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.

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

  1. Hi Dave,

    When I was a teenager I was a little bit addicted to a Young Adult science-fantasy book series. The main books were co-written by people called Margaret and Tracy, and I had always assumed they were both women. Many years later I discovered that Tracy was actually a man. Of course, it doesn’t matter what gender people are, and two women are just as capable of writing good fiction as two men, but I really liked discovering that it was a man / woman team. I imagined the man writing the sword wielding, spell casting, dragon-filled fight scenes, and the woman writing the more tender, emotional, romantic parts of the stories. Of course, that’s yugely and bigly stereotyping, and there’s every possibility that I could meet these people and find it was the exact opposite, but something about picturing the man and woman working together was symbolic of the kinship within the stories, and the variety of themes that were covered.

    Dave. It’s been a really busy few weeks at work, and I’m just not finding as much personal time as I’d like, so I have to cram it all in to the couple of hours before I go to bed, so it’s possible that my online posts are coming out rambly and disjointed. I apologise if that’s the case here 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nothing disjointed about your comment, Susan! Sorry you’re having such a busy time at work.

      It IS nice to see female-male writing collaborations. When writing this week’s column, I couldn’t think of any such collaborations for novels — though I’m sure there are some, in addition to the one you mentioned. In nonfiction, the spouses Ariel and Will Durant co-authored “The Story of Civilization” series of books, and there have certainly been female-male collaborations in theater and movies — such as then-spouses Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell being involved in writing the “A Star is Born” screenplay.

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  2. 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 into 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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      • It’s been decades since I cracked a Colette book, and then it was her published journals, a volume or two I more or less read over my girlfriend’s shoulder while she at the time was reading them. Intriguing that your wife made Colette a special subject for study, and of course, that in itself is a recommendation of Colette’s work. I shall have to read more of her than I have.

        Which should be a snap– only last month I bought a translation of Cherie and The Last of Cherie from one of my bookselling friends on Broadway.

        Incidentally, I remember reading (many years ago, again) Cocteau’s account of his friendly imprisonment of Raymond Radiguet, whom he would free only after Radiguet had produced sufficient prose as to satisfy his captor, only to repeat the process next day. Cocteau’s account may be to some degree fanciful, as I have found no trace of it looking around the interwebs. It would qualify, I think, as another, less insidious example of coercive collaboration a la Willy if true.

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        • Colette is definitely worth reading. I like the two (related) novels of hers you purchased last month, but my two favorites might be the aforementioned “Claudine at School” (absolutely hilarious) and “The Vagabond” (a short, semi-autobiographical, feminist novel that packs an emotional punch).

          The Cocteau/Radiguet scenario does sound vaguely Willy/Colette-like! Colette, of course, became very much her own woman after her time with Willy ended, and, after an also-bad second marriage, was the dominant figure in her reportedly happy third marriage.

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  3. 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. 🙂

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

      Excellent comment!

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      • jhNY, yes, I’m familiar with that particular novel of Sayers, which is the only one of her major novels that didn’t feature Lord Peter Wimsey. It’s been a while since I read it, but I did remember that it had something to do about mushrooms, which made me suspicious of that particular fungus for years, which is ironic that I now live in “The Mushroom Capital of the World.” 🙂

        Dave, this also brought to mind a book that was “The Floating Admiral.” “The Floating Admiral is a collaborative detective novel written by fourteen members of the Detection Club in 1931. The twelve chapters of the story were each written by a different author, in the following sequence: Canon Victor Whitechurch, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley. G. K. Chesterton contributed a Prologue, which was written after the novel had been completed.” I don’t know much about many of them, except of course Sayers, Christie, Crofts, Berkeley and Chesterton. They each had certain rules to follow, and I believe while Berkeley had to write the official solution of the novel, but all the others had to submit their own conclusion. It was quite interesting, and I think I may have it in paperback somewhere on my book shelves, which I will now have to find and reread it, as well as “The Documents in the Case.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Wow, Kat Lib — a novel co-written by 14 people! That must be something to read, out of curiosity (if for no other reason) and to see the similarities and differences in each author’s chapter.

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        • With The Floating Admiral, you may have hit on the ultimate in multi-party collaboration!

          I am not surprised in the slightest that The Documents in the Case was not news to you. Like you, my wife has wrestled with The Mushroom Question over the long years, but has found a place in her diet for the occasional button type.

          As for where you’re living, if you don’t mind an old joke recast, I think in a way we are all, politically speaking, living in The Mushroom Capital of the World, in that we’re being kept in the dark and fed bullshit.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ha, jhNY, but I just went down to my basement bookshelves and managed to find “The Documents in the Case,” as a mass paperback edition, so I must read again!

            Dave, I couldn’t find my copy of “The Floating Admiral” as it must have been one of my paperbacks that didn’t survive my flooded basement of 1986 (or thereabouts). However, I did find a book I totally forgot about “Ask a Policemen,” which was another multi-author mystery from members of the Detection Club: In this case, it was by John Rhode, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Milward Kennedy. If I remember correctly, there was a group of American or British mystery writers who tried to pull off the same thing fairly recently, but for the life of me I can’t remember who!

