There are two kinds of writer: those who treat their work in progress with the obsessive secrecy of a Freemason member of the Magic Circle who sidelines as a government spy, and those who can quite easily badger startled strangers in a coffee shop for opinions on the line they’ve just scribbled on a napkin.
Being secretive about your writing makes sense. The wrong comment or opinion on your work-in-progress can drain you of any inspiration you had and relegate that future blockbuster to a dusty drawer. The Magic Fairy is a shy thing and easily scared off (you know about the Magic Fairy, don’t you? She’s the one who gives you all your ideas and inspiration, but she’s a right bad-tempered cow). What she chiefly hates are a) people who laugh at the very idea that you want to be a writer, b) people who are better writers than you, and c) people who do anything less than cover your shoes in big wet kisses when you tell them what you’re working on. All of these things make her fly off in a big, stroppy huff.
This is why writing groups, which are supposed to exist for the sole purpose of nurturing delicate, fluffy little chick-like talents, can actually end up stomping them underfoot Ozzy Osbourne-style, because, while most wannabe writers might not be able to write a decent story, every single one of them knows what’s wrong with someone else’s.
Solitaire’s the only game in town?
But there’s another view. Just as our prehistoric ancestors discovered that banging two stones together produces sparks, some writers have discovered that banging their head against another writer’s head can spark off ideas.
The loneliness of the long distance writer is not an option when you have a writing partner. Writer’s block just disappears because you never have to sit there staring at a blank page. There’s no time for that. It’s the difference between tennis and solitaire.
The great escape
I used to be one of those secretive writers who wouldn’t even tell you what my novel was about until I’d written the last word (which can make for three very lonely years), but a long-term flirtation with experimental literature changed all that. I wrote a crazy East European campus novel, with all the characters based on my lit-junkie friends, who not only got to choose their own character names, but also provided stories, diary entries, letters and translations, which all went straight into the pot.
This was the first time I’d discussed a novel with anyone before writing a word of it. Did the Magic Fairy fly away in a huff? Not at all. She stuck around and chucked in a few ideas of her own (it must have seemed rude not to, what with everyone else having a go). And if all that wasn’t cavalier enough, I roped the novel into the final year of my English degree; which meant subjecting it to the harsh light of critical theory as it was being written. Imagine a footballer having to provide the match commentary whilst running around the pitch and you get an idea of how dangerous to the creative process that should be.
Till death us do part
The effect, though, was pretty liberating. But let’s not forget that I was sharing it with people who understood the process and knew what I was trying to do.
Which is why it’s important to choose your writing partner carefully. At a fundamental level, you’ve got to both have the same aims and skills level. You shouldn’t ever be able to cop out of justifiable criticism with the words ‘well, what do you know about writing, anyway!’ Your partner has to be as good as you and as clued up as you, otherwise it ain’t gonna work.
The ego has landed
And you’ve got to do away with any stupid notion that you might be a genius. You’re not a genius (let’s face it, I’m not a genius, and you’re here taking advice off me). So just accept that some of your ideas suck, and be grateful that someone’s there to tell you which ones. Save your ego for that sideline in karaoke singing or your unbeaten status as Tekken Champion Over All My Mates, because in a writing partnership you need to know how to accept criticism gracefully.
In scriptwriting, the collaborative process is much more an accepted reality, where producers, directors and even actors all get to chip in with suggestions, despite none of them knowing a thing about what makes a decent script and how many screenwriting gurus you have to study to understand the basics (the fools, the fools!). But that’s how it is in that industry: because a script, scintillating though it may be, doesn’t get 200 people to spend their evening in a big, dark (usually cold) room with a sticky floor and pay five quid for the privilege. So scriptwriters have learned to dispense with ego and think about the pay cheque.
Even for novelists there’s going to come a time when your publisher assigns an editor who will suggest changes, and I haven’t even touched on writing for TV, so, at a fundamental level, the idea of collaboration in writing shouldn’t be so strange.
It’s a craft
A writing partner isn’t for everyone, but if you’re willing to think of writing as a craft rather than an expression of your as yet unrecognised genius, then it might be worth checking out.
Choose wisely, ditch your ego, and show the Magic Fairy who’s boss.
A version of this first appeared on Channel 4’s Ideasfactory site.