Today I have the authors of the Realm Keepers Series, Garrett Robinson and Z.C. Bolger here to talk about co-authoring and how they did it! Before we get to the interview, here is the blurb, cover and links to Realm Keepers: Episode One (FREE on Amazon right now!)
Between Earth and Chaos, Six Warriors Battle For Our Survival
The first book in the epic new fantasy series
What if you and your friends went to another world every time you went to sleep?
What if you spent half your life here, in our world, and the other half battling for mankind’s survival against foes too terrible to be real?
And what if you could never tell anyone?
This is reality for the Realm Keepers: six kids from Earth thrust into a terrifying war between Midrealm and Chaos. Plucked from their ordinary lives and given extraordinary powers, they’re the only thing standing between us and destruction.
In Episode One, Sarah is living the life every high school student dreams of: she works hard, does well, and has her whole life laid out before her. Until she ends up in detention and mysteriously falls asleep, along with everyone else in the room. Waking up, Sarah finds herself in another world, another time””and another life, one she could never have imagined.
And Now for the interview!
1. What made you decide to work with the other? Or how did it all begin?
GB: Well, first of all, Z. C. and I have known each other our entire lives. As in, our parents were close friends and our mothers were pregnant together. I was born 20 days before he was. I literally met him when he was a day old. So we’ve always been friends. That was the beginning of our relationship, so to speak. But not like that sounds.
Moving swiftly on, fast forward several years and Z. C. was an independent author who was publishing his first book. I was working a 9-to-5 job and trying to launch an independent film career at the same time. But nobody wanted to buy my scripts. Z. C. was the one who first said, “Hey, I think you should take your movie ideas and turn them into books, then self-publish them.” I didn’t think it was a good idea at first, but once I started doing my research I found out how easy it was to self publish in today’s day and age. What I didn’t know was how much work went into making your book an actual success. I only found that out after publishing my first few books.
My early works were based off of film scripts I’d already written. And after I’d been doing a few of those, I discovered the wonders of collaboration. I actually started my first collaborative project with another independent author, Sean Platt. But while we were working on our book (slated to release this month) Z. C. approached me about another collaborative project, and we wrote our first book together: the novella The Ninjabread Man. After that, I came up with the idea for Realm Keepers and we started work on it. It swiftly spiraled into something awesome, and now we’re on the cusp of the launch of the whole series.
ZCB: You know, thinking about it, I had never actually thought of co-authoring a book when I first started writing. Mainly because I was an indie author and it seemed like a whole different beast to conquer. But once I had read a couple other indie books which had been co-authored, it put me into the mindset of seeing if I could actually do it. I started thinking of what story we would write and who I could get to co-author it with me.
My first choice was Garrett all along, but I knew he had started working on another project with a fellow author and probably didn’t have the time. It wasn’t until I explained my storyline for The Ninjabread Man on our podcast – The Story Telling Podcast – and seeing his reaction and enthusiasm for the idea that I finally asked him to co-author it with me. Garrett and I worked great together and were able to get a fantastic product for our first collaboration. The Ninjabread Man received rave reviews from the readers when it was released, and when Garrett approached me with the premise for Realm Keepers I jumped at the chance to create on another world with my life long friend.
2. Who came up with the main plot for the Realm Keepers story? Or was it more of a collaboration?
GB: I came up with the premise, but it was very basic. Basically I emailed Z. C. one day and said, “we should co-write a series about six kids who go to another world every time they go to sleep. The story should alternate between their viewpoints, one kid per book, and then have a series finale where it switches back and forth chapter-to-chapter.” That was it. That was the whole idea. I initially didn’t even know if I wanted it to be a sci-fi story or fantasy.
So we sat down and started hammering out the details. From that point on, it was all collaboration. I think it was Z. C. who first proposed making it definitely fantasy. I said I wanted the leader of the group to be a girl, because I’m always trying to create strong female role models for young girls to look up to. Z. C. came up with the idea for Greystone—their wizard mentor on the other side who’s just an absolute jerk. I think Z. C. also came up with the name? I don’t know, it’s hard to remember who first thought of what at this point, because every idea was added to and contributed to by the other.
ZCB: Garrett definitely came up with the premise, it was his baby and at first I was kind of sitting in hoping I would be able to think of something to contribute. I had never written an epic fantasy before – I honestly wasn’t even a very big fan of the genre (I have read The Hobbit…that’s as far as I go for Epic Fantasy). I think my lack of experience in the genre is good though, because I feel it truly gives me an open space to be able to think up original ideas.