            Liked by 1 person

  4. 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. 🙂 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

      • “When I wrote in my column that “certain famous authors have assistants do some of the work,”—

        Certain famous pseudonyms do as well– see Nancy Drew books.(wikipedia): “Nancy Drew is a fictional American character in a mystery fiction series created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer. The character first appeared in 1930. The books are ghostwritten by a number of authors and published under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene.”

        See also painting, as in Andy Warhol, and Mark Kostabi. See also, to a lesser degree, sculpting– Rodin–(wikipedia)”After he completed his work in clay, he employed highly skilled assistants to re-sculpt his compositions at larger sizes (including any of his large-scale monuments such as The Thinker), to cast the clay compositions into plaster or bronze, and to carve his marbles.”

        And as a dog returneth to its vomit, so I revisit country music’s Hank Wiulliams who advised aspiring songwriters to think of a singing star, say, Ernest Tubb, his persona very much included, when writing a song– which would make the public image of such a star a kind of collaborator with the writer. Screenplays have certainly been written in similar ways.

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        • Ah, yes, the collective pseudonym — which seems to happen more with some kid/YA series than with grown-up books. “The Baby-Sitters Club” novels had the same approach. Heck, series like that have so many books it’s hard to imagine one person writing all of them.

          And, yes, a good amount of collaboration in the painting and sculpting areas, too!

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        • jhNY, that is so true about many of the youth novels, especially mysteries, being written by many writers under one name. One of the first ones that come to mind is The Bobbsey Twins series, the first written in 1904 under the name Laura Lee Hope. I just read in Wiki that it is thought Stratemeyer wrote the first one. I purchased the first 11 books in the series, republished in 2004. If I remember correctly, my girlfriend and I used to call ourselves the Bobbsey Twins; for certain events, we’d buy the same dress or outfit, but in different colors.

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          • I think I’ve written about this before, but in Raleigh NC there was a sprawling used bookstore within walking distance of home, in which Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Dave Dawson books were sold for 25 cents apiece. My father consumed prison escape and war paperbacks by the grocery bag, and clever me, by making sure to go with him, could always get him to throw in a few of those 25 cent tomes. I read quite a few, and nearly all in their original clothbound editions– mottled brown for the Hardy Boys, I think, and a darkish blue for Nancy Drew, with orange lettering.

            My mother, when I was younger, read us a Bobbsey Twins story or two, but I never really read any on my own.

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            • jhNY, most of the series that were my favorites did indeed have different covers for a certain number of them You’re right that Nancy Drew had a mottled blue cover, the Dana Girls had a green mottled cover and Cherry Ames’s was red. It seems rs’ seem right to be brownish,

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  5. 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. 🙂

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  6. 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. 🙂 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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    • Hi Kat Lib,

      It’s so good to hear that you and Willow are settled at your friend’s house. I’m sure Jesse and your other friend are also having a nice time. Though I must admit, I’m a big fan of Dorothy Gale’s mantra – There’s no place like home!

      I just wanted to quickly comment to say that I was thinking of you last week while at my book club. We have a new member who is a bit full of her own self-importance, which is a shame because the rest of us are all pretty easy going. I was able to bite my tongue and not react to anything that I disagreed with until she said that they’re remaking all the classics and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is exactly like “Pride and Prejudice”, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I think she was surprised to find that anyone in our group had actually read Austen, and when it was obvious that I could back up my opinion with actual knowledge, she went pretty quiet, but it really irked me. Not for the first time, I wished that I could have a book group with you and Dave and the other commenters here who wouldn’t be comparing the greatness of Austen with today’s modern chick-lit!

      I hope you’re having a nice time in North Carolina, and I look forward to hearing all about it. And I promise to be a better pen-friend next month after our end of financial year…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Sue, I arrived back home yesterday, and I’ll send you an update on my trip shortly, even knowing you’re very busy right now, so just respond when you are able.

        Liked by 1 person

    • You are visiting the town of my birth, that date of which I celebrated last week, now 66 years behind me! (I would have been born in Chapel Hill, home of UNC, but there was not yet a hospital there at the time). I confess, apart from the day of my birth, to have spent nearly no time there.

      I mentioned, in another comment here, coming across a book, co-authored, I thought you might know something about, given your reading history: “The Documents of the Case”, by Dorothy Sayers and Robert Eustace, 1930. Have you read it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Belated happy birthday to you, jhNY! I arrived back here in Kennett Square yesterday after a very long and arduous trip by car, and traffic was horrendous from Richmond up to Bel Air, MD. My girlfriend graduated from UNC in Chapel Hill, and she’s never left the area. We took a short tour of Chapel Hill, and it was lovely around there, and now she lives quite close to the Duke campus, which also is quite nice. But while we had a great visit, when we (Willow and I) reached the Pennsylvania state line, I was ecstatic! Btw, I did answer your question about that Sayers novel, and I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks! Haven’t visited the area in 40 years, but I lived in Chapel Hill for 5 years, as did soon after I was born, my father’s parents. My grandfather opened The Unicorn Bookstore there, which flourished but for a while then died. After getting his PhD, my father taught at NC State in Raleigh, where we moved next. I am a Tarheel by birth, though no longer by inclination.

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  7. Howdy, Dave!

    — What do you think of novels being co-authored — the pros and the cons? —

    “The 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.”)

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  8. 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.

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    • 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?

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      • 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.

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        • 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!

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            • 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.

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              • 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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