Thursday, July 23, 2009

Team writing/Coauthoring Without Murder

Team writing intrigues me. Whenever I see two names on a script or a book cover, I begin to wonder about them as a duo and how they managed the mechanics of coauthoring. I recently met a woman that writes with another person (actually her sister-in-law). And a few years back I met a dynamic mother-daughter duo that write together. When I meet these teams, my first thought is usually, "How's that working for you?"

A very interesting article on the subject by Randy Ingermanson is below (and the legal stuff that says it's okay to post it is below that. Then a Monty Python clip is below that. It's all good so hang in there.)

I've learned from experience that team writing differs significantly from the editor/writer relationship. There's an implicit hierarchy involved in the editor/writer arrangement that really gives one person or the other the final say. In a writing duo, that has to be spelled out more carefully but can be a good thing to do up front, so to speak.

I also think there are styles of writers that work best together. That's why I find the clip below so funny. I will say though, that my friend and her writing teammate seem to be handling the challenges very successfully.
At least neither of them has gnawed their own arm off yet.

Organizing: Coauthoring Without Murder

By Randy Ingermanson

"We're Best Friends Forever," she said, tilting her
head toward the woman sitting beside her at the dinner
table. "And we're writing a novel together. Isn't that

I nodded noncommitally. "Sounds . . . great." We were
eating supper at a writing conference and I was hosting
a table and trying to get to know the other writers at
my table. But anytime I hear that two friends are
coauthoring, I get nervous, because writing a novel
together can be murder on your friendship.

"We heard you coauthored a couple of novels with your
best friend," one of the BFFs said. "And those worked
out great, right?"

I nodded. Yes, I wrote two novels with my best buddy,
John Olson. Yes, we sold the novels, won several
awards, and remained best buddies. Yes, it worked out
extremely well. Yes, we would do it again.

But the fact is that writing a novel with a friend
doesn't always work out great. In fact, it rarely works
out at all.

Coauthoring is serious business, and there are a lot of
ways to go wrong. John and I were too ignorant to know
better, or maybe we wouldn't have tried it. But we did
and it worked.

The main reason -- probably the ONLY reason -- you
should ever coauthor a novel with anyone is that you
each bring some skill to the table that the other
person doesn't have.

With fiction, the most common reason two people
coauthor a novel is that one of them is an expert on
the subject of the novel, while the other is an expert
at writing fiction.

The reason this works so well is that fiction needs
both good content and good craft in order to work.
Normally, an author brings both the content and the
craft, but it makes perfect sense to team up one person
who has the content and another person who has the

For example, the LEFT BEHIND series, which sold tens of
millions of books, teamed up Tim LaHaye (famous in
certain circles for his interpretation of biblical
prophecy) with Jerry Jenkins (a talented novelist). Tim
brought the content; Jerry brought the craft. Together,
they made an enormously successful team.

So whenever I meet BFFs who are working together on a
novel, the first question I ask is, "What does each of
you bring to the project that the other doesn't?"

A lot of times, this draws a very long, blank look, and
the words, "Well . . . we're FRIENDS."

My next question is, "How do you split up the writing?"

If this also gets a blank look, then I know this
partnership is in trouble. You have to split up the
writing somehow. You have to. You can't sit there at
the keyboard all cuddly and both type at once. (John
and I NEVER tried this, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't

I've often thought about what went right with John and
me. There were several reasons that we made a good

First, we have complementary organizational skills.
John is a visionary guy who is great at setting
strategic goals. I am good at taking a vision and
translating that into a set of tactical goals. So our
first novel, OXYGEN, was John's idea (although I
contributed a lot of ideas). I made the battle plans
(and John played a key role in revising those plans).

Second, we have different areas of expertise. John is a
biochemist. I'm a physicist. Our novel, about the first
human mission to Mars, required a ton of research. John
handled the life-science aspects. I took on the
physical-science stuff.

Third, we have different skills as fiction designers.
John is exceptional at developing plot and he LOVES
writing synopses. I find character development easy and
I LOVE writing character sketches. So we each did what
we liked best in developing the story and writing the

Fourth, we have complementary emphases in our writing.
John loves to "write from the shadows" -- giving each
scene an air of mystery and intrigue. I like shining a
bright light on things, so that the reader always knows
exactly what the viewpoint character knows.

