Two years ago at a writing conference, my friend Tosca Lee was acting really weird. She disappeared from the conference hotel for a couple of hours on some lame excuse. Then afterwards, she didn’t want to talk about it.
That evening, NY Times best-selling novelist Ted Dekker dropped by the conference hotel. I know Ted just a bit, and we chatted some. A group of us were about to go out on the town, and we invited Ted along. We all had a great time, but my finely tuned writer’s antennae told me that this was not just a casual drop-by. Something was going on.
Tosca is one of my closest writing buddies, and it didn’t take me long to figure it out. Ted and Tosca were planning to coauthor a book together. When I asked Tosca about it, she begged me to keep it a secret. For marketing reasons, big-name authors like to announce collaborations at special events.
I was happy to keep the secret — for seven months. And I was thrilled for Tosca, whose dark-side novels DEMON and HAVAH both got great reviews and made me think. Tosca is a wonderful, giving person, and a collaboration with Ted Dekker would be a huge boost to her career. I’ve often told Tosca that her books need more “exploding helicopters” and Ted is very much an exploding-helicopter kind of guy.
This week, Ted and Tosca’s first book, FORBIDDEN, is launching. I asked Tosca if she’d like to do a Skype interview, so we spent about three hours on Monday night chatting. I wanted specifically to get her take on collaborating on a novel. Here is the MASSIVELY trimmed down transcript of our interview:
Randy: How did you and Ted decide to collaborate? You guys in some sense are a Dream Team of writers. But how did that happen?
Tosca: Ted had heard about me through his manager and so when I wrote to him asking if he’d take a look at endorsing the re-releasing of Demon, he recognized my name, and we started talking.
The main thing was why it made so much sense. We’re both interested, thematically, in the same kinds of stories and questions. We have two totally different styles, but we’re interested in the same kinds of explorations in story.
Randy: Yes, you both have kind of a dark edge to you.
Randy: So then Ted came to a conference you were attending two years ago and you were so hush-hush about it, you gave yourselves away (at least to me) by being so secretive.
Tosca: Now you know that I’m miserable at keeping secrets.
Randy: Had you already agreed to collaborate at that point?
Tosca: Yes. We were on the verge of signing contracts.
Randy: I like Ted. He’s always been very nice to me. Not all big-shot authors take the trouble to be nice to mid-list authors. What was the most valuable thing about writing fiction that you learned from working with him? Aside from adding in more exploding helicopters?
Tosca: Well, there’s the helicopter thing. Aside from that, one of the most valuable things I learned is that in a collaboration, you really need to be aware of what you’re bringing to the table. The point for us was to produce something that neither one of us could do on our own.
Randy: Right, that’s extremely important. Otherwise, there’s just no point in collaborating.
Tosca: Exactly. But to do that, you have to be aware of your strengths as a writer.
Randy: Yes, absolutely. Now who came up with the storyline for Forbidden?
Tosca: We both did. We were talking about the kinds of stories and themes that interest us, and one of the things we landed on was what it really meant to be alive. What does it really mean to be human?
So we were throwing this idea around and came up with this idea: what if everyone in the world were dead, and didn’t know it? Not in the zombie brain-eating sense… But in the sense of what makes us human?
This is a story that takes place 500 years in the future, where all emotion has been genetically stripped from humans. And for me, it was really interesting to explore this idea of what motivates us more: fear… or love? Because I know I personally contend with the Fear Monster a lot.
Randy: You alone of all humanity, Tosca dear!
Tosca: I KNEW IT!!! WAAAHHHH!!! I’m going to go eat worms.
Randy: I think you know me too well to believe a word I’m saying.
Tosca: Oh. Now that I’m into my second nightcrawler, you tell me.
Randy: Because before we started this interview, I was telling you about being ready to throw up because of my own upcoming book launch. That little fear thing.
So put the nightcrawler down now, and nobody gets hurt!
Tosca: Oh, okay.
Randy: How many drafts of Forbidden did you write? And how much did the story change between Draft 1 and Draft N?
Tosca: We wrote several. The thing is, people ask all the time who wrote what, and how did we divvy up the work…
The secret is that we both wrote it. All of it. So it really took twice as long. There isn’t a sentence that is all mine or all Ted’s any more.
Randy: Wow. Yeah, that’s about how John Olson and I worked.
Tosca: It’s had several passes in order to achieve that voice that is not me … or him … but something entirely new.
Randy: Did you divide up the first draft, or did one of you do the first draft and the other edit it from there?
Tosca: Some chapters it was me. Sometimes it was Ted. Who took which chapters? The world will never know! Though I can tell you that any time anyone has guessed… they’ve gotten it wrong.
Randy: When John and I wrote stuff, he owned one main character and I owned the other. And we usually wrote the first draft for our own character. But not always. Did you work like that at all?
Tosca: Not really … though it definitely makes sense. We spent a lot of time talking before each section, each chapter, about what was going on, what would happen … our vision for the characters and the scene.
Randy: Yes, you pretty much have to do that, or somebody gets disappointed.
Tosca: And we found that to be crucial because it turns out we’d often be like, “Hmm. I see him being a bit different …” They turned out to be great conversations. But it takes a ton of time to get on the same page. As you know.
Randy: Oh yeah, it can drive you nuts sometimes. But it’s also incredibly energizing when you’re working with the right person.
If I were to ask Ted what he learned about the craft of fiction from you, what would he say?
[Long pause while Tosca texts Ted to ask him this question.]
Tosca: Ted says he’s watching TV with LeeAnn. So I’m taking that as a go-ahead to say that he learned how brilliant I am. That I am, in fact, the goddess of writing.