As Garrett said above, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted the story to be Sci-Fi or Fantasy at first – his main pitch to me was for these characters to travel between worlds when they go to sleep. (A little back story on my end: I had been wanting to do a storyline where the main characters were kids and they had elemental powers for the past year but I never had gotten around to it and couldn’t figure out what setting it should be in.) Garrett’s premise was perfect for this idea and that’s how we ended up with a Fantasy about kids with elemental powers. I remember that the original premise was comprised of three kids as the main characters at first and Garrett was definitely determined to have a female lead. I was a little deterred about this because I had a hard time trying to think with a female POV at first. After some discussion we decided to go in a more Breakfast Club direction with six main characters and have the story told through all the POVs. Something that made me really want to do six characters was we could really set up the kitchen sink of personalities so that every reader could relate to at least one of the characters.
3. The story flows smoothly, so it doesn’t seem to me like it was written by two different authors. How did you pull that off?
GB: That lies in our process. I think that some authors try to collaborate by writing different sections of the same story. I think it’s nearly impossible to maintain consistency that way. The way that it works is that we have our story meeting first. In that meeting, we just shoot the breeze and talk about what we want to happen in each part of the book. We’re both jotting down notes, but it’s very free form.
After that, Z. C. does what’s probably the hardest part of the book: he actually outlines the story. He’s responsible for every twist and turn of the plot. He just jots down the beats, about a sentence for every paragraph in the final word. Occasionally he’ll have a fit of inspiration and write an actual scene, because he has a brilliant idea for funny dialogue or something. But mostly he’s just laying down the bones.
I’ll then do the first draft. I take everything Z. C.’s given me and write it all out into the first version of the full story. Of course, I’ll often think of things mid-writing that I’ll just incorporate, things that may or may not have been in the original beats. It’s always that way. Actually we both have random ideas at all points in the creative process, and we’ll just call, text or email the other one with, “DUDE! WHAT IF ___ HAPPENS?” So all of that has to find its way into the story as we go.
Once my first draft is done, it’s back to Z. C. He goes through it, not proofreading, but really content editing. He’ll pull things that don’t work and add new things that do, based on ideas he’s had from what I’ve read. As you can imagine, there’s a huge difference between seeing the story he’s written as an outline and seeing the actual words that I’ve put down on paper (well, digital paper). So he always has ideas for new things, new jokes, new plot points. Once he’s had his final run-through, it goes to me for final polish. I’m crazy anal about proofreading, spelling and grammar, so I kind of have to have the last word on the copy. I’ll usually edit the book twice through, then once in print, and then a final time reading it out loud if I have time. Once it’s gone through that process, it’s good for publishing!
ZCB: Not much for me to say here on the process since Garrett laid it out pretty well above. I will say that the beats that I do have good times and bad. Some episodes flow like crazy with ideas, characters, locations and plot coming to me quickly.
But then we have the bad times. Usually this is due to not really understanding the character that I am writing. I ran into this with Episode 4. I was having a really hard time understanding who Miles was and how he worked and moved in each world. When this happens it is time to turn on the bat signal for a story meeting.
Story meetings are key in co-writing. A MUST! They can change how a character works with a single idea. My example of this is with Raven. Before I beat out her episode, I realized I didn’t truly understand her – so I called a story meeting. Garrett and I went back and forth about who she was and why she was. But nothing moved until we determined she had a younger brother who she cared for greatly. Right when that character addition happened, the entire episode exploded in my head and I sat down and wrote a 10,000 word beat for her episode.
If you take anything away from this episode, let it be that Story Meetings Are Key…(and that you should pre-order a print edition of Midrealm).
4. The first episode is definitely something I would imagine seeing as a pilot for a TV series. Since networks are picking up more and more fantasy shows, would you take a deal from a major network? Why or why not?
GB: Absolutely. My first love has always been film, and the entire point of my writing is to build pre-existing franchises that filmmakers (and/or television producers) want to adapt to the visual medium. Of course, I would have to be involved in some way. 🙂 But I’d happily sell the property to a network if I could direct some of the episodes and have at least some say in the casting—as long as Z. C. was okay with it. Interestingly, I would want input on the screenplay, but I wouldn’t want to write them. I don’t like scriptwriting, but I love directing great scripts by other people.
