For us to be working together is about as likely as being struck by lightning,
a comparison that for us holds particular personal significance. After all,
when we first read each other’s work, we were sixteen hundred miles and
cultures apart. Bill Turner was in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico teaching and doing
web design for a school after a stint as a newspaper columnist in the Caribbean.
When we started writing together he was thirty-five. Miriam N. Kotzin was living
in Philadelphia, teaching at Drexel University, and was on the wrong side of
sixty. The only collaborative writing she’d done until that summer was
writing reports for Drexel committees. Bill had done no collaborative writing,
wanting no part in it.
We met reviewing each other’s writing on Zoetrope’s online writing
workshop, admired each other’s work, and liked the close reading and suggestions
we gave one another for our writing. Our communication was through the workshop’s
mail, in Zoetrope-speak we z’d one another and did line edits. We celebrated
one another’s publications by arranging to hoist an iced tea and diet
coke at an agreed upon time, each of us in our own residence. We weren’t
even online together at the time of our toasts. We didn’t speak or use
private “real” email until we were writing together, not just editing
one another’s work.
By invitation, Miriam tried collaborative writing, a surreal erotic story, with
two other Zoetrope writers, and wanted to work on more writing something more
congenial to her nature. She wrote asking Bill, who was reluctant, emailing,
“Does not play well with others.” She persisted, sent a passage,
which they abandoned. She tried again. The result was better, in fact, good.
We took part in a flash-a-thon (marathon Zoetrope flash workshop), sometimes
posting individually, sometimes together. It was our first work together, and
quite public. One reviewer wrote he was “amazed at how well you two work
in collaboration.” Another commented that our work was the first with
“two authors’ names” she’d seen “in the 4+ years”
in the workshop. Another wrote, “How on earth do you collaborate on a
flash? I can’t even imagine the process.” We were determined not
to be Dr. Johnson’s dancing dog. (Cynthia Ozick’s essay on women
writers, quotes him, “ ‘One marvels,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘not
at how well it is done, but that it is done at all.’”
Fortunately, considering the exigencies of the technology at hand, we began
by writing flash fiction, pieces shorter than 1000 words. We e-mailed back and
forth, dealing with time lags of the internet, the ISP in Puerto Rico, and an
antiquated low speed dial-up connection that went down in a breeze—and
hurricane Jeanne that passed directly over Aguadilla and knocked out phone service,
and thus email, for nearly two weeks.
Our work reached a second phase when Miriam discovered that her flat fee long
distance plan included Puerto Rico. She got her money’s worth and then
some because we began writing using the phone. One of us would write, read aloud
the passage entirely at normal speed, and again, dictating while the second
typed. Yes, it was slow. Still this method was more efficient than the emails
and Miriam believes that the act of typing Bill’s passages helped her
assimilate his writing style into her repertoire.
Bill wanted to move back to the Continental United States and find a writing
community. He was considering a number of cities, including Miami (he grew up
in Tampa), Baltimore and Philadelphia. Before he made his decision, we’d
had an acceptance or two of our stories. Then in November of 2004, he moved
to Philadelphia and our working together changed—passing one laptop computer,
sometimes two, back and forth meant improved productivity. We could actually
work on two stories at the same time like that—as long as both were in
the same genre.
In many team sports, players and coaches talk about the importance of chemistry.
Intangible elements combine to create a situation that encourages cohesion and
common goals. Working with a writing partner also requires these intangibles.
Three of the most important are common growth, individual autonomy and a strong
sense of empathy with one’s partner.
We have learned about these concepts through trial and error, but the results
have been fruitful. As a writing team, we have worked together for over one
year. Our work—flash fiction and longer stories—has been published
in many magazines and journals. We have experienced the elation of receiving
the acceptance letters and the downs of brief collaborative writing Sabbaticals,
especially while launching our online magazine Per Contra.net.
Our common growth is more a paradigm shift than an evolution. In the last year,
Miriam has been published individually, has written a blognovel and is currently
revising the novel and writing sonnets. Bill has been published independently,
has created two new magazines and a community forum and is currently writing
As a team, we’ve written and published short fiction, have co-authored
a play now in the process of revision, have spent a significant amount of time
debating and deciding what we should do with a collection of short stories as
well as a short romantic comedy and are embarking on the adventure of a co-authored
Autonomy is critical. Good writing cannot be forced and good co-writing requires
two unique perspectives. We each approach life and our work in different ways.
