Writing Partners In Life And In Work
As a genre, science fiction tends to collapse the image of the writer as a lonely figure at a typewriter: peruse the shelves of your local bookstore and you'll find collaborations between pairs of authors, like Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance series (and all its spinoffs), and novels written by big name authors contributing separate installments. Within Pocket Books' Star Trek line, collaboration seems to be more common than not...even books which appear to be by one writer, like the novelization of Voyager's "Caretaker," which was written by the pseudonymous L.A. Graf, who is in reality two writers working together.
Sandy Schoenfield, who wrote the Deep Space Nine novel The Big Game, is also two writers - Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who have collaborated under their own names on several other Trek novels, including the 1998 Voyager novel Echoes. In addition to being writing partners, Smith and Rusch are married to each other. So are Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, William Shatner's frequent collaborators and two of the most popular original series novelists. So are Jerry and Kathy Oltion, who have not collaborated, but who are both known for Trek fiction: Jerry recently wrote the Mudd In Your Eye and the upcoming Where Sea Meets Sky, while Kathy was one of the winners of the Strange New Worlds contest. Jerry also had an award-winning year: he won the 1998 Nebula Award for his novella "Abandon in Place."
Writing fiction is a notoriously difficult profession, which begs the question of how much more so it might be for married couples who are both trying to work within the same genre. For the Oltions and Smith and Rusch, however, the work seems to have become a joint labor of love. Rusch and Smith, who have each sold more than 30 novels, are in a somewhat different situation from Kathy Oltion, who only recently committed to trying to write full-time - in addition to the sale to Strange New Worlds, she sold a story to Analog which will be published this summer - and her husband, who has more than eighty stories and nine novels on his resume. But their descriptions of both their collaborations and their separate work bear similarities.
"We met at a writer's workshop in New Mexico about 12 years ago," Smith says of Rusch. "We were both new writers who had sold a few short stories. Kris was from Madison, WI, and I was living in Moscow, Idaho. We ended up moving to 'neutral' territory, which was Oregon, and we've been here ever since." The two realized early on that they both loved Star Trek, since they would go over to a friend's house every week to watch the new episodes with a few other writers. "It never dawned on us we might get a chance to write Trek at that point. We both love all four shows...and now we've written books in all four shows." They started writing Trek together the night of the Deep Space Nine pilot, when they learned from editor John Ordover that he needed a book quickly.
Smith describes the early years as "hard, both being writers," in that they both worked "real world jobs" and ended up seeing very little of one another. "But since we both knew exactly what the other was doing, and understood, it worked out just fine, actually," he explains. "I am Kris's first reader and she is my first reader, so we critique each other's stuff a great deal...made for some interesting times early on, but we worked out a method of being professional at it." For the past ten years, Smith and Rusch have both worked full time as writers and editors, "which has helped a great deal on the time together aspect of things - except, of course, when we are both under a book deadline!"
Smith explains that he is very strong at plotting, so when he and his wife collaborate, he writes the first drafts. Rusch is very strong at characters and setting, so she does the second drafts, including much of the character work. Then they take turns going over the manuscript together. The two wrote a Voyager novel, The Escape before the series had even aired - again to meet a deadline for Ordover - based only on a handful of scripts. Of their collaborative efforts, he is particularly proud of Echoes (co-written with Nina Kiriki Hoffman, a friend who is also a pro writer), which he describes as "one of the best we've done."
"At the moment, Sandy Schofield is the only name we're writing together under that is public, besides our own names - Sandy is Kris's sister's name and Schofield is an old family name of mine," explains Dean. "I think, at one point, we were going to have two [Trek] books out at the same time, so we switched to our own names on one, and then the Sandy book got delayed and we switched to our own names on that one, too. But we have written an Aliens novel, a Quantum Leap novel, and a Predator novel under the Sandy Schofield name. There will be more, I'm sure."
