Co-Writing: Plotting Murder without Killing Each Other


sparkle-300x215by Sparkle Abbey

The thing most people notice first when they meet Sparkle Abbey at conferences or book signings is that there are two of us. The question that almost always follows is: How do you do it?

This year saw the publication of Downton Tabby, the seventh book in our mystery series, and we’ve learned some things about collaboration along the way. First, a little background.

Why did we choose to work together?

We belonged to the same critique group for several years and had written and submitted fiction independently. We’d both received very good rejections from publishers and agents, but no offers. In figuring out why, we had the opportunity to speak to a New York agent. Her advice on high-concept hooks was brilliant and resonated with us both. After that conversation, we brainstormed. We discussed and discarded ideas until we landed on using our love for our rescue pets. Since the idea of setting a mystery in the world of people and their pets was something we came up with together, we decided to team up on the series.

How do we do it?

51IuseAYJ9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We could have worked together in a number of different ways. Some co-authors divide the work, with one author outlining and plotting the story and the other doing the rough draft. One or both may polish the completed story. Others work chapter by chapter; both writers plot the story and then each writes a chapter, often sending chapters back and forth throughout the process. Still others write everything together, playing on each other’s strengths. One may be better at dialogue, the other better at description or point of view.

Although we didn’t realize it when we embarked on this journey, we’ve taken a somewhat unique approach. We take turns writing the individual books. The odd-numbered books feature Caro, a psychologist turned pet therapist, and are written by Mary Lee. The even-numbered books star Mel, a pet-boutique owner, and are written by Anita. We share the Laguna Beach setting and some fun and quirky secondary characters. The two main characters, who are cousins, make appearances in one another’s books. We work closely on the outline for the series and for the individual books, but each of us writes a full book. It works for us.

The best part of collaboration is that two heads really are better than one. We plot together. We work out story problems together. There is a wonderful synergy and a creative spark that comes from working with another writer. Another advantage is that the responsibility is split–both the writing and promotional/marketing work. When one of us is on deadline, the other can continue working on other things. And then there’s the reality that publishing is a stressful and often crazy business. With a co-author you have company on the crazy train.

So how do we keep from killing each other?

51RUzEU39PL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Much like a marriage, every step of the way there will be compromise, and just as in any relationship, communication is key. It’s important to talk in advance about how you’re going to divide the work, handle disagreements, and make business decisions. Mutual respect is paramount and defining your writing/professional goals is essential. We do a planning session at least twice a year, when we assess our progress and discuss our goals.

Most people also want to know how we deal with creative differences. We decided early on that any differences in opinion would be decided by what’s best for the book. For us, that’s a reminder to set our ego aside and think first about creating the very best book we can.

Anything else?

There are also some legal aspects to collaboration that we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention. If you decide to co-write, you may want to consider incorporation as a business entity. Additionally, we’d recommend (and our publisher required) a collaboration agreement. We laughingly say that it’s the most depressing document we’ve ever worked on, and we’re only partly kidding. A collaboration agreement spells out what happens in particular situations, for instance, if one of you is incapacitated or dies, or if one author wants to continue and the other does not. It’s pretty much a prenup for authors.

Unanswered questions?

We started down this path for a number of reasons and have been truly blessed by the opportunity to work together on a fun and successful series. We’re always happy to answer questions about our experience and what we’ve learned in the process. So if you have additional questions, please feel free to email us via our website:

Sparkle Abbey is the pseudonym of national best-selling mystery authors Mary Lee Woods and Anita Carter, who co-author the Pampered Pets Mystery Series. Titles include Desperate Housedogs, Get Fluffy, Kitty Kitty Bang Bang, Yip/Tuck, Fifty Shades of Greyhound, The Girl with the Dachshund Tattoo, Downton Tabby, and Raiders of the Lost Bark (coming soon).


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