A talk with bestselling co-authors Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman

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Emily Kimelman (left) and Toby Neal.

Last winter, BSR members Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman surprised the reading world by launching a co-authored series of six books, the Scorch Romance Thriller series. The first volume, Scorch Road, instantly hit the bestseller list. They followed it up with more books in the series roughly every three weeks, except for the last in the series.

Even though there was a two-and-a-half month break between the fifth and the final books in the series, Smolder Road, this publishing schedule speaks to a strong professional ethic on the part of both co-authors, a strong planning and development process and a dedication to getting things done right.

The series crosses genre boundaries. It’s about a family of six brothers and a sister from South Philadelphia, and how they respond when a pandemic, the Scorch Flu, sweeps across the United States. (Unfortunately, the authors did not explore what happens in Canada or Mexico.) Each book focuses on the experiences of one of the Luciano brothers in the pandemic, and how in the hell that ensues, they find love.

We spoke to Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman about their writing and publishing process, and what they learned through this ambitious and gruelling process.

The Scorch Romance Thriller series

  1. Scorch Road (JT) — published January 31, 2017
  2. Cinder Road (Dolf) — published February 21, 2017
  3. Smoke Road (Luca) — published March 14, 2017
  4. Burnt Road (Dante) — published April 4, 2017
  5. Flame Road (Cash) — published May 9, 2017
  6. Smolder Road (Lucy) — published July 21, 2017

Who came up with the idea for a family of six brothers and a sister from Philly? Why seven kids?

Toby Neal: What I remember is that, in January of 2016, after my first ever fallow spell of not being able to write, I called Emily with the idea of co-authoring, hoping the fun and energy generated by working on a project with someone I enjoyed and liked, whose writing was in the same vein as mine, would jump start me again. 

Emily was also coming off a fallow writing spell, but from recent maternity for her first child, and immediately said yes. I told her I wanted to do something that was primarily romance, but with thrills and action and something to do with the worries I had about the end of the world, a not uncommon concern.

We began brainstorming and came up with pandemic as the problem, and then a family compound they escape to, and then I threw in Italians because I LOVE Italians and Italy and the culture and everything about it, and Emily threw in Philly because she’s from there and understands the folks and culture there, and then I did character bios for the guys, Emily did character bios for the girls, and we began plotting the whole series and the progress of the pandemic’s arc, and the events and themes of the books. Unlike either of our other work heretofore, neither of us had ever plotted a series ahead of time. 

Emily Kimelman: Toby approached me to co-author in January 2016 and I was hugely flattered. Toby is a powerhouse author and we’d written for each others Kindle Worlds and gone on a writing retreat together so I already had mad respect for her. The fact that she wanted to work with me totally boosted my confidence and made me feel awesome.

But we couldn’t start working together until June because I wanted to enjoy my maternity leave.  My daughter, Juniper, was only three months old in January 2016 and I was not back at work except to respond to emails. Plus, I needed to write another Sydney Rye book before starting a new series. Not only did I owe it to my fans but the story was trying to claw it’s way out of my brain, lol. So, yeah, I had to attend to that beast.

But both of us were interested in writing a romance series with action adventure elements. We wanted to make it a big family so that we could write a lot of books. We both felt that six was a nice number for a series… we basically bit off way more than we could chew. That is one of the many things we have in common. We also both wanted to try releasing a series all at once. Our process really evolved over the course of the books. We came to realize that the collaboration had to be super intimate and equal. It didn’t work for one of us to create the outline and the other just follow it. We had to discuss every step but still leave room to surprise each other. We really hit our stride with the second book, Cinder Road, and by the time we finished Smolder Road (the sixth and final book of the series),  we were a well oiled writing machine. 

Tell us about the process of co-writing. You said you agreed on the outline after much discussion. Did you outline the whole series in detail before you began writing, or did you outline each book one at a time? And how did you decide who would do the first draft of which section?

Emily Kimelman: We outlined the entire series in about a week but each book changed quite a bit once we got going. I’ve always been a pantser and Toby is more of a plotter but we figured out a way to make it work for both of us by the end.

We divided up the characters in the beginning. Toby had the idea for the original brothers and then I added all the women, including Lucy. The only book we switched was for Luca and Nani. I came up with the idea of a badass Hawaiian woman who would be Luca’s boss and suggested that Toby write her since I’ve been to Hawaii once in my life. Of course, Toby has never been to Philly so I ended up editing her scenes for appropriate slang etc. I also had to constantly be taking porches and picket fences out of her Philly scenes. Lol. 

Toby Neal: This is a good spot to mention our process document.

