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Partners in Crime: A Survival Guide for Co-writing a Novel

September 8, 2023

Co-writing can be a wonderful experience that doubles both productivity and creativity. That is, if some ground rules are established. Without them, a pair of writers may struggle to get through their project or even abandon it halfway. The success of a co-written novel depends on mutual understanding, planning, and respect. 

This article highlights some tips on how to successfully co-write a novel.

Know Your Audience

Before you settle on a plot or characters, discuss your target audience with your co-writer. Ask questions like Who are they? How old are they? What are they interested in? 

Writing for adults takes a different approach than writing for children. It also has different content specifications and reading levels. 

Once you know your audience and what they like, you can choose a genre for your story and outline the main points it will cover. Keep this outline vague and expand on it later.

Before you move on from here, create a one-sentence synopsis of your story. What’s it about? If you came across that synopsis online or in a bookstore, would you be curious and want to read more? Experiment until you find something that hooks the reader.

Set Clear Goals

Now that you have a basic understanding of your audience and concept, it’s time to set goals. What does each of you want to accomplish? Whether it’s to finish a project, win a literary award, or make a certain amount of money, knowing each other’s goals will give you direction. 

Discuss each of these topics and settle on an agreement:

  • Timeline: When do you want to finish your book? Create deadlines for each stage of the writing process. Be open about what you can commit to and stay accountable to the goals you set. Have a backup plan in case you fall behind or if one co-writer decides to drop the project.
  • Publishing: How do you plan to publish your book? Whether through traditional publishing, self-publishing, or digital platforms, have something in mind now and research the process you’ll have to go through when you get to this stage.
  • Marketing: How will you market your book? Plan a strategy or decide to hire someone else to do this stage for you. Marketing could include social media campaigns, word-of-mouth marketing, advertising, book tours, or collaborating with known names such as celebrities or influencers.
  • Budgeting: Writing a book can be costly. Determine what you’re willing to spend and on what. Some examples of expenses are software, promotions, editing, typesetting, publishing, and cover design.

Divide and Conquer

Pinpoint each other’s strengths and weaknesses and use those to divide the work. Maybe one co-writer is better at creating dialogue and the other is better at prose. Whatever the case may be, use each other’s strengths to your advantage and find ways to go around or strengthen your weaknesses.

Once you’ve identified your abilities, use those to define roles. This will guide your collaboration and prevent confusion.

Here are some approaches to dividing the work:

  • Simultaneous writing: Co-writers will sit together and write at the same time, bouncing ideas off each other as they go. This is better done if both are in the same physical place.
  • Two writers, one editor: Having one editor will ensure that the final draft will have a uniform voice.
  • Two writers, two editors: Each writer edits the other’s work. New eyes and perspective can improve the quality of each piece of writing.
  • In chunks: Dividing the story chapter-by-chapter or chunk-by-chunk allows you to (1) make sure each section is tackled by the writer whose strengths are more suited to them (for example, if someone takes all the action sequences and the other takes the calm ones) or (2) alternate sections in a steady, intentional pattern that adds to the story (for example, a book that alternates between two characters, and each writer takes one character).
  • Outliner and writer: In this scenario, one writer is better at plotting and crafting a story, while the other is better at writing prose if they have a reference. Make sure the outliner has other responsibilities once the book is finished so that the weight of the project is equal.

Develop an Outline

Now that you have clear goals and responsibilities, it’s time to draw up an outline. Brainstorm to expand on the main points from your rough outline and find out more about your story. To use this as a guide while writing, create a list of chapters or sections with descriptions including any important details, key events, and character interactions.

Build Your World

This is the fun part! You get to create the universe surrounding your story. Focus on defining the rules of the world and developing its history, geography, societies, and cultures. Worldbuilding can take a lot of time, especially if you are writing a fantasy novel. 

Co-writing offers a unique advantage here: you get to dedicate two imaginations to this process. 

This means more ideas, more complexity, and the ability to always have a check on reality. Does this sound logical? Is this consistent with everything else we’ve written? Make sure to keep track of everything as you build your world.

Sit back and relax. Let the ideas flow. Then have fun bouncing them off each other! Don’t stop until your world feels alive.

Stay Connected

Communication is important. A lack of it can mean you lose track of what your co-writer wants for your story, what they are working on, if any new developments have occurred, and the progress and vision of your project. 

First, decide how you want to communicate – email? Phone call? Video call? Meeting up at your house or a coffee shop? 

Then, decide the nature of your discussions. Will you each prepare a document beforehand and take turns going over everything? Will you decide on a topic before each meeting and only discuss that? You can even split things up. Maybe in-person meet-ups are more casual talks with writing discussions that emerge organically as your conversation flows and emails are a way to formally cover lists of important tasks and communicate progress.

Consider creating a shared calendar with deadlines for tasks and a shared document or platform account with your project for easy access by everyone involved.

When creating deadlines, consider marking milestones for drafts, revisions, and edits. Try to stay accountable to these, but be understanding of your partner if they fall behind. Keep up communication and inform your partner ahead of time if it looks like you won’t be able to meet a deadline. 

Create a Professional Environment

Co-writing a novel is a huge commitment. Honor it, and recognize the value of each other’s time and effort. If you start out this journey with a friend, exercise a new mindset together. This is a professional setting, separate from your friendship. Don’t let the two worlds mix. Treat each other with the respect you would treat a coworker at your job.

If complications arise, leave your ego at the door. This is a collaborative project. It will get messy if either co-writer is unwilling to consider different opinions or set aside an idea. If things get too heated, take a break before meeting again.

Writing is often a deeply intimate and vulnerable process – sharing ideas isn’t easy, especially if they are rejected. Give your co-writer a safe space to express themselves. Encourage every idea, no matter how crazy it may be. Instead of arguing about differences, try to challenge each other to solve problems, create new scenarios, and do the best you can.

Remember: the project belongs to the both of you. Trust is needed to see it through.

Establish a Routine

Decide how you will approach each writing session. From there, set up a routine that you can both stick to. Here are some things to consider:

  • What tools will you use? (Software, platform, apps, notebook and pen)
  • When will you write? (Write while together, write at the same time each day, each has your own schedule, etc.)
  • How will you decide what to focus on each writing session? 
  • How often will you communicate?
  • How will you handle meeting or missing deadlines?

Consistency is Key

Before you start writing, decide which POV you will use. Once you figure out content, play around with tone to find something you both like. What you’re aiming for at this point isn’t perfection, but coherence. A successfully co-written novel is uniform in voice, tone, mood, setting, conflict, and character details.

Merge your writing regularly to make sure the story is progressing cohesively. If you find any inconsistencies, mark those down to correct during the editing stage.

Take A Break

After each draft, you deserve it. Both of you need to step back and set the project aside for a time – whether it’s a week or a few months. Return to it together with fresh eyes and an open mind.

Remember, co-writing is like any partnership. With understanding, planning, and mutual respect, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences for any writer. Dive in with an open heart and mind, and let the magic unfold.

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