We met, as so many writers do, in the bar at Love is Murder (a now defunct Chicago mystery conference). We shared some laughs and made the obligatory connection on Facebook.
We became conference pals, greeting each other warmly, attending each other’s panels, and talking writing with a loose-knit crew of mutual friends. Then, in 2011, as we chatted in the book room at Bouchercon St. Louis, an agent asked what we were each working on.
Linda said she’d been stymied by a challenging topic: she wanted to write a marital story about the polyamorous lifestyle—AKA swinging—but was struggling with the tone. Accustomed to writing dark comedy, she wanted to try something more serious.
Keir sheepishly volunteered that he was fascinated by the exact same subject but had tried and failed to write it as comedy.
Smiling, the agent said, “You two should write it together. I’ll bet a novel about swingers written by a male/female writing team would sell in a second.”
Things didn’t move quite that fast.
After breaking the news to our spouses (we are both happily married to other people and none of us are interested in polyamory as anything but material for a novel), we decided to give it a try.
Four years after we first started outlining, after multiple rewrites and a few near misses, we received an offer on our first book, The Swing of Things. And while we both maintain solo publishing careers, we’ve now cowritten two more critically acclaimed, character-driven, multi-perspective novels under the pen name Linda Keir: Drowning with Others and The Three Mrs. Wrights. We’ve optioned one book for TV and have a fourth book in progress.
The popular idea of a writer wrestling a keyboard alone is hard to square with two people. But developing ideas, drafting, editing, and selling novels can indeed be done in tandem. Here are answers to the questions we’re most often asked:
How do you develop ideas?
For The Swing of Things, we both had a similar topic in mind, but the book was developed during endless conversations—these brainstorming sessions are the most exciting part of the collaboration. Linda came up with the seed for Drowning with Others while moving her son into the dorms for his freshman year of college, but Keir provided a personal story that made the project come alive. Conversely, Keir was fascinated by Elizabeth Holmes and “Dirty” John Meehan and wanted to write about emotional grifters. When Linda’s friend told her a salacious story about a married man who went to elaborate lengths to convince his unwitting mistress he was separated, The Three Mrs. Wrights began to take shape.
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How do you plot novels?
Certain we’d need a detailed road map if we were writing together, we spent seven months outlining that first book—and still ended up going off-road from time to time. But that long process paved the way for quicker journeys: while Drowning With Others is an intricate mystery that unfolds in parallel timelines, that outline took less than three months.
We started our third book with the thinnest of outlines, plotting as we went, and were still able to turn in the manuscript seven months later. Outlines are essential—at least until you know your writing partner’s mind almost as well as your own.
Who writes what?
We often joke that one of us writes nouns and articles while the other handles the verbs and adjectives, but alternating words, sentences, or even paragraphs simply isn’t practical. What works for us is dividing the duties by character POV. In book one, a husband-and-wife story, it was natural for Keir to write the male character while Linda wrote the female one, and moving the narrative forward this way was not only efficient, but exhilarating. We still divide the writing by POV, but with multiple female leads in The Three Mrs. Wrights, Keir took on characters of the opposite gender. In our next project, Linda will do the same.
How do you divide the work?
Keir drafts quickly. Linda’s process is more painstaking (i.e., slow). Keir is able to lose himself rendering vibrant details within each scene. Linda, on the other hand, is a natural-born story editor, always thinking about the big picture and the impact of each scene on what comes next. Our strengths and weaknesses are truly complimentary. And when life throws either one of us a curve, we help each other out by stepping up to tackle specific tasks, whether it’s research, editing, or drafting. The actual writing isn’t necessarily 50-50, but the distribution of work feels equal by the end of the process. We both naively believed cowriting would be half as much work—all we can say now is, “Ha!”
How do you edit each other’s work?
One strength we both share is the ability to accept hard truths. Keir writes clean, flowing copy, which Linda has been known to delete in broad swaths when she feels it will tighten the narrative. Keir’s line edits can be formidable, but he’s a former editor and they’re right on point. Linda likes to highlight passages and make colorful ALL CAP notes that drive Keir to distraction because he prefers notes in Track Changes or boldfaced black lettering.
In the end, our multiple passes result in clean manuscripts with a consistent authorial voice, receiving frequent praise from our acquiring, developmental, and copy editors—just another benefit of writing with a partner.
How do you handle disagreement?
The truth is we don’t disagree all that often on the big subjects, and it’s hard to imagine a writing partnership lasting very long if the parties argue very much. We are both friends and business partners—a business marriage, in a way. We’ve found the best way to handle our occasional disputes is to apply the lessons from our actual marriages: cool off before responding, be honest, keep it simple, and respect the other person’s opinion. If one of us feels strongly about keeping a certain plot twist or line of dialogue, it stays in the manuscript until our editor decides otherwise. It’s better for the long-term partnership to let judgment calls go.
What kind of tools do you use?
We keep it simple. We talk on the phone and store our files in shared Dropbox folders. Google Docs and Scrivener have their fans, but MS Word is still the industry standard and what we’re comfortable with. Dropbox means we can work in the same files without ever worrying about losing data.
What are the financial ramifications?
Deduct your 15 percent agent’s commission from everything you earn, split it in half—and think hard about whether cowriting is right for you. You might make more money by going it alone, but we’re betting on the intangible aspects of this partnership to pay off. Besides, writing novels strictly for financial success is a sure way to feel like a failure. It’s a lonely, uncertain business, and working as a team offers both creative excitement and emotional support during the inevitable highs and lows. Our partnership has also strengthened our individual writing abilities, and both of us take on select ghostwriting and freelance editing projects as well.
How can I find a writing partner?
Serve yourself a helping of acronym soup: MWA, RWA, SFWA, RMFW, SCBWI, and so on. Membership in writing organizations, and regular attendance at their conferences, is the best way to connect with other writers and discover possible co-conspirators—even virtually.
There are many successful writing partnerships out there—James Patterson may be the most successful, but he’s also an anomaly because he has many partners and calls all the shots. Charles Todd is really the mother-son team of Charles and Caroline Todd. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett cowrote Good Omens together. Ilona Andrews is the pen name of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, a husband-and-wife duo who write urban fantasy and romantic fiction. Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke have written over a half-dozen novels together. The list is quite a bit longer than you might suspect.
Maybe you’re destined to find a partner and join us, too. Just keep in mind that while you need to be compatible, you also need to be different—the sum won’t be greater than the parts if you both have the exact same plusses and minuses.