mirren jones

Collaborative Writing – Mirren Jones style

‘Take in laundry, before you take on a partner’

(proverb)

How can two people write a novel together? How do you decide who will write what? And what happens when you disagree?

In 2008, Elaine Atkins from Wales and Marion Duffy from Scotland published their debut novel Eight Of Cups under the pseudonym ‘Mirren Jones’. Their second novel, Never Do Harm, will be published later this year.

When out and about at ‘Meet the Author’ events, members of the audience are at first full of questions about the practicalities of co-authorship – the what, where, when and how of writing as Mirren Jones.

Very quickly, however, the talk turns to inter-personal issues, such as who’s in charge? And what do you argue about? It’s an intriguing phenomenon – a fiction-writing partnership.

Successful song writing partnerships roll off the tongue – Lennon and McCartney, Roger and Hammerstein. There are friends who have become catwalk collaborators – think FrostFrench. Even in the volatile environment of the professional kitchen, The Roux Brothers and Two Fat Ladies managed not to overheat while working in collaboration.

However, when it comes to finding role models for friends who could develop and sustain a fiction-writing relationship over a number of years, examples are thin on the ground.

In Scotland there are Linda Watson-Brown and Maria Thomson writing as ‘Grace Monroe’, veterans of four co-written crime novels. Further south, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French manage to combine marriage and their obvious literary talents, spawning twelve Nicci French best-selling thrillers plus several other books to date.

In recent years, with the growth of Indie publishing, a few more writing partnerships have become successful via Amazon, such as Mark Edwards and Louise Voss.

Given that millions of people are now writing fiction books, where are all the others?

Novelist Agatha Christie had obviously given the notion of collaborative writing some thought before she dimissed it roundly with:

‘I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator. Each believes he gets all the worries and only half the royalties’

Tom Clancy went even further, suggesting that:

‘Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act’.

When we began our first novel in 2006, we already had a track record of collaborative writing as part of our academic roles within the Medical School of the University of Dundee. We’d produced two non-fiction books on facilitation and organisational development in Primary Care for Radcliffe Medical Press, co-authored numerous academic papers, and designed a wide range of educational materials for doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals.

What had started out as a line management relationship when we first met at the University ( nine years before we wrote Eight of Cups) had developed over time into a strong and professional partnership, as we moved into our own private organisational development consultancy.

In our personal lives, we’d helped each other through some tricky times, including Elaine’s marriage break-up. Why would collaborating on a novel be any more of a challenge than anything else we’d done before?

There wasn’t a guidebook to collaborative fiction-writing. No longer in the academic department or the lecture room, there were no conventions for behaviour. Add to that a series of hurdles such as geographical distance, the demands of a horse stud and the moving back home of our six in total ‘boomerang’ children, and we were traversing uncharted territory.

The story of our first novel starts when Marion moved from Perthshire to live part- time in the Outer Hebrides where her husband was contracted to work for two years. In his concern that she adapt to their new way of life, he suggested that she ‘take this opportunity to write that novel you’ve been banging on for about four years’. She couldn’t ignore the challenge!

At about the same time, she went to a university reunion, meeting up with friends whose lives had gone in a variety of directions since graduating from Edinburgh in the 1970s. That evening over dinner, with tongues loosened after a few glasses of particularly well-chilled Chablis, one the the group made a shocking revelation. It would be the seed for Marion’s novel – because that was how Eight of Cups started its life.

On her next visit to Fife, to see Elaine, Marion mentioned the book idea. At home, suffering from a chronic fatigue type of illness, her life seriously curtailed, Elaine could immediately see that this was another potential joint venture, something she could do while confined at home. It was our first point of negotiation – the first of many!

Marion’s initial instinct was to say ‘no – not this time. This is my very own thing’.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of friendship, she did agree to produce a tentative first chapter as a possible starting point. Elaine quickly produced another chapter, then sure enough – the writing of the whole co-authored novel took off.

Two years later the first complete draft of Eight of Cups was ready for checking and revision.

eight of cups

So how did we do it?

We kept a diary of our collaboration, thinking that one day it might prove just as interesting as the novel itself!

This was the basic process.

  • We agreed an outline theme – what happens when middle-aged women come together at a reunion? How do they relate to each other? Where have their young dreams, ambitions and plans let them?
  • With flip chart and market pens, we started off by brainstorming possible characters: having fun thinking up names from our childhood for the six main protagonists – Diane, Lesley, Nancy, Alix, Patricia and Carys.

    We went away to devise a history for each of them, dividing the girls up three apiece. When we came back together again, we started drafting a storyline which would allow each of us to incorporate our own ideas and inspirations.

  • And so it would go, meeting up, planning, reviewing and revising. Then spending days and weeks apart, writing separately as and when we could, to progress the project.
  • When we were together, sustenance and support came in a variety of forms. While Marion did all the driving, Elaine would conjure up healthy and tasty meals. Whenever the weather permitted we went down to the Fife coast to breathe in the
    sea air and clear our minds. For a bit of light relief we would scour internet dating sites for potential partners for Elaine!

    When apart, the internet was our salvation – daily emails the lifeblood of our communication and web-based research the vehicle whereby we could make our writing informationally rich and credible, to add to our own knowledge and life experiences which were also a font of inspiration.

    When Elaine moved back home to Wales in 2012 we made the commitment to continue to work on novel number two, despite the now intervening distance of over 450 miles. With opportunity to meet up only once or twice a year, instead of about

    once a month, the internet has assumed increasing importance as a communication mechanism. When we got back together last November for our annual writers’ retreat it was ‘business as usual’; thankfully, we were able to get straight back into the editing/ redrafting/ creative writing process and have an incredibly productive week.

    No doubt we could now, if asked, compile the ‘Ten Practical Steps to Co-authoring a Novel’, or maybe create a template with blanks for title, subject matter, plot, viewpoint – and so on. However, these tools would concentrate only on the factual, or invite the concrete. As we reflect, with two ( almost) completed fiction books and an intact friendship, we realize that the real challenge lies in managing the relationship.

    We’ve coped with divergent writing styles and preferences, different writing routines (Elaine waits for the muse to arrive, Marion allocates time and work till she produces something)and the disagreements over characterisation and content. At heart we are also very different personalities!

    These issues have converged and threatened relationship meltdown on only three occasions when we went away on writing weeks, just the two of us, to have quality time to make serious progress on our book at different stages. Draughty cottages and miserable weather didn’t help. A week seemed long enough!

    We think we can sum up our writing partnership in one phrase – it’s like a marriage.

    And as in a marriage, we’ve realised that it helps to:

    • know yourself;

    • try to understand where the other person is coming from;

    • accept each other’s different ways;

    • remember why you are friends;

    • identify your shared values and remind each other of them when the going gets tough;

    • treat the other with respect and honesty;

    • create a shared vision for your project;

    • acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses and play to them;

    • don’t score points or aim for supremacy;

    • pick your battles carefully – you’re in for the long haul.

    And most of all, remember to have fun occasionally!

    Someday we’ll go away for a real holiday without the pressure of writing. But then again, Elaine will want to do something horsey and Marion might want to visit Graceland. More scope for negotiation!

    In the meantime, we’re focussing on the publication of Never Do Harm. Come to think of it, we could usefully add that as advice to our tips for writing partnerships!

    Thanks to Mirren Jones for this fascinating insight and buy Eight of Cups here – and we hope to hear this inspiring duo speaking live about their work, quite soon.

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