How to Co-Author a Book: Building Continuity and Avoiding Pitfalls
Every few months, we would find a rental cottage somewhere between our respective hometowns and book it out for a long weekend. These get-togethers were where the project kicked off properly, and where all the subsequent big decisions took place. In truth, I don’t think we wrote a single sentence on these weekends. It was all about chatting over beers and asking each other questions to challenge assumptions and mould our plans for the story into something greater than either one of us could have achieved alone. We did produce some actual outputs, though—a series and story plan document, a timeline doc, character profile sheets, and the like. Also, we agreed on the narrative style and story structure. It’s essential to establish this kind of framework before ploughing into the actual writing.
In many ways, the fact that both of us are just a little way on the OCD scale means that we tend to over-plan and over-prepare. Before we even got into the meat of the writing, the shared Dropbox folder was replete with detail. As an example, we had an entire directory of character bios, for each of the main and supporting characters. The details contained therein were the factual ones, drawn from our primary sources, but also our own inventions, from hair color to height to mannerisms. We had a timeline and a psychological profile of our characters to prevent each of us straying from the other’s descriptions and keep all our portrayals in line. Similarly, we had timelines for everything, including subplots that ran hidden with our “bad guys.” Prior planning prevents … etc, etc.
In the long spells between meetups, we both worked from our home writing studios in Scotland and England, almost two hundred miles apart—that’s more than twice the length of Hadrian’s Wall!—doing the actual writing part of the project. Technology here was key—Dropbox & email primarily. Communication was also essential: at the start of each week, we would check in and establish which days we would each be using the shared assets on the Dropbox area, so as not to tread on one another’s toes. The sequential nature of our tale, switching back and forth between us every chapter, allowed us to plan our working times and to fit our schedules around any other projects, since this was written alongside our own individual releases.
With two voices producing one manuscript—each writing one chapter then handing over to the other to write the next—narrative flow and style are clearly going to vary considerably. Here, our decision for each of us to write one of the two protagonists worked in our favor, as our distinctive writing styles became, in effect, the “voice” of our respective characters. Moreover, the fact that we were alternating meant that each of us got to read and edit the other’s previous chapter before moving on to write our own, which allowed us to more smoothly fit into the flow of the tale, and to make sure there were no jarring moments moving between chapters. Essentially, we naturally continuity-checked the work as we wrote.
One of the benefits of this being a partnership is the increased number of controls. When writing a book, our editors will polish the final manuscript and make it viable for public release, but each manuscript gets several passes of self-editing before it leaves our offices. One might think that two authors double the possibility of errors, but it also doubles the number of checks the manuscript has. Every couple of chapters was given an initial read-through by each of us, as well as by our wives for an outside point of view. Then, at the end, the manuscript was given several thorough edits by both of us before we considered it to be ready for anyone outside our houses to see. And despite all our precautions, still there were a few important catches made at that stage.
One cannot overestimate the importance of preparation. Planning, keeping notes of everything, having biographies and timelines, making sure that the pair of you are, as they say, “singing from the same hymn sheet.” Then, once all initial planning is complete, make sure to schedule regular update meetings. Work out a system of scheduling and writing that gives you both the maximum control over what comes out at the end. And take advantage of the fact that you are a partnership. Use the extra eyes and brains beyond the usual solo act to be certain that you’ve avoided everything that you can avoid and that you’ve streamlined your product to a level of which you’re proud.
Simon Turney is from Yorkshire and, having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites, he fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Rome, Egypt, Greece, and Byzantium. His works include the Marius' Mules and Praetorian series, as well as the Tales of the Empire series and The Damned Emperor series. Visit his website at www.simonturney.com or find him on social media @SJATurney.
Gordon Doherty is a Scottish author, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction. Inspired by visits to the misty Roman ruins of Britain and the sun-baked antiquities of Turkey and Greece, Gordon has written tales of the later Roman Empire, Byzantium, Classical Greece, and the Bronze Age. His works include the Legionary, Strategos, and Empires of Bronze series, as well as the Assassin's Creed tie-in novel Odyssey. Visit his website at www.gordondoherty.co.uk or find him on social media @GordonDoherty.