Co-Writing Fiction, Part II:
Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

Frasier: I’ve had an epiphany.
Niles: Oh, wonderful. We could use a second sentence.

By PJ Parrish

The following is a true story, I swear. A couple years back, my sister and co-author Kelly and I were sitting at the old card table behind a stack of our books just inside the entrance of Barnes and Noble. It was raining and business was slow. (One advantage to having a co-author: You have someone to talk to during book signings when the screaming hordes of fans aren’t exactly beating down the door.)

A lady came up to our table, picked up our book, read the blurb and asked, “Are there two of you?” (We get that question a lot, even when both of us are sitting there). We explained that yes, we were co-authors and that was our pen name there on the cover.

The lady said, “My sister and I are thinking of writing a book together. Do you have any advice?”

I said, “Do you get along well with your sister?”

“No, we hate each other,” she said.

The first rule about co-authoring: It helps a lot if you like each other.

Yesterday, Joe Moore gave us an excellent overview of what it takes to write with a co-author. Today, I’m going into the weeds with some of the more prosaic stuff you need to consider before you partner-up. And yeah, I apologize ahead of time, but it does involve lawyers.

Personalities matter
First consideration when thinking about collaboration: You have to like each other.
If you don’t, it will never work. Think about what happens the first time one of you says, “You know, I don’t think that scene you wrote really works. Maybe we should scrap it.” Do you have roughly the same sense of humor? Do you like the same kind of books? Could you share a hotel room if you had to?

As Joe said, personalities matter. You don’t have to be bosom buddies, but you do have to respect each other and get along. Because writing even just one book is a long process and if you can’t stand to be in each other’s company for an hour, how are you going to make it eight months and 100,000 words?

Geography doesn’t
Over the course of thirteen books and fifteen years, Kelly and I have never lived closer than 1,000 miles. I’ve been rooted in Fort Lauderdale while she has wandered the earth like Caine in Kung Fu. In the early days, we relied on long distance phone calls (expensive), then emails, and now – hallelujah! — Skype. This has made collaboration easy because with Skype, one of you can have a chapter open on the screen and work on it while the other sees exactly what you are doing. But we also try to get together once a year in the same place because nothing subs for actual face-time. Plus we like to drink wine together.

Commitment matters
The second biggest consideration is this: Do you have the same level of commitment? Writing novel is a long tedious process and if one of the partners lacks the energy, time or drive, one person ends up shouldering the load and hard feelings develop fast. I have a good friend who partnered up with a guy to write a thriller. He had the original concept and a rich research background; she had a track record in mysteries and the work ethic. Three guesses who ended up doing most the work. For half the money.

Tone matters a lot
What kind of book are you writing? I know a lot of solo writers who can’t answer this, but you must agree on this with a co-author. What is your sub-genre, if any? What style are you aiming for? And what will the tone be? You must agree on this before you write one word or the book will never be seamless. I just started reading Joe and Lynn’s book The Blade, and I have to admit admit I went in looking for the seams. But I am finding none. This is very important because if the book feels like it has two voices at work, the reader won’t buy it. It’s very jarring.

Okay, now let’s deal with the nuts and bolts. You have to get this boring stuff down right from the start with a potential partner. Please don’t — in the beautiful bloom of first love, when you are dreaming about movie deals and royalties — neglect the details. Don’t try to wing it or figure it out later. This kind of thinking makes for doomed collaborations. And many bad marriages.

If you are self-publishing: Be aware that with most outlets, only one name can be on the account. If you want to post your book on Amazon, for example, you can’t list both your names on the account. Which means that one of you must manage the account, pay out income, and at the end of the year issue the other person a 1099 tax form. If your name is on the account, your writing partner is, in essence, a contractor. You can both access the Amazon dashboard account, which solves the problem of cheating. But someone has to be the main person for the income stream. Also, if you consign to bookstores, they will likely want to deal with one name for accounting.

If you go traditional: Your publisher will want both your names on any contract. They will likely split all income and issue you each royalty statements and tax documents. Ditto for any good agent, who will also deduct expenses individually.

