In April of this year, I got a call from my agent that went something like this:
She:“I’ve been hearing from several editors that they’re looking for a book like X. They were wondering if I had anything to submit that would fit the bill. I don’t, but I do have an author who could write a book like that.”
She:“Yeah. You. Can you get it done in twelve weeks?”
Which is about when a few annoying character traits of mine kicked in: (1) I find it impossible to say no; (2) I think I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it; and (3) I hate to let people down. The trouble is, I work full-time (and not at writing), plus I’ve got three kids who like to be occasionally fed.
As much as I put my mind to bending time and squeezing forty hours into twenty-four, I have not yet been able to pull that off. So here I was. I’d said yes to my agent, and now I was going to let her down. I wrote a synopsis, then sat down to cry when I realized how much work lay in front of me.
A few days later, a woman in my critique group mentioned how she thought it would be fun to co-write a book with me. The heavens parted.
So, we wrote that book, which was told from four points of view (2 major; 2 minor). We each took a major and minor character; thus, we each committed to writing 50% of the book. By the end, this equated to approximately 36,000 words each. Totally doable. We finished the project in not twelve weeks, but seven, and it is now edited and ready for submission.
As quickly as the process went for us, it wasn’t always easy and I learned some lessons along the way. If you’ve ever considered co-writing a book, these tips are for you.
DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. It’s weird, but when I tell people I co-wrote a book, the first question they ask is, Whose name is listed first? While egos could get in the way on a project like this, it’s important to remember that the decision about whose name goes first is not the authors’.
Ultimately, the decision will be made by the publisher and will have to do with things like bookstore placement, name recognition, sales history, and a myriad of other marketing considerations too nebulous for me to understand. In other words, the order of names on a book jacket is not an issue that should get between the writers. Put it aside and move on.
- AGENTS. One of the early hurdles we had to cross was to get my agent on board with the idea of me co-authoring the project with someone who was not her client. As it turned out, my partner had recently parted ways with her agent so we didn’t have to worry about him, but still, I was asking my agent to trust my judgment regarding a writer she knew nothing about. Before you get too far down the road with a collaborative project, be sure to take care of the administrative tasks so there are no conflicts later.
- OUTLINING. The smartest thing we did was to sit down on a Saturday and outline the whole book before we ever wrote a word of it. We did it long-hand on index cards that we spread over a table. On each card we wrote down the character who had the operating POV for that chapter, and we wrote the one Plot point that propelled the story forward. For example: Lauren: Questions Student About Whereabouts on Friday. As we did this, we recognized plot holes that needed to be filled and added more cards, shuffling them around. When we were done, we numbered all the index cards and I took them home to enter them into Google Docs.
- GOOGLE DOCS. Google Docs was a lifesaver because it allowed us to work simultaneously on the same document and see what each other was doing, even when we were far apart and wouldn’t be able to get together for a couple weeks. I set up a document with a chapter heading for each index card, and under each chapter heading typed out the corresponding plot point. This allowed me, for example, to write Chapter 7, even if my partner had not yet written Chapter 6 because I knew what was scheduled to happen in that preceding chapter.
- USING EACH OTHER’S STRONG SUITS. If you are considering co-writing, think about working with another writer who compliments your writing style. In our case, we knew we complimented each other going in to the project because we had been in the same critique group for a couple years and were very familiar with each other’s body of work. For example, I was good with characters, realistic dialogue, group scenes, and lyrical setting. She was good with conflict, internal dialogue, and action. Conceding to each other’s strengths gave us the luxury of stepping away from the writing that slowed us up the most.
- EDITING. Co-writing has the benefit of a built-in beta reader. We each took responsibility for our own chapters but used the comment function in Google docs to let each other know if we were noticing continuity problems, or if we thought something needed to be expanded upon, etc. It was fun to see all the comments get tagged as “Resolved” as we moved through our project.
- GIVING UP CONTROL. As fun and as quick as the process was for us, I would be lying if said it was perfectly easy. Co-writing also means giving up a lot of control, and this was sometimes difficult for me. The concept was mine. I’d written the synopsis. I had an idea in my head as to where the plot should go. My partner often had other ideas that she was adamant about pursuing. Often I found myself having to let go of “my” story in the interest of “our” story. I’m sure she was feeling the same way from time-to-time. Ultimately, the decisions we made, whether they were my ideas or hers, were for the betterment of the story, and that helped resolve any control issues.
So there you have it. This is the process that worked for us, but I am sure there are others.
Have you collaborated on a writing project or considered the possibility? Let us know about your experience, your concerns, or your motivations for undertaking this unique creative relationship.