How We Write Together

recently published an article on Medium about writing romantic comedy with my husband, Tony, but then realised I hadn’t actually explained how we do the writing. Why? Because, believe it or not, we’re ten years into this fiction writing gig and have never analysed our process! I think there’s been a fear that if we look too closely, the magic will disappear.

Writing together didn’t come naturally to us. We evolved in completely different disciplines — I’m a liberal Arts academic and he’s an engineer — and our brains just don’t work the same. As a result, we approach the writing process from different directions, but luckily we have one thing totally in common: we’ve both got filthy senses of humor and we crack each other up. In hindsight, it’s no wonder we picked romantic comedy as our chosen genre. It’s neutral territory in a sea of Excel spreadsheets (Tony) and random post-it notes stuck to everything, including the cat (me).

Last night we finally sat down over a glass of wine and gave some actual thought to how we make this whole thing work. For anyone out there who may be thinking of writing fiction with another person, here’s our process:

Step 1: Coming up with the idea

Inspiration for every one of our books has come from me seeing something weird, or coming across something that makes me laugh. I’m one of those people who attracts weird stuff. Something strange going down in the street? I’m probably gonna be walking by.

A couple of years ago I was running errands in Aberdeen, Scotland when a cheerful woman in a Cookie Monster suit grabbed me by the shoulders and bellowed “Scotland for haggis!” It was a perfect moment and inspired one of my favorite characters, Ellie from Save Me From Heroes.

Our newest release, The Barbershop Girlwas kicked off after I read Giles Coren’s hilarious spray in 2008. The minute I looked away from my screen I couldn’t wait until Tony and I could sit down and brainstorm.

This leads me to our next step:

Step 2: Coming up with characters and setting

We walk, we talk, we caffeinate until we’re buzzing and we spitball ideas for characters and where they might live. This is the fun bit. It’s all about shouting over each other and seeing who can come up with the funniest or best thing. This stage is also provides a brilliant excuse to travel to new places in the name of “researching setting.”

Step 3: Coming up with plot

This is where we start throwing things at each other.

Tony’s a plotter, which means he likes to know what’s happening every step of the way. (I may have accused him in the past of being a niminy piminy fiddly faddly small picture person.) I’m a pantser, which means that I let my characters drive this book bus from the start to the end of the line. (He may have accused me of reckless plot driving and has expressed the opinion that my pen licence should have been confiscated in the fourth grade.)

I insist that all I need to start a book is a couple of characters and a final conflict. Tony thinks the characters should have a couple more stops to reach along the way before we start. What generally happens is Tony coming up with a plot that our characters hear about and completely ignore.

This is an integral part of the process and if we agree on anything too emphatically at this stage, something is drastically wrong.

Step 4: Writing the thing

This is the most structured part of the process. I do the actual writing and I’m pretty rigid about my daily 2k word-count. I then I pass whatever I’ve written for the day to Tony. He looks at it, usually tells me to re-write it, then we throw things at each other. Afterwards we riff on where the next scene will go and we’ll repeat the process the next day.

A quick summary of my emotional state during this time is as follows:

For the first ten thousand words I whole-heartedly believe everything I’ve written is genius. For the next twenty thousand words, I sit in a state of despair that I’m working on the worst pile of garbage ever set on fire. Forty to sixty thousand words? Hmm, we might be onto something. In fact, this might be the best thing I’ve ever written! Annnd for the rest of the draft it’s crap again. It’s definitely crap. Oh boy, it’s super crap. Crapper than crap. I can’t believe I’ve churned out all this crap. I need wine. Where’s the wine?

And the entire time, Tony’s there keeping me sane, pouring wine, reading each section as we go and ducking projectile pillows when he has to give me constructive feedback (“that last ten thousand words probably needs a rewrite pumpkin”) during the rollercoaster dips.

And then it’s over, and I’m deflated and we go out for a coffee, and I have cake. Suddenly it’s a good book again. No, it’s a great book and we’ve got the first draft, and all we have to do is polish it up, the minute I finish this cake!

Tony looks relieved that sanity has been restored and we order more cake.

Step 5: Drafting the thing

Our drafting process takes a while, mainly because I’m a firm believer in giving manuscripts a rest. This can be for any time from two weeks to six months while we work on other projects. (We may have up to four novels being drafted at any one time.) Resting allows mental space so that any plot-holes or inconsistencies can be easily seen. Plus, resting is really good for loosening any emotional attachment to the piece, hopefully stopping pride from getting in the way of admitting to any flaws.

When we’re ready, I redraft, fixing all the obvious characterisation glitches. Tony does the next pass, editing for plot inconsistencies. Then it’s down to grammar and fine-tuning. This generally means the manuscript gets passed between us at least four or five times. It frequently takes a while to get a scene, line — or sometimes even a character — right, and we like to take that time.

Step 6: Knowing when it’s done

Our litmus test of when a project is finished is being able to agree on the entire thing with absolutely no arguments. Agreement means that we must have gotten something right! We then get on with arguing about our next project.

And then what?

Our manuscript then goes through the pre-publication editorial process, involving professional editors, beta readers and proof readers, which I’ll summarise another day. Let’s just say more pillows are thrown and that wine and cake is involved.