Kim Baldwin & Xenia Alexiou - 20 QUESTIONS IN THE HOT SEAT1. First, would you take a moment to tell us a little about yourselves, and how you met.
Kim & Xenia: Kim's a former journalist who started writing lesbian fiction in 2001. In 2005, Xenia read her first two books and offered some wonderful feedback on them. They began corresponding, became friends, and Kim asked Xenia to be one of her "first readers" on her next three novels, reading along as she wrote. Kim incorporated a lot of her ideas into those manuscripts. While she was finishing her fifth novel, Focus of Desire, Xenia approached her with a wonderful intrigue story she'd come up with and asked if she'd interested in co-authoring with her. Kim jumped at the chance, and that story became Lethal Affairs, which will be released July 15th. It's the first of three of Xenia's stories the two are collaborating on, collectively called the Elite Operative Series. We've just finished the first draft of the second book, Thief of Always, which will come out next February.
2. Can you tell us why you write, what is it that compels you?
Kim: I started my first book during a very long and snowy Michigan winter as something to pass the time. I was a journalist for 20 years, so writing has always been a part of my life. I find writing fiction much more fulfilling than news, because of the wonderful feedback and encouragement I get from readers.
Xenia: I have spent a lot of time traveling, talking but mostly observing, people from all walks of life. People from different cultures and religions, different values, morals and ethics. I have witnessed humans at their best and worst, at their strongest and weakest and I have seen things that have captivated me and on other occasions appalled me. But regardless of the aftertaste, they all have one thing in common and that is that they have all inspired me and eventually contributed to my decision to write.
3. How do you like to approach your writing when starting a new project as a writing team?
Kim: The Elite Operatives Series are all Xenia's stories, so she has done a lot of work on them before I get involved - she's developed the characters, worked out much of the plot, and has a vision for where she wants to go.
Xenia: We never had/have discussed a formula on how we were going to approach this collaboration. It all happened naturally and spontaneously and continues to work that way. I come up with an outline for a story and characters and we just get to work. I know how I want to start, climax and finish but the rest is done on the fly. I like to keep a plot intense from beginning to end, and I also like to think long term, so by the time we were through a third of the first book I had already made notes and outlined plots for books two and three. I figured if I did that then I could leave clues behind in each book that prepare the reader for the next story.
4. As a team, what genre do you feel most comfortable writing in, if any?
Kim: Writing solo, I'm most comfortable sticking to romantic adventure stories and/or romantic suspense, especially if nature is a key element of the setting. I like some sort of action in there to help propel the story forward, in addition to the growing romance between the two main protagonists. I think a pure romance is more difficult because it is so much more entirely character driven. I've never tackled intrigue alone, because it's the hardest of all - Xenia does it brilliantly, but it's a very difficult genre because the plots are so much more complex.
Xenia: It's all about the characters and the story. If I can come up with something that moves me and feel compelled to write it I will, and I will not limit myself to labels. That said, for whatever reason my mind seems to function in a complex way. So no matter the genre or my initial intentions, the stories end up with twists and turns and I run with it and end up weaving a web of intrigue.
5. Do you do swap outlines, and breakdown scenes together, or leap straight into writing the narrative?
Kim & Xenia: Xenia has a vision for each of the books, and is always thinking at least several scenes ahead, (imperative for complicated plots like these books are). When we start a book, she describes how she envisions the story will evolve from beginning to end. But that always changes during the actual writing as she comes up with new twists and turns, so Kim tries to stay focused on the chapter we're working on and what's coming next, and go with the flow. After two books with Xenia, Kim trusts she knows where she's going and that it's going to all come out brilliantly.
6. Does one of you write a scene and then the other edit it and write another?
Kim & Xenia: It varies. Xenia has done virtually every single line of dialogue for these books. Sometimes she'll just write a scene herself, and Kim will look at it and tinker a bit with it, so our writing styles mesh seamlessly. Other times, if a scene is almost entirely dialogue, Xenia will do a long string of dialogue and Kim will add the setting details, character actions and so on. And there are occasions where, if a scene is almost entirely descriptive narrative, Xenia tells Kim what she sees happening and Kim will try to write that then Xenia will look at it when she's done and tinker with it and add any dialogue.
