By Melodie Campbell
To the elderly man in the khaki sweater who lifted his reading glasses to stare open-mouthed…
To the unknown person who gasped and knocked over a chair behind me…
To the woman with the stroller who stared in horror, and then wheeled her toddler frantically away toward the exit…
False Alarm Alert: The two middle-aged women whispering about murder in the Orangeville library were not fiendishly plotting how to do away with a tedious husband.
They were writing a murder mystery!
I’m perhaps best known for writing the screwball mob caper series, The Goddaughter. But I also write classic whodunits with my close friend Cynthia St-Pierre. Our first book, A Purse to Die For, was great fun to write. Our second with Imagin Books, A Killer Necklace, came out before Christmas.
Thing is, I live in Oakville and Cindy lives two hours away in Newmarket.
WRITING WITH A CO-WRITER
So many people have told me, “I could never write a book with another person.” I think they find it hard to imagine finding someone they could be compatible with. Here’s what I’ve found to be important:
THE FIRST HURDLE: DISTANCE
I’m not talking about a husband and wife team here. Most co-writers don’t have the advantage of living in the same house. Cindy and I don’t even live in the same city.
Much of what we do is by email and Skype. But every few months we like to get together to hash out plot problems in person. This means meeting somewhere in between. And where better, than at the place we feel most comfortable, that hallowed home for books, a library? (With apologies to the patrons we might have alarmed.)
It helps to pick a co-writer who lives close enough that you can meet with them every few months. But there are more important things than distance.
THE ESSENTIAL: STYLE
Step one is to find someone with a writing style close to yours.
Cindy and I met at a crime writing conference (I know. How cliché.) We were seated side by side at the dinner where awards were presented. She cheered for me when I won a small short story award. And that got us talking, and planning to meet again. A friendship was born that day.
Over the next year, we discovered we enjoyed each other’s fiction. Both Cindy and I write lean. We also have a love for quirky humour. And we both like to read and write light mysteries.
The trick with co-writing is to make your work seem seamless to the reader. No one should be able to detect where your writing ended and your co-writer’s began. This means making compromises. You both will be making compromises on writing style. Sometimes it’s just little things, like how to write and punctuate thoughts.
Ask yourself: are you the sort of person who can tolerate making compromises to your style for the sake of the team?
Obviously, choosing a partner whose writing you like is essential. If the partnership is a success, your styles will start to blend.
Yes, you need someone creative. That’s a given. But there’s more:
I’m Canadian. We recently had a federal election up here which toppled a long-serving government. After the votes were tallied, I heard journalists talking hopefully about the country returning to the ‘traditional Canadian values of kindness, inclusion and collaboration.’
I can’t think of better qualities to look for in a co-writer.
How many people in your life do you trust completely? How many outside of your immediate family?
Put that way, I can see a lot of readers immediately rethinking the whole co-writing thing. But believe me, if you are going to share the writing of a novel, you are going to need to have a great deal of trust in your partner.
I have complete trust in my co-writer I trust her financially. She would never cheat me out of shared royalties, not even a penny.
I trust her with our ideas. She wouldn’t run off with them, and use them for her own writing.
And most important (it may not seem that way, but believe me, it is) I trust Cindy to respect my writing. To not disparage it in any way.
Of course we have discussions on what needs to be added or changed in each other’s writing for our books. Sometimes, you may disagree. But the key word here is respect.
You must respect each other as equal writers from the start.
One thing I highly recommend: from the start, establish with your co-writer how fast you are prepared to work on the project.
Cindy and I write about 2000 words, and then hand off to the other. I’ll write one week. I’ll send the updated manuscript to her by email, and she’ll write the next week. So I’m writing on our project every other week. At busy times in our lives, there may be two weeks between handoffs, or even three.
This pace is something we’ve fallen into, and it wasn’t a problem for us. But I could see it being a problem in a situation where one person is still working a day job, and the other is retired. Or where one person is extremely keen because this is their only writing project at the moment, and the other has a deadline for another series looming. One writing team I know has admitted to me that this is a frustration.
Try to establish at the beginning of your partnership, how quickly you expect the other person to write their section.
I was trying to think of a different subtitle for this section. Basically, I am talking here about picking someone who is not married to their ideas.
One of the delights of writing with a co-writer is the fresh ideas that will come from the other person. You may have a plot in mind. You may even have a detailed outline in your head, or on paper. Start from there, certainly.
Part of the success of co-writing is being open to new ideas that come to your partner, when you are already into the writing of the book. In both our co-written ‘whodunits’, we have changed the ‘who’ part way through, when one of us came up with an even better villain, one with deliciously satisfying motivation.
