Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Saturday 6 April 2013

How The Husband and I Collaborate on a Writing Project

So, the very lovely Shane McElligott asked me this question the other day, 

A thing I keep meaning to ask is how on earth can a book be co-written? It's a question that's bothered me since I was sixteen as I read The Talisman by Peter Straub and Stephen King, which I love. Do you write a bit each? Do you agree on a writing style beforehand? Does it lead to a multitude of plot/character related arguments? My brain will not compute the scenario of two people writing one book. At all! Perhaps you'd consider a blog to explain as I'd love to know the 'mechanics'.

I thought it was rather a good question, and that I’d try to answer it, at least where the husband and I, and our techniques for collaboration are concerned. They are, to be fair, many and varied, but I’ll give it a try.

The husband and I live together and work in the same environment, and, although we work in different rooms, our paths cross quite a lot, and we talk, so we tend to share a lot of ideas, and stuff bleeds. It’s hard to know what came from where, and what belongs to whom... If anything can be said to belong to anyone, particularly where ideas are concerned. 

A good example of this might be five brothers from Sinister Dexter, and, trust me, nothing could be said to belong more to the husband than does SinDex. I thought it would be funny if the father of this band of brothers was a renegade capitalist, who had named his children after brands of western jeans, Brutus, Levi, PepĂ©, Gap... and the one whose name I can’t immediately bring to mind... and, thus, the Putin clan was born. You see... That sort of thing happens all the time, and is totally organic. 

The same applies to ideas. I’m not allowed to talk about it, but if I hadn’t made reference to a scene from a particular movie over dinner with the husband the other night a chapter from the next Horus Heresy novel might have read very differently, and all because the husband was wrestling with how to get one character from point A to point B. Sometimes, it just takes a fresh perspective.

Collaborating on a project is a little more deliberate than that, but not necessarily much more.

We begin by deciding that we want to do something together. Yes, I know that sounds daft, but if we’re not in agreement on the basics then what’s the point? Yes, we do want to write about an elf, rather than a dwarf; yes he should be essentially solitary, rather than the leader of a warband; yes he’s magical, rather than practical; no let’s not give him a woman, rather than have him followed around by some glamorous harpy. 

Then we talk plot. Generally, it doesn’t take more than an hour or two to talk through a basic plot, especially when you consider the notebooks full of ideas that we have filed away. When the talking’s done, I take dictation. If I don’t agree with what the husband dictates, I might reword it as I’m typing and read it back to him with my changes, or I might stop him for a minute to argue a point, but this is usually a pretty fast process. 

That’s the pitch that goes off to the commissioning editor. It’s usually a page or two long, and might include a rough list of characters, or not. If that’s Okayed, it might be all that’s required for one or other of us to get started on the novel. On the other hand, the editor might want a chapter breakdown.

I dread the chapter breakdown. I don’t want more. If I had my way, I’d always work with less. When I write my own books, I begin with nothing but a basic idea and something thematic in my head.

The husband is much, MUCH better than I am about plotting, and he helps me along with this stuff. I don’t like to think about the next bit until I have a pretty good idea what the last bit was about. The bottom line is, if we have to, we plot. The husband, as I mentioned, generally has more input at this stage, and I’m much more likely to be the one who backs away from plot points, and I’m more likely to want to cut things than adds things. There’s generally an amount of wrangling. This is the tough bit.

Then it’s back to the commissioning editor, and, then, we can begin writing.

When we began writing together, it was usually the case that the husband would write the first chapter or two to get us underway and establish characters and locations, and I would pick up threads. Then we would weave back and forth. He would set the tone, and write the big set pieces, and I would do more thematic things, linking pieces, bits of character interaction and domestic odds and sods. He was the more experienced, and the more confident writer. He would also write more of a novel that we collaborated on than I would.

That would be typical, but it isn’t always like that. Sometimes, an idea might come almost entirely from one or other of us, and we’ll write it together, more-ore-less producing half of the novel each. Sometimes, an idea might be a very joint effort and one or other of us will do almost all, or even all of the writing. 

Sometimes, we might plan to carve the writing up in a particular way, and that’s generally along the natural lines of where the story breaks up, which isn’t difficult to see when you read a novel, but then another job might come in, or whoever’s writing might be doing a fantastic job, or might be really enjoying the work, or struggling, and the plan just changes. With Gilead’s Curse, the husband loved my Skaven so much that he never did take over in that section of the novel, and I had no problem continuing, because my schedule allowed for it.

Different collaborative relationships work in different ways. For the husband and I, we pretty much both have full skill sets. For a lot of other writing partnerships, skill sets are more divided, so chores have to be allocated more rigidly.

The husband and I both generate a lot of ideas, we can both plot, although his plotting skills are far superior to mine, (I can plot, even though I have to tell myself that I can, and I’d rather not if I can get away with not doing it), and we can both write. So, who does what becomes a bit of a moot point, providing we’re both happy with the end result.

The one thing I will maintain, however, is that I think it’s important that someone’s the boss when it comes to any project. The husband is the more experienced writer of the two of us, and if anyone’s name on the cover of a book is going to sell copies it will always be his and not mine, so it stands to reason that he has the final say on anything. This suits me fine. Give me a job, and I’ll do it. I’m happy to do as I’m told, unless what you’re telling me to do is compromise good grammar. Oh... That’s the exception. When it comes to final edits, I get the last word. 

You see... as in life, in art... Compromise in all things.

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