7. How do you create your characters? Do you start with a basic outline of personality type, or work them up as you go along?
Kim: Working solo, I do outlines of each of the major characters before I start, and the minor ones as I go alone. For this series, Xenia has created and fleshed out all the major characters. I'm more involved in the lesser ones. She creates the "voice" of every player, but I help in describing them in the text so readers can see them.
Xenia: Ah yes, the character. My favorite part. I love to invent people and give them faces, bodies, but most of all flaws and problems and the strength and ingenuity to overcome them. Once I get an idea for a book, usually within an hour I have the beginning, middle and end. I'll sketch it out on paper and leave it at that because now I need to find the right cast for the job. It's like inviting people over for a job interview. I know which ones are cut out for it the moment I see them. I don't consider the rest throw-outs, I just keep them in mind for the next job and as a matter of fact, I very often know which job.
8. What's the hardest thing for you about writing as a team?
Kim: Absolutely it is living on different continents, with several hours time difference. We webcam a lot, and Xenia suffers most. We can't connect until I'm off work, which is usually 9pm or later where she is, so she's very sleep deprived. Occasionally, I'll try to get up at 4 or 5am on my off days, to help compensate.
Xenia: We work very smoothly together and Kim has learned to be patient with me. Because of the complexity of the genre, concentration and long term planning are very important. There have been times when we have spent the evening writing out a scene and I will come back the next day and say delete it, it doesn't work further down in the story, but I have a better idea. In the beginning, Kim used to get stressed and give me the silent treatment. Now she knows better. What I replace the rejected scene with is always an improvement. The only real challenge we face is the time difference. It can be quite exhausting working full time and then coming home to start writing at nine pm until - well, until necessary. God bless the Internet though for making it possible to write together at all. As long as I have my laptop with me or can get Internet access somewhere, the show goes on.
9. Does one of you take the lead on each project, or, are you very collaborative in your approach?
Kim & Xenia: See the above answers. Xenia's definitely the lead on these stories.
10. Where do you find the inspiration for your stories?
Kim: For my solo projects, I find inspiration everywhere. Movies, people I know, things I see when I travel. I'll let Xenia answer this for the Elite Operatives Series.
Xenia: Life. [Please see answer 2.]
11. What would you say were the essential ingredients to a good story?
Kim: Unique, compelling and empathetic characters, a great setting, an evolving romance, some action, and at least a few twists and turns the reader doesn't see coming.
Xenia: Characters. Even a great story is not enough to carry a book. People may forget what a story was about no matter how good, but they will always remember good characters. However, making and keeping them real is the most challenging part about writing but the most rewarding once achieved, and also why I enjoy writing dialogue and analyzing their emotions and psyche. As long as readers come to care about certain characters and loathe some of the others, then I'm satisfied. If they are left feeling indifferent about them then I have failed. In real life we have plenty of emotional grey areas concerning people around us but I don't believe in emotional grey areas when it comes to characters.
12. Breakdown an average writing day for yourself.
Kim: There really is no such thing. I try to write 1,000 words a day at least wherever I can fit it in. I work only part-time, so I try to write at least 3-4 hours a day, every day.
Xenia: I don't have an average. It can go from nothing one day to 6,000 words the next. We recently finished the first draft of book two in the Elite Operatives series, in two months. It was basically nonstop writing. Lethal Affairs took just a bit longer. Once I'm on a roll I can't seem to stop and fortunately for me Kim gets just as swept away by the rhythm of the story. Besides the faster we're done, the faster I can get back to my normal six hours of sleep.
13. Do you have people read your work as you write, or do you wait till a project is complete? What would you say were the benefits to either approach?
Kim & Xenia: We have two first or "beta" readers who read as we write, both a huge help in giving us feedback on how they feel the story is evolving, what they think of the characters, whether a plot development is plausible, etc. Kim has always used two or three beta readers with all of my books, except the first one. They're invaluable to help keep you on track, and they also help keep you motivated.
14. If you didn't write, what do you think both of you would do?
Kim: I love the arts. I wish I could paint, or compose music, or sing, or take amazing photographs, but I'm afraid I've not been given any special gifts in those areas.