So when John edited my scenes, he added some mystery
and shadows. When I edited his scenes, I clarified
things that might have confused the reader. Somehow, it
all melded together into a unique style that was
neither mine nor John's. Our editors were completely
unable to guess which of us wrote which parts.

Now here is where things could have gone badly wrong.
If we'd asked anyone for advice, they'd have told us
not to both be the writer. It's very hard to mix two
people's styles into something that works.

But we didn't ask for advice because we didn't know
there might be a problem. So both of us wrote first
draft material and both of us edited. Our biggest
problem was scheduling things so that we were always up
to speed on what the other guy had written.

Early on, we thought that if we each wrote a scene at
the same time, then we could work twice as fast. But
then we discovered that the scenes simply didn't work,
because the tone of one scene's ending determines the
tone of the scene that follows. And you don't know
exactly how a scene is going to play out until you
write it.

So eventually, we hit on a plan where we'd map out the
scenes for a week in advance. It would go like this:
Randy will write a scene Monday morning and send it to
John. John will edit that Monday night, then write the
next scene, and send them both to Randy. On Tuesday
morning, Randy accepts or rejects John's changes, then
edits John's scene, then writes the next scene, and
sends it all to John.

Repeat until the end of the book. It's a little
complicated, but it worked without anybody losing an

There was another rule we had. Each of us "owned"
certain characters and we got to write the first draft
of any scenes in which our character was the
point-of-view character. John "owned" the female
biochemist astronaut named Valkerie. I "owned" the male
physicist astronaut Bob.

There was a third character named Nate who had a fair
number of viewpoint scenes. Nate was a very rude and
belligerent guy, and it turned out that I'm ruder and
more belligerent than John, so I wound up writing
Nate's scenes. This evened the work out, because John's
character Valkerie had more scenes than my character

If you are going to work with another author, then one
key requirement is that you both have to leave your ego
at the door. This is hard. Writers have big egos
(otherwise, they'd never do something as egotistical as
believe that they might be able to write something that
many thousands of people might actually want to read.)

I think what made things work for John and me was that
we each had a very healthy respect for the other guy's
talents. We had been friends for a few years, and each
of us knew what the other was capable of doing. I think
each of us felt lucky to be working with the other guy.

There is a very bad reason that people sometimes give
for coauthoring: "It cuts the work in half to have two
people working on it."

No. It cuts the MONEY in half. But there is always some
inefficiency in getting two people working together. I
suspect that in most cases there is a LOT of

Don't kid yourself on this. It may take more time to
coauthor a novel than to write it alone. I used to joke
that "John wrote 80% of our book . . . and I wrote the
other 80%."

But I suspect that each of us actually put in about
120% of the normal effort for a book. This would be
foolish unless the end result is better than either
author could have done alone. In our case, I think we
did get a better result as a team than either of us
could have done solo.

When John and I first pitched the idea for our book to
an editor, one question he asked was what we'd do if we
disagreed. We hadn't thought about that, but the answer
seemed obvious to me. The book was John's idea. So if
we couldn't agree, then he had the deciding vote. For
the same reason, his name would go first on the cover.
And if we decided to break up the team, then John would
own full rights to the book.

Our editor thought that made sense. It would have been
wise to spell that out in writing, along with a few
other details. Maybe we should have. I've heard that
it's a good idea to write a contract between coauthors,
but we never did.

Should you write your novel with a coauthor? Before you
do, here are some questions you MUST have answers to:

* Why can this NOT be a solo project?
* How are you going to split the work?
* How are you going to split the money?
* When you disagree, who gets to decide?
* Whose name will go first on the cover, and why?

You'll notice that none of those questions has anything
to do with whether you're best friends with your
coauthor. Friendship is a fine, fine thing, but you
need a good sound business reason before you enter a
business relationship with anyone.

I never heard what happened to the two BFFs who were
writing a novel together. Maybe they finished it. Most
likely they didn't. I hope they're still friends.

People ask me once in a while if John and I are going
to write another novel together. The answer is always a
good, firm, "Maybe." We'd like to. Working together was
great fun, and I learned a lot about writing from John.
I hope that he may have learned a trick or two from me.

But it has to be the right book, at the right time, for
the right reason. When that happens, we'll do it. If it
doesn't, we won't. I value John's friendship more than
I value any book we might write together.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing
E-zine, with more than 16,000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction,
AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND
have FUN doing it, visit

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