As a husband-and-wife writing team, the most frequently asked question we get is, ‘How do you work together?’ That’s a tough question to answer, partly because the process seems different for every book we write, and partly because we don’t really fully understand it ourselves. Asking a writer how they write is always likely to produce a certain amount of ‘um’s and ‘er’s, and asking how two writers write together is a little like asking for instructions on how to herd cats.
Part of the problem is that we both have other occupations. One of us teaches and lectures at several different universities, and is also trustee of a couple of charities. The other marks exams, looks after our social media stuff, sings with an acapella trio, writes music, and is a trustee and governor of a new multi-academy trust. Our schedules don’t exactly match!
At the moment, we are writing a book with a tight deadline, and have divided the labour so that one of us is working mostly on the first half and the other mostly the second. We’ve not written a book quite this way before, and we’re not quite sure if it is going to work. Hopefully the two bits will join up at the middle, and the result won’t look like two books written by two different people. So far our editor is happy (thanks Tara!). There is, however, some scrambling around, with questions flying between us, sometimes by email: ‘what colour was this character’s hair?’, ‘in what year is this section taking place?’ and ‘what was that dog called again?’
Although the process varies quite a lot, we have a few basic principles. The first is that, long before we sit down to write, we have spent a long time talking about and laying out the general outline of the book. We fall very firmly onto the planner side of the planner/pantser debate, though we have huge respect for the ‘pantsers’. Planning, for us, does more than just lay out the plot and establish the characters. It also helps us find the tone and the voice we need; and crucially, it also means we both agree on the same tone and voice and harmonise what we are doing from the outset.
When we say ‘planning’, though, we are not talking about some kind of rigid structure. The ‘plan’ emerges more in the form of series of notes about things we want to do in the book. We’ll talk about the project for weeks, sometimes months, before sitting down to write. Nor do we do our talking in any kind of formal setting. The kitchen table while making dinner, long car journeys, the tors of Dartmoor and the windswept beaches of north Cornwall with the surf thundering in are all fertile places for talking over ideas. Dog walking is also a good breeding ground for planning talks now that the puppy is growing up. A springer spaniel puppy did not make for restful walks in his first few months!
Writing the first draft tends to be a rather messy affair, with each of us taking hold of whatever we want to write/whatever we have time to write and scratching out something fairly rough. During the planning stage often one of us says ‘I really want to write that bit’ and so gets on with that chapter. One person then takes over the second draft and edits the book into shape, ironing out the inconsistencies and making sure there is a common voice. After that we come back into the same room for the final edits, which usually take the form of reading the manuscript aloud and making detailed corrections as we go along. This is a slow and fairly methodical process because we are listening as well as reading, looking for inconsistencies but also trying to make sure that the all-important voice remains true. Comfortable chairs and a constant supply of tea are key components of this final stage. Grumpy cats are a frequent (if not actually necessary) accompaniment.
It is during this stage that the most difficult decisions have to be made. Someone at Bonnier Zaffre once asked us, ‘Do you argue?’ The answer is that we have been married for thirty-eight years, and of course we argue; but never about writing. We have disagreements – about names, what a character will do next, where to set scenes and so on – but they never descend into arguments. There is already enough venom, rancour and casual violence in the pages of our books; we don’t need it spilling over into our personal lives.
So, we have a few rules. One: it’s not about us, it is about the story, and we always look for a resolution that is in the best interests of the story. Two: if one person’s idea is challenged by the other, it is up to the first person to justify their position. If they cannot do so, then the position must change. Three: don’t make this an either/or decision. Sometimes neither position is right, and a third way must be found.
There are a lot of advantages to writing together. We find that we are more productive as a duo. For instance, if one person is tired, or ill, or struggling to see the way forward, the other one steps in and takes over for a while. Also, having another person to talk to and bounce ideas off helps obviate at least some of the existential loneliness as a writer. Sharing the process somehow makes writing happier and more fun.
Writing is one of the things that brought us together in the first place, and writing together just seems natural. As we said, we don’t fully understand how it works. But maybe it is best not to inquire too closely. Whatever alchemy is at work, we’ll just let it do its thing, and hope it keeps on working in the future.
A J Mackenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, an Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife team of writers and historians. They write non-fiction history and management books under their own names, but ‘become’ A J MacKenzie when writing fiction.
The Body on the Doorstep was their first foray into fiction and the second instalment of the Hardcastle & Chaytor Mysteries is The Body. For a full bio of Marilyn and Morgen see here.
The Body in the Boat by A.J.Mackenzie, Zaffre, available in paperback, and eBook, out November 15th 2018.
About The Body in the Boat:
A gripping tale of murder and mystery in eighteenth century England.
Across the still, dark English Channel come the smugglers. But tonight they carry an unusual cargo: a coffin. Several miles inland, a respected banker holds a birthday party for his wife. Within days, one of the guests is found shot dead.
What links this apparently senseless killing to the smugglers lurking in the mists? Why has the local bank been buying and hoarding gold? And who was in the mysterious coffin?
Reverend Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor find themselves drawn into the worlds of high finance and organised crime in this dramatic and dark Georgian mystery. With its unique cast of characters and captivating amateur sleuths, The Body in the Boat is a twisting tale that vividly brings to life eighteenth-century Kent and draws readers into its pages.
Order your copy online here.