Adventures in Co-writing
by Lou Sylvre and Anne Barwell
Thanks for hosting us today!
Although this is our second published co-written book, The Harp and the Sea was our first foray into co writing, and an interesting project to figure out how we’d make it work.
Lou is in the US and I’m in New Zealand, so the first thing we did was set up a regular chat schedule, so we could chat in real time to hash out character details and where we wanted to go with the plot. Between that we kept in touch with email.
Writing a story set in another time and place meant we not only had to juggle plot and character but also location, history, and language. We’d read enough of each other’s writing to know that our styles would mesh, and decided the easiest way to approach this project was to take a character each and write his POV. So I wrote Ian’s POV, and Lou wrote Robbie’s.
As we traded scenes back and forth, it was with the caveat that we could tweak our character’s dialogue and actions. As it turned out we didn’t need to do a lot of that as we got to know both men the more we wrote them. And, when as we wrote more and got into the fun geographical research and plotted routes and journey times, we ended up changing a few scenes, and re-writing them to mesh with our research so only writing from one character’s POV went out the window. As we got into publisher edits and proofs, I couldn’t remember what I’d written or hadn’t and couldn’t pick the difference between our two ‘voices.’ I’d got the same feedback from our beta readers.
As we got into this story we both got hit with a lot of real life and family issues, so had to put the project on the back burner for months at a time. Because of this, we decided early on that we needed to plot the story in much more detail than we’d normally do. We already had an overview, but we had several sessions on chat breaking it down to chapters and scenes, and working out which scene would work better from which character’s POV. For example, there’s several scenes where Robbie is unconscious so it definitely worked better to have Ian tell that part of the story.
Naturally our characters did what most characters do once you get into a story and they changed parts of the plot on us, so our well thought out chapter numbers disappeared into the sea along the way, but the final result is a better story. I wouldn’t go into a co-written story without a firm plot in mind, as it’s important to be heading for the same finish line, although I think leaving room for creativity and being open to change is essential.
I’d had a nasty experience with Google docs crashing and taking a lot of work with it, so I was wary of tempting fate with it again so we decided to go old fashioned and use word.
We ran into a bit of fun with that as we were using different versions of it and edits I’d made sometimes disappeared in Lou’s document when they were merged so it worked better to send the same document back and forth and write the story like a round robin. Lou would write Robbie’s POV up to the point where it was Ian’s turn to tell their story, then send it over, and vice versa. As we weren’t alternating chapters, sometimes I’d write several thousand words before returning it, and sometimes it would only be a short scene. There were also a few scenes that didn’t quite go the way I was expecting. But I figure that’s one of those signs that the characters and their story are taking on a life of their own, which is one of my favourite things about writing.
The big thing I’d stress with co-writing is that both authors need to have good compromising skills, and know when to push for something, and when to let it go. Egos need to be left at the door or the experience won’t be a pleasant one.
We’ve enjoyed sparking off each other, and building something new so much we’re planning more in The Magic in the Isles series, and also took some time in the middle of writing this to co-write a New Zealand Romance too.
About The Harp and the Sea
In 1605, Robbie Elliot—a Reiver and musician from the Scottish borders—nearly went to the gallows. The Witch of the Hermitage saved him with a ruse, but weeks later, she cursed him to an ethereal existence in the sea. He has seven chances to come alive, come ashore, and find true love. For over a century, Robbie’s been lost to that magic; six times love has failed. When he washes ashore on the Isle of Skye in 1745, he’s arrived at his last chance at love, his last chance at life.
Highland warrior Ian MacDonald came to Skye for loyalty and rebellion. He’s lost once at love, and stands as an outsider in his own clan. When Ian’s uncle and laird sends him to lonely Skye to hide and protect treasure meant for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s coffers, he resigns himself to a solitary life—his only companion the eternal sea. Lonely doldrums transform into romance and mystery when the tide brings beautiful Robbie Elliot and his broken harp ashore.
A curse dogs them, enemies hunt them, and war looms over their lives. Robbie and Ian will fight with love, will, and the sword. But without the help of magic and ancient gods, will it be enough to win them a future together?
Available at: Amazon
An Excerpt from The Harp and the Sea
1605 the Scottish Border Marches
Robert Ker of Cessford, Lord Roxburgh wielded nearly autonomous power at the turn of the 17th century as Warden of the Scottish Middle March. Often called the Debatable Lands, the Border Marches had rough and fluid application of law. A violent nature and loyalty to kin and ally were all the tools Cessford needed to enforce his judgements. His position made him a powerful man, and though he owed allegiance to Scott of Buccleuch, he marched mostly to his own drummer.
But in the year of Our Lord 1603, King James VI of Scotland became also James I of England, and set about unifying the two countries into Great Britain. His “pacification” of the Border Marches in truth meant abolishing the office of Warden, renaming all the Marches the Middle Shires, and killing enough Borderers to make the rest bend the knee. Having lost autonomy, Ker wormed and weaselled his way into the king’s courts at Whitehall and Edinburgh and commenced warring on the people of the March without mercy as a way to impress the monarch.