ZCB: Moze Def! I would love to see our series as a TV show or movie – hell a cartoon even. Garrett and I have talked about this before and as long as we retain certain rights (especially being able to continue writing the books) we would happily do this. A TV show is able to reach more people in this day and age than a book, and for me it is about storytelling – through any medium.
5. (If yes to the above question) Which network do you think your show would belong on and why?
GB: The great thing about Realm Keepers is that, unlike virtually any other project I’ve ever done, it’s family-friendly. I’ve got some series and novels that could only be rated R, and thus would have to be done by a network like HBO, Showtime or possibly FX. But Realm Keepers could be handled by any of the major networks. I personally have a long-term love affair with ABC, and even more so now that they’re deeply connected to two of my favorite filmmakers of all times, J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon. I’m a fan of nearly all of their programming. They’d be my first choice.
ZCB: Unlike Garrett, everything I have done in the past is family-friendly (I scare myself too easily when trying to write horror) so I have put a lot of thought into this – not just Realm Keepers but for The Ninjabread Man and Danny Calloway and the Puzzle House. For me it depends on how it is presented. If Realm Keepers is produced into a cartoon I would love for Disney or Nickelodeon to take it (they did fantastic jobs with The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Avatar: The Last Airbender—THE CARTOON, NOT THE MOVIE, which they ruined). If RK were to be turned into a live action show I would choose Fox (because they wouldn’t shoot it on sound stages – that would just ruin the look) or ABC (because they are starting Agents of Shield which means they are going to already have our audience tuned in.)
6. I have a hard enough time deciding what to do for a cover on my books all on my own. How did you collaborate on the (really awesome) cover for Realm Keepers?
GB: Ha. Hahaha. Hehe. Funny you should mention that.
I’ve never had a cover designed by anyone else. I’ve always done my own. And Z. C. did the cover for The Ninjabread Man. Now, on Realm Keepers, we knew we wanted something amazing, better than anything else we’d ever done before. We both made a couple of attempts, right at the beginning of the creative process, to design covers, but they were terrible.
So we tried to use external artists. We tried two of them. One of them was fantastic but would have cost too much. One of them was great, but just never got back with us after a time. And our publishing deadline was swiftly approaching.
So I stopped writing completely and spent several days working on the cover. And rather than just poke around endlessly trying random ideas, I looked over some of the best-selling fantasy novels and saw what they were doing (a practice I highly, highly recommend). In the end, the cover for Realm Keepers was strongly inspired (re: practically ripped off) from the cover of Game of Thrones, which is of course one of the best selling fantasy novels of all time. Once I had that general idea in mind, everything kind of fell together. All of the cover’s pieces were purchased from stock image sites, and then it was just several days of intense photoshop work to make it all work together. Once we had the design together, we couldn’t believe how well it had turned out. I, especially, couldn’t believe it. I’m not a graphic designer. Apparently my only virtue is being able to futz with something until it’s finally the way I want it.
ZCB: Yeah , it was hell. We had different ideas at first and some were truly awful – like “self-published author does their own cover” awful (…wait a sec o_0).
Garrett did a great job with this cover I think. The circle idea came from an image I had been messing around with for one of my other books. I edited it to contain the six smaller circles and suggested we put the elemental symbols in them. We hadn’t even created the summoning circle at that point but that is what the design eventually morphed into. I think it works really well for our covers, and we couldn’t do much more without having to hire someone for money we didn’t have.
I will say that one of Garrett’s early ideas was me dressing up as each character and doing a cover photoshoot. He lost it when picturing me in Raven’s goth makeup.
GR: That idea was a joke, of course. But yes, I still cry with laughter every time I think of it.
7. If you didn’t know each other, who would you want to work with on a collaborative project?
GB: That’s easy for me: I’m already working with Sean Platt as a collaborator. I’d happily co-write a project with him or Johnny B. Truant (another host of the amazing Self Publishing Podcast). I wouldn’t mind writing with David Wright, either, as long as he could agree to do something non-depressing (he tends to write very dark horror that makes me question my faith in humanity).
ZCB: Hmmmm…. Let’s see. Well I think it would be fun to write children’s picture books with David W. Wright. He is known for his dark horror books but he has communicated to me that he plans on creating some children’s books for his son.
