Ten good reasons to co-author a book

I used to blog about writing, because that’s what you do when you’re an author but you don’t have a book out yet. Talking about what it’s like to query (repeatedly running facefirst into a brick wall, and thanking it afterwards), what it’s like to copyedit (exsanguination via papercut), that kind of stuff. But the internet is full of LOTS of writing advice—some excellent, some more dangerous than punching a sleeping axe-murderer in the love gun—and once you’ve written one “this is what copy-editing is like” post, you don’t really need to do another, because let’s be honest Jay, you’re not that interesting and neither is copyediting.
BUT, I’m now in the middle of a process that there’s surprisingly little info on the net about, junk-punchingly dangerous or no. As you know, Bob, I wrote a SciFi novel with a buddy of mine, which is actually going to be a real book with pages and everything. Thing is, I’d never actually written a novel with another person before, and didn’t really have any idea what I was getting into. So I figure I’ll talk about it for a little while in case any of you folks are contemplating undertaking the madness and awesome that is the co-authored novel.
But before we get into the “how do you do it?” (which turns out is so long I’m going to do another post on it), let’s talk about “why by Odin’s beard and Loki’s ridiculously well-sculpted cheekbones would you ever want to do it?” (I’ve been watching lots of Vikings lately, sue me).
The pros of co-authoring a book (and this is assuming you’ve chosen your co-author wisely, and not saddled yourself with a rampant egotist, precious artiste, unreliable prick, or any combination thereof—remember, you’re dealing with authors here, and we are a flighty breed) are as numerous as hookers on the Vegas strip. I’m told there’s a lot of them—hookers, I mean. Having never been to Vegas, I can neither confirm nor deny the amount of hookerage there. So the actual Good Things About Having a Co-Author to Hookers on the Vegas Strip ratio may vary somewhat. As with the hookers themselves, I suspect, YMMV. But anyways, away we go.
1. You’re never alone with a rubber duck.
Being a writer is a lonely gig. You spend the vast majority of your time by yourself, which is both entirely necessary and a sure fire recipe for a bout of Charlie Sheen-esque, underpants-on-head-wearing madness.
When you have a co-author, all the shit you’ll have to deal with on the road to publication (editor buys a Snuggie and runs off to join a doomsday cult, agent confesses he blew your advance on crippling tentacle hentai addiction, cover looks like it was designed by a committee of blind rhesus monkeys high on PCP, etc) is halved. You have someone to share the drunken commiserations with, and wipe the tears away when you fall down go boo boo.
Everyone falls down and goes boo boo at some point.
2. Immediate gratification, we needs it, Precious.
Being a writer is a lonely road, and you can sometimes find the road you’ve wandered down has become a dead end full of spooky meth-mouth hobos. Thing is, you need to bang out a decent chunk of your book solo before you can show it to anyone and discover this awful truth (because sending it to readers one chapter at a time and asking for feedback all along the way is a jerk move, and you don’t wanna be that guy/girl), and only then do you learn if you are indeed the unmitigated fucking genius Mother always insisted you were, or if you’ve written the literary equivalent of the herpes virus.
When you have a co-author, presuming you’re writing on a “you do a chapter, than I do a chapter” model (and you don’t have to, but this is the way Amie and I usually work), you get your feedback right away. And if you are writing the literary equivalent of herpes, someone will be on hand immediately to say “you might want to rub some cream on it before it spreads”, instead of you spending six months polishing the same cold sore solo.
Yyyyyeah, that’s a disgusting analogy and I’m going to stop it now.
3. Those Elves make some damn fine shoes, son.
So you know that fairy story about the shoemaker and the elves? Dude leaves out some leather overnight, gets drunk, wakes up, bam, new shoes where the leather used to be. Co-authoring is kinda like that. With less leather. Unless you’re into the kinky stuff, and hey, no judgements here.
You write your chapter and send it off, then you sit around prank-calling the local diocese or sculpting your facial hair, and a couple of days later, your book comes back to you and holy shit there’s more of it. You didn’t do anything and yet there are MORE FUCKING WORDS WHAT IS THIS WITCHERY.
4. The loop that feeds.
I used to work as a creative in advertising agencies, which actually turns out to be a really good grounding for being a co-author. Who knew. Anyway, “creatives” (yes, that’s the job title, zzzz) in ad agencies work in pairs—a writer and an art director, and they basically get paid lots of money to sit around all day in jeans and t-shirts, bouncing ideas off each other about how to sell this new toilet paper dispenser or whatever (yeah, wankerish job titles aside, it’s a pretty good job, tbh).
But, in the BEST partnerships I’ve had, you get a feedback loop happening, where one idea propels the next, and the enthusiasm from one person feeds the other, growing both exponentially by the sum of the square roots of the remaining sides and SCIENCE, BITCH.
If you’re lucky, your co-author and you will enter the same loop. They get excited, and you get excited because they’re excited. They think of a cool idea which you’d have never come up with alone, BUT, that sets you thinking on a different tangent, which gives rise to a bunch of other cool ideas and holy underwear on the outside, Batman, it’s a feedback loop and our shields can’t withstand awesome of this magnitude.