On a rain-soaked day in autumn, 1605, the rough men who served Ker of Cessford and King James Stuart shoved Robbie Elliot into a damp prison cell beneath Hermitage—a stark and haunted castle located almost dead centre in the Middle March, a place Robbie had once called home. When he heard the heavy oaken door thunk shut behind him, rattling the rusty iron chains and window bars, he fell to his knees in the filthy straw that lay scattered over the stone floor. He and a half-dozen others had been force-marched sixteen miles from Hawick, bound, handled rough, and prodded with sticks. Now Robbie tried in vain to find a few square inches of his body that didn’t cry out in pain.
“There’s water, Robbie.” The weak, high-pitched male voice came from the darkest corner of the cell, and it gave Robbie a start for he’d thought himself alone. “In the barrel there,” the man continued. “It’s clean enough.”
Robbie’s legs obeyed him after only a brief argument, and he stood and walked to the barrel. Dust and chaff floated on the top, but when he dipped the single iron ladle and brought the water to his lips, it had no foul smell. “I’ve had far worse,” Robbie said, and then drank.
When he’d slaked his thirst enough, he turned to his cellmate, who’d stepped out of the shadows. “How’d you come to be here, Keithen?”
“Same as you, I’d wager. I’d heard the warden’s men were on the march, and I meant to hide at my old da’s holding, east of Kelso. But I was caught no more than ten miles from Hermitage castle and strung along with five others—including your stepbrother Jem. We’d thought we’d go no further than the gallows on the hill, but they brought us here.”
“Jem? He’s here?”
“Alas, Robbie, he was a lucky one, for he’ll never see these cells. He fell on the trail, and the warden’s man kicked his head a mite hard. Snapped his neck.”
Robbie piled up some straw and sat, slumping back against the wall, his own head pounding as if he’d been the one kicked. Keithen, who tended to prattle on most of the time, stayed blessedly silent until Robbie spoke up a few minutes later. “Yes, probably lucky to die then, quick like that. Do you ken why they brought us here? What they’re planning for us?”
A sudden rattle of heavy keys beyond the door interrupted the prisoners’ conversation, and a single, crusted pot was pushed inside, its contents warm enough to steam in the perpetual cold of the below-ground keep.
Keithen said, “Porridge, or what passes for it,” and then got up and lumbered stiffly to fetch the pot.
Robbie realised all at once that his insides had gone so hollow he’d be happy to fill them with a brick if it was all he had, and he wasted no time. Given no utensils, the two men scooped the thick, sticky oatmeal with their hands, minding neither the slight burn nor extra flavour of the dirt and blood on their own skin. By the time they finished, Robbie had forgotten his last question entirely until Keithen answered it.
“I heard a couple English talking yesterday—their voices come down clearly through the shaft, just there.” He pointed at a corner of the ceiling, a black, empty rectangle amid the grey stone. “They said we’ll be marched to Carlisle, and wicked James himself, the king, travels there too. They’ll hang us all at once—for his entertainment.”
Robbie said nothing for a long while, his mind focused instead on whether he could find a way to die sooner rather than give the king his satisfaction. He could think of nothing short of refusing water or smashing his head against the stones, and he knew he wouldn’t do either. Although small in stature, he’d proven himself brave in battle when he was no more than fourteen, and he’d borne his wounds as well as any man. But courage has its limits, he thought, and the pain of drying to dust from the inside out or smashing my own skull is beyond mine.
At last he said, “Well, Keithen, some comfort. At least we’ll die among our own, and not alone.”
About the Authors
Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She shares her home with a cat with “tortitude” who is convinced that the house is run to suit her; this is an ongoing “discussion,” and to date, it appears as though Kaylee may be winning.
In 2008, Anne completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching. She has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and now works in a library. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction Club and plays violin for Hutt Valley Orchestra.
She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as “too many.” These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of “spare time” is really just a myth. She also hosts and reviews for other authors, and writes monthly blog posts for Love Bytes. She is the co-founder of the New Zealand Rainbow Romance writers, and a member of RWNZ.
Anne’s books have received honorable mentions five times, reached the finals four times—one of which was for best gay book—and been a runner up in the Rainbow Awards. She has also been nominated twice in the Goodreads M/M Romance Reader’s Choice Awards—once for Best Fantasy and once for Best Historical.
Lou Sylvre loves romance with all its ups and downs, and likes to conjure it into books. The sweethearts on her pages are men who end up loving each other—and usually saving each other from unspeakable danger. It’s all pretty crazy and very, very sexy. As if you’d want to know more, she’ll happily tell you that she is a proudly bisexual woman—a mother, grandmother, lover of languages, and cat-herder—of mixed cultural heritage. She works closely with lead cat and writing assistant, the (male) Queen of Budapest, Boudreau St. Clair. She lives in the rainy part of the Pacific Northwest, and hearing from a reader unfailingly brightens the dreary weather. Find her through her links listed here, or drop her a line at email@example.com.
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