When Sue and I visit events such as book clubs, forums and literary festivals to talk about our writing and our books, one of the common questions we’re asked is: ‘How do two people write together?’
Some assume we sit side by side staring at a computer screen, throwing out words and phrases until we agree on a sentence.
Which would be lovely – but it wouldn’t be too productive as we’d keep breaking off to laugh about an idea or get up to make a sandwich – any distraction to avoid simply sitting and writing.
The fact that we don’t sit together, but write in our own offices in our own homes, provides better motivation than being in the same room. The reason? Because if Sue has sent me a chapter that I need to respond or add to, I get on with it as I don’t want to keep her waiting. And she feels the same way about anything I send her. It’s the old work ethic thing that we both have: if you know someone is breathing down your neck waiting for you to produce something, it’s a deadline that you just have to meet.
When we’re asked about writing together, Sue’s response is, how do other people write on their own? She’s creative, inventive and one of the best writers I know – and she can and does write on her own. For instance, she produces many reviews and short stories without my input. But when it comes to writing a book of 80,000 to 120,000 words, she prefers to have someone to bounce ideas off and share the load.
We both agree that writing can be a lonely profession but writing together and knowing there is someone sharing the story that’s developing is great fun.
We text, email and phone each other regularly when an idea strikes or if the story looks like taking off in a new direction. And we meet regularly for coffee (me) and weak tea (Sue), or lunch and/or wine for ‘editorial meetings’ and a good gossip.
We support each other when the going gets tough or when one of us is finding it difficult to get motivated. But we also really enjoy bouncing ideas off each other.
And, as Sue says, writing with me means she only has to write half a book at a time.
We wrote our first two books while both teaching journalism at university – Sue at Sheffield Hallam and me at Leeds Trinity.
There was a dearth of good, practical, how-to journalism text books so we decided to fill the gap.
Newspaper Journalism: A Practical Introduction and a follow-up, Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction, were both published by Sage and are now on the reading lists of many university journalism courses.
With the text books, we operated by one of us writing the skeleton of a particular chapter while the other filled in more detail, and then we both joined in with examples and secondary sources.
With the success of our first two books we thought: wouldn’t it be fun to write a bonkbuster.
The resulting debut novel, A Falling Friend, has some bonking, but we like to think of it more as women’s literary fiction (or grown up chick lit).
We sketched out a rough plan for the story and – as the novel has two leading female characters, Teri and Lee – we chose to take a character each and develop that character’s side of the story.
So Sue will write a chapter from the perspective of her character, Lee, and send it to me so that I can write the next chapter from my character, Teri’s, point of view.
Often we each get a real surprise because we both write things neither of us are expecting and we each have to reflect and respond in ‘our’ chapters.
Although I had an initial idea for A Falling Friend, the actual story evolved as we started writing and we became more confident in our characters.
On the whole, it wasn’t too difficult to marry the two characters’ stories together. We had a rough plot but we allowed each other the freedom to respond in character to the other’s activities. For instance, I’d receive a ‘Lee’ chapter from Sue and think: “I know exactly what Teri would do here…” and I’d go a little off-script with my next chapter. And vice versa for Sue and Lee.
We spent eight years on A Falling Friend – we were both working in demanding full-time jobs and we’d go for long periods without writing a single word. Eventually, we decided we needed to get our act together so we set ourselves a deadline and finished the book on schedule.
Writing the way we did – building up the story as went along – meant that we didn’t have an entirely clear idea of how the novel would develop. We had a rough plot, but it would change as the characters began to take over.
You know in interviews when an author claims that this happens? I always thought it was nonsense – until I started putting more flesh on Teri’s willowy figure and she started behaving in a way I would never have imagined at the start. She took over.
Nor did we know until we got closer how the story would end. But when it was drawing near, the ending seemed to come naturally. It surprised us and, we’re told, it surprises a lot of our readers. But I hate to read a book where the plot is so transparent the outcome is inevitable and it’s fun to think that none of our readers on opening page one of A Falling Friend could predict the ending.