Friday, March 29, 2019

7 Tips for Collaborating on a Novel

By Dan Brotzel, Martin Jenkins, & Alex Woolf @CrawleyGroup

Part of The Writer’s Life Series

JH: Collaborating with another writer can be a great way to bring an idea to life, but it also comes with its share of challenges. Please help me welcome Dan Brotzel to the lecture hall today, to share some tips on how to work with another writer.

Dan Brotzel’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is due out in early 2020. He won the Riptide short story competition 2018, and was Asda Christmas Cracker gag champion, 2004. Martin Jenkins is a freelance writer, researcher and editor. His publications include an experimental novel A New Science of Navigation. Alex Woolf has written over 100 books for young people and old, both fiction and non-fiction, published by the likes of OUP, Ladybird, Heinemann and Watts.


Take it away guys…

Writers write together in all sort of areas – TV, film, drama, commercial copywriting, academia. So why not novels?

Well, on the face of it, co-writing novels looks like hard work for any number of reasons:
  • Twice as much time and effort to get ideas agreed, words drafted, edits approved
  • Two or more people to keep motivated and focused on a long-term project
  • The challenge of establishing and evolving a complex world of interacting characters and a fully-functioning plot across two or more heads
  • The risk of creative differences leading to friends falling out and work being abandoned
  • Potential arguments about who’s doing the most work and who gets the credit for what
…I could go on. In the last 30 years I’ve tried collaborating on several projects with friends and co-workers, but they all fell by the wayside till now. Now at last I can talk about how to make collaboration work – rather than just all the ways it can go wrong, which I used to be an expert in.

That’s because with a couple of pals, and after about two years of work, I’ve just launched Kitten on a Fatberg, a comic novel-in-emails about a very eccentric writers’ group. The plot is both poignant and farcical, with cosplay stalkers, exploding sheep’s heads and an alien mothership invasion, but also feuds, friendship, romance, and reconciliation.

Novels in collaboration: an overview

There are actually lots of collaborative novels out there. You see a lot of writing partnerships in genre fiction, especially YA, horror and crime/thriller. Stephen King has co-written novels, and the mega-seller James Patterson works with a stable of co-creators to help him keep up his extraordinary output.

In crime especially, there are lots of couples who collaborate, such as the husband-and-wife teams behind Nicci French, Ambrose Parry, Lars Kepler. Not forgetting Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, who devised the Martin Beck novels and founded Nordic Noir in the process.

Looking further back, Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Christo with a partner, Auguste Maquet, who struggled to get the credit he deserved for the rest of his life. Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford wrote novels together, albeit with a struggle. The surrealists and the Beats loved to collaborate on writing projects. And the bestseller The Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) was co-written by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall, who also penned two follow-ups about the later fate of the mutineers.

7 tips for collaborating on a novel 

So why did my latest collaborative project work when all the others failed? Based on our own experiences, and on my research into lots of other people who have co-written novels, here are my top tips on how to complete a novel with someone else.

Land on an idea that lends itself to co-writing

Collaborating is hard work, and life always wants to get in the way of the writing, so it’s vital to come up with an idea that works well when shared – and that all of you are really excited by.

This may explain why genre fiction works so well as collaboration – you have a ready-made library of templates and tropes to be inspired by, so the framework is easier to share across more than one mind.

In our case, the story has a kind of repertory feel to it. You’ve got a group of characters interacting via email, so it was easy for each of us to choose two or three to develop and give voice to. As we’ve all met a lot of writers and attended a lot of writers’ groups, it was a subject we all thought we could bring something to, and we all have a similar sense of humor that we thought could feature too.

Whatever the idea, though, make sure you spend time testing and stretching it. Thrash out as much as you can about plot, character, setting, structure, etc. before you get going in earnest. You’re all going to be spending a lot of time on this, so you need to be clear that you care enough about it to see it through.

Find a process that fits into your lives

A key problem to avoid if possible is one co-author becoming a bottleneck, because they haven’t had time to complete a section and no one else can do anything till it’s done.

The most common approach is for co-authors to write different POVs, and/or to write alternating chapters. Plotting the story out in detail and having a strong sense of structure up front is a good tip here. It means that, if you’ve suddenly got some time and your collaborator hasn’t, you could get ahead on a later chapter in the book because you have a good idea of what’s happening.

In our case, we each fired off emails in character into an email account that we set up for the purpose. There was no strict order to follow, so most of the time there was no need to wait around for someone else to finish their bit.

Over time we took a step back more often, meeting regularly to discuss narrative arcs and character resolutions. Those regular check-ins helped us to stay on track and stay motivated too.

Manage expectations from the start 

Having a big idea is important, but finding a way to work together that suits you all probably matters even more. If you have the time and capacity to write 5000 words a week, but your partner can only do 1000 words on a weekend, you have to (a) make sure you’re happy with that asymmetry and (b) find a way to make the most of the resources you have.

This might mean you taking on more characters or doing extra editing. Or it might simply be that both of you commit to a certain word count each week and make sure you hit it, then if you have time progress another of your writing projects.

Unless you’re well-established as a team, collaborative projects often work best as a supplementary project to your other writing activities anyway. And don’t forget – with two or three of you adding to the MS every week, the word count will still tick up surprisingly rapidly. For example, three people each writing 500 words a week will give you 72,000 words after 12 months.

