Collaborating on Novels: A Bed of Roses or Forest of Thorns?
It started as an experiment.
When we met, we were both journalists and got used to sharing and discussing what we were reading and what we were writing. We started to have conversations about the idea of writing together. It was all very speculative. Could two people write with one voice? Maybe we would do it one day. Tomorrow. Next year.
There’s always a reason to put off writing your novel. When you’ve done a bit more research. When you’re in the in your life. When you have more time. When you have the right place.
We were in completely the wrong place and time. When we started writing together, we were both full-time journalists with four children under the age of seven. The good side of this was that free time was a precious commodity and when we got some, we had to make sure we used it.
Way back in 1994, we read an article about the controversy over “recovered memory.” Women were going into therapy and recovering memories of appalling abuse in their past. As a result—and with no other evidence—family members, friends, or neighbors were sent to prison. Were these memories true? How could one tell?
As human beings, we thought: what a painful story. As writers, we thought: what a terrific idea for a new kind of psychological thriller.
Since we’d had the idea together, we thought this was the book we should write together.
Then we had to decide how to do it.
We fumbled our way to the only method that worked for us. We spent months working together: talking, planning, researching, making notes, drawing maps. But when we started writing, it was different. We’ve never written a single sentence together. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, we don’t write with small children running around. Sean writes in a shed in the garden and Nicci writes up in the attic. But the method is the same. One of us writes a chapter or so, sends it to the other, who is basically free to edit, rewrite, cut, and continue writing, and then send it to the other and so on and so on until a first draft is finished.
Some people, looking from the outside, say this can’t work; this isn’t how writing should be done, and we agree. When we do our own writing, under our own names, we have entirely different writing styles, different interests, different imaginations. But the strange thing about collaborating is that we seem to become a new writer. That’s one reason why we took the name Nicci French – she’s a writer who’s different from either of us.
There are things to be said against collaboration.
It’s slow. It’s messy. It involved handing your newly baked prose over to someone else, not just to read (which is hard enough), but to rewrite. If you’re in a relationship that is slightly wobbly, we don’t recommend that you try to deal with it by writing a novel together.
We found, as we started the process, that we needed some rules.
- If one of us reads the other’s work and thinks it can be improved, don’t criticize; just make it better.
- If one of us gets the book back and finds that a sentence she loved has been removed, she is not – absolutely not – allowed to replace it.
- We never tell anyone – not close friends, not family members – who has written what. It would be like serving up a casserole we had cooked together and then saying who was responsible for which piece of carrot. It’s really missing the point.
What all the rules come down to, in the end, is trust. If writing together were a battle for control, if there were a sense that each was fighting for the particular book that he or she had in mind, then we would have had a huge row about two chapters into our first book and never written together again. God knows we, like every other couple, have plenty of stupid arguments, big and small. But we don’t have rows about the book. We both know that whatever the other person does is not for self-satisfaction – it’s all about what the book needs. But isn’t that true about relationships in general? In a relationship, nobody ever really wins an argument.
But maybe this all makes it seem too rational. After all, if writing is hard, writing in collaboration is really, really hard. There is a sort of madness to it.
There’s a psychological term called folie-à-deux (it can be translated as shared madness). It refers to a couple who meet and commit worse crimes together than they ever would have separately. Think Leopold and Loeb or Bonnie and Clyde. People ask whom we write for. For readers, of course. But also for each other. When it’s going well, we write to surprise each other, to shock each other, to spur each other on into entering dark places we might not have gone on our own. In a good way, mostly.
Nicci French is the pseudonym of English husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who write psychological thrillers together.