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How To Co-write A Mystery Novel

By Author: Dennis Russell

As interest in our recently-published second book has grown, I've been questioned about how my co-author, Dimity Hammon, and I have been able to write these mysteries as a team. I have heard stories about the difficulties--broken friendships, mounting tension, vying for control, giving up, legal action, and worse. It hasn't seemed all that difficult for Dimity and me, though one of the first "how-to" books I picked up on writing said, "If you're considering co-authoring a book, don't!" Too late for us as we had already committed to making it work.
My advice to those "thinking" about collaborating with someone else on a book is to be clear about why you want to write it with someone else. Make sure your motives are reasonable. And those motives might be: the other person has some expertise in an area that you do not; the other person has experience writing that you do not; or best of all, you love the concept of being creative with another person. If you're satisfied that you're doing it for the right reasons, get the practical details settled up front. Those details include at least the following topics:
1. What is the basic story line and how do you create it?
We created our story threads together, using an initial idea from one of us and building on that. It's a stimulating and productive process when co-authors can feed on each other's ideas. It can be exciting and fun, but it only works if both parties are open to the rejection of their ideas. While the creative process is all wrapped up in ego, it's not possible to write together if your ego gets in the way.
2. How will you communicate?
For Dimity and me, we began by exchanging e-mails-many e-mails. Over a short time, we began to use Skype-primarily without video so we could have a document on the screen while talking about it. Since starting the first book, we have been together face to face a few times. It would have been preferable to spend more time together than we did. It worked for us, but it won't work for everyone.
3. How often will you communicate?
This will vary according to how much time you both spend writing. For us, there were times of great intensity when we would talk every day or every other day. Dimity works part-time from her home, so our connections worked around that. Now we both work part-time, which makes it a little more difficult. But your own situation will dictate the frequency with which you can be in touch. And we were respectful of one another's obligations with family, work, travel. While we both wanted the books to proceed expeditiously, we had to be flexible about the "down time."
4. Who will be the "keeper" of the documents?
We housed the drafts and finals on my computer, but we sent them back and forth via e-mail, which gave us comfort that nothing would be irretrievably lost if my computer crashed. I don't believe it would have mattered where the document had been kept. I just happen to be a little more controlling than my co-author so I kept them.
5. Who will submit the work for publishing?
We published through Amazon and CreateSpace (Amazon's paper publishing arm). I submitted and edited the work that had been submitted, when necessary. For both books, the preparation for final submission was tricky and took many hours of collaboration of both of us on Skype.
6. Who will receive the royalties (and may incur the tax liability depending on what kind of agreement you have) and how will the profits be divided?
This, of course, is a basic decision that should be made up front. Do you form a partnership or enter into a joint venture agreement? There are resources available on line, and, of course, I would never dissuade anyone from consulting an attorney. Regardless, you have to make decisions about this key issue, including what happens in the event of your death.
7. Who will edit?
We both edited separately using "track changes" in Microsoft Word, then combined our edits, agreeing on each one as it was accepted or rejected or changed (while talking on Skype). Except for few instances, we agreed on each other's suggestions. There were occasional stubborn disagreements over a word or a phrase, but we worked it out without rancor and in the end were both satisfied. Regardless what each of us has written, we have to be totally honest about what works and what doesn't. And each of us has to be willing-really willing-to be steered away from one idea and accepting of another. The co-authoring experience does not thrive on obstinacy and inflexibility.
Dimity and I write differently, but we both have strengths and we take full advantage of those. The stories have a way of growing and changing until they're where we want them to be. That wouldn't have happened the same way without the charge of energy that we give each other when coming up with new ideas, allowing ourselves to wind through a story concept until we get to the right place, rejecting and accepting each other's ideas as we go. The process worked for us and we continue to write together. Our writing has improved over the two books, and will continue to get better with practice. It has certainly worked for us.

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