How Romance's Hottest Writing Duo Turned Fanfic Into A Career
The women behind Christina Lauren talk genre writing, fandom, and what it's like working with your best friend.
It's an exciting time to be Christina Lauren, aka romance-writing duo Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. The pair have come a long way since they met, and immediately clicked, at a 2009 Comic Con panel on fan fiction. This was back when fan fiction was unrelated to their day jobs (for Christina, junior high counseling; for Lauren, putting her Ph.D. in neuroscience to work), and when writing was just a hobby. It was right before they decided to collaborate on a story that was so well-received they decided, hey, maybe they were onto something — and why not give writing a book together a try?
It worked: Together they've written 10 New York Times best-selling novels, they've been translated into 28 languages, and the projects keep piling on. They recently completed a rewrite on the script for Beautiful Bastard — the novel that started it all, first appearing online as Twilight-inspired fan fiction called The Office — which sold two years ago to Constantin Film. They've got Dark Wild Night — the third book in their critically acclaimed Wild Seasons series — coming out today, and YA paranormal romance novel The House — their first to receive a Kirkus starred review — out next month.
And more: The pair have just signed a new contract with Gallery Books for three novels — two stand-alone titles (summer 2016, spring 2017), and the final book in the Beautiful series (fall 2016) — plus one e-novella, Beautiful Boss (February 2016). It's an exciting time to be Christina Lauren, yes — but maybe even more so to be their fan.
We met with Christina and Lauren — who are so in sync they really do finish each other's sentences, and so supportive they volley praise back and forth — to talk over coffee about the lessons they've learned while writing professionally, navigating the fan fiction world, and working with their best friend. Here's what they had to say:
1. If you want to work with a writing partner, you have to leave the ego at the door.
How do you guys handle editing each other?
Lauren Billings: It's been pretty easy. I think from the beginning we've known the most important thing is for the story to be as strong as it can be, so any time Christina has criticism of something I've written, or vice versa, we both understand that it's for the better of the book.
Christina Hobbs: You can't be precious.
LB: You really can't be precious. And we just work really well together. Because she's very laid-back, and I'm very neurotic, but we need both of those things. And usually, when one of us edits, the other is like, "I knew that part wasn't working, thanks for ironing it out." There's no ego. That's the important thing. You have to really trust each other.
2. The best process is just the one that works for you.
CH: We outline together and then we split it up right from the get-go. Our outlines are pretty skeletal because we find if we talk it all out initially, it always ends up changing halfway through the actual writing, just because the characters shift as we get to know them better.
LB: Some other co-author duos, of the few that we've met, will write an entire draft, and the other one will revise. Which seems crazy to me! I can't imagine not being involved in every step. I think the same is true for Christina. But for some authors, they can't imagine trying to draft together. How would you mesh voices and make that work?
It does seem like your voices work so well together, and I imagine that happening upon someone who has that voice, and wants to do same thing, is rare.
LB: It helps that we usually write alternating points of view.
3. The fan fiction world is a magical place.
I wanted to talk about fan fiction, and the impulse to write it. Why'd you start?
LB: I think I was writing fan fiction before I really knew what fan fiction was — just my own stuff in notebooks about Buffy and Alias. I really resisted reading Twilight when it came out, because I had been such a big Buffy fan, and I felt like Twilight vampires weren't real vampires. Which is a thing people say, I guess. (laughs)
The vampires in Buffy are real.
LB: Yes! But when I read the series, I got sucked in — like a lot of people did — and I just was really frustrated with the end. I felt like I would've done something different with the characters, and then I realized that I could. It wasn't a criticism, it was an homage — because I have mad respect for Stephenie Meyer and what she's done for YA, and women in writing, and ladies getting paid in general. I just couldn't get it out of my head. And then it was a total rabbit hole. You can't start writing in a fandom that big and not stay and get brought into the community. We were all just learning how to write. That's part of it too; there's a safety when you're part of the fandom. You're all there for the same reason, and you're all starting off kind of terrible. We had bad dialogue tags and we misused punctuation, went back and forth between tenses. It's a good learning place. It's safe and you get a ton of feedback.