Xenia: I have many interests that I think, are necessary for my personal growth and on top of that I lead a rather hectic life. Writing, however, does not prevent or preclude any of those things. It just means that I have to pace myself and make time for whatever, whoever is important to me. Writing fulfills some of my needs but definitely not all. I would hate to have other needs of mine suffer because of my lack in dedication to them the same way that I would hate to have my writing suffer because I'm not dedicating as much of myself to it.
15. What are some of the things you do to improve your craft?
Kim: I pay very close attention to the wonderful advice and guidance I get from Jennifer Knight, the substantive editor at Bold Strokes Books. I've learned so much from her. Also from Shelley Thrasher, another editor at BSB. I also read nonfiction books on the craft of writing, and attend conferences and seminars.
Xenia: Absorb every little thing my editors and publisher have to say. They are all very talented and accomplished women who want to help you become the best you can. I am very honored to be in the company of such proficient craftswomen.
16. What, from your perspective, are some of the most common mistakes authors starting out in the business make with regard to approaching a prospective publisher?
Kim: First, read the publisher's guidelines on their website. Make sure they publish the type of book you're writing, and follow their instructions for submitting (what type size, format, etc.). Above all, polish, polish, polish your manuscript before you send it in. Make sure it's the very best it can be. No typos, overused words. Create vivid character and setting details, a consistent timeline, all of that. You want to make the best first impression you can.
Xenia: I�m afraid I don't have the experience or knowledge necessary to answer this question. What I can offer is, learn from your mistakes and try again.
17. What are some of the things you do - or have done - to build up an audience and promote your work?
Kim: I maintain two websites, www.kimbaldwin.com and www.myspace.com/authorkimbaldwin. And I travel to events and book signings whenever possible. I've been to Women's Week in Provincetown, the Palm Springs Lesbian Book Festival, The York Lesbian Arts festival in England (twice) the Golden Crown Literary Convention (3 times) and the National Women's Music Festival.
Xenia: I started a MySpace site for this purpose. www.myspace.com/xeniaalexiou007 and posted the epilogue and first chapter to Lethal Affairs, in the hopes that it would intrigue (pun intended) people enough to want to read the rest. I also went to Palm Springs for the Lesbian Book Festival, which was an awesome experience. It was a great opportunity to promote the series and meet all the wonderfully enthusiastic readers. I have already booked for next year and can't wait.
18. How do you feel about e-publishing and e-books and would you go that route?
Kim: I'm very content with Bold Strokes Books, and feel honored to be published by them. They are publishing some titles as e-books.
Xenia: It's evolution and as Darwin put it you either adjust or become extinct. I intend to continue writing and will therefore adjust. But I would hate to lose books completely simply because there is no substitute for the smell and texture of them, new or old. So I continue to hope, no matter how improbable or futile that it will never happen.
19. What were your best and worst experiences with an editor?
Kim: I've had only wonderful experiences I'm happy to say with the editors at Bold Strokes Books. They're geniuses, and very patient. They treat every manuscript with tender, loving care, and always make it better.
Xenia: I'd have to agree with Kim. Although I'm quite new to this, my impressions are all positive. They are wonderful ladies and have treated me, and my work, with the upmost respect. I am amazed at how dedicated they are at making a book the very best it can be. Getting the edits to Lethal Affairs was a learning and productive experience. I saw their points immediately and have hopefully learned much from them.
20. And finally, what's your favorite thing about writing as a team? And what, for you, totally sucks about it?
Kim: I love working with Xenia, she's taught me a lot and makes me laugh every day. And since she's doing the lion's share of the hard stuff (particularly plotting and dialogue) and writing much of the book as well, it's much easier than writing alone for sure. But I hate working on opposite ends of the world.
Xenia: Writing is fun and creative and I love every moment of it. Being able to share this with Kim though makes it all the more fun and interesting. Kim is a precious friend and great company. We laugh so much it's not even funny and she has even learned to put up with my mood swings. I tend to get cranky and impatient when it's getting late and I've reached exhaustion, but she manages to make me smile and push me forward. Every moment with her is a true pleasure. The only downside is the distance and time difference.
Our heart-felt thanks to the writing team of Kim and Xenia for taking time to answer our questions, and share some of their insight with us.