So don’t pick a co-writer who ‘must stick to the outline.’ As well, don’t even think of attempting to co-write a book if you aren’t willing to veer from the original plan yourself.
BEYOND THE WRITING
I put it this way to my college Crafting a Novel students: When you publish a book, you become two people: a writer AND an author.
The writer writes the darn thing.
The author is so much more. Social media marketing, book store signings, guest blogs, panels at conventions…an author is a face that is out there, in public. Like it or not, you’re going to be a minor celebrity, or at least you need to act like one.
Nobody buys a book they don’t know about. No longer can writers simply hide behind a computer screen (if they ever could.) And traditional publishers haven’t a lot of money to invest in marketing your book, I’m afraid.
So the point (get to the point, Mel) is that if you are co-writing a book, BOTH of you are going to have to get out there and do a whole lot of marketing.
Make sure you both agree to the amount of energy you are willing to invest in marketing. It’s easy to feel resentful if one party is a) spending a lot more time online doing promo and b) spending a lot more of their own money traveling to make personal appearances.
Part two of this: Also have a clear idea of how much you both are willing to spend on book promotion. By that, I mean buying ads where you can. Bookbub is great (if you have over 50 reviews and a 4 star plus average, but don’t quote me on this because they will never admit it.) But last time I checked, the cost was $900 to advertise a 99 cent mystery on Bookbub. It might pay off. (Mine did for one series.) But it might not.
So that brings up another issue: are you both okay with occasionally reducing the price of your book to take advantage of some of these ad sites? Is your publisher? (We’re with a traditional publisher that is very social media marketing-savvy, thankfully.)
CONTRACTS (YOUR WRITING PRENUP)
I’m not talking about the standard publishing contract here. No, I’m referring to a contract between two writers. This is separate from the contract that determines who will publish your book-baby.
My co-writer and I didn’t have a contract when we first started writing together. We were friends setting out to have fun with fiction. To our surprise, we actually finished the first book. That’s when Cindy suggested we might want to draw something up to address things like: what about the characters we created together? Can either of us use those characters in a book that we write solo?
Even more important, you’ll want to have an agreement in place as to how you will split royalties and marketing costs.
Other issues to hammer out in advance: How will your byline be treated? Who will be listed first: by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, or by Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie? Some co-authors choose by alphabet, based on the first letter of last names. Other teams put the more-published author first.
There are several co-writing contracts available for free on the internet. There's an easy fill-in-the blanks co-author contract available from James A. Conrad
Which brings me to the final question:
WHY WRITE WITH A PARTNER?
Simply put, it’s FUN! There is someone sharing your lonely writing journey every step of the way. Cheering when you surprise her with a twist in a new chapter…moaning, when you both start the heavy work of editing.
Writing a novel is a lonely pursuit. You spend months by yourself before anyone sees the work you have been slaving over. Having a co-writer takes the loneliness out of being a writer.
Yes, you give up a little autonomy over your plot and characters. But you also share the delight of incorporating new ideas and plot twists that you would never have come up with on your own.
Take it from me: planning murder with a partner is much more fun than doing it yourself. Even our (very much still alive) husbands agree.
by Melodie Campbell (@MelodieCampbell) February 14, 2016
The Toronto Sun
called her Canada’s “Queen of Comedy.” Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich. Melodie Campbell has over 40 short story publications, 9 novels and 10 awards, including the 2014 Derringer and Arthur Ellis Awards for screwball mob comedy, The Goddaughter’s Revenge.
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever co-written a book? Are you thinking about it? I had a great experience co-writing HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE with Catherine Ryan Hyde. and Ruth Harris co-writes thrillers with her husband, Michael Harris. But I've heard some horror stories of partnerships that didn't work out. We'd love to hear your experiences, good or bad.
And if you want to know what Anne is up to this week, she's over at Mark Tilbury's blog
, answering some interesting questions, like how important is blogging for a writer?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
A Killer Necklace
Who is the dead woman at the bottom of the stairs?
When Weather Network star Gina Monroe arrives in Black Currant Bay for her wedding shower, all is bliss. But happiness turns to horror, when Gina and close friend Becki find the hostess at the bottom of the basement stairs with her head bashed in. It’s not good to be found at the scene of the crime, especially when you know the victim. But did anyone really know Louisa? A killer is determined to keep the true identity of the dead woman a secret. Even if it means killing again…
Labels: A Killer Necklace, Co-Author Contracts, Co-Authors, Crime Writers of Canada, Melodie Campbell, murder mysteries, Writing tips