EXPENSES: If you are the kind of person who shows up on April 12 at H&R Block with a liquor box filled with receipts, don’t try co-authoring. You must keep impeccable records. Because some expenses will be shared; some will be individual. Shared might include: editing, formatting, cover design fees, Createspace costs, website (yes, you need one), postage, and any expenses relating to the book in general. Individual might include: travel you do separately, workshop and conferences, publications, organization fees, office expenses. Someone in the partnership has to be the caretaker of the shared expenses, keep good records, and issue the other an accounting for tax purposes. Believe me, this can get hinky. It doesn’t hurt to involve a good CPA in this.

WILL:  You do have one, right? Shame on you. Well, you need one if you have a writing partner. It needs to cover what happens if one of you dies: Who takes over the business and how are past and future income distributed? Do you want your ex-spouse or rotten kids to retain your part of royalties or a possible movie deal? Who owns the pen name, if you use one? Get a lawyer.

PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT: If you have an agent or traditional publisher, they will probably demand this. Even if you self publish, it’s a good idea to have one anyway. Our former agent demanded it, and my lawyer asked me for it when I went to get my will done. This spells out things like: How income and expenses are divided (50%/50% or some other variation?) Who owns the copyright? How is the pen name to be used? (ours stipulates only for “works created together and for no projects either of us might undertake individually.” This prevents your co-author, if you split, from using the team name). A “failure to perform” clause, which details what happens if one of you dies or is disabled, that you have the right to terminate the partnership. It includes a clause called “Warranties” which is a bunch of legal-ese that protects you both. And you need to get this notarized.  I know…pain in the butt. Too bad.

Whew…still want to team up? Let’s move on.

Main File: Do you ever lose material or delete chapters by accident? Do you forget and work on the wrong version of something? Welcome to my world. Now, consider how far south this can go if there are two of you. So, figure out before you start who is better organized and let that person be – {{cue Godlike voice}} — THE KEEPER OF THE FILE. Someone has to be in charge of the latest working version. If you don’t do this, you might each be working on different versions of the same chapter. The Keeper has to also have an excellent back-up program like iBox. They must be vigilant about making sure the other person has the right material. This is not what you want to hear when you turn on Skype in the morning: “I finished chapter 9 last night but I think I was working on an old version from two months ago.” This has happened to us. We call our working version ONE BIG FILE. At times, when things are going badly, we have inserted a colorful profane adjective between “big” and “file.”

Chronology: Someone should keep a running chronology of the book as you progress. I don’t know how anyone writes a complex plot without keeping a running chronology of what happens in each chapter, but that’s just me. With a co-author, keeping a chronology really helps to keep you on the same page in your time-line and saves time when you go into rewrite mode. You don’t want to have this conversation:

“We need to go back and beef up the clues in that Paris morgue scene so Jacques Reacher can figure out he is chasing a one-armed man.”
“What chapter was that in?”
“You wrote it. Don’t you remember?”
“That was five months ago.”
“Well, let me do a search for it. What was the ME’s name?”
“We didn’t give him one.”
“Well, search for all the French stuff!”
“Can’t we just let this slide? No one will notice.”
“Yes, they will. I think we said the guy was missing his RIGHT arm but now the slash marks from the knife would tell Reacher that he’s left-handed.”
LONG PAUSE. “Okay…I’ll find it. Go do a run on your treadmill. You’re getting crabby.”

This is why you keep a running chronology. To save time and tsouris. Here is a part of our chronology for our current WIP:

CHAPTER TWO – day 1 Saturday April 6, 1991
Louis arrives at church and talks briefly with new boss Steele. Est. setting.

CHAPTER THREE – day 2: April 7
Louis finds his apartment and unpacks his mementos. Thinks about Joe. Brief reference to what happened in DOW with Steele.

CHAPTER FOUR – day 3 Monday morning April 8
Back at remodeled church. Team members show up. Steele gives brief intros and they take their cases.

CHAPTER FIVE – day 3 Monday late night
Emily comes and they go to dinner at bar and talk. Louis calls Joe.

