Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Guest Blogger: Anne Dayton on Working With a Co-Writer

Friend-of-the-blog Anne Dayton from Good Girl Lit is here to talk about one of the most difficult things in the whole entire world: writing books with a partner. And she should know, her awesome third novel with May Vanderbilt is now in stores: THE BOOK OF JANE, a modern-day chick-lit retelling of the Book of Job that Publishers Weekly called a "laugh-out-loud love song to New York City." Enjoy!

Anne Dayton:
The number one question I get when people find out I write with a partner is “how do you do that?”

The second question is usually “can I get her number?” (The answer is no. She’s taken.)

But people seem to be genuinely fascinated by the fact that I write with someone else, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little about how it all works. Hopefully this will help out anyone who’s considering working with a friend.

I honestly believe that writing with a partner can be a very smart way to go. I mean, each of you only has to do half the work, which is pretty awesome if you’re really lazy like I am. But beyond that, you’ve got two brains to draw on, and two sets of life events to draw from. If I can’t figure out how to make a scene work, May usually can. If a section is dragging and she doesn’t know how to fix it, I usually can come up with a solution. The vast expanse of blank white paper at the beginning of a book makes me break into hives, but May is awesome at coming up with great first lines. We balance each other out.

In a writing partnership, you’ve got someone invested enough in the book to tell you if what you’ve just written is total crap. Few friends are kind enough to do this for you, but someone whose name will end up on the cover of the book has a vested interest in making sure the joke about sausages that you think is totally hilarious (it really was) never sees the light of day.

On a practical level, here’s how it works: We meet once a week for writing group. (Yes, we call it group, even though it’s just the two of us.) We alternate weeks, so one week it’s May’s turns to write and my turn to watch America’s Next Top Model and pick lint from my navel, and the next week I’m on while she’s eating bons bons. On our appointed week, we write 10 pages, then at writing group we discuss what happened in the last ten and plot out the next ten. It’s a system we totally made up on the fly back when we didn’t know what we were doing, but it works for us. But the main reason it works is because we have established a set of rules and stick by them. The rules are as follows:

  1. Our friendship comes first. May and I decided on day one that no matter what happened with our writing, we were friends first and writing partners second. Relationships are the most precious thing we have in this life, and no amount of success is worth sacrificing a good friendship for. (And, let’s be honest, most of us who write are strange enough that we should be grateful for the friends we have).
  2. No pride. Another thing we decided early on is that if I hate what May wrote, I can take it out. If she thinks what I did doesn’t work, it’s gone. It may hurt to see a passage I slaved over or a joke I think is funny get cut, but I trust her judgment, and the book will be stronger for it.
  3. Nothing gets in the way of writing group. Okay, truthfully, a few things get in the way of writing group—vacations, illness, and getting married are all acceptable reasons to delay group (though the last one only works once). But for the most part, we meet once a week, every week. We both clear our schedules and talk about whatever project we’re currently working on. We both have busy lives, and it’s easy to let things slip. Writing group never slips, because in this business, persistence is half the battle.

Obviously, I think there are good reasons to consider a writing partnership, but it’s not for everyone. Writing is a very internal and personal thing, and sharing your innermost thoughts and rough drafts with anyone can be intimidating. And there are practical concerns too, like not wanting to share the money (ha!) and the glory (ha ha!) when your work is published. If you’re considering writing with someone else, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

*Do we want the same thing? If your goals are different, or if you have different plans for getting there, it may not work. Likewise, if you want to write serious literary fiction and she wants to write erotic vampire romances, it’s probably not a good fit. That’s ok.

*Do I like her clothes? Ok, maybe you don’t need to wear the same brand of jeans, but you want to make sure you’re working with someone whose taste you trust. Fortunately for me, my partner is cuter and blonder than I am and dresses better than I do. But if I hated her style—I don’t really mean her clothes here, more her manner of speaking, her attitude, her writing—than I would have a hard time committing to a writing partnership.

*Am I a control freak? Obviously, this won’t work. You can’t control everything someone else does.

*Can we put our friendship aside and deal with each other as business partners? This may seem like it contradicts rule #1 above, but it’s really a complement to it. Conventional wisdom says that you should never go into business with someone who you’d like to remain friends with. And in many ways, selling and publishing a book is a business endeavor. But if your friendship is solid, you can trust each other enough to know that even if you disagree about a contractual point or a plot issue, you can still be friends at the end of it.

