Friend-of-the-blog Anne Dayton is here to talk about one of the most difficult things in the whole entire world: writing books with a partner. And she should know, her third novel with May Vanderbilt is now in stores: The Book of Jane, a modern-day chick-lit retelling of the Book of Job that Publishers Weekly called a “laugh-out-loud love song to New York City.” Enjoy
The number one question I get when people find out I write with a partner is “how do you do that?”
The second question is usually “can I get her number?” (The answer is no. She’s taken.)
But people seem to be genuinely fascinated by the fact that I write with someone else, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little about how it all works. Hopefully this will help out anyone who’s considering working with a friend.
I honestly believe that writing with a partner can be a very smart way to go. I mean, each of you only has to do half the work, which is pretty awesome if you’re really lazy like I am. But beyond that, you’ve got two brains to draw on, and two sets of life events to draw from. If I can’t figure out how to make a scene work, May usually can. If a section is dragging and she doesn’t know how to fix it, I usually can come up with a solution. The vast expanse of blank white paper at the beginning of a book makes me break into hives, but May is awesome at coming up with great first lines. We balance each other out.
In a writing partnership, you’ve got someone invested enough in the book to tell you if what you’ve just written is total crap. Few friends are kind enough to do this for you, but someone whose name will end up on the cover of the book has a vested interest in making sure the joke about sausages that you think is totally hilarious (it really was) never sees the light of day.
On a practical level, here’s how it works: We meet once a week for writing group. (Yes, we call it group, even though it’s just the two of us.) We alternate weeks, so one week it’s May’s turns to write and my turn to watch America’s Next Top Model and pick lint from my navel, and the next week I’m on while she’s eating bons bons.
On our appointed week, we write 10 pages, then at writing group we discuss what happened in the last ten and plot out the next ten. It’s a system we totally made up on the fly back when we didn’t know what we were doing, but it works for us. But the main reason it works is because we have established a set of rules and stick by them. The rules are as follows:
Our friendship comes first
May and I decided on day one that no matter what happened with our writing, we were friends first and writing partners second. Relationships are the most precious thing we have in this life, and no amount of success is worth sacrificing a good friendship for. (And, let’s be honest, most of us who write are strange enough that we should be grateful for the friends we have).
Another thing we decided early on is that if I hate what May wrote, I can take it out. If she thinks what I did doesn’t work, it’s gone. It may hurt to see a passage I slaved over or a joke I think is funny get cut, but I trust her judgment, and the book will be stronger for it.
Nothing gets in the way of writing group
Okay, truthfully, a few things get in the way of writing group—vacations, illness, and getting married are all acceptable reasons to delay group (though the last one only works once). But for the most part, we meet once a week, every week. We both clear our schedules and talk about whatever project we’re currently working on. We both have busy lives, and it’s easy to let things slip. Writing group never slips, because in this business, persistence is half the battle.
Obviously, I think there are good reasons to consider a writing partnership, but it’s not for everyone. Writing is a very internal and personal thing, and sharing your innermost thoughts and rough drafts with anyone can be intimidating. And there are practical concerns too, like not wanting to share the money (ha!) and the glory (ha ha!) when your work is published. If you’re considering writing with someone else, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Do we want the same thing?
If your goals are different, or if you have different plans for getting there, it may not work. Likewise, if you want to write serious literary fiction and she wants to write erotic vampire romances, it’s probably not a good fit. That’s ok.
Do I like her clothes?
Ok, maybe you don’t need to wear the same brand of jeans, but you want to make sure you’re working with someone whose taste you trust. Fortunately for me, my partner is cuter and blonder than I am and dresses better than I do. But if I hated her style—I don’t really mean her clothes here, more her manner of speaking, her attitude, her writing—than I would have a hard time committing to a writing partnership.
Am I a control freak?
Obviously, this won’t work. You can’t control everything someone else does.
Can we put our friendship aside and deal with each other as business partners?
This may seem like it contradicts rule #1 above, but it’s really a complement to it. Conventional wisdom says that you should never go into business with someone who you’d like to remain friends with. And in many ways, selling and publishing a book is a business endeavor. But if your friendship is solid, you can trust each other enough to know that even if you disagree about a contractual point or a plot issue, you can still be friends at the end of it.
Am I in this for the long haul? Are they?
You may decide you want to do your own thing after one book, and that’s fine, but if you quit halfway through said book, it could cause problems, to say the least. And it’s going to take you a long time to get the toilet paper out of the trees when they TP your house out of spite, especially if it rains. You don’t want to be digging clumps of wet toilet paper out of your bushes six months from now. If you can’t commit to finishing a project with someone, it might be better not to start.
Getting a partner is the best thing that ever happened to my writing. If you’ve ever thought about it, I hope this will be enough to get you thinking. Good luck!
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Art: Friendship by Petrona Viera