Take in laundry, before you take on a partner (proverb)
How can two people write a novel together? How did you decide who would write what? And what happened when you disagreed?
My co-author Elaine and I published our debut novel ‘Eight of Cups’ under the pseudonym Mirren Jones in 2008. When we are out and about at ‘Meet the Author’ events, members of the audience are at first full of questions about the practicalities of co-authorship – the what, where, when and how of writing as Mirren Jones. Very quickly, however, the talk turns to interpersonal issues – who’s in charge, and what do you argue about? It’s an intriguing phenomenon – a fiction-writing partnership.
Successful song-writing partnerships roll off the tongue – Lennon and McCartney, Rogers and Hammerstein. There are friends who have become catwalk collaborators – think FrostFrench. Even in the volatile environment of the professional kitchen, The Roux Brothers and Two Fat Ladies managed not to overheat while working in collaboration. Joint authorship of academic and non-fiction books is par for the course.
However, when it comes to finding role models for friends who could develop and sustain a fiction-writing relationship, examples are thin on the ground. Up here in Scotland there are Linda Watson-Brown and Maria Thomson writing as Grace Monroe, veterans of four co-written crime novels. Further south, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French manage to combine marriage and their obvious literary talents, spawning at least eleven Nicci French thrillers to date.
Where are the others?
Novelist Agatha Christie had obviously given the notion of collaborative writing some thought – before she dismissed it roundly with: ‘I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator. Each believes he gets all the worries and only half the royalties.’
Tom Clancy went even further, suggesting that: ‘Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act’.
When we began our first novel in 2005, my co-author Elaine and I already had a track record of collaborative writing. We’d produced two non-fiction handbooks on Facilitation in Primary Care, co-authored academic papers, and designed a range of training materials for healthcare professionals.
What had started out as a line-management relationship some eight years before when we first met at the University of Dundee, had developed over time into a strong friendship and professional partnership, as we moved into our own private organisational development consultancy. In our personal lives, we’d helped each other through some tricky times, including Elaine’s marriage break-up. Why would collaborating on a novel be any more of a challenge than anything else we’d done before?
There wasn’t a guidebook to collaborative fiction-writing. No longer in the academic department or the lecture room, there were no conventions for behaviour. Add to that a series of hurdles such as geographical distance, the demands of a horse stud and the moving back home of our several boomerang children, and we were traversing uncharted territory.
The story of our novel starts when I moved from Perthshire to live part-time in the Outer Hebrides where my husband was contracted to work for two years. In his concern that I adapt to my new way of life, he suggested that I ‘take this opportunity to write that novel you’ve been banging on about for years’. I couldn’t ignore the challenge.
At about the same time, I went to a university reunion, meeting up with friends whose lives had gone in a variety of directions since graduating from Edinburgh in the 1970s. That evening over dinner, with tongues loosened after a few glasses of particularly well-chilled Chablis, one of the group made a shocking revelation. It would be the seed for my novel. And I say ‘my’ because that was how ‘Eight of Cups’ started its life.
On my next visit to Fife, to see my friend and business partner Elaine, I mentioned the book. At home, suffering from a chronic fatigue type of illness, her life seriously curtailed, she could immediately see that this was another potential joint venture, something she could do while confined at home.
It was our first point of negotiation – the first of many! My first instinct was to say ‘no - not this time. This is my very own thing’. Nevertheless, in the spirit of friendship, I did agree to produce a tentative first chapter as a possible starting point.
Two years later the first complete draft of our co-authored novel ‘Eight of Cups’ was ready for checking and revision.
So how did we do it?