*Am I in this for the long haul? Are they? You may decide you want to do your own thing after one book, and that’s fine, but if you quit halfway through said book, it could cause problems, to say the least. And it’s going to take you a long time to get the toilet paper out of the trees when they TP your house out of spite, especially if it rains. You don’t want to be digging clumps of wet toilet paper out of your bushes six months from now. If you can’t commit to finishing a project with someone, it might be better not to start.

Getting a partner is the best thing that ever happened to my writing. If you’ve ever thought about it, I hope this will be enough to get you thinking. Good luck!


Liz said...

Thanks for sharing thoughts on working with a co-writer. I co-wrote a newsletter with a friend for almost two years. It was a great creative partnership until she moved from the cornfields of Indiana to the "O.C." Not being in the same location killed our business.

For us, long distance co-writing didn't work. The synergy and creativity just didn't flow via the internet like it did when we were at my house or hers.

The internet is great for many things, but in my experience, it doesn't work well for co-writing.

phoenix said...

Anne: I am totally in awe of anyone who can be so non-controlling and am jealous of a friendship that can withstand the strain. Kudos to you and May!

Nathan: A practical question about how agents view collaborating clients. Happens a lot in non-fiction, of course, but more rarely in fiction. Do agents care about the dynamics? Or do they treat a collaborative effort the same as any other?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, it is more common in nonfiction. As an agent I think I would trust that the writers could work out any differences, although of course the possibility for messiness is there. But really I think I'd go in the same way I would with any other client.

LD said...

Thank you, Anne, for explaining your experiences writing with a partner. My friend and I just started on a new project together and I was worried about the friendship getting strained, but so far it is going well. I sent this blog link to her so she can read it and gain the insight you have on this as I have.

original bran fan said...

I've been writing with a friend for ten years. We've written four novels together. We do it a bit differently. We make a detailed outline, broken into scenes. Then we divide it up--a third for him, a third for me and a third we do together. After we have a solid rough draft, we edit each other like crazy. The third-third-third split happens organically. There are scenes I really want to write, scenes he really wants to write, and scenes that we either both want to write or neither of us want to. For those, we sit at the computer side-by-side and hammer it out together.

It helps that we share a brain. We finish each other's sentences even when we're not writing together. When people read the finished project, they hear a single voice.

Funny--we had an agent who wouldn't even READ our manuscript unless we submitted it to her under a single name. We're not talking representation. She wouldn't even read it unless we made up a pseudonym.

Anne Dayton said...

Liz, long distance is definitely tough. May (my co-author) recently moved, and it is so much harder now.

Bran Fan, it sounds like you have a great system! And that's really funny that the agent wouldn't even look at it without a single name. We've never a problem, but you know how agents are. Oh, hey Nathan!

Charity said...

Thank you so much! My critique partner/friend of +8 years or so and I have recently partnered up on a YA manuscript. The original raw material for this one was mine, but my friend helped me with extensive revisions (as in she took it from third to first POV--it was a book that needed to be in first).

We’re wondering how to approach a fresh story together. I’ll be sending her this link. Thanks again to you and Nathan.

Luc2 said...

Very interesting, Anne. Thank you.

Somehow, the idea of co-writing has always appealed to me. I'm a team-player, and writing is quite solitary. I first want to get more comfortable with my own skills before I'll ruin the work of someone else.

MelodyO said...

Anne, thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with us.

This is a timely topic for me, because a few months ago I asked a someone to co-write a novel with me. She emailed me to tell me she was giddy with excitement and thrilled to have the chance to work with someone else...and then she never wrote back ever again. Heh. That was possibly a good thing.

Jan Whitaker said...

Hi, Anne. Have just learned about Nathan's blog and was thrilled to see your article. I got started in fiction through a collaborative writing project almost 4 years ago. We started with 4 in the group, sacked one because of mis-aligned goals, and finished up the first draft with three. Naively we didn't know about rewrites/revisions/etc. But we learned a lot! I did a podcast interview for last year, program 16, The Power of Three.

We started a new project, but one person dropped out. To make a three legged stool for strength, we added a new person. We did finish the draft, but the two of us from the original team found #3 to be 2 years behind us in development. It was a struggle.

One thing I will suggest to others who may be considering collaborative projects: find a co-authorship agreement, modify it to fit your project, and get signatures. Someone will need to be deemed the point of contact with agents/publishers. It will also ensure that if things go sour, the contributions of each person will remain part of the work and not be pulled out of spite. We also included relative returns from any advances and royalties in the document.

If you haven't started writing because you don't think you can hack it alone, a partner is a way to get started and have fun at the same time.

Honore said...
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Honore said...
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Honore said...

