When collaborating on The Incrementalists co-authors Steven Brust and Skyler White confess they never knew what was going to happen next and insist that was part of the fun! Originally inspired by a whiskey fueled discussion on writing, the two authors share with Zola the best parts of thinking up and eventually writing a novel together.
Zola: The novel is not only written by two authors but it is narrated by two characters: the 2000 year-old Incrementalist, Phil, and the newbie, Ren. Did you equally split the narrations or did you each take on a character to write?
Steve Brust: Mostly, we split the narrations.
Skyler White: I wrote the scenes in Ren’s POV and Steve wrote those in Phil’s, but the two of them spend a lot of time together which means I’m always Phil in Ren scenes and Steve’s writing Ren in Phil scenes, so we’re each almost fifty-fifty with it.
SB: We also did “accent checking” on each other’s characters. And, of course, during the revision process everything was fair game for either of us.
SW: It’s hard to explain how both the same and different knowing a character is from knowing a person. There were lines Steve wrote for Ren that made me stop and go, “Oh, that’s what she’s like! I didn’t realize that about her.” And there were lines he wrote for her that I’d re-write because they weren’t quite who she was. And I can’t begin to explain how I knew which was which.
I’d like to think I gave Steve the same – moments of revealing his character to him – because he and I are both creating and changing in response to what the other is doing. But with the exception of Oskar for Steve and Celeste for me, I’d have to go back into the manuscript and look to see who introduced Jimmy or Matsu or the others. I think of most of the characters as “ours.”
Zola: Steve, how did you and Skyler hook up on this project in the first place? Why did you want a partner?
SB: We met on some panels at some conventions, eventually discovered that we lived in the same city and that we both loved talking about writing. It was during one of those conversations that the idea came up. We each had pieces of the idea, and put them together during the planning stage–I guess you’d call it the “world-building” stage.
The reasons to collaborate on a book are, well, for one, in order to be part of something bigger than yourself. And in order to work with someone you want to work with. And it’s a relatively easy way to get that feeling of inspiration that we treasure so much. And because it’s just plain fun.
Zola: Skyler, who had the initial idea and why did you want a partner?
SW: The initial, initial idea belonged to Tappan King. He’d given it to Steve years before we met, so when we got to talking, late one night, and I complained that I missed the collaborative energy of theater, Steve trotted out the facts that (a) you could write collaboratively and (b) he already had an idea kicking around for such a project. Five hours and too much whiskey later, we had a sketch of The Incrementalists and their world. Two years later and it’s still the most fun I’ve had making anything.
Steve’s written books with Emma Bull and Robin Hobb, so he can speak to collaborations in general, but this is my first, so I can really only talk with authority about working with Steve, but the reasons for doing that are multiple: He’s a consummate pro and I’m a relative newbie with a lot to learn. It’s hugely gratifying to have someone eagerly waiting to read a scene when you finish it. It’s fun to spend the intervening time wondering what your characters are doing without you, and even better to get new pages back and still be surprised. I loved writing for him, slipping the little allusion or cross-reference in for him to pick up, picking the tiny hints out of his sections to see what might come next. It’s the strangest combination of listening and insisting, bending and being bent, and it takes you places you’d just never think to go on your own. Then you’re there, and you get to write them.
Zola: Were there any challenges in terms of molding your different writing processes together?
SW: I’d always worked from an outline, but because we were telling the story to each other and neither of us knew what was coming next, I had to learn a new way of scaffolding things. It was exciting, and terrifying, and it forced me to be better than I was, so challenging in that way, but not in the corporate-speak way of meaning problem. It was never a problem and it was never unpleasant. It was hard work, but it was so exciting that it was really more like very immersive, exhilarating, exhausting play.
Zola: After 2,000 years, Phil still has trouble with understanding women and sometimes just doesn’t seem to ‘get’ them. And he’s been women. Is that just a simple fact of both fiction and reality that you can gain intelligence but still lack emotional smarts? Do people ever really learn from their mistakes?
SW: I think people do learn from their mistakes if they hurt enough. Phil’s pretty savvy, and he’s worked out a way of being – of staying interested in the world despite having been in it so long, of managing negative emotions, of loving and losing and fighting with the same women, of understanding choices and odds and gambles – that works pretty well until it doesn’t. This story is what happens when that way of being is forced to grabble with something new. Phil encounters a woman and events he doesn’t understand, but I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t understand quite a lot. He does. He just doesn’t get it all. Because yeah, a book about someone who did would be boring. Or need someone smarter than me to write it.
SB: I don’t think it is the case that Phil doesn’t get women; neither Phil nor I would concede that woman are some sort of separate species that one needs to “get.” I think Phil doesn’t get himself, and I think that changing that is part of what happens in the book–at least to some degree. I think people can indeed learn from mistakes; I think if people didn’t, we’d all still be living in caves.
I don’t accept that humanity’s understanding of nature on the one hand, and knowledge of one’s own emotions, reactions, pre-dispositions, and habits on the other, are of such drastically different kinds that one or the other can be inherently closed off. Some people have more of a struggle understanding why they act in certain ways, just as some people have more of a struggle understanding math, or reading maps. But there is a long, long distance between “more of a struggle” and “can’t.” Things that aren’t a struggle make for boring fiction.
Zola: With so many metaphors and invented terms, did you create a glossary or map for yourselves to keep them all straight? What was the planning process like?
SW: No, although we created a style sheet after the first draft to standardize capitalization and usage. The terminology was an outgrowth of the world building which we were so deeply immersed in that we were in no danger of forgetting it. Without the Garden, there’s no story, so what that is and how it’s used was never likely to get away from us once we hammered it out. And we had a lot of practice explaining it to friends in the early stages when we’d collar anyone we knew with an imagination and sketch out the premise and ask for issues or questions or ways it could break.
Zola: Memories of scent, music, and taste are some of the most effective “triggers” the Incrementalists use to influence people. Did you put any of your own into the book?
SB: For the most part, no. Mostly, I examined what some of what my switches would be, and found, if you will, congruent ones that would express something about that character.
SW: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think there are any of my switches in the book. Mine are too personal to share and switches are too woven into a character’s history and personality to borrow them from me.
Zola: Is this story going to be continued?
SB: We’re working on a sequel now.
SW: Yup. Back to work!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.