In our How I Write series, our Crime Cymru authors share their insights into the writing process. This week is a little different as it features D. K. Fields, the writing partnership of David Towsey and Katherine Stansfield, who share the ups and downs of co-writing and offer some invaluable tips on how to survive the process.
How We Write by D. K. Fields
We wrote Widow’s Welcome, the first in our Tales of Fenest fantasy-crime trilogy,the wrong way. Or, should we say, the wrong way for us. In co-writing, just as with most things in writing, there is no right or wrong, just personal experiences and striving for some kind of effective balance.
At the start of the writing process we had plenty of balance (not so much of the effective part) because we wrote, essentially, “in each other’s pockets”. We’d pass early pages of Widow’s Welcome, sometimes whole chapters, back and forth with an eye to edit and discuss each and every page. It was an intense way to write, and one that grew out of the planning process – we had spent hours and hours on buses, on trains, and in cafes talking through potential ideas for fantasy realms, gruesome murders, political ideas, and a whole lot more. It was a free-flowing and open dialogue; no idea was too far-fetched or extreme for the partnership to at least consider. So, when it came time to start writing it seemed natural to continue this democratic approach – why shouldn’t both of us have a say in the workings of a scene or the presentation of a character, even if only one of us was physically bashing the keyboard?
Eighteen months, a lot of arguments and apologies later, we had our answer to that particular question: it just wasn’t a sustainable way for us to co-write a trilogy.
When it came time to write the second installment in the Tales of Fenest, The Stitcher and the Mute, we knew we couldn’t work the same way. For starters, we were under contract and had to deliver the manuscript in half the time it took us to write the first one. Fortunately, all those democratic arguments had laid the groundwork for a more serene(ish) co-writing experience: the world was in place, the style of the prose established, as was the point of view, the overall voice of the trilogy, and the clear structure of our detective’s investigation framing two election stories. All of which meant we could divide writing duties in a more manageable, dare we say sensible, way. The structure of the frame and the two nested stories was particularly helpful in this regard. For The Stitcher and the Mute one of us wrote the detective plot, and one of us wrote the two bespoke election stories. We followed fairly obvious lines on divvying up those responsibilities; anyone who knows Katherine’s individual work will recognise her ability to execute a tightly woven crime plot in an unusual setting, and anyone who has read David’s off-beat blending of speculative genres won’t be too surprised to encounter giant fighting beetles, hallucinations of rainbow-winged cherubin, and the like.
But as with many sensible decisions, an element of sacrifice was involved. Katherine gave up the chance to shape the character and representation of a realm, something she had so deftly done with the Lowlanders in Widow’s Welcome. David relinquished any influence on Detective Cora Gorderheim’s struggles with the wider conspiracy she faces as the trilogy unfolds, something he’d helped establish in the first novel.
Put like that, it sounds perhaps a little extreme. We weren’t sequestered in separate wings, only exchanging brief pleasantries across a long, polished dining table until our respective sections of this second book were finished. We still had some editorial say in each other’s contribution. Scenes were tweaked, lines tightened, and inevitably the occasional flare-up occurred. But gone were the days of poring over the same Google.doc editing together in “real time” which we’d tried for Widow’s Welcome. A more effective balance was struck in the writing of The Stitcher and the Mute, which we carried through to the writing of Farewell to the Liar, the last book in the trilogy.
Which leads us to the question that so often fills writers with a mix of excitement and dread: what’s next?
How will D. K. Fields write their next book? Can the writing partnership exist beyond the Tales of Fenest?
Tune in next week to find out, folks…
Wouldn’t that be the least dramatic cliffhanger in the history of cliffhangers? We joke, because it’s easier than trying to answer the question. Hard as it is to admit, we think we’re doomed to repeat our own history with a new book idea. It’s already happening as we sit together and debate setting, plot, and theme (for our fantasy-crime these seem to come before character, make of that what you will…). The same kind of back and forth, sometimes cordial, sometimes heated, has already occurred. And as frustrating as it is in the moment, we feel there are some positives to be taken from the familiar experience. In a sense, we know it works: we can produce vivid, unusual, and engaging material for a novel. We’ve done it before, and it came from this crucible.
But we also know there’s a lot to be said for delegation and relinquishing just a little bit of control in order to survive co-writing a book. At least, that’s how we’ve survived and come as close as we can to that ever elusive effective balance.
OUR TIPS FOR ASPIRING CO-WRITERS
- Embrace the chaos. Co-writing is the meeting of two god-like positions: individuals who are used to being the sole deities of their respective little universes. When the sparks fly, exciting things can happen. That goes for everything from how the partnership manages its writing process, to how characters negotiate scenes, to individual word choices. It’s all up for grabs.
- Recognise and exploit each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Few partnerships work when both parties bring exactly the same things to the table. Admitting your weaknesses as a writer can be a rough journey of self-reflection (for many, so too is celebrating your strengths) but it will really help when deciding the best approach for your co-writing.
- Be ready to change things up. What worked for the planning stage might not be right for the first draft, or the editing process. What worked for writing chapter three could be a disaster for chapter eleven. Trying different things isn’t a waste of time, and it’s not admitting defeat. For most, co-writing is uncharted water. Expect to hit a few icebergs before you find a clear passage to smooth sailing.
D. K. Fields is the writing partnership of novelists David Towsey and Katherine Stansfield. The couple are originally from the south-west of England and now live in Cardiff. Their fantasy crime trilogy, the Tales of Fenest, is out now with Head of Zeus.
David’s zombie-western The Walkin’ Trilogy is published by Quercus. Katherine’s historical crime fiction series, Cornish Mysteries, is published by Allison & Busby. The latest instalment is The Mermaid’s Call. She is also a poet, with two collections and a pamphlet published by Seren.
You can find all their books on their Bookshop page here.