Good grief. How is it April again already? It’s a year since we joined forces to write what is starting to turn into ‘The November Deadline”, a full length novel based on the story that we presented over the course of April, as part of the AtoZ challenge. We’ve been running this website for a while, but this was our first co-writing project, our first, shared world-building exercise. As a bit of a throwback, we thought it would be fun to write a little bit about our experience of co-authoring…
I remember reading an article by Neil Gaiman about his experience of writing “Good Omens” with Terry Pratchett, in which he talked more about the “how” than the decisions around the “what”. And whilst the exchanging of floppy disks featured heavily in the article, I have to admit that our process in co-writing our A2Z Challenge tale wasn’t greatly different.
I felt there were four aspects which made this work …
- Despite having very differing tastes and voices, we selected a genre we both enjoy reading.
- The chosen time and place were known well enough to us both and we were interested in researching further.
- Four primary characters were clearly defined before we started writing (for which kudos to David).
- We had a ready-made structure and had chosen 26 word prompts around which to weave our story.
This list is formed totally with the benefit of hindsight by the way. For example, we didn’t start out with the realisation that it would be a good idea to chose a genre where our tastes converged – it just happened that way, seemingly in an organic fashion. Selecting the NATO phonetic alphabet as the theme also led to our decision on time-frame – it couldn’t be earlier than its inception and anything later than Cold War felt dated. Additionally, the fun we’d had playing with the idea of the cockney rhyming slang alphabet before discarding it surely influenced our decision to base the story in London’s East End.
As for the four primary characters, I’ll leave David to elaborate, but from my perspective, it meant I could dive straight in to the story telling, leaving the development of minor characters to come along as and when needed. Although many might consider the structure restrictive, for me it provided the bones on which to plan, to prompt what direction the story could take and what minor characters might be needed to flesh out the story. For example, Juliet started out as a simple device to meet the prompt for J, but ended up being a character who demanded more than the originally planned bit part.
But any thoughts you may be conjuring up of multiple lengthy discussions and detailed planning sessions have to go right out of the window. There was a fair bit of talking, although perhaps not as much as you might imagine. We had one or two face-to-face sessions before we started, but thereafter it was snatched moments during the working day to exchange thoughts and ideas (Twitter DMs in the main), with a few evening phone calls for more substantive discussions.
The big question was always would our different writing styles and pool of ideas blend into something coherent, or end up as a horrible mess? Aside from the four key points I listed, David really has to take the plaudits for getting the ball rolling and putting the first words down on paper. Whilst I was having hysterics over learning new software, he wrote the opening section of Alpha, together with the initial drafts of Bravo and Echo. So, with the scene set, all I had to do was pick up the baton and get writing. There’s also no doubt in my mind that having our primary characters so well defined allowed us to write in their voices, rendering our own less noticeable.
With the beginning written, and an ending in mind, the story development was addressed in chunks. Keeping the detailed planning down to sections allowed the story to develop, to hit minor targets, all while keeping the known ending in mind. This suggestion from David was a real winner as, despite being a planner in life, I’m a writing pantser. It successfully averted that overwhelmed feeling I’m inclined to get when looking at 26 unplanned prompts.
The other thing that Gaiman described in his article was the discussion process. How the exchange usually involved either a “I’ve had this great idea” or a “I really love the direction that new bit of writing you’ve done has taken”. There was genuine to and fro, with some ideas taking shape and flying, whilst others withered naturally under new or better ones. But it sounded like they had huge fun with it all, a feeling I definitely shared.
In short, if you’re going to co-write, you need to plan and to talk. But you must also respect your partner, so that ideas which don’t spark for you both are stepped over without fuss, while you trust that new and better ones will emerge from the process.
I can’t remember the context now, but I remember a joke (perhaps that should be with bunny-ears) where there are two children praying. One really goes to town, asking for blessings on parents and friends, world peace – the. whole. nine. yards. The other one waits until the first has finished and says “Ditto!”. It would be easy just to say “what she said”. Easy, but not entirely fair, given that Debs has been so kind to me, and also that it’s my fault that I dragged her into this co-writing malarky. (Although Debs got me started on the AtoZ thing, so I think that we are probably even).
It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t have to manage this via the sharing of floppy disks, although we’d have probably managed. Maybe.
Back to saying nice things about Debs. I really couldn’t have done this without her. Like most writing projects, we’d anticipated writing about 1000 words per letter of the alphabet, but by the end of the month we’d actually wracked up more than 40,000 – there is no way that I would have been able to get that written in the time available, nor would I have been able to edit them. But a problem shared truly is a problem halved. Debs also provided a huge amount of motivation, both directly and indirectly: directly by saying nice things about what I’d written, and indirectly by turning up with a blog-post or three and making me feel like I wasn’t pulling my weight. I’m trying to avoid words like ‘goad’ and ‘annoy’, because there was never any malevolence to this, and I never took it badly, but it still kept me to the straight and narrow path of getting words out of my head and onto ‘paper’. There were a couple of times when the added pressure of not wanting to let Debs down kept me at a writing session longer than I would have done if it had just been for myself.
Debs has picked up on the characters: initially Jack and Billy were sort of one character. There were a few ideas floating around in my head, one of which was to do with Bert from Mary Poppins – what if he really did have magic powers? What if he wasn’t quite human? What if…? Debs had mentioned something about a lob-lie-by-the-fire, and we had a conversation about that, and this led to Billy in due course, while Jack went down a different route. As was shown in due course, Jack is very much the man of action, in some respects the heart and soul of the operation. I thought that the Echo team should be a triumvirate at the top, and a planner and a tinkerer rounded things out.
The other thing that I thought worth mentioning was our approach to getting the posts written. Our styles seemed to merge quite convincingly, and I’m not entirely sure how that happened except that we both batted ideas back and forth and we both edited the whole thing (multiple times). More importantly, whilst we were a bit tight on some of our scheduling of posts, we had a plan. We divided the alphabet into thirds and roughed out what needed to happen in each third. Some things ended up being moved about a bit, especially with a couple of posts which really were overly long, but on the whole this worked very well. We also divided up the month fairly evenly – intially on straightforward basis, but there was some horsetrading. It became obvious that certain posts needed to do certain things, and some ideas meant allocating a post to one or the other.
But to close: what she said.
© 2019, David Jesson & Debra Carey