CHAPTER SIX – day 4 Tuesday April 9
The meeting in the choir loft. As Louis is packing up file and getting ready to leave, he can’t resist asking Steele why? Backstory on what exactly happened in Loon Lake 5 year ago (in L’s thoughts) and what changed Steele’s mind about Louis.

CHAPTER SEVEN – day 4 Tuesday
Louis drives to Keweenaw. Meets Sheriff Nurmi and Monica. First reference to Sisu clue on Monica’s sweatshirt. Ends with L seeing the box in evidence.

In each chapter, we record the salient plot details, the first appearance of any character. We also record the calendar date as it happens in the book and what DAY we are in time-wise, so we can tell how much time passes between events. This latter DAY thing is important because you can see, at a glance, that you’ve let five days go by in your plot and nothing has happened. I update this with each completed chapter and send it to Kelly.


Character board. Now this is strictly optional, but Kelly and I have found it useful. You and your partner need to be on the same page when describing characters. We’ve found a trick: We agree on a famous person — like Mike Ditka was our sheriff and the actor Michael Rennie is Louis’s foster father —  and sort of use him or her as a template. Over the years, we’ve even pasted them in a montage. This is fun and goes over big at workshops and signings.

Yikes…you’re still here? Boy, you must want this partnership thing bad. Okay, here’s the rest of the stuff you have to consider before you get hitched.

What’s your name? Are you going to use a pen name like Kelly and I do? Or do you use two names, like Joe Moore and Lynn Sholes? And whose name goes first?

Are you at about the same level in your craft? They say you should always play tennis with someone better than you. I don’t advise that for writing. Aim for someone on your own level. As Joe pointed out, you will each bring different strengths and weaknesses to the team, but your basic craftsmanship level should be the same. Now, if you are entering a partnership where one is charged with all writing and the other say research and editing, make sure you are clear going in that those are indeed the parameters.

Go to a writers conference together. You can learn a lot about another writer in a writer’s conference bar. Pick each others brains. As Joe said, talk, talk, talk…and talk some more. Consider it speed dating before you make the plunge.

Commit to a routine. Joe said this but I need to second it because it’s vital. Set a daily “meeting” where you get on Skype or phone and touch base. Maybe it’s for hours as you thrash out plot. Maybe it’s for 10 minutes. But you must maintain contact. And emails aren’t enough. Did I mention that you need to talk?

Support each other. Again, this is like a marriage in every way. You go into a writing collaboration because you want to believe that you can achieve something together that you can’t achieve alone. So tell each other the truth, but do so constructively and with kindness. Be honest. Don’t be afraid to send your less than best. You can send something that needs work; that’s why there are two of you. Yes, you want to do a good job but it is not important to impress your partner. And last but not least…

Bury your ego. You each bring different skills and talents to this and if one is far stronger at plot, let that person take the lead. Maybe you are better at character development. As the partnership goes on, you might find, as we did, that we learn from each other.

People ask us all the time if we argue or disagree about the book. Of course. We’re sisters. We’re writers. We have massive egos and decades of history together. But we understand that, in the end, there are really three of us in this partnership. So yes, we argue. But that third entity — the story — always wins.


18 thoughts on “Co-Writing Fiction, Part II:
Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

  1. You and Joe really did a fantastic job of covering the nitty gritty details of writing with someone. I can’t believe that lady in the bookstore ever even gave a thought to co-writing with someone she couldn’t get along with.

    I appreciate the details you shared with regard to the business side–honestly, I never even gave a thought to the idea that only one author could be listed with the Amazon account, etc. I just took it for granted that both could be listed.

    That just goes to show what rank amateurs my friend and I were over 10 years ago when we attempted a screenplay together.

    And meshing of personalities is so very important. And one partner’s strengths definitely need to shore up the other partner’s weaknesses–and you each have to be willing to LET them shore up weaknesses.

    Kudos to both you and Joe for this 2 part post. You nailed it. It’s both a sobering wake up call and an encouragement to at least look at the possibility of a writing partnership.

  2. Morning BK,
    I hope our posts don’t discourage folks from trying collaboration. It can be a great way to go, and I think the advantages far outweigh any potential problems. It’s truly like getting married — the more you know about the other person — and what it takes to make things work — the better your chances for success.

