Paired Writing Techniques

The year is 202X. Technology and progress have advanced to such a point that two nerds can get together and create poetry from thousands of miles apart. What a time to be alive!

While solo writing will always be the norm, it’s easier and more reasonable to share the experience with co-writers than ever. The Expanse, a recent book-turned-television series phenomenon, is actually a team effort by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. The San Cicaro series is no stranger to paired writing either. While working on Beasts of San Cicaro and Decades of San Cicaro (which is out this week by the way), Andrew and I got together to create the misadventures of one Olivia Murphy, the book series’ new hostess.

“By why?” the naysayers scream. “Why would I share writing credit with anyone? The glory is mine alone! There can be only one!

Eaaaaaasy Highlander… I can think of three good reasons.

A: The glory may be all yours, but so is the work. And writing is comparable to working out. Tiring exercises we drag ourselves to do, while resisting the urge to procrastinate. By pulling someone else into your routine, you become hesitant to waste their time too.

Two: Having a second voice can help you power through writer’s block. Can’t think of something funny for the scene? Turn to your partner. Can’t figure out how to simplify an action? Give control over to your buddy and take five. The prose will flow when you learn to let go. Plus, you can always edit it later.

And D: A second set of eyes can help you catch your writer’s ticks. You know, when you happen to use the same word twice in a sentence. Or when your characters nod, nod, nod. Like weight lifting, it’s coaching to help you improve your form. Defeat your bad habits before they start. You heard me… paired writing can make you a better writer.

To be fair, teaming up isn’t always perfect, and there can be some headaches. Yet if done right, a moment of frustration is small potatoes compared to dozens of meetings that are productive, effective and… dare I say fun. Yes! If the material is light and breezy, you may very well enjoy yourself. And according to anecdotal sources, having fun is good.

Preparations and Approach

Before we begin, here’s a checklist of tools you’ll need and possibly want.

  • A writing buddy. I will politely assume you have friends.
  • Conferencing software. If you want video (which I recommend), check out Zoom or Google Meet. If you’re fine with just audio, Slack has a huddle feature, and Discord has voice chatrooms. Tip: If your bandwidth is limited, go with voice only.
  • Live-writing application. It needs to be hosted and allow multiple people to write and edit. Google Docs is absolute aces for this, and I’m sure there are other options.
  • A microphone. Most modern laptops have one built in. If not, shop around for a USB one.
  • A camera. Again, available with most modern laptops. However this is optional.
  • Coffee, tea, water, beverages. Beer? Why yes, I’d love one. You’re going to be talking a lot, so something to slake your parched throat is recommended.

Once you and your partner are together on the video conference, the first step is to create a document and share it with him or her. Make sure to extend any needed permissions so they can edit it. When you’re both ready, the twist comes in figuring out a rhythm. Here’s a few pointers and terminology to maintain order… or at least prevent chaos.

  1. Before you start, discuss where, with who and how the scene begins and ends. Try not to over plan. If you forgot to insert needed details (usually something to connect the themes or provide plot hints), leave a comment to amend it later. Remember, you can always get it in editing.
  2. Have one of you “take point” or lead. It works best if only one person is writing at a time so the other can lean back, observe, drink and think.
  3. Joke! I mean it. Joking can help people relax, which resets their mind to innovate. Just don’t forget to apply discipline, lest humor impact a dramatic or tense scene. If you’re aiming for Alien, don’t let it become the diner scene from Spaceballs.
  4. Figure out an “I’m thinking” cue. The worst part about paired writing is when you’re trying to ignite cognition and your partner keeps talking over your thoughts. Come to an agreement to let each other ponder in silence for a minute. Say, “just a minute” or raise a forefinger for silence.

Be en garde when introducing folks to paired writing for that final reason. A-types will use the pause to trample over the other person’s thought process. The advantage to teaming up comes when two people can think in parallel and then discuss their considerations. Give people a moment to think.

And there you have it! I recommend giving it a shot with a writer’s group buddy or a trusted friend to do some flash fiction. The shorter the better, and usually something fun. Based on how well that goes, who knows? You innocent little scribbling sessions could lead to the next great book series… just be sure to cross your T’s and dot your i’s with legal agreements between the two of you.

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