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Dan and Sierra’s First Collaboration


Never ask “Can I do this?”
Ask instead, “How can I do this?”

Dan Zadra

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Collaborating on The Creative Compass

Reality is made of many realities.

                                                -Wallace Stevens

Dan & Sierra at the Gym

All works of art are mysterious; those that emerge from collaborations, doubly so.

My father and I somehow managed to produce a book together. In a series of six blog posts, we’ll tell each other that story in hopes of better understanding how we managed to make the partnership work.

In writing together, we passed through the same five stages that we describe in our book, and we’ll cover our own experience of each of these stages in future posts.

Next week, we talk first about the decision to undertake this project together.

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Beginning The Creative Compass

Writers are those people for whom
writing is especially difficult.

                                                -Thomas Mann

Dan upside down, Sierra rightside up


Most things begin long before we notice.

Sierra and I began collaborating years ago, as I read and edited her early writing. Later she did the same for me.Then, two life threads came together: For several years I’d mentioned the idea of writing a book for aspiring authors, knowing only that I wanted to call it “Writing Your Way” and that it would be about the importance of trusting your own approach to the craft. In that same period, Sierra and I floated the idea that, one day, we might write something together.

So when I decided to begin work on the writing book, it seemed like the perfect collaborative project. After considering the idea, she agreed.

Being from the Ray Bradbury school of “throwing up then cleaning up,” my first attempt at a manuscript was so rough (and so particular to my own writing life) that we decided to start fresh and incorporate workable elements later. In other words, I tossed that first draft into the “graveyard of lost manuscripts.”

And so we began to explore new territory, alone and together. We set a course, like all writers must, into the unknown . . .

Sierra on BEGINNING:

When my father asked if I’d like to write a book with him, I said yes.

It was a relatively easy decision. I’d already spent most of my writing life working with my dad in one way or another, usually in a writer-editor capacity. Perhaps there is something of the writer-editor in every father-daughter relationship: each wants the other to change “just a little,” and resistance ensues.

Even after I said yes, however, we continued for some time to treat a collaboration as a possibility rather than an inevitability — once I finally sat down to read the draft my father had written over a few months, I realized that it better resembled a book he’d write on his own. It didn’t take Freud to recognize that we both had reservations.

We ultimately handled those reservations in the way we’ve each become accustomed to dealing with self-doubt and inertia: we ignored them. My dad made the decision that only a true professional can make when he agreed to largely scrap his draft and we started once more with a blank page. In this, I know we both agree: It’s the most terrifying beginning. And the best.

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Dreaming The Creative Compass

Untaming the world and allowing the differences between people and between streets and houses to be felt and acknowledged mark the growth of an artist.

                                                -Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, The Viewpoints Book


Dan on DREAM:

Our writing book, like all my projects, began with a sticky idea, one that transformed unexpectedly before it germinated and grew. From the beginning, I had a title in mind — “Writing Your Way,” to acknowledge that there was no single right approach the work — but not much else. All books eventually insist on titles; some titles, like this one, demand books.

Throughout those years, I thought of the project as my own. So, perhaps it was natural that, even as I began talking with my daughter Sierra about collaborating, I simultaneously waded into a draft that carried forward my initial solo impulse. What emerged was a memoir, organized in chronological, autobiographical order, describing each book I’d written and what I’d learned along the way.

I might have committed to this original draft. But it would have meant winding up the collaboration before it had even begun, asking Sierra to serve as an editor and not a coauthor, choosing what was comfortable and familiar over what was challenging.

Instead — and the book itself has given me the language to explain my own actions — I forced myself to recognize that what we call drafting is only dreaming until we know precisely where we’re headed. Returning to the blank page that made us equals, Sierra conceived a structure for what would be a very different book. Later in the process, we could and would incorporate ideas from my original draft, she assured me.

And so I let her pull me out of one dream and into another.

Sierra on DREAM:

As my dad’s and my collaboration began, I knew his process to be more intuitive than analytical — he never outlined. In direct contrast, I thought of myself as a ‘writer who outlines’ (even though I’d largely stopped doing so years before).

