This month, we talk to authors Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski. They talked to us about collaborative writing, combining interesting elements into one story, and the struggles of writing a trilogy.
Want to catch up? Check out last month’s Ink Splat here.
Here’s a fun co-writing exercise. This is actually the way that Kati and Heidi originally started writing together.
Step 1: Find a partner, and spend five minutes brainstorming a story idea together.
Things to discuss:
- Genre: Do you want to write fantasy? Science fiction? Realistic fiction? Or a combination, like western horror?
- Main character: who is he or she? A chef? A student? A long lost prince or princess? What does he or she want? To rescue someone? To achieve fame and glory?
- Villain or obstacle: Who or what is stopping your main character?
- Setting: Where will this story take place? A castle? A deserted island? The basement of the local middle school?
This is just the initial “story spark,” so it’s fine if you and your partner don’t have all the answers yet. The most important thing is to figure out how you can work together and compromise in order to write a story that you will both enjoy.
Step 2: Set a timer.
Partner one spends 5 minutes writing (set a timer). When the timer goes off, that person has 20 seconds left to finish whatever sentence they are on and then passes the story to partner two.
Partner two reads the section, and then gets 5 minutes to continue the story, until the timer goes off. Then they pass it back to partner one to read.
Repeat as desired. The only rule is each person has to work with the story their partner has written — no changing the other person’s section.
Step 3: Compare your stories.
Once you have finished your story (or used up the amount of time given for this exercise) spend a few minutes comparing what you have written to what you had brainstormed beforehand. Did you stay within that original plan? Or maybe your story veered way off track? In that case, where did you move away, and do you like this new direction better?
Who knows, maybe you’ll discover your next great story idea and will want to continue this collaboration after this exercise is complete. Or maybe you’ll realize this story isn’t working, and will put it away in favor of something else. The most important thing is to just enjoy the process of collaborating with a partner and creating something different from what you would have created on your own.
Grab a partner and see what you can come up with! Submit your response by emailing email@example.com. You might be published on our website!
An Interview with Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski
How did you two start writing together? What is it like writing with your sister as a partner?
KATI: Heidi and I used to brainstorm story ideas together, even back when we wrote separately. And much like the exercise shared above, when we were younger we did occasionally write together for fun by trading off sections. But we didn’t start writing seriously together until about seven years ago when I had the idea of a story about a chef who is trying to start a new restaurant specializing in monster cuisine. I also wanted to write another story about a world where the elven mafia is feuding with a group of steampunk scientists.
HEIDI: When Kati told me those two ideas, I told her they would work best combined. From there, I was really excited about that story’s potential, and I kept coming up with other elements she could add. A rival in the restaurant business! An old crush who always gets the main character’s name wrong. A sneaky winking spy…I flooded Kati with suggestions until she gave in and asked me if I wanted to just write it with her. And that’s how it began.
KATI: Heidi can be relentless. Luckily that’s often a good thing to have in a writing partner. Not always the best in a sister, though!
HEIDI: You love it. 😉
KATI: The good thing about writing with your sister, though, at least in our case, is that we can be completely honest with each other and not worry that it will ruin our relationship. So if Heidi is going off on one of her spontaneous tangents, I can tell her when I think it’s not a good idea, and she doesn’t take it personally.
HEIDI: Sometimes I take it personally.
KATI: Heh. Well, yes, but I guess I don’t take it personally if you take it personally. And I know you’ll get over it. Eventually.
HEIDI: I suppose that’s the best part about working with your sister. We’ve been sisters a long time, and we both know we’ll still be sisters, regardless of any disagreements we have while writing. Also, we’ve had many years of experience with compromising with each other, which has definitely helped.
A Hint of Hydra is the sequel to A Dash of Dragon — did you know when you wrote the first book that it was going to be a series? What surprised you in the process of writing a sequel?
KATI: We always planned for it to be a series, but when we wrote the first book, we didn’t know if the whole series would sell, so we tried to write a story with a satisfying enough conclusion that it could stand alone. Then when it sold, we pitched the idea of our sequels to our editors. They originally just bought the second book, but then earlier this year they came back and asked for the third.