    • BK: I need to add that Kelly and I went into our partnership blindly. We didn’t work out any details ahead of time but learned on the fly, and luckily the collaboration yielded only good things. I think most writers are not inclined to think like CPAs or lawyers…we tend to be right-brainers. So you gotta learn to make that left lobe kick in when you need it.

  3. Excellent, as always. And you don’t need to have a writing partner to use these tips. If I’d know then, etc., etc. Tracking is critical whether you’re flying solo or have a partner. How many bedrooms did the guest house have? Is there a fireplace? How many times did your character eat lunch that day? Why is she appearing in court on a Sunday? And that’s for one book — tracking across a series is even more important (and I REALLY need to be more diligent)

    • I so agree Terry, re: tracking. It saves so much work in rewrites if you are vigilant about recording stuff as you move thru the story. Time-lines are my downfall…I lose track of where I am calendar-wise in the story, so I have forced myself to keep the chronology going. But then, I am the kind of person who struggles to remember to put her keys in the same place every day. I know my limits…:)

  4. Wow, Kris, this was fantastic. I second the compliment that you and Joe covered this topic in depth.

    I think both you and Joe mentioned letting go of ego. After hearing the humor in your voice for this post, I have to wonder if that hasn’t been part of your success.

    I bet that this topic would make a successful conference speaking tour. Promote your latest book, and have the attendees rolling in the aisles with laughter – all the way back to the book table.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Yeah…you gotta have a sense of humor when you partner up. But then, I married my current second husband because he can make me laugh. Kelly and I do have some good laughs along the way, even to the point of writing jokes into our chapters before we exchange them. We had to stop that because we were afraid something would get in that we didn’t want anyone to see.

  5. Thanks, Kris and Joe, for an honest, in-depth exploration of co-writing.

    As Steve said, a sense of humor is crucial in any serious long-term relationship, professional or personal. And he’s right that a conference co-presentation would be a hit.

    Kris’s comprehensive overview of business details should be required reading for anyone contemplating a partnership. Many writers ignore these mundane, but critical, matters until something goes wrong and they get bitten in the behind. It’s always harder and more expensive to undo damage than it is to set up the business right in the first place.

    Terrific job! Many thanks!

  6. Whoa, Kris. You really spelled it out, right down to the will. Amazing. You and Joe gave us a master’s course in collaboration. It’s not for me, but now I understand exactly why not.

    • ah, come on…let’s write a book together. We can call it “Bookstore Confidential.”

  7. Good info, though I don’t see myself in any collaborative projects.

    I have an issue. I can barely stop myself from editing before the completion of a draft. I start reading through the day’s work, or previous day’s, and I’m off to the races where I spend the majority of my time reworking. Sometimes that’s all I do for the day in my patience search for quality. However, this makes the quantity of my output move at a sea cow’s pace.

    Is this an issue others have experienced?

    • Yes. Yes. and yes. I am right there in the same leaky canoe, Mighty. I love rewriting. Because it’s easier, right? You don’t have to face the terror of the blank page! You can diddle daddle for hours just on finding a better word, or honing your description, or — egads — going on Google to look up some research to enrich your scene. The problem is, you’re not moving forward, are you? But a novel is like a shark (apologies to Woody Allen). If it doesn’t move forward, it dies. There is a reason they call it “a work in progress” because you are expected to PROGRESS.

      I can say this because I am a sinner. So here is what I do to try to cure myself of this: Yes, you can open yesterday’s work and look at it, but force yourself to keep it to oh, 15 minutes. Then you have to move on. Part of this is just breaking a bad habit. Momentum counts for a lot in writing a novel — you must keep going forward.

      Get a first draft done! It will feel so good. Cross a finish line even if you know you have to go back and fix the potholes you saw en route. James had a good post a while back about giving your book a physical wherein he suggested that you get at least half a book done THEN and only then should you go back and take the book’s temperature. That is what I am doing now with my WIP. I have written almost 300 pages but only now am I going back to see where the potholes are. Take the word of a sinner: This works better.

      Good luck. This isn’t easy. 🙂

Comments are closed.