By Pete Morin
I discovered the peculiar art of novel writing in 2007, when I wrote Diary of a Small Fish as a means of grieving my father’s death. It was an exhilarating period of about two-and-a-half years until I finally typed “the end.”
This didn’t daunt me, since I had been schooled that first novels are usually kind of rough sledding. Surely, after I got that under my belt, the next one would go faster! Yes, yes, it would. I set a goal of one year for #2. Twenty eight months later, I finished. I started a third, and took six months to get about 30K in.
By this point, the indie revolution was in full thrust, and hundreds of novelists, both Big Name and small, were cranking out novels every 3-4 months. What did they have that I didn’t?
It was obvious to me. I can invent a story, but I just can’t put the tale together with facility. I was taking weeks, sometimes, to figure out what came next.
“Oh, you’re a pantser, that’s your problem!” you say. “Do an outline, plan your story.”
Easy for you to say. My mind isn’t made for outlines.
Some writers are storytellers, and some are story makers. Think about your five favorite authors. Are they all equally good at making the story as they are at writing them? I love John Grisham’s stories, but I don’t think he’s a terrific teller. I’m a teller.
After three efforts, I decided that if I was going to write fast, I needed some help in this fine art of story building. I needed a plotting fiend who would collaborate with me in both the invention and creation of the novel.
I took to my blog to solicit interest. I did not awake with a full in-box of offers. I did, however, get a message from an old friend I’d met on Authonomy [writers’ forum] years before, at the beginning of my journey.
Susanne O’Leary is a Swedish-born citizen of Ireland, married to a career Irish diplomat. We’d spent way too much time in the Authonomy forums (with hundreds of others). She had a sharp wit and could get prickly at times. She wrote romantic comedy, and she assured me that if I needed help putting a plot together, she was my pick.
Wait, what? Why would I ever consider writing with someone in a totally different genre?
Well, I wondered that myself. She had a plausible answer—I was interested in writing political/legal suspense. Dirty politicians, crafty lawyers. She had an interest in Irish politics (married to a diplomat, you’d not be surprised) and loved the idea of a Boston-Dublin political potboiler. Why not a story involving Irish politicians on both sides of the pond, featuring a return of Small Fish’s hero, Paul Forte? And in Ireland, a co-hero: a brassy redheaded political editor of a Dublin newspaper, Finola McGee. We would knit two stories together, Paul’s and Finola’s, as they intersected, and the scenes would jump back and forth between them.
Oh, gee, I thought. That sounds like it could be fun. Let’s run this out a bit and see where it goes, and if we can get half the story sketched out and I felt good about it, what the hell? One thing that clinched it for me: Susanne had co-authored two novels (Virtual Strangers and Virtual Suspects) with fellow Swede Ola Saltin (another acquaintance from Authonomy), both done as send-ups to the traditionally murder mystery. Their humor was wicked, and although Ola’s style was dramatically different than Susanne’s, they managed to pull it off quite well.
Four days later, we’d set up about half the story, with comfort that there would be no breakdowns along the way.
We began our project from scratch on May 1, 2014. We finished the rough draft by the end of July, sent our final draft to an editor on October 1, and went live with Full Irish on December 1st. Six months, door-to-door.
I won’t say the process was flawless, seamless, without a bit of head butting or a few cross words. But I will say this: Susanne and I had made a commitment to get it done, and we had no trouble overcoming whatever disagreements came up. The principal concern at the outset would have to be, were our styles were sufficient compatible? At the beginning, we were concerned about this, but we set the concern aside, agreed that “all first drafts are shit,” and just forged on until we had a finished story, rugged as it was.
As the rewriting progressed, we had a critical discussion about whether or not I should edit her scenes and she edit mine. I held firmly to the yes until I got my way. And I worked very hard to revise Susanne’s scenes to preserve the distinct Irishness of it, while shaving and shaping to bring the two styles closer together. It was dicey at the beginning, as some of the scenes went back and forth with quite a bit of red and blue. But Susanne is a professional, she’s published a hell of a lot more than I have, and she was quite gracious about my editorial intrusions.
While there were some polite disagreements, in the end it seemed we were remarkably in sympathy on all of the important elements of a final product—especially the cover.
We were excited enough about our experience that we’re currently more than 40K words into the next one.
I would say that co-writing is an ideal arrangement for writers who have absolutely no problem taking or giving criticism, fighting for your position, and having the emotional and intellectual maturity to be able to compromise or even cede completely. Remarkably (somewhat) Susanne and I seem to have lucked out*.
*not to be confused with ‘lucked in’, depending on which country you inhabit …
Thank you, Pete. Very true. Except for one thing: we HAVE actually met, last year on Cape Cod when my husband and I were on holiday there. We had hilarious evening. Very happy our co-writing experiment turned out so well and I’m really enjoying the second effort. (so far).
Can’t wait to see what Pete and Susanne have up their sleeve next. Great piece, Pete.
What is “lucked in?” Same thing, different preposition?
‘lucked out’ in the UK, means being out of luck. In America it means the opposite. ‘I’ve never heard the term ‘lucked in’.
Reblogged this on Susanne's Blog and commented:
How this co-writing partnership started and keeps going…
Really interesting. It’s fascinating that you write so much more quickly with a partner. Is it just the plotting help, or are you more motivated to not let your partner down?
‘Lucked in’ may be an Aussie expression – Libby? Thanks to Pete for this great piece and wish you and Susanne every success with the next one.
RJ, this story plotted itself in about 3 days. I think it was because of the back-and-forth spitballing, simple as that. And of course, each of us is writing only half a book so the time gets divided. We also agreed at the outset on May 1 that we would have a finished first draft by the end of August, so we were driving toward a deadline.
Thanks for the invite, Jill. This is a lovely magazine, and I’m thrilled to be included in it!