Writing is a collaborative process. Even if you write purely for yourself, you will be in dialogue with the world around you, your influences, other authors, and the context in which you write. No one can write anything in a vacuum.
There is already a lot of discourse on critique partners, beta readers, sensitivity readers, and content warnings, aimed at both improving an author’s work and improving their relationship with their readership. I’m not wading into this here. I am, however, going to talk about the process of co-writing a novella/novel with someone else, which I’ve often wondered about and thought was not for me… until this year.
My [Our] New Project
I’ve recently started co-writing a novella set in the Pagham-on-Sea universe. Pagham-on-Sea itself appears in one chapter, but the story as a whole is set in Brighton (the real place) in early 2016.
This came about after I had drafted the sequel to The Crows, which is set 8 months later and currently titled Thirteenth. In one scene of Thirteenth, Wes Porter is dragged along by his younger sisters to support Cousin Sasha, who is starring in a snuff film. It’s meant to be an introspective scene where Wes has a drug-addled revelation, so it could take place anywhere, but it actually takes place in a VIP lounge in an undisclosed location watching Sasha perform a series of brutal gorelesque acts through a one-way mirror.
I didn’t know anything about Cousin Sasha. She was literally a name I picked out of the air, and I wasn’t sure which branch of the family she even belonged to. She is now a Shaw purely for the tongue-twistery consonance.
In a Discord writing group channel on 10 January 2020, Nita Pan, whose short story Life and Death I really admired and whose other (draft-form, unpublished as yet) work really struck chords with me, posted a casual note she’d found for a dark romance story idea:
“He’s into snuff films and she eats people”.
I (half-jokingly) said this sounded like Sasha’s backstory.
We got excited by this, and as she enjoyed The Crows and its world (read her review here), she was up for writing it together since I didn’t want to steal her idea.
This was one of the best artistic decisions I’ve ever made (I wonder, when we’re done, how many will agree with that, but I stand by it), and has taught me a massive amount about the creative process and also really helped me with my own mental health.
This is how the noir slasher-romance, Eldritch Girls Just Want To Have Fun, was born, and why I consider 10 January to be Sasha’s real birthday. She’s a Capricorn.
I suck at writing summaries and this is still in early first draft stages, but here goes:
Eldritch Girls features an erratic hitman from Chicago, Tosh Haraldson, who arrives in Brighton (UK) to look for his missing sister. Tosh is the disgraced son of an Orthodox priest with a boatload of issues, a snuff film enthusiast, and has a nasty tendency to stab people with scissors. A previous employer puts him in touch with a snuff film producer in Brighton so Tosh can earn some cash while on his family quest, and ends up on the radar of the enigmatic David Wend, an eldritch gangster with a wayward niece.
Sasha Shaw, currently under the watchful eye of monstrous Uncle David, is a human-passing eldritch horror and attention-starved, easily-bored professional dancer, sick of Gentlemen’s Clubs and bar work, limited in job prospects by her most recent restraining order. Considering herself an avant-garde performance artist, Sasha enjoys performing brutal Goreleseque acts with power tools (including a chainsaw) where the blood isn’t fake and the soundtrack is nearly always ABBA.
When Tosh meets Sasha at a gory snuff film audition, he knows there’s something different about her, and it’s not just the fact she can do things to people with a dentist’s drill that have to be seen to be believed. Repeatedly warned to stay away from her by both the Producer, who sees her as a major asset, and her dangerous uncle whose side business involves a lorry full of human organs, Tosh knows that doing anything about their sexual tension is risky to the point of suicidal… but Sasha Shaw always gets what she wants, and what she wants is Tosh Haraldson.
Is there any hope for this twisted Romeo and his dark Juliet, or will he end up as a prop in one of her films?
Co-Writing: The Process
- Establish your hard/soft limits with your co-writer(s) and ensure that everyone respects each other’s boundaries.
I’m not going to lie, if I had known how intense this was going to be, I probably would have thought twice about it. I am not known for my willingness to share. But fortunately, I am writing with exactly the right person not just for the project but also who tessellates with my personality really well, and that has made it such a brilliant experience (so far!).
Trust is key. Our Discord group has a trigger warning channel where we laid out the things that our work contains and the warnings we ourselves need, so that we could be more mindful of the topics we openly discuss in the general chat channel, and what to expect from work swaps.
I personally don’t need Trigger Warnings, but I do appreciate a bit of a head’s up on content depending on how my mental health is doing, which I would describe more as my hard and soft limits. Nita had already done the same thing, so we were already familiar with each others’ boundaries and had been talking long enough for that sense of trust to be already established.
When we started writing together, it was really important to lay these out again and as we outlined just check in with each other to make sure that suggestions were not going to become problematic in the writing/reading stages.
- A shared, editable document is the way forward, BUT… how comfortable are you with your co-writer watching you write?
As I think most of us who write know, a draft, especially the very first one, is not a finished product that you can professionally distance yourself from to sell. There is nothing like someone else watching you bleed it onto a page to make you realise how vulnerable you can be in those initial stages of drafting.
If you are the kind of writer whose first drafts are tightly plotted, well planned and edited as you go, so are very clean and much closer to the end product than someone else’s, then you will obviously need to take into account that your co-writer may not write this way, and may feel differently to you about the writing process.
We have a shared Google doc for this draft so that we can get used to each other’s writing styles, make comments in real time (there’s a time difference of 5 hours plus different work schedules to write around), and see where these sections are going.