CH: There's just something so amazing about being surrounded by people who are as obsessive, in love, and excited about the same thing you love. You can't mock somebody for writing Twilight fanfic when you're in the fandom. I didn't want to love the Twilight books, but I did. It sparked something in me.
LB: Did it...sparkle something in you?
CH: (laughs) It did sparkle something. I started writing while I was recovering from surgery, but I'd never written for fun before. I didn't know I had a voice until that community gave me a place to use it. It's like this little safety net because you're just writing for fun, and I think it shows.
4. Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.
CH: People ask us: If somebody wrote fic of one of our books and wanted to publish, would we be up for it? Hell yes. We dedicated Beautiful Bastard to Stephenie Meyer. Without her, and without her giving us this playground, we never would've found each other, or a huge chunk of friends that we have right now, that we made in fandom. We never would've found this passion that we have for writing. So, we would be so flattered. Are you kidding me?? Do it.
5. It's important to realize when something isn't working, even if fixing it means putting in a lot more time.
LB: Sweet Filthy Boy started out with alternating perspectives — Christina was writing Ansel, and I was writing Mia. But she was having a really hard time figuring out how to work around this secret that Ansel's keeping, justifying why he wouldn't be thinking about it, especially in first person. We felt like the reader would forgive Ansel if he was lying to Mia, but not if he lied to them throughout the whole book. So by, like... I think you had done up to chapter seven...?
CH: It was around there, and we had an emergency meeting in L.A. We had written ourselves into a corner. What do we do? I was like, We can't really start over, can we? And we did.
LB: We went back and rewrote those chapters from Mia's point of view. We did have some of Ansel's point of view that we ended up using as Sweet Filthy Morning After, which was made into an audiobook. It was just a little outtake, but it was really fun to be able to share that.
6. The readers always want more.
Outtakes seem like a fun thing that's specific to romance. People are eager to see the other side.
LB: It comes a lot from if you're used to writing fan fiction. Readers of fic really want to see more. They just want to know, Well, what happens next? I'm glad they're together, but what happens next morning? And what happens after they're married? It's fun.
Your writing pace is crazy.
LB: Well there are two of us. I mean, Kresley Cole writes five, six books a year by herself. She goes insane while she's doing it (laughs) but she does it!
CH: Romance readers read a lot.
LB: They are voracious readers. I should say, we are voracious readers.
7. You have to know what to cut — no matter how much you love the thing you're losing.
CH: When we wrote our first book, the sort of X-Men thing [the unpublished Parted], we had all these chapters of the characters skinny-dipping. They skinny-dipped from, like, chapters 16 to 22, because we were still learning what goes in a book and what doesn't. All those details might be really great, but every scene has to push the story forward. That's when the harder cuts come. Because you're like, "I really like this, but..."
LB: "...it doesn't really move anything forward."
CH: When we were writing Dirty Rowdy Thing and Dark Wild Night, I was always putting Ansel into the room.
LB: He was always there! Just, like, snacking on grapes, or eating cereal in the background.
CH: And Lo would be like, "Why is Ansel in there?"
LB: And she'd say, "I just love him so much!"
8. The sexy stuff is as fun as you'd imagine.
Was there ever any awkwardness in approaching the sex scenes?
LB: No, those are the easiest ones, I think because we don't write them together. But there was one time when we were stuck; we were trying to write a scene and were in the Google Doc together, and it was like, "Wait a minute, it feels like we're dating right now." This was early on in our collaboration, and we were like, "Nope, nope, nope, this process doesn't work."
CH: We were like, "Oh, let's do it this way — I'm gonna write a line, and then you write a line, and then I write a line." And it was weird. After three minutes, we just bailed.
It's like sexting!
LB: We can do a couple's massage, but we can't co-write a sex scene.
9. Fan fiction has revolutionized romance.
Obviously romance was popular long before fan fiction became the hot thing it is now, but how do you think fan fiction popularity has changed it?
