Co-writing a Book or Series: How it Works, by May Burnett

How it started

Sometime in the fall of last year,  another member of Scribophile (my favorite writers’ site) was looking for a writing partner. There was a short discussion about the matter on the forums, in which I was skeptical. I had heard of co-writing teams, but imagined that such enterprises can easily end in quarrels or tears.
Nonetheless I was tempted to try the experiment, since one should never decry something without direct knowledge. Moreover, the other writer’s strengths complimented mine. She can write fast, and produce saleable copy with a distinctive voice; since she used to earn her living as a ghost writer, charging above average rates. I am better at plotting (when I bother) and have more experience at editing, after self-editing over a dozen regency romances.
The project she proposed – a first-person, Urban Fantasy series “with a kickass heroine” sounded appealing, a pleasant change from regency romance. It is very important that both writing partners are and remain enthusiastic about the project, and familiar with the chosen genre. We decided to give it a try.

Legal and organizational parameters

First, we discussed and agreed in writing (via email) the practical details. What pen name to use, how to share the hoped-for income and expenses, who would put be the one to put the book up on Amazon and/or other distributors, what was our budget for editing and promotion, and for the all-important cover?

If one of us had been too poor to devote even a bit of cash to the project, it would have made matters more difficult, but fortunately that was not the case. While I invested more in this joint project than I ever have in my own books, it was not a big deal for me, and has proved to be an excellent decision.
(Nonetheless, if I ever do this again with another partner, I would probably insist on having a written and signed contract spelling everything out at the start.)

Co-writing step by step

The next step was to do the world-building, since this was a fantasy set in an alternate world. (For a romance, that part would have been easier, we would merely have decided on location and era.)
We drew up fairly comprehensive descriptions of the world, its politics, history, species, magic, etc. and background info on our main characters, in a Word-building Document and a Character Sheet. I did most of that part, but my partner contributed additional ideas and feedback.
The next step was the outline. Since I was in charge of plotting, and my partner of the actual writing, the outline had to be a lot more detailed than I was used to. After a bit of back and forth, until we were both satisfied, it amounted to several thousand words, over 10% of the finished book. This was all much more time-consuming than I had reckoned on, but at the same time interesting and instructive; I learned quite a bit from the process.
From the outline, my partner produced a first draft literally within the week; she can write up to 10 000 words per day. Despite the long outline the first draft was only just over 60 000 words, but decidedly “fast-paced” – other writers would have made a book twice as long from my plot.
We sent the (unedited) book off to a dozen beta-readers and sat back to wait for their reactions.

Final Adjustments

Influenced by the many romances I had written over the past year, I had included a strong romantic sub-plot complete with a hot scene. From the beta feedback, we realized that the romantic arc would do better extended over the whole series, and replaced that erotic scene with something more ambiguous, that merely promised romance at some future point. Fans are now downloading the subsequent volumes to see if (and when, and how) the protagonists finally get together, and from several accounts, keeping the romance low-key made the series more interesting to our male readers.
The main female character has some flaws (too impulsive and reckless, prone to act without thinking matters through, can be aggressive and foul-mouthed) that not everyone likes, but many readers love her. We keep getting feedback from beta readers of later volumes that she should not use the “f-word” and so on, but it’s an important part of her character, and we are not going to change it.
After my partner had re-written several scenes on the basis of the beta feedback, the book was sent to a professional editor for line editing, followed by yet another editing pass plus proofreading.

Publication

On Christmas day 2015, the first book came out at last, exclusive to Amazon for the time being. Due in large part to the excellent cover contributed by my partner’s boyfriend and her marketing savvy, it immediately got on several bestseller lists, and remains among the first 1000 books sold by Amazon to this day, as does the second volume that came out in March. Both books have already garnered over 100 reviews, mostly favourable. The third volume is already written and will be out in May, and the outline for the fourth is finished as I write. We are looking into audiobooks and translations too.

Lessons Learned

• If two writers have a professional attitude, similar tastes and complementary talents and connections, co-writing with a clear division of work is an excellent way to leverage their respective input to a higher level.

• At least one partner should be good at marketing, and like doing it.

• Co-writing a book or series takes at least as much time as doing one by yourself. Time-wise, the bits the partner is doing are outweighed by the need to consult on everything.

• The co-writing process led me to take the business of self-publishing more seriously, not as a lucrative hobby but a professional challenge, that demands a well-presented and well-marketed product. The result amply justified our efforts. This was quite a learning experience, that I am planning to apply to my own books as well.

• In times of low motivation, the fact that your partner is relying on you is highly motivating. There were some recent months when for various reasons I neglected my own books and lost enthusiasm for writing and promotion, but I still completed my duties for the joint project, so as not to let my partner down. In consequence, my writing income has not suffered and even increased.

• All in all, as long as your partner is trustworthy, you are compatible as writers and have the same goals, I can definitely recommend the practice.

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