When it comes time to turn an idea into a novel, many writers decide to seek out the help of a coauthor. Mother-and-son team Caroline and Charles Todd are no different. Together they’ve written nearly 30 novels under the pen name Charles Todd. Their latest, The Shattered Tree, is the eighth entry in their Bess Crawford series. The Shattered Tree follows English nurse Bess as she travels through WWI France on the hunt for the identity of a mysterious patient. With the book hitting shelves on August 30th, the mother-son duo teamed up to reflect on their collaborative process and offer advice for writers who are considering collaboration.
Collaborating can be fun—you get an extra pair of eyes, an extra spark of creativity, and a sounding board. You are challenged to give your very best, and there’s someone to share the hurrahs when you have a success, someone who has walked the pages with you. But there are pitfalls in deciding to write with someone else. Here’s a brief look at important factors to consider before teaming up.
Charles: I didn’t choose to write with “my mother.” On the contrary, Caroline and I happened to share a lot of interests—history, books, films, TV shows, and trivia, to name a few. I’d been away from home long enough to know my own mind, and I could see the potential for working together was there. I had strengths, she had strengths, and they complemented each other. It’s like any other business arrangement. Whether it works or not will depend ultimately on how well you get along over time. In the first flush of excitement, anything may seem possible, but be sure you like the person well enough to spend a lot of time with them. There are pressures when you’re racing a deadline that can bring out the worst in anybody. You have to be able to trust your partner, communicate well with him/her, and believe in what you’ve built together.
Caroline: I’d had much the same thoughts about collaborating. I was married to an engineer who was brilliant at what he did, but he wasn’t a reader. Instead he became the perfect proofreader. But why did I want to write with someone? My reasons—I thought it would be more challenging, and that the research would be more exciting if shared—were sound then, and they’re sound now, which tells me I made a wise choice in Charles, not one I look back on with regret.
2. Nitty gritty
Caroline: How are arguments going to be solved? How do you handle the finances? How much of your income are you willing to put back into the partnership for promotion and research and so on? What time do you get up/go to bed? What do you need to help you work? You wouldn’t go into any other partnership without thinking about such matters. The answers to these questions can determine whether your energy goes into creativity or into arguments.
Charles: We decided that all arguments would be settled by doing whatever was best for the book/the character, not our individual wishes. In addition to conventions and signings (which are never cheap), we realized that to write well about England, we had to go there, not just once or twice but often. I work better in the morning, Caroline in the evening. Would this create a problem? We discovered we couldn’t work in the same room because we got off subject too easily. Adjustments are always necessary, and they have to be made with good will and humor.
3. Who writes what
Caroline & Charles: There are many different ways of collaborating: alternating chapters, dividing the research and the writing, splitting the characters and the plotting, etc. The possibilities are endless. Figure out sooner rather than later what your strengths are. We found that the best results came when we worked out each scene together, writing bits as we discussed it, then putting the bits together and smoothing them out until we were satisfied. We don’t outline—the story comes out of the characters and what they add to the story. But whatever division of labor you decide on, make sure it’s mutually satisfying from the start.
Caroline & Charles: Ego is the downfall of many a collaboration. And success can aggravate that. If you think you contribute more than your partner does, or he/she gets more attention, bitterness and resentment will thrive. If you look at the project as something that reflects well on both of you, this collaboration has a chance. One of our role models as we began our own partnership was the success of Annette and Martin Meyers in their Maan Meyers series. They were married, which could have made it even more difficult for them to work together as writing partners. But they accomplished it with such grace that we were impressed. If there were any strains on that relationship, they never showed. They put the books ahead of everything else, and took equal pride in what they accomplished.
5. Legal agreement
Caroline: If you aren’t married or related—and sometimes even if you are—then you need to draw up some sort of legal agreement that is binding on both parties and their heirs. There’s a very good reason for this. If you are successful, there are multiple contracts over the years, including contracts with your agents, and these need some sort of working plan to handle them long term. And to protect both parties. Royalties don’t stop with death or divorce, and this means arranging for the future as well as the past. How will you feel about each other five years from that initial decision? Ten? Twenty? Prepare for contingencies ahead of time.
Charles: Your partner dies. Or is incapacitated. Or wants out to do something else or just to quit. What rights does the exiting partner have? What about his heirs? What about the surviving partner? Can he continue with the series after the split? And does the former partner have any future rights in the characters or the books, if the surviving partner wishes to continue them? Can he go on? And what about heirs? How do you deal with the heirs of a deceased or incapacitated partner? Set it all out in the beginning, in writing, and buy peace of mind. It’s a complicated business you are about to embark on. Make sure the foundation is as solid as you can make it—from the start!
Charles Todd is the New York Times bestselling author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, the Bess Crawford mysteries, and two stand-alone novels. A mother-and-son writing team, they live on the East Coast.