Two new novels and the art of co-writing

Published by: Daedalus on 4th Jul 2017 | View all blogs by Daedalus

Jillybean and myself have just had the first of two historical novels published, and we thought the Cloud might like to know. ‘An Argument of Blood’, the first of two novels about the lead up to the Norman conquest of England, was published a couple of weeks ago.

You can find it here

We also thought Cloudies might like an insight into the creative process of co-writing a novel. Neither of us had attempted anything like it before and it was an eye-opening experience. Here are a few comments from us both that will I hope give a flavour.

Jillybean

“Around the end of September 2015, my friend, historical fiction and non-fiction author, Matthew Willis, said the immortal words 'Hey, does anyone want to write a book about the battle of Hastings with me?' (I'm paraphrasing but that really was the gist of it.) I hadn't studied anything to do with the Norman Conquest since a school trip to visit the Bayeux Tapestry, when I was twelve years old. I'd never attempted to co-write so much as a piece of flash fiction with anyone. And I mostly write speculative fiction and find it really quite hard to keep dragons, ghosts and genetically modified dinosaurs out of my stories. With that impressive list of qualifications, I immediately said 'yes' because, really, what could possibly go wrong? With a blithe disregard for the amount of work involved on research alone, I jumped in with both feet.

“Have you ever seen the Disney film 'Frozen'? I have two writing buddies who at regular intervals present me with 'Do you want to build a snowman?' moments and I find myself rashly agreeing to take part in all sorts of crazy schemes. Matt is actually the more restrained of those two friends. Just saying.”

Daedalus

“My thinking was – and please feel free to laugh as you consider it – that if each of us wrote half a novel, say, 50,000 words each, we would have a good-sized, substantial historical novel in half the time and individual effort that it would have taken us individually. It would help us fit the writing in around our existing commitments. This turned out to be so insanely wide of the mark that I sometimes marvel that we managed to produce anything of worth at all. As we found out, not only is co-writing complicated, it tends to make the writing more complicated.

“As it happened, I had very little idea at the time how to even go about co-writing a novel. I had done a little research and produced a sketch that was basically a character arc for William the Conqueror, going from the attempt on his life by rebellious barons in the late 1040s to the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings when William was forced to crack down hard on rebellious subjects, but that was as far as I’d got. (I had a pipedream of calling this novel ‘Bastard!’ which, realistically, was never going to fly.)

“Given that there were two of us on board, it meant that we could cover both the Norman and Saxon sides to the 20 years before Hastings, and the natural choice was for one of us to write a Norman POV and the other, Saxon. One of the characters had to be William (we knew that the eventual publisher of the Oath and Crown books was looking for a novel that specifically featured William). It would have been obvious to make the other POV character Harold Godwinson, briefly King Harold II of England, and defeated by William at Hastings – but perhaps too obvious, and not giving us the opportunity to explore a wider cross section of society. It would be a shame not to show the events from a female perspective, especially as women in Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed a very different status to their Norman counterparts. Jules came up with Ælfgifa, one of Harold’s younger sisters, about whom intriguingly little is known.”

Jillybean

“As with writing alone, there are many ways to go about co-writing. Matt and I decided to work out our general direction – The Battle of Hastings – and then alternate chapters. We'd set aside October for research – again I was displaying my blithe disregard for my sheer lack of knowledge - and had decided to use 2015 NaNoWriMo to get the bulk of the book written. We both felt we could easily come up with 50,000 words each in a month. That would be the first draft more or less written. We were determined. We were geared up, raring to get started on our new project. We were confident.

“We may also have been just a little bit nuts.

“However at the end of November 2015, we did indeed have 100,000 words. The problem? We were only about a third of the way through the story. You see, the thing with the Battle of Hastings, is that it doesn't actually start with the Saxon and Norman armies facing off. (Actually it doesn't really end there either but that's another story.) To give that pivotal moment in history context, you need to go back further in history, past the battle of Stamford Bridge. Past the battle of Fulford. Past the shipwreck that delivered Harold into the hands of William of Normandy and the subsequent uprising of Conan II. Further back, through sieges and skirmishes and assassination attempts – in fact at times you have to wonder if William the Conqueror, upon his death bed, looked back and saw he'd spent the vast majority of his life laying siege to one city or another. Even further back than that, because what caused a situation where the English crown was so precariously situated on the head of a childless king? Why were there so many claimants to the English throne? What made William, who lacked almost all the advantages Harold was born into, claw his way up from upstart boy Duke, to the formidable war leader he became? In the end, because while history doesn’t have a designated start date but a book most definitely needs one, we started in 1045 – twenty-one years prior to the Battle of Hastings.”

