Five Things: What We’ve Learned About Co-Writing
YA co-authors Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil talk us through some of the most important points to keep in mind when collaborating.
Walk the Dog
This is an umbrella term for any physical activity that can be done while talking, and is vital for the early, planning stages of your co-writing endeavour. You’ll need to work things out in a lot of detail before you can move on to actual writing – and you will argue. You are going to be having some long, long conversations, and sometimes it will feel like they’re going in circles. (At times like these it’s important to remember how much worse this would feel if you were doing it on your own: plotting is certainly made easier by having someone else to talk to.) Even when you do achieve a breakthrough, it will usually trigger a whole new set of problems. While all this is going on, your brain is going to get tired. Exercise keeps the blood flowing, washing all those tired neurons with lovely oxygen. Dog-walking also confers a sense of low-level ‘background achievement’ – and when you get frustrated you can slash at nettles with a stick.
Write it all down in detail as soon as possible
This is something we still sometimes fail to do. You’ve had your dog-walk, achieved those breakthroughs and have four or five great ideas ready to go. They’re so great, you think, that you couldn’t possibly forget them. Then, when the time comes to actually write something, they’re gone.
Dog-walking confers a sense of low-level ‘background achievement’ – and when you get frustrated you can slash at nettles with a stick
Ideally, then, you should decide who’s going to write up what before the end of the dog walk – and then go straight home and do it, not forgetting a single detail. Write the ideas down in the same place as your notes from previous dog walks: you may find that new ideas change old ones in interesting ways, or vice versa. You don’t have to be in the same place at this stage (see Thing 3, below).
It does help to be together for the creation of the Final Plan: this happens when you’ve done all your walks, agreed on your story and are ready to start writing. We begin by writing alternate chunks (e.g. Andy chapter 1, Jon chapter 2-5, Andy chapter 6-9, etc), so it is vital to agree on every last detail of the plot, and again write it down in detail. Otherwise (and this has happened) Andy, writing chapter 6, may find that Jon has done something completely unexpected with chapter 4 that changes everything...
We used to use plain old email, but this has its pitfalls when it comes to what we now term ‘version control.’ Much better is Dropbox, which allows you to create shared folders so that you can both see exactly what’s there, all the time.
The reason this is so important is that you will need to edit back and forth many times in order to get a consistent voice. You will end up with six or seven versions of the same chapter (and that’s just within a single draft: by the time the book is truly done, you’ll have written some chapters up to 20 times). Without effective version control, this can get very confusing very quickly...
This may be the most important tip of all. It needs to be a clearly stated policy: something like, ‘We will fight, sometimes to the bitter end, but we will not let it destroy us.’
Sometimes you will disagree. There are two ways to approach this. First, and quintessentially British: pretend there’s no disagreement. Paper over the problem. The trouble with this is (a) you’ll both still secretly feel annoyed and frustrated, and (b) you won’t have come to a strong decision. If you both really care about this thing you’re creating, this isn’t going to be good enough for either of you.
The second way is to fight it out. Argue, get passionate, find out what you both really think and why you disagree. Try to stay civil – arguments where you end up slamming the phone down and not talking for the rest of the day waste a lot of time and emotional energy – but don’t let civility stifle the creative process. Sometimes there will be blood.
Argue, get passionate, find out what you both really think and why you disagree
This might seem like a direct contradiction of Thing 4, but really it isn’t. In an ideal fight, both sides will end up changing their minds a bit: the fight helped you both clarify what you really thought, and it turned out you weren’t quite as obdurately opposed to one another as you thought. Sometimes, though, you really will disagree: no two people have exactly the same tastes, after all. You’re both going to have to back down from time to time. There’s no easy way around this; if you want total creative control, write on your own.
Flexibility is also important in the writing process itself. Remember the Final Plan you created with every last detail of the plot worked out? Guess what: not all of that’s going to stick. You’ll learn new things about the characters and the story, what works and what doesn’t, as you write. This applies to all writers, but for duos it comes with an important proviso: as soon as you’ve discovered something – whether it’s a deep emotional truth about a character, or a cunning new way for your hero to escape from jail – pick up the phone. Your co-writer needs to know this. He or she may have different ideas about that deep emotional truth (in which case you’re in for a fight); on the other hand, your new discovery may actually be just the thing your co-writer needs to get them over a tricky bit of dialogue, or open up an exciting plot possibility.
For more tips on writing, have a gander at our writing tips blogs.