by Daniel Brotzel
Finishing a book sounds like hard enough work when there’s just one of you. Can working with someone else really help? Yes! says Dan Brotzel, who’s recently launched a novel he wrote with two pals. Here’s the why and the how…
Collaboration down the ages
Co-writing is actually nothing new, and in some areas of writing, it is very common. Shakespeare, as part of a dramatic troupe, had many collaborators, and a work such as the Iliad would have been shaped and polished over generations by many hands.
Alexander Dumas made use of a stable of scribes to help him research scenes and tidy up his work, and one collaborator, Auguste Maquet, seems to have done much of the initial plotting and scene-writing for classics such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Christo. Maquet never really got the credit he deserved, despite his repeated efforts, but Dumas never finished another book without him.
The surrealists loved to collaborate too. André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) of 1920 is an example of surrealist automatic writing, and either an avant-garde masterpiece or utter nonsense, according to taste. The surrealists also devised le cadavre exquis (the exquisite corpse), a collaborative poetry game where each writer takes it in turn to write a verse having only seen the last line of the previous verse. This is similar to the Japanese linked verse form renku, where poets provide alternating verses of haiku length, and – whisper it – also rather like the parlour game Consequences.
Not many people know that Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford wrote three novels together, although they later fell out, or that Agatha Christie was one of 14 writers who collaborated on a 1931 thriller called The Floating Admiral, along with Dorothy L Sayers, Ronald Knox, Clemence Dane and GK Chesterton. The bestselling The Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) was co-written by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall, who also penned two follow-ups about what happened next to the mutineers.
The Beats were great co-writers too. Serial collaborator William Burroughs wrote a crime mystery novel with Jack Kerouac based on a real-life murder, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Though completed in 1945 but not published until 2008. Burroughs believed that co-writing with another person could actually lead to the creation of a ‘third mind’ that existed over and beyond the two original egos.
Today collaboration is common in film (eg the Coen brothers), in TV (where big series are scripted by a team in a writers’ room, reporting to a showrunner), and also in academia, commercial copywriting, non-fiction and songwriting.
There are also quite a few co-written novels out there, especially in genre fiction such as YA, horror, fantasy, sci-fi and crime. Stephen King has written novels with his son Owen King, among others, and Michael Moorcock has had many co-writers too over his long and prolific career. There is a whole subgenre of husband-and-wife thriller writers, including ‘Nicci French,’ ‘Ambrose Parry’ and ‘Lars Kepler.’ The pioneers of Nordic noir, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, who devised the Martin Beck novels, were also a couple. Meanwhile, Garth Nix and Sean Williams, co-authors of the children’s fantasy series Troubletwisters, have found a way of working so seamless that they say they can no longer remember who wrote which bit.
About our collaboration
With a couple of pals, I’ve just written a book called Kitten on a Fatberg. It’s the story of an eccentric writers’ group, a comic novel-in-emails that combines elements of farce and pathos. There are feuds and scandals, but also friendships and romance, and a real twist in the tail.
My two co-authors are Alex and Martin. I got to know them through the real-life writers’ group that we’re all members of. Soon after joining the group, I had the idea that a fictional writers’ group would actually be a fun set-up for a novel – I imagined a motley crew of lonely characters, desperate to be published, moving through a story with lots of potential for rivalry and romance, jealousy and intrigue, self-deception and aching ambition.
Between us, the three of us had all met lots of writers, experienced lots of different writers’ groups, and shared a typically British, self-mocking sense of humor. So when I put the idea for my novel to Martin and Alex, they seized on it at once. Over several meetings in our local pub, we worked out characters and a basic arc.
We decided that each of us would take on 2 or 3 characters, and that the story would be told entirely by email, through a series of messages that recounted what the group had been up to over a series of meetings. I set up a Gmail account that we could all fire our emails into, in character.
