Co-Writing Fiction, Part 1

By Joe Moore

Sue Coletta, a good friend of TKZ, recently responded to our call for blog topics by requesting some discussion on co-writing fiction. Since there are two of us here that collaborate with others—myself with co-author Lynn Sholes, and Kris Montee with her sister Kelly Nichols (PJ Parrish), Kris and I decided to take up the task. I have switched with Kris to start the discussion today, and she will take my slot tomorrow to deliver part 2.

Between Sholes & Moore, and PJ Parrish, we have produced 24 co-written works of fiction. We hope that today’s post and tomorrow’s will shed some light on what is considered by most of our fellow authors as an impossible task.

Collaborating on fiction was started in the mainstream a number of years ago by the great Clive Cussler, and soon followed by James Patterson. Their co-writers alone could fill a fancy cocktail party. Nowadays it seems to be growing in popularity. This week’s New York Times bestselling top 20 includes THE PURSUIT by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, THE HOUSE OF SECRETS by Brad Meltzer and Tod Goldberg and THE EMPEROR’S REVENGE by Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison. I’ve spoken to a couple of Cussler’s co-writers about their technique which I won’t reveal here. But I can assure you, it is NOT the panster approach. I also have my theory why co-writing fiction is really catching on—increased product means increased sales. But that’s just me.

The reason co-writing fiction is looked upon as impossible is because it’s hard. In the beginning nothing exists but an idea in an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in his or her head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel?

Lynn Sholes and I have written nine thrillers together because of the following reasons. First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write. Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve. Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something. Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over ten years in a weekly writers’ critique group. Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them. Sixth, we agree on the same message in each book. Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise. And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job? We talk, and talk, and talk. Once a day we conference call, brainstorming and telling and retelling each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in sync as possible. Then one of us will declare to have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, and create the first draft.

We write slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to finish our first book. It took three years of hard work before we fused our voices. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, most of the time neither of us can remember who wrote what. We rely on each other so much that we both wonder how it is possible for anyone to write a book on his own.

There are several advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split the money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you would as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

A giant plus is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

We are approaching the mid-point of our tenth thriller together. We believe that the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers. For us, two heads are better than one.

Here’s a list of points to consider when entering into collaboration.

Understand why you think collaboration would be beneficial and share that with your co-author. There are many reasons to collaborate on a story, and only the participants can say what these are. The ideal collaboration is one free of hidden agendas. If you desire something specific from the relationship, it’s best to state it straight out. This can avoid conflict and frustration on the part of one or both writers.

Know the co-writer and his or her work before entering into a collaborative arrangement. If you don’t get along with a writer or the two writing styles conflict, then collaboration may not be the best idea.

Come to the relationship with an open mind and flexible ideas. If you enter the project with set images and plot ideas, then you limit the other writer’s involvement. This can also lead to conflict. If your collaboration begins with something previously written, then there will be constraints, but still be flexible.

Respect your collaborator’s ideas and opinions. Leave your ego at the door. A partnership works because of input from both sides and a healthy respect for each other. There are no stupid ideas. If possible, state your biases up front so that each writer is aware of differences of opinion. For example, one of you might be opposed to first-person stories or present tense. Knowing this up front can help avoid conflicts.

Explore each writer’s strengths. If your specialty is plot and your partner’s specialty is description, then use those strengths to the story’s advantage. The ideal collaboration results in a story that neither writer could generate on his or her own.

Divide the workload and agree on it at the beginning. Perhaps one of you will write the first draft and the other will edit/revise the draft. Perhaps one will write the skeleton and the other will fill in the descriptions. There is no single method of collaboration. It is as unique as the two writers who come together to collaborate. But each writer wants to feel involved in the process.

Discuss differences of opinion and employ the art of compromise. Don’t make differences into impasses. Pose solutions with compromise as the goal. Don’t let the differences escalate into dissolution of the partnership.

Allow for an easy, clean way out. In case things don’t work out, and to avoid hard feelings, each writer should have a painless way out of the partnership. Make sure you have agreed on how to divide up the intellectual property before beginning collaboration. The escape clause should be agreed upon ahead of time.