Rusch and Smith enjoy collaboration, and have done virtually all their work on Star Trek together: the only exceptions are editing Strange New Worlds, which Smith does on his own, and the script for the Star Trek: Klingon CD-ROM game, which Smith wrote. "But we love different sorts of things," notes Smith. "We write that stuff under our own names, or other pen names." The current hardcover Hitler's Angel, a "crime novel" about Hitler killing his niece which got a full-page review in The New York Times, was written entirely by Rusch and is out under the name Kris Rusch. She also has a fantasy series published by Bantam, The Fey, of which the fourth installment has just come out under her full name.
Rusch has sold 35 novels and Smith 33; both have won the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award, and been nominated repeatedly for Hugo Awards (Rusch has won once) and for Stoker Awards. Smith worked with Jonathan Frakes on the hardcover The Abductors: Conspiracy, on which Frakes reportedly fought to get Smith equal billing when the publisher wanted to use the actor's name alone to sell the novel. Rusch has written several Star Wars novels and a significant amount of horror, and edited The Best of Pulphouse and The Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Dean Wesley Smith has written and edited X-Men, Spiderman, and Ironman books.
The Oltions also met in a workshop - a creative writing course at the University of Wyoming taught by Pen-Faulkner award-winner John Wideman. "The instructor decided to split us into two groups. I didn't know Kathy yet, but I had already fallen for her, so I made very sure I was in her group!" recalls Jerry. Kathy, conversely, remembers being a nervous freshman without a textbook who asked the "great-looking guy" sitting outside the room whether she could borrow his. The two discovered that they both loved Star Trek early in the relationship, and gathered with five or six others every day in a friend's room and to watch afternoon reruns before going to dinner in the cafeteria. "We of course called ourselves "Trekkies" and were proud of the label, though people tell us that's not an acceptable term anymore," Jerry Oltion laments.
They did not work together on science fiction at that time, however. As Kathy explains, "I was writing rock and roll fantasy stories, teen wish fulfillment. I don't recall that many of the students in the class, except for Jerry, were interested in selling their fiction. We are both linear writers, meaning that we don't jump around and write the ending first, or do scenes out of order, and that makes it easier to collaborate."
The Oltions have a rather different method of collaboration from Smith and Rusch, however. As Kathy Oltion explains, "I started a story for a theme anthology, but had less than a week to write it and get it on the editor's desk. I had a really strong beginning, but I was only halfway through when I had to go to work. Jerry was relatively free of deadlines that day and I asked for his help, but only if he was interested. By the time I got home that night, he'd finished the story, and he kept the tone and feeling that I'd originally started with! It was such a kick to see the finished story and know that we both did a good job on it! I returned the favor with a story Jerry had started for our Christmas Eve reading. He'd written a few pages and had come to a halt. He asked me if I wanted to collaborate. I took it a few more pages [which] was enough for Jerry to pick it up again. We took turns from there until the story was finished, and then we both went over it to smooth out any rough spots." Instead of taking turns with the drafts, they add on to one another's material.
"We have pretty much opposite writing habits, so collaborations are a bit tricky for us," Jerry Oltion adds. "We both love to talk about stories and brainstorm ideas for them, but once she gets started, Kathy is afraid of talking them to death. I know when she's ready to write something because she suddenly shuts up about it. So with one collaboration we talked about it a little, then I wrote a scene and gave it to her, and she wrote one and handed it back, and so on like that. With another one, she started the story for an anthology and realized she was going to run out of time before the deadline, so she dropped it in my lap. I jumped in and wrote like crazy for hours. By the time she got home from work that night I had finished a rough draft and read it aloud to her."
Both Oltions imagine they could collaborate on novels - Kathy notes that "a Star Trek novel would be a kick" to work on together. But both feel that there's an advantage to keeping their careers separate for awhile. "Kathy can build up her own reputation without people wondering how much help she got from me - she's a fine writer on her own, and I'd like for the world to recognize that," says Jerry, a sentiment echoed by Kathy: "I really don't want to make it seem that I'm just riding Jerry's coattails. He's worked long and hard to get where he is and I'm willing to do the same!"
