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How to Collaborate With a Co-Writer

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns.

Writing a book can be a chore. Many thousands of words are required, and only so many of them can be “the” or “very.” It should come as no surprise that, faced with such a task, an author might decide to share the writing load with another. There are advantages and disadvantages to sharing a book with a co-writer, and we’d like to share some advice that we found useful in hindsight following the completion of our first book together.

 

Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson
co-wrote How to Defeat Your Own Clone,
and Other Tips for Surviving the
Biotech Revolution
.

SHOULD YOU WORK WITH A CO-WRITER?

For many, writing provides a unique opportunity to express one’s individuality while working in complete solitude. When you write with a co-author, this no longer applies. You can still write bits and pieces on your own, but the final work will be a collaborative effort, and you’re going to have to make some compromises along the way. On the plus side, now you’ve got someone to bring you beer. Before deciding if you want to write with a partner, you should weigh the pros and cons.

Start by asking yourself this question: Have you have ever found yourself passionately engaged in a completely pointless argument with someone who you are not sleeping with? If so, we suggest you avoid writing with another. When considering a potential co-author, imagine that person doing the following:

  • Finding your third favorite joke in the book completely unfunny, and insisting that it be removed. 
  • Completely losing interest in a nebulous problem that you’re obsessing over. 
  • Deciding that the half-chapter you’ve been editing for the past two weeks “just doesn’t flow” and should be scrapped, after insisting two weeks previously that the same half-chapter is essential and needs to be written.

If none of these seems likely to stir you into a murderous rage, co-writing may be for you. Consider a few of the benefits of having a co-author:

  • An extra set of eyes can help unblock your writer’s block. 
  • Free editing (which makes you look even better when you send it to your real editor). 
  • You only have to write half as many words.

HOW CAN TWO PEOPLE WRITE WITH CONSISTENT VOICE? 

Depending on the work, the presence of multiple voices may be jarring to the reader. It’s best to know something of your would-be co-writer’s style before you start and to consider the book’s format. Between us, Terry likes to write sentences that look like they were constructed by Escher, and Kyle has a fondness for conversational slang, though we both possess a sort of cheerful cynicism. Since we had similar attitudes, we didn’t find it too difficult to mesh our styles.

We met weekly to discuss our progress, often pointing out passages written by one of us that we thought required the services of the other. While a section of the book may have originated with one of us, it went through several back-and-forth edits and rewrites, and through this became something that contained elements both of us. When it works, it’s alchemy. When it doesn’t, it’s usually because one of us was too in love with their own writing to let the other in to play. We also found that using a synchronized editor like Google docs helped keep us coordinated. A brief warning – if you use Google docs, don’t bother using most of the fancy text formatting; you’ll only have to redo it when you move to Word or another editor.

HOW SHOULD CO-WRITERS HANDLE DISAGREEMENTS?

We suggest a duel at ten paces. With some simple research, you can get your handles on Revolutionary War-era one-shot pistols. Besides that, the easiest way to handle disagreements is to avoid them. Before signing anything, you’ll obviously have to agree how the workload and the money will be split. That’s the easy part. You should also consider your expectations for how the book will develop. For example, if one of you wants weekly meetings, while the other would prefer setting the book aside for six months and burning the midnight oil for the last three, the former will be constantly anxious at the lack of progress or the latter will feel hectored. Agree on the process before you begin.

Everyone has obligations that could interfere with the writing and promotion of the book. Disclose those obligations to your writing partner, editor, and (eventually) publicist. If you can’t travel to promote the book, don’t keep it a secret from your cowriter.

You should also decide whose name will appear first on the cover. We suggest picking the author with the most unusual last name. It’ll be easier for people to find it online.

In the end, working with a co-writer has a lot of benefits, and as long as you’re not the eccentric reclusive type, it can be a lot of fun, too. Just make sure that when you start basking in the limelight, you leave at least half of it for your well-deserving partner, providing you didn’t just kill them in a duel.

 

 

 

Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson
co-wrote How to Defeat Your Own Clone,
and Other Tips for Surviving the Biotech Revolution
.
Kyle (website) works for a biotech company in
the San Francisco Bay Area and spends his free
time thinking about how his projects could be
incorporated into the plot of a sci-fi action movie,
hopefully starring Bruce Willis. Terry (
blog)
is
currently a lecturer in the bioengineering
department at UC Berkeley.
 

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2 Responses to How to Collaborate With a Co-Writer

  1. Former Co-Writer says:

    Nine years ago, I could have written this. If you asked me about co-authoring, I would have said it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I had fun writing with a co-author.

    Then the partnership exploded. We had manuscript done and out to agents at the time. And the partnership was completely unrecoverable. The worst part is that all the signs were there, and I ignored them because I got into it for the wrong reasons.

    At the time he approached me, I was struggling with a writing issue that seemed unresolvable. It wasn’t a normal problem, but it was a deal-breaker. He said I could shore up his weak area, and he would shore up mine. I was so excited about having my problem "fixed" that I overlooked several things: That he didn’t read much fiction (we were writing a novel) and that he wasn’t interested in learning about the publishing industry (he thought he knew everything about it from his business experience).

    During the writing of the book, I ignored the fact that he wouldn’t take initiative on his own. I also overlooked that I was doing most of the writing–I was so happy to be writing and to have someone else taking care of my problem area. Overlooked, too, that we were pretty unevenly matched writing-wise. I’d been writing for far longer and had more experience.

    And when we submitted the first book, I noticed some odd problems that popped up during the submission stage that I couldn’t quite identify. We went back into a new project, so I didn’t think twice about them. Until we started getting to the end of that one, and those odd problems turned up while we were writing it–only they were much worse. I tried asking questions to find out what was going on, and co-writer gave me mixed messages. He’d say one thing and do another thing, then pick a fight with me for no reason.

    He wanted to revise the first chapter endlessly because it "didn’t feel right" but would never give a reason what was wrong with it. When I told him it was better to let it sit and go onto the next project, he dismissed all of my ideas, refusing to even talk about a new project unless we revised the first chapter. Then he turned around and came up with an idea and declared that we were going to write that–and refused any discussion in the matter. At that point, I started dropping bricks about solo projects, which he ignored. I finally walked away from him, and from the book and I was back to starting from scratch.

    So I would recommend extreme caution in approaching a co-writer relationship and make sure you have the right reasons for getting into it and don’t ignore warning signs.

  2. lisa says:

    Funny, guys. Almost as funny as us gals. Then again, in our as-yet-to-be published state (Michigan), I bow to your authority.

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