Married with characterisation

By Amanda Breeze

What? You write with your husband? Together? How does that even work?

Not surprising, this is a common reaction when we say we write as a husband and wife author team. People are baffled to learn our marriage has survived, let alone prospered under the pressure authors commonly face (particularly first-time ones). And yet, somehow it has. However, when you look into it, it isn’t as uncommon as people think.

David and Leigh Eddings wrote several series together, including their most famous work, The Belgariad. And while David’s name featured predominantly on the books’ covers, Leigh was often in the background editing and helping refine the work. Their later series of books featured both their names on the cover.

Nicci French, famous for their psychological thrillers including, The Lying Room and The Memory Game is actually the pseudonym of English husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.  

For us, it all started back in 2018 when Lee first came to me with this hair-brained idea he wanted to become an author. True, I almost keeled over in shock—I thought he was kidding. But when he looked at me seriously and said he believed he could write a story – and publish it – who was I to deny him?

So off he went, spending his spare time drafting a novella, talking to me about it on our regular coffee shop trips and listening to my ideas for improvement, however constructive (or destructive) those ideas may have been.

After a while, I found myself invested. I loved the grand idea he had and the concept of a world built entirely of our making based on a young survivor of a nuclear apocalypse, so it was easy to support him.

Then one day, entirely out of the blue, he said he’d found a publisher. I was shocked; I think my jaw dropped to the floor that day. Having read the first draft, I knew it needed refinement (and that’s being mild). I at least had some experience writing, not professionally of course, but I knew my way around a story, so I offered to help. At first, I offered ideas and edited chapters. Then later, I helped write some of the chapters he’d been struggling with. One of which would end up being a pivotal fight scene between our protagonist and her rival in Burn the Sky part two, which has since been rewritten dozens of times.

When it was done, we hopped on a plane and flew to meet with this publisher to present him with the manuscript in person. For one hour, we walked the perimeter of Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, anxiously awaiting the verdict on our work.

Long story short, it wasn’t good. But… the work showed potential.

The question that followed would ultimately determine Lee’s future as a published author. Did he want to be a good author, or a great author? Naturally, he responded with the latter, and it was in that moment, that revelation, Burn the Sky would become the two hundred-thousand-word epic is today. But sitting there, in the back of the publisher’s car listening to this conversation, I knew it wouldn’t happen if Lee worked alone.

That was Lee’s revelation. My revelation was something more jarring. Before that day I’d never heard the term ‘author widow’. This is where an author’s wife becomes neglected in favour of the written work. It’s so common, it has broken many a marriage because a wife loses her husband to his work. I wasn’t going to let that happen. So, in that moment, I made a commitment too. I vowed never to become an author’s widow. I would support Lee in his work, and we would produce these books together as a team.

Over the next few months, we tore Burn the Sky apart and using the advice we’d received from the publisher, critiquing groups and online resources, we discovered our style and re-crafted it. Lee rewrote chapters, I edited them. Where chapters were missing, I wrote them, and together we rebuilt the world of Jorth from the ground up. Then we edited them again and again until they sounded right.

It has been by no means a simple journey. We have had many shouting matches, and there have been times we’ve threatened to give up. But we have found that it is from these moments our best work emerges.

One chapter in particular nearly broke us. That chapter is Bonded, which has since been split over two chapters in part two. It required both our strengths to craft it into one of the best chapters I think we’ve written so far.

This is because we’ve learned to understand the value each of us brings to the process. Knowing our strengths and our weaknesses are vital to making this work. Like an artist who sketches a basic outline then fills it in with colour, Lee creates the tension, action and technical elements that give the world function and form, whereas I refine the dialogue, develop the character interactions and add detail to the world. We each represent different points of view, and that’s a strength many authors struggle with.  

Our best advice;

  • Share the load; both do the writing and editing, then switch. We use suffixes on the file names to denote who last worked on it. That way, we can preserve changes.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses and understand your partner’s. Work out how they complement each other.
  • When something gets too hard, leave it for a while, think on it and then come back later.
  • Be supportive.
  • Communicate, bounce ideas off each other, brainstorm. Particularly changes.
  • Create a shared environment where you can work collaboratively, like a shared drive (we use OneDrive), Office 365 – our manuscript is a collection of shared Word documents (one document per chapter), we have a shared Excel file for planning and our wiki is in a shared OneNote notebook.
  • Act out action scenes so you can both visualise and articulate them.
  • Do a final read through together, preferably with the shared document open on your own devices with one of the computers reading the text out loud – you’d be surprised how incredibly useful that is.
  • Have fun.

So, while it may be uncommon for married couples to work together as authors, it isn’t impossible. Like Nicci French, our story proves that, with commitment, understanding and collaboration, it isn’t necessary for a wife (or husband, or partner of any kind) to become an author’s widow (or vice versa). Instead, both can be two vital halves of a team that produces well rounded literary masterpieces – at least that’s our intention now and into the future.

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