Coauthoring Without Murder

by Randy Ingermanson

reposted with permission

"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 COOL?"

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 craft.

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 work.)

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

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 proposal.

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 eye.

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 Bob.

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 inefficiency.

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 http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com

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3 thoughts on “Coauthoring Without Murder

  1. Good advice, much appreciated, though almost impossible to read this color font on this color background. I had to highlight the entire thing, suggest making your font darker or whiter or making your background lighter.

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