Most important, have fun. Collaborations can and should be fun. If it is not, try something else.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of co-writing fiction with PJ Parrish.

16 thoughts on “Co-Writing Fiction, Part 1

  1. Good breakdown of a true collaboration, Joe. Yours is chapter-by-chapter. I enjoyed a collaboration early on for the start of my Kit Shannon series. It was mutual brainstorming, then I did a lean first draft, my co-writer Tracie Peterson went over it, adding to scenes in a way that developed a mutual voice. What made this work was that we really liked each other and knew how to play to our strengths.

    The other type of collaboration you mention, pairing a pro author with an A-list star, is more like brand extension. The level of input and the time expended by the A author varies, of course. Heck, some are writing even after they’ve died. Robert B. Parker, for instance! And Ludlum. That guy never stops.

    I believe most of these A-list contracts are “work for hire,” though perhaps some do receive a share of royalties. In any event, it’s a good gig for the co-writer, gets them on the NY Times list, and is a boost to their own writing future. Andrew Gross, for instance (one of Patterson’s early co-authors), has done several bestsellers on his own.

    • One A-list collaborator told me that the deal was, “You do all the work and I make all the money.” But it got the collaborator on the NYT bestseller list.

  2. I agree there’s a difference between the A-List collaborator pair, and a Parrish team. I heard one of Patterson’s writers speak at a conference, and he said (to the best of my recollection) that Patterson gives the basics but the “partner” was responsible for writing the book, with occasional checks. He did say working for Patterson taught him the art of the cliffhanger chapter ending.

    I think, for me, blending voices would be the biggest challenge. I read a recent “Nero Wolf”, which was obviously not a partnership in any shape way or form, but the voice was all off, and it seemed to be more the author’s way of saying “I’ve read all the Nero Wolfe books and I’m going to prove it by filling this book with backstory and info dumping.”

    • I can’t imagine picking up the banner for another author with a well-known series. My buddy Reed Farrel Coleman now writes Parker’s Jesse Stone series. Ace Atkins does the Spenser series. Both guys are excellent writers of their own stuff, but I still can’t imagine assuming the voice of such a distinctive writer.

      • I agree, Kris. Trying to capture someone else’s voice, especially a famous one, would be daunting. BTW, Ace Atkins is a truly gifted writer. I’m a big fan.

      • While Ace might be a great writer, I couldn’t buy into the ‘new’ Spencer novels. Didn’t work for me. I should go give Coleman’s Stone a peek, though. Capturing voice, which is a very hard thing to ‘teach’ in the first place, isn’t easy no matter how great a writer you are.

        • Reed is a terrific writer in his own right. He was given “free reign” by the estate to do the Stone novels his way, so they’re not trying to “be” Parker. A wise move.

  3. Pingback: Co-Writing Fiction, Part 1 | Writers Critique | Story & Craft

  4. Great overview of collaboration, Joe. You made an important point about a neat, clean exit strategy if things don’t work out. Because all my co-writing experience has been with nonfiction articles (no book-length or fiction), I had not thought about the necessity to divide up the intellectual property rights. Thanks for that lesson.

    My writing partner and I used to say, “Half the money, but twice the fun.”

  5. WOW, Joe, you hit this spot on. I’ve never collaborated on a novel, but probably a good 10 years ago I collaborated with someone on a screenplay. We both made pretty much every mistake you advise avoiding above and it was painful for both of us. And since that time I’ve pretty much echoed the advice you’ve given here.

    But time is a good teacher. For years I swore I’d never, EVER co-write with someone again (for one thing, I’m very picky and I know it’s a problem). But I’ve reached the point in life that, should the right circumstances arise, and if both adhere to the basic tenets you’ve described above, I think I’ve reached a point in life where I’m better able to tackle such an undertaking.

    Kudos to you and Lynn and all those who have successfully tackled a writing collaboration. It is not for the faint of heart.

  6. Thank you, Joe! Recently a friend asked if I’d co-write a screenplay with him this fall, but since I didn’t know much about collaboration I’ve been hesitant. This helps a lot.

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