It Takes Two to Write a Novel (Sometimes)

When I attended another great National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference this month, it struck me yet again how nice it is be with other columnists and bloggers. Can that extend to writing novels?

Not much, it seems. A very small percentage of fiction books are co-authored, and it’s easy to see why. Novel-writing is meant to be a solitary thing, writing with another person can be difficult logistically and emotionally, and a book usually needs to have a certain narrative “voice” from only one person. There’s a reason why the phrase “writing by committee” has negative connotations — including the frequent result of things being watered down. (Nonfiction is a somewhat different animal with more collaborations, though not that many.)

Still, two authors can occasionally be a positive — with a duo bringing two perspectives, two kinds of expertise, and two of various other attributes to one book.

Perhaps the most famous co-authored novel is The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who didn’t write each chapter together. Instead, Twain penned some sections of the book while Warner wrote other sections. Twain’s parts of The Gilded Age are of course vivid and satirical while Warner’s are more conventional (including a romance) yet still pretty good.

Stephen King and Peter Straub, best known as horror/suspense writers, collaborated on The Talisman and its sequel Black House. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman co-wrote Good Omens, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford co-penned Romance, Dave Barry co-authored Peter and the Starcatchers and other novels with Ridley Pearson and Lunatics with Alan Zweibel, Carl Hiaasen did three early-career novels with William Montalbano, and Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk co-created Ciao Bella.

Of course, there are a number of novel collaborations that are at least partly hidden — as when certain famous authors have assistants do some of the work. And then there are novels finished by another person after the original author dies; one example of that was The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., started by Jack London (based on an idea by Sinclair Lewis!) and completed by Robert L. Fish.

What do you think of novels being co-authored — the pros and the cons? Do you have any favorites in that small genre?

(Speaking of double-bylined works, last night I saw a community-theater production of The Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who are best known for their newspaper play The Front Page.)

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

27 thoughts on “It Takes Two to Write a Novel (Sometimes)

  1. Collette and Monsieur Willy(Henry Gauthier-Villars)!!! A case of coercive collaboration…

    Willy (nom de plume) was a famous writer of titillating novels who married the much younger Collete, and more or less tied her to a desk while she obligingly turned out Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie– which he published under his own name, retaining the copyright.

    From wikipedia:
    “It was he who chose the titillating subject-matter of the Claudine novels, “the secondary myth of Sappho…the girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher”… Colette later said that she would never have become a writer if not for Willy.”

    They were divorced in 1910, the copyrights remaining with Willy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good one, jhNY! I’ve read about that Colette/Gauthier-Villars “collaboration,” and he certainly exploited the hell out of her and other writers. Especially loathsome given that Colette was a fabulous writer (I’ve read most of her novels) and Gauthier-Villars was a hack. Perhaps he indeed pushed Colette into writing, but I have a feeling she would have found her way to writing on her own, perhaps a little later. (My wife wrote an academic book, published in 2005, titled “Colette and the Conquest of Self.”)

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  2. I would imagine there might be several more examples of two or more party collaboration in novel-writing than we may ever know– depending on the role of editor, associates, or even the contributions of family members, as in ‘honey, this is good but why not try…’– a phrase which might be followed by an idea or line or treatment that proves crucial and useful and better than the original.

    A teacher of painting can, with a very few well-placed strokes in a very few seconds, alter a student work for the better, though the student has labored for dozens of hours beforehand. And yet, the original conception, from which all other things commence, remains the precious and most rare element at the core of all else.

    The two examples with which I am familiar, the Martin Beck series and the collaboration between Conrad and Ford Madox Ford have been cited by you and Kat Lib (I even own a copy of the latter, somewhere around here{!}), so I can only add, after poking about the interweb,and hope Kat Lib will see:

    The Documents of the Case, by Dorothy Sayers and Robert Eustace, 1930.

    And one more thing: in the late ’50’s or maybe even the very early ’60’s, my father and Manly Wade Wellman wrote a detective story together which appeared, I think I remember, in an issue of Ellery Queen’s magazine. I don’t think it turned out particularly well, as they never wrote another, but it featured a Mexican detective. Sadly, I own no copy, don’t know the title, and it was published under a nom de plume…

    And one more thing after that– a subset of the genre: October Ferry to Gabriola by Malcolm Lowry, published posthumously after being edited, in parts even written, as I remember, by his surviving wife,Margerie Bonner. Posthumous “collaborations” have been made by others over the years, such as those who wrote a finish to Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jhNY, VERY good point that the reading public is not aware of some “collaborations,” major or slight. Heck, I remember reading that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife suggested he change the ending of “The House of Seven Gables” manuscript to make it somewhat more positive. He agreed.

      Nice mention of a Dorothy L. Sayers co-authorship! Like you, I hope Kat Lib sees that. Given her extensive Sayers knowledge, I assume she’s aware of it. πŸ™‚

      Great that your father was a co-writer, albeit briefly.

      Excellent comment!