Daedalus

“The major difference between writing about the early or middle Mediaeval period is that there is so much less written record than later. The sheer size of the gaps in the record are astonishing. William’s first major battle was known to be the cavalry clash at Val es Dunes, but the record can’t even agree when it took place – and I don’t just mean week or month, I mean which year. There’s no clear indication of when William’s children were born, again, variations of years being possible. Given the difficulties in pinning down such basic information as this, there’s little wonder that finding a clear sense of the players’ characters is highly challenging – although this creates opportunities as well as challenges for the historical novelist.”

Jillybean

“One of the things we probably should have done from the start, rather than when we were both about 20,000 words in, was to create a timeline of events. Basically, beats that we needed to hit or be aware that one viewpoint character was hitting. When you’re spanning twenty years and two different peoples in a book, or two books as it became, you really do need a clear map of where you’re going and when. The broad strokes at least. Still once that was in place, we really took off.”

Daedalus

“Throughout November 2015 and beyond we turned out a decent volume of story. Moreover, for me at least, an interesting thing started to happen. As I read Jules’ chapters, they started to influence my own writing. Complexities in the story that I had not anticipated started to weave their way in. A relatively straightforward tale of a relatively straightforward man started to take twists and turns, and the whole thing started to feel richer and more layered. I suppose it was inevitable that we might hit issues like this – neither of us had ever deliberately set out to write half a novel before, and it may be that we were unconsciously working to full-length novel narratives, but I think much of the story’s expansion can be put down to two authors riffing off each other. Sometimes, admittedly, we had to keep ourselves in check. Jules reading ‘Pikemen’ as ‘Pokemon’ in a battle scene led to a short-lived digression into a genre we really weren’t expecting...

“One big hurdle in storytelling terms was the point at which the two characters met. We would have to start writing each character from the perspective of the other, and it was particularly important that we were consistent here. Jules had the idea to ‘freestyle’ their initial meeting in a scenario we had discussed. We would each take the part of ‘our’ characters and hold a conversation. This not only worked well but was good fun, and something I’d recommend all writers try once in a while. It can really help you get further inside a character’s head.”

Jillybean

“Some of the best bits of co-writing are related to division of labour. I imagine if you don’t have absolute trust in your writing partner or if you’re a writer who just can’t let go of control, then our method of co-writing might not be for you. Having someone who is writing the other half of a book with you is very motivational for just getting the words down too. And of course you’re less likely to get bogged down or stuck or really hung up on the ‘what am I doing, it’s all crap’ stage that all authors go through on every single book. And when it gets to contract signing time, and then to publication, you are once again not alone.

“The worst part of co-writing, in my opinion, is a worry that you’ll let your partner down. That perhaps you’ll allow an error through or that maybe your writing won’t hold up to theirs, becoming a weakness in the story. Natural enough fears obviously and all writing has its downs as well as its ups. The downs were never enough to stymy me for long.”

Daedalus

“Instead of one novel of 80-90,000 words that came out in time for the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, we ended up with two novels totalling some 220,000 words, that came out a little later – and I know I, for one, am happier with the result than I think I would have been with a single novel focussed just on William.”

 

Comments

25 Comments

  • Berks
    by Berks 4 months ago
    Congrats both, sounds interesting and i'll definitely be giving it a look!
  • Catasshe
    by Catasshe 4 months ago
    I've already read the opening chapter of An Argument of Blood, and I can attest it's smashing! Check it out people! You won't find finer, more readable historical fiction.
  • Giselle
    by Giselle 4 months ago
    I love seeing how you made this project come to life and work it out. I've often wondered how people can co-write a book, and this was a nice glimpse behind the scenes. Thanks very much, and huge congratulations on the books!
  • Kate
    by Kate 4 months ago
    Congratulations guys and lovely backstory of your co-writing. Only ever read this period from Harolds POV so looking forward to seeing it from a new perspective.
  • tarquilla
    by tarquilla 4 months ago
    Lovely insight into the process. Congratulations to you both, it sounds really good.
  • Sandra
    by Sandra 4 months ago
    Fascinating insight, and well done for making it work
  • Newbie
    by Newbie 4 months ago
    Look forward to reading both books. I love a good historical novel. Well done, I take my hat off to you for your brave undertaking. Oh, I don't have a hat, so here's a virtual glass of bubbly - hic.
  • Newbie
    by Newbie 4 months ago
    Have downloaded it after reading the first chapter. Brilliant. Great cover too.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 4 months ago
    Thanks everyone, we thought you'd enjoy a quick peek inside the hive mind. Catasshe - you're very kind! Newbie - glad you like what you see, hope the remainder lives up to the early promise.
  • Newbie
    by Newbie 4 months ago
    I'm sure it will :-D
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 4 months ago
    Had already commented on Jillybean's blog, but here I'd like to add, Well Done (again) and it sounds fascinating.
    One further question: How on earth do you pronounce the woman's name?
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 4 months ago
    Thanks Whisks, much appreciated. Fortunately, JB had the foresight to include a pronounciation guide for the Saxon names. I am reliably informed that Ælfgifa is pronounced ALF-ghee-faa.