Oh wait. He just texted… So he says that he’s come to really appreciate my use of language, which is what I love to do … and conversely, I’ve learned more about pacing from him.
Randy: Yeah. Exploding helicopters.
Tosca: Exactly. Because that IS pure poetry. The thing is, I truly believe that we have many strengths–as people and as … authors … and that there are things we can definitely learn and improve on. Though some of them will never be our trademarks, because we aren’t wired that way.
Randy: I hear you. Every strength has its own shadow, as John always told me.
Tosca: So I may never have Dekker-esque pacing. He may never have Lee-like prose … or Ingermanson Exploding Helicopters … But we can definitely learn more.
Randy: When you have two people writing with different strengths, you get binocular vision. That’s powerful.
Tosca: Absolutely. And I think some things are innate … some can be learned … and some just can’t be learned that well. And so the real challenge comes in trying to really capitalize on our strengths, and manage those areas where we are less strong, even if we’re never GREAT at them.
Randy: Yes, I’ve learned a lot from you about the beauty of language.
Tosca: Aw, thanks, Randy.
Randy: You’re writing another book with Ted right now, correct? What’s that about, if you can talk about it?
Tosca: Right. We have three planned at this time in the Books of Mortals series. We were going to put one out every September, starting this year, but the response has been so great, that the publisher actually begged us to put them out faster. So we’re hard at work on Mortal, which will now release June 2012. And we’ll go right into Sovereign after that, which will release a few months later, in October.
Randy: Holy moly! That’s fast! Well, you probably have to get back to writing, so I should let you go.
Tosca: No! This is my only socialization time! You can’t make me leave!
Randy: I suppose we could barbecue some more nightcrawlers and pork out!
Tosca: Mmmm. Nightcrawlers. Can I turn the questions around and ask you about your upcoming release?
Randy: Um … sure. I don’t think I’ve ever been interviewed by my interviewee before, but you go right ahead. This is your show.
Tosca: So, I have to ask (I’m not going. You can’t make me leave!)–I hear you and John have a release coming out the end of this month. Can you confirm or deny this rumor??
Randy: I’ll confirm it. Oxygen will rerelease as an e-book on September 28. The paper version will be available a few days later. (Don’t ask why. It’s complicated.)
The book came out 10 years ago, and we got the rights back to it not too long ago, so we’ve been editing it relentlessly for months now.
Tosca: So when you edit a book that you wrote before, what is that like–what changes?
Randy: We get to fix all the things we hated in the first version.
Tosca: LOL! Oxygen is … what number in the number of books you and John have written together?
Randy: That was our first. We still look back on those days writing together as some of the happiest times we ever had.
Tosca: Did you take away any lessons from that first book that you took into your next collaboration? As far as working together?
Randy: We learned that you must NEVER write a scene without having seen the one that came before it.
And we learned that we worked best by each editing IN stuff that we are strong in, rather than editing OUT stuff the other guy is good at.
We also learned that you get a lot stronger book when you are merciless in editing it.
Tosca: Ahhh…. good point. How many books have you and John written together?
Randy: Just two. We’d love to write some more.
Tosca: Just two, but at least one of them was up for or won a Christy, right?
Randy: Both of them were Christy finalists. Oxygen actually won. And it was named by the New York Public Library to its prestigious list of “Books for the Teen Age.”
Even though we were writing for adults, not teens.
Tosca: That’s right. I knew they got critical notice. So … I know both you and John. And I know how you guys love to write together. Did it ever feel like work?
Randy: That’s one of the great things about working with John. Everything’s a game. He’s a ton of fun. Can’t imagine why he puts up with me.
Tosca: You guys really cook up some great stuff together. Mad scientist style.
Randy: I think writing should be fun. If it isn’t, then why do it?
Tosca: True. Especially because you guys are such good friends. Writing is normally so lone-wolf.
Randy: OK, one more question for you: What’s your favorite part of the writing process? Planning? First drafting? Editing? Destroying it with an ice pick?
Tosca: Ice Pick. Definitely.
Randy: Somehow I knew. It’s that Vulcan mind melt thing. Well, I think we’re done. Thanks so much! I know you’re busy.
Tosca: Thank YOU!!!
Here’s some more info on Ted and Tosca’s book FORBIDDEN:
Three books. Two authors. One last chance for humanity.
Visit the Books of Mortals website and get the short story prequel to Forbidden, “The Keeper” free there. When you sign the Book of Mortals you are entered to win a pile of cool stuff through the end of the month–including a trip to Rome, which is where the story takes place.
Many years have passed since civilization’s brush with apocalypse. The world’s greatest threats have all been silenced. There is no anger, no hatred, no war. There is only perfect peace… and fear. But a terrible secret has been closely guarded for centuries: every single soul walking the earth, though in appearance totally normal, is actually dead, long ago genetically stripped of true humanity.
Fleeing pursuit, with only moments to live, a young man named Rom stumbles into possession of a vial of blood and a cryptic vellum. When consumed, the blood will bring him back to life; when decoded, the message will lead him on a perilous journey that will require him to abandon everything he has ever known and awaken humanity to the transforming power of true life and love. But the blood will also resurrect hatred, ambition and greed at terrible risk.
Set in a terrifying, medieval future, where grim pageantry masks death, this tale of passionate love and dark desires from master storytellers Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee peels back the layers of the heart for all who dare take the journey.
Here’s a photo of Ted and Tosca signing books at a recent trade show. From left to right, Sharlene Maclaren, Tosca Lee, and Ted Dekker.
Here’s a YouTube video of the trailer for the book:
And here’s a photo of Tosca and me three years ago at an awards banquet. Tosca is the one on the left: