On cowriting

Sometimes when I see a book that has two authors, or a whole series penned by, say, a husband-and-wife team, I often wonder what the process is like. That is, how do they both manage to finish a coherant story AND still like each other in the process?

I’m not sure why this is so mystifying to me, because I’ve done a bit of cowriting myself, and the collaborative process that happens when you bring good editors or critiquers to your work is similar to cowriting, too. This is on my mind today because I’m co-writing a story with a friend, and I let the story fester on my hard drive for :: gulp:: more than a year. I feel like the world’s worst cowriter, and this obviously presents one of the main pitfalls of cowriting — the interdepency the two writers have on one another.  I also have sort of a control freak nature when it comes to my writing, so cowriting is a good way to learn to let go. Remember how annoying it was to play with kids who would say things like, “Now I’m going to do this, and then YOU’LL do this, and then I’ll do this . . .”? Well, I have to constantly fight the urge NOT to be like that kid.  I’ve refrained from leaving long notes at the end of my sections when I send it back to my friend that read something like, “I was thinking a, b, c, and d should happen next, and when you’re done, send it back so I can add e, f, and g.”

Sure, these sorts of instructions might help in forming coherence or structure, but being able to let go of that control freak alterego is also one of the most exciting and exhilerating parts of cowriting. (There’s always the second draft for improving coherency). No matter how much self-discovery happens while writing alone, there’s still nothing quite like the surprise of seeing what someone who doesn’t live inside your own head might do (because, let’s face it, no matter how unique and varied your characters are, they all came from your own little head).  Some other benefits of cowriting include

  1. Drawing on the strengths of two writers instead of one. We all have our weaknesses as writers, but more than one writer working together may be able to patch up a lot of those gaps.
  2. Having extra accountability. Some of you may be wondering what kind of accountability I had if I could go for so long without working on something. It helped that both of us were going through a lot of life transitions and had some understanding about why the writing didn’t happen. But let me tell you, it felt terrible to tell my cowriter I hadn’t written anything else yet, and feeling terrible is a good motivator to get writing.
  3. Having an instant editor/critiquer/reader. Your cowriter has as much invested in this piece as you do, and s/he is going to speak up when something’s not feeling right.
  4. Having a partner in bliss and agony. You know how other people’s eyes glaze over when you start going on and on about the novel you’re writing? Well, guess what! Your cowriter actually likes hearing your brilliant (and not-so-brilliant) ideas–especially if you include a healthy dose of letting her know how brilliant her ideas are, too. Likewise, you have someone to commisserate and brainstorm with when you feel totally stuck.
  5. You’re probably less likely to fall into the pit of, “Gah, this story sucks so bad!”, since you wouldn’t say something like that to a friend. However, you might be at greater risk for aggrandizing the story beyond its proper proportions, when the two of you are so willing to feed one another’s egos. 😉

2 Responses to On cowriting

  1. spoonbridge says:

    I’ve always wondered about cowriting as well, how two different writers cooperate with a single work without a clash in styles. I have read some books in which the divide was obvious but others where it was seamless and I’m sure its very difficult. I think it could be very rewarding, though, with another person to complement each others weaknesses and strengths.

  2. I’ve seen a lot of cowritten books, but I can’t think of very many that I’ve actually *read*. One of them that I read was told from two alternating perspectives, and I assume that one writer wrote one perspective and another wrote the other. I think that’s a really cool way to do cowriting because both characters achieve truly different “voices,” which is hard to do when you’re a single writer creating a story with multiple narrators.

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