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.


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.