How Two Writers Can Produce a Novel Together—Lincoln Child on working with Douglas Preston

How Two Writers Can Produce a Novel Together—Lincoln Child on working with Douglas Preston
Our collaborative process has changed significantly in the twenty-five—alas, yes, twenty-five—years since we started writing novels together. Initially, Doug (who at the time had more experience writing professionally, albeit nonfiction) wrote the first drafts of the majority of the chapters. I (as a former trade editor at a New York publishing house who spent a great deal of time not only editing manuscripts but at times suggesting wholesale revisions to the underlying plots) wrote up the initial chapter outlines, and then rewrote Doug’s drafts. As time went on, this process slowly changed. Watching Doug turn my chapter outlines into actual fiction, I became more comfortable with the writing process myself—I’d dabbled in it throughout my childhood and adolescence but put it aside when I became a professional editor. And I’d like to think that Doug found something of value in observing how I revised or, at times, rewrote his early drafts.

As I began to write more chapters myself, and as Doug’s first drafts began to need less revision, our workflow started to change as well. We would put together an outline of the next several chapters of the current novel—perhaps ten, perhaps a dozen—and then bounce this outline back and forth, adding and emending until we were happy with where the book was going. One or the other of us would then self-assign groups of chapters. These assignments would not be random; rather, they would play to our strengths as authors. Doug, for example, is a whiz at writing action sequences, while I do better with description and conversation. Also, Doug is a world traveler who can, it seems, write credibly about almost any locale, while I, having worked as a programmer and systems analyst in addition to being a book editor, frequently tackle the more technical aspects of our “techno-thrillers.” Other times, we would take on certain directly related chapter sets. Doug might write a series of chapters involving an extended chase, for example, while I might write a sequence from the point of view of the antagonist. The one thing we definitely do not do is assign chapters serially—“You take chapter one, I’ll take chapter two.” Such resulting randomness of narrative would be a recipe for disaster. It works much, much better for each of us to tackle discrete sets of chapters that are, in some way or another, related.

A perhaps natural outgrowth of this is the way we now work today. Having each written several thrillers on our own may have something to do with it as well. While we continue to develop chapter outlines jointly, brainstorm what direction a novel should take, and revise one another’s prose, we each tend to “champion” (for want of a better term) certain books. This entails writing the lion’s share of a particular story and taking the lead on its development—again, always in frequent consultation with our writing partner. For example, I took the lead on Blue Labyrinth, a recent Agent Pendergast novel, while Doug almost simultaneously took the lead on The Lost Islandthe latest Gideon Crew novel we’ve published. Even with this system in place—which works very well and produces, we hope, seamless results—we still manage to get all four hands on just about every word we produce.

People often seem to scratch their heads and wonder how two writers can produce a novel together. It’s simple. If you get along with and respect each other, if you can keep your ego in check, and if you’re willing to accept criticism and learn from what your partner says (and what he or she writes)—the answer is, quite successfully and quite enjoyably, thank you!

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s latest novel Crimson Shore was published last month by Hachette.

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