How We Write Together As Co-authors

J. L. Harland • July 29th, 2022

An open notebook and pen sat on a desk. Thanks to Yannik Pulver from Unsplash for the image.

Meeting readers and talking to them has been a real joy for us these past few months since What Lies Between Them (Dixi Books) was published. Some of the big questions have been ‘How does it work? How do you write together without wanting to kill each other? We know we’re lucky and that other writers may not find the practice as easy as we do. In this post we thought we should talk about how we write together. Our process – our way of getting those words on the page.

The first thing is the idea. If you are a writer, you know as soon as you get an idea, you’re already starting to form a story in your head. What if this happened? What if this character did this? With co-writing you need to start with a shared vision. It’s a joint story and it must work as a partnership. Simple as that.

So where do the ideas come from and how do we decide what we are going to write? With WLBT we started with a vague idea. We knew the setting was going to be a university and we wanted a protagonist who was a little different. We can’t honestly remember why we decided on a Welsh Italian, Elin Fiorelli. It was probably because we both have friends and relatives who come from that community. Those contacts gave us access to memories and helped with the background research. Conflict is the heart of a story and Elin has both external and internal conflicts.

Our character building was the foundation of the story. We spent weeks talking about the characters until they became real to us. We both, at separate times, thought we saw Elin walking through Cardiff. To build our characters we start with a blank page, A4 or bigger if possible, and draw a circle in the centre. The name is the first thing. What does the name say about that character? What do we want to convey to the reader?

From this centre we draw lines and make notes. We each have a copy, so we know we have the same information. On these lines we fill out everything we know from physical characteristics to likes and dislikes and how that person would act in a certain situation. Of course, characters often surprise us when they reach the page. Flexibility is key to our process. We need to trust each other to do what is best for the story.

Working out the plot is the next phase. We have a beginning and an end and some key bits in the middle. We don’t write pages and pages of notes on the plot, but we do spend hours (in the pub) working out what is going to happen and discussing what’s next. We can usually manage to do about four chapters at a time, making vague notes in our separate notebooks. This is the exciting bit. We get a real buzz from this phase and look forward to the writing.

We take turns at writing the chapters, although if a scene needs something that we feel the other can add, we may swap about – whatever is best for the story. Sometimes things develop in unexpected ways as we are both inclined to wander a little from the plot. Extra minor characters or scenes may be required to carry the narrative forward. At this stage we just concentrate on getting the words on the page. (We’ll do another post on editing soon.) If all goes to plan, the story flows and almost writes itself. With our current WIP that’s what happened. We talk so much about characters, plot and motivation before writing that it’s easy to get that first draft down on the page.

Do we argue? Sometimes but not in an aggressive manner. We are both open to compromise and often can see where the problems are before anything arises. In fact, we are so in tune with one another that we both identify the same problem at the same time.

Every writer has their own way of working and co-writing is very different. We enjoy the process and recommend anyone to try it. All you need is a supportive colleague and an abundance of trust. It’s great fun.

Have you tried writing with someone else? How did it work out? Email and let us know.