Writing is a solitary and very personal process. Alone at our writing desks, we struggle with word count and plot, accompanied only by our self doubt and determination. It’s no wonder, then, that the prospect of sharing some of that isolation with another writer is so appealing. Yet, a collaborative novel is a relatively rare, and slightly mythical concept. How do individual writers, with unique styles and voices, come together to produce a cohesive novel with seamless prose? Are the challenges worth the rewards, and what—if anything—can we learn from working so closely with another writer?
This guest post is by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb. Gaynor is the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home and The Cottingley Secret and recipient of the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. She lives in Ireland with her husband and children. Webb is the acclaimed author of historical novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin’s Lover, selected by Goodreads as a Top Pick in 2015. She is also a professional freelance editor. She lives in New England with her children and husband.Their book, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS – A Novel of WW1 (William Morrow) is available now wherever books are sold.
OUR TOP 10 TIPS FOR COLLABORATIVE SUCCESS:
1. Choose your writing partner wisely.
Your best writing friend is not necessarily your best writing partner. Though friendship will likely develop as an effect of working so closely with someone, it’s not a necessity. On the other hand, being professional and challenging each other to be the best writers you can be, is. You want a satisfying working relationship in which you can trust the other to hold up their end of the bargain—and not cop out with personal excuses. Dropping the ball and personal excuses may be more common with people who will love us no matter what.
2. Have a clear vision for the book from the start: tone, plot, structure, and characters.
Make sure you are—literally—on the same page so there aren’t sticky issues down the road. It’s important to be sure your vision for each of the integral pieces to the story match. One author might assume a character is a bit of a rogue, and the other author might see him as a passive sort of fellow who is shy toward women. If these character sketches aren’t fleshed out ahead of time, or at least agreed upon during drafting, it could cause some in-fighting. The same goes for Discuss, discuss, discuss.
3. Choose a style and structure for the book that allows dual writing to work to its best.
This will be completely dependent on what the authors choose, but typically, it’s best to use more than one point of view character, or use a structure that allows for easy swapping of chapters and scenes, back and forth. That being said, many authors work on a single point of view character with ease!
4. Agree on a realistic writing schedule to which you can both commit.
Keep in mind, you will also have solo projects in the works. There are a variety of ways to split up the work time, including alternating chapters or writing different points of view. In addition, decide how to divide the work week between partners.
5. Leave your ego at the door.
Sometimes we don’t realize how attached we are to a particular idea or thread, and one of the authors really believes that’s not the way to go. Co-writing isn’t about who is right or wrong, or who is the best writer. Both writers bring unique qualities to the table and each can put an interesting spin on something that might work. But there is a best choice for this particular story and it’s up to each author to let go of their ego and be open to suggestion to create the strongest, most engaging story possible. Which brings us to our next point:
6. Be flexible.
This may be the single most important aspect of co-writing. This encompasses what we’ve already mentioned above in terms of structure, style, characters, and changes to the story arc, but it also includes scheduling issues. You will learn a lot about your co-authors’ kids, pets, and family life and those responsibilities or random unforeseen issues that are beyond our control. Rework the schedule together to make it happen, and above all relax. Being a control freak while working with another person is going to cause a lot of unnecessary friction.
7. Meet regularly (if possible), or schedule regular Skype chats.
Email can only achieve so much. Continual communication is vital to ensure both authors are continually on the same page. Never assume you know what the other is thinking. English can be a nebulous language. Schedule phone calls or meetings as often as needed to work things out.
8. If it is your day to work on the book, work on the book.
Eating bonbons and working through your email inbox that day should come after the writing is done. When it comes time for promotion, if you say you’ll create graphics and organize book lists, then do it. You aren’t just letting yourself down—you’re letting your writing partner down and the book will suffer for it.
9. Have fun.
Share storyboards and Pinterest boards and interesting clips that relate to the book, or plan research trips together, if possible. This is a great and unique experience. Enjoy it.
10. Celebrate milestones and successes along the way.
This is the best part! When word count is reached and drafts are finished, covers are revealed and foreign sales come in—be sure to toast your accomplishments! All of that hard work should be rewarded.
Writing a collaborative novel can be a hugely rewarding and enriching experience. Writers can learn so much from each other, and can certainly enhance each others’ strengths as well as provide that much-needed motivation and inspiration. When the book is complete, what could be better than having someone to celebrate that achievement with?
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.