Jerry Oltion, who has been writing full-time since 1981, identifies himself as "primarily a writer of hard science fiction," with over eighty short stories published in Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Pulphouse, and various other magazines and anthologies. He and Dean Smith have collaborated as well, with Oltion using the name Ryan Hughes: they co-wrote Hard Crash and Prophet's Power, set in the Unreal universe. Jerry Oltion also edited Buried Treasures, a collection of short fiction selected from the inventory remaining when Pulphouse, which Smith had edited for many years, ceased publication.
Oltion is known for great speed when motivated. "I got started writing for Pocket when I heard they needed a book in just over a month to fill a gap in the publishing schedule - I'd always wanted to write Star Trek, one of my first short stories, written in grade school, was a Star Trek story, so I e-mailed a proposal to John Ordover and I told him, 'I'm fast, and I take editorial suggestions gracefully.'" He finished both Twilight's End and Mudd In Your Eye in about six weeks.
"I'd like to let you know what it's like when Jerry is on a short deadline for a novel: he's focused! He eats because I put a plate of food in front of him. He's at the computer, fingers flying, putting out at least ten manuscript pages a day," Kathy Oltion explains. "He's writing when I leave for work in the afternoon and still writing when I come home at night. Just before he calls it a night, he reads to me what he's written that day. I can feel the creative energy flowing through the study. It's a wonderful experience!"
Kathy notes that "it's been a wonderful year for the writing," with both of them winning major awards, but "we're both working harder - we know that this attention has a limited lifespan and we're taking advantage of it. I would like to make writing my next full-time career. We've seen how Dean Smith and Kris Rusch have made a go of being full-time writers, and there are definite benefits for being your own boss. There are other benefits to being employed, (regular paychecks, health insurance, retirement plans, etc.) but there are drawbacks as well. The medical laboratory field has changed a lot since I first started working...I feel less like a "scientist" and more like a button-pusher. If I am successful in making writing my next full-time career, I'll be going into the field with a good sense of what is going on from both the publishers' and the writer's point of view. I'm sure there are writers who will tell me that they feel the same way about writing as I do about the medical laboratory."
The Oltions do a lot of brainstorming together, "especially when we travel together in the car," and Kathy came up with her Strange New Worlds submission idea during such a session. "I was brainstorming with my husband about ideas when the image of Data's cat Spot, shoulder-deep in the aquarium, trying to get at Captain Picard's lionfish, lodged itself in my head. Since the fish resides in the ready room, it would take some effort on Spot's part just to get there, as well as a malfunctioning door to Data's quarters...from there, it was pretty easy to see what else might go wrong and how I could use it to make an interesting story." In the story, the Enterprise is overrun with alien vermin, and Spot saves the day.
"I consider myself a fledgling writer with a lot to learn about the craft yet," Kathy admits. "Peer pressure as much as anything is responsible for my entering the contest - I belong to a writer's workshop in Eugene, Oregon, and many of the other eligible writers entered the contest; in fact, two of the other authors in the SNW anthology are members of my workshop, Jerry Wolfe and Christina York. I also recognized the contest as a wonderful way to take that next step in writing: submitting stories for publication. Besides, the payment for the stories was excellent, and I've always been told to start submitting stories to the top market!" She has also sold a short story to Analog and has "lots of other stories that I'm whipping into shape and hope to get them out in the mail soon."
Smith-Rusch and the Oltions are in a growing list of married couples writing Trek: Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, perhaps best known as Shatner's collaborator on his original series novels, have produced such books as Prime Directive and Federation in addition to Alien Nation novels, comic books, and their own action-adventure fantasy series. Diane Carey and her husband, Greg Brodeur, also work on Trek books both together and separately. Given the cooperative spirit at Pocket Books, where there is considerable camaraderie and collaboration, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that more writers met and married because of Trek fiction.
Trek Book Reviews