5. There are no stupid questions.
Well, there are, really. “What was Peter Jackson thinking when he decided to make a 200pg children’s book into a three-movie epic?” is a stupid question, for example (“I need a new yacht and I can count the shits I give about what you think on no hands, fanboy” is the very obvious answer). But hearkening back to #4, even a stupid idea can spark a cool train of thought in your partner, so asking them is actually a good thing. The human brain works in mysterious ways, and being bombarded by unfamiliar input is a great way to get your own brain processing in ways it wouldn’t have alone. And what might seem a pants-on-head stupid idea to you could actually become genius you wouldn’t have spotted if left to your own devices.
There’s a great story in Stephen King’s “On Writing” (which I know all you writer-types have already read, right?) from his early days. King has an idea for a scene, which he dutifully types up, reviews, and thinks “no, this is stupid”. So he throws it away. Later, his wife is cleaning out his trash. She finds the chapter and reads it. And she smooths it out and puts it on his desk with a note that says “I think you’re really on to something here.”
That chapter turned into the first scene in CARRIE.
So the lesson is: marry someone smarter than you.
Wait, no, that’s not the lesson.
. . . But it’s still excellent advice, goddammit.
6. Reality called. It wants you back, baby.
When I was 20, I had a girlfriend. I was truly, maaaaaadly in love with this girl. I was so madly in love, one night I got drunk and was all set to charge off to the tattoo parlour to get her name painted on my chest for life. A good friend of mine convinced me to hold off a while and see how it played out.
The girl I was maaaaadly in love with attacked me with a knife a few months later.
We broke up pretty soon after that.
The point is:
Sometimes, we have good ideas.
Sometimes we have really fucking bad ideas.
Sometimes we have really fucking bad ideas that we mistake for good ideas.
And sometimes, we just need someone there to say “Dude, that’s a really fucking bad idea.”
7. Soothing the wounded ego beast.
Aka, the “Wash, tell me I’m pretty.”
Sometimes it’s nice to hear someone tell you that you can write worth a damn. To say “I loooove that bit where you put in the comma, you are so good at the comma thing”. Even if you’ve got a book deal and pretty statues on your shelf and get nice letters from nicer people from countries you’ve never seen, some days your brain will still be full of the absolute and unswerving certainty of your own sucktiude, and that suckitude will leak onto the page.
In that situation, there’s very little that’ll help more than Alan Tudyk telling you he’d take you in a manly fashion were he unwed.
Or something.
8. You are not the Harry Potter of the writing world.
You are not independently wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. You do not have a secret destiny. The clutch position on the goddamn sports team will not just happen to be open when you, an untested eleven year old, wander onto the field. But most importantly, you are not 100% fucking awesome at everything you put your mind to. Welcome to real life, kid.
All writers have strengths. All writers have weaknesses. And while you can play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses, there are writers out there who just do some stuff better than you. That’s just the way reality works. I apologize if this is news, but better you learn it from me than some dude in a bar with a broken whiskey bottle.
I think I’m kinda decent at writing violence, for example. I’m less-than-suck at writing angst. Kissing scenes with dreamy boys? Nnnnnnot so much. So if you partner with a co-author that has different strengths to you, you’ll find you’re suddenly writing much stronger work. The novel will fill itself out, just like a piece of music when you add different instruments.
In other words, you play guitar? Bully for you. But get yourself a singer? You’ve got yourself a band, son.
9. “Honey, some guy named Steve Rogers is on the phone?”
So as all those terribly amusing novelty T-Shirts told us in the 90s, “shit happens”. Sometimes you can’t crack a scene, no matter how many times you fold it. Sometimes you move house, or someone in your family gets arrested for felony cocaine possession, or the Avengers call and say “Dude, Tony’s down with space AIDS again, we need someone to wear the suit when we go kick Thanos in the junk”.
When stuff like this happens and you’re an author with a deadline, there are one of two possible flow on effects:
a)    You lose a shit-ton of sleep/hair/stomach lining making up the lost ground
b)   You blow your deadline
However, the probability of both you AND your co-author being called up to wear the Iron Man suit on the same night are pretty remote, so chances are they’ll be able to lend a helping hand when Stark comes down with a screaming case of the space AIDS.
Help you to finish the book, I mean, not being Iron Man for you, FUCK THAT.
Oh, and maybe they can help you cracking that scene, or just write the thing for you if your brain is that bent on it. If your problems are of the more mundane variety, I mean.
10. Instant Scapegoat
Last but not least, when the reviews come in and the critics and readers of the world light your shit on fire all over the internet, you can both point at each other and utter the time honoured words:
“It was all their fault!”
I’ll talk about this some more next week, but for now I gotta split – Cap’s on the phone again.