Writing together meant either figuring out how to merge our minds — call it California dreaming — or starting with an outline, all the more so because we’d decided that we would try to sell our book to a publisher as a proposal and not a finished manuscript. Before we could confidently set out to write anything, we knew that we had to agree on a common vision, the heart of any collaboration.

In other words, we needed to talk about ideas before we talked about (or in) prose.

Doing so made so much sense and worked so well from the start that it immediately revealed itself as a cornerstone of the book’s philosophy: We had to dream before we could draft.

There is something almost Zen about writing a writing book. How you actually do what you do must remain consistent with what you recommend. That’s one internal check. My dad’s and my contrasting approaches offered another check. I drew upon his and my own intuitive ideas and organized them into the structure required by a proposal, most prominently the list of named sections and chapters.

Years earlier, in a college creative writing class, I’d realized that my writing only flowed after I’d “found the frame” for a piece, as I put it then. For our still untitled collaboration, the early table of contents became that frame. It turns out that a few key pages can make a book real in more than one way.

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Drafting The Creative Compass

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not yet understood.

                                                -Henry Miller


Sierra on DRAFT:

Which draft? By the time I began what I’d call drafting — composing the chapters that would constitute the book’s first major section, DREAM — two drafts had already gone by, only I hadn’t been forced to think of them as drafts.

The first represented my dad’s solo effort. The second formed the proposal: Fifty-eight pages describing the book we were then calling “Reams and Dreams,” including three sample chapters — two of them personal essays and a dialogue that wouldn’t make it into the final manuscript.

For writers, the proposal keeps the act of producing a book within the realm of imagination. It feels like an act of dreaming, not drafting.

Only then came the morning before Barack Obama’s election to a second term, and we found ourselves reviewing a contract. The moment for doubt and terror had finally arrived. Once we signed on the dotted line, we’d have to draft for real.

Except that it’s more difficult to feel intimidated by a project you’ve already begun. We had three samples chapters after all; we hadn’t yet decided to scrap the dialogue, then twenty-five percent of our material. We had a detailed outline of section and chapter titles. By then we’d even finished elaborating on each listed chapter in bullet points.

In other words, we’d successfully tricked ourselves.

My dad and I next split up the chapters and retreated into our own space to draft them individually. At first, I aimed to complete one chapter per day, but I quickly fell back on an older strategy: In two to six hours of daily writing, I aimed to produce only the first 300 words of that day’s chapter, knowing that it would be easier to pick up from where I’d left off as I completed each draft the following day, producing about 1,000 words total for the day.

Each writing session — as would be true with each subsequent draft, pointing toward the next — I finished first and then I began.

Dan on DRAFT:

I always trick myself into drafting, writing phrases, pages, and random paragraphs for weeks or months until I officially begin drafting.

For this project, I began writing ten years ago. Aspiring authors wrote me, asking where to begin, how to persist, and what to do with their manuscripts once they were ‘complete.’ In response, I sent out a short essay titled “Writing Reminders and Observations.” Over time that essay evolved into the sticky idea: a longer work that might better serve writers.

After Sierra and I decided to work together, our book proposal became a bridge between the Dream and Draft stage. It’s traditional to pitch a nonfiction book to a publisher with a proposal that summarizes the book’s contents and highlights the author’s ability to help sell the finished work.

While Sierra tackled the book’s structure and content, incorporating topics from my early draft as well as her many ideas, I focused on the marketing sections. We both knew my established platform and fan base would smooth the way to selling the book, all the more so because we’d decided to first approach my longtime publisher, Linda Kramer. Linda wasn’t too familiar with the writing book genre, but she offered us a contract based on her faith in my track record and stated admiration for our proposal.

Once we began drafting, we gave our individual visions free rein, fleshing out chapter topics and bullet points. Perhaps it helped that we shared an ideal reader: Joy, my wife and Sierra’s mom. I also wrote for all those aspiring authors who’d contacted me over the years.

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Developing The Creative Compass

A journey takes us from seeing one thing to seeing another.