Both of us tend to ‘pants’ around a basic outline in our own writing, and like to have the freedom to adapt things as we go along to hit the key beats. This means, when I wake up and check the doc, new stuff has appeared that potentially takes things in a slightly different direction to the one I thought it might go in, and I might need to slightly adapt my section to follow on from it.
I absolutely love this part of the process, because it keeps me challenged and thinking about the story from different angles. It’s also proof (to me) that this is a much stronger story than it would have been if I’d written it alone. Since we both think in very similar ways, we bounce off each other really well, and that also helps.
However, there are times when we both open the doc together, and one of us is writing while the other one is thinking, and may or may not be watching in real time as a section gets written, deleted, scruffily sketched out with gaps for dialogue thrown in, etc.
Consider before you start how comfortable you are with letting someone watch you write like this, and if you start out thinking it’s okay but this changes for you later – or if there are sections you really don’t want to draft in full view – have another private doc to do that in.
Personally, I haven’t used a private doc very much except to store cuts from the main one, and the time difference often means we are online at different times anyway, so that gives us both space. I think we both enjoy the times when we can watch each other’s drafting/word vomit processes, and that really helps, but it might not be the case for everyone. Nita has a separate fluff scene doc that she shared with me too, where she dumped a load of soft, sexy scene snippets that might not be in the book but which show that side of their relationship, and this is one of my favourite things to read… I love our messy murder-babies.
- How comfortable are you working on certain personal topics with your co-writer(s) and/or being open about any mental health impacts your story’s topics might have?
Nita and I have both been open about our respective mental health issues from the start, so if you don’t know your co-writer well this would be an important thing to broach if your story is straying into difficult territory.
Letting someone watch you draft plays into the trust issue again, of course. It depends entirely on the project, but you might find yourself writing experimental scenes that (a) won’t be in the final cut but help you explore situations, characters and the world, and (b) may end up exploring topics very personal to you. You need to be able to do this without worrying about judgement or potentially hurting/upsetting your co-writer.
Communicating this is key, and this is also where a separate document might be useful. Don’t censor yourself at the start of the process, but do be mindful of the impact your drafts might have on both you (as the exposed or vulnerable person) and the person/people you are writing with.
Eldritch Girls is, by its very nature, the mental equivalent of a rage room with added steamy softness and wish-fulfilment bonuses.
If you are also writing within a “rage room” space, even (or especially) alone, then it’s good to exercise caution and self-care because without the right tools and support this can sometimes be detrimental to your mental health rather than good for it. In our case, it’s been (so far) very positive and cathartic, but we also both have good support systems and tools from previous and/or current therapy sessions. We also check in with each other about how we’re doing, which helps not to take each other’s mental health for granted and to make sure that we’re both in the right head-space for the story (and life in general).
If your project is doing similar things, or you find yourself projecting something more personal into a character than you initially intended (such is the drafting process!) keep the lines of communication open (respectfully) with your co-writer and be honest about when you need to take steps back, have breaks, or just do something else for a while.
- How flexible are you at waiting during a project, and writing linearly versus out of order?
Here’s the thing: people write at different speeds and have various ways of coping with writer’s block. That’s fine. Be gentle and respectful with yourself and your co-writer(s). Additionally, if you and/or your co-writer(s) are disabled or maybe have a bad mental health day/week/month, then it may not be practical to set word count goals or even to write every day.
Figure out how best to work around these things as you go along and be prepared to be flexible.
If you are writing from different POVs, it is easier to slot it all together later, but you can end up with a lot of downtime while you wait for someone else to do their sections. This is not a criticism!! It’s just reality, and it doesn’t have to be frustrating.
Waiting can give you time to edit your own sections, work on other projects, or dive down rabbit holes of exploratory writing, like Nita’s gorgeously steamy fluff-sex doc. We have so much bonus material for the paperback [or a sequel] I can’t even tell you. Plus, even though the fluff-sex doc is not anything really to do with the main story, I think we’d both be a lot poorer for not having it around, and it’s really helping us figure out what their relationship could look like, how they are with each other when not in the throes of the plot, and where we want them to end up by the end. Equally, she lets me play with sections in Sasha’s POV that we’ve agreed will end up in Tosh’s, just so I can figure out her responses and inner world while that scene is taking place.
Nothing is a waste of time.
Meanwhile, even though I know we aren’t going to use a lot of it, or it’s definitely going to work better in Tosh’s POV not Sasha’s, I can write other scenes to see what the family dynamic of the Shaws looks like, bring in Easter eggs for The Crows and other Paghamverse stories, and hand that over to Nita to do her Thing with later. (Yes, a certain fate-obsessed cousin gets a dishonourable mention but doesn’t actually appear).
We also leave dialogue highlighted so the other person can come behind us and fill in with how their character talks, as I can’t get Tosh right (not being familiar with a Chicago accent or its dialectic inflexions) and Nita sometimes needs me to fill in the Cockney/Londonised East Sussex dialects.
So far, including outline notes and chapter headings, we’ve written around 35K words in four weeks in the main doc and have the rabbit hole of sexy sweet softness as well. It’s not just taking our issues to bits in front of each other and bashing the hell out of human piñatas.
So, Is Co-Writing For You?
It may not look like this, but how well it works is ultimately up to the personalities involved and the nature of the project itself. If you choose the right partner for the right project, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work brilliantly and add an extra dimension to your writing.
It’s not for everyone, and these considerations are just food for thought.
Comment with additional tips if you have any! Would love to hear other perspectives on this, or hear if our process has helped you.