Wow, it's refreshing to hear that co-authoring works for some. I co-authored two creative non-fiction books (repped by Curtis Brown, as it happens -- the NYC office -- and both published by Berkley). Although my co-author and I had been chums since middle school (played up by the publicity folks, of course -- great human interest story,, pals since age 12!! Ain't that swell?), it became such an incredible drain between writing the books together (long-distance)after over a decade of maintaining an on-and-off long-distance friendship (turned out we didn't have as much in common as we thought we did when it came down to it, with world-views, or writing styles and responsibilities, or the manner in which to treat readers, journalists, and handling publicity stuff in general.) Plus, we had a heavy-duty interactive book-related website which took up an enormous amount of time, energy, and money -- and we were very strongly pressured by everyone involved to maintain it non-stop. Worst of all, right from day one, responsibilities, either with the books or the website, weren't being divided evenly, no matter how much the matter was discussed. (I don’t know about my former agent, but right from the beginning, it was very clear to my editor without anyone even mentioning it to her. Yet, she did nothing to help, although she mentioned it frequently to me, and we would discuss it at length.) And it was quite clear that everyone on the publishing end was playing favorites, which didn’t help matters any. So, by the time book two rolled around, everything crashed and burned, disastrous in every way imaginable. It was all extremely upsetting, and even long before that, the drain of it all (and having to continually put on a good face for my then-agent, editor, publicity guy at Berkley, etc) made me very seriously physically ill, and I've yet to fully recover, years after it all began (I was also going to grad school at the time on top of everything else, although I eventually had to drop out, my health was suffering so, and it seemed at the time that the books were more of a priority). The same thing happened with writing team at Berkley who had a book released the same time as ours -- we were all in our mid-20s at the time, with pretty much the same target audience. My co-author and I finally (and only very, very recently) smoothed things over more or less (at least insofar as we can cope with various problems which have arisen over the years, such as copyright infringement by others and that sort of thing), but, sadly, things will never be the same, and after seeing a side of her I didn't know at all even after all those years, can't say I'm sorry about that, really. (I'm sure she probably says the same thing about me.)

For years now, I've wanted to write a novel (solo), which has been on my mind for as long as I can remember, but after the co-authoring experience, I've afraid I have an enormous psychological block on getting past, say, page two, because the terror of shopping it around, after the possibility of having been stuck with a "You'll never work in this town again!" label is paralyzing. Even just saying to myself, "Oh, just do it for your own enjoyment" sometimes sends me into anxiety attacks, and I stare at a blank screen for hours on end, just getting upset with myself.

So, never again will I co-author anything, but I really don't know if I'll be able to write a book on my own, because of the damage co-authoring did. Truly, although both books did better than I ever thought they would (and continue to sell well after six years after the release of book one), if I could, I truly would go back in time and not do it again, not for any amount of money (ha -- there certainly isn't enough involved to have make it worthwhile, really, especially considering what the experience did to my health), or popularity, or how large a cult following. Even getting a rave in the Sunday Times Book Review by P.J. O'Rourke (which I consider an even larger accomplishment than getting published in the first place), or making a couple of other celebrity fans, or having absolute strangers know my name, will never make up for for the horrors of the experience.

You and your partner must both have the patience of saints and must be true kindred spirits -- I'm in awe of you both! (From what I've gathered, even Jimmy and Rosalind Carter nearly killed each other whilst writing the book they co-authored, and I can’t imagine either of them being cross with each other!)

Well done, Anne and May! And Nathan, hope you're having a great vaca -- I'm sure you deserve it! You have a swell blog!

miller580 said...

Thanks for the post. It was timely because I have been sorta talking with another writer to team up on a project...and this gives me (us) a sorta starting place. Thanks again.

Ithaca said...

Interesting. I co-wrote a book and found an agent and for four months he avoided contacting my co-author. I said I thought my co-author should handle revisions because I wanted to get on with another book and he said he thought publishers would think I washing my hands of the project. My co-author was not exactly easy to deal with -- sort of a Hunter Thompson of our time -- but it was the business side that was hard to deal with.

Heather said...

I co-wrote a novel with my mom. Dorky as that sounds, it was amazing.

Actually, I rewrote a novel she had written (at her request!) but it was a partnership; I sent her each chapter as it was completed and we consulted about all decisions and changes. Long phone call every week. (I was in America and she was in France.) The hardest part was doing a complete overhaul of the last five chapters (and thus the plot-arc of the book) but she was great about it. So, long-distance co-writing did work for me... but don't try it unless your mom is as awesome as mine.

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