Authors Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil explain the black arts of collaboration.
Most ways of telling stories require collaboration. Romeo and Juliet, Twin Peaks, Star Wars, Asterix – none of these stories would be possible without teams of people, sometimes with very specialised jobs, all working together.
Novelists are different. They may have editors and agents and friends and family to help them along, but the final authority lies with one person. A novelist doesn’t need cameramen or actors or illustrators: a novelist does the whole lot, sights, sounds, smells, thoughts and all, with words. So why would you want to share this power? And how do you go about co-writing a novel anyway?
We first started collaborating at school, editing the sixth-form magazine. After university we wrote comics and animation scripts together – our first book, Black Arts, started life as the outline for a graphic novel. So our answer to the first question is that we never actually set out to co-write novels. It just sort of happened. And once it had, we soon discovered that co-writing novels is very different from batting dialogue for a comic back and forth or arguing with animators over how many heads the alien monster should have. There are so many more words in a novel. It’s very easy to get bogged down – and being two people makes it even easier. We once spent two hours and nearly wrecked our friendship over the use of the word ‘lurch.’
It’s taken many years and hundreds of incorrect decisions for us to arrive at a process that works for us, at least most of the time. Like all good processes, ours has three stages: planning, writing and editing. The planning stage involves a lot of dog-walking. Dog-walking, or some kind of physical activity that can be done while talking, is vital for the planning stage. Working out a plot in detail from beginning to end involves a lot of long conversations, not to mention a lot of long, tortured silences. (At times like these it’s important to remember how much worse this would feel if you were doing it on your own: plotting is certainly made easier by having someone else to talk to.) When we do achieve a breakthrough, it usually triggers a whole new set of problems. While all this is going on, the brain gets tired. Exercise keeps the blood flowing, washing all those tired neurons with lovely oxygen. Dog-walking also confers a sense of low-level ‘background achievement’.
After a successful walk we try and get detailed notes down as soon as possible. It’s easy to think an idea’s so good we definitely won’t forget it – and then the next day it’s gone. Writing things down also helps draw a line under a day’s plotting: one of the pitfalls of the planning stage is just not stopping for as long as we’re in each other’s earshot. (This can make us bad company for our other friends – scowling into our pints, not contributing to the conversation for five minutes, before suddenly blurting out something like ‘I think Beth needs to know about Ravenscar’s devil collection!’) The planning stage ends with the creation of the Final Plan – a detailed, chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the entire story. We do the writing in alternate chunks (Andy chapter 1, Jon chapter 2-5, Andy chapter 6-9, etc.), so it is vital to agree on every last detail of the plot. Otherwise (and this has happened) Andy, writing chapter 6, may find that Jon has done something completely unexpected with chapter 4 that changes everything…
When it comes to the writing stage, being two people rather than one brings a couple of challenges. One is sticking to the plan: it’s not always possible, things that worked in note form can fall flat on the page, and sometimes there’s nothing for it but a quick emergency dog-walk or two. The other is hiding the fact that we are two people.
There are ways of getting around this, like using two or more narrators or protagonists, but none of these seemed right for us. Our technique is firstly, to bounce each chapter back and forth several times before getting to a version we both like; and secondly, to fight as much as possible. This may be the most important co-writing tip of all. It needs to be a clearly stated policy: something like, ‘We will fight, sometimes to the bitter end, but we will not let it destroy us.’
Sometimes you will disagree. There are two ways to approach this. First: pretend there’s no disagreement. Paper over the problem. The trouble with this is (a) you’ll both still secretly feel annoyed and frustrated, and (b) you won’t have come to a strong decision. If you both really care about the story you’re telling, this isn’t going to be good enough for either of you. The second way is to fight it out. Argue: get passionate: find out what you both really think and why you disagree. Try to stay civil – arguments where you end up slamming the phone down and not talking for the rest of the day waste a lot of time and emotional energy – but don’t let civility stifle the editing process. Sometimes there will be blood.
Letting your co-writer tear into that chapter you’ve worked on for days before finally getting it perfect (or so you thought) can feel a little like releasing a half-grown pet sparrow into the hawk enclosure. But it’s the only way we’ve found of getting a consistent voice through a whole book – making sure that each chapter is truly written by both of us. Luckily, we know each other well enough to keep the fights under control (most of the time), and we’ve both mellowed over the years, getting better at recognising when the other person is right – or, even harder, accepting that the right answer might be a matter of taste. In situations like this (and also when there’s a particularly chapter we both really want to have the first crack at) we resort to the final, supreme method of conflict arbitration: Stone, Paper, Scissors.
Black Arts (978-1-9102-0079-7)and Devil’s Blood (978-1-9102-0057-5) by Prentice and Weil are published by David Fickling Books, £7.99 each.