Working as a duo may be common in other areas of the arts – as Gilbert and George, the Coen Brothers, and, erm, Chaka Demus and Pliers will no doubt testify – but it’s still almost unheard of when it comes to novel-writing. So when brother and sister Stephen Horne and Sarah Garrett applied to one of our recent creative writing courses as a pair, we were intrigued. They had a great idea, obvious writing talent and a willingness to work hard (all the attributes we look for in a CBC student), but there were two of them, living in different cities, passing their work to and fro, and feeding back to each other after each session. Would they find a way to reconcile their voices or would it be a disaster? Stephen and Sarah take us through their experience here.
It was January 2014 when we decided to co-write a supernatural novel based on an idea Stephen (pictured above) first had more than 20 years ago. Inspired by his work as a silent-film pianist, the story would revolve around a contemporary musician haunted by the ghosts of people who inhabited the world of silent movies in the 1920s. Working out the basic characters, plot and structure of the book fell into place quite quickly, but we were wondering how to evolve a joint writing style, when… step forward Curtis Brown Creative. With only a few days to go before the deadline, we noticed the Six Month Novel-writing Course was still open for submissions. CBC director Anna Davis called us to talk it through: we were the first writing duo to apply, so her team would need to decide how it would play out in practical terms. She noted that while joint artistic ventures are already a phenomenon in the art world and screenwriting partnerships are common, co-written novels are still rare.
The plan was to divide up the teaching sessions and take turns to attend these, but both of us would read and discuss all the submissions by fellow students ready for the workshops. We collaborated on any writing exercises set in advance and discussed the content of each teaching session in great detail. We attended the personal tutorials together and soon found the intense experience of the course was already helping us to find a shared voice in our writing. Somewhere about the middle of the process, we decided Stephen would take more responsibility for the contemporary sections of the novel and Sarah for the historical sections, but that we would rigorously rewrite and edit each other’s work, so the collaborative nature of the novel as a whole would remain intact. At the end of the six months, we realised the course had enabled us to be comfortable and confident writing together, and our style had indeed evolved – almost without us being aware of the fact.
‘Two minds working as one’ is how The Guardian described Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, the successful husband-and-wife duo whose psychological thrillers are published under the name Nicci French. While we know we are still a long way off this ideal, writing together now seems natural. However many changes we do or don’t suggest to each other, or even if we simply approve a section the other has written, both of us feel the end result is always a true collaboration. Some breakthroughs, in narrative or character development, have grown out of conversations while there have been other occasions where we could not recall who first had the idea.
Huge thanks are due to the CBC team – Anna, our tutor Louise Wener and editor Rufus Purdy – the guest tutors and speakers, and finally to all the other course participants (including previous course bloggers Ian Kirkpatrick and Colette Browne), for helping us on the way.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our selective three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.