Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Writer Wednesday: Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant

How We Do It

When it comes to writing, the question we are asked more than any other is "How in the world do two people write a book together?" Although we’ve been at this gig for twenty years, and the “how” of this process seems hardly noteworthy to us, it remains the thing people are most curious about. In the beginning, we were really surprised by the question—we hadn’t thought about the “how,” and were completely unprepared with an answer. For us, writing in tandem evolved in the same completely organic, and equally inexplicable way as our friendship had—so it seemed perfectly natural.

Although we met in a profession where we should have been rivals (We were both plus-size models—the only two blacks in our NYC agency and therefore direct competition.) but we realized quickly that we had a lot in common—including a love of books, and we cracked each other up. We cooked up a number of projects together (a fashion newsletter and a short-lived magazine) before we got around to writing Tryin' to sleep in the Bed You made, and discovered that we work seamlessly, almost like we shared halves of the same brain. When the magazine folded without any notice, (and we got over our pity party) we knew that we had to keep working together.

Months and dozens of ideas later, we found ourselves back at the beginning--something we each had fallen in love with as children--fiction. We had both been English majors in college, but more than that, after years of gobbling books like popcorn, we each had strong feelings about what made a good story—and what didn’t. And for reasons we still can’t quite figure out, we decided to attempt writing a novel together. Who had the idea first? Your guess is as good as ours. But no tried to talk us out of it, we talked ourselves into it.

Now seven co-written novels later, before we begin a book, we do the same thing---get together and talk--something we do endlessly anyway. Our conversations lead to a plot, and characters we end up knowing as well as we know each other and eventually an outline. And no--our stories are not autobiographical although we use our own emotions and experience to give the characters reactions that feel real.

In order to make the process work we have to be in the same place. That's how the vibe happens. Sometimes we're side by side at the desktop PC, sharing the keyboard---passing it off to whoever has the hot hand. Other times one is at the laptop and the other at the desk and we're both writing the same section. We come together, read each other's material and weave them together, a sentence or two at a time. We can also write within the same chapter, one going from the beginning to the middle the other from the middle to the end. Then, we exchange sections, add at least two cents to what the other has done, and finally join them. The crazy part is we never know how it will progress each day—we sometimes use all of these methods in a single session. Our aim is for the book to have one, coherent voice. People are often sure they will be able to detect a change in style, or guess who wrote a particular part, but so far, nobody has, not even our editor.

Both our personal friendship and our professional relationship hinge on caring, trust and respect. When we write, our egos are checked at the door. We shed our selves and move into the plot, characters and language of the story. The work is never about us, it's about crafting a story word by word, sentence by sentence, that makes the reader care, maybe even makes them angry with a character. And based on the thousands of letters and emails we have received we know how strongly readers relate to the struggles, life lessons and thick-and-thin relationships we give our characters. That means we’re doing our job. We know that each of us could write a book on her own, but it's a special gift to be able to do it together and we hope we’ll be tag team storytelling for a long time.
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Thanks Virginia and Donna for taking time out of your busy schedules to be this week's Writer Wednesday guests. I think it is amazing how well you both write together. After reading Uptown and then your writing process I was even more amazed. There is no point where I could detect a change in style or perspective.

More information about Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant:

Thanks also to all of you who took time out of your day to stop by. Your support is always appreciated.

If you would like more info about this series, please see Writer Wednesday: The Intro

Kristin : )


  1. This writing process of DeBerry and Grant still amazes me. I can't get the voices in my head to agree what's right, let alone someone else!

  2. I agree with you Mike. It amazes me too. I read the book and could not tell 2 authors were equally involved in it's writing, it was smooth all the way through. Great job Virginia and Donna :)

  3. Wow - writing and weaving everything into seamless prose...that is amazing, ladies. Now I'm extremely curious to read your work. You must have a very special relationship to work together so closely without...well...going completely nuts. LOL Thanks so much for sharing your process!

    Thanks for another great Writer Weds. post, Kristin... :-)

  4. What a wonderful relationship to have with another human being! I love brainstorming with my husband every few months but the act of two people being so in sync as to be able to write the story together just sounds like magic to me.

  5. That is quite an interesting inside view into two writers working together and in sync the way you do. And it sounds like you have a grand time doing it!

    Thanks for sharing your story and your writing lives.

  6. It is amazing to me that two people could work on the same project, same chapter, in the same room, at the same time. It's fascinating and wonderful to hear about the process. Thanks for sharing with us and wishing you many more years of writing together.