In the case of our book, I had a bit more time than my co-authors some weeks. I used that time to maintain a master MS and a detailed message-by-message outline of what the characters were up to as revealed by each email they sent. This summary was very useful at the editing stage.

(Here's more on Some Musings on Co-Writing a Novel)

Don’t look for someone else to motivate you 

I realize now that one of the errors I made in previous collaborations was to expect someone else to nag and cajole me into getting the thing done. I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t have the self-discipline or follow-through at the time, so I thought I could outsource those qualities to someone else on my behalf.

It doesn’t work like that. For me, it wasn’t possible to collaborate successfully with someone else till I was able to see projects through on my own.

So look hard at yourself and your potential partners before you commit to a long-term project. Do you respect and admire their work? What do you think would happen if the two (or three) of you had a disagreement? Are they completer-finishers? And, just as important, are you?

Agree some basic rules

Almost inevitably, there will be creative disagreements as you go along. Whose edits trump whose? What if you don’t like the turn the story is talking? What if you feel someone isn’t pulling their weight?

One common way collaborators address the editing issue is to have each partner edit the other’s work as you go along. You might also agree that once something has been cut by someone – however much of a personal ‘darling’ it was to you – it can’t be put back in again; at the same time, no co-author can undo a plot point that was introduced by another co-author in a previous section.

In our case, because the characters were all so different and very voice-led, we would give each other occasional notes if we could see something that needed tweaking or we spotted a plot inconsistency, but it was left to the original creator to do the rework. As we got further into the project, however, there were points where we actually wrote in each other’s voices as we all had got to know all the characters so well.

But if this sort of discussion make you feel uncomfortable, it’s worth asking yourself if you’re collaborating with the right people. Personally, I’m a massive fan of my co-authors’ writing, and feel very lucky that they’ve agreed to write with me. And what they think of my writing matters more than what I think of it: they are my first and best readers.

(Here's more on Two Heads Are Better Than One (co-authoring a book for dummies)

Work out who’s doing what 

There are lots of jobs involved in putting together a novel. For starters, there’s research, plotting, drafting, rewriting, copyediting, proofing. Then there’s submitting to agents and publishers, negotiating a deal, marketing, promotion, and a whole lot more that comes after publication, too.

It’s useful to think about how you will divide up some of these tasks, and to play to your respective strengths. My background is marketing and journalism, for example, so I take on lots of the PR-type duties. Alex has made good use of his genius for plotting, and his extensive experience of dealing with publishers. Martin, meanwhile, is busy researching and planning our next book – the story of a harmless UFO cult with only a handful of members left.

Manage the business side carefully

Some publishers may be more cautious about collaborators, sometimes because they prefer the impact of getting behind a single name or brand. If one of you is better known than the others in the collaborative partnership, it’s worth thinking carefully how you would respond if you were asked to focus on one name for marketing purposes?

Bear in mind, too, that if one of you has an agent already, they won’t necessarily want to take on all your fellow co-authors if you go to them with a joint project. (Our book is a deal done directly with the publisher.)

In terms of contracts and commercials, our deal with Unbound for Kitten on a Fatberg is pretty much the same as if we were a single author: three signatures on one contract, all proceeds split exactly three ways; a profit-share rather than a royalty agreement. There’s no need to form a company, or even register for VAT (in the UK) if you don’t want to. Editors and agents will tend to treat you as a single entity; it’s down to you to decide if you will consult on all communications or if it’s easier to nominate one of you to be the key point of contact.

Platforms like Unbound are well-suited to collaborative projects because they are less conservative in their choices than many traditional publishers, and very open to work that crosses different media and looks at storytelling in new and unexpected ways.

Final thought: Collaboration can be magical! 

I want to finish on a strong positive note, because for me co-writing a book has proved nothing but pure pleasure. Writing can be a very lonely activity, but when you collaborate, you cease to be an I and you turn into a we. And, as in a marriage, no one wins unless you all do.

So you have to let go of your ego, of worrying about who wrote what, or who’s doing the most work, or whether you agree with someone else’s edits of your work. You’re a team now, and there is a magic you can weave that is greater as a whole than the sum of its any of individual parts.

As a Fiction University reader, you can get 10% off Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound) using the promo code KITTEN10


  1. Thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to share our thoughts Janice! Your site is an incredible resource for writers...

    1. Most welcome, and I wish you the best of luck with this fun project. Thanks so much!

  2. Hmm.. Interesting. But surely a novel needs A voice? And isn't the rest of the stuff done by agent/ editor?

    1. Hi Stewart, thanks for your comment! I guess it depends what you mean by voice here. Lots of novels are written from more than PoV - everything from The Waves to The Girl on the Train. Also, many successful collaborators talk about creating a 'third voice' which they each train themselves to write in; some even see their combined efforts as the product of a separate writer! Some of them do this without adopting different viewpoints. If by voice you mean the tonal fabric or essential flavour of the work, it must also be perfectly possible to achieve a consistent voice at that level with several viewpoints.

      As for 'the rest of the stuff'... in our experience, agents and publishers' editors expect you to deliver work that is as polished and complete (ie as edited) as you can get it before they even look at it and apply their own editing process. And more and more, authors are expected to take an active part in the promotion and marketing of their work. This is doubly so in the case of a crowdfunded book like ours, where we have to do the heavy lifting of selling enough pre-orders to get the book into production...