    One of the problems we came across but didn't mention above was the sheer number of people who had the same name. JB will tell you how many Ediths (or variations thereof) were around at the time (Harold was married to two of them, and another was his sister). In Normandy, it seemed that 90% of the males were called Richard, Robert, William or Henri and most of the remaining 10%, Baldwin.
  • Catasshe
    by Catasshe 4 months ago
    Not kind Daedalus; honest. Ha! Baldwin! Nice. (Very Blackadder...) Sounds like you guys had a lot of fun writing this, inspired and spurred one another on, and it's reflected in the quality of the result.
  • Jenni Belsay
    by Jenni Belsay 4 months ago
    Brave to even attempt co-writing, and wonderful that it's been such a success. Fascinating insight into the process from both of you. Hist-fic not usually my genre these days but I'm intrigued...
  • SecretSpi
    by SecretSpi 4 months ago
    Congratulations, you two! I tried this years and years ago with a pal, writing a chick-lit thing which never got past about Chapter 6. My friend got bored, end of story. I'm interested to see how the synergy started when each of you started influencing what the other wrote. That must have been a real high.

    I was wondering why there aren't more co-authored books, though. What do you think? Is it the complexity that puts people off, or is it to do with egos? BTW you didn't exactly make it easy for yourselves, going for historical fiction.

    Anyway, a couple of large glasses of mead (or something) are in order, I think!
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 4 months ago
    Thanks Spi. I think having the pressure of knowing we had a publisher interested before the start helped, and the fact that we did our utmost to get the manuscript in in time for the 950th anniversary was a driver, but having said that there was never a time when I thought 'I don't want to do this any more.' Also I think it was the co-writing that was the biggest motivation to keep going. I don't know if this matches Jules' recollection, but it seemed to me that when one of us was going through a difficult spell with it, the other was going well, so there was added motivation to keep going through the slump when with a solo effort I might have given it a rest. I currently have four unfinished solo manuscripts, so I think it's fair to say that co-writing pushed me.

    So why aren't there more? I think a lot of people just don't think try it. I probably suggested it for the wrong reasons, and it's certainly not a way to reduce the effort required - as we say in the blog, there's probably as much individual effort in co-writing as with a solo effort, if not more. I suspect success depends very much on having the right co-author - someone you trust completely, someone whose approach and writing you know well - and preferably someone who writes faster than you so they can push you. I'm a slow writer by any standards. I tend to make up for it by having binge-writing sessions and the occasional all-nighter (the first draft was finished after an all nighter, and I did a rough edit immediately afterwards). Jules is freakishly fast. I'm talking 10K words in a few hours. I don't think I've ever written more than half that in a session - although that all-nighter may have achieved more now I think about it, I wasn't counting.

    Did we make life hard for ourselves with histfic? Perhaps. I wouldn't know where to start with contemporary fiction. We could have done something speculative, I suppose. But then again, with history, we had those ready made, immutable anchors - real events, real people, real relationships, so a lot of that was already established. I suspect it's easier - it is for me, at any rate - to imagine a real person like William into a literary character than to create one from scratch. If it hadn't been histfic, I suspect we would have taken very much longer to develop the plot, character arcs etc.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 4 months ago
    Wot everyone else has said: massive congrats, and a fascinating account of how the co-authorship worked for you too. Like Jenni, I'm not much into hist-fic, but this does sound interesting.

    But 10K words in a few hours?!? Gulp. I bet I'm even slower than you, Daeds: it's an exceptional DAY if I get 1K words down!

    I'm the other way round from you in that I've never felt moved to write historical fiction. Knowing where to start? Long development? Well, my WIP has and long a tortuous (writing) history behind it. Some elements date back over thirty years...
  • Catasshe
    by Catasshe 4 months ago
    Sorry.... 10K in A FEW HOURS! Wha... How? What? In the dim recesses of my memory I remember writing 5K in about 3.5 hours when writing 'trashy romance' years ago... switched off brain and wrote. But, twice that... Gulp!
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 4 months ago
    Bear in mind that since I started work on this, I've basically written my bits of the Oath and Crown books and one or two short stories. Jules has done that as well as having written two more (I think) novels in her 'Unveiled' series, a couple of novellas and a handful of short stories. Not to mention scripts for a weekly podcast, blogs and all the other stuff.
  • Jillybean
    by Jillybean 4 months ago
    Finally making an appearance here - better late than never. Thanks to everyone who has commented and shown interest in the books. Cloudies are lovely as always.

