Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Co-writing a novel: two’s a crowd


A couple of dudes wrote a novel together and think you should too!

Gavin Kovite & Christopher Robinson are the author of War of the Encyclopaedists (Scribner). It’s a collaborative project.

The duo describe their approach and methods in this Salon piece, concluding that it’s better to write a novel with someone because — well, because they did it and it was awesome. They say all writing is collaborative, plus it’s a drag to sit alone hammering out scenes when you could be in the company of a friend and colleague, joking your way through your plot spreadsheet and improving each other’s contributions.

I’m not sold. To me, the writing of a novel is a one-man operation. A book starts in the crinkly little folds of my brain and starts to evolve based on the idiosyncrasies life has planted in me. Childhood memories, dreams, imagined confrontations I didn’t have the guts to stage, wants, fears, notions, a fondness for string cheese: everything goes into the pot and gets stirred up in a thick bubbling wort. Then it ferments. The novel that comes out of it is stamped with my being, and it has a nice floral afternote thanks to those aromatic Cascade hops. (Pardon the metaphor; I used to dabble in homebrewing…).

Now, if I were sitting down with a co-author, I’d have to reveal all of that raw material and explain it to justify keeping certain details in the book. And when my co-author explained his (or hers), I’m sure I’d be shaking my head and thinking, “You’re frickin’ psychotic, chief!”

I’m not sure what kind of novel War of the Encyclopaedists is — the dudes call it “literary” — but from their hints it appears to be semi-autobiographical, which is probably the one kind of book that could be written pretty happily by a team. Two narrative lines, each guy writes his story and then the pair mashes them up and edits out all the clumsy bits. Voila.

These two are also very close pals, so it’s possible that they are one of the few combinations of co-authors that could actually pull off a viable novel. Literary, at least. God knows there are plenty of thrillers and romance novels written by committee or in the James Patterson mode: you write it, I put my name on it. There’s really only one person I could realistically write a novel with — a close pal — but we’d probably wind up emailing silly haikus back and forth when the thing started to go off track and that would be that.

It’s often pointed out (as these guys do too) that many works of art are collaborative: TV shows, films, music, plays. But there’s a fundamental difference, isn’t there? These things are meant for public presentation, for performance. The novel is a much more intimate experience, a line of communication between two people — writer and reader. No one would call for poetry to be made by a rhyme squad, would they? (Then again, that Shakespeare — he was a nice buncha guys, eh?)

I don’t begrudge Robinson and Kovite their personal achievement. In fact, editors eat this sort of thing up — it’s a selling point. You can just imagine the book tour, with each guy reading from his sections and swapping dialogue lines. They’re gonna be great on “The Daily Show.”

And maybe this is the real problem I see in the concept. Writers have to come up with new ways to trick the system, to get editors to pay attention and support their books. Gimmicks, in other words. If that sounds too cynical, how about a nice shtick?

(My co-author would probably want to edit that line out…)

What do you think? Could you write a novel with someone else, or do you reckon it would deteriorate to hair-pulling and fisticuffs before Chapter 3?


13 comments on “Co-writing a novel: two’s a crowd

  1. sknicholls
    June 1, 2015

    I get immediate feedback from my husband, But I could never write a book with a partner. I’ll mull over what someone has to say, but prefer, in the end, to do it my way. Even though I appreciate the feedback and sometimes find it very useful.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 1, 2015

      Same here. My wife is great for feedback and editorial suggestions, but it’s always down to my own sense of what the book should be.

  2. 1WriteWay
    June 1, 2015

    You could have had your wife write the part of Dylan Cakebread. That gimmick would warrant a Daily Show appearance (even better to be skewered by Colbert if his show was still around). I know there are successful collaborations out there but they’re not a formula for success in and of themselves. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are pretty rich & famous because of their collaboration. But I didn’t pick up reading their Special Agent Pendergast series (one of my guilty pleasures) because of their collaboration. That was irrelevant. I can only imagine collaborating on nonfiction. The thing is, I don’t I could find someone who would want to go where my mind goes 😈

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 1, 2015

      Your mind must be terribly terribly wicked. How enticing!

      I don’t think I’ve ever read a collaborative novel, now that I think of it. It does seem like certain genres lend themselves to it. As Ms. Largusa said on Twitter, only zombie rom-com or Sasquatch porn should be collaborations. 😉

      • 1WriteWay
        June 2, 2015

        Oh, I’ll have to find Theresa’s tweet … lol. There’s a slew of crime fiction written by collaboration, and maybe that makes sense given that most of these novels (at least the ones I’m familiar with) involve a fair amount of problem solving. And who knows, maybe it’s not a “true” writing collaboration. Maybe one writer does the writing and the other does the editing. Kind of like Bernie Taupin writes the lyrics and Elton John writes the music. Now, since you have writing about pushing the boundaries of writing, especially with our current technology, perhaps you should consider collaborating, but in a multimedia way … ?

  3. John W. Howell
    June 1, 2015

    I vant to be alone. I can’t imagine sitting still for another’s input on what should be in a book. Knives and blood in two minutes

  4. kingmidget
    June 1, 2015

    There are ideas I want only for myself. There are other ideas that I think would be neat to try out with a co-author. But that’s just me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 1, 2015

      If both are on the same page, absolutely. I told you about my own experience with a co-author, though, and how we were def. not on the same page… ø_ø

      • kingmidget
        June 2, 2015

        Yep. Most of the ideas I have that I think would be good for co-author type work are those that aren’t fully formed. I view it as an opportunity to take the germ of an idea and share in its growth.

  5. cinthiaritchie
    July 12, 2015

    Whenever I notice a book that has more than one author, I groan and move on. I’m with you, Kevin: I don’t think minds can mix well when it comes to writing. Oh, I’m sure there are instances that might prove me wrong. But for the most part, two-authored books read, well, like two-authored books.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 13, 2015

      Yeah. It reeks of marketing, or novels-by-focus-group. Then again, working with agents and editors sometimes feels like you have co-authors too, doesn’t it? 😉

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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