Miriam writes with a steady persistence. Bill writes in bursts. In our case,
we also bring two distinctive writing styles. Miriam is methodical and precise,
carefully crafting a piece, so the emotion has an elegant surface. Bill calls
it enchantment of words, or in Spanish, she is La Encantadora de las Palabras.
Bill writes in a rhythm and style similar to a jackhammer, producing edgy stories.
As a writing team one of the greatest compliments we receive is when a reader
attributes a line of our co-authored work to the wrong one of us. Our writing,
despite different styles, is symbiotic. When we work together, the two styles
merge so that Bill’s gets a more elegant surface, and Miriam goes places
in her writing she would never had ventured, such as in our literary pulp piece,
“Ibis.” This is all a function of our strong senses of autonomy.
Empathy is the one intangible that cannot be cultivated. It either exists or
it does not. We do things in our writing together that we would not do separately.
Neither one of us writes romantic comedy alone, but writing together we’ve
written many light short shorts that have been well received, such as “Vacation
Planner” at Hobart.
The mechanics of our working method, outlined above, are simple. What the observer
would see now is the passing of a laptop back and forth. Internally it’s
In our short stories, neither one of us maintains control. The common work always
begins as a sentence or two and quickly becomes a longer work. One begins writing
and the other takes up where the first stops.
This means that sometimes though the writer who starts might have a preconception
about the story, it’s usually changed by whoever takes over. Moreover,
because we usually don’t talk about what we’ve written while we’re
working on a piece, the writing always has an element of risk: neither one of
us ever has the sense of complete control. Having a second mind at work on the
piece is exhilarating. Possibly in recognition of what could become a control
issue, rarely does one of us end a piece without warning the other, and most
often one of us tells the other to “take it home.”
With longer works, we discuss where we each want to go. With more characters,
facts and action, the need for coherence becomes paramount. We have to recap
where we’ve been and how each of us sees each character developing and,
of course, how we see resolution for the conflict or conflicts. But, like our
shorter works, the writing itself is driven by the contrast and compatibility
our individual styles. Miriam uses method acting to become a character. Bill
seizes the emotion and feelings in the context to develop a pace and then falls
into the action sequence.
In the beginning of our work together we each tended to work on different characters,
but as time progressed and we became more comfortable with our collaborations—and
one another—we each began writing the dramatic equivalent of a beat, including
all characters. Miriam suspects that this early division characters was a consideration
for the other writer’s feelings, a function of not wanting to usurp the
other’s creation. We moved back to this method when we wrote the play;
we each took a character (It’s a two-character play), and we once again
asked the other permission to write the lines or stage directions.
As with that first aborted flash, sometimes we abandon a work when it doesn’t
go anywhere. But it’s rare that either of us says, “I can’t
or I won’t” write with the lines the other has laid down on the
screen. Miriam’s been dismayed at some of Bill’s openings, but forged
onward, which was how she got started writing action (complete with seagulls
going after human flesh). And before we wrote “Winter’s Light”
Bill sent Miriam websites on the Lincoln Cathedral and she took a tour so that
she’d be familiar with the setting, one of Bill’s favorite places
About the only time we talk when we do flash is while we’re looking for
a title. We get our titles by brainstorming. Frequently in our short stories
the title points to a central symbol, as with “Prince’s Feather,”
the name of a flower in the border of the garden,* which like the white peacocks
are identified with the male character in the story. Symbols also became titles
in “Ibis” and “Winter’s Light.” Shortly after
Bill moved to Philadelphia, something happened that we still can’t explain
rationally. In the case of “Anna Maria’s Secret Journal” the
story of a young girl who compulsively cuts herself, we simultaneously came
up with the same name, both thinking of the celebrity Anna Maria Alberghetti
(b. 1936), who is as far from the central character as one could imagine.
That lightning strike we mentioned in the opening paragraph? In l997 Bill actually
was struck by lightning while golfing—knocked him flat. And the Red Sox
and White Sox have each won the series. So the Kotzin-Turner writing team, well,
it’s a natural. Still we’re betting we’re the only Irish-Cherokee
and Russian-Hungarian writing team working between the Schuylkill and the Delaware
(c) 2005 Miriam N. Kotzin and Bill Turner
*Prince’s Feather is an Amaranth, also popularly known as Pigmy Torch
“Anna Maria’s Secret Journal” http://rumble.sy2.com/sept05/anna_maria.html
“Two Letters” http://somewhat.org/mod.php?mod=userpage&menu=500&page_id=261
“Vacation Planner” http://www.hobartpulp.com/fiction/vacationplanner.html
“Winter’s Light” http://www.dogwoodjournal.com/Archive/Issue2/KotzinTurner.cfm