    As regards the charges made against me for insanely high word counts, I'd just like to point out that 10K+ is fairly unusual for me and takes closer to six hours. I have managed word counts of 20K + in a day on three memorable occasions but I don't recommend that to anyone because I was basically unfit to engage with reality afterwards. My real daily word counts are much more mundane - usually between 2000 and 5000 words with an occasional 8000 or 9000 on a good day. I am not a fast typist since I never learned to type properly - it's on my to do list. I wouldn't have said I was that fast a writer tbh, but when the story really grips me, it just pours out. There's a lot of plodding 'you must write 2000 words' days in between, I must say.

    I should also point out that I would never have written anything this ambitious in scope if I hadn't been writing with Daedalus. I would have been second guessing myself on historical fact and the sense of place and time to get very far. It was funny though, because just as Daed and I were spurring each other on by writing and swapping chapters, as our main characters came to life, they seemed to be spurring on each other - even well before they met in the narrative. You think writing historical fiction is going to be straightforward as Daed said. Instead it's like writing crime or mystery as you try to get a sense of the mindset of the time (very different in may ways to ours). Writing historical fiction is less a 'whodunnit?' that a 'why-dunnit?' and I think that was the part that was most interesting for me. We knew what various historical figures had done, but getting into their heads to find out why was the most challenging and rewarding part of the process.

    Daed is right in that when one of us hit a bit of a slump, the other one was leaping ahead so it didn't ever hold us up for long. We were also really lucky, looking back, that we just found a method and a partnership that worked straight away without much in the way of premeditation. I think Spi is on to something when she asks if ego gets in the way of co-writing. I think it potentially could do. We never really discussed what our overall vision for the books was - in that respect we really pantsed the hole process - but we both ended up in the same place. I imagine if you are co-writing with someone who has a vastly different vision of what the book is going to be to your idea of what it's going to be, then the partnership will probably fail.

    It was a steep learning curve for me in terms of working out what level of historical detail went into the book, how to manage duel timelines and just generally writing something that had a historical resonance. Daed was far more knowledgeable about the time period, the battles, the historical detail and writing HistFic in general. In fact (and I never admitted this at the time) when we were doing one of our October pre writing research chats and he asked how we should handle the infamous 'oath swearing', I had to do some very quick googling (followed up by some much more in depth research) because I had completely forgotten that Harold ever swore an oath to William. I wasn't kidding when I said I hadn't learned anything about the Norman Conquest since I was twelve years old! In some ways I was helped rather than hindered by my own lack of knowledge when it came to research because I was just fascinated by this culture that had been completely subsumed by the Normans. The politics was especially interesting and must have joggled a few brain cells loose because I started remembering history lessons from school about the Dane Law and the Heptarchy which led on to the state of Saxon England. And all of this fed into the 'why?' of how the characters acted.

    In short co-writing was brilliant fun. I'd definitely write another book with Daed, although he may want time to recover from these two first ;)
  • Barb
    by Barb 4 months ago
    How exciting. Congrats you two!
  • Catasshe
    by Catasshe 4 months ago
    This is all fascinating, Jillybean. Was particularly interested to mention the 'plodding must write 2000 words a day' point you made... Do you have that as a daily target? Every day? I've recently been trying to work out how to create sensible daily/weekly target for myself. I have been known to write every day when a novel on the go. Currently on short stories, and find it much harder to force those; as, with a novel at least you know where you're going, even if not feeling like it; with a short story if there's no idea you are just in the dark...
    On historical fiction; think you've hit the nail on the head with the 'Why dunnit'! Hilary Mantel's Reith lectures have been very interesting on writing historical fiction lately.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 4 months ago
    Haha, you kept that quiet about the oath-swearing JB ;-)

    As far as writing another book together - sure, bring it on. In fact, regarding the point about history not having a starting point, it doesn't have an end point either, and there was so many things where we started to think 'I wonder what happened to this person or that person,' and there's more than enough there for another book or pair of books, looking at some of the almost completely unknown but nevertheless fascinating aspects.

    Catasshe, thanks for pointing me in the direction of those Hilary Mantel lectures, they're superb
  • Catasshe
    by Catasshe 4 months ago
    Glad you're liking the lectures, Daedalus! They are fascinating. Particularly relevant for hist fic writers, of course, but for all writers really.
  • Jillybean
    by Jillybean 4 months ago
    @ Catasshe yes my low daily target is 2000 words and generally I manage that although I leave Saturday optional, as in I might do some or I might have a day off. I started off with 750

    -1000 words as a daily target and worked up. It's like running a marathon, you don't just strap on trainers and go, you build up to it. Most days I hit between 4-5K but 2K is in theory my minimum. Short stories are strange beasts aren't they? I find a aily word count doesn't work for me there. I either write them in one go (if the word count is below 5000) or I write an individual scene a day and tackle it that way. But you're write, it's not the same.

    Great lectures.
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