Writing with a Partner

When a would-be screenwriter and a self-published novelist collaborate.

So, for a bit of context, this year my brother Chris Sergi and I wrote and self-published a book together called Adam and the Goat. A dark comedy about a young bachelor from London who eats a dodgy kebab only later to become supernaturally tethered to a sentient goat, who only he can see I might add. That’s the wild setup at least but this blog post is more about the collaborative process between brothers in different aspiring fields, who despite the ancient code of sibling rivalry, endeavoured to make a thing together. I doubt many would agree writing a book is as easy as pie by oneself but that’s not to say writing with a partner is any simpler. Rather than offer too much advice on the collaborative development, I’ll simply describe what our experience was like and it might just help others get a flavour for their own cooperative. I’m not a lecturer or certified educator of any kind, just a dude who likes to tell stories and if that helps someone in any shape or form then that’s just gravy!

About a year ago, my brother had just completed and self-published his first science fiction adventure novel titled Everscape: The Wings of Embra. It was a totally new experience for him as a completely self-taught writer with no prior qualifications or education but for the past decade had been slogging away at the keyboard, making an acquaintance with the expanding principles and trying realities of being a writer. I don’t like to give him too much credit, being brothers and all but I really do admire his tenacity and commitment to this world he is so eager to be a part of. Anyway, he caught the bug so to speak and it wasn’t too long before he threw the idea of a collaboration at me. I’ve always been a slow writer even in the short story/short film format and I personally felt this venture would do me wonders. I had never written to the extent he had and most of what I had written was more for the screen. Notwithstanding I saw this as an awesome challenge for the both of us but especially me because I’d never been involved in such a large undertaking.

I reckon it’s significant to note that throughout the whole progression of our book, my brother and I were living under the same roof. Now this comes with an exceptional number of pros and cons who anyone with brothers or sisters will understand. It helps that you and your writing partner have similar things in common but being blood related isn’t necessarily something that can help your project. Jokes aside, we are quite similar people in terms of interests, sense of humour and our general outlook on the universe and I truly believe this to be a positive. That isn’t to say two completely different people cannot bond or creatively join forces, this might even turn out better depending on your disposition. We both argued to almost no end at times but on occasions a grand idea rose from the scorched earth we left behind. One thing I would recommend if someone plans to write with a relative, is to act professional around them as much as you can, as if they are more of a colleague or associate. It’s good to be passionate and fight your corner like two adolescents with a belly full of blue smarties circa 1995 but never forget the endgame, the product you both strive towards. Now if you plan to partner up with perhaps an additional sibling, well, I can’t help you there I’m afraid. That potential conflict is your own to discover.

Chris and me… Not the Mitchell Brothers in their junior years.
Dad might have had a bald inferiority complex.

Communication, as in most aspects of life, is of paramount importance. Learn how to talk to each other, what to say and sometimes not what to say, but at least say something and often. Having known one another our whole lives gave us an advantage here but people have been known to meet up with complete strangers online for greater collaborations. Reddit.com is a perfect facilitator for specific online groups and societies and proposes a great way of finding likeminded individuals with the same passion. You’ll have to build up that rapport but with luck it’ll become fruitful in time and who knows, could lead to further prospects for the both of you.

Find and establish roles in the relationship. In my experience, it’s no good two people performing the same task. Once we both spent a few weeks bouncing around ideas, mapping out the plot and establishing the emotional journeys of our characters, we decided who would actually undergo the writing. Since he had already written one book from start to finish, my brother was more than capable and happy to take on this mammoth task, much to my relief. It isn’t that I didn’t want to carry it out, I just felt more confident giving him the honour of the first draft. If there was one thing I contributed to the most, it was the ideas department. Every union is going to be different obviously but we found a happy medium and stuck with it.

My background, if you can call it that comprises mostly of indie filmmaking and freelance videography and I’ve also worked a couple of entry level jobs in TV. Right now, I work in distribution for one of the biggest department stores in the UK, essentially grafting for a living but with a bit of training video production on the side to scratch that creative itch. The job is far from ground breaking but I do get a lot of freedom over the projects. The land of film and television is a colossal industry that I still don’t fully understand, yet still find myself wanting to get involved in the imaginative chaos. Screenwriting, as I mentioned earlier, is a potential career path I always think about and have done since compulsory education. Picture a fifteen-year-old kid, early hours of the morning, sitting at his desk under dim lamplight so not to irritate the rest of the household. He’s writing what he thinks is going to be the next Academy Award winning blockbuster only for his future self to read that same material and wonder what the fuck was he thinking. This is and has probably been the likely scenario for a lot of wishful or now successful writers I’m sure. A lot can be said for overconfidence at a young age as I truly believe growing from your mistakes is the best way to learn that your writing sucks. But we must persevere, eventually it might not suck as much.       

