editors Party on Wednesday, April 30, 2014)

There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
Fear of Beauty by Susan Froetschel (Prometheus – Seventh Street Books)
The Money Kill by Katia Lief (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper)
Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman (Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Books)
The Sixth Station by Linda Stasi (Forge Books)


The Dead Man is REBORN


Reborn - A Dead Adventure
Reborn – A Dead Adventure

The “second season” finale of THE DEAD MAN, the series of action/adventure/horror novels that William Rabkin and I began two years ago, premieres on January 21st with REBORN, an action-packed, six-part Kindle Serial written by Kate Danley, Phoef Sutton and Lisa Klink. This story is big in every sense of the word… and if it succeeds, then THE DEAD MAN will most likely return in the Kindle Serial format for it’s “third season.” 

Here’s the story:

Tanis Archer is facing a miserable 25th birthday. She’s a part-time barista in her sixth year at Dallas Community College. Her life is going nowhere, fast.


Because on her way to work, she loses control of her car and is killed in a horrific crash. That should have been the tragic end of her story. But days later, she wakes up on a cold morgue slab…and soon learns that miraculous resurrections have brutal side effects. For starters, there are people around her who look as if they are decomposing from the inside-out, victims of their rotting souls. Even worse, it’s no illusion. What she is seeing is real, a shadowy part of the world  where the bloody battle between good and evil is being fought every day by Matt Cahill, an ax-wielding “dead man” and his rag-tag army of supernatural freaks.

And she’s being asked to join him.

Obviously that’s not how Tanis wants to spend her after-life–she’d rather party with her new-found abilities–but an unimaginable horror is rising from the Black Sea, and she might just be the only person who can save humanity from an agonizing, never-ending nightmare…

 REBORN features a fresh, colorful heroine in an action-packed, darkly funny tale of adventure and terror told by an incredible dream team of award-winning, widely-acclaimed writers: USA Today bestselling author Kate Danley (The Woodcutter), Emmy Award winning screenwriter and novelist Phoef Sutton (Cheers, Boston Legal),  TV writer/producer and author Lisa Klink (Star Trek Voyager, Painkiller Jane)New York Times bestselling author and TV producer Lee Goldberg (The Heist, King City), and two-time Edgar-Award nominated writer William Rabkin (Monk, Psych).

 About six month ago, I gathered all the authors at my house and we broke the story the way we would in a TV series “writers’ room.” Like Bill and I, Phoef and Lisa are professional television writers…but this was a new way of working for Kate, but I think she liked it. We had a white board up on the wall, plenty of junk food, and only a general sense of where we wanted to go narratively. And then we brainstormed. By the end of the day, we had a story, which we divvied up into thirds for Kate, Phoef and Lisa to write. A couple of months later, when the three parts came in, Bill and I tied them together and smoothed out the rough edges, as we’ve done many times before on scripts on the various TV series we’ve produced.

We think REBORN send THE DEAD MAN series in an exciting new direction….and we hope fans of the series will agree!