We’ve been collaborating for several years now, and people (especially other writers) constantly ask us how we’ve managed to write five novels together without killing each other. It’s a good question. Our collaboration began as all good things do, after one too many beers, and we wrote our first novel, the satirical horror The Mall, with the purest of motives: for fun and to see if we could. Our latest novel, Under Ground, is a whodunnit (and whydunnit) set in a luxury survival bunker – the kind of place rich, paranoid, apocalypse preppers invest in on the off chance that things really do fall apart. And when the spectre of disaster looms in the form of an ebola-style plague, our characters discover that far from fleeing to a safe location, they’re sharing their underground sanctuary with a psychopath. Out of all the novels we’ve written, this one should have tested the limits of our relationship, as its success depended on a far more rigid plot structure than we’re used to employing. But we made it through, and although it sounds smug, we somehow did it without so much as a hissy fit.
With this in mind, here are our top five tips to avoid literary bloodshed when co-authoring a crime novel:
1. Choose the right collaborator
This is an obvious tip, but we know of several writing partnerships that have imploded due to personality clashes or work ethic differences. On paper, our partnership shouldn’t have worked: one of us is a literary author; the other is the South African literature scene’s trashy cousin. Luckily, we’re both fairly laid-back, and never sulk or badmouth each other (at least to each other’s faces), and it helps that like most authors we’re seething monsters of self-doubt, so ego is kept to a minimum.
2. Set a deadline
Knowing there’s someone waiting for your chapter is a great way to keep procrastination at a minimum, which in our case involves Googling food porn (Louis), or car porn (Sarah). As we share a fear of missing deadlines, we tend to work quickly with an average first-draft chapter turnaround time of three or four days, which is tight enough to keep panic and adrenaline at just the right level to ensure the words keep flowing. There’s nothing better than seeing your partner’s chapter zinging into the inbox and finding they’ve written something unexpected that might take the story in a new direction. In the early days, when we wrote our first novel, The Mall, we had a great deal of fun writing each other’s characters into tricky corner – a literary version of exquisite corpse.
3. Don’t sweat the small stuff
The last thing you want is a co-writer who’s going to have a conniption every time you misplace a comma. You have to be prepared to show your co-author your first draft in all its clunky glory, which for most writers is the equivalent of walking naked through a mall. We still sometimes write long caveats when sending a chapter to the other, but we’re getting less precious about this these days, because we know we’ll tidy everything up when the time comes.
4. Play to each other’s strengths
We’re lucky, our strengths and weaknesses balance each other out: One of us is great at sex scenes; the other one would rather sandpaper her eyes. One is skilled at atmosphere and description; the other gets her kicks plotting and world building. One of us hates backstory, the other loves it. It also helps when it comes to publicity: One of us is terrific at social media, while the other is an antisocial old fart; one doesn’t mind writing online content and guest blogs, whereas it’s not the forte of the other. Another bonus is that we’re currently in two different continents, which means that we can literally be in two places at once and field twice as many interview requests.
5. Honesty is the best policy
It may sound harsh, but neither of us bothers with compliment sandwiches anymore when giving feedback. We may have fragile egos, but the writing comes first. The number of rewrites on Under Ground went into the double figures, and by the end of it we both felt like we’d been locked in an underground bunker with a psychopath. But it was worth it (we hope).
S.L Grey are Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. You can find more about the writing on their website. You can also follow them on Twitter @SarahLotz1 and @louisgreenberg. They can also be found on Facebook.
THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE SAFE ...The Sanctum is a luxurious, self-sustaining survival condominium situated underground. It's a plush bolt-hole for the rich and paranoid - a place where they can wait out the apocalypse in style. When a devastating super-flu virus hits, several families race to reach The Sanctum. All have their own motivations for entering. All are hiding secrets. But when the door locks and someone dies, they realise the greatest threat to their survival may not be above ground - it may already be inside ....
Under Ground is by and is published by Pan Macmillan (£12.99)