This central doc where we kept track of our writing and editing process was a living, breathing tool that kept us sane from book to book, because it evolved with us and we learned new things and overcame new challenges. As we went, after the initial outlining in general and handwritten timeline on a big paper with the timeline of the books (beginning of pandemic, middle of pandemic, aftermath, seasons and months), we had new problems to solve with each book. 

For instance, Smoke Road, which was heavy on military action, needed a consult with retired Army sergeant and fellow writer Mary Doyle to have the realistic flair we wanted. She ripped huge holes in our imaginary military plot and battles, but we’d already written the book, so then a giant structural edit was in order. We learned from that and put in our process doc that any consult had to then take place before the book was written.

We also learned that the outlines were important and needed to keep us on track (after galloping off into ad-libbing in the first book and it being really bad), but also that we needed to keep the last third open for twists, turns and reveals that the characters seemed to generate themselves … so we would only stick with outline until the two-thirds or so point, then let the characters dictate the action. 

We also captured in the process document the hard-learned process of editing, which we had down to a science by the end.

We divided the editing according to our strengths: Emily would do our first big edit after a long phone convo with me talking through all of the scenes and making comments in the draft, a process we called the “Frankenedit,” after Frankenstein and because the book really lurched at that point.

Then, I did a line edit of the whole manuscript, and tightened and tweaked and tucked. Then Emily did another line edit, familiarizing herself with my changes and tweaks, and then I did a final line edit, then it went to the copyeditor.

By then the voice of the writing was consistent throughout, even though we’d originally written different characters: me the guys, and she the gals, as Emily has already mentioned.

Early on, we discovered that Google Docs, where we’d set everything up and stored all our mutual descriptions of the characters and world and outlines, was actually corrupting Word every time we downloaded, and embedding our copy with random “unicode” which drove us and our copyeditors totally nuts (not Emily, who was on Mac, and never saw it, lucky girl) 

So here’s our tip: whatever you do, don’t use Google Docs to coordinate your project!

In future, we’re talking about using Dropbox Paper or Microsoft Office.

In case you thought co-authoring was easier than writing your own book alone … I would have to say no, it’s not. But I still miss the fun and surprises of having my characters do new stuff every day in the hands of another talented writer!

You’re both dog authors—that is, the main characters in your original series, the ones that made you bestsellers have dogs, which are major characters in themselves. All the heroes in the Scorch series have dogs, and Melody has two. 

What does a dog bring to a novel?

Toby Neal: Dogs. They add so much extra dimension to a book. Dogs are comic relief; they are smelly sidekicks, they are furry friends who are always there for the hero(ine) when they are down. They tug at the heartstrings and provide opportunities for heroic acts, either by them or for them. Dogs are great to create new paths for our hero(ine) to go down, literally following a scent, and they always guard and bark, warning of danger.

Cinder Road‘s hard billionaire hero, Dolf, has an ugly old tomcat. I chose a cat because that more reflected Dolf’s aloof but loyal personality, and cats, while not as easy to integrate into a story because of their independent nature, are lovely pets too. We felt having that ugly old cat and lugging it everywhere said a lot about Dolf’s character that was not immediately apparent in his smooth operator persona.

Burnt Road‘s hero, Dante, obtains a horse he incongruously (for an autistic person, thus revealing his inner marshmallow nature) names Sweetie. Horses are also fabulous story enhancers, and their emotions are easily read and greatly affect the characters and their ability to navigate. Both Emily and I ride and enjoy horses whenever we can get our legs around them!

Pets in a story hook the reader’s emotions…and our emotions, too. I am a pet-loving person; Emily is too, and we plan to continue our trademark choice to include pets (dogs usually) in our stories.

Emily Kimelman: I agree with everything Toby said. Having a pet in any book helps readers instantly connect with the story and as the author it gives us a great way to reveal traits of our characters without having to point them out. Melody running through a mob, holding her two foster puppies to her chest, tells us a lot about the kind of person she is: compassionate, brave, loving, without having to show that through a more complicated and nuanced relationship with a human. Obviously, we show that side of her within her relationship with Dante, but the two puppies let us put it all into the opening scene… plus they are so cute!

Many readers who don’t have dogs can enjoy spending time with a fictional puppy. (No clean-up is always a good thing.) Also, for me, it’s part of what makes a story real. I don’t want to spend time in a world without heroic pets. It just feels fake without them.

Coming next week: BestSelling Reads find out about writing sex scenes and how characters can surprise the authors who created them.

Toby Neal is the author of 27 books in addition to being the co-author of the Scorch series.

Learn more about Toby.

Emily Kimelman is the author of X books in addition to the Scorch series

Learn more about Emily.

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