LB: I think fan fiction really fueled indie publishing, the self-publishing phenomenon. People saw that you could put stories online, and have this huge audience follow them, and then there was a translation to dollars from reviews or hit counts. And self-publishing — through Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and iTunes — has totally changed the pace of publishing.
CH: I remember having a conversation with our agent at one point, about the age of characters. She said the age we were writing — around 22 — is a hard age to sell, because in romance they're all typically a little older. But that's the age people were writing in fanfic; it was all college. And this was before "new adult" was happening.
LB: It was what readers in romance wanted — more of that voice, that age, that first-person present tense, that writing in the moment.
CH: I can't imagine, years ago, a major publisher would buy a book where they have sex in the first chapter. That just didn't happen. There was always a certain arc, but people learned you could have different types of story telling in romance. The couple can have sex early on and still maintain sexual tension. Because even though they've had sex, nothing is actually fixed. Nothing's resolved. I can't imagine having books out like that five years ago.
10. And fic isn't as much of a literary outlier as you might think.
LB: There are aspects of the stories that were never in the original book, but sort of evolve throughout the fanfic world — "fanon," or canon that develops in the fandom. Things grow out of the early popular stories, and other writers pick up on it, or they riff on it, which is really cool, too. It shows the wider derivative nature of writing, how we're influenced by things all around us. When you're in the little microcosm of fandom, you see it so much more clearly, but it's true in all of publishing. We're all influenced; we're all taking little bits and pieces from here and there, integrating different ideas. You can just do it a little more immediately in the fandom.
11. Scripts are a good place to explore new skills and strengthen creative muscles.
How is crafting a screenplay different from writing a novel?
LB: Initially I was like, What are we gonna do? We don't know how to do this! But when we're outlining our books, we often do it with dialogue — and scripts are all dialogue. The direction is supposed to be minimal, because you're leaving that to the director. So it really is just about making sure the dialogue is on point.
CH: It's actually been really nice because it kind of shows you which things aren't needed. You learn to make sure your dialogue is funny, that it says exactly what it needs to say.
LB: When I first read the script I was like, OK! Conference room scene is right up front, banging on the table. But there's more lead-in in the movie than in the book. In the book that scene's on like page 6; in the movie it's around page 30. So there's a little bit more character development before. The script is really good; I really like it a lot.
12. There's always something to fangirl or fanboy over — but One Direction is an especially good choice.
Is there anything out right now that, if you weren't writing your own stuff, would lure you into its fandom?
CH: I would probably be writing Larry fanfic. (Big laugh)
Do you ship them?
CH: HARD. I have Harry and Louis dolls — they're like our mascots — and I had accidentally ordered Sweet Filthy Boy buttons in the wrong size, really tiny. So I put them on the dolls. We take them with us when we travel!
I wish they were in your bag right now.
CH: I realized what a huge mistake it was on the plane, that we didn't bring them. We take pictures of them, like, in Brazil, in London.
They should have their own Instagram account!
CH: I agree.
LB: Don't encourage her.
13. All of this is extra fun if your writing partner is your BFF.
CH: Even if we weren't writing together, we would still be best friends. We do the dumbest stuff together. We go to One Direction concerts together. We go to couples' massage...
LB: Emergency dentist visits...
CH: We've taken each other to doctor appointments. She'll say, "Oh I talked to Biceps" — she calls my husband Biceps — "Oh, I talked to him today." And I'll be like, "What? I haven't even talked to him today!"
14. Co-writing is highly recommended.
It kind of feels like you guys are in on a secret — like, wait, you're allowed to do that? You can write a book together? So many creative outlets have collaboration: writers rooms for movies, TV. It makes sense that it could also work for a book.
CH: Writing is such a solitary thing. We see our writer friends at conventions and they're by themselves, and we just can't figure out how they do it. We always have each other. It can be quiet, maybe there's no one at the table, and we're just talking to each other, and we're having so much fun, even if there's nobody at our table.
LB: I feel like writing a book together is a very natural thing, and it surprises me that there aren't more co-authors. It is so fun!