How to Co-Write a Novel. (Is that even possible?)
I originally wrote this post for a now-defunct blog in 2015. But people still ask me this question all the time, so I’m reprinting it here! —S.B.
The first co-written novel I ever remember reading was The Nanny Diaries by Emma Mclaughlin and Nicola Kraus. (And, hang on, it’s a New Adult novel, too! College girl at a crossroads? Crushing on the guy upstairs? Heck yes.)
That book was so clever and fabulous that I admired it immediately. And then I remember wondering about their collaboration. The funny voice seemed so consistent all the way through. And there were innovative things about the narrative that had to be one person’s idea. (Almost no character has a real name, except for the little boy. “Nanny” is the main character and the antagonist is “Mrs. X.”)
Did one of those women feel more ownership of the book? Did they secretly feud over that funny line in chapter three? And how did they celebrate when they hit the New York Times bestseller list?
In 2007 I co-wrote a cookbook with one of my best friends since middle school. That was easier to envision as a collaboration, and indeed it was smooth sailing. She wrote most of the pasta section. I did the slow cooker chapter. The cocktails? We tested them all together on one sloppy evening. We never argued.
At the time I thought, “this is easy because it isn’t my baby.” We’d sold the book to Random House almost on a whim, and I knew that writing cookbooks wouldn’t be my lifelong calling. Ergo, when my friend made changes I didn’t take it personally.
Fast forward a few years and Elle Kennedy asked me if I wanted to co-write a male/male hockey romance. We both wrote hockey series and admired each others’ books. It made sense as a collaboration.
My answer was “hell yes.” But I was more nervous this time. Could I let go enough to share a fictional narrative? What if Elle wrote a chapter and my gut argued, “wait. That’s not what was supposed to happen!”
But I shouldn’t have worried. Writing HIM was so much fun. We (mostly) plotted it out ahead of time, so that the major arcs were in place. (I can’t imagine co-writing without that step. But supposedly people do it.) Then we’d trade off approximately every 2000 words. And when I’d open that file to read what she’d done? It was like Christmas morning. There were the characters I had in my brain but they were doing fun things without my help! It was glorious.
When we were done, I was bereft. As I flipped back to another book I was supposed to be working on, it occurred to me that I was going to have to solve all the problems with it by myself. What kind of a bum deal is that?
Did we ever disagree? No and yes. Elle wrote a scene that was perfectly good. But I realized that the next bit would be even better if things happened a little differently. So I rewrote it in another file to try things out, and she very graciously said, “Awesome. Carry on.”
And there was a scene where our men have an argument and I rewrote that sucker like fifty times. I always do that with arguments in my own books, too. And she just laughed it off, leaving a note in the margin as we were finishing our revisions. “This is your favorite scene to revise, so I’ll leave you to it.”
Maybe it worked because Elle Kennedy is the most relaxed human on earth. Or maybe because our styles gelled. But I’d like to think that it also worked because I wrote more than ten novels before we wrote HIM. (Elle has written a multiple of that number.) So I’d done this enough times to know that getting emotional about this line or that scene is just not helping the book.
The result is a book I’m very proud of, with one unexpected result. When I read it now, there are portions where I actually don’t remember who wrote them. Either I’m addled, or that’s proof that it really worked.
In the time since I wrote this post, I’ve had two more collaborators. It’s been my privilege to write with Sarah Mayberry and Tanya Eby, too! And what I’ve learned by now is that every time you co-write a book with someone, you learn a lot about your own process. For example, I thought I was a plotter until I wrote with Sarah Mayberry. She is a plot ninja.
And Tanya and I have to work a little harder to blend our voices than in my other collaborations. But the result is so, so worth it. Together we created a series that I could not have created alone. It’s magical!