Our path to co-writing was, in many respects, a natural one. We met at university and quickly became good friends–the kind who share their embarrassing dreams about writing. Although we were supportive of one another, that could easily have been as far as it went. But our dreams persisted along with our friendship and, after university, we started collaborating on a few small projects, thinking them useful creative exercises. We discovered that we worked incredibly well together and were soon asking ourselves whether we could scale up our efforts. We weren’t sure how to begin; there are very few co-written novels and even less guidance on how to practically go about such an endeavour. But neither of us are strangers to flouting conventions, and we were both game to try.
Crucially, we already had our idea for the book before we really thought about how we’d write it. Following the birth of Emma’s first child, we spent many late nights discussing what it meant to have children in the context of the climate crisis. We were fascinated, if occasionally appalled, by the concerns of some anti-natalist groups and share their existential fear for the future of the planet. We wanted to delve into this subject in a way that would be engaging but compassionate, and soon landed on an idea that seemed at once horrifying and strangely appropriate: that children could one day be asked to choose a biological parent to die in order to carbon offset their own life. And so the concept of the Offset was born.
Our habitual intense discussions served as a lynch pin for the practical work that followed. We met every week to advance the plot a little further, often digressing to tease out the broader thematic and philosophical issues. We took it in turns to write up what we’d discussed, and then passed the text back and forth, editing it to such a degree that each section quickly became something that was jointly ours–it helps that our writing styles naturally dovetail.
Once we had a full first draft, we took some time to separately mull over the various issues and failings, which we then discussed with robust frankness. There were a few disagreements, but the solutions we carved out were always superior to what they replaced. Working together allowed us to be more courageous in editing, too: it’s easier to make brutal changes if you’ve had to talk them through with your writing partner first.
Practically speaking, Google Docs proved our most valuable tool for editing, as it meant we could both work on the text simultaneously. It was not unusual for us to communicate through several different channels at once: in addition to pinging around ideas in Google Doc comments and on WhatsApp, we would also send emails and talk on the phone. This was vital when circumstances prevented us from getting together in the same room.
In many ways, though, the tools are the least important facet of a working relationship. For anyone contemplating a collaboration, we have four pieces of advice. First–and this should go without saying–only set out to do this with someone you respect and trust. Our partnership works because we both have an unwavering faith in each other’s opinion and skill. This means we can be fearless in sharing our ideas and critiques with one another.
Second, find someone whose creative focus is the same as yours. For us, the concept was the most important thing. Working out how best to serve that meant we were able to let go of any preconceptions about how a book should be written and leave our egos at the door.
Third, make sure your work ethics are compatible. In our case, we were both fiercely committed to finishing this project. Basically, we went hell-for-leather. We agreed who would tackle each task and when it would done by–usually with very tight turnarounds. If we hadn’t both devoted equal amounts of time and energy to the project, resentments could have quickly grown on both sides.
Fourth–and connected to this–it helps if your overall goals match, both for the project in hand and your broader careers. Before we began, we knew what we wanted for the book and where we hoped it would take us. We knew we wanted to continue writing, both separately and together, long after the project was complete. We knew we wanted to write something that could potentially be a series, but that wouldn’t pigeonhole us later on. Everything would have been ten times harder if we weren’t aligned on this front.
We know we have a long way to go to become the writers we want to be, and we’re both so grateful that we get to tread this path together. For anyone who is thinking of co-writing with a friend, we can’t recommend it enough!
(c) Calder Szewczak
THE OFFSET will be published in September 2021 by Angry Robot. Calder Szewczak is writing duo Natasha C. Calder and Emma Szewczak, who met while studying at Cambridge. Natasha is a graduate of Clarion West 2018 and her work has previously appeared in The Stinging Fly, Lackington’s and Curiosities, amongst others. Emma researches contemporary representations of the Holocaust and has published work with T&T Clark and the Paulist Press.