Sunday, June 30, 2013

Collaboration: fiction without friction

This is nothing to do with spying. This article’s about how to approach a book collaboration without coming to blows.

Collaboration is quite the thing these days. I’m seeing more and more joint books by siblings, old school pals, husbands and wives … When I started writing seriously a few years, it was to avoid the ‘empty nest’ syndrome, but suddenly, it’s become very important to both of us. In my case, I worked with my husband Robert Deeth on a ‘film noir’-inspired mystery called Half Life set in Norway before the Nazi invasion. A group of scientists at a nordic research institute is set on cracking the ultimate mystery of nuclear fission, but darker forces are afoot …

Now, with a background is in journalism and languages, what on earth was I doing setting a story in Norway, during the 1930s and based on physics?

Thanks to a work trip of Rob’s (he's a professor in inorganic chemistry), we had the chance to go to Tromsø, 200 miles or so north of the Arctic Circle. 
From the moment I arrived, I was hooked. It was such an atmospheric place, with its brooding mountains, Northern Lights, fascinating history of Polar exploration … Suddenly, I was plotting. It was only when we returned to England that I came up with the science institute plot scenario. Why not use in-house expertise?

This was our first unwitting step. We never actually planned to work together so closely.

So, at first, Rob was a casual consultant. I looked up some history and then ran it past him. However, as the story became more complex and the book grew, we realised we were, in fact, collaborating on a joint project.
Our backgrounds and interests couldn’t be more different, but there are overlaps. Film noir, 1930s-40s drama, and spy stories are right at the top of the list, so that was fine. More importantly, perhaps, we do talk to each other a lot, about everything. We always have, from the first day we met. Not for us the scenario of the married couple in a pub staring morosely at a half pint, wondering what to say. We never stop talking. Communication is the key to a good collaboration.

It was time for some ground rules. I'm guessing that every collaboration is different, so we made it up as we went along.

First thing we had to tackle was timing. I’m a stickler for deadlines. Rob, well, isn’t. I like to write fast, blasting away, avoiding details about east/west, cigar or cigarette, time of day … and then I fill them in later. Rob likes to get the continuity straight from the off. So, it was important to decide who was going to be 'lead'.As I’d already written a few manuscripts, I became the time manager. I set the schedule, based on both our work commitments. At times, I had to be indulgent, for an academic’s life can get stupidly busy.

Next, we worked on the outline plot. Lots and lots of science. Rob would spout while I keyed in his thoughts, to make sure the science was sound. Later, I’d go back to my scenario and twiddle.

One aspect was especially tricky. Thorium, to be precise. Just don’t mention that element in my daughter’s presence, unless you want the primordial adolescent GROAN. Lord, did we both read up about thorium. Rob even got down to doing some serious calculations to make sure our story was plausible. They were eerily accurate … If it had been just me writing, I would never have gone into such detail, but his professionalism was at stake.

Once we had the broad outline, I went on to develop a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story which I like to do before I get going. Although I put this together, I needed Rob’s constant input to make sure the action flowed, and that I didn’t have the same person in two places at once (a personal weakness of mine). This we achieved piecemeal, chatting as we drove to the cinema or off on our holidays.

As 'lead' writer, I could spend time when I liked, but I wanted the experience to be fun, not a chore, so I always chose my discussion times with care.

As the manuscript grew, I realised I needed more than just particle physics. Anyone who knows Rob also knows his obsession with flying. In the 1930s seaplanes were big. Oh, boy. Did I pick his brains about seaplanes! This from one who will only fly when required and sweats in a panic if stuck in the window seat. He got so enthused,it seemed apt to work another of his interests into the story – and I believe it’s stronger and more authentic because of it. My original plan was to produce a book that would appeal to men and women – so why not mix it up a little? My favourite movie is Casablanca. That says it all.

Back to the collaboration. I started writing. Now, chemistry professors are busy. We did a deal. I’d do some words and whenever I got stuck over, say, a gun, a lorry (truck for US readers), a seaplane, a cyclotron, German dialogue, how you get out of fist fight … well, I’d chat to Rob.

Forget annotated manuscripts – and we avoided track changes like the plague, partly because Rob’s writing style is so different from mine. (Next time, he’s going to write and I’ll make helpful suggestions!) We kept it simple. We’d just chat over What We Laughingly Refer To As The Breakfast Bar. That’s its name. We’d sit, over a nice G&T, maybe some nuts on a good day, and thrash over Thorium until our daughter complained.

Even when the manuscript was done, there were tweaks. So, the next step was more frenetic note-taking. I’d set Rob off. How do you start up a Junkers-style seaplane? Or can you explain the nuclear physics behind the Half-Life concept of radioactive elements? Well, he’d say. Stop, I’d say. Let me get to the laptop. Flex knuckles. Type furiously until he stopped. Or until the beeper announced dinner was ready. Daughter having left room in disgust.

So, the book got written. By me. Then came the editing. My goodness, I didn’t know my husband was such a perfectionist. I nearly said pedant, but that’s unfair. Maybe it’s something to do with chemistry, or the fact that he’s a bloke, but I wasn’t allowed to get away with A THING.My favourite blooper was when a villain started a scene smoking a cigar and finished it by stubbing out a cigarette. Professor Continuity sorted me out on that one.

Some final touch-ups followed. German dialogue. Molecular quibbles (I kid you not). Endless (and I mean that in the deepest respect), endless chances to watch Youtube videos of seaplanes landing, taking off, landing, taking off … Yup. I did it all. Actually, I now think seaplanes are cool.

When MuseItUp accepted our manuscript, we discovered that a joint celebration is much more fun. By the time the editing began, we were in our groove. I’d go first, then ping the manuscript back to Rob. He’d put in his pennyworth, then it was back to me to tidy up, and then back to our lovely editors.

The collaboration also worked brilliantly when it came to the cover. It must be tough for designers when working with two writers, but, in fact, we both had a similar design in mind. When we saw the version you see now, we both knew it was just right. Whenever we see it, we both get such a buzz.

So, here are our Ten Golden Guidelines for a successful collaboration:

  • Choose a lead writer.
  • Set the deadlines jointly.
  • Allow each person to play to his or her strengths.
  • If things get bogged down, go out or do something! Movies, TV documentaries, museums, galleries, a different dog walk. Anything to break the pattern usually works.
  • If you can’t agree on a fine point, ask your editors, a relative or friend – a third-person POV is invaluable.
  • If you ask for advice, be prepared to take it.
  • Never stop talking but keep technical discussions away from other parties. They won’t care until the book’s published.
  • Have fun. Try to make sure it’s never a chore, but a shared pleasure.
  • Split up the research and do it between you.
  • When the book gets published, celebrate by going on holiday together ­­– to plan the sequel.

Pamela Kelt and Robert J Deeth are co-authors of Half Life (, out in August on MuseItUp. This is Pam's website and blog for more information. Pam's first book for MIU was Dark Interlude, released on 21 June.


Leona~Author said...

Hi Pam, that was a very interesting post. I often wondered how collaboration on a book would work. You and Rob did it right with difficult topics. I can't think of one person in my family I could do that with.

Best wishes and lots of success.

anne stenhouse said...

Hi Pam, I'm not sure I would be good at this, but I have a little experience as I wrote plays for a long time. Rehearsal rooms teach you to listen and understand your viewpoint might not be the only one.
Half Life sounds fascinating. good luck with it. Anne Stenhouse