How do co-writers work, and what makes their partnership a match made in literary heaven? Chrissy Sturt gives us an insight into the world of co-writing.  

Messy and manic, I couldn’t possibly inflict my own creative process on another living soul. A loner in lots of senses, please leave me to it when I’m cooking and cleaning and, quite frankly, dog walking is between me and my Labrador!


Which makes me wonder ... co-writers ... how is this even a thing?


Looking for answers, I tracked down four established “couples” to ask them simply – why ?


Opposites attract creativity


First, I bring you the world’s most extreme pen pals – Mikki Lish and Kelly Ngai – split across a whopping nineteen-hour time difference. Mikki is California-based, and Kelly is in Sydney. But with today’s tech, it matters not. The pair lit up the international middle-grade scene with their intensely imaginative The House on Hoarder Hill, quickly bagged a Hollywood agent and secured a lucrative TV option deal.


Mikki Lish (Left) and Kelly Ngai (Right)


Their contrasting personalities make this very much a yin-yang partnership, working together ensuring a balance they couldn’t achieve alone. Mikki is the shouty, big picture, business side of things, whilst Kelly is the quieter, steadier details demon. As Mikki says, “Kelly keeps us on track with structure and character arcs. I dump a tornado of ideas and dialogue into her lap, and she sorts through the chaos.”


Wowzas, can we all have a Kelly?


After initial brainstorming over video calls, Kelly peels away to do the actual keyboard bashing, before they reunite to edit. Kelly’s steelier nature is really what keeps their projects on track. “The wild ideas we pull out of our behinds have to mean something,” she says, “so I tend to be the one policing and asking, how does this progress the theme and the plot?”


A family affair


So, teaming up can clearly produce magical results. But what about working with your nearest and dearest? I bring you mother and daughter duo, Perdita Cargill and Honor Cargill-Martin. Together they’re penning the madly popular Diary of an Accidental Witch series, already onto its second print run, and sold into several countries.


Honor and Perdita


Perdita says they find working together addictive, generating a chaotic energy that really works for funny children’s books. 23-year-old Honor has left home, so their collaborative projects carve out enjoyable time in each other’s company.


“First up, we talk and talk and talk about the characters until they come alive,” says Perdita. Then they begin roughing out scenes. But from this point on, they split, which is the key to explaining why there’s been no actual blood on the floor! “Once we had to work side by side on the train,” remembers Honor, “and the partnership nearly dissolved ... it was ... bad .”


So, with a good amount of physical distance, they send drafts back and forth. Smoothing out their unique voices and covering the joins is certainly not a time saver. “Frankly, it takes ages,” says Perdita. “And we are pretty brutal when it comes to feedback. I’ve had notes from Honor that simply read this is not funny, I will rewrite. But it never feels personal and tends to be sorted out very fast.”


Working in this way allows them to flex their own muscles – Honor is funnier and suspicious of scenes involving “too many feelings”. She’s also less keen on the latter stages of editing, whereas Perdita finds those finicky bits “strangely satisfying.”


Agent provocateur


So, if the idea of pairing with your relations isn’t enough to send a shudder down your spine, what about writing alongside your agent?


Yes, you read that right. Your agent.


Almost unbelievably, successful author Jenny Pearson is now co-writing with her giant agent, Sam Copeland. This way, they hope to turn out even funnier stories. They write a chapter each and edit each other’s work as they go along. As Sam explains, “Our strengths do combine really well. I bring intelligence, warmth, humour, wisdom, character, voice and plot to the writing, whereas Jenny brings spellcheck and her thesaurus.”


Funny, see?


Zoom collaboration
Sam (Left) in his "mind palace" and a waiting Jenny (Right)!


Jenny adds: “We’ve had many a zoom meeting when we’ve hit a difficult moment in the story. I sit in silence, watching Sam whilst he lies on his sofa, massages his temples and enters his ‘mind palace’ to come up with a solution.”


Sam agrees. “I then usually repeat an idea that Jenny came up with an hour earlier and claim it as my own.”


And when they don’t see eye to eye? Jenny says, “I do trust Sam’s judgment completely and I’m not even sure he owns an artistic temperament. He’s incredibly easy to work with. Honestly, it’s been nothing but fun and I hope that comes across on the page.”


Sam concurs: “It is remarkable that in two books we haven’t had a single disagreement. And likewise I trust Jenny completely to allow me to have full and total creative control.”


On the basis of our hilarious chat, I can’t wait to read The Underpants of Chaos, which launches later this year.


Aye aye captain


So, enough of all these outrageously successful authors. Could co-writing help emerging writers navigate the choppy waters before those longed-for contacts and deals appear on the horizon?


Lauren Westwood and Chelsea Buckthorp would argue, yes. Fresh into their twenties and both Sunday Shifters in Lincoln’s Waterstones, they soon discovered a shared love of all things children’s literature.


Lauren and Chelsea 


Their time-travelling pirate story evolved from crazy ideas they tossed around whilst stacking shelves and working the tills. “At first we were just having fun,” laughs Chelsea, “and then one day Lauren said she was actually serious ... about us writing it.”


“Yes,” recalls Lauren with her trademark cheeky grin. “There was a moment of uncertainty – is this a thing, shall we make it a thing?” Well, it turned into a thing that has lasted ten years and survived job changes, house moves and all the rest. Far from derailing their friendship, the story has kept them close and working together a few hours every week, give and take some fallow periods. “We weren’t perfect in terms of experience or writing style,” admits Lauren, “that side of things has evolved, but we had an understanding and connection that’s kept us going, kept it exciting.”


Their pirate journey has thrown a few potholes in their path. “I love disagreements!” declares Chelsea with swash-buckling feistiness. “We just go back and look at what doesn’t feel right.”


“It’s almost something we relish,” chuckles Lauren. “It means we investigate the problem on a deeper level and end up with something twice as good. This approach is really healthy, very collaborative, and there’s always a sense of humour. That’s probably our greatest tool.”


As we all know, writing is hard, and co-writers can lean on each other through the tough times. As Kelly says, “In a partnership, you’re both pulling the sled at the same time, but every now and then one person will need a break and the other person is there to keep things moving forward.”


So, what d’you reckon? Maybe it’s time to stop being a lone wolf?


Just, please, don’t team up with me.


Header image: Flickr by Zenera

Chrissy Sturt is a freelance journalist and writer of flash, short and children's stories. She lives in Hampshire with one husband, two children and far too many animals.

Gulfem Wormald is the Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact: editor@britishscbwi.org Twitter: @GulfemWormald

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