There was a fun blind element to this process: I’d get a message to say that ‘Keith’s been in’ (Alex) or ‘Blue has emailed’ (Martin), say, and then I’d check the inbox to see what that character had to say about the goings-on at the latest meeting, and how that moved the story on. Inevitably there would be something in the message about some silly or nasty thing that one of my characters had been up to, so I’d email a reply from the PoV of my character, trying to explain or justify what had happened, moving the story on further – and also of course taking great delight in dropping one of Martin or Alex’s characters in it.
It was all great fun and, by accident, we had stumbled on a way of working that suited the three of us. We could all write messages whenever suited us, and there was no need for people to have to write in strict sequence. As the writing progressed, we moved from a completely blind approach to sending each other hints about future developments. We also met regularly to discuss the characters and the emerging shape and structure of the narrative overall.
Our book is to be published by Unbound, and we’re already working a follow-up, about a harmless UFO cult with only a handful of members left. So what makes a collaboration work? And what are the pitfalls to avoid?
Making collaboration work
Writing a book with someone else can be a nightmare or it can be pure pleasure. In our case, lots of things fell into place almost by accident, things which I can now see are essential to making a collaboration work. These include:
• a shared passion for the project and the idea
• mutual respect for each other’s writing and ideas
• a practical way of working that can accommodate everyone’s schedules and constraints
• a willingness to set egos aside and make compromises for the good of the project (and the ultimate benefit of the reader)
• an attitude that embraces sharing and the ambition to see things through
• a good blend of the skills and capabilities that you to get a book off the ground – and beyond
Here, then, are our top tips for making a collaboration work:
Think hard about the project before you start. It’s hard work getting a collaboration off the ground, so it’s vital to think carefully about whether you are all a good fit for the project, to make sure that you are all really invested in the project, and that the idea itself is one that has legs and lends itself to a collaborative approach. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so you need to make sure you go in with your eyes open.
Don’t rely on others to discipline you. A positive collaborative experience can give a project momentum – when one person flags, another picks up the baton. But it’s a mistake to go into a collaboration relying on your writing partners to keep you motivated to write all the time. Of course, you want your co-writers to be stalwart completer-finishers, but if you don’t show follow-through too, why would they want to write with you?
Don’t worry if you’re not best friends. It’s much more important that you all have a shared passion for the project and a desire to see it through. In some ways, not being best mates can actually make it easier if you have creative disagreements to thrash out. And if the project works, your friendship will inevitably deepen anyway.
Be prepared to give and take. A happy collaboration is a long-term project – over two years in our case – and, like any creative ‘marriage’, no one wins unless everyone wins. You have to be prepared to make compromises, take on board other points of view, and avoid an attitude of pettiness, for example about who should get the most credit or who’s doing the most work.
Think hard about your way of working. Of course, you need a great idea, interesting characters and an engaging narrative to get excited about. But all that initial excitement can quickly come to nothing if you don’t find a convenient way of working that fits into all your schedules and can accommodate all your other constraints and commitments. A flexible structure and some sort of document-sharing platform can be very useful here.
Establish some editorial ground rules. You need to be clear upfront about how you will handle rewriting, editing, and proofing. If you are each writing a different character, for example, are you allowed to make tweaks to the sections written from the PoV of your partner’s character? Are you comfortable editing each other’s work? Are you allowed to write a chapter which reverses a plot point that your co-writer introduced in an earlier chapter? Typically, collaborators edit each other’s work and agree to let all edits stand. And if these questions make you uncomfortable, you need to think carefully about whether collaboration is for you.
Love what you’re doing! Co-writing Kitten on a Fatberg has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my writing career so far. Creatively, the whole (your partnership) is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s wonderful to see how much richer our book has become for having three brains working on it rather than one.
I’m a big fan of the writing of both my co-authors and still feel very fortunate that they would want to work with me. And we have always seen the books as ours, as a shared enterprise. When the voice of the book takes off, it belongs to all of you, together – and that team glow is rare for fiction writers.
Dan is the winner of the 2018 Riptide Journal short story competition and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. He has words in Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect, Pithead Chapel and Fiction Pool. His first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, will be published early 2020. He is also co-author of a comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg, now available to pre-order at Unbound. (For 10% off, quote Kitten10)