Process Imagineering, Part 1: Holy Jam

When you tell people that you’re writing a book there are a handful of responses that usually come up.

First, and by far the most common, is the “Oh. Neat.” Their tone is somewhere between vague, non-commital interest, and the frantic Oh my God realization that they’ve opened themselves up a conversation they never wanted to have.

Second are the skeptics. “Oh. Really?” they ask. They are the ones that look at you like a stranger, wondering at what point they mistook you for a normal, well-adjusted person. Their eyes go blank for a moment as they trace their path to the present in an “it was there, right in front of me all along” montage. The flights of fancy. The introverted, narcissistic behaviors. All of the times Josh corrected you on pronunciation in front of everyone. Their eyes snap back, ready to head you off at the pass before you try to recruit them for beta reading.

Third are the curious. Those that have a bunch of questions. They might initially start as the first or second cases, but they find themselves resigned to their fate. They want the satisfaction of finishing a conversation, or the accomplishment of getting through one with me. They realize I just want to talk about the thing I am interested in for a few minutes. In this case, the best way out of the hole is to keep digging. Ask a question, nod understandingly, then walk away. Everyone gets what they want and nobody gets hurt.

How long have you been working on it? We’ve been working on it for four years. What’s it about? Scifi fantansy. How long is it? We wrote way too much. Wait. You said we. Who is we? Oh, me and my co-author.

This is where the decision tree for people starts to break down, the branches cracking off and the trunk listing badly. The world made sense in that Josh would be the weird, quirky author type. He does all that stuff with computers so that sort of makes sense that he’d be into all those orcs and elves and dwarves and shit.

But the equation changes when there are two people in the mix. There is only really one branch left on the decision tree, one question: How the hell does that work?

The insect machine thing deep within me starts spooling a lengthy, unsolicited lecture on the importance of tools, backups, traceability, and accountability. It never really lands, and I usually just sound crazier than when I started.

When I’ve heard Mike answer this question, he just answers, “Slowly. Very slowly.”

I should take notes. Those asking the question aren’t curious on what we use to do it. They are curious how, at a very basic level, do you sit down and both arrive at the same creative vision.

Well. Here it is. The one time I attempt to answer a question in a straightforward manner, and maybe even answer the question that was asked. This is your moment, Josh.

This post will start a series that will detail all the weird things we do, and hopefully answer the question of how this all works.

The Holy Jam

When an author sits down to hash out a chapter, crank out a scene, or wrench on some dialogue, there is some pretty crazy stuff going on. My background in computer science has no way to adequately quantify it. For someone to start with absolutely nothing and end up with a string of symbols that represent natural language that describes a story that other people would want to read is mystifying. It is one of the many things that we will struggle to mathematically or computationally model for a long, long time.

That said, the human brain does this kind of shit all day. We can contextually identify objects from a continuously moving field of vision. Or maintain locomotion using muscles that we had to learn how to use from scratch. All while processing billions of sensory inputs. And the most difficult part of it all is having ‘Fight Song’ stuck in your head one more fucking time.

So, the question is: what happens when you have two authors? We don’t have wiring for telepathy or mind-melds. Mike and I, though we share a lot of the same interests, are not exactly of the same mindset. We are, in fact, pretty different writers, both in method and style. So how do we come up with something we both agree on?

Well. You get together and jam. Jam session, that is. Like musicians do. Except a lot quieter. So far we haven’t been banished to a garage. Except for that one time we had to stain Mike’s doors.

A writer-ly ‘jam session’ probably isn’t the best name for it, but it’s the best fit we have. The purpose of a musician’s jam session is well understood. It is to rehearse. To practice. To figure out problems before they happen during a performance. Or just to get better at playing with people. Or just to drink and have fun.

The purpose of a writing jam session is a little muddier. The jam session isn’t a write-in. It isn’t a team writing exercise (also, those never work, regardless of whether you’re drinking). It isn’t where you sit and read each other’s work (unless there have been quick edits since you looked last). You should both be caught up, and either be in agreement with the other person’s work or have items you want to figure out.

The jam is to free each other from whatever is stopping you. It’s an… unjam session.

(I’ll just see myself out.)

Here is what one of our jam sessions look like:

  1. One of us sends out a jam subpoena. This is in text form, or just a straight up Google calendar invite. We try to use a pun in the name of the invite. Jamboree. Jambalaya. Log Jammin’. You get it.The time is always the same: 8pm, when Mike’s kids get to bed.
  2. One of us heads to the other’s house. We both bring a computer. We bring up the file called ‘NextJam’, and enter multi-editing mode so we can see each other’s edits. Both people can type, but you try to take turns so someone isn’t just typing the whole time while the other person yammers.
  3. You follow the items as dictated by the NextJam. The NextJam is the listing of the stuff you added to the NextJam since the last jam session. It starts with a section called ‘Discussion Items’, which is just a bunch of random shit that’s on your mind. New video games. Something you saw on reddit. Sometimes it is book related. Most times not. Allow yourself some time to have an adult conversation about adult things. Some people have been talking with four-year-olds all day and just need to interact with someone who isn’t hustling them for snacks.
  4. Once the discussion items are complete, you will completely ignore the items under ‘Bookkeeping’. These are things like the links to the last jam session, or reviewing the work list, or the TODO list, or the Document Status review list. Nobody has time for that. Skip past where Josh wants to talk about renaming the Empire. Skip past where Josh wants to talk about book titles. Scroll, scroll, scroll…
  5. Get down to what you really want to talk about. Book stuff. The things you’ve been working on. The pending questions. The things you wanted to run by the other person. The stuff that came up while you were working on things.Or, even better, try to remember why you put something on the list. That’s always fun. At the same time, try to remember all the things that came to mind while you were trying to fall asleep, or in the shower that morning.
  6. Talk for 2.5 hours. Write down any decisions you make, and any notes for future modifications. Save the file, giving it a timestamp. Keep the pending items in the NextJam for the next jam session. Go home.

Repeat the above steps until you have a novel. For Mike and I, we have held one hundred and eleven jam sessions according to our records. Possibly more impromptu or unrecorded ones that didn’t make it onto the system.

Some jams are more productive than others. Some get off on a topic that you didn’t even have on the list, but needed to hashed out anyways. Sometimes nothing gets hashed out, and you just sit and gossip for hours. But most times it can be effective in breaking you from your collective procrastination. Regardless of productivity, you should always walk away from a jam session with work to do. Don’t go home until you have work to do.

For instance: You aren’t sure about a character’s decision? Ask the other person. Not sure how to implement an aspect of world building? Ask the other person. Between the two of you there is most definitely an answer, a clever solution, or a way to cheat around it. Something that may be a showstopper for one person may be trivial for the other. One of you is super into maps? Great. Fix the cardinal directions I ham-handedly misplaced in my latest edits. I’d rather be inventing magical cryptosystems anyway.

The final, and maybe most important feature of a jam session is seeking the assurance that you are not crazy. As an author, your job is to make shit up and hope that it sounds like something somebody would want to read. Wherever this stuff comes from is usually a pretty crazy place. And unless you have unwavering confidence in your creative abilities, there will always be the doubt that whatever you came up with is silly and dumb. Or crazy. The jam session is there to run these things by your coauthor. To have a system of checks and balances. Having someone else there to drop a ‘Awww jeaaaah’ or a ‘Awww hell nah’ can get you past whatever snag you are on and solving the problem.

The jam session is pretty central and somewhat holy to our process. It’s something we started early, and while at the time we probably didn’t realize it, it would become pretty important.

So. Yes. The answer, part the first: we jam.