Rune Skelley is the name of co-authors and marriage partners Jen and Kent. They write amazing genre fiction together and run a critique group that has been instrumental in my own growth as a writer. They are experts in the fine art of collaboration, which they go into in detail over at the Skelleyverse. But they’ve also graciously agreed to answer questions here.
1) As collaborative authors, what would you say is the key ingredient to a productive creative collaboration?
Kent: Trust. If you don’t have that, nothing works. Your own ideas won’t get voiced if you don’t trust your partner not to dismiss or attack them, and you won’t be able to compromise, to surrender a share of control, to a partner you don’t trust. (There are lots of other things you need, too. We did a couple of posts about some of them, way back when we started our blog.)
Jen: Trust is big, but I think that even bigger is the desire to work together. Writing together entails a lot of compromise, and compromise isn’t always an easy thing. A fruitful collaboration requires both partners to be fully invested in the process, not just the outcome.
2) When did you each first know that you wanted to write? When did you first decide to write together?
Kent: I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t writing. I had teachers early on who encouraged me and built up my confidence, and teachers later on who pushed me and helped me check my ego (an ongoing project…). Role-playing games gave me a lot of training as a storyteller, too. Come to think of it, D&D is a form of collaboration — the DM and the other players are all making it up as they go. The game provides rules and structure, but it still all comes down to people being able to invent a fun narrative as a team.
As far as writing together, the way Kent remembers it: I would write shorts now and then, and I had a novel that I kept adding to, which was eventually going to require the entire known universe for hard-drive space. I thought of writing as “my” thing, because arrogance I suppose. Meanwhile Jen was part of the gaming group, and she wrote a story that I really liked and which she’d asked for my input on. So we had a good sense that we could cooperate well on creative projects. I remember she was the one who got inspired with the image that launched us into our first novel, which was the first writing project that I ever really took seriously.
Jen: I’ve always been a writer, too. I still have some stuff that I wrote in elementary school, like an odd little story about a lion who solves a mystery with his animal friends. Only this lion has 3 eyes. Not for any plot reasons. Apparently I just thought it would be cool.
How we started writing together, the Jen version: I enjoyed the RPG stuff, but always wanted to explore the non-combat parts more than a campaign would allow. So I basically shanghaied Kent into writing stories with me.
3) What comes first? Character or plot?
Kent: Both. (Heh.) Either one can serve as a seed crystal, and we talk about the possibilities and match up a plot and a character that resonate. From my perspective, I feel like I usually start with plot and Jen usually starts with character. We both feel it’s crucial that the end product be character-driven, so if the plot demands certain events that means we must compellingly set up our characters so they’ll do the things that cause those events. (Events which then impact the characters, and the wheel turns on.)
Jen: Around the writing cave, Kent is infamous for coming up with story “ideas” that are more like concepts or pretenses. It’s like, “Hey, babe, I just thought of a great story idea! It’s like the world is the same as this one, only all the molecules are rotated a quarter turn counterclockwise!” And my reply is, “So what happens?” And he rarely has an answer to that. So it’s sort of up to me to find a way into his concepts, and that way is through a character.
4) What, to you, is the most important role that fiction plays in modern life?
Kent: Wow. Escape is important, even though there’s a pejorative connotation to “escapist entertainment.” Life’s hard, and we all need a vacation now and then. I also think fiction can educate, showing us the mistakes of others that we might learn from them in safety. Fiction encompasses filmic media, but written fiction, specifically, serves a vital role of preserving literacy. The ability to synthesize images and feelings that have been encoded as marks on a page or screen protects us from mental atrophy. So, it’s very important. (Plus, it gives our tribal consciousness something cohere to, a set of shared myths that provide a basis of common understanding among humanity.)
Jen: What he said, only less pompous.
5) When did your love of speculative fiction begin?
Kent: On the first page of the first Roger Zelazny book I held in my hand. I read Zelazny without first reading any “hard” SF or “high” fantasy, and so I internalized and fell in love with his seamless blending of tropes before I knew how post-modern-adjacent it all was.
Jen: When I was little I was really into reading about UFOs and other creepy topics, trying to figure out if I believed in any of it. That’s probably where it started for me.
6) Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it? If not, why?
Kent: Um, yes, it’s real. I feel like I’m way out at the lean end of the bell curve for it, that I’ve been fortunate to seldom suffer it, but it’s certainly not a myth. As we’ve posted on our blog, our partnership and process both help to buffer us from blockages. I really like having my work cut out for me, in the original sense of that saying. I like when all the materials are prepped and stacked up within easy reach, when I know how many shoes I must make and what they’re supposed to look like. I guess it’s my belief that writer’s block is 90% lack of preparation, that it has almost nothing to do with whether or not you’re a creative or talented person.
Jen: I think every writer has experienced minor instances of it. I’m lucky enough to have never been bogged down for more than a day or two. I have experienced lack of motivation, which I don’t think is the same thing. Our projects are so complicated that there’s always something besides prose composition to work on. When the words won’t come there’s always editing or other tasks to turn to. That keeps me engaged with the project while my subconscious gets its shit together.
7) Out of the novels you have completed, are there any characters you would love to meet, or run away from?
Kent: I’d run away from most of them. Seriously, even the nice ones, because we give them so many reasons to hate us. (However, I have major crushes on most of the females and would probably make very foolish choices in their presence.) If I had pick someone from our books to travel cross-country with, it’d probably be either James or Bishop. We would find lots to talk about, I’m not confused by my feelings for them, and they seem the least inclined to vengeance. For just hanging out, I gotta say Vesuvius.
Jen: You’re name-dropping characters nobody knows yet!
There are plenty of characters I would avoid. There are some that I would enjoy having a conversation with. And there are one or two that I would chase after if I wasn’t married. And if they didn’t know that I was responsible for all the bad shit in their lives.
8) For someone new to collaborating, what would you say they should look for in a potential writing partner?
Kent: The magic word here is “sympatico.” It’s not going to be enough to be tolerant of one another’s tastes and interests; you have to feel passion for the same things. It’s not that you need a clone of yourself, just that the Venn diagram’s region of overlap must contain the stuff you will be writing about, mostly. You should both be immersed in the project, both kind of obsessed with building *that* world and animating *those* characters. The partnership is bigger than either one of you alone, though. Don’t throw away the stuff in the other parts of the diagram — use it! Teach each other. Trust each other.
Jen: Make sure it’s someone that you really, really enjoy talking to. You’re going to have a ton of conversations, so make sure your partner is someone you like to spend time with. And you have to respect each other.
9) What’s next in the creative life of Rune Skelley?
Kent: We’re about two-thirds of the way through our current first draft. So, working on that for the foreseeable future.
Jen: We are also talking about the next book, which will be a sequel to the Science Novel. Right now we have a ton of ideas, and most of them are incompatible.
Kent: Those conversations are still in the big-bang stage, coming up with more and more possibilities, after which we’ll see what starts to coalesce. We take notes about these ideas, but I find that the natural filtering process of reviewing things from memory really helps. You don’t like the thought of losing anything, but what you really want is to be able to focus on the very best, which means you have to put aside the other stuff.