Your Pen or Mine

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2-pens-writingby Barbara Hunter and Catina Williams

When we tell other authors we are collaborating on a book series, the response is astonishment. Suddenly, no one is interested in what we are writing (harrumph). People only want to know how and why we do it. Collaborative writing has achieved the status of urban myth. No one has tried it, but everyone has a story to tell of foolhardy souls who dared. Lawsuits and bloodshed ensued. When asked to write this piece, we had to analyze how and why our collaboration works.

How did we get started?

Barb: Catina began writing at a young age and has been honing her craft since. I happily put down my pen after completing my dissertation. While editing some of her work, I decided writing fiction looked fun, yet penning an entire book was daunting, so I approached her about working together.

Catina: When Barb mentioned a collaboration, she had several projects in mind. As soon as she tossed out the idea of a psychologically trained medium who does ghost therapy, I said, “Oh! Let’s do that one.”

Why does it work?

Barb: We are both psychologists. This background helps us to recognize our own weaknesses and forgive the eccentricities of the other. For example, Catina is a control freak. She calls it perfectionism; I allow her to maintain her delusion. Fortunately, our friendship has always been based on giving each other grief, so nothing has really changed. We also recognize each other’s good qualities. Catina is really hard to piss off, which is a wonderful quality in a writing partner. Our training also helps us work through conflict. For example, “I think your stubbornness is the result of an unresolved anal fixation.” Humor is critical.

Catina: Barb and I worked alongside each other for years, even sharing an office. When we moved into our swanky new building, we chose offices across the hall to make it easier to keep annoying each other. Yet through collaboration, I discovered new things about her character as well as my own. For example, Barb is a nag, a term she refers to as conscientiousness. When her anxiety peaks, a gentle “knock it off” generally does the trick. I admire how enthusiastically she jumped into the project: joining a critique group, reading books about writing, and even going to a national conference. For me, co-creation was the hardest adjustment. It often felt like having to share custody of my imaginary children. Generally, after receiving critique, I would go home and mull it over, knowing the ultimate decision was mine. It was my world. Suddenly, I had to talk through my thoughts. I learned I don’t like to share, but I can.

How does it work?

We put friendship first. If working together interfered with our relationship, we agreed the book would be sacrificed. The second relevant decision was choosing a project that allowed us to work independently of each other and played to our different strengths. Our book combines historical fiction and paranormal mystery and alternates between past and present.

Catina: I enjoy making up new characters and working without a structure. I imagined a ghost-fighting trio, each person with idiosyncrasies and backstories, which allowed room for play. My protagonist must communicate with a spirit from the past to solve the mystery. To ensure the story flowed smoothly from historical to contemporary, I had to write around the foundation Barb laid, which sometimes meant moving scenes because they didn’t make sense in their original positions. I write quickly, whereas Barb works slower. That has never been a problem because I am also writing my own mystery series. Another thing that aided the process of collaboration was a brainstorming day. Before we wrote a single word, we outlined the project so we knew, more or less, what the other person was doing. Our biggest arguments came during this process. Barb developed the initial concept, so she had strong ideas about the characters I was writing, whereas I wanted to have autonomy over the characters. I was insistent that her main character not die prematurely. After discussing it, we found solutions satisfactory to both of us.

Barb: I enjoy researching people and bringing their stories to life. For our first book, I chose John Harvey Kellogg, who along with his brother Will established the cereal empire. Historical fiction requires walking a tightrope between honoring the past and telling a compelling story. John’s beliefs about health and sexuality are disturbing by today’s standards. This gave me fertile soil for planting a murder amidst historical events.

As we wrote, we were open to feedback, but left the final decision to the original author, with the knowledge that editors or agents might ask for further changes. On the rare occasions we have differing opinions, we compromise and trade concessions. We also make sure to include play time, no book talk allowed. Now, a year later, we have completed our first book in the series, Cereal and Sin: A Minerva Little Mystery, and we are still friends. We have begun research for the next book, and are looking for an agent.

This formula worked well as we wrote our first novel and gives us a foundation for our future projects. Then again, maybe we’re wrong; maybe someday one of us will be up on murder charges. “But your Honor, she placed a colon where there should have been a semicolon!” Maybe like Icarus, we are full of hubris and flying too close to the sun. The process of collaboration has been challenging, humbling, and rewarding. The journey has been worth a little sunburn.


Barbara Hunter hails from Meadville, Pennsylvania, home of the zipper. She received her Ph.D. from Penn State. After teaching for four years at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, she became tired of being called ma’am. She moved to Belleville, Illinois, joined the faculty at Southwestern Illinois College, and became known as “the sex lady,” due to presentations at national conferences such as Does Size Matter? Perceptions of Penises and Breasts. In her spare time she hangs out with her two dogs, two cats, and main squeeze. She practices yoga, crochets, cooks, and now writes.

Catina Williams was raised in Monticello, Mississippi. She has a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University and a Ph.D. from Washington University. She currently lives in St. Louis with her husband and dog, who vie for the position as most-spoiled family member. She has several scientific publications, but has focused on fiction writing since graduation. Her romance novel Foolish Wishes is published under the pen name Treese Campbell and is available at Amazon. Catina is currently looking for an agent for her women’s mystery series. On a personal note, she is also searching for the city’s best chocolate martini. If you see her out and about in St. Louis, feel free to send one to her table.

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