The Team Approach to Writing a Great Thriller by Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson
Ever thought about co-writing a book? Find out what it takes to be successful.
In July of 2015 we appeared on a panel at Thrillerfest with other co-author teams, including Preston/Child and the wonderful Cathy Coulter / JT Ellison duo. What we learned from the experience is how very custom tailored the process of co-authoring is. When our peers heard our approach to co-authoring, they unanimously agreed: That can’t possibly work. And it can’t—for them. We, of course, felt the same way about their processes.
Writing as a team is completely different than writing alone, but the nuts and bolts of good storytelling still apply. We’re going to briefly walk you through our process, but with the disclaimer that it will not work for you—or anyone else for that matter. Just like the way others do it would never work for us. So why keep reading? Because we will try to pull some lessons from our co-authoring experience that will help you as you develop your own process for writing as a team. And that’s what it is—team work. We are both Navy veterans and so teamwork has been spliced into our DNA. To co-author successfully you must first start with the concept of team.
So here is what we do.
A story starts with a germ of an idea—a ‘What if Nick and Dash discovered XYZ?’ or ‘What if John Dempsey and the Ember Team encountered such and such?’ We start with a premise and then, for us, the next few weeks are peppered with team brainstorming sessions. During this period, we flesh out the plot, determine long and short term character arcs, decide what thematic and technical elements we plan to introduce, and decide how this story fits into the overall series arc. This is the fun part. It’s like a couple of 10-year-olds brainstorming strategy before an afternoon game of Capture the Flag in the back yard. Next, we generate a rough outline of Part I (we use the three act structure for our novels) including individual chapters. We determine the POV character for each chapter, construct few bullets points of the storyline within each chapter, and identify questions, conflicts, and complications that need to be staged early for later resolution. Then (and this part we’ve been told is weird) we divide the chapters by Point Of View (POV) and divide the workload evenly. We write with multi-POVs in the third person. If your plan is to co-author a single POV first person novel, this means of division of labor would be impossible. As we complete chapters, we shuttle the draft back and forth so each gets a second pass revision by the other writer. We have very different strengths and weaknesses and this allows us to augment and delete to achieve synchronicity across the chapters. It also gives us one consolidated voice throughout the book; each and every chapter was literally written by both of us. We duplicate the methodology for Parts II and III, and then the final manuscript gets a pass by each author for line edits and typos.
Beyond our general process, here are some rough guidelines that might help you if you are considering entering into a co-authoring partnership.
Share your business and artistic philosophy
You need to do this BEFORE you decide to move forward. For us, we have common feelings about our genre and what makes it work (or not), but more importantly we fleshed out joint priorities concerning the business of writing. We both believe that our work is entertainment, not museum art. To that end, if we write a novel we love, but fails to find a readership, then we’ve failed. Understanding that our goal is to sell as many books as possible allowed us to disconnect our egos from the work. If one of us feels that a change will sell five more books, the we make the change as long as it is true to the characters and story. To ‘kill your darlings’ and to become agnostic to the ‘ownership’ of prose requires a great deal of trust and respect for one another, but we’ve established this so it’s second nature now for us.
Strengths and weaknesses
You need to individually come to terms with what each of you brings to the table. Read each other’s work voraciously and explore what you think the other writer does better than you and what you could bring to their writing. Perhaps one of you is a rock star at nuances of plot development but the other is the best dialogue writer on earth and brings characters to life like no one else. If you can bring those two together you’ll be able to write one helluva a novel. On the other hand, be honest with yourselves. If you share the same strengths and weakness, and a partnership would do little other than split the workload of writing—that partnership is probably not going to lead to a big commercial success. You need to discuss up front how you will complement each other’s work if you commit to working together.
Honestly, we got lucky here. Our method, and our personalities, allow for us to write with one consistent voice. That’s what works for us, but may not work for you. Make a decision about this up front. Perhaps one person does all of the first draft and another the revisions to make the voice consistent? Maybe our method is something that you could try? Or maybe you simply write the different POVs throughout and then edit together, so that variations in voice become acceptable differences because they are attributed to different character POVs. The point is, do NOT wait until you’ve written your novel to figure this out. Read each other’s work and decide in advance what might work for you. Then write a few test chapters and use beta readers to validate if your process is working. This is important, because it is very distracting to read a book where the differences in voice are obvious; you don’t want readers to start playing the game of guessing who wrote what. In our opinion, the home run is if your reader reads the novel and is surprised to learn afterward that the novel had two co-authors. Voice is not something you want to relegate to luck and reader opinion.
In summary, if you decide to pursue a co-authoring partnership, you will need to structure your own methodology. Remember, you’re a team, so you need to figure out that methodology together and then tailor to fit as you go. In a very real sense, a co-author is like a best friend. This is someone with whom you need to be prepared to give your best ideas, share your emotions, and expose your weaknesses. It takes trust and self-confidence to lay bare your craft, but if you find that right teammate, nothing is more professionally satisfying. Now that we have co-authored, we realize what a lonely business writing can be, and writing as a team makes it a lot more fun.
Alex Ryan is the pen name of writing duo Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson, who are the authors of Beijing Red (May 10, 2016 Crooked Lane Books). Both are US Navy veterans: Andrews served as an officer aboard a 688 class nuclear submarine and Wilson as a combat surgeon on multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan supporting US Naval Special Warfare (SEALs). They have written four books individually and live in Kansas and Tampa, FL, respectively. Visit them at www.andrews-wilson.com.
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