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  3. Good Morning Dave, years ago I used to be a fan of John Patterson`s Alex Cross books, so many of them I have read. Mary Mary, Four Blind Mice, Pop Goes the Weasel, London Bridges, and so one. Along Came a Spider was a great movie, starring Morgan Freeman.
    Now Mr. Patterson has become a factory, several books are being published each year with various writers and there is not enough space in the Public Library to hold his books. I have not read a single one of them. I understand Bill Clinton is writing one.
    45 have written a book or two with no contribution by him so the real author says.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great comment, bebe! Thanks!

      When I wrote in my column that “certain famous authors have assistants do some of the work,” Patterson was the one I was thinking of most. πŸ™‚ My local library is among the libraries that has dozens of his books.

      And, yes, Trump is an example of the “authors” of ghostwritten books who make little or no contribution to the books they have their names on. Trump has done so many unadmirable things that we’ve all lost count. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • A poem..Dave, it is so beautiful a distant relative of mine , I just got connected with her…

        Dark clouds hang low on the horizon
        Of my conscience
        As i try to make sense
        Of imaginary complications
        And misplaced arrogance
        Wondering what dark forces
        Compel change in DNAs
        And seep strength from veins
        Which have survived on endless adrenaline
        Shelving unanswered questions
        On emotional neediness
        And voids of loneliness
        But then it is time to get up
        Shake off the dust
        Roll up the sleeves
        Plumb deeper reserves
        Talk to mirrors
        Within and without
        For this too shall pass

        ~ SDG

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pros and Cons of co-authored writings, it seems to me, are no different than those of the single author and both are determined by the result. When i write, Dave, it is always a co-authored event: just me and the people inside my head. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Dave, greetings from Durham, NC! My girlfriend is taking a nap right now so I am taking the time to check email and everything. So I thought I would add my two cents about your topic this week. I know I have mentioned them many times before, but the best two author books were The Story of a Crime series written by husband and wife team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall from Sweden. They are also known as the Martin Beck detective series. They would plot the books out and then write alternate chapters and I could never tell the difference. Well, back to visiting with my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kat Lib, I hope you’re enjoying your visit, as I expect you are. πŸ™‚ Thanks for checking in.

      And thanks for mentioning the Per Wahloo-Maj Sjowall team! I should have remembered that you had previously posted about them. Writing alternate chapters sounds like an effective approach, and it’s impressive that a reader can’t tell who wrote which chapter!

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  6. Howdy, Dave!

    β€” What do you think of novels being co-authored β€” the pros and the cons? β€”

    β€œThe Gilded Age” of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner is particularly golden (as you indicate in your blog post), but the concept of the co-authorship of novels is generally dross (as The Big Grouch suggests below):

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, J.J.! LOVE that Marx Brothers song — which, as you infer, can apply to many things. (But Groucho’s “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” has nothing to do with Stieg Larsson’s “Lisbeth, the Tattooed Hacker.”)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting to read that collaborations are slightly less rare than hen’s teeth!
    The only twin-authored work that springs to my mind is the television series ‘Red Dwarf’ by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Not quite literature, but the first five series were fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, lonelykeyboards! It’s interesting that there seems to be more writing collaborations for television than for novels. Maybe one reason is that a lot of writing has to be done in a relatively short amount of time for a TV series?

      Liked by 2 people

      • My guess: generally speaking, there is much more money to made in teevee, and most often, much more money staked to the possibility of profit. Which means several people must be pleased,at various points in the process– what pleases a director may not please the sponsor, or the producer or the star. Or will please one out of three, but not the right one. Rewrites demanded by the network might drive the original writer crazy, but might be easy for a writer or two coming in later. And then there are the rewrites of the rewrites, which often require rerewriters.

        Interestingly, recent country music often features several credited writers– mostly because the producer, after taking a credit for himself overall, may assign a chorus to one writer, verse one to another, etc. etc., etc. The result is often over-compacted wordsmithing, too clever by half, too many cooks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Money — of course! That and your other reasons for why there’s lots of co-writing in TV make total sense, jhNY. And, yes, much collaboration in music, too. I guess that can work if one person does the tune and another the lyrics, but the segmentation you describe in recent country music sounds overdone.

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          • Overdone gets normal in a business like songwriting in country these days, and becomes the norm. The producer seems to be the controlling element in most cases of multi-writing, but song publishers can also determine outcomes– they have several writers on their roster, and employ them as they see fit. Somehow, after all, even if it takes a committee, there’s got to be a way to shoehorn “dusty hot dirt road” , “sixpack of trouble”, “old Champ, that good-for-nothin’ hound dog” and “Sugar’s tight blue jeans” intro four rhyming lines, while still leaving room for the good old days and America!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Should also report more exactly, that the committee writing could go far beyond, say, a guy on words and a gal on music– each line or phrase may be the work of a few, lyrically and/or musically.

              And yet, Hank Williams worked all by his self.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Wow! An interesting two comments, jhNY. I know little about country music, but I assume it’s still very popular among many people — so maybe the “songwriting by ultra-committee” approach works commercially, even if something is lost artistically in the process.

                And “The Wizard of Oz” movie was written by more than one person, and there was more than one director, so sometimes “too many cooks (don’t) spoil the broth.”

                Still, as in the case of your-mentioned Hank Williams, one creative individual is really often all that’s needed.

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