Now that I’ve waffled on about how my writing partner and I differ in experience, I have to add a bit about our professional chemistry. Throughout the duration, there were often times where I might overdo it in the dialogue department for example. My ideas for dramatic quips wouldn’t always translate well to the novel format. I could never seem to get the hang of the ‘third person limited’ rules and this would always irritate Chris. I can’t help but picture every scene like a movie sequence. I never thought it mattered whose point of view we focused on, or which character can see what at any given time. Visualising the book in a rectangular frame, jumping from scene to scene and showing the reader whatever I wanted them to see regardless of the protagonist’s perspective, was a difficult habit to shake admittedly. The rules took me a while to figure out but ultimately the healthy balance of filmmaking and literature was realised. And so, the rough draft was forged!  

On the set of ‘Whole’
A short horror I wrote and codirected

From this point we had a pretty solid idea of the objectives, obstacles, emotional arcs, stakes and effects on plot for each scene. The book was mapped as best we could and ready for fleshing out on the hard trek ahead. As my brother would write each chapter, I would review it, make annotations, reluctantly offer my opinion on the form and then try my absolute best to inject some adult humour into the mix. It is a dark comedy after all. I used to perform this mission after I dragged myself to the gym. I figured my head would be clear after I killed myself on the treadmill for a bit and working on the book might take my mind off the exhaustion. Most of the time, this worked for me.

Chris has always been quick and mostly efficient when getting words down on paper and that’s a quality that I would recommend at least one member of the duo possess. Even if the text is gibberish, you’ll have something to move around, play with and mould into something palpable eventually. This system of ours took about six months in total to complete and this was with a coarse schedule that we stuck to for the most part. When you both work actual full-time jobs for a living, time management is a necessity if you seriously want to get anywhere.    

By the end of draft one, we had booked a critique with a novel editor named Ellen Brock. This type of edit covered an array of advice on our style, plot, characterisation, arcs, marketability and age appropriateness. Not to mention the crappy stuff like plot holes, inconsistencies, point of view issues and ‘anything else that could hurt your odds of publishing success, of which thankfully there wasn’t a lot of in our case. We ended up with a really comprehensive document that ultimately led to the final draft but If you really want to fork out the cash, most editors will offer an even thorough report. It’s not a cheap luxury, to have an expert dissect your work to this extent but for a first-time writer like me I could not recommend it enough. We ended up paying roughly £400 but with two of us fitting the bill, it put less strain on our wallets. Just another benefit of partnering up.       

Once we took Ellen’s advice for near gospel, the next draft was underway. Same process as before, we discussed the story beats, arc and underlying message etc. Chris would commence writing each newly drafted chapter followed by my editorial. Rinse and repeat until unanimous content between both parties is accomplished! The redrafting process took about three months and the next laborious task on the list was to go over every sentence with a fine-tooth comb. A thorough table read, together and with lots of time given to do it. This didn’t take as long because the book had already gone through a vigorous refining process.  Now I would be terrible remiss if I did not mention that often my spelling is worth shit (that is perhaps a subject for another post) and so is my brother’s, I’m sure he’ll love me telling. Perhaps I exaggerate a little but it is a shame because I love words and if the English dictionary has anything to say about it, there is an absolute plethora of words to choose from these days. Chalk it down to self-diagnosed dyslexia, dependency on computers or just plain laziness, I don’t care to find out which. Regardless of this quality we retain, asking a close friend or relative (who is not completely inept at spelling and grammar) to check errors for you, is so very important and if you can get a few of them to do it, then that’s even better.

At this stage we focussed on the book’s illustrations and cover art while we waited for the checks. Other than glancing over the all but final draft for mistakes yourself, this was a constructive way to kill time. My brother has created his own little digital art style which wasn’t totally necessary for the chapter headings but we think worked wonders for the cover. If you are willing to put the effort in yourself, this is the best way to not commission a professional artist.   

All that was left to do, was compile all the elements into a complete, crisp and ironed draft ready to get out there. We decided to go with Amazon Books as our launching platform as quite frankly it’s the best means to promote a first-time self-published novelist. Plus, Chris had his first book already on the platform. They take a big cut of the sales but every book is printed to order. Paying a printing firm for a bulk order, only to find it pretty difficult to sell each unit later on, was a thought that weighed on me in the early days of ignorance. A lot of people prefer Kindle these days and that’s obviously something else Amazon accommodate. Lastly, you have to promote the bloody thing and that’s a whole other beast I’ve yet to slay.

If anybody can take any one chunk of advice away from this, it’s to identify and manage your resources. Self-publishing can be fickle even as a solo act and it is so important to obtain assets wherever possible, whether it is time based, favour based or money based. Snatch up those opportunities together and try not to kill each other in the process! Because after all, the only way from the bottom is up.

What would you do in this delicate situation? Would you try a different strategy when writing with a partner? Maybe you’ve had terrible experiences, maybe you’ve had great ones or at least know people who have, and if there is any vital info I might have missed in hindsight let’s talk about it.

Drop a comment!