                                                -Declan Donnellan



I’d heard of the film industry’s terms “in development” and “development hell.” But I hadn’t thought about the importance of a development stage in a general writing context until Sierra and I worked on The Creative Compass. Early on, our book had only four stages, capturing the way less experienced writers conceive of the creative process — dream up an idea, produce one or several drafts, polish, then publish (if possible). Only later did we realize that we’d missed one important stage.

Looking back on my own work, I’d repeatedly confronted the need to step away from my draft for a time and seek the impressions of early readers, finding new perspective only at a distance. Then I could return to the material with fresh eyes and make new choices, often structural changes, that would transform the initial drafts into a more powerful work. In the writing of our new book, I came to realize the critical importance of this third stage in the process — Develop.

For example, after I’d written a 900-page draft of a previous novel titled The Journeys of Socrates, I asked Sierra to read through and share her impressions. She not only read the manuscript but also made a plot outline. She then suggested I change the order of a number of parts — and throw away the last 300 pages (in which two other characters had hijacked the story from the protagonist), which meant having to come up with an entirely new conclusion. It wasn’t easy and I resisted making this massive cut at first, but I did it. That’s development.

The Creative Compass wasn’t just a writing project for me: it was an education. Sierra and I didn’t just prescribe development, we practiced it, receiving and requesting multiple rounds of feedback from my wife (Sierra’s mom), as well as a number of early readers, not to mention the editorial team at our publisher. As Sierra and I struggled to develop the manuscript, moving form draft to draft, I could take some consolation in the knowledge that the work forced me to further develop my overall writing skills and myself.

Sierra on DEVELOP:

I find development most tempting when it isn’t yet development. Minutes or hours after I’ve finished drafting a piece, say, one of the chapters from The Creative Compass, I want nothing more than to return to that state of ‘finishing’ and to prolong that experience. I’ve won! Fear can no longer touch me — or so I tell myself.

I pretend that I’m making substantial improvements as I break a long sentence into two shorter ones or exchange one word for another but really I’m just savoring this feeling of triumph. It’s a dangerous thrill. Once I stop writing and begin reading what I’ve written, a creative act of an entirely different order, the words on the page begin to take on the aura of inevitability as I become attached to them.

Whenever I reached that point, while working on the manuscript of The Creative Compass, I sent those pages off to my (dad’s and my) first reader, my mom. She’s the best kind of early reader, because she’s neither a writer nor an editor, but she has 30 years of experience reading and commenting on my dad’s work and somewhat less than that perusing my own. Through this project and many others, she has reviewed every stage as we’ve moved through it, our dreams when we’re taking notes or talking it through; our drafts, from bad to better; and the final, published version.

In the day or so that elapsed before we spoke, I permitted myself to stop looking at my work, what turns out to be a necessary preparatory step to seeing it anew. And I grasp only now that it’s not necessarily her comments that have the greatest effect on me, though they are often helpful in concrete terms, but the tone of her voice as she begins to speak. If the pages weren’t ready, the contrast between my own confidence and her uncertainty comes across as particularly stark. It’s a moment of rupture, a milder version of the tremble of water in that glass signaling the dinosaurs’ approach in “Jurassic Park.”

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Refining The Creative Compass

What is the novel…in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

                                                -Jane Austen


Dan on REFINE:

I so delight in the detail work of refining text that I tend to polish too soon.

I had to learn once again, through the experience of writing, that I needed to practice delayed gratification.While drafting The Creative Compass, I slowed my own momentum by rewriting sentences and paragraphs rather than pushing forward to add new ones. Later, I found myself ruminating over word choice and punctuation when I should have been confronting those larger challenges identified by early reader feedback.

The project itself (along with my co-author) became my best writing teacher as I increasingly forced myself to practice what we were prescribing, overriding inclinations to do otherwise. It seems to be part of my process to first choose the familiar way and only eventually the best way.

When the time came to refine, when the edits were clearly copy edits, I no longer had to worry about writing onward and could focus on carving away excess layers of words. Some of my most carefully crafted sentences disappeared as we made the cuts and the dramatic alterations that the third and fourth stages require. It was a sacrifice but also the only way to achieve the clarity and power infusing those ideas that moved us to write in the first place.