I would also love to write with Sean Platt (David’s other half). He always seems so excited about what he is creating and that is a must in a writing partner for me.
If I am not allowed to name either of them because Garrett already did, I would pick a friend named Devin Hanson. He has a great fantasy book coming out later this year – hopefully under my publishing company.
8. What is the most challenging part of working with a writing partner on a project?
GB: For me, at least, I’m very narcissistic, but I recognize that. So the hardest thing is putting aside the ego. I have a tendency (not a good one) to be convinced of my own “rightness” about things. It can be hard to overcome, even when objectively looking at it (which I’m normally only able to do much, much later) I can see how wrong I was.
So the hardest thing has always been hearing an idea that’s different from what I’d envisioned and being able to actually look at it. The plus side of doing so is that Z. C. is unquestionably a better storyteller than I am. I think I’ve got great dialogue, some nice turns of phrase, a humorous style and can whip out words like a machine (there’s that narcissism!). But without Z. C., the actual interesting structure of the story, what makes the books tick, would be of far less quality. So when he has ideas, it’s easier for me to view them objectively than it would be if I were working with someone else.
He’s also my oldest friend, so if I’m being a jerk he can always tell me to my face and it doesn’t upset me.
ZCB: Dealing with Garrett’s narcissism – just kidding.
For me, there are two things that I have a hard time with. The first is shooting down the other’s idea. I truly hate doing it but sometimes it has to be done (goes both ways on that one). It’s hard for me to hear my co-author super excited about an idea he had and me sitting their thinking “that isn’t going to work at all and will really diminish the direction we can go with it” and then having to figure out a way to tell him without sounding like a pompous douche. Garrett takes my points great though, I think we have had only one true disagreement over our 200,000 words so far and it was about using the word “squalid” (lol I think he is still pissed about that). (NOTE: I TOTALLY AM—GR)
The second thing I find hard, especially living on the opposite side of the country, is having to wait for anything. My downfall is being impatient when the story is in the other’s hands. I will just sit and wait until I finally receive what I need. Sure – I could be doing other things – but that would make this not a problem (which it rarely is since Garrett could outrun a Kenyan if words were steps and paper his track.)
9. What is the best part of working with a writing partner?
GB: Having a fallback partner and a sounding board. I can always go, “dude, I don’t know what I’m going to do here,” and he’ll come up with an idea. Or “hey, what do you think of this idea?” Writing alone has its own perks—namely that I don’t have to listen to anybody else. But that can also be cripplingly terrifying, because you can have ideas and have no frame of reference of whether they’re good ideas or not. Being able to invite somebody else’s opinion BEFORE you put words to paper is a tremendous boon.
ZCB: I have to agree with Garrett, a sounding board and terminal to bounce ideas off of is an incredible tool. It is something that is lacking from solo writing because even if you do have someone you can do that with, it isn’t the same. They wouldn’t be as committed to the story as a co-author would be.
10. Do you have any advice for those who want to co-author a project?
GB: This is going to sound just too obvious, but select your partner carefully. I’m incredibly fortunate to be connected to Z. C. and my other writing partner, Sean. They are two of the best people I know. I can’t imagine working with someone I didn’t have absolute faith in and couldn’t let my guard down around. I can talk to both of them when I’m on the verge of tears and feeling like the world is falling down around me. In some ways it’s like a marriage. And if either of them were jerks, or hard to work with, or vindictive, I could see that relationship souring really quickly and becoming a terrible thing. And then, of course, if you “divorce,” there’s all kinds of complications, like who owns the story idea now, and stuff like that. I know that I never have to worry about that.
Also, if you know you can be hard to put up with (like me) make sure you pick people who are just able to deal with the worst scum of humanity with a smile on their face. Then you know that you won’t be a problem for them, even at your worst. And then try not to be as much of a pain in the butt as you normally are, because the fact that they can put up with it doesn’t mean you should make them have to put up with it.
ZCB: Everything Garret said – ditto.
Also, know your weaknesses as a writer or storyteller and accept them. If you can find a co-author who fits into the points that Garrett brought up AND is strong where you are weak, you have a match made in heaven. That is what Garrett is for me, he fills in all those gaps that I have and I feel I do the same in return. When you can sit down with a person and talk story without getting annoyed the other is destroying your ideas or isn’t contributing enough, you are on your way.