HEIDI: We were so relieved because A Hint of Hydra ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, and we’d hate to leave our readers there. But now we get to write the whole trilogy and give this part of Lailu’s story the conclusion we imagined, and we’re very excited about that.
KATI: The biggest surprise in writing a sequel was how challenging it was. We wanted to write something with all of the best elements from book one, and have it feel familiar, and yet be a completely different book. Book three was even more challenging to write because we needed to do that again, and also turn up the action and adventure and stakes so it would be even more epic than the first two books.
HEIDI: It was really difficult, but also very fun. We got to have more time with these characters we’ve grown to love and see them change and mature and take on other challenges, so in addition to being surprisingly hard, I was also surprised by how much I loved being back in Lailu’s world. I think I’d write a hundred books set there if I could.
KATI: Me, too!
The series takes place in a quirky, fantastical world with monster cuisine, Elven mobsters, and more. What inspired this wacky setting?
HEIDI: Kati’s wacky imagination. ;D Or more specifically, her imagination plus too much anime.
KATI: In one of my favorite animes, “Slayers,” there’s an episode where the main characters really want to taste dragon cuisine. It was just a one-off tangent episode, but I realized a story centered around that dragon cuisine chef would be really interesting. And I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy versus science world. I started thinking about how elves are usually shown as more friendly and mystical and wanted to write a different kind of elf. Heidi and I were really into steampunk at the time, too, so when we started working, we knew the scientists would be experimenting with clockwork and steam. Everything else kind of sprang from that.
Lailu, the series’ protagonist, kicks butt inside and outside the kitchen. What is your favorite part of writing her story?
HEIDI: Ooh, good question. I really like how pure Lailu is—she’s hard-working and always sees the best in everyone—
KATI: Except Greg.
HEIDI: Yes. Except Greg, her old school rival turned restaurant rival. And I think that’s one of my favorite parts of her story. I loved writing her exchanges with Greg and showing how he might be doing things to help her, but she never really sees it that way. And I also loved writing about her passion for cooking, and how that is what really defines her.
KATI: I love those things, too. Also, I do really enjoy creating these elaborate hunt scenes, and honestly I have a ton of fun writing scenes with Lailu’s best friend, Hannah. Hannah is a lot more complicated than Lailu; she’s someone who is good at pretending to be something else, whereas with Lailu, what you see is what you get. I really liked writing those two characters together and exploring that dynamic.
If you could tell your younger writing-self something, what would it be?
KATI: I really struggled with writing the whole time I was a kid. I thought I was terrible; I’d turn in a paper and it would be covered in corrections. But then I started writing what I wanted to write, instead of what I thought the teachers were looking for, and suddenly I started doing much better. It took me until my junior year of high school to get to that point, though. So if I could tell my younger self something, I’d tell her to always write what you want to write the way you want to write it. You’re never going to do your best work if you’re trying to write the way you think other people want you to.
HEIDI: You know, I think I’d want to tell my younger self the same thing. Write the book you want to write instead of the book you think you should write. If you’re not enjoying writing it, no one else is going to enjoy reading it.
Get Ready for Summer Camps!
Join us and Stone Soup this summer for Young Author's Studio summer camps.
We’re inviting passionate young writers from around the world to join us on Zoom for writerly learning experiences. Each camp will include lively skill-building activities, time for drafting, and collaboration with peers.
A special thanks to Heidi and Kati for sharing with us! You can learn more about them at their website, www.HeidiandKatiwrite.com. Order a copy of A Hint of Hydra or A Dash of Dragon from one of the sisters’ favorite bookstores, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.
Kati Bartkowski left her job as an administrative zombie slayer for a vastly more dangerous calling: raising a toddler. She has to deal with the same sharp teeth and insatiable hunger, but her “foe” is much cuter. When she’s not busy chasing her little one around, she’s writing or drawing. Find Kati on twitter @ktbartkowski. Heidi Lang spends her days running and walking packs of dogs. When she’s not out on the trails, she’s usually hunched over a computer writing, or deep into a good book. No matter where she is, she’s almost certainly covered in dog fur. Find Heidi on twitter @hidlang.