Sierra on REFINE:

I became aware that I’d reached refine only in retrospect as the final submission date for The Creative Compass loomed in late spring of this year.

Over the course of about six months, three different editors had given comments on the manuscript, as well as a generous handful of early readers. But it’s not like going to the doctor. All those queries and ideas pointed to the need for revision but no one told my dad and I just how to ‘fix’ our manuscript. We each had to rely upon our experience and our instincts — sharpened by all the other times we’d cycled through the five stages — as we set about determining first what to develop and, eventually, what to refine. And revising meant not only moving forward but doing so together in a direction that worked for both of us.

We knew we’d made it to the fourth stage when the work settled into the sentence level. Larger and larger blocks of text received the equivalent of an approving nod. At some point we passed over some invisible line that marked sufficiency: our editor began to suggest we simply cut sentences that were obscure. Refining, then, meant deciding whether to cut or to clarify. My dad typically preferred to cut, whereas I wanted to polish.

Two questions took on urgency: Had I said everything I wanted to say? In the best possible way? Once we submitted the final manuscript, we’d still be able to correct errors but we’d be barred from taking the initiative on more significant improvements. Refine marked that transition between transformation and reorganization. Because we both find the greatest joy in the writing, it felt bittersweet. Refining “The End” doesn’t make it any less the end.

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Sharing the Creative Compass

It has never been easy for me to understand why people work so hard to create something beautiful, but then refuse to share it with anyone, for fear of criticism. Wasn’t that the point of the creation – to communicate something to the world? So PUT IT OUT THERE.

                                                -Elizabeth Gilbert


Sierra on SHARE:

It’s easy to forget that you’ve written a book in the gap between final submission and publication, even when that gap is only a few months long. Perhaps I should have written it’s “easier” — easier than thinking and rethinking all those on-the-page decision, worrying every word like a prayer bead.

Besides by this point, all authors have deeper worries: when the time came to write or contribute to the marketing materials for The Creative Compass, I sensed that I wasn’t alone in realizing I had no idea what my book was about, not to mention what made it different from other books. Why should anyone read my book? There was a point when, if truth serum had been administered, I would have answered this most basic question with: Beats me. Ummmmm, I spent a long time working on it. That’s gotta count for something, right?


Fortunately, that moment passed as it always does. In this instance, my dad and I dreamed, drafted, developed, and refined varied descriptions of the book and we were fortunate to have many excuses to do so: bookstore brochures and weekend workshops that needed text; interview questions to answer; radio and podcast interviews to participate in; and an online course that needed eight original lessons, multimedia, and exercises.

It often seems that authors hate marketing, but actually I think we love to hate it: it’s our first best chance to see what we’ve created through readers’ eyes when our work is no longer completely ours.

Dan on SHARE:

When Sierra and I submitted the final draft of The Creative Compass, we knew that our writing was complete, but not our work. Because our book couldn’t inform or inspire anyone who didn’t know it existed. So, months in advance of publication, we began to generate ideas about how to attract the attention of our target readers.

After looking over an early draft, fantasy novelist Terry Brooks, agreed to write a Foreword. Some of our early readers enthusiastically endorsed the book. On cue, our publisher’s marketing and publicity directors stepped in. In-house publicists are often work on overload, however, so we made suggestions and helped them prepare a press kit to send out to media outlets so as to attract the attention of radio and podcast hosts, journalists, and bloggers.

Even as I write these words, we’re immersed in the Share stage, having given talks and bookstore signings, participated in print and audio interviews, and created an online course as well as co-teaching writing workshops. My email list and social media network, which has grown due to many decades of work, helped facilitate much of our outreach.

Soon the time will come to step back from the stream of interviews and turn our attention to new creative projects. We hope that, in the manner of a first-stage booster rocket, we’ve generated enough momentum to carry the book into the hearts of readers. We can only rely on them to keep sharing their enthusiasm about our book with others, through the years, as the cycle begins again, and Sierra and I move on to other dreams and sticky ideas, waiting for their chance.

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Wishing You All a Creative 2014!

Dan and Sierra Backs

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