12 Responses to “Ten good reasons to co-author a book”

  1. Jon Karoll says:

    Thanks for sharing Jay. Your posts are bitch slaps for a reality check. lol (And I mean that in a very good way)
    I can relate with #4. Most of my buddies are advertising majors and I ended up taking some credits for copywriting, and we spent hours coming up how to sell this damn coffee. We ended up having a terrible case of cabin fever and pointing each other with toothpicks.
    What’s up with #1 though? I mean, the agents blowing your advance on unsold VCR copies of La Blue Girl? Does that really happen sometimes?

  2. Frankie Ash says:

    A simple email or singing telegram would have worked; you didn’t have to smoke-screen it with a blog post. Of course I’ll share my writer allocated brain parts with you. What’s that? You weren’t asking? Damnit!

  3. Thanks for the insight into co-authoring. I’m really excited to read Illuminae.

  4. ashleycapes says:

    Great post, Jay – inspiring too 🙂

  5. Peter Mason says:

    Thanks for positing this. Co-authoring really isn’t spoken about enough!
    On an un-related side note – it is awesome you are listening to In Hearts Wake’s new album! I love it and I hope you are enjoying it just as much,

    • I think maybe it’s not an obvious way to do things – the vaaaaaast majority of books are written solo, and I’d never have really considered it unless my co-author asked. it’s just not something that enters your headspace unless prompted. But yeah, it’s kinda awesome 🙂
      IHW is pretty cool. Not usually a huuuuge fan of the clean vox, but they do some interesting stuff with it

  6. Jasmine Ryan says:

    “I apologize if this is news, but better you learn it from me than some dude in a bar with a broken whiskey bottle.” I really hope your not talking form experience there. 0_0
    Anyway, great post. I completely agree with you on the “Harry Potter of the Writing World” topic. I always work with this other writer, and she’s amazing with angst and lyrical wording and all I’m good for is action and conversation. Somehow we always work better with each other then on our own.

    • I’ve never been accosted with a broken whiskey bottle, have no fear 🙂
      Yeah for sure – if you can find a writer who augments your strengths and fills in the areas you’re less good at, you’re on a winner imo. Having two writers with two very similar styles and strengths might make things tricky.

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